The jagged journey, the rugged road to Oscar truth
For the Oscar for special achievement in film criticism, I nominate myself, and choose me as most deserving of recognition. My actual winning of said honor is doubtful. Since I began reviewing movies a few years ago, I had my eyes on one goal – to see all the serious contenders for the Academy Awards, including all of the major category nominees, and thus consider myself sufficiently prepared to comment on the Oscars. It sounds, easy, right? Just go to the movie theater, buy my popcorn and smuggle in a drink and candy, and sit my butt down and watch. Repeat until done.But that idealized scenario bumps up against several realities. One is the fact of a 5-year-old daughter, whose insistence on staying up as late as possible and emerging wide awake at 6:30 a.m., makes sneaking off to the cinema more a miracle than a regular occurrence. Then there is the reality of small-town life. If I lived in a real city – or even a reasonable facsimile thereof, like Denver – seeing movies would be as simple as attending the advance screenings arranged for reviewers, presumably during convenient business hours. Dream on, backwater boy. I’ve had exactly two advance screenings arranged for me in some eight years. Even setting aside such privileged screenings, if I lived in a metropolitan area I could go to matinees, claiming movie-watching as a legitimate part of my job. But weekday matinees in Aspen are as rare as nights without my daughter’s foot in my face.
Even more insurmountable is that some films nominated in major categories haven’t even opened yet in Aspen. Have you met “Vera Drake”?So over the years, I’ve developed a set of strategies to overcome such handicaps. I’ve mastered the art of negotiating with my wife: “I’ll give you two nights out next week, if I can see an unholy double bill of ‘The Passion of the Christ’ and ‘Fahrenheit 9/11’ tonight.”A more significant game plan has been working my connections with anyone who has access to advance copies of movies on DVD or videocassette (known in the industry as “screeners”). I scour the shelves at Aspen Filmfest, and pester to no end my incredibly generous and trusting friend in the Academy, looking for loaners. With my contacts in the cinematic public relations field, I have begged and bothered, promised and pandered, to get the often precious copies of films.And that’s just getting the movies. Actually watching them involves a combination of staying up late, waking early, toting the videos and DVDs around. There have been instances where I’ve watched half of a movie one night, the next half-hour after seeing my daughter off to school, and finishing it on a TV set in the music room of the Pitkin County Library. Seeing a movie uninterrupted from start to finish is a rare treat.
And yet, this year, I turned the trick. I’ve bent the truth with PR flaks, racked up infinite favors that must be paid back to well-connected associates. I’ve occasionally persuaded my wife that snuggling in bed together with a video is preferable to other nighttime, in-bed activities. (I meant sleeping.) With that mighty, slightly ignoble effort, I managed to see every film nominated in the six major categories, plus enough other films to confidently opine on the best of the year in film and, of course, shred the Academy for its latest round of misguided calls.Where do we begin? How about with the most egregious of errors, the failure to nominate Paul Giamatti for his extraordinary work in “Sideways.” After seeing the film on video, I went to the theater to watch it again and pay close attention to Giamatti’s portrayal of the failed writer, borderline alcoholic Miles. It confirmed my initial view that Giamatti’s performance was near-perfect, nailing the pathetic and bitter qualities of Miles while maintaining the humor and faint hopefulness that are necessary to make us care for him. Clint Eastwood, meanwhile, nominated for best actor in “Million Dollar Baby,” played another version of his clench-jawed self in the boxing tragedy. His performance doesn’t hold a candle to Giamatti’s. Nor, for that matter, to Sean Penn’s performance – as another bitter, struggling failure – in the thoroughly overlooked “The Assassination of Richard Nixon.” At least Penn has last year’s best actor Oscar – for the Eastwood-directed “Mystic River” – to console him, as well as a scheduled appearance at this year’s ceremony. All Giamatti has is the dubious distinction of being the actor most underappreciated by the Academy; his failure to get a nomination for last year’s “American Splendor” ranks alongside the most recent oversight.In the best picture category, the Academy went with the pleasant but featherweight “Finding Neverland” for reasons that elude me, and the worthy – but not Oscar-worthy – “Aviator” for the quite obvious reason that director Martin Scorsese hasn’t earned an Academy Award yet. At this point, if they gave him a nomination for 2002’s “Gangs of New York,” which earned both best picture and director nominations, they’ll give it to him for anything till he wins. To me, “The Incredibles,” which broke the mold of today’s animated fare by being more intelligent than clever, and “Vera Drake,” a captivating portrayal of an abortionist, rather than a political examination of the abortion issue, were far better than the aforementioned pair. And they aren’t the only ones: “Kinsey,” “The Motorcycle Diaries,” “Hotel Rwanda” and “The Assassination of Richard Nixon” were all more memorable than “Finding Neverland” and “The Aviator.”
When it comes to the best picture winner, though, it doesn’t matter much who’s nominated. “Million Dollar Baby” is the clear champ, and it will be a well-deserved choice. Two months after seeing the film, what happened to Hilary Swank’s pugilist Maggie still has an emotional hold on me.Speaking of Swank, pen her in for a second Oscar win, to go with her 1997 victory in “Boys Don’t Cry.” Imelda Staunton, as the titular character in “Vera Drake,” fights her to a draw on the merits, but Swank – young, American, notable and in a far more visible, accessible role – takes the belt.Equally certain is Jamie Foxx’s win for his portrayal of the late Ray Charles in “Ray.” My own view is that Foxx, while wonderful, had the relatively easy job of mimicry, while Giamatti, who created a vivid three-dimensional character from words on a page, is the most deserving of the acting Oscar.The supporting actress category sports four candidates – Sophie Okonedo in “Hotel Rwanda,” Virginia Madsen in “Sideways,” Laura Linney in “Kinsey” and Natalie Portman in “Closer” – whose performances run neck and neck. (The fifth, Cate Blanchett as a cartoonish Katherine Hepburn in “The Aviator,” annoyed me.) Madsen, who had been off the radar for years, will likely win, though I would pick Portman’s prickly, boisterous Alice in a close call.
Morgan Freeman is a best bet for the best supporting actor for his portrayal of the boxing-gym-lifer Eddie in “Million Dollar Baby,” though my pick would be Thomas Haden Church from “Sideways.” And just what is Alan Alda, whose role as a duplicitous senator added little to “The Aviator,” doing here ahead of Don Cheadle’s performance in “The Assassination of Richard Nixon”?Finally, Eastwood deserves a best director trophy for “Million Dollar Baby.” But don’t be surprised if Scorsese wins it on sentiment alone. The Academy has made bigger mistakes.The 77th Annual Academy Awards will be televised Sunday, Feb. 27, at 6 p.m.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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