Hollywood is big on tradition. Each year the show-business illuminati nominate their favorite movies, and each year the critics gripe in response. Then Oscar night rolls along, and inevitably films and actors win who are undeserving, speeches go on forever, and Elizabeth Taylor wanders around in a stupor. By hour five it becomes clear that the Academy Awards are meaningless, an empty affirmation that defines the norm while patting the majority on the head simply for agreeing with each other.
But everyone knows what they like on their own. We all have movies that we “get” more than anyone else, the ones that define some part of our beings that can’t be put into words. And, inevitably, they don’t win golden statuettes. So what follows are my inner favorites which, regardless of whether they win — or if they were nominated in the first place — affected me.
Best Actress: Hilary Swank (“Million Dollar Baby”) — Once the scrawny white nymph from “Boys Don’t Cry,” Swank transforms herself completely for “Million” into the raw, disarmingly honest fighter Maggie Fitzgerald. Between throwing all her own punches (no stunt doubles here) and her zealous conversations with Eastwood’s Frankie, she exudes a desperate vulnerability, laying the groundwork for the film’s tragic second act. Not only does Swank demonstrate Maggie’s obsessive focus on boxing, she does it with a nothing-left-to-lose attitude stuck somewhere between insanity and optimism. The only other nominee who can touch her in this category is Imelda Staunton (“Vera Drake”), whose performance as the film’s heroine painfully captures the loss of dignity and spirit that comes with a slide from a carefree, motherly matron to a prison-bound emotional wreck.
Best Actor: Jamie Foxx (“Ray”) is a shoo-in, and rightfully so.
Best Supporting Actor: Clive Owen (“Closer”) — Besides doing a bang-up job in the first Instant Message sex scene to hit the silver screen, Owen brings the dangerous desperation of a cornered animal to his portrayal of Larry. Filled with ominous caverns and crags, his personality hints at something depraved salivating just below the surface. Owen plays it to perfection: The forces of instinct and domestication constantly do battle in Owen’s lewd facial expressions and terse movements. Even more interesting, his docile side always wins out. Creating a modern masculine, emasculated male, Owen one-ups Spacey’s turn in “American Beauty” by eliminating the irony.
Playing a similarly difficult role in a very different movie, Eddie Marsan deserved a nomination in this category for his role as Reg, the shy boyfriend of Vera Drake’s daughter. He hides deep feelings of attachment beneath his timid exterior for most of the film, only to stand up for Vera with an unexpectedly heartbreaking speech (one that deserves an award in and of itself).
Best Supporting Actress: Natalie Portman (“Closer”) — As the reluctant femme fatale Alice, desperate for real love, Portman exudes confusion and mystery. Unwillingly cut off from companionship, Alice wants to be in a trusting relationship — and she goes to the length of whoring herself out trying to find a man she can open up to. This posturing comes to a head in a brutally precise strip-club scene with Owen, in which not an eye blink is out of place. Alice knows her role yet isn’t comfortable in it: In clear contrast, Portman is.
Best Director and Best Picture: Clint Eastwood and “Million Dollar Baby” — Unafraid to confront life at its most hopeless, Eastwood’s brooding, gritty masterpiece speaks volumes about love and death. Although boxing factors heavily into the plot, the film is nothing like “Rocky,” forgoing the sports theme in favor of something much darker and deeper. The film asks uncomfortable questions, and Eastwood’s answers resonate and repulse at the same time. Not only does the film have the guts to portray a Catholic struggling against Christian doctrine to do what he feels is right, it ends without resolution, leaving the members of the audience to struggle with their own consciences. Eastwood’s intimate, poetic direction allows the performances to drive the film. Confident in his craft, he gives every shot its place, every line its purpose. “Million Dollar Baby” leaves the other nominees in the dust.
Best Original Score: Michael Giacchino (“The Incredibles”) — Not even nominated, this score by video-game composer Giacchino genuinely engages in a dialogue with the on-screen action. Accentuating every movement of the Incredible family with jazzy trumpet blasts, Giacchino’s score deftly satirizes comic-book action bubbles yet never distances itself too far from the film. Alexandre Desplat’s eerily cheerful score for “Birth” also should have received a nod.
Best Cinematography: Bruno Delbonnel (“A Very Long Engagement”) — The seamless blending of computer-scape and landscape is amazing enough, but catching the mischievous spark in Audrey Tautou’s eye as she strikes a match in the dark takes real skill. Working in every possible lighting situation, Delbonnel shines. Equally deserving is Eric Gautier, the director of photography for “Motorcycle Diaries,” a film with sweeping vistas and near-perfectly composed portraits.
Worst Movie Nominated: “The Aviator” — Leo is out of his element, Cate Blanchett reminds us all that the real Katherine Hepburn was actually funny, and Hughes’ plane crashes again and again and again.