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Incredible Year 

Maybe Social Security can get out of the supposed trouble it's in by having every tax-paying American citizen put a portion of his or her payroll check into a pool that will predict the outcome of the Oscar contest each year. That's about as sure a bet as the stock market, and it would definitely be a lot more glamorous.

But this is no place for political commentary. Marlon Brando, rest his blubbery soul, took care of that decades ago when he sent Sacheen Littlefeather out to refuse his Best Actor Oscar for The Godfather. This is the place for movie commentary, and Hollywood's big, goofy celebration in honor of itself that happens every winter.

For this year's event, set to be broadcast to billions on Sunday night, the idea here is to ramble on a bit about who has been nominated -- deservedly or not -- in a few of the top categories, then stand up straight and tall, and flat-out guess who and what are going to win in those categories. There will also be room for some thoughts about who really should win, as well as some grousing about certain films and people that weren't even recognized by the Academy.

Actress in a Supporting Role -- The nominees are Cate Blanchett in The Aviator, Laura Linney in Kinsey, Virginia Madsen in Sideways, Sophie Okonedo in Hotel Rwanda, and Natalie Portman in Closer.

Blanchett's Kate Hepburn was an enjoyable spot-on impersonation, but they don't give awards for mimicry. Linney should win something for allowing herself to be made so plain-looking. Okonedo contributed more varieties of frowns than seen before onscreen. Natalie Portman is a big, Harvard-educated chicken for not displaying what every guy in the audience was straining to see.

The Oscar will and should go to Virginia Madsen for her luminous and realistic portrayal of a middle-aged woman who's completely comfortable with herself, her age, her sexuality.

Actor in a Supporting Role -- The nominees are Alan Alda in The Aviator, Thomas Haden Church in Sideways, Jamie Foxx in Collateral, Morgan Freeman in Million Dollar Baby, and Clive Owen in Closer. Missing from the list is David Carradine's nuanced and frightening performance as a quietly maniacal bad guy in Kill Bill: Vol. II.

Alda's crooked senator was certainly his best part since Flirting With Disaster, but he probably wasn't onscreen for more than 10 minutes. Foxx tried hard and was pretty good, but eyes could not be taken off Tom Cruise when the two were in scenes together. Freeman's most effective scenes were his voice-overs; in fact, they might have been the best parts of the film. Owen may have just played it too sleazy.

The Oscar will and should go to Thomas Haden Church, who made the second banana role come brilliantly alive, mostly because of his infusion of comic timing and expressions -- and especially the way he just chugged down that expensive wine.

Actress in a Leading Role -- The nominees are Annette Bening in Being Julia, Catalina Sandino Moreno in Maria Full of Grace, Imelda Staunton in Vera Drake, Hilary Swank in Million Dollar Baby, and Kate Winslet in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

Bening, even surrounded by actors of equal talent, has rarely come across as this much in charge of a film. Moreno was more than competent, but the power of the film outshone her. Staunton reinvented the idea of playing a one-note performance, pushing it to its creative limits. Swank, due to plot circumstances, effectively managed to play two completely different characters in one film.

The Oscar will go to Annette Bening because she was so good in her previously nominated films (American Beauty and The Grifters), and you know, it's her turn. But it should go to Kate Winslet for her wild, daring, and exhilaratingly fresh performance as a young woman as mixed up as her choices of hair colors.

Actor in a Leading Role -- The nominees are Don Cheadle in Hotel Rwanda, Johnny Depp in Finding Neverland, Leonardo DiCaprio in The Aviator, Clint Eastwood in Million Dollar Baby, and Jamie Foxx in Ray. Missing from the list is Jeff Bridges for his remarkable portrait of a talented cad in The Door in the Floor.

Cheadle was slightly too earnest in his part, and Depp was a bit too precious in his, although Depp probably hit his character right on the mark. Eastwood seemed to pull back a bit in the crustiness of his character, perhaps to let his leading lady shine a little more. Foxx, like Blanchett in her nomination, turned in more of a solid impersonation than a great original performance.

The Oscar will go to Jamie Foxx; the buzz is simply too strong for it not to. But it should go to Leonardo DiCaprio, who absolutely owned everything about the film. It's the role, so far, that he will be remembered by, the one in which he could for the first time rightfully be called a Hollywood movie star.

Best Animated Film -- The nominees are The Incredibles, Shark Tale, and Shrek 2.

Shark Tale had a been there-done-that feel to it, while Shrek 2 was practically bursting at the seams with self-congratulatory preening, as if its makers were saying, "Hey, watch us make even more money with this one!" (And they did, almost doubling the box office take)

The Oscar will and should go to Brad Bird's delightful, thought-provoking, eye-popping, technically groundbreaking The Incredibles, which provided maybe even more entertainment value to adults than to its primary audience of kids.

Best Directing -- The nominees are Martin Scorsese for The Aviator, Clint Eastwood for Million Dollar Baby, Taylor Hackford for Ray, Alexander Payne for Sideways, and Mike Leigh for Vera Drake.

Most Oscar handicappers would agree that this is down to a two-horse race. There have to be questions around the nominations of Leigh (far from his best film) and Hackford (ditto). And even though Payne did indeed come up with his best work yet, this year's directors category is all about two certain veterans -- Eastwood has two previous director nominations, Scorsese has six; Eastwood won for Unforgiven in '92; Scorsese has never copped the prize.

The Oscar will go to Martin Scorsese because he made his film so easily accessible to mainstream audiences. But it should go to Alexander Payne, who made a completely original work that's completely different from anything he's done before.

Best Film of 2004 -- The nominees are The Aviator, Finding Neverland, Million Dollar Baby, Ray and Sideways.

Again, it's down to the same two films from the previous race. Why the flighty Finding Neverland and the somewhat stiff Ray got the nominations will remain a mystery. And even though it deserves it, the same could be said about the arty road movie Sideways, the sort of film that's generally overlooked in the balloting.

The Oscar will go to Million Dollar Baby, simply because the directing award went to Scorsese instead of Eastwood, and hell, even Hollywood is fair. But it should go to ... nope, you thought it was going to be Sideways. It should go to The Incredibles, because, animated or not, it was the best film of the year.

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