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73rd Annual Oscar Nominees: Worthy or Worthless?

By Eric Beltmann

Chocolat, we are told, is one of the year's five greatest pictures, better still than Cast Away or The Color of Paradise. Of course no one in Hollywood believes that, not even Miramax, the studio that blitz-marketed the film to multiple Oscar nominations. I'm confident that you, too, know better, and would gladly replace Chocolat with your favorite film of 2000. No doubt your choice was "robbed," and yes, I agree it was a "crime" your favorite actress wasn't recognized instead of Juliette Binoche.

As for me, I would have voted for Requiem for a Dream and Bjork in Dancer in the Dark. I had also hoped Hollywood would remember that Sofia Coppola's screenplay for The Virgin Suicides was an expert adaptation of a challenging source novel, or notice that Billy Crudup gave a remarkable performance as Jesus' Son. Objecting to the omission of The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg in the documentary category, I might wonder, what were they thinking? But isn't that the same question we ask every year?

Our gripes are predicated upon a rather naïve notion, that the Academy Awards are a reasonable way to discuss "quality" in cinema. If one purpose of criticism is to launch conversations about which films are important and why, then we are obliged to question the motives behind the awards. Naturally, we must recognize that Oscar is simply bait, a trap studios set to hoodwink the world into believing that their favorite commercial products are also artistic achievements. Consider recent Best Picture nominees The Cider House Rules, As Good as It Gets, Scent of a Woman, and The Prince of Tides, and surely you must agree that Oscar has nothing to do with merit or importance. So why quibble about the nominations? More interesting -- to me, at least -- is to simply revisit the nominated titles, and reflect upon their worth. Are they indeed good films, as the industry has arbitrarily declared?

What follows are my brief reactions to the 17 films nominated for a major Academy Award, which includes Best Picture, and all of the acting, directing, and writing categories.

Almost Famous   B-
Nominated for Best Supporting Actress (Kate Hudson); Supporting Actress (Frances McDormand); Original Screenplay
Luminous, but forgettable. Some reviewers have hailed it as a picture which gets the voluble rock sensations of the Seventies right there on the screen, which says more about their fading fantasies than their critical faculties. (Notably, those who feel the movie captures what it's like to be a teenager haven't been one for quite some time.) More than one critic compared writer-director Cameron Crowe to Truffaut, and while the humane celebration of youth is clear, I found it easier to dismiss Almost Famous as a meandering, rose-colored piece of nostalgia.

Before Night Falls   C+
Nominated for Best Actor (Javier Bardem)
Javier Bardem gives a grimy, flaky, lived-in performance as Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas, who enjoyed fame until his homosexual lifestyle was cramped by Castro. Himself an outcast artist, director Julian Schnabel regards Arenas' willful hedonism as heroic, a stubborn rebuke to political oppression. This facile view disfigures most of the film. Thus the romanticized phoniness of Schnabel's 15-minute recreation of Arenas' dying moments becomes the main experience this disorganized, insufficient elegy has to offer.

Billy Elliot   B
Nominated for Best Director (Stephen Daldry); Supporting Actress (Julie Walters); Original Screenplay
I suppose that being entertained by Billy Elliot was a deliberate yield, a surrender to far-fetched emotionalism. Nevertheless, this fable about a boy attracted to ballet has considerable pleasures, which I chose to indulge. The screenplay's best idea is that Billy is unable to express his inner turmoil -- over poverty, a dead mother, and a disapproving father -- except in the form of raw, physical dance. As performed by young Jamie Bell, these outbursts are charged revelations of youth: brutal, graceful, confused, terrified.

Cast Away   B+
Nominated for Best Actor (Tom Hanks)
The most satisfying example of mainstream craftsmanship last year, a treatise which shrewdly questions a culture enslaved by the clock. Marooned on a Pacific island, Tom Hanks diligently depicts, in excruciating detail, what it might be like to physically endure such a "casting out." Best of all, he also expresses severe mental anguish, most tellingly after he is rescued and feels more comfortable -- psychologically -- sleeping in a corner than engulfed by pillows.

Chocolat   C-
Nominated for Best Picture; Actress (Juliette Binoche); Supporting Actress (Judi Dench); Adapted Screenplay
Nominated for a thin and unlikable role, Juliette Binoche breezes into a small town and causes a stir by selling sensual sweets during Lent. Like those candies, the pleasures of this crudely made fluff are trivial. Most annoying is the way this ode to "tolerance" flatters its audience's sense of intellectual superiority with lopsided, cruel depictions of religious traditionalists. Even more knee-jerk than this hypocritical version of enlightenment is the nearly universal approval granted by national critics.

The Contender   C+
Nominated for Best Actress (Joan Allen); Supporting Actor (Jeff Bridges)
Six months after release, the puerile plot already feels dated, and its banal symbols are equally laughable. (A ravenous senator, hungry to smear a vice-presidential nominee, actually stabs into two bloody steaks, while the nominee herself is a noble vegetarian.) Nevertheless, as story, as movie, it grabs hold, springing surprises at crucial moments. I knew I was being had, but I was satisfied to witness Joan Allen -- perhaps the finest actress in America -- quietly upstaging Jeff Bridges and Gary Oldman.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon   B+
Nominated for Best Picture; Director (Ang Lee); Adapted Screenplay
Is it the most glorious action picture ever made, as some reviewers have whooped? To these eyes, Ang Lee's rousing hybrid of wuxia poetry, feminist romance, and balletic martial arts is more expository than necessary, and maintains a frustrating distance from its characters. I adore it anyway, because Lee shrewdly reverses genre protocol: In this progressive epic, the gravity-taunting stunts are conceived as bridges between fertile dialogue exchanges.

Erin Brockovich   B
Nominated for Best Picture; Director (Steven Soderbergh); Actress (Julia Roberts); Supporting Actor (Albert Finney); Original Screenplay
Despite an appealing screen presence, Julia Roberts has yet to give a great, incisive performance. She seems preordained to win the Oscar, but her Brockovich is often a simplistic caricature of working-class spunk and sass. The best thing about this stock corporate exposé is Steven Soderbergh's peculiar but appropriate direction. While the similarly-themed A Civil Action aimed to lionize lawyers and their "sacrifices," Soderbergh focuses instead upon the human cost of corruption.

Gladiator   B
Nominated for Best Picture; Director (Ridley Scott); Actor (Russell Crowe); Supporting Actor (Joaquin Phoenix); Original Screenplay
Smarter than it appears, Ridley Scott's revenge spectacle is surprisingly concentrated on its themes. Most interesting is the way the screenplay critically posits Rome as America's political and cultural ancestor. While warning that democratic principles decay in barbarous societies, it also insinuates that our contemporary sports arenas are descendants of the Coliseum, equally bloodthirsty and maniacal. As a reluctant idealist, Russell Crowe commands the picture, expressing enormous loss simply by pressing his beard against his murdered wife's toes.

O Brother, Where Art Thou?   B
Nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay
Allow yourself to abandon the idea of regional authenticity -- as the Coen brothers so willfully do -- and this loose rendition of The Odyssey can provide deeply resonant jokes about mythical Americana. The inspired paradox of the Coens' best work, which includes this bizarro musical-comedy about chain-gang escapees, is that their nutty insolence never hides a sincere affection for their characters. O Brother is pure farce, but the Coens are serious about their hero's quest for redemption.

Pollock   B-
Nominated for Best Actor (Ed Harris); Supporting Actress (Marcia Gay Harden)
Settling into a pattern familiar from countless biographies of self-destructive artists, Pollock exists as a series of ugly, manic-depressive mishaps, only fleetingly interrupted by twinkling triumphs. Within this common story arc, however, lie two extraordinary performances. Ed Harris, without trying to explicate the art, lets us see why Pollock painted: his work liberated him from himself. Equally perceptive is Marcia Gay Harden, who reveals why Lee Krasden, the drip painter's wife and chief champion, sacrificed her own career for this drunken, boorish man-child: she believed in Jackson Pollock.

Quills   C+
Nominated for Best Actor (Geoffrey Rush)
Adult, intelligent, and highly suspect. It's rare for a film to approach the subject of censorship from so many directions, but Philip Kaufman's fable about the Marquis de Sade never pushes the issue to the point of crisis. Mostly, Kaufman just identifies with de Sade, who, locked up in a sanitarium without ink, feels an intrinsic need to express himself. Without offering any real insight into the Marquis, Geoffrey Rush does a commendable job of leering, sneering, and pouting like a boy with rapped knuckles: This Marquis is essentially harmless, a cuddly mischief who just wants to have fun, baby.

Requiem for a Dream   A-
Nominated for Best Actress (Ellen Burstyn)
For me, the nightmare title laments how the idea of "success" has been corrupted in America. By carefully arranging his juxtapositions, director Darren Aronofsky suggests deep parallels between Jared Leto's drug-dealing dreams and the game-show reveries of his mother, each based on illusory consumer fantasies. Aronofsky's aggressive manipulation of film grammar is never just stylistic, though, because he uses cutting as a means to expertly advance his message.

Shadow of the Vampire   B
Nominated for Best Supporting Actor (Willem Dafoe)
Shadow of the Vampire eagerly trashes history and a great director by proposing that F.W. Murnau, in 1922, hired a real vampire for his bloodsucker classic Nosferatu. In this version of events, Murnau is the true monster, a fearsome thug willing to draw blood to preserve his artistic vision. That's a seductive premise, but this prankish fantasy is more clever than invigorating. What lingers in memory, though, is Willem Dafoe's exuberant, witty performance as the "vampire" Max Schreck.

Traffic   A
Nominated for Best Picture; Director (Steven Soderbergh); Supporting Actor (Benicio Del Toro); Adapted Screenplay
As I did last year with American Beauty, I have reservations about calling Traffic the best film of the year. Both pictures are problematic, simultaneously brilliant, contrived, daring, familiar, optimistic, and cynical. Still, no other film released in 2000 more fully engaged me as a viewer than Traffic. Steven Soderbergh's well-acted, efficient survey of the futile drug war at the U.S.-Mexico border may not be the year's most consequential film -- that would be Bamboozled -- but its stylized narrative strands give a full, journalistic treatment of a serious issue. Ambivalent and curious, Soderbergh approaches his subject with an impressive lack of rhetoric, and his tense, radical editing rhythms are frequently exhilarating.

Wonder Boys   C+
Nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay
Michael Douglas may deliver a marvelous, shaggy performance as a professor suffering from self-doubt, but Wonder Boys is far less sophisticated than it has been given credit for. Painting its characters and conflicts in very broad strokes, it too often feels like dilapidated vaudeville. Much of the amusement rests upon callous jokes about reefer, a dead dog, and a casual homosexual encounter. Perhaps the reckless staging is part of the relaxed narrative's central strategy, but doesn't it also comment on how the film confuses whimsy with flimsy?

You Can Count on Me   A-
Nominated for Best Actress (Laura Linney); Original Screenplay
Kenneth Lonergan's consistently intelligent observation of two adult siblings has been described as a "small" film, which seems accurate only if you consider a movie's budget more important than its ideas. The story is concerned with biological bonds, but also people's values, conduct, and sexuality. Emphasizing behavioral charms, Mark Ruffalo and Laura Linney both give natural and unguarded performances, which helped You Can Count on Me become one of the few unmitigated pleasures I had at the movies last year.

Article published 03.08.2001.

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