Is it time to pay attention to Oscar?

From The New York Sun

As an Oscar-watcher, I find this a landmark year, since it is the first I can remember in which I would say that a majority of the nominees in each of the major categories actually deserve to be there. I doubt that any of them will win, but it’s heartening that so many are in the running. Of course there is still a lot of junk. It wouldn’t be Oscar without the junk. It doesn’t surprise me at all, for instance, that Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby, the hokiest bit of movie-schmaltz I’ve seen since The Green Mile (1999) and possibly since Fried Green Tomatoes (1991), was nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor and Best Adapted Screenplay. This could produce a nearly Lord of the Rings-like sweep. More likely to accomplish that feat, I think, is Martin Scorsese’s overblown hymn to celebrity, The Aviator, which has a similar clutch of nominations plus the advantage of a director who, as the Academy is likely to see it, is due for a win.

Besides, Eastwood already won both Best Picture and Best Director for Unforgiven (1992) which is basically the same movie as Baby. Clint, who seems to have a positively Byronic sense of the romance of being damned, is still unforgiven, still looking for redemption through a young protégé. By coincidence, the protégé this time, Hilary Swank, is nominated as Best Actress even though she already won for playing basically the same role — that of a trailer trashy girl who wants to be a boy and ends up a tragic victim — in Boys Don’t Cry (1999).

But the fact that the other three nominees — Sideways, Ray and Finding Neverland — are all at least pretty good movies suggests the unexpected possibility that we might for once actually have a Best Picture that isn’t half bad. And the surprises don’t end there. Vera Drake, for which Mike Leigh received a Best Director nomination, would also be a worthy winner. All this makes it easier to take that neither of my own two top choices, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or Hotel Rwanda, was nominated for either Best Picture or Best Director, though both of them did receive some important nominations. In fact, the two are going head-to-head in the Best Original Screenplay category. I think I might just give the edge to Charlie Kaufman for Sunshine over Keir Pearson and Terry George for Rwanda, though if I had to guess I’d say that a more likely winner than either of them is Brad Bird for The Incredibles. If Hollywood can take the option of shallow cleverness, it’s hard to imagine it won’t.

Also nominated were Kate Winslet as Best Actress for Sunshine — though poor Jim Carrey is left out in the cold again — and Don Cheadle as Best Actor and Sophie Okendo as Best Supporting Actress for Rwanda. I have to say that I’d pick Imelda Staunton in Vera Drake over Kate, good as she was. But Don and Sophie both thoroughly deserve to win — not that either of them is likely to do so for such a downer of a movie. Likewise, Thomas Haden Church in Sideways stands head and shoulders above the competition for Best Supporting Actor. Guys like him who come out of — more or less — nowhere do occasionally win in this category. Think of Cuba Gooding Jr in Jerry Maguire (1996) or Tommy Lee Jones in The Fugitive (1993). But Alan Alda as the corrupt senator in The Aviator has got to be the sentimental favorite here.

Of course, there’s no point in getting carried away. As usual, the nominations for Best Foreign Language Film strike me as being a bit capricious. Like most people, I haven’t seen most of them, but however good the ones I haven’t seen may be, I don’t see how they could be better than the neglected Goodbye, Lenin from Germany, Intimate Strangers and Bon Voyage from France, Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter. . . And Spring from Korea or Deserted Station from Iran. All would have been on my Top Ten list for the year.

Still, there is much to be thankful for — not least that both Fahrenheit 9/11 and The Passion of the Christ were shut out of the major nominations, though Passion did get named for make-up, cinematography and original score. But what can it mean that Fahrenheit burned up? Is this a bit of buyers’ remorse after the Bush victory among those who couldn’t get enough of Michael Moore last June? I can’t quite believe that.Yet the alternative explanation, that there may have been a small outbreak of taste in Tinseltown, would be even more unbelievable — at least if it weren’t for the evidence of this year’s shockingly good nominations. Maybe it’s time to be cautiously optimistic.

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