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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
March 18, 2002

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


The Movies of 2001

Oscar is a-comin'.

In my house, we treat the Oscars like the Superbowl. There's a party, we watch, we hoot and jeer, we have opinions, we laugh at the good jokes, we ridicule the bad jokes, and we reminisce about great and awful moments in past Academy Awards shows. ("Oprah, meet Uma. Uma, meet Oprah.")

The thing is, we also know that, like the Superbowl, it doesn't mean a thing.

The Oscar doesn't go to the best performance by an actor or actress. It almost always goes to the showiest performance by an actor we already love or that we're excited to have discovered.

"Rain Man's" best-actor nod should have gone to Tom Cruise -- he's the one whose acting was so real we actually bought the fairly easy one-note performance of Dustin Hoffman. We cared about Hoffman's character because Tom Cruise made us.

"My Left Foot" and "Forrest Gump" brought Oscar's laud to Daniel Day-Lewis and Tom Hanks. Both are splendid actors, but the best moments in each performance were actually performed by the actors who played their characters as children!

Meryl Streep keeps getting nominated and winning, not because she's good -- she's actually quite artificial and obvious, so you never forget for a moment that she's aaahcting -- but because everybody says she's good and so it's safe to vote for her because nobody will call you an idiot for doing it.

When terrific actors do get Oscars, it's almost never for their best work. And some of the best actors ever to work in film never get nominated.

And as for Best Picture ... puh-leeeze.

Come on, when's the last time you rented "Out of Africa"? I didn't think so.

There's a reason why studios release their best Oscar candidates right before Christmas. It's so that the Academy will vote for it right after seeing it, before "buyer's remorse" has a chance to set in.

How else can you explain the evil, nasty, and stupid movie "American Beauty" as a Best Picture winner? It's by-the-number formulaic "edgy" filmmaking, which always consists of ridiculing middle class suburban life -- by accusing them (falsely) of doing all the stuff that show business people actually do!

And comedies almost never win, even though they are by far the hardest kind of film to do well.

I'm not going to try to outguess the Oscar voters and predict who's going to win. I don't actually care who's going to win, unless it's a movie I hate.

But I am going to point out movies that I think are winners and losers this year.

Best Movies of 2001.

Shrek can't win the Oscar, because it's been shunted into a category called "animated features." But unlike the New York Times bestseller list, which moved the Harry Potter books onto a separate "children's" list so that a bunch of big whining babies would have a chance at the top spot, the Academy's decision was a good one.

Animated features were never going to win the top honors, because they're almost all comedies, and when you combine animation with comedy, there's simply no chance. Giving them a category of their own will allow some marvelous movies to win Oscars.

Monsters, Inc. is in that category, too -- truly funny, smart, and well acted. (And while I'm at it, let me recommend that you check out Ice Age, a 2002 movie, which has some of the funniest sight gags I've ever seen in an animated film.)

Fellowship of the Ring is a brilliant adaptation of one of the great works of literature of all time. I can't imagine how it could have been done better.

And, oddly enough, all three of these films were among the top four moneymakers of the year. Go figure. Sometimes you can make a great movie, and people show up!

But sometimes the great movies are made for a smaller audience. Gosford Park I've already reviewed here. It's worth seeing twice -- I already have.

I loved Life as a House even though it committed most of the same sins as "American Beauty" -- because the film repented of those sins by the end, and redeemed the characters as well as the movie.

A Beautiful Mind will probably win, and I won't argue with that choice. It's emotional and, even though it is not accurate in detail about the life of the man it's supposed to be about, or about his Nobel-worthy insights, as a movie it is splendid. By giving the audience something like the real experience of schizophrenia, I think it's the best mental-illness movie ever made.

Amelie is self-consciously sweet and happy, and I loved it.

Best Comedies of 2001.

Comedies simply have to be judged by different standards from dramas. A well-made comedy never leaves you thinking, "What a great movie! Now I know the truth."

Instead it usually leaves you feeling, "I love being with these people. I hate to go home."

The two best slapstick comedies starred women: The Princess Diaries and Bridget Jones's Diary. Both contain splendid performances, one by a newcomer whose career is off to a great start, the other by a seasoned actress who won't win the Oscar but who should feel extremely good for having pulled off the feat of being nominated for a comic role.

Riding in Cars with Boys is philosophically not at all what I believe in, but Drew Barrymore headed a charming cast that made me care and laugh at the same time.

Legally Blonde is dumb fun, with a bold-as-brass performance by Reese Witherspoon that proves her to be one of the few actors these days who can take over the screen -- and even steal scenes from a dog.

But for me the best comedy of the year was Serendipity. People have actually complained because the plot depends on far-fetched coincidences. Well, duh! That's what the movie is about!

The Runners-up.

Movies that were very good, but just not good enough to be the best:

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone proved that Rawlings's story is so good that even Chris Columbus and a weakish script couldn't keep it down.

The Others (brilliantly acted, but unbearably heartbreaking to no meaningful purpose).

Hardball wasn't just the white-guy-saves-the-ghetto-kids-through-sports movie that it looked like it was going to be.

Recess: School's Out was old-fashioned flat animation, a kids' movie with a script that was funny and smart.

Memento was brilliantly performed, but proved once again that of course you can mess with people's minds by telling the story out of order and withholding key information, but it still doesn't work to tell a story that way.

Hearts in Atlantis was beautifully acted and shot, but in the end was still a short story that had been fleshed out enough to deserve feature film treatment.

The Tailor of Panama was moving -- and morally fascinating -- but perhaps too dark and brooding, too pessimistic, to be considered to have touched that deep chord of truth.

Bad but Interesting Movies.

Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius was like a long TV episode of a bad kids' cartoon. I was fascinated by how trivial and shallow it was, especially because my seven-year-old enjoyed it immensely. But not as much as the good animated movies this year, to my relief.

Moulin Rouge was touted as the "return of the movie musical," but fact it's a specimen virulent with decadence. Every song stopped the action cold; the story was about people you hoped from the start would quickly die so you could watch something interesting, like sleeping cats or drying paint; and the choreography consisted of people strutting while they lip-synched and the camera did all the actual dancing. And yet you couldn't take your eyes off it.

The Royal Tennenbaums is the "American Beauty" of this year -- a film apparently written by somebody who is deeply p----- off at his family and can't get over it. But it was trying to discover and say something true, and the actors pulled off some genuinely comic turns. My adult children liked it way better than I did, so, like "Moulin Rouge," it may be a generational thing.

Sweet November is one of those awful "free spirit" movies where a sprightly girl charms the life of a stodgy fellow and then dies or goes away mysteriously. In the end, it's pure fantasy. People who move in and take over your life like this are actually hellishly selfish and whatever they're planning for you, get out because you're going to hate what they do to your life. Good performances, though.

Ocean's Eleven wasted a wonderful cast and some good dialogue on a caper movie that was dumb when the Rat Pack did it, and was dumb this time, too. The big finish entirely depended on not showing us what was happening while it happened, but instead saving it for a flashback. If you have to do that in order to have a climax, you've got no climax, folks.

Shamefully Bad Movies

Movies that known they're going to be bad from the start can't be blamed for it -- I mean, you knew when you went to see "The Mummy Returns" and "Pearl Harbor" that they were going to be dreck, because they were promoted as dreck.

But movies that are deeply, stupidly bad but think they're really good and had a lot of time and money spent on them verge on being crimes, especially if they use good actors who could have spent those months creating something worth watching.

Dr. Dolittle 2 was supposedly for children -- but was focused on sex to an adolescently obsessive degree. It was badly written, badly performed, and made me angry from beginning to end. There was not one funny moment in it, a level of badness that is hard to achieve when you've got Eddie Murphy in the lead.

Cats and Dogs would have been funny if they had actually made a movie about cats and dogs. Instead, they made a really bad spy movie, with all the key action offscreen because cats and dogs couldn't actually do any of the things they were supposed to have done. Again, not a single funny moment in the whole thing.

Movies I'm Glad I Didn't See

Nobody pays me to review movies, so I don't have to go sit through the ones whose promos make it clear that they're going to be dreadful. Fact is, I would have stood in line for an hour for the privilege of not watching these films, and I have independent verification, from moviegoers that I trust, that these movies were even worse than the promos indicated.

I'm not putting them in boldface type, because somebody skimming this column might think I was actually sucker enough to have seen them.

"A.I.: Artificial Intelligence." The worst traits of Kubrick combined with the worst of Spielberg.

"Shallow Hal." Two hours of fat jokes, with charmless actors in the lead. Fun.

"Zoolander." Ben Stiller tries to do Steve Martin. Sorry, Ben, you don't have the chops.

"The Majestic." Fatuous liberal propaganda by people who hate the common man, masquerading as a Frank Capra film, and with the phoniest actor in Hollywood in the Jimmy Stewart Role.

"Osmosis Jones." The most repulsive and humorless promo in the history of film comedy.

So ... watch the Oscars along with me, and as we laugh, groan, and sometimes cheer, let's remember that bad as it can be, film is the art we value most in our culture.

And when it's good, it's splendid.


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