Thursday, December 11, 2008

Oscar is always wrong (except when it's right) Part III: 2001

Wow what a year. The Academy pretty much ballsed up everything! Get this: in a race between David Lynch, Robert Altman, Ridley Scott, Peter Jackson and Ron Howard for Best Director, Ron Howard won! Yep it was that kind of year.

Ok let's get started; lots of work to do here:
Best Picture: A Beautiful Mind
Nominees: The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring, Gosford Park, In the Bedroom, Moulin Rouge!

Now A Beautiful Mind has copped a fair bit of flack since winning this prize. Basically, the story of mathematician John Nash, who suffers from schizophrenia, starts seeing people who aren't there, and yet who wins the Nobel Prize for Economics was pretty much mucked up by the screenwriter. Akiva Goldsman pretty much took the basic premise and turned it into a spy-thriller. As someone who had studied economics, and thus knew of Nash, I was prepared to accept such sloppiness with the truth, but when they couldn't even get the concept that won Nash the Nobel Prize right, well they lost me.

I wouldn't even give it a nomination now. A few films missed out that deserved Best Pic nominations: Ridley Scott's brilliant war flick, Black Hawk Down; Christopher Nolan's bizarre Memento, and the brilliant and influential (but now somewhat declined in value due to the sequels) Shrek. The French film Amelie has its fans as well. All four would be more deserving than the winner.

Of the nominated films, I am very tempted to go with the first Lord of the Rings film. I went into the theatre not having been able to get through the novel, and really not even wanting to see the film all that much. By the end I was desperate to know what would happen next, and wanted to see the whole thing again. It was brilliant film-making, and I think it is the best of the three films.

I also love Gosford Park. It's a great film for adults - in that there is no sense in the film that it has been made to capture the teenage market at all. It is brilliantly acted all round - Clive Owen, Helen Mirren, Kristen Scott Thomas, Jeremy Northam, Emily Watson, Maggie Smith, and the fantastic Kelly Macdonald (among many others). I have most likely seen it the most of all the films from that year, as I like putting it on when I'm in the mood for two hours of intelligent fun. I would select it as my runner-up.

But my pick for Best Picture is another film that didn't get nominated: The truly amazing expose of Hollywood by David Lynch, Mulholland Dr.

There have been many excellent films about Hollywood, but for my money the two best are Billy Wilder's Sunset Blvd and Mulholland Dr. The first is a brilliant evocation of the studio era, the Lynch film, the startling reinterpretation of Sunset Blvd through the fractured mirror of the 21st Century - pointedly, like the road sign title for Wilder's film, Lynch's film also uses the abbreviation.

It is part mystery and part love story; it is a riddle, a satire, a thriller, a dream, a nightmare. It makes no sense, is perfectly sensible.

The plot is almost impossible to distill - so much is going on - but essentially it concerns young fresh faced Betty who arrives in Hollywood all set to make it big, and who discovers a woman (Rita) with amnesia in her bungalow. The two set out to work out who Rita is while Betty also auditions for a role in a big Hollywood film directed by hot-shot director Adam Kesher, who is being forced by sinister figures to cast a particular woman in the film. Betty and Rita discover that Rita is actually Camilla Rhodes and then.... well and then at a certain point it all goes mad. Betty is now Diane; Rita is not Camila Rhodes, because Camila Rhodes is someone else.. and oh geez, it all goes bad for all concerned really.

Is it all a dream? Possibly. Is there a twist in the end? Yes but also no. It's not a dumb twist like in Vanilla Sky or The Sixth Sense (in which you realise you have been played as fools by the film makers), but rather it is a twist that reveals there is more than one way to view the film; that perhaps there is no true meaning.

My thesis - such that it is - is that Lynch decided to revel in the illusion of Hollywood, and that rather than make a film which showed how fake everything was; how much of an illusion Hollywood is, he instead made a film that is fake and is an illusion. It is Hollywood. It is sexy (very sexy), it is dangerous, shallow, deep, implausible and unreal.

Whereas Sunset Blvd is a film told from the point of view of a dead person about an aging Hollywood star who we see go progressively insane; Mulholland Dr is a film told from the point of view of a struggling Hollywood actress who already is insane, and perhaps dead.

Or not. I don't know. Perhaps I'm right (I'd need a few more words to really set out my argument), perhaps I'm not. It doesn't matter. The film survives misunderstanding. It is a wild ride on a roller coaster driven by mad man.

It would have been an incredibly bold pick for Best Picture. But unlike the actual winner, it is a film whose stature will only grow in time.

Best Actor: Denzel Washington (Training Day)
Nominees: Will Smith (Ali), Russell Crowe (A Beaut Mind), Sean Penn (I Am Sam), Tom Wilkinson (In the Bedroom).

Should have won: Guy Pearce, Memento

Russell Crowe probably would have won this award until he tried to punch the director of the BAFTAs for cutting off his speech. From then on his chances were pretty much stuffed.

Washington won, as an Academy desperate to right all wrongs and give the award to a black man, went all out and gave the award to him and Best Actress to Halle Berry (and also gave a honorary award to Sidney Poitier). Look maybe I'm being very cynical, and maybe they all deserved it, but it smacked to me as though the fix was in, and it was black person payback night.

And anyway, Washington is not the lead in the film - Ethan Hawke is, and Guy Pearce's performance as a man suffering short term memory loss while trying to track down his wife's killer in the weird Memento was infinitely better than any of those nominated.

It was a good year for weird film - Mulholland Dr used a fractured narrative, and Memento told the whole story backwards. It was the type of year where you found yourself going on the net after watching a film to find out just what the hell happened.

Pearce as "Leonard" puts in a performance that reveals a man who may or may not be good, who may be a man much wronged, and who is trying to do good, or who may in fact be pure evil. We the audience don't know, and Pearce suggests that Leonard himself doesn't know - and if he does, he doesn't know for long.

It could have been totally incomprehensible, but the great script, and Pearce's performance make it a truly amazing experience. Pearce has to do a lot of voice-over narration, which usually makes for a bad film, but in this his voice is perfectly pitched, and helps us to understand a man who doesn't understand himself.

I can't find any good scenes on youtube, so the trailer will have to do:

Best Actress: Halle Berry (Monter's Ball)
Nominees: Renee Zellwegger (Bridget Jones's Diary), Sissy Spacek (In the Bedroom), Judi Dench, (Iris), Nicole Kidman (Moulin Rouge!)

Should have won: Naomi Watts, Mulholland Dr

Halle Berry won this award and since then hasn't even got close to being near the set of a film which could possibly have a role for her that deserved critical acclaim.

I am tempted to give it to Renee Zellwegger for her great rom-com performance as Bridget Jones. For someone who was roundly criticised when she was given the role, she ended up being bloody perfect.

But the great acting performance that year was Naomi Watts as Betty/Diane in Mulholland Dr.

When Betty arrives in Hollywood at the start of the film she is like a young Doris Day, and yet as the film goes on she morphs into a brilliant actress - her screen test is truly jaw dropping, and then when the change comes of her suddenly being Diane, she is perfect as a bitter spurned lover. In all aspects she is believable - even when the unbelievable is happening around her. And it is a performance that holds little back (except when it needs to). It was as though Watts knew this was her one chance to show her stuff. At the age of 31 her breakthrough role had finally come, and she grabbed it with all her might.

To think the film was originally to be a TV series. Thankfully the TV executives didn't like it, and so Watts was able to become a great movie actress. Since this film she has consistently been among the best female actors going around. And after having a break to have a child, I see she is up to play Goneril in a version of King Lear (with Gwyneth Paltrow as Regan, Keira Knightly as Cordelia, and Anthony Hopkins as Lear) - should be worth seeing - in 2010!

This award would have rounded out three brave choices, and would have marked the awards of 2001 as one of the best years, rather than one of the most forgettable.

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