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2003 Oscar Contenders

[this was originally #103, written about the 2003 Oscars (for movies that came out in 2002). It seemed more appropriate to run it here.]


The Hyperion Chronicles
“Good for what ails ya”

#103 If I controlled Oscar

Guess who’s back.

Back again.

Hypey’s back.

Tell a friend.

Yes folks, I am indeed back, and I have missed my loyal audience (or my Reading Rabble, as I affectionately call you) terribly. Circumstances arose that caused me to temporarily move to another location. I’d tell you more, but the good people in the Witness Protection Program wouldn’t like that very much. Let’s just say everyone here talks funny and has a lot of crazy ideas. Since I’m always funny and am often accused of lunacy, I should fit right in! I also managed to pick up 50 some readers in the interim, so welcome to all of you. The Hyperion Chronicles are written whenever I can about whatever is going through my head. So, you’re forewarned.

And let me just say I’m glad I came back when I did. With the Academy Awards—or Oscars, to the Proletariat—just around the corner, it’s time for my annual Oscar column. I always love the Oscars. It’s a time to gather ‘round with loved ones, watch TV, and say, “Is she wearing a dead swan?” Unfortunately, this year, because of somber events in the world, the Academy has seen fit to cancel the red carpet portion of their program. And for my money, it’s too bad, because nothing demonstrates American superiority better than seeing how Jennifer Lopez keeps her dress on her body. But, since this is no longer a part of the show, let’s move on to the less important part, the awards themselves.

First off, I want you people to understand that the Oscars are not necessarily the best movies of the year. Contrary to popular opinion (when will you monsters leave Leo alone?), the Academy Award Nominations rarely go to horrible movies, but there is a great deal of politics involved, and often noteworthy movies get missed or overlooked. This might be because they came out at the wrong time (late November or December is primo release season), because they studios didn’t “push” the films, or they just didn’t have revealing pictures of Academy voters in compromising positions (like with hookers or dating Republicans). This year, which was a pretty good year for movies, the Academy did fairly well, and 4 out of the 5 Best Picture Nominees were on my top 10 list. That’s not too shabby. As for the awards themselves…

ACTING CATEGORIES

I want to spend most of my time talking about the Best Picture Noms, so I’ll be quick here. I’ve seen 8 of the 10 Best Actor and Actress performances, and you can’t go wrong with any of them. For the men, it seems to be a two-horse race between Jack Nicholson for About Schmidt, and Daniel Day-Lewis for Gangs of New York. I think Lewis will win. For the women, it’s a three person race between Nicole Kidman for The Hours, Julianne Moore for Far From Heaven, and Renée Zellweger for Chicago. Don’t know who will win, but I’d vote for Moore of those three and would probably take Diane Lane in Unfaithful if I had my druthers, but that may be because she’s naked a good deal of the time. In the supporting categories, the women’s field is wide open, and they’re all good performances. The men is the only lock of the night, with Chris Cooper winning for Adaptation, over big shots like Paul Newman, Christopher Walken, and Ed Harris. If you like movies, do yourself a favor and see Adaptation; truly a unique film.

WRITING AND DIRECTING

Scorsese finally wins a directing Oscar for Gangs of New York, for his lifetime of great work if for nothing else. I place my usual complaint that two of the Best Picture Nominees weren’t given Best Director Nominations, which is especially galling in the case of Lord of the Rings. I mean, if ever a movie didn’t direct itself…but I digress. I have no clue in the writing categories, but you probably don’t care any way.

ALL OTHER CATEGORIES BUT THE BIG ONE

Let’s be honest: unless you are a true movie geek like me, you don’t care about this. The only reason most people pay attention to these categories is if one movie is threatening to sweep, and they are keeping score, and since that’s the likelihood here, lets’ just get to the big five.

THE BEST PICTURE NOMINEES

You’ve heard it everywhere, so I’m hopefully I’m not shocking you, but the word on the street is Chicago, Chicago, Chicago. It’s not hard to see why. This is the shortest of the films, and many Academy members have small attention spans (kind of like some readers I know). My friend Edmund pointed out that Chicago may also be benefiting from some payback from last year, when many people felt Moulin Rouge—another flashy musical—perhaps didn’t get its just desserts. Mostly, though, the real reason Chicago looks like the big winner is because it’s so much more cheerful than the other four films. In this day and age, I guess people are happy to find something to feel good about. And it’s a shame, because this is easily, EASILY the worst of the five films. Don’t get me wrong: Chicago is a lot of fun to watch. The movie takes place in the 1920s, and is about a couple of women who murder their husbands. But trust me when I say that, like all great musicals, the plot is just an excuse to dance and sing at every opportunity. Yes, it’s the feel-good-husband-murdering movie of the year. In addition, the script has been well adapted, the songs (for the most part) sizzle, the sets and costumes are dynamic, and the singing and dancing pulled off by the main cast of Renée Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Richard Gere, and Queen Latifah is fantastic. But I don’t know; the film never had that certain movie magic, or as the French say, that je ne sais quois. I appreciated the singing and dancing, but I never forgot it was Renée, Catherine, Richard, and Queen doing it. I didn’t really care if the women got away with murder, and I never once was on the edge of my seat in anticipation for what would come next. So, while I thought it was enjoyable, I certainly didn’t think this was one of the five best movies of 2002.

The next three movies are virtually flawless, and it’s hard to know where to rank them. The Hours is one such. A film about three troubled women, this is definitely not the feel-good-three-troubled-women movie of the year. In fact, if this movie were not so beautifully and perfectly filmed, it would be relentlessly depressing. And, to be honest, if you’re not a movie buff, you may find it that way anyway. But it is a fantastic film. Nicole Kidman plays Virginia Woolf, who’s writing her masterpiece Mrs. Dalloway. Virginia is a very, very, very unhappy girl (and believe me when I tell you that if you watch the first five minutes of the film, I’m giving nothing away). Julianne Moore plays a housewife in the 1950s who is deeply affected by the Mrs. Dalloway novel, and Meryl Streep plays a modern-day woman sort of embodying the character of Mrs. Dalloway. I don’t want to give you too much detail, because that’s part of the magic of this film; the slow revelations of plot tie-ins. Suffice it to say the performances are all very moving, the story is electric and filled with good movie-tension, and you won’t be bored. But, you may not be happy. If this were clearly the best film I’d say give it the prize, but as it’s just among the best, I have to say I favor something a little more hopeful. But I’m just a crazy dreamer.

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers is the second film in Tolkien’s massive book. If you saw the first film, Fellowship of the Ring, you know what I’m talking about. If you didn’t see it, well, go see it before you mess with this. Towers is every bit the second movie in a three-movie saga. In fact, the movie starts with precious little recap of the first film before jumping into the action of the second, something casual fans who saw the first movie a year ago may find hard to deal with (although at three hours in length, I can appreciate the filmmakers wanting to get underway right quickly). But that’s the only criticism you can level at this film. Everything that was done well in the first movie is either as good or better here. Is it a better film? Well, that depends on if you like the material of Fellowship better than Towers. (For example, in Fellowship, most of the main characters are together for a large part of the film, and there is great interaction in that, but by the second installment they’ve been split up. It’s just the way the book was written, but you may find it doesn’t play out as well for you in movie-terms.) However, as far as being put together, this movie is actually superior. There are way more battles, so if you’re into that, you’ll be in heaven. The special affects are extraordinary, too. That doesn’t even do it justice. There is a character, Gollum, who’s completely computer generated. For my money, he’s the best character in the movie, and he’s so real I dare you to see him as a computer composite. You won’t be able to. All in all, this is a great film, and I’d have no problem if it won. Definitely the feel-good-hobbits-and-elves-and-dwarves-and-gollums movie of the year.

The last of the flawless films is The Pianist, and to be honest, if it weren’t for the political baggage, I might have said this was my pick for winner. I don’t want to influence you, but if you’re interested type the director’s name, Roman Polanski, into a search engine. Or you may remember from back in the day. The controversy is big enough (to me), that if the film hadn’t been nominated for Best Picture, I never would have seen it. But, owing my readers, I did see it, and I’m here to tell you that whatever misgivings I had initially, this movie is unbelievable. The story is of a Jewish family living in Poland before and during WWII, and what happens to them. In particular the story focuses on one of the family members, a pianist named Wladyslaw Szpilman, who wants nothing to do with the war; only to play the piano. Indeed, the opening scene sets the tone, as Wladyslaw plays for Polish radio while the building is being shelled by the Germans. Over the course of the next two hours we see this Piano player learn to survive in the worst of conditions, but never lose his spirit. Much like Schindler’s List, this is the kind of movie I think it’s necessary from time to time to see to remind us of what we are capable of, both good and bad. I don’t mean to say that this is a chore, however. The Pianist is resplendent with vitality, even in the worst moments. You’ll definitely never be bored, and will probably, like I was, be on the edge of your seat for most the second half. This film (which is based on a real person’s story) is a triumph of filmmaking. It was no surprise for me to learn that the director, Polanski, survived the Warsaw Ghetto: too much seemed too personal for this to just be someone else’s story. At any rate, this can be a difficult film to watch, but if I dare say it, it’s the feel-good-trapped-in-the-ghetto-by-evil-Germans movie of the year. And I mean that sincerely. By the time this film winds down you will come to love the protagonist, and feel deeply as to his life, his well-being, and his never ending quest to play the piano just once more.

The last of the nominees is certainly not—like the previous three-anywhere close to flawless. However, by a whisker, Gangs of New York would be my choice for Best Picture. At times this movie is a giant mess, flying all over the screen. I heard a girl say that this was a surface movie, one you watched but didn’t look for deeper meanings. Well, with all due respect, she’s been drinking Drano. You may not agree with what the movie is saying. You may not agree on what the movie is saying. You may not even know what the movie is saying. But no thinking person can watch this film and come away thinking there is nothing going on below the surface. If anything, you could fault Gangs for trying to say too much. The story is set, after a stunning prologue, in New York in the 1860s, where racial politics rule the day, and America’s vaunted Melting Pot is more like a seething cauldron, just waiting to boil over. Scorsese takes real events, like the Draft Riots, and real people, like Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall, to weave together this epic that is part gang warfare, part history lesson, and part philosophical treatise on everything from slavery to class to what it means to be an American. Even if you’re not a Yankee, though, I think you’ll enjoy this film. It’s a kaleidoscope look at what life was like back then. And for those morons who continue to insist that life is getting worse, I’d love to see their faces when they see what people went through just 140 years ago. At the center of the movie is Daniel Day-Lewis’s portrayal of Bill “the Butcher” Cutting, a “native” who hates the idea of going to war to free the slaves, but hates the Irish coming off the boats every day even more. Bill controls the area in New York known as Five Points with an iron fist, and nothing happens there that he doesn’t sanction. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Amsterdam, come back to Five Points to get revenge on Bill for killing his dad years ago (that stunning prologue I was telling you about). Amsterdam inadvertently gets taken under Bill’s wing, so you have the classic Father-son type of relationship, with the inevitable betrayal. Arrrgh! I wish I had a whole column to write on this movie, and the themes that come from it, and maybe if it wins I will. For now, though, let me say that that for all its flaws, this movie is trying to do BIG THINGS. It’s trying to show us life back then. It’s trying to show us how America was built. It’s trying to show how honor is gained, and lost, and gained again. It’s also entertaining and complicated as hell. I’ve seen it twice and I still don’t think I got everything. Definitely the feel-good-lots-of-killing-and-hookers-and-great-accents-and-you’ll-learn-something-while-still-having-a-good-time movie of the year! For all these reasons and more, this would be my pick for Best Picture.

Well, sorry this column went so long. I guess I was so excited to be writing to you fine people again I ran overboard. For the record, my top 10 of 2002 (in no particular order) looks like this

We Were Soldiers

The Pianist

Possession

Adaptation

Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

Road To Perdition

The Hours

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Minority Report

Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones

Gangs of New York

Okay, it’s 11 films. So sue me. Just keep reading.

Hyperion
March 22, 2003

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