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Mission Impossible: Oscar Picks Who Haven't Got a Prayer

By Rob Vaux

This year's Oscar nominations will be announced on February 13, when the deserving and undeserving alike learn if they've earned a seat at the Academy table. Some names, however, won't be heard on that cold morning, no matter how much they may have earned it. Oscar is a colossal snob, and repeatedly shuns tremendous filmmaking achievements simply because they don't fit a narrow and conservative view of "art." Historical dramas like Gladiator are heaped with praise, while "baser" genres like sci-fi and westerns are ignored. The Tom Hankses of the world are held aloft like heroes, while the Don Cheadles must content themselves with watching from the sidelines. How else can one explain why 2001 failed to earn a Best Picture nomination, or how Steve Martin's turn in Roxanne never even made it to the nominations phase?

Below is a short list of writers, directors, and actors whose efforts last year made them worthy of academy consideration, but who -- because of genre, lack of box office, or any one of a thousand other variables -- don't have a snowball's chance in hell of getting nominated. They aren't necessarily the only worthwhile choices, just the ones who have earned a place in the sun and deserve mentioning before the actual nominees take over the spotlight. I've picked one choice for each of the top eight categories:

Best Actor: Christian Bale, American Psycho
I wasn't overly fond of American Psycho, but Bale's gleeful performance as homicidal stockbroker Patrick Bateman perfectly expressed the biting wit which the rest of the film never quite nailed. Bale expertly balanced his character's relentlessly superficial exterior with the soulless monster beneath, without ever resorting to banality or scenery chewing. His tone kept the film's satirical massage clear, and prevented Bateman's horrific excesses from becoming cheap or campy.

Best Supporting Actor: Bill Murray, Hamlet
Murray has come a long way from his Saturday Night Live days, but people still tend to think of him as a stand-up comic. His measured portrayal of Shakespeare's Polonius put that to shame. He stood out amid an accomplished cast, and lent an air of quiet humor mixed in with the character's trademark treachery. Few Shakespearean actors could pull off the resonate performance that he delivers with surprising ease.

Best Actress: Jennifer Connelly, Requiem for a Dream
Ellen Burstyn has justifiably received a lot of praise for her performance in Requiem, but all the attention on her detracts from the film's other brilliant female performance. Connelly has always exuded an understated vulnerability, which she uses to devastating effect as a beautiful, talented woman slowly devoured by heroin addiction. Watching her character destroy her soul piece by piece is achingly poignant, which becomes all the more amazing when you realize that she does it without grandstanding or making showy speeches. It takes a lot of guts to appear in a role like this, something which the Academy should duly acknowledge.

Best Supporting Actress: Kirsten Dunst, The Virgin Suicides
The best performers can communicate volumes without saying a word. As the enigmatic Lux Lisbon, Dunst generates an ocean of unspoken emotion with nothing more than a smile and a come-hither glance. Her sparse dialogue is almost unnecessary: we learn everything we need to know just from her face. In someone else's hands, the role would be nothing more than moving scenery. With Dunst, it gives The Virgin Suicides a haunting and unforgettable heart.

Best Director: Nick Park and Peter Lord, Chicken Run
Animation and live action are really apples and oranges, but Park and Lord pull off a feat here that David Lean might envy. Chicken Run required almost 200 animators working simultaneously -- as many as 10 scenes were being filmed at once. Park and Lord had to hold that all together while keeping the film's tone and spirit focused in a unified direction. The results speak for themselves.

Best Original Screenplay: Jim Jarmusch, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai
The task of writing a film like this is daunting in the extreme. Mix dialogue that evokes half a dozen cultural norms, keep the characters clear throughout the countless overlaps, make sure the humor is potent without losing the film's serious edge, and take care that all the actors can enunciate it all without difficulty. The screenplay for Ghost Dog is the solid foundation on which the rest of the film stands.

Best Adapted Screenplay: D.V. deVincentis, Steve Pink, John Cusack, Scott Rosenberg, High Fidelity
John Cusack may have a long-shot chance at an acting nod, but that's probably all that High Fidelity can hope for. Which is a pity, because the script -- like Ghost Dog's -- gives this terrific film a vital base of support. The small committee that wrote it had to transpose the London setting of the original book to Chicago, keep the characters and story true to their new locale, and yet never lose the essence of the source material. Watching High Fidelity, you get the sense that it couldn't take place anywhere but the Windy City, but at the same time, it remains resolutely faithful to the book. Quite an achievement for a movie about slackers.

Best Picture: The Cell
Most of the films on my top 10 list have at least an outside chance of earning a Best Picture nod -- and handicappers are giving decent chances for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the best-looking film of the year. In addition to those, I'd submit the only movie which approaches Crouching Tiger visually: the taut, imaginative, sometimes-cruel-but-never-commonplace The Cell. Tarsem Singh's stunning serial-killer flick elevates the genre in the same way Seven and The Silence of the Lambs did. Moreover, it uses its astounding visuals to convey a very human story, something Crouching Tiger is earning heaps of praise for as well. If Ang Lee's work is in the running (and it certainly deserves to be), then The Cell should be there as well.

Article published 02.06.2001.

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