Shiny little letdown

The 76th-annual Academy Awards, broadcast on Feb. 29, may just go down in history — as producing the dullest, most predictable set of winners ever to parade down Hollywood Boulevard.

Granted, it was also a list of Oscar winners largely incapable of producing much in the way of head-scratching puzzlement or teeth-gnashing anger.

Was I more pleased to see Peter Jackson pick up Best Director this year than I was to see Ron Howard walk off with the award a couple years back? Sure, but Jackson’s win lacked for much in the way of drama — and it certainly was missing that head-slapping moment resulting from the realization that Opie was getting an Oscar in preference to Robert Altman.

After all, it’s moments like that that make the Academy Awards the honor we love to hate — where we declaim their utter lack of importance while staring at the results with the dumbstruck wonderment of gawkers at a spectacular public catastrophe.

Of course, this year it was never much of a horse race anyway — despite the presence of Seabiscuit among the nominees. Let me not mince words here: The contenders — apart from the ones we all knew were going to be there — struck me as ridiculous.

Three of the choices — Seabiscuit, Master and Commander, Lost in Translation — were OK movies, but hardly Best Picture material. That left it as a two-movie contest — The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King and Mystic River — both of which carried interesting baggage.

If the former won, the award would inescapably be viewed as cumulative; it wouldn’t just be for Return of the King, but for the two films that preceded it in adapting the J.R.R. Tolkien trilogy. Mystic River, on the other hand, had “Oscar bait” written all over it — and the Academy has a long history of biting when so enticed. Unrelentingly grim and populated with characters you wouldn’t take home to mother, it was just the sort of film the Academy seems to think proves how serious-minded it is.

But the moment that Return of the King beat it out for Best Adapted Screenplay, it was all over. And I, for one, wasn’t sorry in the least. Jackson and his film — or films — deserved their award. Plus, it was refreshing to see an Oscar go to a fantasy film for something beyond just its effects work.

Were there better movies than Return of the King this year? I’d say yes. I’d rank Big Fish, Dirty Pretty Things, Love Actually and, yes, Peter Pan, as being at least on equal footing with it. And in the case of Big Fish, even a slight bit above it. That said, the overall achievement of the trilogy is another matter entirely.

Is it unfair to take that into account? No more so than the fact that I can’t assess Big Fish without taking the bulk of director Tim Burton’s filmography into account when doing so.

Otherwise … Charlize Theron had that Best Actress Oscar wrapped up long before the ceremony, and while I’m not entirely convinced that there’s not a tinge of “stunt” to her performance in Monster (and I’d have really preferred Naomi Watts for 21 Grams), I certainly don’t think it was a screwy choice. At the very least, it didn’t go to Diane Keaton for Something’s Gotta Give. The Academy ought to have recognized her for Manhattan and Reds, but not for that!

Sean Penn may have deserved an Oscar. Personally, I think Johnny Depp was robbed, but you can’t expect the Academy to recognize two fantasy films in the same year. The thing is, Penn’s Oscar should have been for his nuanced performance in 21 Grams and not for all that scenery-chewing he did in Mystic River — one part James Dean to two parts young Brando. That, of course, was exactly why he won. And that’s what makes Oscar Oscar — for better or for worse.

Next year may be more entertaining. While I have yet to see a film from 2004 that I’d call great, I figure there’s a good chance that the phenomenon known as The Passion of the Christ is apt to make the nominations — and that has all the makings of a really interesting and controversial aesthetic/political wrestling match.

And that’s also what makes Oscar Oscar — and keeps us keeping track of it all.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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