Cinema Psycho

"You know what? You have a losing personality." – Manhattan

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 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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