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ISSUE 118 VOL 11 PUBLISHED 2/25/2005

Oscars: surmising statues

By Jason Zencka
Contributing Writer


Friday, February 25, 2005

The Oscars are a time of importance, which is to say, a time when the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences looks down from its Olympian roost to tell the masses what is important in movies –– a time when ordinary viewers get to shake their fists upward and feel important in muttering about how wrong the critics are.

Everybody loves the Oscars, and rightly so. If everybody’s a critic, then the Oscars represent a rare time when all critics are gainfully employed in living rooms, college campuses and newspapers large and small.

The movies have good and bad years like everything else, but this year appears to be more favorable than forgettable.

By this time, everyone knows what films are in the running and which ones stand a chance. Clint Eastwood has stayed alive creatively, crafting a quiet and stirring – if slightly strained – fable of sound moral import. “Million Dollar Baby” isn’t his best, but it moves with an elegiac rhythm, meandering in slow, contemplative pauses.

Martin Scorsese pulled off an entertaining feat in bringing the life of Howard Hughes to the screen in “The Aviator.” The film is a joy and a rush, and if it’s a bit desultory and incoherent at times, nonetheless it remains true to the mythic personality of Howard Hughes.

Scorsese’s direction allows viewers to revel in the sheer exhilaration of watching a master dreamer at work (both Scorsese and Hughes qualify), and he uses fine editing to bring the viewer as close as possible to the fire of Hughes’ chronic and tortuous mental obsessions while still remaining lucid. The film, though not his best or the best of the year, will probably win the prize for Best Director, acknowledging Scorsese’s cumulative efforts to date.

My pick for Best Picture is the sleeper-hit “Sideways.” Filled with self-professed losers and hopeless cases, it may be too convincing for its own good. Against big names like Scorsese and Eastwood, the film has little chance of being anything other than great on its own terms. It is a formidable accomplishment, but it’s hardly Oscar-friendly. Alexander Payne’s “Sideways” will fade into the background with the vibrant but book-reportish films “Ray” and “Finding Neverland.”

Other big Oscar news has been made by the acting awards, providing adequate fodder for vigorous debate this year. Leonardo DiCaprio, at long last, has grown up, and is a true revelation as golden boy Hughes.

The reliably excellent Don Cheadle provides a sturdy moral grounding for what is otherwise a turbulent emotional firestorm in “Hotel Rwanda.” And Jamie Foxx channels, with uncanny precision, the spirit of Ray Charles in Taylor Hackerford’s “Ray.” Foxx’s performance is miraculous – it seems less like paraphrasing a character and more like a direct quotation; after fifteen minutes you forget you’re watching an actor. It’s truly astonishing. With Foxx’s spasmodic torso dancing and part-automobile, part-hummingbird vocal inflections, the film ought to be noted for Best Special Effects as well.

On the other side of the table, Hilary Swank does another fine turn as a spunky and compulsively likeable young boxing protégé in “Million Dollar Baby.”

Moreover, when we first see Cate Blanchett as Katharine Hepburn in “The Aviator,” she seems over-the-top, but didn’t Hepburn seem the same way the first time we saw her? And Virginia Madsen finally finds her stride and delivers one of the year’s best and most difficult performances as the honest and resilient divorcee in “Sideways.”

So what’s left? Aside from the many categories I haven’t even mentioned, there are the formidable smatterings of yearly gems that, although they graze the canopy plane of cinematic perfection, somehow still fall under the Academy’s radar. Here are three good turns that I most lament not seeing on the nominees list:

1. Paul Giamatti’s brilliant work as Miles in “Sideways.” Playing a character who seems constitutionally incapable of catching a break, he faithfully transposes Mile’s image off-screen – the best male actor award unexplainably passed him over for the second straight year (last year he delivered another virtuoso performance as the dyspeptic Harvey Pekar in “American Splendor.”) In “Sideways” he skillfully brings the film to the brink of mania, but his best moments are the quietest ones: the timbre of his voice on an expletive that turns a single word into a species-large lamentation; a slack-jawed slouch that suggests the bearing of an Atlas-sized weight.

2. Howard Shore’s empathetic score to “The Aviator.” It’s subtle enough that you might not even notice it.

3. The already-forgotten documentary “Touching the Void.” Released in January, it delivers what it advertises, as it follows a wayward mountain climber to the brink of death and back.





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