Strange Days

Watching the Oscar nomination announcements last Tuesday just felt weird. Usually these come in February, a rather dead time after the football season concludes but before spring training begins. The nominations fill a huge void in my pop culture world. Now they just snuck up right before the Super Bowl, on the day of the New Hampshire primary no less. I knew this would happen because the Oscar ceremony was moved up a month, but it still caught me off guard.

The unfamiliar sensations grew as the nominations were revealed. Every year I have my favorite actors who I wish would be recognized and usually these are in smaller films the Academy overlooks. But now some of them actually got in. What was this? Two Best Actor nominees from comedies? That can't be right. And then a thirteen year-old first time performer receives a Best Actress nod. To top that, a largely unknown Brazilian filmmaker is a Best Director nominee.

The Academy saved the biggest shock for last. For what seems like an eternity, Miramax always had at least one Best Picture nominee. My friends and I would even refer to "the Miramax slot." It was a given that studio heads Bob and Harvey Weinstein would work their magic. Then Sigourney Weaver read out this year's films, followed by stunned silence in my apartment. Where was Cold Mountain? How can you not have a Miramax entry? Is that legal? Someone check the Academy bylaws. Actually, Miramax did have a hand in Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, but was merely one of three studios involved. A far cry from last year when they had a hand in four of the five Best Picture nominees. Perhaps the abbreviated awards season short-circuited the Weinstein's marketing machine.

For many reasons the Oscars seem different this year. The Academy honored a wider range of films than it has in recent memory, including mainstream, foreign and independent fare. Yes, as always some actors and films were unjustly snubbed. But we have just as many pleasant surprises. Let's take a look, and since the Academy judges films I decided this time to grade their efforts:

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
Lost in Translation
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World
Mystic River

Grade: C. The most prestigious category is also the Academy's weakest. Voters wisely left off Cold Mountain, a beautiful looking film that did not live up to its pedigree and was hurt by stunt casting. It just did not have enough emotional pull. Neither did Master and Commander, despite some superb sea battle scenes. Seabiscuit had emotional pull to spare, but it would have felt predictable even if it hadn't been based on a true story, and I would have liked more depth in some of the main characters.

Why not American Splendor, a film both hilarious and touching? It was also the most innovative film of the year, combining elements of a feature and documentary in a way never done before. "Come on Adam," you might be saying, "Not many people even saw American Splendor." OK, how about Finding Nemo, a huge commercial and critical hit, and deservedly so? Nemo appealed to both children and adults through a wonderful story, dazzling color, impeccable wit, and genuine warmth. Nominating an animated film for Best Picture is unusual but not unprecedented, as Beauty and the Beast was included in 1992. If you can have a beast, why not a fish?

Sofia Coppola - Lost in Translation
Clint Eastwood - Mystic River
Peter Jackson - The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
Fernando Meirelles - City of God
Peter Weir - Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

Grade: B. Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini should be on the list for American Splendor, but, that aside, this is a solid group. Sofia Coppola is only the third woman ever to receive the Best Director nomination. She and Francis Ford Coppola (who won for The Godfather, Part II in 1975) are the first father-daughter combo to be so recognized. How would you like to have that DNA?

Kudos to the Academy for remembering Meirelles. He infused City of God with a inventive kinetic style of camerawork and editing. Just as important, he coaxed some powerful performances from mostly first-time nonprofessional actors. Ironically, host country Brazil submitted City of God for Best Foreign Film last year and the Academy passed it over. But since it did not officially open in America until 2003, it was then eligible for consideration in other categories this year. Confusing? Yes, but neither Meirelles nor those who saw City of God will complain.

Johnny Depp - Pirates of the Carribean: The Curse of the Black Pearl
Ben Kingsley - The House of Sand and Fog
Jude Law - Cold Mountain
Bill Murray - Lost in Translation
Sean Penn - Mystic River

Grade: C+. For lead acting categories the Academy all too often ignores comic performances, but this time it wisely honored two of them. Depp's pirate-as-rock star turn in and of itself made Pirates memorable. Murray showed not only his trademark comedy skills but also improved dramatic heft as the aging lonely movie star in Translation. On the flip side, Kingsley once again displayed his range as the former Iranian colonel in The House of Sand and Fog. I think Kingsley and Alfred Molina are vying for the "Most different nationalities played" world record.

The two other choices, while not surprising, still disappoint. Sean Penn, as the distraught father in Mystic River, felt too showy for my taste. He had many over-the-top "Look at me, I'm really emoting" scenes that took me out of the film. If Academy voters felt compelled to nominate him it should have been for 21 Grams. Jude Law, while competent, was hardly extraordinary. He never truly convinced me that his character went through the horrific battles and the grueling journey that are so central to Cold Mountain.

Compare Law to In America's Paddy Considine, who was so compelling as a father desperately trying to keep his family, and himself together. Or Peter Dinklage in The Station Agent, who establishes his character's quiet dignity and then slowly lets you see the hurt and anger inside. And there's no excuse for overlooking Paul Giamatti's dead-on portrayal of Harvey Pekar in American Splendor. Giamatti evoked Pekar through capturing not only the man's mannerisms, but his attitude and his stilted way of interacting with the world. Any two of these three would have been more worthy nominees than Penn or Law.

Keisha Castle-Hughes - Whale Rider
Diane Keaton - Something's Gotta Give
Samantha Morton - In America
Charlize Theron - Monster
Naomi Watts - 21 Grams

Grade: A. Just terrific. Many considered Nicole Kidman for Cold Mountain and Jennifer Connelly for The House of Sand and Fog shoo-ins, but I don't think either measure up to the five picks. Morton again showed how she can effortlessly slide into any role and make it special. Think of her as the mute in Sweet and Lowdown, the "Pre-Cog" in Minority Report, and the tough but tender mother from In America. Keaton's brilliant comic timing and immeasurable likability saved Something's Gotta Give from a rather banal script. While I wasn't quite as blown away as some by Theron's turn as serial killer Aileen Wournos in Monster, I was still impressed with her remarkable transformation and the way she immersed herself into the role.

Did anyone think Keisha Castle-Hughes would be nominated and does anyone doubt how much she deserves it? She carried Whale Rider on her 13 year-old back. Castle-Hughes character Pai was in many ways a typical adolescent, with all the doubts, insecurities and hurt that comes with that time of life. But Pai was also a young woman with uncommon determination, strength, and leadership. Castle-Hughes blended these different sides into a compelling three-dimensional performance. We must note that Newmarket Films, which distributed Whale Rider, promoted Castle-Hughes for Best Supporting Actress, even tough she was in practically every scene of the film ("Who exactly was she supporting?" I asked. "The whale, I guess" my roommate replied.) The Newmarket folks likely believed the largely unknown actress would have a better shot in the Supporting group. The Academy has a history of shoving young actors into supporting categories who don't belong there (see Timothy Hutton or Haley Joel Osment). But this time give the Academy credit for voting based on the acting, not the marketing.

Alec Baldwin - The Cooler
Benicio Del Toro - 21 Grams
Djimon Hounsou - In America
Tim Robbins - Mystic River
Ken Watanabe - The Last Samurai

Grade: B -. A mixed bag. These same Academy voters who made the right call with Castle-Hughes stumbled badly with Robbins and Del Toro, who were both leads, not supporting players. They were each one of three characters at the center of their respective films. Maybe there's a rule that any Sean Penn male co-star must be supporting him. It's a shame because by citing those two, the Academy left out Sergi López from Dirty Pretty Things. Not only was López an actual supporting actor, but he had the most delightfully devilish turn of the year as Sneaky, the leader of an illegal human organ trade. If the Oscars gave an MTV-style "Best Villain" award, he'd win going away, or at least he should. The Academy also passed over Albert Finney's touching portrayal in Big Fish of a dying man coming to terms with his life and his son.

The good news is Baldwin and Hounsou. Baldwin seethed viciousness as a ruthless casino boss trying to stay afloat. But he also gave his character, who could have been a cardboard villain, much complexity and integrity. Hounsou was overlooked for his brilliant work in Amistad six years ago, making this nomination both overdue and satisfying. He imbued strength, soul, power and majesty to Mateo, a struggling artist dying of AIDS. In many ways, Mateo is the emotional heart of In America, and even though Hounsou's screen time is limited, the film works largely due to his performance.

Shohreh Aghdashloo - The House of Sand and Fog
Patricia Clarkson - Pieces of April
Marcia Gay Harden - Mystic River
Holly Hunter - Thirteen
Renée Zellweger - Cold Mountain

Grade: B +. If consistency were my only goal I'd complain about Clarkson because, like Robbins and Del Toro, she's a leading actor in the wrong category. But I won't because I'm so elated that she was recognized at all, especially after her inexplicable exclusion last year for her turn in Far From Heaven. She is such a solid, professional actress who brings authenticity to every role. Besides, between Pieces of April and The Station Agent, she had arguably the best all-around year by any actress.

And another thank you to the Academy for remembering Holly Hunter, even though Thirteen flew under the radar of many filmgoers. Hunter simply threw herself into her part without any vanity or pretense. She let you see the conflict in her character, who is torn between trying to be a "cool parent" and her growing concern over her daughter's behavior. At a local screening last year an ignorant woman asked Hunter why she hadn't done anything since The Piano. Hunter politely explained that she had appeared in several films over the past few years, but that the questioner obviously had not seen them. I have no idea who that questioner was, and I hope I never see her again. But I also hope she saw Hunter in Thirteen.

Shari Springer Berman, Robert Pulcini - American Splendor
Philippa Boyens, Fran Walsh, Peter Jackson - The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
Brian Helgeland - Mystic River
Braulio Mantovani - City of God
Gary Ross - Seabiscuit

Grade: B. As usual, the screenplay nominations serve as consolations for deserving films left out of other major categories. Here it's American Splendor. Adapting a typical comic book into a film is one thing. Adapting a comic book with no superheroes that's about a regular guy is something else altogether, and Berman and Pulcini pulled it off masterfully.

Once again, why is Seabiscuit here? The simplistic screenplay was the film's weak link. As with Ross's Pleasantville script, Seabiscuit took a point and beat you over the head with it until you cried "Uncle!" Why not John August for Big Fish? August took a narrative consisting largely of anecdotes and produced a coherent, emotionally resonant story. Maybe Tim Burton's visual flair overshadowed the script in some minds.

Denys Arcand - The Barbarian Invasions
Sofia Coppola - Lost in Translation
Steven Knight - Dirty Pretty Things
Bob Peterson, David Reynolds, Andrew Stanton - Finding Nemo
Jim Sheridan, Kirsten Sheridan, Naomi Sheridan - In America

Grade: A. Yes, I would have loved to see Wayne Kramer recognized for The Cooler, his clever tale of magical realism. But there are only room for five, and this bunch are all deserving. Arcand took a story that could have easily been a cheap tearjerker and injected it with intelligence, and wit. The same could be said about the Sheridans' work for In America. Knight wrote an effective thriller that also served as an eye-opening window into London's illegal immigrant underworld. What Coppola's work may have lacked in narrative, she made up for with the character development.

Especially refreshing is the nomination for the Finding Nemo team. Focusing on the writing for any animated film can prove difficult. But the Academy voters saw the humor, warmth and charm in Finding Nemo, which although set in the world of fish, has a very basic human story. The character depth and clever satire were much more advanced than what you find in most live action films. Thankfully the film deserved and got more than just the obligatory slam dunk Best Animated Film nod.

So the Oscars feel fresh and vibrant this time around. My optimistic side tells me that the Academy voters are gradually opening themselves up to original thinking. Maybe the earlier date, while not reducing the amount of marketing, will reduce its influence. My pessimistic side tells me that this year is an anomaly. Maybe the indies and foreign films just filled a void left by the failure of many mainstream prestige films, such as Cold Mountain and The Last Samurai, to really catch on. We won't know for a few years which of these scenarios holds true. For now, I'm just going to enjoy the road to the Oscars. Wait, there's a big football game first. OK, I'm still adjusting to this.

Adam Spector
January 30, 2004

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