by Ray Pride

Horrible news -- for instance, the probability that one's country is about to wage war -- has at least one modest virtue: It shows up all the money and hot air thrown at the Oscar race as the puerile street scuffle it has become in the past decade.

What's art worth in the real world? That is, art about the real world instead of fantasy? Yes, a question about Roman Polanski's The Pianist. Let's cut to the chase: Of the five films nominated for Academy Awards for Best Picture, which will be the classics, and which will be the Dr. Dolittle's 30 years from now?

Rob Marshall's Chicago is the triumph of MTV's ADD aesthetic, where relentless cutting covers up for inconsistent planning, or provides cover for producers unwilling to give the director free rein. It's Miramax-a-miracle. Chicago's a $100-million-plus smash, and it can make the world safe again for truly second-rate musicals. I'd rather see New York, New York again. Jeez, I'd rather see Gangs of New York again. Ah, Gangs of New York. There's a sentimental, store-bought nomination if there ever was one: a great East Coast director brought low by Oscar longings, congratulated for kowtowing to West Coast game-playing. (I picture the frames of Scorsese and Schoonmaker's alleged three-hour version floating away, glistening in the neon light of Manhattan's midtown, like fool's gold at the end of Treasure of the Sierra Madre.) Someone once said that when a great director gets old, he doesn't die, he becomes an interior decorator. That, and as history shows, a trophy polisher as well.

It's a vest pocket tragedy of sorts. Gangs of New York is an overblown, minor work from a director burdened with the hardship of being labeled "America's greatest living director," traversing his own Via Dolorosa from the Lower East Side's Mulberry Street to Hollywood Boulevard's Kodak Theater in search of a piece of gold.

Stephen Daldry's The Hours is a much-misunderstood and maligned blend of metaphors about depression and individuality. To some, like screenwriter David Hare, it's a film about America's taboo against a woman having the right to determine her own fate, family be damned; I think it's a terrific portrait of how depression has neither logic nor remorse. I like The Hours. It has both civility and sadness, and its nominations could help its chances in smaller markets where viewers could use a little nudge to go to a picture that says, depression is inexplicable. Sorrow is inevitable. Mistakes are made. And the families that love us are not necessarily those bound by blood.

Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers? A middle child whose youngest sibling will get praise for its prodigies at the end of this year. (I haven't seen either of the immensely talented Peter Jackson's films; I'm waiting to see all three back-to-back when they're finally finished this winter.)

Which brings us to The Pianist. The 69-year-old fugitive-from-L.A.-justice's act of witness is deeply resonant. Roman Polanski's film is about the loner, the observer, how we deal with isolation, how we all view the world from the side, peering around corners, even if we're not forced into it by the vicious caprices of power. Adrien Brody's performance is a model of reserve, and it's a worthy Best Acting nod. Neil Gabler -- frequent contributor to The New York Times and Mr. Ready-with-a-Bromide on controversial topics for journos high and low -- reduces the fate of Polanski's daunting, haunting masterpiece about isolation, despair and survival, to this note in The New York Post: "What we may be dealing with is: Can the Holocaust trump child molestation?" -- referring to charges still standing against Polanski for statutory rape.

Why can't Hollywood make movies with plots as fevered, intense and naughty as the Oscar race? Considering that the ballots remain more secret than incomplete voting tallies in Florida, no one will ever be able to do the kind of statistical analysis that shows how these awards truly work. Will we ever be able to do more than surmise that the many members of advanced age among the several thousand members vote nostalgically for actors they like and genres they'd like to see make a spirited return? Case in point: the enormous number of noms for the vivacious yet tedious Chicago.

Nicolas Cage, in Adaptation, deserves acclaim for a model of mayhem and externalized schizophrenia. Yes, that kid who ate a cockroach in Vampire's Kiss 15 years ago, who is now on a strict diet of scenery. Oh, sorry. That's Daniel Day-Pesci, I mean, Lewis, in Gangs of New York. Is that acting? Really, now? Is it? Or is it "acting"?

Several of the best female performances are a little too Chicago-istic for me, but Julianne Moore, breaking out of the 1950s deep freeze in Far From Heaven? Diane Lane breaking out in tremors from recalling a hot bout of infidelity in Unfaithful? That's acting.

The writers' nominations are inevitably the most schizophrenic, reflecting tastes from that wing which don't kowtow to either box office or sentiment. In the original category, would anyone who admires the finesse of Todd Haynes with Far From Heaven, an almost academic replica of a 1950s melodrama that manages to be heart-tugging as well, also admire the cack-handed brute sitcom called My Big Fat Greek Wedding? Or the voice-over-ridden carcass of Gangs of New York? Pedro Almod & oacute;var's best writing and best directing slots for the extravagantly strange and beautiful Talk To Her are impressive coups -- as is finding Carlos Cuar & oacute;n and Alfonso Cuar & oacute;n snuggling up against the likes of Nia Vardalos with their subversive, heartfelt sex-and-subtle-politics comedy Y Tu Mam & aacute; Tambi & eacute;n.

More cartoonish behavior: Lilo & amp; Stitch is hilarious; Ice Age is, too; and Miyazaki's Spirited Away is unquestionably a masterpiece. Give this one the prize, folks: There's a whole nation out there that hasn't had a chance to admire it. But with the nomination of Treasure Planet as one of the best animated pictures, perhaps there's something that the animation branch found worthy. Maybe there's some subtle element that makes it a movie only for other animators. (It's like how some people insult jazz by calling it music for other musicians.) Seems more like a few Disney members might be voting with their career hopes.

In the foreign film categories, the Brazilian City of God, a blaxploitation Goodfellas, is a notable omission. Aki Kaurismaki's deadpan Finnish comedy The Man Without A Past, however, is one of my two or three favorites of the movies I was able to preview in 2002, and I was sorely tempted to put it high on those year-end lists I deeply dislike having to compile. It's strange, timeless, hopeful and -- oh heck, beautiful. Plus, as always in Kaurismaki's comedies, there's a great dog as a poker-faced co-star. Tune in next Sunday for another big dog: the endless Oscar ceremonies.

Publication date: 03/20/03

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