Sunday, February 20, 2005

Oscar Evaluation: 2005

For the last couple of years I’ve been making a special effort to see all of the movies that have been nominated for a best picture Oscar. Yes, the Oscars are as much about politics as about art and have often had a deplorable record when it has come to actually identifying the picture with the most artistic merit in a given year. Never the less, I’ve found that, more often than not, the best picture nominees have, at least, been worth seeing. I will also freely admit that I get caught up in the hype and pageantry of the Oscars. Beyond that, I’m the sort of person who can’t resist offering my two cents (and if you haven’t noticed that, you clearly haven’t been reading this blog). So, with that, here is my impression of this year’s current nominees, arranged in alphabetical order as a salute to the fundamental arbitrariness of the awards.

The Aviator

Everyone and his duck knows that this is the odds on favorite. Really, it’s hard to object to the idea of giving the award to this one given how many of Scorcese’s legitimate masterpieces have been overlooked (I’m still bitter that at the thorough and undesered snubbing that the academy gave to Goodfellas, which I consider to be the best film of the 80’s).

The sad fact, though, is that this is a mediocre Scorsese film. Mind you, mediocre Scorsese is better than most directors could ever hope to aspire to (as a point of calibration, mediocre Scorsese is equivalent to very good Spielberg). The movie has a hell of a lot of worth and if this were a weaker year, I could easily see it meriting what it’s probably going to get. I will also say that this is the film that has finally convinced me that Leonardo DiCaprio has genuine talent. I don’t think that DiCaprio has quite finished maturing as an actor, but it’s clear that great things are still ahead of him… even if he personally annoys me.

Finding Neverland

Okay, here’s the pitch: we’ve got a charming Victorian eccentric who won’t conform to societies norms, a wife who simply doesn't understand him, a struggling widow and mother to three lovely boys, one of whom has lost his ability to “believe”, and her uptight mother-in-law who doesn’t think that it’s appropriate that they associate with our eccentric protagonist… oh, did we mention that he’s the man who created Peter Pan? Why, the script practically writes itself. Unfortunately, it is all to apparent that that is precisely what happened. It’s a by-the-numbers heartwarming drama that resembles nothing so much as a Lifetime special with a Hollywood budget.

About the kindest thing that I can say about this movie is that it had some really wonderful actors (forced to play some amazingly one dimensional characters) and lavish production value (squandered on an entirely predictable and simplistic story). Given that this was the same year that produced Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Hotel Rwanda, its actually painful to consider that this entirely pointless exercise in schmaltz took a slot that should have gone to one of them.

Million Dollar Baby

Like most people, I still think of Clint Eastwood as being Dirty Harry and/or the High Plains Drifter. As such, seeing him in the role of director is about as astonishing as it would be if that damned orangutan from Any Which Way but Loose were to direct. Really, though, this isn’t a fair perspective. Not only has Eastwood made three films worthy of Oscar contention (including this one), to say nothing of winning an Oscar for Unforgiven, but he’s directed over thirty films. He’s more than paid his dues as a director and it is unfair to think of him as being some sort of sideshow curiosity.

As for Million Dollar Baby, it is simply one of the best films I’ve ever seen, period. When I dragged my girlfriend along with me to see it, she was, like myself, expecting a kind of female version of Rocky. When the movie ended, her hand on my arm was faintly trembling and she found herself speechless. Although the milieu of the movie is the world of boxing, it would be as wrong to say this it was a boxing movie as would be to say that Watership Down was an just a book about a bunch of bunny rabbits. It would, however, be entirely accurate to say that it is the movie that should, in a just universe, win this year.


How often do we see a biographical movie being promoted with the line “X is Y”, e.g., Nick Nolte is His Holiness Pope Pius III! It has become a Hollywood cliché. Never the less, in this movie, Jamie Foxx so thoroughly assumes the character of Ray Charles that I had to wonder if the real Ray Charles found himself displaced into a state of quantum limbo while Foxx was doing his job.

It is clear that Ray is a work of love. For a film like this, that can be a disadvantage. A good biographic can be sabotaged by too much love for the character. Ray, however, manages to celebrate the life of Ray Charles without descending to a fawning admiration. Charles is portrayed as a complex person with faults as well as virtues. Like a good biography should, it leaves us with the impression that we understand the man more than we did and that there’s something there that is worth understanding.

Ray isn’t epic, like The Aviator, nor does it dazzle us with special effects, like Finding Neverland, but it does make us care about the man and makes us feel that we have come to know him. If that's not enough, it also has some marvellous music, too.


Sidewise wants to be an intelligent comedy. I love intelligent comedies. Unfortunately, I didn’t think that it was either. To understand my disappointment, you should understand that, although I’m not a wine snob, per se, I am certainly a dilettante. I swirl my glass, I’ve been known to use the word “nose” to describe the scent of the liquid, and I have been in the company of otherwise sane adults who have, in all earnestness, proclaimed that a given wine had hints of blackberry, tobacco and mahogany. Yes, mahogany. In other words, I’ve been close enough to the world of dedicated wine snobbery to be able to fully appreciate how sublimely ridiculous it really is. Given this, I should have been the perfect audience for Sideways.

I hated it.

You may have noticed that film critics loved this movie. There’s a scene where one of the protagonists is explaining to a potential romantic interest why he’s so into pinot noir. He goes into this little monologue about how the grapes are delicate and difficult to nurture but that if you give them the appropriate attention, the reward more than makes up for the effort. It’s obvious that what he’s really describing is himself. Film critics eat that kind of crap up with a spoon. It’s the sort of narrative trick that makes you feel smart for spotting it. Unfortunately, a movie needs more than clever rhetorical devices to have worth. At the end of the movie I was left with two characters I couldn’t have cared less about, a set of circumstances that seemed perfectly banal, and a comedy which provoked me to laughter twice. Again, in a year where two excellent movies were snubbed, I can’t see the justification of including this other than the fact that it’s the kind of movie that appeals to erstwhile film students (i.e. critics).

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Okay, this wasn't a nominee (nor am I putting it in alphabetic order) but, dammit, it should have been. If, like most people, you haven't seen this movie, go out and rent it. Never mind that it's a Jim Carrey movie and that, nine times out of ten, he's an annoying goofball. Never mind that you aren't going to be able to find someone who can summarize the plot into a short, declarative sentence. The movie is worth it. It is, easily, one of the most original and brilliant films that I've ever had the fortune to see. It it surreal but it is also about things that are basic and fundamental to our humanity. I won't do the film an injustice by trying to explain it or even to summarize it. All I can do is implore you to go and give it a fair chance.

Hotel Rwanda

About the only bad thing I can say about Hotel Rwanda is that too many people are going to see it, feel bad, and then, later on, pat themselves on the back while they feel good about having felt bad. Be that as it may, and as sad as it is to say this, for most people this will be the only time they will have so much as heard about the genocide that happened in Rwanda.

Like many films about difficult subjects (e.g., Schindler's List which is the film that Hotel Rwanda is most prone to being compared with) it deals with a difficult and heartbreaking subject by placing the focus on a person who attained virtue in the midsts of incredible evil. Okay, let's come out and admit that it's derivative. In spite of that, it does a good job of illuminating a very dark, and very real, episode in our recent past. So long as man continues to be inhumane to mankind, it is important that we remind ourselves of the times when we lapse into atrocity. While it could have been better (because of its low budget, the movie has a hard time convincing us of the actual scale of the genocide), I think that it's more than good enough to accomplish this necessary task.

Go see this movie, please.

So, to sum it all up, here's my ordering from best to worst (including the movies I think should have been nominated):

  1. Million Dollar Baby
  2. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
  3. Ray
  4. The Aviator
  5. Hotel Rwanda
  6. Finding Neverland
  7. Sideways
Have fun on Oscar night.

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