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74th Annual Oscar Nominees: Worthy or Worthless?

By Eric Beltmann

If a film doesn't have a Burger King tie-in, does it exist? Since The Circle received a limited release and was dismissed by the national media, few people bothered to see Jafar Panahi's bold indictment of gender oppression, including, I'm guessing, most members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The result is not a single Oscar nomination for the best film of 2001.

Still, as proof of worth, the Academy Awards have always been useless, serving better as a hype machine than as a reliable barometer of artistic merit. Can any reasonable filmgoer claim that the box-office hits A Beautiful Mind, The Lord of the Rings, or Moulin Rouge (three of this year's nominees for Best Picture) are important works? Not one looks hard at the world, interprets it, and aims to transform it, as The Circle does. Impaired by his status -- in America at least -- as a fringe filmmaker, Panahi is inevitably considered by the Academy as unworthy of honor. Such provincial neglect is emblematic of Hollywood, which thinks of movies not as art but as product.

Burrow deeper, though, and you'll detect a far more deplorable act of sabotage. Obviously shut out of the major categories, surely Panahi deserved a consolation mention in the foreign language category? According to Academy rules, foreign titles are eligible only after being submitted by the government of its home nation. Since The Circle, which openly condemns the way women are treated in Iran, was banned by its home government, there was zero chance that it would be Iran's official Oscar entry. In other words, The Circle was eliminated from Oscar competition for precisely the same reason that makes it important. When an "arts academy" allows -- and, by extension, promotes -- the institutional suppression of ideas, it forfeits credibility, as well as any semblance of taste.

If we accept the Academy's version of "taste," then we willfully validate the way independent, foreign, and challenging cinema is marginalized, as a matter of routine, in this country. We must instead assert an alternative taste, one that recognizes how the power of cinema to reflect and affect human life, as well as offer escape from it, is universal.

What follows are my brief reactions to the 19 films nominated for a major Academy Award, which includes Best Picture, and all of the acting, directing, and writing categories.

Ali   B-
Nominated for Best Actor (Will Smith); Supporting Actor (Jon Voight)
There's scarce insight into Muhammad Ali, and even scarcer knowledge of why sports matter, but Ali is neither a biography nor a boxing picture. Much of it is reminiscent of Spike Lee's Malcolm X, and like that film, this textured mosaic takes us deep into the complexities of an era, using 10 years of Ali's life as an entry point into a specific, rebellious period of American politics. Replicating the Champ's wily caged-bird gaze, Will Smith helps clarify why, for some during the Vietnam years, the home front was a battlefield too.

Amélie   B+
Nominated for Best Original Screenplay (Guillaume Laurant and Jean-Pierre Jeunet)
Cynics have groused that this bedtime story, about a wide-eyed Montmarte waitress scheming to connect her neighbors with their emotions, is built around phony romanticism. They fail to grasp that the picture's central relationship is really the one between us and the screen. At times, the visual ingenuity of director Jean-Pierre Jeunet suggests the anarchic, playful trickery of Méliés, another Frenchman who understood that we often go to the movies to be thrilled, to gasp and smile, to experience magic.

A Beautiful Mind   B
Nominated for Best Picture; Director (Ron Howard); Actor (Russell Crowe); Supporting Actress (Jennifer Connelly); Adapted Screenplay (Akiva Goldsman)
Its aversion to actual facts might prevent it from being a significant picture, but Ron Howard's polished staging of John Forbes Nash's bout with schizophrenia works as terrific sap. Best of all is the screenplay's reworking of thriller conventions, a clever stunt which helps describe Nash's affliction from within. One reservation: Physical presence is always a factor for Russell Crowe -- it's what makes him so mesmeric -- but his Nash sometimes disappears underneath the relentless body language.

Black Hawk Down   C
Nominated for Best Director (Ridley Scott)
Tension is not a byproduct of sheer nonstop combat, but based on Ridley Scott's repetitive actioner, tedium might be. What does Black Hawk Down say about war that isn't already painfully obvious to any thinking person? There's nothing to this perpetual firefight except faceless grunts surgically mowing down nameless baddies. Free of political and human context, the warriors -- American and Somali -- are just dartboards, targets as impersonal as the glistening hardware frequently featured in adoring close-up.

Bridget Jones's Diary   C+
Nominated for Best Actress (Renée Zellweger)
Like Helen Fielding's comic novel, I found this adaptation perfectly acceptable, but negligible. Renée Zellweger is both likable and effective as a frumpy "singleton" trying to choose between two men, but why is she nominated for an Oscar? Some observers have hinted that her readiness to gain extra pounds is the reason, as if briefly abandoning vanity qualifies as skillful acting. If a mildly unflattering portrait is deemed "courageous," I suppose that proves just how out of touch Hollywood is with the rest of us.

Ghost World   A
Nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay (Daniel Clowes and Terry Zwigoff)
Terry Zwigoff's comedy about growing up is the best American film of the year, a tonic for the many obnoxious teen movies that glorify immaturity. Substituting irony and disaffection for personality, Thora Birch impeccably captures that brief period in adolescence when it's risky to assert an actual identity, because it might elicit ridicule. Like the greatest Truffaut pictures, there's never the pretense of reality -- it's based on a comic book, after all -- but the emotions are as baffling and intricate as in real life. Ghost World is a creative explosion, simultaneously hilarious, moving, and perceptive: By the end, Birch has learned that cynicism isn't a worldview; it's a way to rationalize not having a worldview.

Gosford Park   B+
Nominated for Best Picture; Director (Robert Altman); Supporting Actress (Helen Mirren); Supporting Actress (Maggie Smith); Original Screenplay (Julian Fellowes)
Setting your class-system satire in a 1930s English country house might seem too easy, but Robert Altman is less interested in bashing the aristocracy than in observing how the servants define their own lives in terms of their employers. Altman crisscrosses the classes in such smooth and amusing ways -- of course it's impossible to divide people, especially these gossips -- that it's painless to forgive even his hoariest murder-mystery devices. The greatest pleasure, though, is in simply absorbing the mountain of details, until all 30 characters might be guilty of knifing surly old Michael Gambon.

I Am Sam   D
Nominated for Best Actor (Sean Penn)
Grotesquely courting Oscar, Sean Penn impersonates a cognitively disabled single parent trying to retain custody of his daughter. Empowerment fantasies are often ludicrous -- this one believes parenting requires only lotsa heart -- but in the way it suggests that Sam is a good father because of his disability, I Am Sam is particularly reckless. Most insensitive is the hypocrisy at its core: In a story that desperately wants to be about people, Sam, and all of his disabled pals, function as nothing more than cute little puppies.

In the Bedroom   B
Nominated for Best Picture; Actor (Tom Wilkinson); Actress (Sissy Spacek); Supporting Actress (Marisa Tomei); Adapted Screenplay (Rob Festinger and Todd Field)
As parents consumed by grief, Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek unerringly depict how melancholy, at its most unyielding, can jolt even the softest individuals into madness. Their quiet rage -- against circumstances, against the courts, against each other -- provides a smart, thorny framework for Todd Field's exploration of sorrow and justice. Still, intelligent acting can't justify Field's ultimate retreat into retribution, which dissipates the issues of class prejudice, guilt, and, most importantly, real coping that are central to the story.

Iris   B-
Nominated for Best Actress (Judi Dench); Supporting Actor (Jim Broadbent); Supporting Actress (Kate Winslet)
When Alzheimer's pounced upon Iris Murdoch, it mugged a prize novelist of her bond with words. "I feel as if I'm sailing into darkness," she panics, and Iris depicts that voyage through supple thematic montage. By rhyming scenes from Murdoch's vibrant youth with those from her helpless old age, this elegy vividly mourns Alzheimer's plunder: her intelligence, her radiant non-conformity, her tender alliance with literary critic John Bayley. Eventually, though, the film also succumbs to creative paralysis, settling into a droning pattern of Bayley doting upon the ghostly shell of the woman he has loved for a lifetime.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring   B
Nominated for Best Picture; Director (Peter Jackson); Supporting Actor (Ian McKellen); Adapted Screenplay (Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Peter Jackson)
Scale means little these days, since every blockbuster du jour manufactures digital opulence. Still, the death of screen marvels isn't total, confirmed by Peter Jackson's wonderful, terrifying Middle-earth epic. I should confess that virtually nothing about the narrative has stuck with me, but its environment has: Jackson's palpable landscapes -- damp grass, verdant hills, chunky mud, smoldering caverns -- glow with imagination, eloquently extending the heroic grandeur at the heart of Tolkien's good-versus-evil parable.

Memento   B-
Nominated for Best Original Screenplay (Christopher Nolan and Jonathan Nolan)
Unable to create new memories, Guy Pearce employs an elaborate system of pictures and tattoos to continue tracking his wife's murderer. By telling this mannered story backwards, writer-director Christopher Nolan forces the viewer into a similar, exhilarating bewilderment -- like Pearce, we are denied knowledge beyond the present moment. But like his memories, the buzz quickly fades. Truly great films arouse contemplation about their ideas and our own lives. All Memento gets us thinking about is itself.

Monster's Ball   C
Nominated for Best Actress (Halle Berry); Original Screenplay (Milo Addica and Will Rokos)
Consider how the script compounds unlikely events merely to romantically entwine a single black mother and a racist prison guard, and then contrives her discovery that he's the officer who pulled the switch on her death-row husband. By glazing this preposterous story with the sheen of "humanity," director Marc Forster achieves only the tenor of authenticity, not the real thing. Echoing his subtle fraudulence, Halle Berry and Billy Bob Thornton supply performances that are only skin deep.

Moulin Rouge   B
Nominated for Best Picture; Best Actress (Nicole Kidman)
More than just a gonzo game of Name That Tune. While it's true that the theatrical love story between Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor is superficial, the use of familiar pop songs and classic romantic archetypes signals the movie's real subject, which is how popular culture seeps into our very being, merging with our own experiences to reshape our personalities. With manic conviction, this splashy neo-musical illustrates how we sometimes annex the words of songwriters, making them our own.

Mulholland Drive   B+
Nominated for Best Director (David Lynch)
Long ago I quit trying to "interpret" David Lynch's abstract parodies of life, partially because my interest in him rests instead with his assiduous -- and sometimes boneheaded -- application of Surrealist principles. Generally, I consider his free-associative satires irrelevant, too detached to matter, too misanthropic to be pleasurable. Mulholland Drive, though, is deeply dreamy. For the first time, Lynch has successfully bypassed narrative, devising a conceptual noir that works directly on my artistic sensibilities. I'm clueless as to what the Club Silencio scene means, but I know I love it.

The Royal Tenenbaums   B+
Nominated for Best Original Screenplay (Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson)
"I want this family to love me," demands Gene Hackman, as an obstinate rascal who fakes stomach cancer just so his dysfunctional adult children will talk to him. Soaked around the edges with aggressively goofy surprises, Wes Anderson's behavior comedy is richly satisfying, partially because it defies classification. Some have termed it "quirky," but that dismissive label doesn't do justice to Anderson's weird balance of deadpan farce and stylized pathos, which generates the most resonant laughs of the past six months.

Sexy Beast   C
Nominated for Best Supporting Actor (Ben Kingsley)
Evidently suffering from the same middlebrow thug fantasies that afflict Guy Ritchie, director Jonathan Glazer permits Ben Kingsley, as the hoodlum sent to browbeat a colleague out of retirement, to rehearse the sort of mad-dog hamming that comes easy to actors of his caliber. By referencing only other gangster flicks, Glazer never cites from life, which leaves a gaping flaw: Exactly why does a large mob organization require an old and slow retiree for such a dullsville bank heist?

Shrek   B
Nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay (Ted Elliot, Terry Rossio, Joe Stillman, and Roger S. H. Schulman)
Less subversive than many critics have gushed. Although I immensely enjoyed how Shrek crumples Disney traditions, I wish the directors had gone further and embedded the ridicule deeper into the narrative -- before it concludes, this scoffing satire quite merrily buys into the same conventional Happily Ever After ideals it purports to razz. Worse, there's something terribly facile about the way it often equates "boldness" with incorporating fart and belch jokes into a classic fairy tale structure.

Training Day   C+
Nominated for Best Actor (Denzel Washington); Supporting Actor (Ethan Hawke)
Hoping to secure a prestigious undercover assignment, Ethan Hawke is mentored by a corrupt narcotics officer, embodied by Denzel Washington. Not only are there too many clichés about the "hood," there are too many in general, and the implausible last act can't be salvaged. Nevertheless, Washington's performance is riveting. What makes this morally ambiguous vigilante so scary is that his reprehensible rationalizations for street justice sound logical; they have the hum of wisdom.

* * *

Despite squinting, I don't see Richard Linklater's groundbreaking Waking Life among the nominees for Best Animated Feature. By listing instead only three children's pictures, the new category apparently exists, for now, simply to reinforce the absurd notion that animation is never for adults. I also would have recognized Steve Buscemi's extraordinary supporting work in Ghost World, and noticed how Kirsten Dunst's unguarded emotional honesty raises Crazy/Beautiful far above its troubled-teen clichés. Oscar's worst oversight, though, involves kids from real life: Go Tigers! is the best documentary I saw in 2001, offering a sharper view of public education than anything uttered by the Bush administration.

Article published 03.05.2002.

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