Oscars for 2002

reviewed by Steve Sailer

The American Conservative, March 10, 2003


The endless preseason of movie awards made yesterday's announcement of the 2002 Oscar nominations anticlimactic in its predictability.

With the pulse of the movie world having been taken so often, there were virtually no surprises. The best news was probably that the low-budget biopic "Frida" received a lot of deserved recognition in the technical categories. And, the Academy voters overcame their notorious prejudice against comedies to give four nominations to "Adaptation," that pretentious but self-lampooning piece of well-constructed fluff.

Overall, though, the Academy's choices were uninspired. Almost all nominations, even in lesser categories like Editing, Cinematography, and Costume, went to a small number of movies released late in 2002.

The five Best Picture choices, all debuting in December, garnered over half of the nominations available to non-specialty pictures: 45 of 83 nods. "Chicago" won thirteen nominations; "Gangs of New York" ten; "The Hours" nine; "The Pianist" seven; and "Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers" six.

Four additional movies captured 20 more nominations: "Road to Perdition" (which was released in July) with six; "Frida" (October) six; "Far from Heaven" (November) four; and "Adaptation" (December) four. In all, these top nine movies garnered 78% of the nominations available to them.

Academy voters showered nominations willy-nilly on the Best Picture nominees, making little effort to search out excellence in other films. For instance, the Best Editing nominations simply went to each of the Big Five.

Even notoriously poor efforts were rewarded. For example, the trouble-plagued script of "Gangs of New York" was widely derided for failing the basic test of Screenwriting 101: making the audience care about the main characters. Nevertheless, the Academy gifted it with a Best Original Screenplay nod.

Phillip Glass's repetitious and overbearing score for "The Hours" drove many innocent audience members to distraction, yet it too was honored. And even though Julianne Moore gathered a merited Best Actress nod for "Far from Heaven," the Academy felt it had to heap a Supporting Actress nomination on her as well for her performance as the crazy lady in "The Hours." Once, when the movie shifted back to her character, my wife and I turned to each other and simultaneously said, "Oh, no, not her again!"

On the other hand, strong efforts were seldom recognized if they came in movies that didn't fit the Oscar profile of serious, worthy, end-of-year films for grown-ups. (You know, movies that make the Academy members feel good about themselves)

For example, the cinematography in August's "Blue Crush" was literally tubular, but so what? No way, no how was the Academy going to call attention to a surfer chick flick.

Similarly, "Spider-Man" made $404 million in the late spring, but star Tobey Maguire couldn't buy a Best Actor nomination. The family sci-fi movie "Signs" earned $228 million in the late summer, but Joaquin Rivers was denied Best Supporting Actor recognition.

In coming years, the most obvious injustice in the voting will likely be considered the complete shutout of Paul Thomas Anderson's odd but amazing "Punch-Drunk Love" with Adam Sandler.

The Academy's seasonal bias was particularly evident this year. December movies brought home 65% of the nominations. In contrast, all the movies release in the first half of 2002 combined for less than ten percent of the honors. Among the 30 most prestigious nominations (five each for Best Picture and Best Director and the 20 acting slots), only Diane Lane's Best Actress nod for "Unfaithful" was for a movie from the first half of the year.

There's little question that the largest number of quality movies was released in the fourth quarter, nor that the first four months of 2002 were particularly dire. But voters have a back-scratching monetary incentive to hype films still in the theatres, because those can financially benefit the most from the publicity. Most films released in the first half of the year are not only out of the theatres by now, but are already out on video. So, giving them nominations won't help them make more money.

Still, the voters' bias in favor of December movies contributes to a vicious cycle. Studios know that early-in-the-year movies have little chance of winning an Oscar, so they have less incentive to make them better. In turn, that feeds the self-fulfilling stereotype that nothing worth nominating comes out before the end of daylight savings time in October.

Another advantage December movies enjoy is that voters don't have enough time to realize what's wrong with them.

In contrast, July's "Road to Perdition" was a technically spectacular achievement that well deserves its numerous nominations for Cinematography, Score, Art Direction, and other minor categories. But it brought home zip in the Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor races because enough time has gone by for everyone to recognize that its basic premise -- Tom Hanks plays a good-hearted hitman! -- was too lame to be redeemed even by all the movie magicians who lent a hand.

More unfair was the discourteous treatment of Steven Spielberg's often brilliant "Minority Report." Despite making $132 million at the box office and finishing second in the RottenTomatoes.com ranking of the most often positively reviewed movies of 2002, this June sci-fi release was dismissed with Oscar nominations in just two piddling categories (Sound Editing and Visual Effects).

Yet, back in the early summer, the entertainment press rapturously praised "Minority Report" as a devastating attack on Attorney General John Ashcroft's policy of detention of potential terrorists.

In "Minority Report," Washington D.C. has not suffered a single murder in years because mutants working for the police can foresee murders before they happen, allowing Tom Cruise to arrest killers before they strike. The film's premise is that if this implausible system were ever shown to have made a single mistake, then we would automatically junk it and go back to the good old-fashioned system.

This briefly excited the many civil libertarian absolutists in the media, but the logic didn't stand up. Since our current system allows tens of thousands of murders, fails to catch thousands of killers, and condemns dozens of innocent men, even a fallible precognition system would be an overwhelming improvement. Personally, I left the theatre wishing that General Ashcroft had his own magical mutant method for preventing terrorism.

In fact, Spielberg understood all this. Thus, after the happy ending, he originally placed a devastating text crawl saying that the year after precognition was outlawed, there were 600 murders in Washington D.C. Unfortunately, Spielberg wimped out and cut this ironic coda, earning him some cheap applause from anti-Ashcroft folks, but damaging his film in the long run.

In contrast, most of the Best Picture nominees haven't been around long enough for their flaws to sink in.

The frontrunner "Chicago" is a perfectly fine movie, with lots of strong performances. As a musical, however, its score and choreography are mediocre. You don't leave the theatre humming its tunes. And director Rob Marshall dumped most of Bob Fosse's choreography and replaced it with something that's adequate, but looks suspiciously like what Fosse might have done if he wasn't a genius.

I suppose, though, that the adulation for "Chicago" can be justified as a morally worthy conspiracy to revive the much missed movie musical genre. Let's just hope the next musical has some good melodies.

"The Pianist" is a quite good film bumped up into Oscar contention because it's about the Holocaust. (The Academy has given four of its last five Oscars for Best Feature Documentary to films about Jews being persecuted.) That Adrien Brody got a Best Actor nomination for playing a passive victim staring sadly while Hugh Grant's masterful turn in "About a Boy" went unrecognized is just another example of the Oscar bias against comedies.

"Gangs of New York" is a colorful train wreck of a movie that keeps lurching out of Martin Scorsese's control and developing an unintended anti-immigration message. Even on a shot-by-shot, it's not very good Scorsese.

"The Hours" is an incoherent, annoying mess. Taken literally, its lesson is that homosexuality is a symptom of suicidal mental illness, and that it is socially communicated by Virginia Woolf (Nicole Kidman) through her novel "Mrs. Dalloway" to a housewife (Julianne Moore), who infects her son (who grows up to be Ed Harris), who gives it to his one-time girlfriend (Meryl Streep), who becomes a lesbian. Personally, I don't know what causes homosexuality, but I'd bet against novels.

"The Hours" exemplifies one of this year's main trends in movies favored by the Academy: the casting of flagrantly heterosexual stars as not very plausible homosexuals or bisexuals. (Others include Salma Hayek in "Frida" and Dennis Quaid in "Far from Heaven.")

That leaves "The Two Towers," which did the worst of the Big Five with only six nominations. The heroic Peter Jackson was even locked out of the Best Director race. Yet, "The Two Towers" was broadly felt to be even better than last year's first installment, "The Fellowship of the Ring," which received thirteen nominations. "The Two Towers" made more money (it's the second biggest film of the year) and beat "Minority Report" to be the movie most widely praised by critics.

Still, it's unlikely to win Best Picture. Apparently, the voters figure, not unreasonably, that next December's climactic episode, "The Return of the King," will be the best of the bunch. So, they will probably postpone bestowing the Best Picture and Best Director Oscars on this magnificent series until next year.


Steve Sailer (www.iSteve.com) is a columnist for VDARE.com and the film critic for The American Conservative.


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