Oscar up for grabs

This year's nominees are the most diverse in memory. Is Oscar finally ready to reward the best work?

Oscar's Hip Year

Academy's nominees are a diverse delight: Is there hope the Oscars have finally changed?

Cover Story

February 29, 2004|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

This year's Oscars offer hope that Hollywood may be crumbling -- in a good way, with barriers to creativity hurtling down as the tried-and-true models of class and commerce come apart.

For most of Oscar history, overweight big-star epics, tasteful family-life tearjerkers, stultifying high-toned adaptations, and elephantine biopics or costume pictures have dominated nominees and winners.

Last year signs of life emerged when Chicago, a sassy revival of the movie musical, and The Pianist, an unsparing depiction of World War II survival, split the major awards. This year, the odds-on favorite for best picture is Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, a made-in-New Zealand fantasy that combines literary brilliance with spectacular filmmaking elan.

Then there's a Tokyo-set mood piece from a young female director (Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation); a grueling tale of misguided revenge in blue-collar Boston (Clint Eastwood's Mystic River); an inspirational horse-race saga that dares to keep three main characters separate for an hour (Gary Ross' Seabiscuit); and a Napoleonic-era seafaring saga without a tacked-on love interest or demonized enemy in sight (Peter Weir's Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World).

No matter what you think of them individually, they constitute one of the most varied and eclectic best-picture rosters in Oscar history. (I'm a big fan of Return of the King, Master and Commander and Seabiscuit; I dislike Mystic River and I'm so-so on Lost in Translation.) Add major showings in diverse categories for off-Hollywood films such as Jim Sheridan's In America (next to Return of the King, my favorite), Fernando Meirelles' City of God, and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's 21 Grams, and you've got a group that would look at home at the independent movie ceremony, the Independent Spirit Awards.

Clout over quality

Once upon a time, from the 1930s to the 1950s, you could chalk up Oscar's predictability to studios that swayed their massive talent stables into lockstep voting. Winners were awarded more for their prestige and industry clout than for their entertainment value or quality.

After the studios waned in power and influence, the force of cultural inertia kept these traditions going. Despite the air-clearing tumult of the 1960s and early 1970s, the last quarter-century of Oscar choices have often been dismayingly routine, including deluxe soap operas like Ordinary People, Kramer vs. Kramer and Terms of Endearment, and soporific uplifting films like Chariots of Fire and Gandhi.

In the 1990s, Harvey Weinstein of Miramax Pictures, the company that put the box-office oomph into independent pictures with Pulp Fiction, began dominating the awards. But Weinstein mostly did it with movies that reflected the Academy's long-held respect for plush pedigrees. By the end of the decade, Miramax's Oscar movies at their best were like Oscar-winners of old, only more irreverent and hip (Shakespeare in Love), or more socially and politically up-to-date (The Cider House Rules). At their worst, they were just as sentimental and fuzzy-minded (The English Patient) as anything put out at Louis B. Mayer's MGM.

Happily, this year it looks as if voters may have decided to blow up the staid Oscar universe for good. Chalk it up to a younger and more diverse Academy electorate, to an industry-wide crusade against overweening promotional campaigns, or just to diligent members who judge from the film in front of them.

No matter what the reasons, the usual verities have disappeared into a black hole, and fresh paradigms have emerged in a movie-land Big Bang.

Just when Peter Biskind in his gossip-ridden new book, Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance, and the Rise of Independent Film, proclaims that independent film is spiritually dead, indies have made some of their most vigorous inroads into the mainstream; Lost in Translation is merely the most prominent example.

Just when Americans are supposed to be turning their backs on foreign-language movies, the Hollywood elite has showered honors on Brazil's City of God, nominating it for four awards outside the best foreign film category. Widespread attention to this category, which often overlooks movies that the Academy lauds elsewhere (such as City of God), has catalyzed calls for revamping its voting rules. A similar tumult shook up the best documentary nominators several years ago -- and now the once-stodgy best documentary nominees have turned cutting-edge, with controversial provocations like Capturing the Friedmans and intimate poetic achievements like My Architect.

Comedy gets its due

Even within the bounds of commercial American moviemaking, the old Oscar rules don't apply. Entertainment for its own sake -- even comedy -- has suddenly become au courant.

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