Oscar Who? Why the Academy Can Keep Its Golden Statues

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Oscar Who? Why the Academy Can Keep Its Golden Statues

by Ari Armstrong, March 2, 2004

About the only part of the Oscars that I enjoyed -- not that I watched all of the movie-awards ceremony -- was when Jamie Foxx got his award for his portrayal of Ray Charles and thanked his grandmother for whipping him and, more importantly, talking with him about his behavior. Host Chris Rock, who is usually funny, looked like his tuxedo was wearing him.

The last movie I saw in the theaters was The Aviator, back in December. There are two broad reasons why I hardly ever go to the theater anymore, whereas I used to go quite often. First, there just aren't a lot of movies out that interest me these days. Second, movie tickets have become ridiculously expensive at $9 a pop, while video rentals have become cheap. The Red Box at the local McDonald's rents many new releases for $1, a mere 6% of what it costs my wife and me to go to the theater. (There is a $3 theater in town, but usually the movies it plays are just a few weeks away from video.)

And then there is NetFlix. Even though I try not to do business with companies that purchase pop-up ads, as NetFlix does, the company came up with such a great idea that I signed up. I tried Blockbuster's online program for a while, but its turn-around time is much slower. NetFlix has a center in Denver, so at least where I live the speed of delivery is very fast.

So now I am not restricted by the latest offerings from Hollywood. Thank Oscar. We just rented the new miniseries of Battlestar Galactica, created by the Sci-Fi Channel, which is excellent. No prime-time gold statue for this show, yet I enjoyed it more than any movie of 2004, with the exception of The Incredibles.

My wife and I decided to interrupt our viewing of Star Trek (the original) to watch the original television episodes of Battlestar. Sci-Fi is making new episodes of the show, which will eventually become available on video (we don't have cable). We have years of good TV to watch, with the rest of the Trek series, Babylon 5, and, for old time's sake, Buck Rogers.

I've now watched every episode of television created by Joss Whedon. That's seven seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, five seasons of off-shoot Angel, and, my all-time favorite, Firefly. There are some episodes of Buffy and Angel that are silly, some that are forgettable, and many that are excellent and truly great.

The single movie of 2005 that I'm truly looking forward to is Serenity, Whedon's movie that extends the Firefly story. I have little doubt that the Academy will snub Serenity, though I hope it does well financially so that Whedon can make a sequel. Perhaps if the movie is as good as I expect it to be Whedon will pick up a nomination for the screenplay. Then I will watch the Oscars with interest.

And Alias, the television spy show starring the kick-ass yet sweet Jennifer Garner, though often frustrating because of its never-ending plot devices, has been very enjoyable. (We've watched the three seasons that are on video.)

I can't remember the last time I've watched a complete episode of live TV. The commercials are a drag, and I find it impossible to work long-term shows into my schedule. So I'm content to wait for the video releases. Occasionally I watch the news, and that's about it as far as the rabbit ears go.

I would make an exception if some TV exec bought the rights to Atlas Shrugged and turned it into a year of television. However, it would be so easy to do this badly that I'd have to see some results first before committing to it. Alternately, Atlas would make a fine nine-hour theatrical trilogy, as the novel is already split into three parts. Obviously, if this were done well, it could make a ton of money both in its original release and in video sales. Its creators would have to consciously avoid playing to the Academy or they would screw up the project.

So on to this year's Oscars. The first thing to notice is that many of the recognized films are what I regard as fictionalized documentaries. That is, the screenplay is stylized and all the characters are portrayed by actors, yet the story is basically a retelling of history. Such films include Ray, Finding Neverland, The Aviator, The Motorcycle Diaries, and Hotel Rwanda.

The only two strictly fictional films in the "Best Picture" category were Million Dollar Baby and Sideways. However, both of these films are highly naturalistic, and they might have been based on historical events. That's also true of films recognized in other categories, such as Maria Full of Grace, the tragic story of girls from Colombia who smuggle drugs into the U.S., and Before Sunset, the silly romantic drama that spends its opening segments engaged in political tirades.

I have seen only two of the supposed best pictures, Ray and The Aviator. I look forward to seeing Finding Neverland, which arrives on video this month. I'll watch Sideways, though I have heard from friends alternately that it is horrible and clever. I don't plan to watch Million Dollar Baby, for basically the same reasons that I don't plan to watch The Passion of the Christ: I have better things to do with my time than to spend two-plus hours watching people get the shit beat out of them. I was very keen on Million Dollar when I first heard about it, but as soon as I heard how it ended I lost all interest. I might still watch Passion, but only out of a cultural interest, not because I expect to appreciate the movie.

So it is peculiar that the film Hollywood regards as the year's best doesn't even seem interesting enough for me to watch. I have an explanation for this. To catch the Academy's attention, a filmmaker has to select a story that combines some element of grandness and some horrible tragedy. For instance, The Aviator is about a great inventor, and I appreciated the movie because of its historical sets, its airplanes, and its portrayal of Washington politics. Yet I hated the long segments showing the lead character's severe mental problems. Why were these torturous scenes included? Obviously, to impress the Academy, whose members confuse heartbreak and insanity with drama. It's a well-known joke that the easiest way to win an Oscar is to play somebody who's retarded, crazy, or addicted to drugs -- or, if possible, two of the three.

Ray is a great story of an American success. Charles grew up impoverished, and he went blind at a young age. Yet he rose to become one of the country's all-time great musicians. The movie is inspirational. Yet the movie was selected in part, and it got the Academy's attention in part, because it also extensively portrays Charles's womanizing and drug abuse.

Why is there this emphasis on the fictionalized documentary as well as on a formulaic juxtaposition of grandness and tragedy? I think part of this is explained by Ayn Rand's Romantic Manifesto. Rand describes romantic, plot-driven art as deeply rooted in an awareness of free will. In naturalistic art, on the other hand, things just happen to the characters, who are largely either the victims or the beneficiaries of circumstance. Yet a simpler explanation can also account for part of the trends. It's hard to come up with a good, compelling story. It's easier to pick out dramatic events from history. In naturalistic pure fiction, grand clashes of will give way to flawed characters and coincidental tragedy.

Other than The Incredibles, the only truly original screenplay was Charlie Kaufman's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The problem with the movie is that only an idiot would voluntarily have his or her unpleasant memories removed (which is the premise of the movie), especially by some quack. So automatically the characters are ridiculous. And in almost every other way the characters are entirely loathsome. The movie says something interesting about romance, but its theme is undercut by the obnoxious couple. The actors brilliantly play dull characters, which I guess at least beats out dull performances of dull characters.

That leaves The Incredibles, the truly great film that won best Animated Feature. I'm glad it won an Oscar, but when the only other entries were the stupid Shark and the funny but intellectually vacuous Shrek 2, the award seems insufficient. In my book, The Incredibles rates as best picture of the year, without contest or equal.

Compare most other movies favored by the Academy with the new made-for-cable Battlestar. Seriously, if I had to, I would take Battlestar over all the other 2004 movies recognized by the Academy combined, except for The Incredibles.

Why do I praise this apparent piece of warmed-over space cheese? The Frankenstein technology-bites-us-in-the-ass motif got old decades ago. Yet this is a show that rises above its genres and speaks to the soul.

It is very well produced. The effects are stunning, and the characters are perfectly cast. This is important, but it is not the real story. The draw of the piece is the struggle of the characters to overcome hardships and, at times, their own mistakes. Edward James Olmos as Commander Adama must hold together his crew and the remnants of humanity. Mary McDonnel as Laura Roslin rises from a bureaucratic functionary to president. Jamie Bamber and Katee Sackhoff portray two of the Battlestar's hot pilots who reach into their guts to find a new heroism. On the other hand, James Callis's character chooses badly and gives the enemy Cylons a military advantage. While the scenario is extraordinary and fantastic, the basic human need to make moral choices and take action is universal, and the show is compelling because it speaks to that need. And that is precisely the need that many Academy-awarded films short-change or neglect. What we need are heroes.

With that in mind, I thought I'd offer my own list of some of the best and worst movies of 2004. Obviously I didn't see many of the films released in 2004, and others I'll skip just because they don't merit comment. I don't include movies I discuss above, and I proceed from worst to best.

Two movies released in 2004 are evil, by which I mean they are morally repugnant. The Butterfly Effect is superficially about free will, yet the main character's choices are restricted by what Rand would call a "malevolent universe premise," such that any choice can result only in the destruction of one's self or others. A true horror of a movie. I Heart Huckabees is nearly as bad. It is nihilism masquerading as pretentious pop philosophy. The only amazing thing about this movie is how many great actors decided to wallow in its muck. The film suggests that there is a relationship between nihilism and goofy new-age philosophy, which I do not doubt, but there is no value to the movie's lame attempted synthesis. Disturbing and grotesque. Two of the worst movies of all time.

Slightly higher up on the list are movies that are basically bad, though not nauseatingly so. These include Along Came Polly, The Big Bounce, Connie and Carla, Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, Without a Paddle, Silver City, and Vanity Fair.

Next are films that are slightly enjoyable: Jersey Girl, Troy, Van Helsing, Sky Captain, Blade: Trinity, and Raising Helen.

Now we get into the good stuff. I break them down into okay, good, and great. Okay movies from 2004 include Mean Girls, The Punisher, The Day After Tomorrow, The Terminal, Anchorman, Garden State, Mr. 3000, Wimbledon, Man on Fire, and Friday Night Lights. I don't regret having watched any of those.

The good movies are memorable for some specific reason. Kill Bill is so highly stylized that it's fascinating. Hellboy is about a demon who chooses to be good and who falls for another freak. The Life of Brian, which was re-released, is a classic and hilarious critique of religious dogma. Other movies that I thoroughly enjoyed include Saved!, Super Size Me, Napoleon Dynamite, The Notebook, I Robot, Collateral, Danny Deckchair, Shaun of the Dead (a surprisingly touching romantic comedy about personal responsibility), 13 Going on 30, and National Treasure.

It's tough to decide where the "good" category ends and where the "great" one begins, but 50 First Dates is at least on the border. Val Kilmer stars in Spartan as a military man sent to rescue the kidnapped daughter of a government official. Ella Enchanted is a lot of fun, and it's also a great movie about the freedom to choose. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban approaches the top of the list, along with The Incredibles.

It is no surprise to me whatsoever that my list barely overlaps the Academy's list. Many of the movies recognized by the Academy would be lucky to rise past "okay" as far as I'm concerned, and many of the really good movies are mostly or totally ignored by the Academy. That's because the Academy often overlooks what really matters and instead rewards pretension, formula, and tragedy disguised as profundity. Give me well-wrought and virtuous heroes who face great challenges and rise to the occasion.

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