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75th Annual Oscar Nominees: Worthy or Worthless?

By Eric Beltmann

I waited for my question to sink in. Why, exactly, do Americans avoid foreign movies? Near the front of the class, a thoughtful high school junior squinted, pressed her lips together, and finally raised her hand. "I really believe that if the story was worth telling, it would have been made here first."

Did she mean that the United States has a monopoly on creativity? Or did she mean that stories about non-Americans, made by non-Americans, simply don't matter? One of the central functions of criticism, I think, is to root out such insular thinking, identify its causes, and ambush it at the source. There's no way to be sure, but her comment probably had less to do with xenophobia or fear of subtitles than with the rising tendency in this country to reject all but the plainest forms of pop entertainment. American studios, with distributors and the press as their mercenaries, have conspired to shrink "the movies" down to only the blockbusters plugged during the Super Bowl -- a definition that has numbed audiences to the pleasures of foreign, independent, and challenging cinema.

Critics ought to relish their role as the only thing standing between advertising and audiences, the last line of defense against the hype machine. These days, though, many seem eager to merge with the machine, summarily writing off artists such as Tran Anh Hung and Jafar Panahi (if they bother to see their work at all) in order to pour rapturous ink upon the likes of Sam Raimi and Kevin Smith. In fact, some have clearly made it their duty to safeguard the multiplex mentality. Consider this recent quote from Richard Roeper, whose thumb currently hangs out with Roger Ebert's: "Some critics love to flaunt their acute abilities to appreciate films that are too obscure, elusive and challenging for you, the unwashed moviegoing slob, to really appreciate." In other words, Roeper ridicules those willing to find joy in grappling with difficult material. His disdain for thinking hard reveals a grim state of affairs: When critics don't want their notions of what qualifies as entertainment tested -- when they renounce their chief responsibility to lead audiences rather than echo them -- how can we blame young people for being reluctant to accept the challenges and rewards of different kinds of cinema?

Even at the movies, a balanced diet is important -- important for the mind and for the soul -- and viewers with enough curiosity soon learn that the most "obscure, elusive and challenging" films can also be the most entertaining. Of course, simple movies are sometimes a wonderful indulgence, like potato chips. Indeed, Hollywood's chips were often satisfying in 2002 -- but in celebrating them, the industry failed to acknowledge nearly all of the year's more nourishing, more exciting main courses: Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner, Bloody Sunday, Nine Queens, and The Lady and the Duke, to name a few, managed a combined zero Oscar nominations. This is why critics have an annual obligation to point out that the Academy Awards are merely a glamorous billboard, designed to peddle the Hollywood brand name and reinforce its emaciated definition of "the movies."

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.

About a Boy   B
Nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay (Peter Hedges, Chris Weitz, and Paul Weitz)
Does the title refer to the boy entering adolescence, or the boy striving to never leave it? Needing respite from his suicidal mother, a friendless, gawky 12-year-old forms a cosmic connection with shallow rascal Hugh Grant, who learns what it means to share yourself with others. As directed by the Weitz brothers, that icky-gummy premise morphs into an observant, intricate meditation on how others can help us discover who we truly want to be. The spiky dialogue, snatched from Nick Hornby's novel, is frequently hilarious, but the richest jokes come courtesy of Grant, a cynic-poet bewildered by his crumbling misanthropy.

About Schmidt   A-
Nominated for Best Actor (Jack Nicholson); Supporting Actress (Kathy Bates)
Nagged for a lifetime -- by a fatuous wife, by an irrelevant job -- retiree Warren Schmidt is now alone, and the sudden calm provokes an internal squall: Has this polite, failed Babbitt ever accomplished anything meaningful? Jack Nicholson reins in his eyebrows while studying Schmidt's bland melancholy, but I was most mesmerized by the satirical yet affectionate impulses of co-writers Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor. Their script, which chronicles Schmidt's bittersweet odyssey across the Midwest to halt his daughter's wedding, tenderly penetrates what it means to be conventional in a conventional land. Laced with colloquialisms, the sharp-eared dialogue provides funny, precise local color, but Payne and Taylor also grasp how that shared vernacular -- the idioms and small talk -- imposes a square, fake decorum that helps suppress misery, and sometimes love.

Adaptation   B+
Nominated for Best Actor (Nicolas Cage); Supporting Actor (Chris Cooper); Supporting Actress (Meryl Streep); Adapted Screenplay (Charlie Kaufman and Donald Kaufman)
Spilling his self-doubt all over the projector spools, screenwriter Charlie Kaufman invades his own psyche for his wildest, most impish experiment yet: Nicolas Cage plays Kaufman himself, as he struggles writing the script for the same movie we're watching. While I'm skeptical about its satirical impact -- does anyone truly consider this an affront to Hollywood's mass-produced goods? -- I also think there's something great about Kaufman's mischievous, let-it-all-hang-out instincts. For him, the creative process equals a sacred hunt for truth, and so his tiers of irony interlock violently, slicing through the wall between reality and art.

Catch Me If You Can   B
Nominated for Best Supporting Actor (Christopher Walken)
Quite fitting, I think, that the same filmmaker who once claimed that all war movies are anti-war has now made a movie celebrating chutzpah. Like teenage con Frank Abagnale, who masquerades as a doctor, lawyer, and pilot, Steven Spielberg is an effortless charmer; this nimble paean to larceny reflects our movie fantasies, our willingness to be scammed into rooting for handsome actors playing dress up. But unlike his restless protagonist, who keeps upping the ante because risk turns him on, Spielberg ultimately plays it safe. I wouldn't call him a fraud -- he's clearly the most resourceful visual director working -- but the way he keeps interrupting the fun to insert generic father-figure homilies sure feels like a swindle.

Chicago   B
Nominated for Best Picture; Director (Rob Marshall); Actress (Renée Zellweger); Supporting Actor (John C. Reilly); Supporting Actress (Queen Latifah and Catherine Zeta-Jones); Adapted Screenplay (Bill Condon)
Two murderesses spin crime into fame, but Rob Marshall's "attack" on the cult of celebrity is merely a playful spank, pretext for a sparkly, brassy piece of vaudeville held together by the loosest of fishnet stockings. Many killjoys failed to recognize the distinction between random MTV edits and how Marshall's brisk, cinema-as-showbiz cutting both punctuates and extends the choreography. Some also questioned whether Zellweger and Zeta-Jones could duplicate their showstoppers on the stage -- as if that matters -- but it's the picture's other legs I doubt: Will anyone remember this shimmery, insincere good time in 10 years?

Far from Heaven   A
Nominated for Best Actress (Julianne Moore); Original Screenplay (Todd Haynes)
Spick-and-span oranges, blues, and reds sugar the screen, but underneath that whiff of lovely lies a sad suburban legend about forbidden feelings: In 1957, a "progressive" housewife develops stirrings for the local black gardener, while her husband becomes mystified by his own homosexuality. Without sacrificing emotional verisimilitude, this plush, transporting melodrama quotes Sirk and Ophuls, impeccably aping their plastic weepies of the Eisenhower era. Within that synthetic framework, Julianne Moore and Dennis Quaid craft full, poignant, confused characters; lacking the words to describe their feelings, this doomed, caged couple is denied the freedom to even discuss gender, race, and sexuality. Still, the subject of this old-fashioned tearjerker isn't the Fifties but the way we remember the past as modified by its artistic representations -- director Todd Haynes first exposes the power of cinema to reshape history, and then brandishes it to say that while America's social prisons now have kinder guards, the bars are still the same.

Frida   C
Nominated for Best Actress (Salma Hayek)
Surely it's the role that has been honored, and not the performance? Revered for her tequila, dirty jokes, and turbulent paintings, Mexican iconoclast Frida Kahlo survived a trolley crash only to endure a lifetime of surgeries. Now, following romps with Diego Rivera and Leon Trotsky, her resilience is seducing Oscar -- despite the way Salma Hayek's interpretation feels wrapped in plaster even after the body cast is sawed off. What's missing is an intuitive sense of how Kahlo's physical and mental agony profoundly informed her art. This is merely biography-by-numbers, determined to enshrine rather than enliven its subject.

Gangs of New York   C+
Nominated for Best Picture; Director (Martin Scorsese); Actor (Daniel Day-Lewis); Original Screenplay (Jay Cocks, Steven Zaillian, and Kenneth Lonergan)
With that furrowed brow, Leonardo DiCaprio sure looks tormented in his quest to avenge his slain father, but I never really believed in him, nor Martin Scorsese's boyish notion that 19th-century street struggles somehow built America -- he never considers that democracy prevailed in spite of racism, corruption, and bloodshed. Still, while his ramshackle pageantry flops as history, revenge drama, and romance, the picture is some kind of beautiful, stylized circus, led by gruesome clown Daniel Day-Lewis. When Bill the Butcher raps his glass eye with a dagger, you might forget that some other people are in the movie too.

The Hours   C+
Nominated for Best Picture; Director (Stephen Daldry); Actress (Nicole Kidman); Supporting Actor (Ed Harris); Supporting Actress (Julianne Moore); Adapted Screenplay (David Hare)
Tinged with melancholy, three parallel stories -- variations on Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway -- each articulate the human need for contentment. The way this triangular riddle snugly rhymes in terms of plot, imagery, and theme clearly presumes an educated audience, so why did it leave me uneasy? I haven't read Michael Cunningham's source novel, but it appears that most of his gender and sexual politics have been hushed, leaving a rather naïve, twerpy dissertation about how our choices are entirely our own, never right, never wrong -- especially when made by such bleary-eyed luminaries as Kidman, Moore, and Streep.

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers   B+
Nominated for Best Picture
Tolkien connoisseurs assure me that it's impossible to detect their man in this gargantuan adaptation of the trilogy's middle book, which is a bit like complaining that Conrad can't be found in Apocalypse Now. By significantly realigning the original pages, Peter Jackson has cultivated a new Middle-earth that is, on its own terms, equally plaintive and equally staggering. With the Fellowship now splintered, this second chapter is fleeter and denser than the first, but I wasn't much interested in mastering its narrative intricacies. Instead, what's commanding about this spectacle is Jackson's Pre-Raphaelite taste for glowing colors, sensual medievalism, and natural grandeur. (I'd be very interested, however, in reading an essay that unpacks the ideological links between this epic axis-of-evil myth, its mainstream popularity, and our nation's present zeal for launching wars.)

My Big Fat Greek Wedding   D+
Nominated for Best Original Screenplay (Nia Vardalos)
An ethnic joke is an ethnic joke, no matter who's telling it. Nia Vardalos may have plundered her own ugly duckling engagement to a non-Greek, but that hardly excuses how her script reduces her boisterous family to kvetching stereotypes. There's nothing to these characters but tribal tags --certainly nothing recognizably human -- which is why Vardalos' teasing isn't harmless. Besides, her Original Screenplay nomination was apparently earned for adapting every sitcom ever broadcast. What's next? Commercial breaks after each kiss, and bottom thirds during the action scenes?

The Pianist   A-
Nominated for Best Picture; Actor (Adrien Brody); Director (Roman Polanski); Adapted Screenplay (Ronald Harwood)
Ten years after the "what would you do" moralism of Schindler's List, Roman Polanski has made its antithesis, an oblique "what would you do" Holocaust reenactment that traces one Polish Jew's efforts to simply save himself. In hiding, Wladyslaw Szpilman observes the Warsaw ghetto through windows, slats, and keyholes, and we experience history from over his shoulder; like the pianist, we stare helplessly as horrors unfold. Some have groused that we already have enough Holocaust movies -- I guess stories about the defining event of the last century have a statute of limitations -- but what distinguishes this one is the way Polanski combats atrocity with poetry: Separated from his music as well as his freedom, Szpilman summons memories of Chopin, elegantly confirming the power of art to preserve our humanity.

The Quiet American   B
Nominated for Best Actor (Michael Caine)
Given the Bush administration's current impatience with Iraq, this moody, pensive translation of Graham Greene's cautionary novel about American maneuverings in a foreign country is unexpectedly topical. In 1950s Vietnam, during the French war, an aging, unruffled London correspondent idles away his days with a young Asian mistress, until a fresh-faced American arrives on medical duty and resolves to save the girl as well as the nation. This trio clearly functions as an allegory about dubious motives, but Michael Caine's journalist still contains emotional multitudes, especially after he perceives the human cost of international gameplay, and the hopelessness of remaining neutral.

Road to Perdition   B-
Nominated for Best Supporting Actor (Paul Newman)
Like watching a movie inside a glass case. On display is a scrupulous Irish-American gangland epic about family and loyalty, set in a 1930s Chicago so impeccably "tasteful" that blood merely accessorizes the set design -- it splatters, but only in place. In fact, everything looks just so, making the journey of Tom Hanks, as a mob enforcer seeking redemption, feel more like a museum tour than a movie. Still, I prefer to think of it as an art gallery, one exhibiting the images of Conrad L. Hall. Soaked with betrayal and vengeance, his mythic, ghoulish cinematography is what makes this crime saga reasonably entertaining.

Talk to Her   A-
Nominated for Best Director (Pedro Almodóvar); Original Screenplay (Pedro Almodóvar)
Subversive, stylish delirium has always coursed through Almodóvar's work, but in this scandalous drama about two friends -- men who meet while holding one-sided conversations with comatose girls -- Spain's reigning maverick has finally converted his hip, winking lyricism into the real thing. These days, what's irrepressible about Almodóvar is his growing generosity, coupled with an emotional sophistication. Spiraling into horror, this terrible, sensitive dance -- a ballet set in a bullring -- confronts one man's idea of loyalty, but mostly it deals with our capacity for compassion: Almodóvar models true empathy, showing us how to find forgiveness for all, even a social pariah.

Unfaithful   C-
Nominated for Best Actress (Diane Lane)
Diane Lane has been better in better movies, but she's still the best thing about this gauzy, coffee-commercial version of Chabrol's La Femme infidéle. In a SoHo loft, a trembling housewife enjoys a steamy affair with a French hunk -- no, really -- and Lane deftly illustrates how desire and shame and fear can coexist. If Adrian Lyne had any sense, he would have made that his theme, rather than silken thighs and voluptuous hair. Worse, he shifts point-of-view to the cuckolded husband in the last act, and his tsk-tsking maroons Lane just as she begins to investigate the pangs of guilt. With a real director, she might have even deserved that nomination.

Y Tu Mamá También   C
Nominated for Best Original Screenplay (Carlos Cuarón and Alfonso Cuarón)
Sexual effrontery among teens is certainly an important subject, but this Mexican road movie, about an experienced woman initiating two boys into "adult" raunch, never transcends the juvenile posturing of its sneering, slangy title. As they head for a mythical beach -- a metaphor for carnal knowledge --Alfonso Cuarón devises an expressive, well-acted allegory for a nation divided between rich and poor, yet his main thesis finally seems to be that at least the classes can unite in their need to get some. This is American Pie with subtitles, disseminating the same crude, homophobic attitudes towards sex that guys like to exchange in locker rooms.

Article published 03.14.2003.

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