As most Yale students agonize about midterms this weekend the rest of the American population will use its extra day to greater advantage: agonizing in front of the television as the Academy Awards reveal this year’s film winners. While the ceremony is both traditionally long and traditionally vapid, leaving feelings of emptiness and despair in one’s breast, we can’t seem to look away. However, in the scheme of such shows the ceremony this weekend warrants greater attention than usual, as the films and actors nominated are of a quality unseen in recent years. But wait! The music is swelling, so without further ado, here are my picks for the top honors, keeping in mind that these are not the projected winners, as the best nominees will undoubtedly lose.
Best Actor in a Leading Role — Bill Murray for his role as Bob. Ever since “Groundhog Day” Bill Murray has been scaling the heights of subtle comedy, which he tops in “Lost in Translation.” The pain behind his eyes as he floats through each absurd situation, his startlingly truthful apathy, adds a complexity to the film’s humor that almost transforms it into a new type of emotion, one that ruptures laughter to release sadness. Bob’s outer appearance is a kabuki mask donned in resignation in the face of the sad hand dealt by fate. His inner-self has not succumbed yet but is tragically unable to break free. Murray conveys all this without words and shows the humor-sadness of it at the same time. Not bad.
Best Actress in a Leading Role — Naomi Watts for her role as Cristina in “21 Grams.” Watts expertly transforms herself from an upper-class mother in the perfect family to a drug-addicted emotional wreck with an honesty that makes it feel like a violation of privacy to watch. Cristina doesn’t know what she wants, and lashes out in pain constantly without ever solving any of her internal conflicts. She is not a serial killer, just a normal person trying to deal with the enormous loss of her family. Watts seems to commit her entire soul, giving herself wholly to the performance and revealing her most private self. She brings blistering truth to the film’s melodramatic plot.
Best Actor in a Supporting Role — Benicio Del Toro for his role as Jack. If Watts is the soul of “21 Grams” Del Toro is the heart. As the conflicted Jack Jordan, Del Toro draws on an inner warmth singed by fire to explore man’s relationship with God. Unlike most fictional religious zealots, Jack has the wavering conviction of a flawed but good man. He is not the perfect person and his passions sometimes get him into trouble. Del Toro manages to give such a strong moral compass to Jack that his tragic internal demise believably comes at his own hands. He is both Jesus and sinner at the same time. For Del Toro, a paradox of a role and the performance of a lifetime.
Best Actress in a Supporting Role — Holly Hunter for her role as Melanie. “Thirteen” is a tough movie to swallow but Holly Hunter is the skilled center that elevates it beyond its shock value. While Renee Zellweger does a great job hiding herself within her role in “Cold Mountain,” she still gives the impression that she is acting. Hunter is effortlessly real. Watching her be both mother and child, trying to govern but being instead rendered powerless, is a parental nightmare. As her daughter transforms from an honor student into a monster, Hunter desperately tries to help her, but is manipulated into making the wrong decision again and again. Melanie slowly wilts, as her sadness and fear overwhelm her. Her failure as a startlingly real parent tethers “Thirteen” to the everyday world allowing its overwhelming terror to hit home.
Cinematography — Eduardo Serra for “Girl With a Pearl Earring.” Serra’s attempt to create the feel of a painting in a movie shows his skill as a cinematographer and, more importantly, his skill as an artist. Every frame emulates Vermeer’s color scheme and the airy luminescence of his varnish while at the same time complementing the melodramatic tones of the plot.
Original Score — Gabriel Yared for “Cold Mountain.” Anyone who can express tragedy with slow plaintive fiddle tunes while being so innovative as to not call up memories of the “Titanic” score deserves an Oscar. Yared adds a modern twang to the sound of Appalachia and has fun with the various tempos. As a bonus, he even knows when to shut up, silencing the score entirely during the emotional final climax.
Best Original Screenplay — Steven Knight for “Dirty Pretty Things.” Kudos to Knight for exposing the dark underbelly of London while dealing with deep issues of separation and love. The epic struggle of the film centers around Knight’s immigrant protagonist who struggles to keep his humanity and self-respect while those around him give them up without a fight. The humor of the climactic sequence is only superseded by the tragic parting of the denouement.
Directing — Peter Jackson for “Lord of the Rings.” He brought Tolkien’s epic trilogy to the screen while spending far less than Cameron, he was a pleasure to work with and treated his subject with respect. In short, Peter Jackson is the perfect director. Newline Cinema took a huge risk by hiring him and not only did he not break its budget, he saved its studio. Plus, he can command an entire army without flinching.
Best Picture — “Lord of the Rings.” This Oscar is unofficially cumulative for the three works entire and Jackson will get it. Frodo’s quest against the Dark Lord gave America something to cheer for: a good old-fashioned epic story. While the battle scenes are unbelievable Jackson deserves this award for the quiet scenes that really get at the heart of Tolkien’s story. The best of these sequences is the lighting of the signal lamps from Gondor to Rohan. Watching the camera swirl through the air around the majesty of the mist-covered mountains as the lonely, tiny signal fires are lit in the distance, causes chills: Jackson has created visual poetry, a metaphor for humanity’s struggle. Our equivalent of the Greek myths, this trilogy will go down as the greatest spectacle of our time. Luckily, it also has substance, style and beauty making it a damn fine movie as well.
What Shouldn’t Win — “Seabiscuit.” The absence of “Cold Mountain” from the Best Picture category and the inclusion of “Seabiscuit” marks one of the few false notes of the nominations. The book was good but the movie is hardly a ghost of it, transforming every complex issue into a one-dimensional absolute. This is a classic example of a movie receiving honors for its subject matter as opposed to its substance. Shame on the Academy, with a running time of four plus hours, the Oscars doesn’t need a pony ride.