Tuesday, March 01, 2005

It's Oscar Time!

I don't care if it's lame or not, but I love the Academy Awards. I've watched them since I was about 10 years old, before I could legally get into the theater to see 90% of the movies that were nominated for awards.

It is a much higher level of award show. It stands alone above crap like the People's Choice Awards, Grammys, American Music Awards, MTV Video Music Awards, for two main reasons.

Firstly, it's a far more classy affair. Yes, all award shows are all masturbatory on some level, with mass self-congratulation running rampant. But the Oscars are just different. I don't know if I can put my finger on exactly why. Maybe it's the fact that everyone gets dressed up, hindering the rogue t-shirt-n-jeans element you are likely to find at any music awards show. The way the theater is lit is far more conducive to what feels like an intimate affair.

Secondly, and the reason that the Oscars are far more significant than any imitator is that the awards given out are legit. By which I mean that the awards and nominations given are the least spurious of any award show.

An award show, besides being a fashion show and a free commerical for any entertainment product that can be sold, should act as a time capsule, crystallizing the best of a given genre or field for future generations to review. This does not happen in almost any other award show.

The Grammys are the most egregious example of this. If you look at a random sampling of Grammy Award winners over the last 20 years or so, you will see that the Grammys not only play favorites (Sting, U2, Eric Clapton, Phil Collins) regardless of the overall quality of their work, but they also have a lousy track record of anticipating what music will last. Also, most of their awards to older or more established artists are more akin to Lifetime Achievement awards. For example, my favorite band in the whole wide world, Steely Dan, won the grammy for their 2000 album, Two Against Naturewhich was, inarguably, their worst album to date. (It's not a bad album, but it's the least good one they've ever made.) But if you look back, none of their great, legendary albums made even a dent in Grammy lore. I mean, for God's sake, Olivia Newton-John's "I Honestly Love You" was 1974's Record of the Year.

The Oscars, by contrast, is like a survey of great -- or at least excellent -- cinema. If you look at the nominees every hear for the last 30 years, it can be argued that close to 80% of the nominees for Best Picture are at least very good, if not great movies.

Here's a short list of the legendary movies that were either nominated for or won the Best Picture Oscar in the 1990s alone: Saving Private Ryan, Fargo, Braveheart, Pulp Fiction, The Shawshank Redemption, The Silence of the Lambs, GoodFellas. The Academy gets it. Even when there's a curious inclusion like The Full Monty or Chocolat or The Godfather: Part III or Jerry Maguire, they usually get it as close to right as can be expected by a mainstream industry.

The fact that the Academy Awards are not so bogged down in politics makes it as pure as something like an award show can possibly be. The Grammys (I use them as my whipping boy because of their sheer ineptitude) are about which record label politics the best, not what is the best music.

Having said that, I will now do a brief Oscar recap. I will rate each of the major categories on strength of category (ie. the overall quality of the nominees in comparison to past years, from one to ten), then my own ranking of each of the nominees. I will put an asterisk films/performances I haven't seen, but rate them on my overall impression of the actor, actress or film.

Original Screenplay (Strength of Category: 6)

1. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Winner)
2. The Incredibles
3. The Aviator
4. Hotel Rwanda*
5. Vera Drake*

Eternal Sunshine... was an excellent screenplay. In fact, I think the screenplay was better than the movie ended up turning out to be (though I loved Kate Winslet in it). The Incredibles was maybe the best-written animated movie I've ever seen, and The Aviator was very well-structured, although they could have left a lot out, and it was somewhat odd to have Howard Hughes be considered the underdog throughout much of the film. I heard that Hotel Rwanda wasn't that great a script, that it was more of a genocide-by-numbers script. And please, Vera Drake? Mike Leigh directed that, which means half the movie was probably improvised anyway. I don't think it should count.

Adapted Screenplay (Strength of Category: 8)

1. Sideways (Winner)
2. Million Dollar Baby
3. Finding Neverland
4. Before Sunset*
5. The Motorcycle Diaries*

Sideways was brilliantly-written; mature and funny and heartbreaking at the same time. It never took the easy way out, or made a cheap plot move (which can't be said for Million Dollar Baby, as good as that script is). Finding Neverland was also excellent, but I think it was the Barrie-Peter chemistry that drove that movie. I'm sure Before Sunset is outstanding, given the first film (Before Sunrise, naturally) and that Richard Linklater had a hand in writing it. I heard mixed things about The Motorcycle Diaries, and I find that the dissenting reviews of foreign movies are usually right.

Best Animated Feature (Strength of Category: 4)

1. The Incredibles (Winner)
2. Shrek 2
3. Shark Tale*

By all accounts, Shark Tale got an Oscar nomination because it was only the 3rd animated movie of the year. I found Shrek 2 forgettable, as I found the first Shrek. The Incredibles, however, lived up to its name.

Best Supporting Actor (Strength of Category: 7)

1. Virginia Madsen - Sideways
2. Cate Blanchett - The Aviator (Winner)
3. Laura Linney* - Kinsey
4. Natalie Portman* - Closer
5. Sophie Okonedo* - Hotel Rwanda

Okay, so I haven't seen the last three, but I know Laura Linney is very underrated. I know Natalie Portman is overrated as an actress (though she made a nice comeback in Garden State, in my opinion), and I know nothing whatsoever about Sophie Okonedo. Cate Blanchett was very good, but somewhat artificial, playing Katherine Hepburn. It wasn't an "impression" but it was an affectation. I preferred Madsen ever so slightly; the key to her performance was not how she delivered lines, but what she didn't say. I know that sounds corny, but her very presence drove the film to being so great.

Best Supporting Actor (Strength of Category: 8)

1. Morgan Freeman - Million Dollar Baby (Winner)
2. Alan Alda - The Aviator
3. Jamie Foxx - Collateral
4. Thomas Hayden Church - Sideways
5. Clive Owen - Closer*

Morgan Freeman finally got a well-deserved Oscar, and this was no lifetime achievement award. He was magnificent in Million Dollar Baby. Alan Alda is always so natural, and over the last decade or so he's played real scumbags, and he's great at it. I think Jamie Foxx was better in Collateral than in Ray, because you forgot it was him, which I did not do in Ray. Thomas Hayden Church was similar to Virginia Madsen in Sideways: maybe not the best actor, but an overall presence in the film that makes him invaluable. Didn't see Closer, but it was nice to see Clive Owen get some recognition; I saw him in a movie called Croupier a few years ago and he's a tremendous talent.

Best Actor (Strength of Category: 9)

1. Clint Eastwood - Million Dollar Baby
2. Johnny Depp - Finding Neverland
3. Leonardo DiCaprio - The Aviator
4. Jamie Foxx - Ray (Winner)
5. Don Cheadle - Hotel Rwanda*

Someday, Johnny Depp will win an Oscar. Ditto Don Cheadle. Both are dynamite. DiCaprio was surprisingly good as Howard Hughes. Jamie Foxx was good, but never transcended Ray Charles's spirit in my opinion; I was always conscious that I was watching Jamie Foxx doing a Ray Charles impersonation. Contrast that with great real-life portrayals in movies like Chaplin (Robert Downey Jr), Malcolm X (Denzel Washington), Lenny (Dustin Hoffman), The Insider (Russell Crowe) or JFK (Gary Oldman). Ironically, none of which won the Best Actor or Supporting Actor Oscar. Moreover, I thought Leo's Howard Hughes was a more compelling character than Foxx's Ray Charles, mimicry and technique aside.

I also would like to formally protest Paul Giamatti's second Oscar snub in a row (for Sideways, after last year's American Splendor), but who would you take out? Oh, and yeah, I bought Clint Eastwood's performance more than any of the other nominees; he was the perfect blend of toughness and heart.

Best Actress (Strength of Category: 6)

1. Hilary Swank - Million Dollar Baby (Winner)
2. Kate Winslet - Eternal Sunshine...
3. Imelda Staunton - Vera Drake*
4. Annette Bening - Being Julia*
5. Catalina Sandino Moreno - Maria Full of Grace

I just realized that Million Dollar Baby is so good because of it's acting, not much else. Swank is great at playing white-trash, and she was (like Eastwood) grit and vulnerability rolled into one. Kate Winslet was easy to fall in love with in Eternal Sunshine.... I'm sure Imelda Staunton was amazing, but I didn't see it. Annette Bening playing an aging British actress? I don't know, but didn't see that one either. Moreno was good in Maria Full of Grace, but not Oscar-good; every year they throw in one foreign or exotic-looking actor or actress. She is very pretty, but like many foreign films, her performances was more hype than actual great acting. I thought the pregnant woman in Maria stole the movie.

Best Director (Strength of Category: 6)

1. Clint Eastwood - Million Dollar Baby (Winner)
2. Alexander Payne - Sideways
3. Martin Scorsese - The Aviator
4. Mike Leigh - Vera Drake*
5. Taylor Hackford - Ray

Clint Eastood was as sparse as he can get. It seems that after a lot of disappointing and forgettable fare in the 1990s (anyone remember Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil?), he's got his proverbial groove back. Payne's shifts in tone from funny to serious to romantic to funny to heartbreaking were brilliant, and so sudden. Scorsese did yeomanlike work on The Aviator, but it's not quite up there with his 'A' material. Mike Leigh is one of the finest directors of the last decade, so I'll bet Vera Drake is top-notch. (See Secrets & Lies for Leigh's genius.) Hackford should not have received a nomination for this; he did what he could with what he had, but it's not a very good film.

Best Picture (Strength of Category: 5)

1. Sideways
2. Million Dollar Baby (Winner)
3. The Aviator
4. Finding Neverland
5. Ray

The problem with this year in movies is that there was not one single clear-cut Best Movie out there. There were several very good ones, but I wasn't wowed by really anything this year (unless you count Dodgeball, and you probably think I'm kidding). I give Sideways the slight (and I mean slight) edge over Million Dollar Baby, mainly because the "plot twist" in the latter's script still doesn't quite sit well with me. I feel that Million Dollar Baby had an edge in performance, they were about equal in direction, and Sideways had an edge in the screenwriting. But something in Sideways hit me. I don't know if it was being able to relate to the aimlessness of the main character, or the ambiguous-but-not-really ending. It's a great film, one that I feel will become a touchstone of modern midlife crisis, much like The Big Chill or American Beauty.

Ironic that Million Dollar Baby won the Best Picture Oscar where a superior boxing film (Scorsese's Raging Bull) could not. In fact, there are a lot of parallels between 2004 and 1980. A boxing film went up against a small drama (in 1980 it was Ordinary People). Scorsese was beaten by an actor-who-directs, being that Ordinary People was helmed by first-time director Robert Redford. (Kevin Costner's directing debut, Dances With Wolves, beat Scorsese's GoodFellas in 1990. And Rocky beat out Scorsese's Taxi Driver in 1976. Weird.) But it's a great film, and it's at its best on a small scale, when it's just the characters, though the boxing scenes are excellent too.

Ray was the opposite of Million Dollar Baby, a film that (I feel) failed in its drama and was at its best when Ray was rockin' the crowd. The musical numbers are the life blood of that film, but Ray's TV-movie-by-numbers plot failed to move or even interest me to a large degree.

Finding Neverland is a very good film, but it hinges completely on the relationship between Johnny Depp as J.M. Barrie and Freddie Highmore as young Peter Llewelyn-Davies. In fact, I would say that Highmore should have stolen one of the Supporting Actor spots. The direction is a little spotty, but the acting is magnificent.

The Aviator is a sometimes thrilling and always entertaining piece of pop cinema, but it's far too long (which is why I was a little surprised Thelma Schoonmaker, the film's editor, won the Oscar in that category). There's nothing to complain about it, but it (somewhat like Ray, but not nearly to the same degree) followed the events of Howard Hughes's life a little too literally. The difference is that where Ray tried to shoehorn his childhood into a story where it didn't belong, The Aviator was rife with subtext, from Hughes's impulsive nature, to his OCD, to his obsession with flying. Much more entertaining than I expected it to be.

I'm somewhat bothered in that, if you look at the number of major wins Million Dollar Baby got, you would think (say, ten years down the road) that it's one of the greatest films in history. It's a very good film, but much like Eastwood's Unforgiven twelve years before, it benefits from coming out in a weak year for movies.

Yes, it is stupid to give out awards for art. But I don't care. I will watch the Oscars every single year because I love them so much. I also usually do very well at "Oscar Pools" and picking the winners. This was a bit of a weak year for movies, but they probably picked close to the best of what was out there.

At least they're not the Grammys, what a crock of shit they are.


Kathie said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Kathie said...

This was an impressive post, even though I have heard most of these views before. Your statements and opinions sound very intelligent and credible, and then you end it with the phrase (re: the Grammy's) "what a crock of shit they are". That plot twist doesn't sit well with me. :)

~m said...

Totally agree Kath- Bill gets an Oscar for this post (definitely not a Grammy).

And from this post, I now have the 'list of movies that I should see because I've heard they're really good' all written up for me- I've been meaning to do that for years.

In fact, Bill- if you want to make a more, let's say "all-encompassing" list of movies people should see because you say they are really good, that would save me even more time! :)

Bill said...

~m: I do have such a list, but I should probably tailor it to your specific tastes, as my list has a lot of crazy foreign crap and weird artsy stuff. I don't know if you're into that or not.

Rage: I like to swear.