Timing is everything. Or so the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences would have us believe. The Oscar ceremony used to be held on Monday night so that it didn't interfere with the weekend ka-ching of the box office. The stars would all come out, we would all stay in, and life was good. Then it was discovered that not only do people not feel like going to a movie on Monday night, they increasingly didn't feel like watching the Academy Awards; ratings have been slipping for 20 years. Hence, the move to Sunday night, which hasn't improved the ratings but has streamlined the preparation for Oscar parties. Now, there's all day Sunday (and Saturday, if need be) to sweep under the couch, photocopy the ballots, put out the chips and dip and buy a bigger TV. For those of us still watching, life is still good.
Oops, the Academy's at it again. This year, they've moved the ceremony up a month, to Sunday, Feb. 29. (ABC begins its broadcast at 7 p.m.) Why? "It's about ratings, frankly," Bruce Davis, a former head of AMPAS, told Premiere magazine recently. It seems that the other movie-awards shows have been stealing Oscar's thunder, especially the Golden Globes, which have almost no credibility as a guarantee of quality but make for supremely watchable television, with their loose format and air of mischief. Nielsen-wise, the Golden Globes don't come close to racking up Oscar's numbers, but they don't have to. Simply by going first, they sap some of the excitement that used to build toward Oscar night. After so many heartfelt acceptance speeches by Renée Zellweger, fatigue starts to set in.
But it doesn't have to. The Academy could take a lesson from the Golden Globes and, well, remove the stick from its ass. Get rid of that interminable opening monologue. Hell, get rid of the emcee altogether. (The Golden Globes did.) And while we're at it, stop televising all but the major categories. (The Golden Globes did.) Quite frankly, I don't care who wins for Best Animated Short Film, and I'm a movie critic! As for the acceptance speeches, they should vary in length according to who's doing the accepting. If it's a guy in a rented tux whom I've never heard of, give him the hook. If it's Sean Penn, just back from a sightseeing trip to Baghdad, give him all the rope he needs to hang himself. Who-won-what I can read about in the paper the next day. I'm there to see movie stars either embarrass or distinguish themselves.
Alas, ABC hopes to minimize the embarrassments this year. Over the Academy's this-is-censorship objections, the network has decided to institute a five-second tape delay. That way, Janet Jackson can't run up on stage, "accidentally" bare her breast and have it beamed all over the world (again). The question is, what other bloopers might get bleeped? Does a streaker even have a chance this year? And how far into "Shame on you more than ever, Mr. Bush!" will Michael Moore get before the screen goes dark? The occasional outrageous moment -- and by "occasional" I mean every few years or so -- is about all we've had to get us through the long, slow slog of Oscar night. What's the use of moving the ceremony up a whole month if all you're going to do is bore us to death that much sooner?
Lest I start boring you, here, without further delay, are my picks and nit-picks regarding this year's Oscar nominations.
Please, God, Make It Stop
My take on the first Lord of the Rings movie: great filmmaking, not a great film. My take on the second Lord of the Rings movie: good filmmaking, not a good film. My take on the third Lord of the Rings movie: mediocre filmmaking, a mediocre film. With 11 nominations, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King is poised to collect on all the debts of gratitude that Hollywood thinks it owes this franchise. It's a cinch for Best Picture; and given that the British throne is already occupied, Peter Jackson will just have to settle for Best Director. But I'm at a loss to explain why everybody seems to think these movies are a landmark in the history of cinema. To me, they just seem like hour after hour of getting in and out of jams. And the ending is so drawn out it makes Wagner's Ring look like Moulin Rouge. Jackson is a visionary filmmaker, there's no doubt about that. But those visions need to be put in the service of something other than the triumph of good over evil, something like...
Jet Lag as a State of Mind
In Lost in Translation, Sofia Coppola does such a splendid job of capturing the disorienting effect of modern travel -- the way the body gets there before the mind does -- that, while watching the movie, you may find yourself feeling a little drowsy, then giddy, then bored, then drowsy again. At least that's how I felt the first time I watched it. The second time, I was able to step back, stay alert and appreciate what Coppola has achieved: a love story with the delicate shadings of a mood ring. As a past-his-prime movie star brought to Tokyo to make a whiskey commercial, Bill Murray erases the quotation marks that used to enclose every move he made -- a brave, Oscar-worthy performance. And as a before-her-prime newlywed who's losing herself in Tokyo's hall of mirrors, Scarlett Johansson underplays beautifully. But it's Coppola, the first American woman ever nominated for Best Director, who deserves Oscar-night glory for this only-the-lonely masterpiece.
Speaking of Female Directors
Lost in Translation is strangely reminiscent of my favorite movie of the year, Patty Jenkins' Monster. Both are about the blossoming of love in an indifferent world. But where Coppola imbues her movie with stuck-between-time-zones ennui, Jenkins grounds hers in "the other Florida," the one that never makes it into the travel brochures. Charlize Theron deserves every accolade she could possibly receive for transforming herself into Aileen Wuornos, a Florida prostitute who was put to death in 2002 for murdering six of her johns. (As a window into the soul of a brute, her performance ranks right up there with Robert DeNiro's in Raging Bull.) But it's Jenkins who, through dead-on writing and directing, takes us to a deep, dark place where killing someone in cold blood seems like an act of survival. Monster is a tough little movie that just keeps expanding and expanding in our minds, finally encapsulating what it means to be cast out of polite society, like a leper.
It's an Undeserved Honor Just to Be Nominated
Some films are pitched squarely at the Academy, and it doesn't matter whether they're any good or not. Cold Mountain had Oscar written all over it right up to the moment when someone actually saw the thing. (Okay, sometimes it does matter whether they're any good or not.) In a similar vein, Mystic River, Seabiscuit and Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World are truly the stuff Best Picture nominees are made of, despite their flaws. Clint Eastwood's despairing film about childhood innocence and adult guilt is effective, even moving at times, but it's also thin and ponderous, a rather routine melodrama that's been pumped up with hot air. Gary Ross' Depression-era folktale doesn't bring the horse on until most of us have lost interest. And Peter Weir's seafaring saga, which was at least enjoyable to watch, stakes everything on its ability to take us back to a particular moment in time, even at the expense of involving us.
Well, It WOULD Have Been an Honor Just to Be Nominated
I was all prepared to shout the words City of God from the rooftops, swear at the Academy for ignoring this powerful Brazilian film just because it's in Portuguese and takes place in a Rio slum. Then it got four nominations, including Best Director. Oscar, I underestimated you. Of course, I have a few other titles that I'd like to get off my chest: The Station Agent, All the Real Girls, The Cooler, Gerry, Sylvia, Matchstick Men, Thirteen, The Good Thief, The Secret Lives of Dentists, Kill Bill, Vol. 1 and, last but not least, Raising Victor Vargas, which, like City of God, gets the kind of performances out of nonprofessional actors that professional actors can only dream about. Semi-improvised, Peter Sollett's debut feature, which is set in Manhattan's Lower East Side, is about a Dominican kid who fancies himself a Latin lover but has a lot of growing up to do. His preening vanity, given what will probably become of his life, is enough to break your heart.
No Laughing Matter
I've always given Oscar hell for not being able to take a joke. (Cary Grant never won anything, etc.) But this year Johnny Depp and Diane Keaton both got nominated for comedic roles. Plus, everybody keeps calling Lost in Translation a comedy, even though it made me cry more than it made me laugh and all the jokes were at the expense of the Japanese people and their clazy, clazy ways. ("Lip my stockings!") Fine, but I would like to mention a few other comedies that got a rise out of me this year. Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl would be a comic masterpiece if you removed 45 minutes -- any 45 minutes. Freaky Friday is funnier than any remake of a Disney movie in the Love Bug mold has a right to be. Down With Love is funnier than any Doris Day/Rock Hudson movie that Doris and Rock never got around to making has a right to be. Old School and School of Rock provide an education in slob humor. And Bubba Ho-Tep...well, somewhere up there, Elvis is smiling.
Does any actor have a more interesting résumé than Johnny Depp -- all those quirky roles in all those quirky films? The guy likes to take chances, and even when it doesn't pay off you appreciate the effort. But he was starting to leave the mass audience behind...until now. As Captain Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean, Depp swishes his way into America's heart, combining Errol Flynn with Keith Richards. (How's that for a pair of touchstones?) I'd take him over Sean Penn, who came loaded for bear in Mystic River and 21 Grams but wound up lavishing his talent on two underdeveloped characters. Ben Kingsley was good in House of Sand and Fog. Jude Law was good in Cold Mountain. And Bill Murray was very good in Lost in Translation. But what about Nicolas Cage in Matchstick Men? Peter Dinklage in The Station Agent? And what about American Splendor's Paul Giamatti? You try impersonating the inimitable Harvey Pekar while the inimitable one is sitting there, commenting on how you're doing.
And the Who-the-Hell's-Keisha-Castle-Hughes Award Goes To...:
I've already given props to Charlize Theron. May she accept the Best Actress Award on Sunday night looking nothing like the woman she captured so perfectly in Monster. If Diane Keaton wins for Something's Gotta Give, well, it's good to have her back, looking just as goofily radiant as she did the first time she played Annie Hall. Like Sean Penn, Naomi Watts came loaded for bear in 21 Grams, but it's hard to judge a performance that's been sliced and spliced like that. Samantha Morton conveys the burning intensity of grief in Jim Sheridan's In America, but it seems more like a supporting role. As for Whale Rider's 13-year-old star, she has a lot of explaining to do -- to Jamie Lee Curtis (Freaky Friday), Gwyneth Paltrow (Sylvia), Sarah Polley (My Life Without Me), Frances McDormand (Laurel Canyon), Zooey Deschanel (All the Real Girls), Maria Bello (The Cooler) and Hope Davis (American Splendor).
Steal This Movie
I've always wondered why they call it supporting actor, supporting actress. Support my ass. These people are doing everything they can, in the limited time available, to chew as much scenery as possible. Ken Watanabe deserves his supporting nod if only because he quietly walks off with The Last Samurai while Tom Cruise is busy sharpening his sword. In Mystic River, Tim Robbins is quiet, too -- too quiet. But Benicio Del Toro is out of control in 21 Grams. And Djimon Hounsou is heard (screaming) long before he's seen in In America. Only The Cooler's Alec Baldwin, as a sentimental thug who runs a casino, hits the right mix of calm and rage. On the distaff side, I don't care who wins as long as it isn't Renée Zellweger, but I fell in love with House of Sand and Fog's Shohreh Aghdashloo, who has the tattered beauty of a vintage Persian rug. And I wish Emma Thompson could win something for having walked off with Love Actually (what there was to walk off with) in about one minute of screen time.
Documentaries Don't Have to Be B-O-R-I-N-G
My delight that Errol Morris, creator of such nonfiction oddities as The Thin Blue Line and Fast, Cheap & Out of Control, has finally been nominated for an Oscar is aggravated somewhat by the fact that I don't really like the film he's nominated for, Fog of War. I think Morris let the ever-slippery Robert McNamera slip through his fingers. Of the other nominated films I've seen, The Weather Underground is a straightforward (i.e., boring) account of that much-documented group. And Capturing the Friedmans is a finely brushed portrait of a family coming apart at the seams after the patriarch is accused, rightly or wrongly, of child molestation. But what about Winged Migration, the most beautiful coffee-table book of all time? What about Rivers and Tides, a work of art about works of art? And what about Spellbound, the most exciting thriller of 2003? When these spelling-bee warriors go after a word, you can practically cut the tension with a knife.
First of all, it's eye-poppingly gorgeous -- the flora, the fauna, the way everything is in constant undulation. Second of all, it has a neat moral: Parents should give their kids a little space, allow them to spread their wings, flap their gills. Third, it has those seagulls, which, like the birds in The Birds, hover menacingly, except the seagulls verbalize their intentions: "Mine. Mine. Mine." In some ways, Finding Nemo was the movie of the year, a Hollywood entertainment-machine that delivered the goods to the tune of $340 million. Only the constant threat of predators casts a shadow over this underwater Bambi. As for its competition, The Triplets of Belleville is everything Finding Nemo isn't -- hand-drawn (for the most part), independently financed (for the most part) and French (overwhelmingly). And then there's Brother Bear, which, I must confess, I never got around to seeing. I'm sure it's wonderful. But every time I thought about going, the timing just wasn't right. And timing, as we know, is everything.