2004 Oscar Nominees
reviewed by Steve Sailer
The American Conservative, February 28, 2005
This year's Oscar nominees for Best Picture comprise one of the weaker slates in memory, yet an enormous audience will no doubt tune in February 27 to watch the Academy Awards.
That the public still cares about the Oscars, or films in general, is curious. Now in its second century, going to the movies is almost as old-fashioned as such one-time rivals for the entertainment dollar as vaudeville and brass band concerts. Yet, although the average American spends over 1,600 hours annually watching television, compared to just 13 hours at the movies, they remain at the top of the pop culture food chain.
Popular music strongly challenged cinema for supremacy in the Sixties and Seventies, but has since splintered into micro-styles. In contrast, movies have gotten so expensive that only a few are released each week, allowing the studios' expert marketers to concentrate (albeit briefly) the national attention.
Despite television's pervasiveness, it lacks the prestige of film because, to be frank, as an advertiser-supported medium, TV aims primarily at women. A back-of-an-envelope calculation suggests that American men transfer about one trillion dollars annually to women to spend, so television networks (subscriber-supported HBO excepted) pursue female viewers.
In contrast, males buy the majority of movie tickets, so films cater to them. And, as feminists have been known to complain, in our society (as in all societies), renown accrues mostly to things guys like. Men just care more than women do about constructing vast hierarchies of fame, such as the Oscars.
Although female studio bosses are common today, the Academy Awards are still extraordinarily male-dominated. For example, women have picked up only three of the 385 nominations for Best Director, and (alert Nancy Hopkins!) none at all for Best Cinematographer.
Female screenwriters have become scarcer over time. Frances Marion was the highest paid writer in Hollywood's first two decades, but among the 86 individuals with three or more screenwriting nominations, only eight are women, and just three are from the liberated post-1970 era.
The movies could certainly use an injection of female talent, although 2004 wasn't quite as weak as the Best Picture nominees would suggest. Three of last year's four most impressive directorial achievements failed to win Best Picture or Best Director nods. Zhang Yimou's visually overwhelming "Hero" was ineligible on a technicality. Brad Bird's "The Incredibles" was shunted into the Best Animated Feature category (although he received deserved Best Original Screenplay recognition).
And, of course, the most audacious and triumphant film of 2004, the picture that Quentin Tarantino called "one of the most brilliant visual storytelling movies I've seen since the talkies," Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" was turned away out of blatant ethno-religious animus. (Gibson is crying all the way to the bank, no doubt.)
These lapses allowed a trio of second-raters to contend for Best Picture. "Finding Neverland," the story of how J.M. Barrie came to write Peter Pan, is a snooze, and the Ray Charles biopic "Ray," starring an inspired Jamie Foxx, is less than the sum of its admittedly formidable parts.
Some readers objected because I broke with the media conspiracy covering up the subject of Clint Eastwood's critically-celebrated, but shallow and manipulative "Million Dollar Baby:" a paean to euthanasia. But I didn't want subscribers unknowingly to encourage attendance by any of their disabled, aged, or infirm loved ones, who might well think they were being advised to hurry up and die.
So, that leaves Alexander Payne's "Sideways" and Martin Scorsese's sympathetic take on Howard Hughes' happier days, "The Aviator." "Sideways" reworks that staple of teen sex comedies, the buddy road trip genre, for grown-ups. It succeeds.
While "Sideways" is an excellent small movie, well worth its $12 million budget, "The Aviator," which cost $112 million, is an excellent huge movie. In basketball, an agile 6-footer always loses to an equally agile 7-footer, and the same deserves to be true in this Best Picture race because "The Aviator" is a blast, almost three hours of quick, intelligent entertainment.
There's even a pro-free market ending, as Hughes quells his growing madness long enough to stop Congress from nationalizing overseas flights and handing a monopoly to his TWA's enemy Pan-Am (led by liberal icons Alec Baldwin and Alan Alda, who are superbly cast as the sleaze-dog villains they were born to play). And, gentlemen, while Leonardo DiCaprio may be insufferably cute, it's time to admit he's an outstanding movie star.
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