Patterns form where none exist for John (Russell Crowe) and Alicia Nash (Jennifer Connelly) in A Beautiful Mind.

The 74th annual Academy Awards for the film year 2001.  The nominations were announced on February 12, 2002 and the awards were held on March 24, 2002.

Best Picture:  A Beautiful Mind

  • The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
  • Moulin Rouge!
  • Gosford Park
  • In the Bedroom

Most Surprising Omission:  Mulholland Dr.

Best Eligible Film Not Nominated:  The Fabulous Destiny of Amélie Poulain

Best Eligible English-Language Film Not Nominated:  Mulholland Dr.

Rank (out of 84) Among Best Picture Years:  #6

note:  I feel I should say a word here about how I calculate these years.  First, all films end up with a score between 0 and 100, which corresponds perfectly to a **** scale (99-88 is ****, 87-76 is ***.5, so forth – Metacritic uses the same theory, as critics with a star system end up with a 100 for a **** and 87 for a ***.5 and so forth).  Then, I end up with an average for the year (in this case, a 91.6 – tied for fifth all-time).  Then, I take the rank of each film on the full list, and then average that as well (a 141.8 in this case – sixth all-time).  Then, I divide the second number by the first number to get a flat score (1.548 in this case) and then rank them all based on that number.  The reason I’m mentioning this now?  Because the rank is based on the full slate of nominees and it’s irrelevant in this case what film won – only the strength of the full slate of nominees.  Now, in this case, we have a good film weighed against four great films.  The score for A Beautiful Mind (73) is 18.6 lower than the average for the full slate.  In other words, I think this was a terrible choice.  The only other truly comparable year in my opinion is 1994, where a solidly good film (Forrest Gump) won over four great films.  The five years worse than 2001 in this case don’t have slates that are as strong, but have winners that are much weaker (for the record – 1989, 1958, 1985, 1952 and 1995).  A Beautiful Mind isn’t a bad film and isn’t at the bottom of the Best Picture winners – it’s in a virtual tie with Forrest Gump and there are 15 other Best Picture winners lower than them.  But it’s a terrible choice for this slate – hell, in 1956, Around the World in 80 Days, a weaker film than A Beautiful Mind, actually scores higher than the average for the year’s nominees.  But, just so we’re clear – the strength of the winner isn’t calculated into the rank of the year as a whole.  But outside of 1994 (#3) and 2001 (#6), you have to go all the way down to #20 (1989) to find a weak winner.  There are other years in the Top 10 that have a film in the slate weaker than A Beautiful Mind (2003 – Seabiscuit, 1973 – A Touch of Class, 1980 – The Coal Miner’s Daughter), but none of them had that film win Best Picture.

The Race:  The 2001 Oscar race began earlier than usual.  It began on 27 April 2000.  The teaser for The Lord of the Rings hit the web and managed to be downloaded over 1.7 million times in the first 24 hours.  Suddenly, every film in 2001 was on notice.  Peter Jackson had clearly managed to do the trick.  The films were going to be a box-office bonanza, and the trio of Jackson, Fran Walsh and Phillipa Boyens, who had been nominated for Best Original Screenplay for Heavenly Creatures had clearly found the right path for a critical success as well.

There was a long time before the film would actually open (during which only one film opened that had people talking Oscar – Memento, a low-budget film from a British director named Christopher Nolan, with L.A. Confidential star Guy Pearce that had everyone talking about its backwards story-telling), but it kept itself in the awards talk when a 15 minute preview debuted at Cannes in May to a thundering applause.  But the other talk out of Cannes figured on another film-maker, one, who, like Jackson, had broken into film-making with low-budget horror films: David Lynch.  Lynch’s new surrealistic nightmare, Mulholland Dr. won him the Best Director award and set critics talking, trying to figure it all out, or, for others, not bothering to attempt to figure it out and just enjoying the madness.  Sharing in the Best Director Award was the new film from the Coen Brothers, a black-and-white noir murder story called The Man Who Wasn’t There.  But with neither of those films set to be released in the States until the fall, the talk soon came to Moulin Rouge!  This was the new post-modern musical from Baz Luhrmann, whose Romeo + Juliet had won him the BAFTA Award for Best Director in 1997.  Moulin starred Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor and critics were sharply divided on the film – some praising it to the heavens and others condemning it as a crap of a mess.  It came out right after Cannes, but was slaughtered at the box-office by Shrek (which was unlikely to be a major Oscar contender, especially now that the Academy had finally introduced a Best Animated Film category) and Michael Bay’s critically savaged Pearl Harbor.  The only other summer film with any hopes for major Oscar attention found its hopes dashed as soon as it was released.  A.I., directed by Steven Spielberg from an idea by Stanley Kubrick, couldn’t reach a critical consensus (some thought Spielberg had made Kubrick’s darkness too palatable for the masses while others thought Kubrick’s coldness had overcome Spielberg’s sensibility) and never reached blockbuster status at the box office.

The major Oscar contenders started to reach audiences in October, beginning with Lynch’s film.  It quickly established itself as the most critically acclaimed film of the year, but there was the question as to whether it could win over the most conservative Academy (his Blue Velvet had been likewise acclaimed but Lynch had been the film’s lone nominee).  Next came the Coen’s noir tale on the same day as a much different film.  Amélie was a French film from director Jean-Pierre Jeunet, whose City of Lost Children had been a big hit with critics in 1995, but his Hollywood debut, Alien: Resurrection had been a flop.  But Amélie quickly won over audiences and became the biggest foreign film of the year and audiences were falling in love with the young star, Audrey Tautou.

Before any of the other big Oscar contenders could come out, the awards started coming out.  The first out of the bag was the National Board of Review which gave their Best Picture to Moulin Rouge!, but gave their Director and Screenplay awards to In the Bedroom, a film from first-time director Todd Field starring Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek (with some of the best reviews of their careers).  It was a Miramax film and they had been planning to center their Oscar campaign around the popular Amélie and their Christmas day release of The Shipping News (from the Pulitzer Prize winning novel).  But suddenly it looked like In the Bedroom might be their best Oscar option.  The Top 10 included Memento, Mulholland Dr., A.I. and two films that were being talked about already even though they wouldn’t come out until Christmas: Black Hawk Down (adapted from the best-selling book about the U.S. involvement in Somalia) and Monster’s Ball (which won Best Actress for Halle Berry, who shared a very steamy sex scene with Billy Bob Thornton, whose Best Actor award was split for this and The Man Who Wasn’t There).  Next up was the New York Film Critics, who gave big boosts to three films: Mulholland Dr. (Picture), In the Bedroom (Actor and Actress) and the new Robert Altman film coming at Christmas, Gosford Park (Director and Screenplay).  Then was the L.A. Film Critics, whose Picture and Actress went to In the Bedroom while Lynch won Director.

The Golden Globes nominations confirmed several films as being Oscar contenders: Fellowship of the Ring (Picture, Director), In the Bedroom (Picture, Actress), Mulholland Dr. (Picture, Director, Screenplay), Moulin Rouge! (Picture, Actor, Actress, Director), The Man Who Wasn’t There (Picture, Actor, Screenplay) and Gosford Park (Picture, Director, Screenplay).  But also in the mix now was a film that had so far been unable to capture any awards: A Beautiful Mind.  A biopic about John Nash, the schizophrenic mathematician who had won the Nobel Prize, this was Dreamworks prestige film of the holiday season, starring Russell Crowe, back for another run at the Oscar.

In the meantime, the Boston and National Society of Film Critics both gave their Best Picture awards to Mulholland Dr.  Then, Fellowship and A Beautiful Mind both opened, Fellowship to blockbuster business and Mind, boosted by the Globe nominations, to very strong box-office, often finishing just behind Fellowship.  The guilds chiming in added to the momentum for both Fellowship and Mind, as they and Moulin were the only films up for the DGA, WGA, PGA and SAG Ensemble.  Memento had been nominated by the DGA, but it and In the Bedroom were ineligible for the WGA.  Gosford Park was nominated for the WGA and the SAG Ensemble while Black Hawk Down was nominated for the DGA and the WGA.  Then came the Globes themselves and A Beautiful Mind won Picture – Drama, Actor – Drama, Supporting Actress and Screenplay, Moulin Rouge! won Picture – Comedy and Actress – Comedy and Gosford Park had won Director.

Headed into the Oscar nominations, A Beautiful Mind, Moulin Rouge! and Fellowship had strong momentum, Gosford Park was going strong, but was weakened by the lack of a DGA nom and the fifth place looked like a fight between In the Bedroom, Black Hawk Down, Memento, The Man Who Wasn’t There and Mulholland Dr., whose early critical momentum had been slowed by its strike-out with the major guilds.

The Results:  David Lynch had done what no other director had ever done – twice been the sole nominee for his film.  Surprisingly, it was Baz Luhrmann who was out of the director’s race.  Todd Field was also out, replaced by Black Hawk Down‘s Ridley Scott.  In the Bedroom had 5 nominations, including Actor, Actress and Screenplay and Moulin Rouge! was tied for the second most nominations with 8 (including Actress), but without Director nominations, neither film was expected to compete for the top prize.  Instead, that would come down to A Beautiful Mind (8 noms, including Actor, Director, Adapted Screenplay), Gosford Park (7 noms, including Director and the lone Picture nominee nominated in the Original Screenplay category) and Fellowship of the Ring (a leading 13 nominations, including Director and Adapted Screenplay).

Even though Fellowship had by far the most nominations, it was in a category that was not Academy friendly, and talk was already going around that the Academy would wait until the final installment to reward the whole series.  With Gosford Park lacking a DGA nom (since 1956 only two films had managed to win Best Picture at the Oscars without a DGA nom – In the Heat of the Night and Driving Miss Daisy), this almost left A Beautiful Mind the front-runner by default.  It only received further confirmation of its front-runner status by winning the DGA (the second win for Ron Howard, whose previous win for Apollo 13 had not even managed to earn him a nomination from the Academy) and WGA.

Then came the attacks.  Articles began appearing about the considerable amount of fudging on Nash’s life that was present in the film, including whitewashing of his homosexuality.  Dreamworks worked to defend itself against the attacks.  But what might have been the most damaging were the BAFTA Awards.  It wasn’t that the film lost Best Picture and Director to Fellowship, but rather what happened when Crowe won Best Actor.  Upset at having his awards speech (and a poem he was quoting) cut off on the air, Crowe exploded at the producer.  Suddenly the film looked like it was vulnerable.

The producers needn’t have worried.  Though Crowe would fail to join Spencer Tracy and Tom Hanks in the prestigious back-to-back Best Actor club, the film itself would go on to win Best Picture, Director and Adapted Screenplay.  Fellowship of the Ring would match it by winning 4 awards, but they would all be in technical categories.  But it was already influencing the next Oscars, with a trailer for The Two Towers having been added to the film prior to the end credits for the end of its theatrical run.

I don't mind changing the facts. I do mind being manipulated.

A Beautiful Mind

  • Director:  Ron Howard
  • Writer:  Akiva Goldmsan  (from the book by Sylvia Nasar)
  • Producer:  Brian Grazer  /  Ron Howard
  • Studio:  Dreamworks
  • Stars:  Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Ed Harris, Paul Bettany
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published, Actor (Crowe), Supporting Actress (Connelly), Editing, Original Score, Makeup
  • Oscar Points:  425
  • Length:  135 min
  • Genre:  Drama
  • MPAA Rating:  PG-13
  • Box Office Gross:  $170.74 mil  (#11  –  2001)
  • Release Date:  21 December 2001
  • Metacritic Score:  72
  • Ebert Rating:  ****
  • My Rating:  ***
  • My Rank:  #45  (year)  /  #336  (nominees)  /  #71  (winners)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Actor (Crowe)
  • Nighthawk Points:  35
  • First Watched:  well into the first run with Veronica at the Westport Century

The Film:  I remember leaving the film ten years ago, irritated as all shit.  I felt manipulated and that the film was winning over people by presenting a Hollywood version of mental illness.  “I can’t believe this is the film that’s gonna beat Fellowship,” I remember telling Veronica.  “Can we go see Fellowship again, please?”  By that time, A Beautiful Mind had already scored big with the Golden Globes and might have already won the DGA.  With Moulin Rouge lacking a Best Director nomination, Gosford Park and In the Bedroom being too small and people already saying that the Academy would reward all three Lord of the Rings films by giving Return of the King Best Picture, the race was looking locked up.

But that was 10 years ago.  This is now.  Maybe I was wrong about the film.  Hell, unlike the Academy, for whom this was the film that finally allowed them to full embrace Ron Howard (after failing to even nominate him in 1995 when Apollo 13 won him the DGA), this was the film that actually pushed him away from me.  He’s a real film-maker, people had been saying, this is really him growing up, while I was saying “Bullshit.  Cocoon and Parenthood and Apollo 13 was real film-making.  This is pure Hollywood crap.”  But maybe I was being too hard on him, too hard on the film (certainly my feelings at the time were influenced by the fact that Akiva Goldsman, the putrid writer responsible for The Client, Lost in Space and for killing the Batman franchise with Batman Forever and Batman & Robin was likely about to become the worst writer to win an Oscar (not the worst script – there had certainly been worse scripts to win the Oscar, but the writer with the worst track record)), maybe I was letting my passions over the other films involved outweigh any objective look at the film.  So I tried to go into it with open eyes.

Did it work?  Well, not really.  What struck me as the true strengths of the film (Russell Crowe’s performance, which is fantastic, Jennifer Connelly’s performance which is very good, if the weakest of the five Oscar nominees, the very good score) still stood out, though I found myself even more moved by Crowe’s performance than I had been when originally watching the film.  But the same things that bothered me the first time still stuck with me.  It’s pure Hollywood, pure manipulation.

Now, let me be clear here.  When A Beautiful Mind was headed on a trajectory towards the Oscars, it was hit by a very negative campaign, one that was clearly designed to prevent it from winning the Oscar.  Now, a lot of what that campaign said happened to be true – a lot of things were changed in the film and a some of the uglier aspects of John Nash’s life were swept under the carpet.  But, that isn’t my problem with the film.  The only thing that was pointed out that bothered me was that his real wife was from El Salvador, and they could have at least cast a Hispanic actress to play her.  It wasn’t that they changed the story – that’s to be expected in a film biopic.  But what I didn’t like was being manipulated.  The delusions are the biggest part of that.  I wasn’t as bothered by the fact that they decided to make Nash’s auditory delusions into visual hallucinations – that certainly is a choice that works better for the medium.  I was bothered of how much they tried to manipulate me into believing these characters were real before the film itself comes clean.  It’s obvious, when looking at it, that so much isn’t really happening (certain characters who are in places they clearly wouldn’t be).  But I felt like the film-makers were trying to put one over on me.  Clearly they were trying to bring us into empathy with Nash’s issues, but I reacted violently against the way they did it.  And once that spell was broken, it was easy to see the other parts of the film that clearly weren’t really happening and any suspension of disbelief was gone, fading away into mist like the hallucinations don’t ever seem to.  All of this stems from Hollywood’s difficulty in accurately putting mental illness on screen.

Part of this was that I wasn’t inclined to see the connections that Nash makes.  I remember reading a ridiculous book called The Bible Code, which tried to claim that there are patterns in The Bible which can form messages.  Instead of winning me over, the book made me realize how easy it is to see patterns everywhere – the same kind of patterns that Nash is seeing early on when he is called in by the Pentagon.  But, if you look hard enough, you can always find patterns.  The whole idea behind constellations was that in ancient times, people really believed they were meant to form those patterns in the sky, instead of it just being the random way we collect the stars in our minds.  That wonderful scene between Crowe and Connelly is exactly what shows the rest of the film to be such a sham, and having already been exposed to this ridiculous kind of thinking, I was less inclined to believe it.

All of that is a shame, because it could have been a better film.  Certainly Russell Crowe’s performance gives it greater weight than the film itself deserves.  It’s a triumph, not of the makeup in the film (though that is actually done very well), but of Crowe’s performance, how seamlessly he can move through the film, aging decades, more through his mannerisms, than through anything else the film-makers try to do.  It’s a performance that truly moves you, in a film that desperately tries to move you, and clearly moved many people.  But once that spell was broken, once it felt like manipulation rather than a genuine emotional spark, any hope for the film as a great one, as an Oscar winning one, was gone.

A perfect realization of the book. Perfect.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

  • Director:  Peter Jackson
  • Writer:  Peter Jackson  /  Fran Walsh  /  Philippa Boyens  (from the novel by J.R.R. Tolkien)
  • Producer:  Peter Jackson  /  Barrie M. Osborne  /  Fran Walsh
  • Studio:  New Line
  • Stars:  Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortenson, Ian Holm, Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, Christopher Lee
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published, Supporting Actor (McKellen), Editing, Cinematography, Original Score, Sound, Art Direction, Visual Effects, Costume Design, Makeup, Original Song (“May It Be”)
  • Oscar Points:  415
  • Length:  178  /  208 min
  • Genre:  Fantasy
  • MPAA Rating:  PG-13
  • Box Office Gross:  $313.36 mil  (#2  –  2001)
  • Release Date:  19 December 2001
  • Metacritic Score:  92
  • Ebert Rating:  ***
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #1  (year)  /  #14  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Supporting Actor (McKellen), Supporting Actor (Holm), Supporting Actress (Blanchett), Editing, Cinematography, Original Score, Sound, Art Direction, Visual Effects, Sound Editing, Costume Design, Makeup, Original Song (“May It Be”)
  • Nighthawk Points:  735
  • First Watched:  opening night with Veronica at the Century Westport

The Film:  It was clear from the very first teaser that Peter Jackson was fulfilling the potential that so many of us had seen in Heavenly Creatures.  He was obviously a very adept film-maker, with great ability to work with digital effects.  So, without question, The Lord of the Rings was going to look great.  But how great would it be as an overall film?  That would depend, not just on the look of the film, but on the writing, the direction, and most of all, the acting.

True, it was off to a great start with a fantastic cast: Ian McKellen, Cate Blanchett, Ian Holm, Christopher Lee.  But there were other question marks.  Could Elijah Wood and Viggo Mortenson, who had never been cast in such prominent roles in such big films, fulfill the potential of films like The War and The Indian Runner?  Would Hugo Weaving – the gay singer in The Adventures of Priscilla and the primary villain in The Matrix, be able to pull of the key role of Elrond?  And who were some of these unknowns, like Orlando Bloom, Dominic Monaghan and Billy Boyd?  And Rudy was going to play Sam?  Would that work?

So many of us watched breathlessly on that first night as the film unfolded before our eyes.  There were sumptuous feasts for those eyes: perfect sets that brought Alan Lee’s amazing illustrations to life, wonderful costumes, seamless visual effects, incredible cinematography.  And there was more – the writing found great ways to seamlessly move the film forward – not just obvious cuts to make (goodbye to Tom Bombadil), but other ways to simplify things so as not to confuse those few movie-goers who had never read the book (condense the back story to a prologue, cut the 17 year gap between Bilbo’s departure and Frodo’s to a few months, condense Glorfindel’s role into Arwen to introduce her earlier and more prominently), the editing helped cut across missing scenes from the book and the score was beyond brilliant.

But then there was the acting.  I can’t think of any film that relies more on dramatic reaction shots without dialogue.  It begins with Gandalf – his reaction to his first touch to the ring, his reaction to Frodo’s observation of the letters on the gold, his quick glance at Saruman after touching the Palantir, the wince when told by Elrond that the ring cannot stay, his shudder when Frodo agrees to take the ring.  But once he is gone from the action, it continues – there is the devastating look in Frodo’s eyes after Gandalf’s departure and the haunted look as he remembers the words of his friend and he knows what must be done.  And that’s just two of the many incredible performances in what is essentially a wonderful ensemble piece.  What might have kept the films from more nominations was the notion of whether any of the characters qualified as a lead performer (for the Nighthawks, I consider Wood the lead in the first and Wood and Mortenson co-leads in the other two) and the difficulty in choosing one performance from a film with great ones all around.

Then there are the things that none of us could have expected.  Changes have to be made to any book this size when being filmed and one of the best is the scene between Frodo and Aragorn high on the hill of Amon Hen.  That this scene, which works so perfectly with the characters of Frodo and Aragorn, and again, as they have been written in the film by Jackson, Walsh and Boyens, isn’t in the original novel doesn’t matter.  It is true to the characters and the situation and it gives a wonderful scene just before the Breaking of the Fellowship.  “Would you destroy it?” Frodo asks.  Aragorn kneels down next to it and the ring calls to him, calls to him as Elessar and Aragorn knows that it is best to leave the temptation behind.  Like Gandalf and Galadriel, he is wise enough not to take the ring.  Then, after their quiet moment together, as Aragorn knows what must be done, Frodo tells him “Look after the others.  Especially Sam.  He will not understand.”  And then comes something unexpected for all of us who had read the books so many times.  There is that look in Aragorn’s eyes and the glow on Frodo’s sword and both know what must be done – both will do what they must to fulfill their mission.  So Frodo will make his way into the darkness in search of The Fire.  Aragorn will walk to the clearing, his sword touched to his forehead and buy whatever time he can.  It is perhaps the best scene in the film, and not the least of which, because it was so surprising and not so all at once.  And that was the final proof that this team which had undertaken this project was the very right team to do justice by it.

The film I wish I had made

Moulin Rouge!

  • Director:  Baz Luhrmann
  • Writer:  Baz Luhrmann  /  Craig Pearce
  • Producer:  Fred Baron  /  Martin Brown  /  Baz Luhrmann
  • Studio:  20th Century-Fox
  • Stars:  Ewan McGregor, Nicole Kidman, Jim Broadbent
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Actress (Kidman), Editing, Cinematography, Sound, Art Direction, Costume Design, Makeup
  • Oscar Points:  235
  • Length:  127 min
  • Genre:  Musical
  • MPAA Rating:  PG-13
  • Box Office Gross:  $57.38 mil  (#43  –  2001)
  • Release Date:  18 May 2001
  • Metacritic Score:  66
  • Ebert Rating:  ***.5
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #2  (year)  /  #59  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Editing, Cinematography, Sound, Art Direction, Visual Effects, Sound Editing, Costume Design, Makeup
  • Nighthawk Points:  250
  • First Watched:  on DVD

The Film:  As you will notice, I first saw this film on DVD.  That wasn’t because of any desire not to see the film.  The problem was convincing other people to see it.  I couldn’t do it.  No one I knew wanted to see this film – they looked at the trailer and stayed away.  Even pointing out how good Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet was wasn’t enough.  So, with no one to see it with, I ended up putting it off.  So, when the Golden Globes nominations were announced, and it was up for several major ones, I went to rent it and couldn’t find it in anywhere.  So, Veronica, bummed to see me so irritated, went out and bought it; a risk to be certain – we could easily end up not liking it.

We loved it.  Right from the second it started.  I had long ago thought of writing a play and, not being able to write music, had wanted to populate it with pre-existing songs, songs that fit each moment but that already existed in the pop lexicon.  Then in London I saw a brilliant musical called Return to the Forbidden Planet which did exactly that – building on the 1956 science-fiction film, the Shakespeare references that brought the film to life in the first place, and great 50’s and 60’s pop songs, it created a fantastic piece of stagecraft that won the Olivier Award over Miss Saigon.  In a sense, this was the same thing.  But what it did was even more amazing.  It’s one to take pop songs and put them on the stage.  But what this film did was transform them, to take them all, throw them in the blender and make something out the bits that came out the other end.

But most of all, the film worked with all of this.  It was a tremendous risk and it easily could have been a disaster.  But the film works for several reasons.  First of all, it was cast correctly – Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman really can sang (especially McGregor, who had already proven that in A Life Less Ordinary and would prove it again in Down With Love), and Jim Broadbent might very well have won the Oscar for this if he wasn’t already headed towards winning it with Iris.  Second, it spares no expense on the look of the film.  It doesn’t win the Nighthawk for Art Direction or Costume Design, but there is no better second place finisher in film history – it has the bad luck to be going against the epic production values of Lord of the Rings.  Third, it takes on the big idea of love and doesn’t back away.  It takes any number of cliches (the cardboard villain – played that way by Richard Roxborough, because, really, how else could you play that role?, the prostitute with the heart of gold, the poor hero who falls shamelessly in love) and makes them all work by not backing away from them.  The characters seem to realize they are inhabiting cliches and they never back away from that.  Fourth, there is the music.

What would this film be without the soundtrack?  Probably a ridiculous mediocre romantic melodrama.  But what does it become with the music?  It becomes a romantic epic.  It merges Nirvana with Offenbach, Rodgers and Hammerstein with punk and Elton John with just about every cliche from every love song you could possibly think of.  And they all work.  Look at the sheer joy of film-making evident in “Spectacular Spectacular”.  Or look at “Elephant Love.”  It takes all these songs and it just bounces around (and some of the original songs are quite bad), but it absolutely works.  McGregor and Kidman absolutely pull it off.  I believe far more fully in Ewan standing there on the elephant with his arms outstretched than I ever believed in Jack and Rose.  And that, for me, at least, is what makes this film an absolute treat, every time I put it in (thankfully I own the DVD).

What a hell of a cast.

Gosford Park

  • Director:  Robert Altman
  • Writer:  Julian Fellowes  (from an idea by Robert Altman and Bob Balaban)
  • Producer:  Robert Altman  /  Bob Balaban  /  David Levy
  • Studio:  USA Films
  • Stars:  Kelly MacDonald, Clive Owen, Maggie Smith, Helen Mirren, Kristin Scott-Thomas, Michael Gambon, Emily Watson
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen, Supporting Actress (Mirren), Supporting Actress (Smith), Art Direction, Costume Design
  • Oscar Points:  275
  • Length:  137 min
  • Genre:  Comedy  (Mystery)
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Box Office Gross:  $41.30 mil  (#59  –  2001)
  • Release Date:  26 December 2001
  • Metacritic Score:  90
  • Ebert Rating:  ****
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #6  (year)  /  #128  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Original Screenplay, Supporting Actress (Mirren), Supporting Actress (Smith), Art Direction, Costume Design
  • Nighthawk Points:  165
  • First Watched:  on opening night with Veronica at the Fox Tower

The Film:  My mother and I saw this film on the same weekend and had the same experience.  My father and Veronica also saw it and they also had the same experience, but the two sets of experiences weren’t the same.  My mother and I knew that the film was a murder mystery and spent much of the film wondering when the hell the murder was going to happen.  For Veronica and my father, not knowing anything about the film, they were able to relax and sit back and simply enjoy a film with an incredible cast and witty, cutting dialogue.  So, I wasn’t that impressed coming away from Gosford Park the first time.  But every time I have gone back to it, I have found more to enjoy and it has steadily moved up my list in 2001, though it has probably reached its top potential, mired behind Fellowship, Moulin, Amelie, Mulholland and Memento.

In some ways, I was more inclined to enjoy this film than Veronica.  After all, the one lead role is played by Kelly MacDonald, an actress whom I have had a massive crush on since the instant I first set eyes on her in that silver dress in Trainspotting.  Better yet, this was actually a lead role – the first major role I had seen her in since Trainspotting.  More impressively, in a cast that includes (take a deep breath here) Helen Mirren, Maggie Smith, Michael Gambon, Kristin Scott-Thomas, Emily Watson, Clive Owen, Jeremy Northam, Derek Jacobi, Eileen Atkins and Alan Bates she manages to hold her own in the largest role.  While the upper crust mingle and try to devastate each other emotionally (and sometimes financially), she is our gateway into the world beneath the stairs, where everyone is known by their employer’s name.  She is, also, perhaps the most perceptive person in the film, the only one who manages to actually pay enough attention and put enough things together to realize what has happened in the course of the night (though the policeman might actually be able to do it if the idiotic inspector wasn’t so quick to allow clues to be forgotten and evidence ignored).

Even on its surface, Gosford Park is many things at once.  It is a mark of that glorious time, the English country house in the years between the wars, when things looked so good for the people invited and the people down below were just happy to have jobs in the midst of the world’s economic collapse.  It is a biting satire of the wars between the classes, of how much more observant the servants are, how much more they always know than what they are supposed to (acknowledged in one of the many sly comments by Maggie Smith, when she inquires what the gossip is down below, because she knows the servants always know what’s going on).  It is also a murder mystery, as we struggle along with the inspector (actually, we don’t struggle nearly as much as the inspector – played with perfect drollness by Stephen Fry, who is unable to ever quite manage to introduce himself to anyone upstairs) to figure out why the victim has been killed, by who, and how.

And this is where so much of the subtlety comes from.  For, when we see what has happened, we begin to understand the strong, yet subtle performance from Clive Owen (and is there anyone who watches this film who doesn’t believe that Owen and MacDonald won’t meet again and perhaps find a measure of happiness that seems to be eluding all of those up above).  And then we discover even more and we understand even more.  The key to that is a brilliant speech from Helen Mirren, one of the best she has delivered in one of the great film careers.  It is this speech that manages to win her the Nighthawk Award in a close race over Maggie Smith, whose every line is imbued with venom (when the visiting movie producer demures at revealing the killer in his upcoming film, she replies “Oh, but none of us will see it.”).

And at the heart of it is all is MacDonald.  She comes here, new in a position with a very demanding employer, who runs her ragged.  Yet, she manages to find a friend, find a potential love and find a measure of peace from what she is able to learn.  She indeed learns something about all those there (which so few of the people there manage to do) and something about herself as well.  And finding the right balance with this large of a cast, with this biting of a script, with smart, caustic dialogue that always seems to overlap, so that we have to watch again and listen to what the different characters are saying.  Well, I haven’t said anything yet about the direction.  But that didn’t that just say, without saying, that this is again the brilliant work of Robert Altman?

I'm so not watching this again.

In the Bedroom

  • Director:  Todd Field
  • Writer:  Todd Field  /  Robert Festinger  (from “The Killings” by Andre Dubus)
  • Producer:  Graham Leader  /  Ross Katz  /  Todd Field
  • Studio:  Miramax
  • Stars:  Tom Wilkinson, Sissy Spacek, Marisa Tomei, Nick Stahl
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published, Actor (Wilkinson), Actress (Spacek), Supporting Actress (Tomei)
  • Oscar Points:  190
  • Length:  130 min
  • Genre:  Drama
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Box Office Gross:  $35.93 mil  (#68  –  2001)
  • Release Date:  23 November 2001
  • Metacritic Score:  86
  • Ebert Rating:  ****
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #7  (year)  /  #137  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Adapted Screenplay, Actor (Wilkinson), Actress (Spacek), Supporting Actress (Tomei)
  • Nighthawk Points:  210
  • First Watched:  opening week of wide release with Veronica at the Century Westpoint

The Film:  Somehow, in 1995, the Academy nominated Leaving Las Vegas for Director, Screenplay, Actor and Actress, but not Best Picture.  It was strange, because it was better than four of the five nominated films and because that kind of anomaly (the big four, but not Picture) only happens once every generation or so.  But, for me, there was one benefit to the Academy’s choice.  It meant that when it came to this project, I didn’t have to re-watch what I often refer to as “the most depressing film I’ve ever seen.”  So, what, exactly does this have to do with In the Bedroom?  Well, in the last week of 2001, coming out of In the Bedroom, Veronica asked me what I thought, because I was uncharacteristically quiet.  “I’ve already lived that scene in the kitchen,” I answered.  I was, shall we say, not looking forward to watching In the Bedroom again.  I wondered to myself if watching the scene again where Sissy Spacek and Tom Wilkinson go at each other in the kitchen would seem more or less painful now in 2012 with that situation so far removed from my life, with those devastating fights a receding memory rather than a gut-wrenching experience.

But watching the film again, what really struck me was the ways in which that scene was so different from my own experience.  Perhaps it was that the scene in the kitchen felt so familiar to me, but was, in fact, unfamiliar to the characters.  There are things that get said in the film, like “It’s a summer thing,” or “I wanted to tell you how truly sorry I am” or “When are you coming home?”  But those aren’t really saying anything.  Most of what happens in the film is about all those things that don’t really get said.  We have a young man in love with an older woman, a father enjoying vicariously living through his son’s romance and the mother who’s nervous that her son might be making a mistake – although it’s never quite clear if it’s because he’s focused too much on a girl or because it’s this girl.  But so much of that doesn’t get said.  The parents speak in ellipses.  The son tries not to speak to them at all about this.  The son and his lover are focused more on their physical pleasures than on speaking.  And then the son is killed and everything shifts.

What we are left with is three damaged people – the father, played by Tom Wilkinson, in the role that finally made so many of us realize that he is one of the best actors around and can’t just be wasted in smaller character parts in ensemble films; the mother – played by Sissy Spacek in the best performance of a long and treasured career; the lover is Marisa Tomei, who finally fulfills all the promise that was granted upon her by her early Oscar before she had really found her full measure of talent (this would be the start of a great decade, when she would deftly combine the sensuousness of a woman in her thirties and forties, with great performances, in films like this, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead and The Wrestler).  None of these people could talk directly with each other before and now there is nothing left.

But then things start to slip.  There is the scene where the lover tries to apologize to the mother and the mother slaps her across the face and then turns away.  There is the scene where the father tries to absolve the lover, but we can see that partially the father is trying to absolve himself as well, for he understands the appeal she has.  And then there is the fateful explosion between the parents in the kitchen, all their emotions running wild, exposing bare everything they have always distrusted about the way the other lives.  But this was the key thing, what separated this scene from my own experience, what allowed me to take a step back and watch the film rather than be overwhelmed by its similarity to my own experience.  The father and mother fight, they blame each other for the things that have gone wrong in their marriage, for the faults in their child, for everything wrong in the world.  But this is something new for them.  These are all the things being said that have never been said before.  My experience was nothing like that – those fights had happened so often, had stemmed from all the things that got said all too often; there had never been anything left unsaid to build up over all that time.  It was enough of a difference – the sudden explosion of passionate emotions built up over all those years as opposed to the sometimes daily experience of shoveling those emotions at the other one – that meant I could watch the film as a film and not as a reflection of my own experience.

This was the first film from Todd Field, directed and co-written by him.  His only other film since, Little Children, also deals with silences that creep up in our lives, the things that don’t get said.  And it’s clear that he has a great way with actors – Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek deserved the Oscars for their amazing performances and Marisa Tomei was an absolute discovery.  It’s clear that Field understands damaged souls, and what they will and will not say to each other.  We can only hope that he’ll finally make a third film, and please let it be happier than his first two.