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February 20, 2005

Best Pictures (Hoke)

As of last night, when I caught The Aviator, I've seen them all. I know I've reported on what will win. For those who may want to fill their Oscar dance card this week, I'd see the nominees in the following order.

5. Ray: Patton is the prototype for biopic. Take one sliver of the protagonist's life and go from there. Unfortunately, Ray tries to cover too much ground, including Ray Charles' impoverished and tragedy-filled childhood, his rise, and his fight against heroin addiction. Even with this broader canvas, the film is repetitive. Jamie Foxx's performance rises above mimicry, but this is a missable film.

4. Million Dollar Baby: Eastwood's picture is occasionally elegant, and always sparse, but when all is said and done, there's not a damn thing in this movie that is unexpected. For the last third, it is a dead man walking and a chore to stay for the bitter finale. Worse, the picture is sloppy. Early on, a relationship between Eastwood - a plagued boxing manager - and a Catholic priest is merely hinted at (really, played more for laughs). Later, when Eastwood must truly rely on the priest, the scene is stiff and unconvincing. Another, between Eastwood and an estranged daughter, is unrevealed, which is a cheat and a waste of time. Good performances, no great shakes.

3. The Aviator: I expected it to be awful. Gangs of New York awful. It wasn't. DiCaprio partially overcomes his central handicap (he looks like a reptilian boy) to bring us the audacious and increasingly insane Hughes. Scorsese keeps a pace and infuses the film with inventive camera-work (much of the picture is flight). Cate Blanchett owns Katherine Hepburn, an actress who never separated acting from being. It's a solid, big, Hollywood picture.

2. Sideways: This film masks a love story - not between Paul Giamatti and Virginia Madsen, but between Giamatti and his polar-opposite, old college roommate Thomas Haden Church. The two men go on a long wine-tasting (Giamatti's thrill), pussy-hunting (Haden Church's aim - he's to be married), golf week in California wine country. They each meet women. Giamatti falls in love with Madsen, Haden Church irresponsibly dallies with Sandra Oh. In the end, Haden Church's immaturity ruins Giamatti's chances with Madsen, yet Giamatti must still attend to his friend, as if they were knights bonded by a blood oath. It is a distinctly male concept usually only revealed in films of violence and retribution. Here, however, the bond is established in subtle scenes of the two characters simply abiding, cheering up, or laughing with and at each other. It's a great, smart picture.

1. Finding Neverland: Johnny Depp's turn as J.M. Barrie - who becomes a father/uncle to the four sons of the widow Kate Winslet while he writes Peter Pan - is perfect. I was watching Donnie Brasco the other day on TNT. There's really nothing Depp can't do. He is a real special talent and in the film, he is capably supported by Winslet, Julie Christie (as Winslet's domineering and protective mother), and Dustin Hoffman (Depp's financial backer, Charles Frohman).

But the film is stolen by actor who plays one of the young sons, Peter. Over the past several years, there have been some stunning performances by children. The two daughters in last years' In America, the two children in The Others and Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense come to mind. But Freddie Highmore's Peter is so affecting and deft, I was knocked over.

This is a touching, expert film, ultimately about very simple and some might say sentimental concepts. It is no slave to historical accuracy (it states rather frankly at the outset that it is merely "inspired by true events"). For example, Barrie did become close to the family and eventual guardian to the chilren, however, he befriended the family prior to the death of their father, and six years prior to the opening of Peter Pan. There were also five boys, not four.

There are also persistent rumors that Barrie's real-life interest in the children may have been sinister. The film addresses the rumors briefly with a simple denial of such monstrous allegations by Depp. Another of the five boys (Nico) strongly denied the insinuations, stating that Barrie "was an innocent--which is why he could write Peter Pan" and Barrie's primary biographer finds no basis for the claim. What cannot be denied is that for three of the boys, their ends were tragic - one was killed in WWI, one drowned in 1921, and Peter threw himself under a subway train in his 60s.

None of which detracts from the fact that Finding Neverland is the best picture of the year.


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posted by Ace at 11:53 AM

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