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Masterful and Commanding
Metroland movie scribes translate the Academy's mystic machinations to predict who will be Lord of the Oscar.

by Ralph Hammann, Laura Leon, Ann Morrow, and Shawn Stone

It seems likely that, after three years of multiple nominations, The Lord of the Rings trilogy and director Peter Jackson will finally get their Oscar due. The only fact that suggests otherwise is this: The Academy Award for Best Picture has never gone to a fantasy film. Also, it seems likely that Sofia Coppola’s touching and funny Lost in Translation will win something, whether for its screenplay (by Coppola) or Bill Murray’s great performance. Except: The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is notoriously averse to honoring comedy. The race may be more wide open than it seems—the producers of Seabiscuit, Master and Commander and Mystic River certainly hope so. We’ll all find out on Sunday evening (Feb. 29).

Best Picture

It’s the battle of the battle scenes. Since the overly understated Lost in Translation edged out Cold Mountain (or was it The Last Samurai?) for a nomination, the combatants are narrowed to two: Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, and Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (the titles alone show no mercy, at least not for critics with tight word counts). As for the other two nominees, the magnificently acted and directed Mystic River has serious weak spots in the script, especially the implausibly dramatized revenge killing. And Seabiscuit? Too darn sentimental and eager to please (I’m talking to you, Tick Tock). For a nation in the mood for war movies, however, it didn’t get any better than a fantasy end-of-the-world epic and a historical seafaring yarn.

Peter Weir’s Master and Commander is one of the most exhilarating, intelligent, and impressively crafted literary adaptations in years, and yet ROTK is, very arguably, the greater achievement—even if it does lob the occasional cornball (what’s with the fluorescent-green mist hovering over the Army of the Dead?). But consider Peter Jackson’s challenge in adapting a three-hour-plus script, one that was faithful to Tolkien while taking some shrewd dramatic liberties. Consider, too, the fantastic art design: the legions of variegated orcs, the forbidding citadels, the great halls of the kings, and the war sloops of the wild men. And the brilliant casting and uniformly excellent performances, many of them coaxed from inexperienced actors. And the interludes of cinematic lyricism, such as cross-cutting from Pippin’s plaintive ballad to the knights of Gondor riding to their doom. And just the sheer Middle-earthiness of it all, so like our own world and yet so entrancingly different. In a better-than-average year for adventure films, Return of the King inspires the most awe.


Heading for a photo finish: Tobey Maguire and horse in Seabiscuit.

Best Director

To begin comparing the barely comparable, Sofia Coppola has made a sublime film about souls that caress each other in the twilight. There is not a misstep in her control of the tone and quiet intimacy in the gentle dance between Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson. Coppola should have been nominated for her first (and better) film, the arrestingly original The Virgin Suicides, but perhaps it was too unique, and it lacked the Murray mystique that attends Lost in Translation.

Similarly, Clint Eastwood has made another work of sustained mood that approaches but never rivals his Oscar-winning Unforgiven. Where Coppola’s film is nuanced and tranquil, Mystic River deploys subtlety to heighten its eventual blows to the solar plexus. Peter Weir’s direction of Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World is above reproach, and his trademark mastery of natural environments capably juxtaposes mystical and contemplative scenes with those that are audacious and violent. But his current film lacks the impact of his past work because of an unremarkable script. Fernando Meirelles’ cinema-verité peek at life in Rio de Janeiro’s dark underbelly, City of God, is interesting but uninvolving.

The most worthy nominee is Peter Jackson, whose direction of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, is as wizardly as the trilogy he wrought from Tolkien’s almost-impossible-to-translate source material. While this installment may be the least impressive (the second was the best), the feat is still staggering, and he deserves, and will win, the Oscar for the trilogy. At the moment Jackson seems heir to Akira Kurosawa and David Lean.

But the most impressive film of the year wasn’t even nominated. With Big Fish, Tim Burton (heir to Fellini?) melded his whimsically offbeat style to a story that has the substance and cohesive structure that many find lacking in his other works. It is a pure masterpiece in which special effects are seamlessly wed to character development, plot and theme. Touching, funny and wise, it has honest emotion and painstaking mise-en-scene that truly renews one’s faith in film as a transforming experience.

Other neglected directors include Jim Sheridan (“In America”), Stephen Frears (“Dirty Pretty Things”), Peter Hedges (“Pieces of April”) and Ron Shelton (“Dark Blue”).


Best Actress

It’s rather shabby to say, but I am absolutely thrilled that Nicole Kidman was not nominated this year for Best Actress. Even though she appeared in just about every other movie that came out in 2003, culminating in her showy Cold Mountain turn as a Southern belle with a penchant for hard work, the voters—perhaps as sick of her as I am—dismissed her in favor of a crop of very deserving others.

Kidman’s absence on the ballot made way for relative newcomers, like Naomi Watts, whose stunning, bravura performance as a grieving wife and mother almost made 21 Grams bearable. The nomination of young Keisha Castle-Hughes was something of a surprise to Academy watchers who expected that venerable bunch to pass over Whale Rider’s tender youngster in favor of somebody older, like, er, Nicole Kidman. Samantha Morton has spent years playing oddball roles, so it’s kind of ironic that she’s been nominated for playing not a freak but (like Watts) a grieving wife and mother.

This year’s big contest will be between veteran Diane Keaton, who was positively radiant and remarkably funny in Something’s Gotta Give, and Charlize Theron, who traded in her glam persona for prosthetic teeth, freckles and extra poundage in Monster, about serial killer Aileen Wurous. We’ve said it before, but Oscar favors ladies who go ugly, or at least frumpy (Grace Kelly as enabling wife to Bing Crosby’s mean drunk in The Country Girl, for one) for their art. Needless to say, Theron went well beyond simply wearing a murderer’s skin, to making us feel what it’d be like to be in that skin. When you add in the factor that comedy doesn’t usually get the gold, my money is on Theron.


Best Actor

This is a tough one, because the two best performances are by Sean Penn and Ben Kingsley, who both play very tough men. In House of Sand and Fog, Kingsley is a former Iranian colonel who is reduced to construction work after immigrating to California. It’s an original, finely chiseled performance, and when the colonel’s ramrod pride is finally cracked by fear for his son, Kingsley’s expression of it is devastating: The harder he tries to exert control over the situation, the more helpless he becomes. It’s also noticeably the result of the actor’s sublime skill, rather than overwhelming emotion.

This is serious: (l-r) Kevin Bacon and Sean Penn in Mystic River.

The same cannot be said of Penn as the father of a murdered girl in Mystic River, whose howl of anguish is so raw as to be almost unendurable. Grief and rage infuse his entire performance, even when this former thug is sitting quietly on the porch or methodically plotting revenge. And when his revenge is carried out, Penn’s resolution is utterly chilling—and yet still sympathetic, because he makes it understandable how violent loss can produce a bloodthirsty sense of honor. You also have to wonder from what part of his life the actor was able to summon such a ruthless yet damaged character. Jude Law in Cold Mountain is touchingly introverted, and makes what he can of his thinly written role of a lovesick Confederate deserter, and Bill Murray in Lost in Translation is transcendently droll as a has-been movie star resigned to ennui, but these are not as challenging or fully dimensional performances as Penn’s. In a movie that draws on Greek tragedy, Penn reaches a level of classical intensity.


Best Supporting Actor

Let’s get the one who doesn’t belong out of the way first. In 21 Grams, Benicio Del Toro gives the same damn performance he’s given many times before. His presence here is incomprehensible.

As “magic Negro” roles go—the kind in which a mystical black person saves whitey—the dying artist of In America has more dignity and integrity than usual. That this has everything to do with Djimon Hounsou’s fine acting and movie-star appeal explains his nomination. And, while we’re on the subject of “saving whitey,” The Last Samurai’s Ken Watanabe is nominated for his work as the noble samurai who helps troubled soldier Tom Cruise regain his honor. It’s a thankless part that he enlivens with equal parts gravitas and wit.

Alec Baldwin is terrific as an old-school Vegas casino manager in the whimsical comedy-drama The Cooler. He’s tough as nails, emotionally conflicted and capable of real menace. If only the rest of the film were as consistent as Baldwin’s work.

Finally, there’s Tim Robbins, up for his fascinating turn as Dave, the middle-aged wreck haunted by his abuse as a child in Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River. In a film full of fine performances—notably Kevin Bacon and Sean Penn—Robbins stands out because he’s the one character we’re not supposed to be sure about. Is Dave a murderer, or is he losing his mind? Robbins fleshes out the nuances of the character, making Dave a frightening, cunning and tragic figure. The dramatic impact of Mystic River hinges on his performance, and Robbins deserves the Oscar.


Best Supporting Actress

Supporting actresses are those performers who leave an indelible imprint in the viewer’s mind, even though they aren’t the central character. Sometimes, the Academy bestows this award on actors who chew up the scenery (Dianne Wiest in Bullets Over Broadway) rather than integrate their performances into the greater good (Dianne Wiest in Hannah and Her Sisters). This year, I fear the former will win out, and that Renée Zellweger will bring home the gold for her annoyingly folksy, downright loud country girl in Cold Mountain. Far more deserving is Shohreh Aghdashloo, whose quietly evocative depiction of, simply, a real lady reverberated throughout House of Sand and Fog and gave it grace and soul. And even though Marcia Gay Harden mostly cried and bit her knuckles throughout Mystic River, her performance fit with the picture and with the type of woman she was playing. Both Holly Hunter (in Thirteen) and Patricia Clarkson (in Pieces of April) have been nominated for playing dysfunctional mothers, and both merit attention, but will have to wait their turn.


Best Screenplay

This category is, of course, two categories: “screenplay written directly for the screen” and “screenplay based on material previously produced or published.” Two foreign-language films have been nominated, the Quebecois black comedy The Barbarian Invasions in the former category, and the Brazilian City of God in the latter.

This is idiotic. Working on the assumption that most Academy members speak neither French nor Portuguese, this means that they are basing these nominations primarily on story structure. Subtitles translate only a fraction of the dialogue. That’s why Pedro Almodovar should not have won last year for Talk to Her. Ponder this: James Cameron’s script for Titanic had a impressive structure but embarrassing dialogue. Should it have won an Oscar?

Oh well, no foreign language script is going to win this year. The original screenplay is probably (and deservedly) going to Sofia Coppola for Lost in Translation, unless Finding Nemo pulls off an upset. The adaptation category is more interesting. The Return of the King or Mystic River might win if either flick pulls off a sweep. Seabiscuit might win by a nose, if voters want to reward this crowd-pleaser in some category. If there’s any justice, however, Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini will win for the brilliant American Splendor.


Best Original Score

The Return of the King reigns without challengers, even though the would-be usurpers include seasoned champions Danny Elfman and James Horner. But all other scores are banished from memory by Howard Shore’s inventive, evocative rhapsodies. A work of art that stands on its own, the score conjures a realm of enchantment that is both integral (crucial, even) to the film, while its beautifully reinterpreted motifs give continuity to the trilogy. Taking his cues from Wagner, who plumbed the same Germanic sagas as Tolkien, and interweaving European folk traditions, Shore conjured flights of aural fantasy as richly imagined as those in the novel, soaring from the brass-section dread of “Minas Morgul” to the string-laden exaltation of “Hope and Memory.” What’s equally amazing is how the composer’s inspiration remained as potent for the third soundtrack as it was for the first two.


Best Original Song

When Eminem won in this category last year for “Lose Yourself,” it was one of those rare Oscar moments when a great popular hit received its due. That will not be repeated this year. All five nominees look backward. Sting’s “You Will Be My Ain True Love” and the T-Bone Burnett-Elvis Costello collaboration “The Scarlet Tide” complement the 19th-century vibe of the Civil War misfire Cold Mountain. “Into the West,” from The Return of the King, nods toward a fantasy realm. A catchy hot-jazz ditty from the animated film of the same name, “The Triplets of Belleville” channels ’30s icons Django Reinhardt and the Boswell Sisters to wonderful effect. Finally, there’s “A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow,” written by the Michael McKean and Annette O’Toole. A faux-folk tune from the mockumentary A Mighty Wind, “Kiss” is performed in the film by Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara, as a Brian Wilson-style burnout and his former partner and wife. It’s a touching moment. For this reason alone, it deserves to win.


Best Costume Design

This is a shoo-in, even though some important characters don’t wear shoes.

But they do wear ears, and the prosthetic pointy ears (hobbit, orc, and elf style) are part of the fantastical charm of Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (Just think how easily they could’ve become a cheesy distraction.) Never mind that a special oven for baking thousands of pairs of foam-latex ears ran night and day for months. Or that millions of metal rings were authentically forged to create the combatants’ chain mail. It’s not the sheer magnitude of the illusion (upwards of 30,000 meticulously outfitted extras) that deserves recognition here—it’s the obsessively crafted creativity (by Ngila Dickson and Richard Taylor). Perhaps more faithfully than any other element, the trilogy’s costumes, at once medieval and magical, bring to life Tolkien’s enchanting visions. Would Aragorn’s assumption of the kingship be as mythic without his cloak, jerkin and circlet? Would the last stand of Gondor be as noble without a phalanx of embossed leather breastplates? Undoubtedly not, just as hobbits can’t be hobbits without convincingly oversized feet.

The similarly high standard of craftsmanship and imagination for the Japanese armory of nominee The Last Samurai is also Dickson’s work.



Metroland’s film critics LAY ODDS ON OSCAR

Best Picture        
  Will Win Should Win Overlooked Overrated
Hammann The Return of the King The Return of the King Big Fish none
Leon The Return of the King Mystic River Spider Seabiscuit
Morrow The Return of the King The Return of the King The Cooler Seabiscuit
Stone The Return of the King Mystic River Spider none

Best Director

  Will Win Should Win Overlooked Overrated
Hammann Peter Jackson, The Return of the King Peter Jackson, The Return of the King Tim Burton, Big Fish Fernando Meirelles, City of God
Leon Peter Jackson, The Return of the King Peter Jackson, The Return of the King David Cronenberg, Spider Fernando Meirelles, City of God
Morrow Peter Jackson, The Return of the King Peter Weir, Master and Commander Peter Webber Girl With a Pearl Earring Sofia Coppola Lost in Translation
Stone Peter Jackson, The Return of the King Peter Weir, Master and Commander David Cronenberg, Spider none

Best Actress        
  Will Win Should Win Overlooked Overrated
Hammann Charlize Theron, Monster Charlize Theron, Monster Hope Davis, American Splendor Diane Keaton, Something’s Gotta Give
Leon Charlize Theron, Monster Keisha Castle-Hughes, Whale Rider Evan Rachel Wood, Thirteen Samantha Morton, In America
Morrow Charlize Theron, Monster Charlize Theron, Monster Maria Bello, The Cooler Diane Keaton, Something’s Gotta Give
Stone Charlize Theron, Monster Naomi Watts, 21 Grams Renée Zellweger, Down With Love Charlize Theron, Monster

Best Actor        
  Will Win Should Win Overlooked Overrated
Hammann Sean Penn, Mystic River Sean Penn, Mystic River Kurt Russell, Dark Blue Jude Law, Cold Mountain
Leon Sean Penn, Mystic River Johnny Depp, Pirates of the Carribean Ralph Fiennes, Spider none
Morrow Sean Penn, Mystic River Sean Penn, Mystic River The Return of the King Jude Jude Law, Cold Mountain
Stone Bill Murray, Lost in Translation Bill Murray, Lost in Translation Ralph Fiennes, Spider Sean Penn, Mystic River

Best Supporting Actor        
  Will Win Should Win Overlooked Overrated
Hammann Tim Robbins, Mystic River Tim Robbins, Mystic River Albert Finney, Big Fish Alec Baldwin, The Cooler
Leon Tim Robbins, Mystic River Tim Robbins, Mystic River Bill Nighy, Love Actually Djimon Hounsou, In America
Morrow Tim Robbins, Mystic River Alec Baldwin, The Cooler Viggo Mortenson, The Return of the King Ken Watanabe, The Last Samurai
Stone Tim Robbins, Mystic River Tim Robbins, Mystic River Eugene Levy, A Mighty Wind Benicio Del Toro, 21 Grams

Best Supporting Actress        
  Will Win Should Win Overlooked Overrated
Hammann Renée Zellweger, Cold Mountain Holly Hunter, Thirteen Jessica Lange, Big Fish Renée Zellweger, Cold Mountain
Leon Renée Zellweger, Cold Mountain Shohreh Aghdashloo, House of Sand and Fog Miranda Richardson, Spider Renée Zellweger, Cold Mountain
Morrow Renée Zellweger, Cold Mountain Shohreh Aghdashloo, House of Sand and Fog Alison Lohman, Matchstick Men

Marcia Gay Harden, Mystic River

Stone Renée Zellweger, Cold Mountain Renée Zellweger, Cold Mountain Hope Davis, American Splendor

Marcia Gay Harden, Mystic River

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