Cinema Psycho

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Archive for February, 2005

Hide and Seek

Posted by CinemaPsycho on February 28, 2005

Directed by John Polson/Screenplay by Ari Schlossberg/starring Robert De Niro, Dakota Fanning, Famke Janssen, Elisabeth Shue, Amy Irving/20th Century Fox

A troubled little girl’s “imaginary friend” concerns her psychiatrist father when they move to a small town after the death of her mother.

Hide and Seek is one of those movies that seems destined to get little or no respect from the critical community. It was released at a time when most of the attention is being given to “important” films that are vying for Oscar consideration, and this kind of slick, polished commercial thriller is bound to be overlooked by the so-called cultural elite.

It’s true, Hide and Seek may not be the most “important” film out in theaters right now. It’s certainly not the best film in theaters at this time. But sometimes you’re just not looking for deadly serious material like African genocide, fatal diseases or assassination attempts on former presidents. Sometimes you just want an entertaining movie, a good yarn that’s well told with class and style. In those instances adjectives like “slick” and “polished” are not derogatory but necessary qualifications. If you just want a decent, old-fashioned suspense flick, Hide and Seek fits the bill.

The plot summary above pretty much tells you as much as you need to know, without revealing the major plot twist of course. I think some people will figure out the twist ahead of time – I kinda predicted it myself just before it was revealed. Good for us. The important thing is that the story makes sense even after it ventures into Shyamalan territory, and actually becomes more disturbing and intense, as well as deeply felt. I’m a little tired of the whole “don’t spoil the secret” thing by now, as most movies don’t do it that well and people have become conditioned to try to figure it out ahead of time rather than enjoy the storytelling as a whole. As an audience member, I prefer NOT to know what’s coming or try to predict the ending. I’d rather not spend the entire running time of a movie attempting to outsmart the filmmakers. But that’s just me.

The point is, Hide and Seek does it well. Not that it’s an incredible shocker, although it’s a pretty good one. What’s important is that it’s kept well hidden until just the right time. Director Polson (taking a big step up from his previous film, Swimfan) and screenwriter Schlossberg skillfully show us just enough to make us think we’re seeing one thing when we’re actually seeing another. As they gradually reveal more and more information, we realize that we’ve only seen one character’s limited point of view, and the truth is much more complicated and painful than we previously imagined. The result may seem like a mere “gimmick” to some, but you can’t say that the movie doesn’t play fair. Of course, these kind of psychological mind-game movies aren’t really supposed to. But lately, too many of these twist endings feel like a manipulative cheat. Not so here.

This effect is greatly helped by the well-chosen cast. A lot of people have slagged De Niro for making movies like this, but I think that’s shortsighted. Every movie the guy makes isn’t going to be another Raging Bull or Taxi Driver – great roles like those are rare for any actor to come by. He’s entered a different career phase now, and while it may be disheartening to see him in lame comedies, a lot of actors his age find it difficult to find work at all, much less in lead roles. Leaving that kind of criticism behind for the time being, I think he’s really good here. Given his history of playing angry, repressed, violent “cavemen”, it’s fascinating to watch him as a very intelligent, articulate, cultured man who happens to be a caring and concerned father. It’s a surprisingly complex performance, and he pulls it off completely. De Niro’s one of those actors who’s been so good for so long that he’s taken for granted, but I have to say I was reminded of just how good he can be in roles you wouldn’t expect him to excel in. Whatever their opinion of his current career, I think his fans will really miss out if they skip this one.

Equally good is the ubiquitous wunderkind Dakota Fanning as his spooky, traumatized daughter. It’s dead-on perfect casting because, let’s be honest, there’s something vaguely creepy about the kid in the first place. She often seems like an adult in the body of a 10-year-old, so it’s a wonder she hasn’t been cast in something like this before. (If they decide to remake The Omen in the next couple of years, I fully expect her to play Damien.) But what’s great about her performance here is the way it subverts that expectation. Yes, we expect her to excel at being weird and creepy, and she does. But her character’s behavior is completely that of a child, disturbed and misguided as her motivations may be. It takes a subtle actor to play natural immaturity so believably, and Fanning is pretty remarkable.

There’s a lot of fine work in the supporting cast as well. Famke Janssen, Amy Irving, Dylan Baker, Melissa Leo, Robert John Burke – they’re all sharp and well-defined, even in seemingly minor roles. I really liked Elisabeth (“wow, she’s STILL gorgeous”) Shue as the sympathetic divorcee who tries to befriend the splintered family. She’s a hugely underrated actress, and it’s nice to see her back on the big screen again. It’s been far too long.

Ultimately, Hide and Seek is not a movie that’s going to set the world on fire. It won’t be up for any awards next year, and it probably won’t make any Top-10 lists. But it does exactly what it sets out to do, and I think it’s important to recognize that. It’s a good, solid psychological thriller with well-drawn performances and atmosphere to burn. If that’s the kind of movie you’re looking for, you could do a lot worse. Even if it’s not appreciated during its theatrical run, I think people will eventually discover it on video or cable, and say, “hey, that was actually pretty good.” It’s that kind of movie. Which is not a bad thing to be in my book.

*** 2/8/05

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Control (DVD)

Posted by CinemaPsycho on February 23, 2005

Directed by Tim Hunter/written by Todd Slavkin & Darren Swimmer/starring Ray Liotta, Willem Dafoe, Michelle Rodriguez, Kathleen Robertson, Polly Walker, Stephen Rea/ DEJ Productions

A convicted murderer is given a second chance with an experimental drug and a new identity.

Tim Hunter is one of those guys who made one really great movie – his being the landmark 1986 teen-alienation film River’s Edge – then seemed to drop off the face of the Earth. I don’t really know why. He’s mostly been doing TV work for the past 15 years or so, but every now and then he pops up with a feature, usually with no hype or advance buzz, and I’m always interested to see it. Control is his latest, a “busted theatrical” that’s recently arrived with no fanfare on DVD. I knew very little about this movie going in, but with this director and that cast, I was more than willing to give it a shot. And I wasn’t disappointed.

Despite the fact that the cover makes it look like a standard serial-killer thriller, Control is actually a thoughtful drama that explores the issue of criminal rehabilitation. It’s the story of Lee Ray Oliver (Liotta), a violent sociopath on Death Row for multiple homicides. After his execution, he wakes up to find that he’s been given another chance thanks to Dr. Copeland (Dafoe), who’s developed an experimental drug to reduce violent tendencies. Once the pills take effect, he’s given a new identity and set free, supervised by the doctor and a law-enforcement team who monitor his activities at all times. The idea is to see if he can adapt to a normal life with his adjusted personality. Complications naturally ensue.

I really liked the way Control keeps us guessing about what was going to happen and why. The most obvious choice would have been to have Lee Ray trick the doctors into thinking he’s cured, then escape and go on a murderous rampage. Thankfully, Control is a lot smarter than that. We’re never quite sure where the movie is going until it reaches its conclusion. Is Lee Ray, now dubbed “Joe”, actually cured? Is he capable of leaving his past behind and starting a new life? Will society allow him to?

There are no easy answers to questions like these, and Hunter and the writers know that the issues they raise can’t be easily resolved. Even when the movie runs into standard chase-thriller territory, there’s a conscience and a sense of intelligence to this movie that reminds one of a Nicholas Ray film. While the movie is sympathetic to Lee Ray/Joe and gives the usual TV-movie style explanation of how people like him become the way they are, it doesn’t ignore his victims and their families either. It even questions whether Copeland may be doing more harm than good by trying to cure people like him rather than simply dispose of them. Control definitely has a point of view, but it still leaves one with lingering questions and nagging doubts. That’s a good thing.

The film is greatly helped by two excellent performances. It’s no surprise that Liotta excels at playing a remorseless psychopath – we’ve seen him in that kind of role plenty of times. But he’s so good at showing the changes in Lee Ray as he becomes “Joe”; he gradually becomes softer and more human, to the point where he really does seem like a completely different person, and Liotta is absolutely convincing. It’s a terrific performance, and it’s a shame that more people won’t see it. Yet Dafoe is every bit his equal as the conflicted Dr. Copeland, a man whose unwavering belief in the value of his project initially blinds him to its potential for failure, and the possible human cost. These are two excellent actors working at the top of their game.

Yes, there are some awkward and contrived moments – of course Joe almost immediately gains a love interest (Rodriguez) who may be half his age, and the romantic triangle between Copeland, his young colleague (Robertson) and his ex-wife (Walker) seems a little forced at times. These elements sometimes feel more like shoehorned plot conveniences than natural occurrences. But the solid story at the center keeps the film grounded, and the work by Liotta and Dafoe is never less than riveting.

Some people think that “straight to video” movies are all negligible and dismissible due purely to the fact that they never played in theaters. But a movie like Control shows that isn’t always the case. It’s better than a lot of recent movies that HAVE opened in theaters, and certainly more worthy of your time and money than something like Alone in the Dark or Son of the Mask. If anything, Control proves that some movies are too good for Hollywood to know what to do with.

***1/2 2/23/05

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Constantine

Posted by CinemaPsycho on February 23, 2005

Directed by Francis Lawrence/Screenplay by Kevin Brodbin and Frank Capello/starring Keanu Reeves, Rachel Weisz, Tilda Swinton, Djimon Hounsou, Shia LeBoeuf, Peter Stormare/Warner Bros – Village Roadshow

A chain-smoking nihilist has to prevent demons from taking over the Earth.

This movie is based on a comic book called Hellblazer, and whenever Hollywood makes a movie based on a comic book, the fanboys go ballistic about any changes in the translation from one medium to another. The comic’s hero is British, and they cast Keanu Reeves in the lead. The comic geeks are pissed.

Lucky for me, I haven’t picked up a comic book in years, so I don’t have to have those concerns. As a movie fan, all I care about is whether the adaptation works on the screen. It’s funny, I don’t hear anyone complaining about the casting of Brit Christian Bale as the American superhero Batman. Who cares? Sometimes you just have to let go of things like that. There are greater things in the world to worry about (like whether Veronica Mars gets picked up for a second season…).

Anyone who’s incapable of just “going with it”, I recommend you don’t see this movie. If you’re that hung up on the comic books, stay home and read them. Honestly, you’re probably not going to like Constantine. You won’t enjoy yourself and you will regret spending your time and money on it.

The rest of us, however, will get a pretty cool movie out of it. Not a great movie, but for the wasteland of February… I’ll take it.

John Constantine (Reeves) is a guy in a seriously fucked-up situation. Having attempted suicide at the age of 14 (and briefly succeeding), he’s now unable to be admitted into the kingdom of Heaven upon his death. Unfortunately for him, 20 years of chain-smoking has left him with a serious case of lung cancer. (I don’t know about you, but if I knew for a fact that Hell existed and I was going there, I don’t think I’d do anything that might hurry the process along. But that’s just me. I think smoking is stupid and foolish anyway, so there you have it.)

Constantine’s solution to this problem is to become Neo the Demon Slayer in order to prove his worthiness to the Big Man Upstairs. This despite the fact that he’s been told countless times that it doesn’t work that way. I guess if he just accepted his fate, there would be no movie. He also has the ability to “see” demons, which is what prompted the suicide attempt in the first place. So talk about being screwed, right? Yeah, I’d be pretty pissed off too.

So after an exorcism scene that’s instantly better and cooler than the entirety of Exorcist: The Beginning, John is approached by Angela Dodson (the ever-stunning Weisz), a cop whose twin sister jumped off a building. What a waste. Then John and Angela team up to uncover a conspiracy and, you know, fight demons and stuff.

I’ve heard a lot of critics say that the plot doesn’t make sense, and in all honesty, when you think about it later it really doesn’t. But I thought it made about as much logical sense as this pseudo-spiritual religious nonsense ever does in movies like this. It’s really not that hard to follow when you break it down: demons are trying to come through human bodies and wreak havoc on the Earth, helped along by half-demons who are already here. Constantine has to stop that from happening. What’s not to get? I’m the last person to understand anything about religion, so if I can understand what’s going on, I think the average person will too.

Besides, since when do movies like this have to make perfect sense anyway? It all sounds like hooey to me no matter how they explain it. Basically, what it comes down to is that this movie takes all that fire-and-brimstone Sunday school stuff dead seriously. A non-religious person like myself should just look at it as a “what if?” story rather than propaganda though. It’s a movie that’s set in a universe where these concepts actually exist. It’s a plot device, like the Holy Grail or the Ark of the Covenant or The Force. You buy the premise, you buy the movie. What you believe remains up to you.

If anything, this movie’s representation of religious iconography is pretty bleak and horrific. It’s the battle between Heaven and Hell played out as a combination of comic-book fantasy, film noir and heavy metal album covers. What’s great is that first-time feature director Lawrence, a veteran of music videos (but don’t hold that against him) completely pulls this vision off. Even though it’s set in modern-day LA, I couldn’t help but think that this is what Exorcist: The Beginning should have looked like (instead of those cheap, phony sets and impenetrable cinematography). It’s not a complete assault on your senses, like you’d expect from a video guy; Lawrence isn’t afraid to use silence and darkness, and does so effectively. And when the shit hits the fan, it makes more of an impact than it would have had it been just relentless hammering on your eye sockets. This guy’s got style and taste, and I look forward to seeing what he does in the future.

Ultimately, whether or not you like this movie will come down to your opinion of Reeves. I know there’s a sizable anti-Keanu faction out there, and I hate to break this to them, but I think we’re stuck with the guy at this point. I mean, my Word program actually recognizes the word “Keanu”, so I think he’s here to stay. I myself don’t mind the guy – I don’t think he’ll ever win an Oscar, but he’s developed a screen presence that you can’t deny. He may not be a great actor, but he is a movie star – and there is a legitimate difference. (I was watching River’s Edge a few months ago, and I was struck by how Reeves really carries the movie as the soul and mixed-up conscience of the piece, despite the more flashy performances from the likes of Crispin Glover and Dennis Hopper. He’s good in that movie, dammit! I may not have expected him to have such a huge career back then, but looking back you can definitely see the potential.)

So how is Reeves in Constantine? Pretty good, actually. At times it seems like he’s doing a bizarre Clint Eastwood impression, all squinty eyes and tight-lipped sarcasm. But once you get past that, he manages to make Constantine likable and relatable despite the character’s understandably bleak outlook and harsh behavior. Sometimes the guy’s a real dick, especially to Angela (or maybe he’s just trying to forget Chain Reaction), but it’s a credit to Reeves that the audience never disconnects from him. As Keanu action vehicles go, it’s no Matrix or Speed, but it’s certainly no Johnny Mnemonic either.

Much of the supporting cast don’t get a whole lot to do, but they mostly manage to make vivid impressions anyway. Tilda Swinton is pretty much dead-on perfect casting as the androgynous angel Gabriel – who else could have played this role without looking like a drag queen? Peter Stormare, one of my favorite character actors, seems to be having a blast as the movie’s white-suited Satan. I’d be willing to watch a spinoff movie with Stormare’s Lucifer just wandering the streets, going bugfuck psycho and severely messing with people. And I must admit I got a certain satisfaction out of seeing Gavin Rossdale, former lead singer of sucky pseudo-grunge band Bush (and undeserving husband of Gwen Stefani) get completely pummeled by Constantine. Call me a bastard if you must.

I’m not trying to argue that seeing Constantine is a life-changing experience, or that the movie is a classic for the ages. But it seems like a lot of critics just don’t have any respect for well-made genre films. They don’t like this movie because they don’t like this KIND of movie, not because the movie is bad. As these movies go, I think Constantine is pretty decent. Some movies are just meant to do what they do, and do it well. It used to be that competence and professionalism wasn’t much to ask for in genre movies – but now we’ve got guys like Uwe Boll running around pretending to be good at this. When something this well done comes along, I think we ought to appreciate it for exactly what it is. Nothing more, but certainly nothing less.

*** 2/23/04

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V-D Day: or, The Proliferation of “Romantic” (Unrealistic Expectations) Comedies

Posted by CinemaPsycho on February 14, 2005

Valentine’s Day fucking sucks.

I know, I know, what does this have to do with movies? Trust me, I’m getting there.

This isn’t going to be a bitter rant about how your friendly neighborhood movie writer is currently sans girlfriend, don’t worry. Nor will it be one of those “in the spirit of the holiday” deals where I go on and on about my current movie/TV crush, Kristen “Veronica Mars” Bell (seriously, why aren’t you people watching?). I could sing her praises for pages, but I’m not convinced anyone really wants to read that. And it would probably get a restraining order slapped on me. I’ve got enough problems.

Seriously though, I really hate this holiday. As if those of us not in a relationship don’t feel shitty enough about it already, we have an annual reminder of our lack of success in the love department. Just what we needed! It’s kind of like being Jewish on Christmas. Who needs this kind of pressure? If you’re actually with someone that you really love, good for you. But every day is your fucking day. If you really need a holiday to remind you how lucky you are, then you probably don’t deserve it in the first place.

It’s funny, people have told me in the past that I’m simply “not romantic”. After overcoming my initial shock at this statement, I would argue that the concept of “romance” has become so warped and superficial at this point that the word has lost all meaning. Yes, I’m cynical as all hell when it comes to romance. But no one is born that way – cynicism is simply a natural response to experience.

Unfortunately, being a movie fanatic doesn’t really help this particular situation. I’ve grown to truly despise the messages delivered in most so-called “romantic comedies”. It’s not just the natural male response to “chick flicks”, either. Romantic comedy used to be a wonderful thing. Some of my all-time favorite movies are in that genre. But the past few years, these movies have become so awful, so simple-minded and ridiculous and pathetic, that I can’t bring myself to sit through most of them. Honestly, how did we go from It Happened One Night to How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days? I really don’t get it.

Take Pretty Woman, for instance. Please. Considered the most popular romantic comedy of all time by many people (not me), this is a movie that essentially tells women, “sell your ass on the street and you’ll find Prince Charming”. And they eat that shit up with a spoon. Go figure. I don’t know if anyone’s actually dumb enough to take that lesson seriously, but it’s still a pretty repulsive fantasy to be selling people all the same. And how exactly does Prince Charming display his affection for the fair maiden? By buying her lots and lots of expensive clothes. Nice. Maybe these two deserve each other after all.

I don’t doubt that many women saw that movie and fantasized about meeting a rich, handsome guy who swept them off their feet and took them away from their miserable lives. That’s the problem. If that’s your idea of love and romance, then you’re living in a fantasy world the likes of which my beloved Kristen and I couldn’t possibly imagine. These so-called “romances” have become wish-fulfillment fantasies for people who are wishing for all the wrong things.

Do people really think that’s what love is? Something you buy with a credit card? I don’t know, but based on the movies lately, you’d think so. Look at The Wedding Date – go ahead, look at it, because I can’t bear to.

I think the worst of the unrealistic expectations that movies plant in our heads is this idea that love “just happens”, like a cold virus or a natural disaster. This idea of “love at first sight” is, I’m sorry, such a crock of horseshit. My favorites are the movies where guys move to a new town and, naturally, there’s a beautiful, smart, funny, completely single and available female just waiting for them to arrive. Give me a fucking break! While it’s not a romantic comedy, the worst offender is Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, where Alison Eastwood literally shows up on John Cusack’s doorstep, completely out of nowhere, for no apparent reason. Of course they fall in love – that’s what’s supposed to happen in the movies, right?

Come on people, real life just isn’t like that. I don’t pretend to be any kind of expert on love, don’t get me wrong, but I know Hollywood bullshit when I see it. If any couple on Earth has ever met that way, I’d like to hear about it. “Yeah, she just showed up at my house in the middle of the night, and a year later we were married.” Right. And I’ve got a bridge I’d like to sell you.

If you watch enough movies, and actually believe them, you might come to think that love is something equivalent to brainwashing or mind-control experiments. Or an alien infestation like Invasion of the Body Snatchers. It’s as if falling in love is something that takes place without your permission. “I met this girl, and the next thing I knew, I was in love! I don’t know how it happened!” Bullshit.

And I don’t know about you, but I’m sick to death of watching impossibly attractive people pretend to be just as insecure, neurotic and obsessive about love as the rest of us. Does anyone still buy that at this point? That’s as heinous a Hollywood myth as “rich people are all desperately unhappy” (yeah, being able to do whatever you want, whenever you want is such a bummer). Please. If they think being gorgeous and wealthy is such a hardship, they should try being poor and ugly sometime.

Not to mention that we’re running desperately low on the “girl next door” archetype that used to make these movies somewhat believable. Romantic-comedy stalwarts like Meg Ryan, Sandra Bullock and Julia Roberts were no sane man’s idea of unacceptable, but they weren’t the typical unrealistic, Cindy Crawford/Pamela Anderson bombshell ideal either. They always seemed to resemble people who could conceivably exist in the same universe we live in. Who’s supposed to be our “girl next door” now? Lindsay Lohan? Jennifer Garner? Scarlett Johannsen? Angelina Jolie? Jessica Alba? Good God, if these women are the girls next door, I’m living in the wrong goddamn neighborhood.

Look, I’m the last person who would claim to know anything about love. But I know it’s not what we see in all these lousy movies. True love, REAL love, isn’t based on being the two most attractive people in the room. It’s not about what you’ve got in your wallet and how much of it you’re willing to spend. Love is not about money and property, as much as society tries to tell us otherwise. It’s not about the quest for absolute perfection. It’s certainly not about “meeting cute” and going through contrived situations that are meant to signify “fate” and “destiny”. It’s sure as hell not about candy and flowers and big red heart-shaped boxes. And it’s definitely not about circumstances beyond our control.

No, I think love – REAL love – is all about choice. It’s about choosing to love someone, and making that choice every day. And, hopefully, being chosen back by that person. It’s about loving someone as much for their flaws and idiosyncrasies as for the things that attracted them to you in the first place. It’s about caring more for their needs than you do for your own. Love isn’t something that “just happens” to you – it’s something you have to choose, to take full and conscious part in, something you have to accept. And I think that the kind of person you choose to love says as much about you as it does about them.

So, while I may not know much about love, I apparently know more than your average Hollywood screenwriter. Because that’s exactly what we’re not seeing in these so-called “romantic” movies. We don’t see people falling in love for good reasons, with realistic expectations. We don’t see couples getting together because of mutual backgrounds, shared interests, or even because they just plain like each other. Instead we’re being fed this horseshit about how “opposites attract” and how two people who hate each other at the beginning of a movie can love each other by the end. We’re told that people who have absolutely nothing in common can somehow fall madly in love with each other. Maybe that actually happens, but I think it’s pretty rare.

Let’s face it folks, life just isn’t that fucking simple. In real life, you can’t make someone love you by sheer force of will. And you can’t fall in love with someone just because you think you’re supposed to. People are incredibly complicated creatures, and we live in a complex and often confusing world. Most of us don’t even know why we do the things we do half the time. You may think my view of love is naïve, but I think these myths that Hollywood perpetuates, like “there’s someone for everyone” and “everything works out the way it’s supposed to” – now THAT’S naïve. But too many people believe it, because that’s what they’re told their whole lives. Consciously or unconsciously, these are the messages that are implanted in our minds, and some of us spend most of our adult lives trying to unlearn them, or at least come to grips with how phony and misguided they are. (Take the blue pill, Neo…)

This is why most people just don’t get it. The truth is, there is no such thing as a perfect mate. It doesn’t exist. Prince Charming is never going to come along on a white horse, and Cindy Crawford is never going to knock on my door. (But Kristen, seriously, call me.) We’re all just people out here, fucked-up and confused and just trying to get by the best we can. I get that. I just wish Hollywood did too.

And they say I’m not romantic…ppphhhtttt! Eat me…

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My Top 10 of 2004; and How About a Three-Way (Oscar Tie)?

Posted by CinemaPsycho on February 1, 2005

OK, I’ve been a little absent from the site for awhile, due mainly to a nasty cold virus that bore striking similarities to some early Cronenberg films. But I’m feeling much better now, thanks to the miracle of antibiotics. So let’s start by welcoming any new readers who may have linked to us from other sites the past few weeks, particularly our friends at Movie Poop Shoot, Really Scary and Horror-Report.com. Check them out on our links page if you don’t know them – I personally visit them all on a regular basis, and they were kind enough to give us a little exposure. I hope anyone who read the site for the first time recently liked what they saw, and will keep coming back.

A few things have happened in the entertainment industry since I’ve been “away”, certainly none bigger than the death of Mr. Johnny Carson. I know this is not a TV site, and mere words cannot summarize what Mr. Carson’s work meant to me personally over the years. But I just wanted to acknowledge it and pay my small, humble tribute to a truly great entertainer. Thanks for all the laughs, Johnny. You’re missed.

OK then. So I was going to spend most of this column doing my annual “Oscar Picks”, which is something I used to do purely for my own amusement, but I’ve been told that I’m pretty good at it. Of course every critic has done that since the nominations were announced, and practically every one has made their predictions based solely on their own preferences. The wagons are circling, and everyone’s picking a side.

I thought I knew who I was rooting for this year. Yes, I’m guilty of it too. Every year I cross my fingers and hope my favorite sweeps all the awards it’s up for. It’s difficult not to do that, especially during years when the options are pretty much limited to: one really deserving film by a great director, a mainstream hit that nobody really likes, and three critical favorites that don’t have a shot in hell. That’s usually the way it shakes out.

This year is a little different, at least for me. I still love The Aviator. I think it’s a phenomenal film by one of the true masters. Some critics seem to disagree, and that’s their prerogative. I don’t quite understand all the vitriol against it, but whatever. For me, it absolutely rocked the house and showed that Marty’s still got the greatness in him. So I was expecting to root for it all the way.

Then this past weekend, something happened that made me rethink my position. Not on The Aviator itself, but on picking a favorite at all. I finally got to see Sideways and Million Dollar Baby, and on the same night. I loved them both.

What’s a guy like me to do? Here are three of the five Best Picture nominees, three completely different films, each of them beautiful and brilliant in their own way. They may occupy different positions on my “favorites” list, but can I honestly say that one deserves the award over the other two? It’s just not as simple as, “this one rocks and the other two suck by comparison.” All three are fantastic films! I have yet to see Ray or Finding Neverland, but I doubt that either of them are completely unworthy.

The same goes for many of the other categories. Even Supporting Actress, which is usually completely up-for-grabs, has no less than three great performances that I really admired. How can I choose between Cate Blanchett, Virginia Madsen and Natalie Portman? By what criteria do I possibly decide who did the best work? And I haven’t seen ALL of the nominated films either (and I don’t pretend to), but I’m already in a quandary. The ones I have seen are all SO damn good.

So this year I’ve decided to do something unusual, at least for me. I’m not going to pick a favorite. I can predict who I think will win, but I’m hesitant to even do that for most of the categories. I can complain about some of the glaring omissions (how the hell did House of Flying Daggers NOT get a Best Foreign Film nomination?), but I’m struck by this bizarre idea that maybe, just maybe, the Academy got it right this year. Or as close to it as they can possibly get.

I can almost understand the backlash to Sideways. It’s the kind of film that generally doesn’t get Oscar acknowledgement, or if so only in categories like Best Adapted Screenplay. You’re more likely to see a movie like this cleaning up at the Independent Spirit Awards. It’s a small-scale, humanistic comedy that occasionally “goes to the dark side”, which makes it difficult for the older members to even classify, much less fully comprehend. Sideways is pretty much the antithesis of the period epics and “important issue” movies that usually take home the gold.

If you think about it, that’s more of a reason to support it than to dismiss it. It’s time for the Academy to recognize that the best films aren’t always the biggest spectacles. They’re not always the films that make people aware of a disease, mental or physical handicap, or social issue. (How many people still watch Chariots of Fire or Gandhi on a regular basis? Thought so.) Sometimes the best films are the ones that make us think about ourselves and our everyday lives. They examine the basic human condition and put modern life in perspective. And yes, sometimes the best films are the ones that make you laugh. Is that so unbelievable?

Miles and Jack are extremely flawed, fucked-up human beings – and that’s exactly what makes their misadventures fascinating to watch. People who complain that they aren’t “likable” or “heroic” enough are missing the point. They’re characters, not role models. All of the comedy and drama that takes place in the movie is generated by their foibles and the outrageous things they feel driven to do because of them. If they were perfect creatures, there would be no movie. At least not one worth watching.

On the surface, Sideways is just another shaggy-dog road movie, a middle-aged excursion to nowhere in particular punctuated by a few laughs along the way. But if you look deeper, there’s a lot more going on here. Watching Paul Giamatti’s Miles torpedo every potential chance at happiness he comes across is probably the most painful thing I’ve witnessed on screen in a long time. (And yes, Giamatti was ROBBED. This should go without saying from this point on.) His fumbling conversations with the beautiful Maya are heartbreaking precisely because of what he doesn’t say, but wishes he could. He’s all too aware of who and what he is, and how the world sees him, and is incapable of pretending otherwise. Miles is every man’s awkward, uncomfortable, unworthy soul come to life, and he’s devastating to behold in his inadequacy. And Payne ends the movie on just the right note – we don’t know if Miles gets his happy ending, but at least he’s finally trying.

I think it’s worth noting that I saw Sideways on a Saturday night, 7:30 show, with an audience that was maybe 75% full, and they seemed to really enjoy it. I mention this because I live in a part of the country that isn’t considered receptive to “small” films like this, movies that aren’t obvious blockbuster material. It’s probably safe to say that this movie wouldn’t even have opened here without the Oscar nominations, and I’m sure most of the audience was there to see what all the fuss was about. But to my surprise, they really responded to this film, laughing in all the right places and rolling with the material. I can’t help but wonder if other “little movies that could” like Sideways would have a similar effect if they were just marketed better. Bring these movies to people’s attention, and let the audience decide. But I guess that’s wishful thinking.

Million Dollar Baby, of course, is a horse of a different color. I’m a big Eastwood fan from way back, and since the creative and commercial renaissance he began with Unforgiven, I think he’s become one of the best American directors working today. It’s become more and more difficult to deny his confident skill, and even lesser efforts like Blood Work have their particular pleasures. Still, I walked into Baby thinking that a boxing movie couldn’t possibly affect me as much as The Aviator or Sideways, no matter what the critics said about it. Of course, I was mistaken.

A lot of pundits are trying to pit the Oscar race as a “Scorsese vs. Eastwood” battle, or worse, a “red vs. blue state” deal. In the end, yes, I think the awards will come down to these two giants of American film. But let’s clear this up right away – Million Dollar Baby couldn’t have less of a “red state” sensibility, whatever Clint’s personal politics may be. Consider the idealization of its urban setting, as our heroine Maggie Fitzgerald sees the big city as a place to escape her small-town life and achieve her dreams. Consider the portrayal of her loathsome redneck family – yes, I know this is a thinly veiled shot at the “welfare state”, but a lot of viewers won’t read that deeply into it and will see it simply as an insulting Southern stereotype. Consider Frankie Dunn’s questioning of his own religious faith, and most of all consider the controversial ending that has so many up in arms right now. Somehow I don’t see a lot of the hard-line “values” people walking away satisfied with this one.

No, Million Dollar Baby is a film that asks tough questions, the kind that some people just don’t want to deal with. And it’s a smart enough film to know that it can’t necessarily answer those questions. It’s deeper and more challenging than you initially expect, and it definitely throws a curveball in its last act. More power to Eastwood for that. I’m glad that he respects his audience that much, to give us more than we came for.

I don’t want to give away the ending to anyone who might not have seen it yet, so I won’t. But it has to be discussed, at least in vague terms. I don’t think it’s such a shocker, upon reflection – when you look back on it, the entire movie seems to be leading up to it. Eastwood isn’t pulling a fast one here, as some have claimed. It’s more a case of, as Bill Cosby used to say, “I told you that story to tell you this one.”

I knew going in that there would be something unexpected in it, yet the anticipation didn’t ruin the experience for me. If you go into a movie like this just waiting for the ending to arrive, you might as well just walk in on the last half-hour and get it over with. It’s the experience of seeing the whole thing unfold that makes it so affecting. Once I realized where it was going, I was surprised at first, yet it seemed oddly correct. As sad and disturbing as it becomes, it’s not out of left field. This is ultimately what the whole story is about. Because we’ve seen everything that leads up to it, we understand why the characters make the choices that they do.

I won’t give my opinion of those choices, because to do so would be revealing too much. But I will say that I don’t think the movie is motivated by a political agenda, as some have painted it. I think it’s the story of a man who must make a difficult decision, and has to deal with it on his own terms. The choice he makes may be right or wrong, depending on your point of view. There are no correct answers. But I think the audience has to accept that he believes he’s doing the right thing, whether they agree with it or not.

I’ve read lots of criticism of this film since it opened, and on some points I can see where they’re coming from. But I think the overall effect of the movie makes most of these points minor, if not outright nitpicking. The criticism of Freeman’s narration seems particularly invalid to me, especially because at the end of the movie you understand exactly why he’s the one telling the story. Unless you’re just not paying attention, I don’t know how you can miss it. What’s more important is that the three main performances are so uniformly excellent – especially Hilary Swank, who I expect to take home the award with no competition. Eastwood’s direction is assured, and he’s found a story that’s more than worthy of his skill and talent. The result is a devastating film that has to be acknowledged as one of the major film achievements of the year.

So what’s my prediction? I actually think the Academy, like myself, will be torn between these three films and will split the difference. I think Scorsese will finally get his Best Director Oscar. But the Best Picture award will go to Eastwood’s film. (And if that happens, remember who called it!) And Sideways will most likely be a close runner-up, maybe pick up a few acting awards (especially Madsen and maybe Church) and will take Best Adapted Screenplay. But if, by some miracle, hell freezes over and Sideways sweeps in all its categories, I honestly can’t say I’ll be unhappy about it. I may even drink some “fucking Merlot” in tribute.

So finally, here’s my Top 10 of 2004. Keeping in mind that I didn’t see EVERYTHING that came out this year, and that I don’t claim these are the “Ten Best” films. These are the ten films that I really loved this year, the movies that meant the most to me personally. That’s all it signifies, and maybe that’s all it should signify.

     1) The Aviator
     2) Kill Bill, Vol. 2
     3) Fahrenheit 9/11
     4) Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
     5) Million Dollar Baby
     6) The Dreamers
     7) House of Flying Daggers
     8) Sideways
     9) The Polar Express
    10) Gozu

I thought about doing a “Runners-Up” list, or even just a list of other films I really liked. But to me that just negates the whole point of doing a list like this. The whole idea is that these are the 10 films that best represent the year in cinema to you. Even though practically every other critic on Earth does it, I feel that having a second list takes away the importance of putting a film on your list in the first place. It’s like saying, “well, these 10 were great – and oh yeah, these other 10 were great too!” Why even bother to choose ten films at all?

I’d also like to note that all 10 of my picks were films I was lucky enough to see theatrically, not on DVD. Not that I would exclude a film because I saw it on DVD (a few of those almost made it), but I think the theatrical experience probably greatly contributed to the experience in each case. DVD, as much as I love it, is just not the same.

That’s all for now. There will be more reviews to come in the next few weeks, I promise. Talk to you soon!

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