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Film Reviews
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Film Reviews
(Courtesy of Fox Searchlight)
Film Reviews
(Courtesy of Warner Bros.)

 

It’s hard to believe, but only a year ago the Academy Awards’ Best Picture race was a motley cinema curio of epic adventures and post modern fairytales: swashbuckling heroes went head to head with hobbits while suburban psyche-tragedy battled middle-age melancholy for the golden statuette. In 2005, however, the contest for Oscar’s most coveted prize couldn’t be more different. The much heralded and much maligned “Year of the Biopic” delivered on its promise of heavy-handed, sugar-coated visions of celebrity, and come February 27 three laudatory and embellished biographies will contend with a noir boxing drama and a quiet, wine-soaked dramedy for the Best Picture prize.

These are the kind of Oscars where the buzz behind the nominations — Will Scorsese finally win? Will “Sideways” be a Cinderella? Wait, did you say “Finding Neverland?” — is almost more enthralling than the movies themselves. But make no mistake, 2005 was a fine year for film, and this Oscars’ brawl for Best Picture may well be the most interesting and competitive in years. Here’s a look at the nominees:

After dazzling critics and audiences with 2003’s “Mystic River,” Clint Eastwood returns in fine form as director, composer and star of the far superior “Million Dollar Baby.” Based on the short-story cycle “Rope Burns” by F.X. Toole, “Million Dollar Baby” focuses on aging boxing coach and gym owner Frankie Dunn (Eastwood), a prickly trainer whose life is plagued by the echoes of his past personal and professional failures. After being dumped by his star fighter, Dunn begrudgingly agrees to take on troubled gym-rat Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank), an impoverished thirty-something wannabe fighter with killer determination and endless enthusiasm. Heartbreaking and heavy, “Million Dollar Baby” is openly and fervently unsentimental, dragging its characters through physical and emotional hell with a kind of detached reverence for pain and turmoil that the Academy just eats up.

And as the latest wide-release of the Best Picture bunch, “Million Dollar Baby” is also gaining late momentum and scoring plenty of gushing, A+ reviews and awards from critics’ circles on both coasts. “Baby” is the kind of film that forces voters to think with their hearts and not their heads, and you should never underestimate the power of a sentimental favorite.

Another frontrunner is Martin Scorsese’s lush and lavish Howard Hughes biopic “The Aviator.” Scorsese’s eight-year labor of love is a fast-moving, entertaining film that boasts a fine performance by Leonardo DiCaprio, who captures Hughes’s boundless spirit, as well as the paranoid delusions that accompanied the eccentric billionaire’s gradual onset of insanity. Expertly crafted and extravagantly detailed, “The Aviator” is extremely well made but clumsily oblique, and when all is said and done, the movie may not be resonant or deep enough to catch the attention of Oscar voters looking for a film with a little more emotional punch.

But “The Aviator” is a sentimental favorite in its own right, a celebratory cinema feast helmed by the definitive Oscar bridesmaid — Scorsese is an iconic six-time nominee who has yet to take home an award for his work behind the camera — and the Academy loves to bow at the alter of idols, especially those whose snubs are the thing of legend.

It wouldn’t be the Best Picture race — or, for that matter, any major Awards category — without a few left-field contenders, and this year’s future also-rans include Marc Forster’s saccharine biopic “Finding Neverland,” and Jamie Foxx’s one man show “Ray.”

Steeped in melancholy, “Finding Neverland” is the strange story of J. M. Barrie, the depressive Scot who penned the children’s classic “Peter Pan” in 1904. As Barrie, Johnny “used-to-be-my-favorite-actor” Depp neither soars nor crashes, but ambles forward with vague purpose and respectful restraint — And the same could be said of David Magee’s overripe screenplay, which is caught in the unpleasant purgatory between being too grown up for kids and too childlike for adults. Directed with palpable sentiment and occasional visual flair by Marc Forster (“Monster’s Ball”), the film is emotional extortion without apology. But it’s so well done, so diabolically effective, that it’s not until the movie is over that you realize you’ve been suckered in by the well worn gestures of a classic tearjerker. After a rather mind-blowing win as the National Board of Review’s Best Picture 2004, “Neverland” was a shoe-in for an Academy nod, but with such stiff competition, don’t expect any celebrating from the Forster camp come Oscar night.Sometime booty-caller Jamie Foxx, who has had the delectable honor of stealing movies from both Will Smith (“Ali”) and Tom Cruise (“Collateral”), performs much more than an impersonation in Taylor Hackford’s “Ray,” a paint-by-numbers biopic that charts the troubled rise of America’s most remarkable pop music persona — Ray Charles. The film is crisp and finely drawn, but ultimately, Foxx steals “Ray” from Ray Charles; only Hackford’s last-minute clips of the real-life singer — a tactic that is both a betrayal of the performer and a cheap stab at credibility — reminds us that we’ve been watching a performance. Look for Foxx to grab the Best Actor statue, but don’t expect much more from this underwhelming tribute to an American legend.

Rounding out this year’s Best Picture nominees is Alexander Payne’s expertly crafted and beautifully written dramedy “Sideways” — the most over-praised film of 2005, and deservedly so. Based on a novel by Rex Pickett, “Sideways” is the story of Miles and Jack, two middle-aged friends who set off on a weeklong road trip through California’s wine country as a prelude to B-movie actor and ex-hunk Jack’s impending marriage. A virtual masterclass in cinematic restraint, the film is a comic symphony of lies — fibs about fidelity, passive-aggressive half truths and wholesale deceptions all springing from a desperate attempt to grab at the lingering, last straws of youth — orchestrated by Payne with such grace and subtly that it is difficult, if not damn near impossible, not to call “Sideways” the best American movie in years.

If the Academy voters are looking to recognize emerging talent and pure celluloid bravado, “Sideways” is the obvious Best Picture winner. But with the long shadows of Scorsese and Eastwood looming over him, Alexander Payne may have to gracefully bow out to the political powers that be and bide his time until the Academy is ready to christen a new icon of American film.

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