A shot that kind of sums up the greatness and problems of Chicago (2002).

The 75th annual Academy Awards, for the film year 2002.  The nominations were announced on February 11, 2003 and the awards were held on March 23, 2003.

Best Picture:  Chicago

  • The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
  • Gangs of New York
  • The Hours
  • The Pianist

Most Surprising Omission:  Adaptation

Best Eligible Film Not Nominated:  Spirited Away

Best Eligible English-Language Film Not Nominated:  Minority Report

Rank (out of 84) Among Best Picture Years:  #1

note:  Nothing else is even close.  Here’s how I do the rank – I average the films – in this case 2002 gets a 96.00 – 1.20 higher than the next year and 3.60 higher than the third highest year.  Then I average the ranks for the films among the Best Picture years – in this case #54, 61, 82, 88 and 145.  It doesn’t have anything in the Top 50, but it only has one outside the Top 100 and all are in the Top 150.  It gets an average of 86.00 – the next highest year gets a 119.60 and only four other years get an average better than 150 – while this year has all of its films below that mark.  Then I divide the second number by the first.  In this case, it’s a .896 – not only the lowest year, not only the only year below a 1, but the only year below a 1.25.  When I get up to the present, I’ll do the whole rank, but suffice it to say, this is far and away the best slate of Best Picture nominees.

The Race:  The race began in early 2000, but in the end, everyone was betting on a film that no one had seen until the very end and they all turned out to be right.

Before 2002 had even begun, much of the Oscar talk was already started.  When The Lord of the Rings trailer had hit the web in April of 2000, it immediately began speculation of all three films earning Best Picture nominations, and when the Academy bestowed 13 nominations on the first film, that talk only intensified.  But The Two Towers wasn’t the only film that was already being talked about.  But the talk had shifted again in the fall of 2001, when Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York, widely expected to be a front-runner for the Oscars, was pushed back an entire year.  Suddenly, there were two big films already in contention with the year not even having started.  And the big talk around Hollywood was that the real film to beat at the Oscars would be Chicago, Bob Fosse’s musical having finally made it to the screen.  Then came Cannes, and Roman Polanski, another director, like Scorsese, who had never won an Oscar, won the Palme d’Or with his Holocaust film The Pianist.  Suddenly, there were four major contenders for the Oscars – and not only were the nominations still eight months away, but none of these films would be hitting theaters until mid-December.

With so many major films still sitting on the side-lines, people looked at what was available.  In the summer, what was available, were films from two previous Oscar winners: Steven Spielberg and Sam Mendes.  Spielberg’s Minority Report, starring Tom Cruise, was making good box-office (though not nearly as good as Spider-Man or Star Wars) and getting some of the best reviews of the summer.  It was getting better reviews, in fact, than Mendes’ follow up to American Beauty.  His Road to Perdition was a dark film about an assassin on the run from his former bosses, starring Tom Hanks in his darkest role yet.  But Hanks’ dark turn wasn’t bringing in the crowds and the reviews weren’t nearly as favorable as the last time around, except for Conrad Hall’s brilliant cinematography.

The early part of the fall brought several films that had been considered Oscar potentials before they finally saw releases and were either sunk by the critics, box office or both (White Oleander, Possession, Moonlight Mile), while the film that would eventually be obliterated by both and prove that an Oscar pedigree and a serious subject matter and big pre-release Oscar buzz can’t save a film that everyone hates would be pushed to 2003 (The Life of David Gale).  The one film of the early fall that was loved by everyone was Spirited Away – headed for the Best Animated Film Oscar, but never a serious contender for Best Picture.

It would be November that would bring the serious films hoping to contend with the Oscar front-runners.  First was About Schmidt, from director Alexander Payne.  It had a performance from Jack Nicholson that had serious talk of a fourth Oscar for the Academy mainstay and serious contention for all of the major awards.  Then there was Far From Heaven, the Douglas Sirk homage from Todd Haynes that had critics gushing, both over the film and star Julianne Moore.

Moore was one of a couple of actresses who had double whammies coming for the critics.  She would also be one of the three leads in The Hours, the adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize winning novel that marked Stephen Daldry’s second film (his first, Billy Elliot, had earned him a Best Director nomination).  Also in The Hours would be Meryl Streep, whose other film, Adaptation, was from director Spike Jonze and writer Charlie Kaufman – the same team that had made Being John Malkovich.  Along with Spielberg’s other film of the year – Catch Me If You Can, starring Hanks and DiCaprio, which had enough Oscar and box office buzz to convince Miramax to move Gangs, their DiCaprio film, up a week, these were the major films hoping to contend with the four films that everyone had been talking about all year.

Before the big contenders could even be seen by anyone other than some critics, the awards season had begun.  The National Board of Review kicked things off by giving Best Picture to The Hours.  That was followed quickly by the New York Film Critics going with Far From Heaven for Picture and Director while the L.A. Film Critics went with About Schmidt for Best Picture.

The Golden Globe nominations came out on December 18 – a day after Two Towers was finally released, a day before Gangs of New York and a good week before Chicago, The Hours, The Pianist or Catch Me If You Can.  Before the critics could weigh in, all of those except Catch had earned Best Picture nominations (as had Adaptation and About Schmidt) and Towers, Gangs, Chicago, Hours, Adaptation and About Schmidt were all in for Director as well and all except Towers and Gangs were also in for Screenplay.  To add to their glory, the four early front-runners, Towers, Gangs, Chicago and The Pianist, all found themselves nominated by the Directors Guild, joined by The Hours.  When the same five films also found themselves nominated for Best Picture at the BAFTA’s, the Oscar race seemed to be coming to a quick close.

The only two films that seemed to still have some potential to make it into the race were Schmidt and Adaptation.  Both films had joined the other five among the Broadcast Film Critics nominees, both had joined Chicago, The Hours and Gangs as WGA nominees and Adaptation was a PGA nominee (where The Hours and The Pianist fell short) and a SAG Ensemble nominee (where Gangs and The Pianist were not).  But the question was what would they replace?  Chicago had swept the Comedy / Musical part of the Globes and won the BFCA, The Pianist had won the Boston Film Critics and National Society of Film Critics and had perhaps the best reviews of the contenders, The Two Towers had the name recognition and big, big, box-office, The Hours had won the Globe for Best Picture – Drama and Gangs had both the big name (Scorsese) and a Globe for Best Director.

note on The Race:  Much of this part of these parts has come from several sources, most notable Inside Oscar, but also other Oscar books.  When I have pulled thing directly, I have quoted them.  Inside Oscar is a frustrating as all hell book because it offers no sources for its information.  But from here on out, we are in a different era.  Specifically, the era of my memories.  I remember very well this year and discussing with my friend Tavis all year as to whether Chicago would get a nomination and win the Oscar as everyone was saying all year, since no one had seen the damn film.  For once, the early thought, would be the right one.  But we followed this closely.  This was also the year where I really began to follow a couple of sites devoted to such things.  One of them, Oscar Race, stopped back in 2005.  The other, Oscar Watch, would eventually become Awards Daily in 2008, by which time they had run several pieces I had written for them.  Since neither site has archives, I have made much use of the Wayback Machine at the Internet Archive.  It helped me a lot with remembering buzz for films that ended up out of the race entirely and will, I hope, be helpful in the remaining years of this series.  Those two links go to the two different sites.

The Results:  Chicago had by far the most nominations – with 13, it was 3 ahead of any other film.  But would that matter?  The previous year, Fellowship had lead by five nominations and had lost.  And, Fellowship was one of the five previous films to have 13 nominations – 3 of which had lost.  But it had as much momentum as any other film coming in.  Gangs of New York had 10 nominations, including Director and Original Screenplay, but it was clearly, at this point, going to end up losing money.  The Hours was up for 9 nominations, including Director and Adapted Screenplay, but it was such a downer and didn’t have the box office clout that seemed to be necessary these days (it had been six years since a winner hadn’t cleared $100 million at the box office).  The Pianist had made it into the line-up instead of Adaptation, and was also up for Director and Adapted Screenplay, but had the same problems as Chicago and the critics awards seemed to be a distant memory now.  But Adaptation at least had earned a Screenplay nomination, while About Schmidt had only earned two acting nominations – only the seventh film to win Best Screenplay at the Globes and not earn a writing Oscar nomination.  The Two Towers had indeed been the fifth nominee, but it was Peter Jackson that was missing from the director lineup, bounced for Pedro Almodóvar.  And everyone knew that Lord of the Rings would be the big winner in 2003.

The box office seemed to favor Chicago.  It continued to stay in the Top 5 each weekend while none of the other nominees seemed to be getting in the Top 10.  Then came the DGA awards and Chicago was the surprise winner, first-time director Rob Marshall winning over Polanski and Scorsese.  The Producers Guild then named Chicago their top film of the year.  But then came the BAFTA Awards and a big surprise – The Pianist was back in the running, having won Best Picture and Director in the first year when the BAFTA and Oscars had nominated the same five films.

Then came the big night and things looked good for Chicago.  It won Best Supporting Actress right out of the gate and then won awards in several technical categories.  But then The Pianist won Best Adapted Screenplay.  Then it won Best Actor.  Then it won Best Director (a stunning surprise, since director Roman Polanski could not come to the awards for fear of arrest).  Two Towers had won its expected awards – Visual Effects and Sound Effects Editing.  The Hours had won Best Actress, like it was expected to.  But Gangs, expected to contend in all the major categories, had been shut out – even in Actor and Best Original Song.  Now, there was one award left and the surprising contender with Chicago was The Pianist – a film people hadn’t necessarily expected to even get a nomination.  But then came the award and Chicago had indeed won – the first musical to win since Oliver! in 1968.

The inevitable Best Picture winner.

Chicago

  • Director:  Rob Marshall
  • Writer:  Bill Condon  (from the musical by Bob Fosse and Martin Ebb and the play by Maurine Dallas Watkins)
  • Producer:  Martin Richards
  • Studio:  Miramax
  • Stars:  Renee Zellweger, Richard Gere, Catherine Zeta-Jones, John C. Reilly, Queen Latifah
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Actress (Zellweger), Supporting Actor (Reilly), Supporting Actress (Zeta-Jones), Supporting Actress (Latifah), Editing, Cinematography, Sound, Art Direction, Costume Design, Original Song (“I Move On”)
  • Oscar Points:  505
  • Length:  113 min
  • Genre:  Musical
  • MPAA Rating:  PG-13
  • Box Office Gross:  $170.68 mil  (#10  –  2002)
  • Release Date:  27 December 2002
  • Metacritic Score:  82
  • Ebert Rating:  ***.5
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #9  (year)  /  #145  (nominees)  /  #40  (winners)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Actress (Zellweger), Supporting Actress (Zeta-Jones), Art Direction, Costume Design, Original Song (“I Move On”)
  • Nighthawk Points:  110
  • First Watched:  opening night at the Fox Tower with Veronica

The Film:  What does it say about Chicago that it was the weakest of the five nominees and it won Best Picture?  Does it say something bad about the film?  Does it lend credence to those who would use it as an example of the Academy screwing things up?  But what if we just look at the quality of the film instead?  Is it a film worthy of winning an Oscar?

It’s not hyperbole to suggest that Chicago is widely seen as an undeserving winner.  After Googling “worst best picture winners”, the first six hits I clicked on had it on their list (I stopped after that).  One listed it #1 on their list of Top 10 Worst Winners and one person who actually ranked all 82 winners (at the time) ranked it 79th, below The Broadway Melody, a film widely viewed (and not just by me) as the worst winner.  So these people aren’t just saying that it was a bad choice – they are saying it was a bad film.  And we’re not talking about a film like Gladiator that actually had mixed reviews.  Chicago has a 82 from Metacritic and an 88 from Rotten Tomatoes.  This wasn’t a surprise winner like Crash or a film that managed to get the breaks that Braveheart got when it’s two biggest contenders failed to earn Director nominations.  Chicago was widely seen as the front-runner for months before it was even released.  I went and saw it on opening night and loved it.  I then dragged my friend Tavis, who didn’t want to see it because 1 – he’s from Chicago, 2 – he had loved the stage version and 3 – he was irritated that it had been the front-runner while unseen for so long, and he loved it.

And why did we love it?  Why did all those people love it (and they did love it – for all the love that a certain group, including me, have for Moulin Rouge! – this film over tripled it at the box office and was the highest grossing musical in 24 years)?  Because it is a film of great spirit, verve and energy.  Because it takes an actor who’s made an entire career out of feeling insincere and found the role that was absolutely perfect for him – as the ultimate insincere Chicago lawyer.  Because it takes an actress who had constantly been deemed cute or adorable but seemed to have trouble being taken seriously and made her serious and sexy and dangerous and god damn fun, from the first second we see her fantasy of herself on stage, right through to the dance number at the end.  Because it takes an actress that everyone had been looking at as eye-candy and proved that she could actually act.  Because it made us realize that Queen Latifah could be a viable screen comedienne.  Because every minute of the film has style, much of it has humor and it all is made with great gusto.  Because it has an incredible soundtrack that sounded great on CD and looked fantastic on the screen.  Because it took a great stage show and didn’t just film it, but made a film out of it.

And to be fair, some of the faults with the film aren’t necessarily the faults of the film-makers.  It’s a little hard to keep all the energy flowing when the first half-hour not only has the best number (“All That Jazz”) but also the second best (“Cell Block Tango”) and possibly the third best (“When You’re Good to Mama”).  That the music continues to delight throughout the film shows that we owe a lot of credit the original songwriter.

But, yes, watching it again, there are definitely things that shine through.  First of all, there is that Oscar that it won for Best Editing – the worst Oscar given out that year.  The end of the film is a perfect example.  I was forced to see the film from the front row the first time and I almost threw up at the end.  The editors seemed to determine to keep bouncing back and forth between every shot they could conceive of and keeping the music going and going even when the number is clearly long past done.  If anything, the one thing Chicago really needed was a more accomplished director who would have known when to slow things down and pull back on the energy just a little.  Looking at the subsequent arc of Marshall’s career, it’s easier to see now that he was going to be headed downward and that Chicago made the best use of talents.  But it is a remarkable achievement for a first-time film director and it is one hell of a good time.  It has great acting, it looks amazing and it never fails to entertain.  So what if it’s only the seventh best film of the year.  So what if that makes it, in the best year ever for Best Picture nominees, the weakest film of the year.  It’s still one hell of a film and I’m not gripe about that when there have been so many bigger mistakes.  As for the people who think it’s a bad film?  I don’t know what to say to them.

Waiting on that third film for the big Oscars.

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

  • 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:  Viggo Mortenson, Elijah Wood, Bernard Hill, Andy Serkis, Sean Astin
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Editing, Sound, Art Direction, Visual Effects, Sound Effects Editing
  • Oscar Points:  195
  • Length:  179  / 223 min
  • Genre:  Fantasy
  • MPAA Rating:  PG-13
  • Box Office Gross:  $339.78 mil  (#2  –  2002)
  • Release Date:  18 December 2002
  • Metacritic Score:  88
  • Ebert Rating:  ***
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #1  (year)  /  #54  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Supporting Actor (Serkis), Editing, Cinematography, Original Score, Sound, Art Direction, Visual Effects, Sound Editing, Costume Design, Makeup, Original Song (“Gollum’s Song)
  • Nighthawk Points:  605
  • First Watched:  opening night at Century Westport with Veronica

The Film:  How would they begin the film?  How would they structure it?  How would they end it?  Those were the three key questions running through the minds of the fans coming into The Two Towers.

Clearly they weren’t going to give us the kind of epic beginning that the first film gave us.  But where exactly would they start?  After all, the first chapter of the book was already out of the question – it had been integrated (brilliantly) into the end of the first film.  So, we were greeted with epic shots of the Misty Mountains, and a voice, soft at first, but building as suddenly move through a crack in the mountain and find ourselves in a scene we already know – the fall of Gandalf.  But then, as we hear those fateful words “Fly you fools,” something different happens.  We follow him into the abyss, through darkness and fire, hurtling deep into the earth.  Then, with the crash into oblivion, Frodo awakens and we are firmly entrenched in our second film.  They had given exactly what we needed – a fantastic, action-packed opening that reminded us of things that had gone before, then pushing us forward.  They could not have done it better.

But what about the rest of the film?  In the book, we follow the others through half of it, leaving them under the shadow of the Nazgul and only then to return to Frodo and Sam.  Certainly there was no way they were going to split the film like that, no matter how well it worked for the book.  And they didn’t.  We get a good balance of the various characters as they split apart.  Even more importantly, we get an introduction to the land of Rohan.  With the brief discussion of the country cut from the first film (wisely), this would help set up the rest of the film.

Then there is the ending.  Certainly they wouldn’t use the final scenes of the book.  It leaves one half of the story dangling while the other half is a terrifying cliff-hanger.  What’s more – if they wanted to keep the action moving together (more importantly – have Frodo and Sam witness the departure of the Witch King which is prompted by actions that don’t happen until the early part of the last book – because the stories are split and don’t alternate in chapters, readers often forget that where we leave Frodo and Sam at the end of the book is a week later than where we have left the others), then parts of the book would need to be pushed onto the last film.  And, after an epic battle for Helm’s Deep, would we really have the anti-climactic ending of the parley with Saruman?

They would not, of course.  They would end with the Battle of Helm’s Deep.  But how would that work with Frodo and Sam?  Quite well, as it would turn out.  Though these are the scenes that depart most from the books, the scenes hold true to the themes of the book – the temptation to use the Ring, the strength of Faramir in doing what his brother could not – sending the Ring to the Fire.  It was the greatest surprise for fans of the book, but for that reason, it works quite well, because it is so unexpected.

In fact, this film strays the farthest from the books, but it works.  The film works for the same reason the other films work so well – because they have production that is second to none, because they are in the hands of a gifted director and writers who care about the characters and find ways to keep things new and yet not stray too far from the source material, and of course, because they gathered together an ensemble cast like no other.  This film adds on Miranda Otto, Bernard Hill, Karl Urban, Brad Dourif and David Wenham and all of them are fantastic.  It gives us new visual effects as stunning as the Balrog (Treebeard).  And what we begin to notice here what an amazing job Howard Shore has done with the score.  He does not simply recycle the score from the first film (though he uses it absolutely brilliantly in the best scene in the film – “Toss me.”).  We start to realize that he has written different pieces of music for each core of the film – for the Shire, for Gondor, for Rohan, for the Fellowship, and all of these pieces get their own moments at the requisite time.

This film was passed over by some groups and relegated to lesser categories by many, including the Academy (though they did give it a Picture nomination).  This, of course, was because everyone was waiting for the massive accolades that all knew were coming for the final installment.  But, even in a year as absolutely stacked with amazing films as this one is, this is still the best film of the year.

10 nominations. 0 Oscars. Why don’t you kick Marty’s dog while you’re at it, Academy?

Gangs of New York

  • Director:  Martin Scorsese
  • Writer:  Jay Cocks  /  Steven Zaillian  /  Kenneth Lonergen
  • Producer:  Alberto Grimaldi  /  Harvey Weinstein
  • Studio:  Miramax
  • Stars:  Leonardo DiCaprio, Daniel Day-Lewis, Cameron Diaz, Jim Broadbent
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Actor (Day-Lewis), Editing, Cinematography, Sound, Art Direction, Costume Design, Original Song (“The Hands That Built America”)
  • Oscar Points:  285
  • Length:  167 min
  • Genre:  Drama
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Box Office Gross:  $77.88 mil  (#35  –  2002)
  • Release Date:  20 December 2002
  • Metacritic Score:  72
  • Ebert Rating:  ***.5
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #2  (year)  /  #61  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Actor (Day-Lewis), Editing, Cinematography, Sound, Art Direction, Sound Editing, Costume Design, Makeup, Original Song (“The Hands That Built America”)
  • Nighthawk Points:  360
  • First Watched:  opening night at the Century Westport with Veronica

The Film:  “I made the decision to leave the Towers in,” Martin Scorsese says on the commentary track of Gangs of New York.  “These people helped build the skyline.  They didn’t destroy it.”  He says it over an ending as good as nearly any other in the last 20 years of film.  There is the city in all its darkness and industry, building itself on the backs of these men, with the music of those same Irish would would come to America over 100 years later building to a crescendo.  We watch the bridge come in, the great bridge, we watch the building rise and the darkness fades and there is the metropolis in all of its splendor.  And we don’t need to watch them fall.  That’s a different story for a different time.

I feel conflicted about this city.  I think about the people (“Can you tell me how to get to the Statue of Liberty or should I just go fuck myself?” goes the old joke).  I think about the potholes on the streets outside the Bronx Zoo and reminding myself that the mayor spent over $100 million of his own money to run for re-election (shades of Boss Tweed and his influence in the film) and wonder why he didn’t just fix things in the city and use that as his platform for running.  I think of all those sports teams I hate so much: Yankees, Mets, Jets, Knicks (no Giants – why, you ask – because I have always liked both Mannings and because there is tradition in New England of rooting for the Giants in the NFC, though not in the f^&*^g Super Bowl against the Pats; no Rangers – why, you ask – because I don’t give a shit about hockey).  I think of how everytime I head to visit family in the Midwest, I curse Chicago, but always add “Of course, I don’t hate Chicago nearly as much as I fucking hate New York.”  It is the dark blight to my south and west, the City.

But look at it again.  It has the art, it has the theater, it has the films, it has the music.  As a film buff, I can’t ever really hate the city of Scorsese and Allen.  As a writer, I remember that the publishing industry is centralized there.  As someone who really believes in this country, it has the Statue of Liberty and it was the first capital once we became a country.  And, of course, for everyone who wants to say that New York isn’t the real America, we can always remember that it was American enough for Bin Laden.

So this is America.  America was born in the streets, or so the tag-line would have us believe.  And there is a great deal of truth in that.  In the commentary, Marty says that he think of this film, and indeed, the Civil War, as the end of the American Revolution.  Much the same idea is depicted in Amistad, in a great scene with Anthony Hopkins as John Quincy Adams: “Give us the courage to do what is right. And if it means civil war? Then let it come. And when it does, may it be, finally, the last battle of the American Revolution.”  So here we have that battle, fought out over two decades, over two generations, of the “Natives” (really, the Dutch, who had simply come earlier) and the Irish.  We have battles here that have never really ended (the battles over immigration, between those who have been here a short time and those who have been here a less short time).  We have them told in epic scope – magnificent cinematography, stunning art direction and costumes, brilliant music, which, given that Two Towers wasn’t beating it out for those Oscars, it easily should have won (Gangs only wins two Nighthawk awards, but it finishes in second place to Towers in Picture, Director, Cinematography, Art Direction and Costume Design).

So what is it about this film that is such a bother to people?  If we were to believe William Goldman, in his scathing attack on the film just before the Oscar nominations, it’s that there’s not much of a story and that’s Marty’s fault.  Except, that the film has a long epic story and it takes the time to develop the story.  Goldman complain about the sub-plot involving Brendan Gleeson, when in fact, that sub-plot helps work through DiCaprio’s confusion over seeing his father’s murderer as a paternal replacement as well.  He complains that the final battle is consumed with smoke, when, in fact, that keeps the final battle from being a ridiculous Hollywood knockdown fight, but something approaching the real confusion and anarchy of a war scene.  He calls the final shot of the World Trade Center disgraceful, when it sums up much of the story that the film is trying to tell.  There were others besides Goldman who didn’t go for the film (but Goldman would oddly attack Scorsese again two years later, claiming that The Aviator shouldn’t win him the Oscar because he had made so many better films – the problem with that argument being that Goldman was advocating for Million Dollar Baby, which many people, myself included, would point out that it wasn’t as good as Eastwood’s film from just the year before, aside from the point that previous films are irrelevant when you’re talking about one specific year).  Many of them were bothered by DiCaprio’s performance, but his Irish accent, very shaky at the start, gets better (and can be expected from someone who mostly grew up in an orphanage) and he seems weaker because he spends so much of the time with Daniel Day-Lewis who gives a truly epic performance in the lead.  There were some historical inaccuracies, many of which Marty points out in the commentary and explains why he made the choices he made.  But this isn’t meant to be a true story, but rather an epic vision of the way things were like those days.

Anyway, for me, the film absolutely works.  The scope of the film-making works.  The performances work (most notably Day-Lewis, but also, great in supporting performances, Jim Broadbent and Brendan Gleeson).  The story works.  Most all that final shot works, the music building to that crescendo as we watch this city rise from the embers and become the modern metropolis.

All About Eve gets competition for the best ensemble female acting in a film.

The Hours

  • Director:  Stephen Daldry
  • Writer:  David Hare  (from the novel by Michael Cunningham)
  • Producer:  Scott Rudin  /  Robert Fox
  • Studio:  Paramount
  • Stars:  Nicole Kidman, Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore, Ed Harris, Stephen Dillane
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Actress (Kidman), Supporting Actor (Harris), Supporting Actress (Moore), Editing, Original Score, Costume Design
  • Oscar Points:  330
  • Length:  114 min
  • Genre:  Drama
  • MPAA Rating:  PG-13
  • Box Office Gross:  $41.67 mil  (#56  –  2002)
  • Release Date:  27 December 2002
  • Metacritic Score:  81
  • Ebert Rating:  ***.5
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #4  (year)  /  #82  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Actress (Kidman), Actress (Streep), Supporting Actor (Dillane), Supporting Actress (Moore), Editing, Art Direction, Costume Design
  • Nighthawk Points:  425
  • First Watched:  opening week at the Fox Tower with Veronica

The Film:  The first time I watched this film, I had been waiting for it, knowing it would be a showcase for great acting, but not knowing that it would be Kidman I would be most impressed with (indeed, much of the discussion at the time was over the fact that Kidman would be pushed for lead, when she was a sure bet to win for supporting).  But this time, going back to it, I found myself picking up the novel and reading as I was watching the film – not because I wasn’t interested – but because the magic of the words was so strong that I needed to see them again on the printed page.

Is it a weakness that, rather than create his own work entirely, Michael Cunningham took an obsession with Mrs. Dalloway and turned it into a magnificent film?  No more a weakness than the Homeric structure for Joyce’s novel is.  Art can build on other art, from Wide Sargasso Sea, to The Hours to On Beauty.  Sometimes it’s just a nice lark (Bridget Jones), sometimes it’s utter crap (Twilight), but sometimes, it’s its own work of art, complete and of itself.  But the trick was going to be, could this novel, cut into three inter-changing parts, one in which the novel is written, one in which the novel is read and one, in a sense, in which the novel is lived, be made into a viable film?  Could something that dependent on the written word really work on the screen?

What is surprising is not how well it works, but how well it works without even an outside narrator, and how, the inter-changing stories, the piece that could easily lead to a disaster, instead, makes it magnificent.  In the novel, we must slowly move into each story, getting to know each character.  But in film, especially a film as well-written, well-directed, and (perhaps most vitally), brilliantly edited, we can move effortlessly between the stories within seconds.  What might be lost on some viewers (or readers) is that this all takes place in one day – true, we have three different days going, but all three stories are confined within their single days.  We begin how most days begin, with the rising from bed.  In all three cases, a woman rises from bed long after her partner, somehow struggling into a day that already seems to be more than they can bear.

Soon we will get to know these women more – Virginia, one of the most talented writers to ever put pen to paper, struggling to write what would be one of her masterpieces, Laura, an L.A. housewife trying to find her place in a world in which she doesn’t seem to fit and Clarissa, determined to make everything right in a world in which so little is.  The performances by these three actresses – Nicole Kidman as Virginia (in what is easily the best performance she has ever given), Julianne Moore as Laura (another brilliant performance from a career that is so often filled with them) and Meryl Streep (reminding us again why she is the great film actress, not only of our time, but of all-time) are all magnificent – there hasn’t been a treasury of female acting like this since All About Eve.  As they all struggle, some with sanity, some with death, some with both at the same time, never do we feel like we are watching actresses – it is only the characters who exist.  Of course, there are great performance in smaller parts that help contribute to the overall whole – from Miranda Richardson in the first story, to John C. Reilly and Toni Collette in the second, to Jeff Daniels, Allison Janey and Claire Danes in the third – and we see the glory of a true ensemble piece.  There is also, of course, Ed Harris, yet again earning an Oscar nomination, but even better is Stephen Dillane, in the tough role of poor Leonard Woolf, trying to publish art, trying to help Virginia find happiness and sanity, trying to live the life he knows his wife needs.

None of these stories move towards happy endings.  They slip towards darkness, towards death and madness.  But the film as a whole overcomes the depression, finds a brief light of humanity in the spectre of death, a reminder of the ability of art to conquer all.  And what we take away is not the bleakness of death or madness, but the performances that can touch our hearts.  And the beauty of language that can send us back to the novel, or to Woolf herself.

Stark and pure – the poster for The Pianist is almost perfect.

The Pianist

  • Director:  Roman Polanski
  • Writer:  Ronald Harwood  (from the memoir by Wladyslaw Szpilman)
  • Producer:  Roman Polanski  /  Robert Benmussa  /  Alain Sarde
  • Studio:  Focus
  • Stars:  Adrian Brody
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Actor (Brody), Editing, Cinematography, Costume Design
  • Oscar Points:  355
  • Length:  150 min
  • Genre:  Drama  (True Story)
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Box Office Gross:  $32.57 mil  (#80  –  2002)
  • Release Date:  25 December 2002
  • Metacritic Score:  85
  • Ebert Rating:  ***.5
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #5  (year)  /  #88  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Actor (Brody), Cinematography, Art Direction, Costume Design
  • Nighthawk Points:  230
  • First Watched:  opening week at the Fox Tower

The Film:  He is smart and handsome and talented, and he knows that he is these things.  He meets a good-looking young blonde who it turns out is the sister of a man he knows.  As the three of them leave the building in a crowd, he is yelling after his friend “Where have you been hiding her?”  He barely seems to remember that he is bleeding from the head.  Or that they are fleeing the building because Warsaw has been bombed and he no longer has to be at work.  He is a pianist, and he was playing on Radio Warsaw when the Nazis started bombing the city and knocked them off the air.  He at first kept playing, even as his sound engineer had fled the studio, but then came the bigger bomb that wounded him.  And still he looks at the blonde and that is what he is thinking about.

It is not that he is aloof or oblivious to what is going on.  It’s not that he doesn’t understand the Nazi threat as it looms ever closer.  But in his focus on what is important, in his refusal to leave Warsaw, in his rejection of the offer to join the Jewish police force, he is acting within the insularity of the artist.  He understands how good he is at what he does and he thinks that things will go on as they have done before and eventually things will return to normal.  So he keeps going forward, doing what he can, until the situation takes the ultimate turn for the worse and suddenly he doing what he must.

What saves Wladyslaw Szpilman isn’t his ingenuity.  It isn’t his intelligence or his talent.  It isn’t money.  A variety of these factors work together, along with some loyalty, some friendship, some basic human decency where it is least expected, and the most important factor of all – sheer, blind, dumb luck.  In some ways, this made this story the perfect film for Roman Polanski.  Today, Polanski is often viewed either as one of the world’s great directors, hounded for decades by an overzealous prosecutor or a man whose moral failings lead to his own exile.  But what is often forgotten is Polanki’s own wandering in the wilderness – losing his mother to Auschwitz and on his own, he managed to survive the war in Poland though sheer force of will, some humanity and most of all, sheer, blind dumb luck (the same luck which would allow him to remain alive now over 40 years after his wife and unborn child were slaughtered in one of the most well-known crimes of the 20th Century – a crime that Polanski almost certainly would have been a victim of had he not been out of town).

For so many films, the tag-line is a marketing tool to drive people into the theater.  But there are few films where the tag-line is as perfectly apt as it is here: “Music was his passion.  Survival was his masterpiece.”  From the moment where he is separated from his family, where they are headed away towards certain death and he is pulled aside, for nothing more than a brief appreciation of a former friendship, he must survive.  There is no more music, no more living, there is only survival.  So, he survives.  He manages to stay out of the camps.  He watches as his countrymen are slaughtered with atrocities, then watches their brief attempt to rediscover life in the Warsaw Uprising, only to watch it brutally devastated.  He hides, moving quickly when he must, to avoid being found.  Through it all, he remembers his music, and the music almost costs him his life, but, in a brief reminder that there was still some humanity left, some appreciation of art and beauty in the world, he is spared.

Polanski himself must have remembered the life of this.  It is infused in the direction, and in the performance of Adrian Brody, who has always been a talented actor, but has never given any performance even remotely like this, before or since.  It is the pair of them, working together, that finds the common core that is a reminder that most films of the Holocaust are, in a sense, antithetical to history.  Because the stories are about those who survive.  But we are reminded, again and again, that so much of survival is just luck.  Yes, that core of humanity helps him survive.  But it also almost costs him his life in what have been the ultimate irony.  For the coat that is loaned to him nearly gets him shot.  And when he is asked why he is wearing it, at the end of this magnificent performance, Brody can only briefly mutter “I was cold.”  A pure, simple sentence, that seems to sum up a pure, simple film.

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