Adventures in Oscar-Renting: 2003 Nominees
How the Oscars Work, Version A: Hollywood professionals nominate the five most auspicious achievements of the year within their individual crafts, and all of them as a community produce a roster of the five very best films overall. Clearly, no errors are made, even when they nominate Seabis***t. And then, from these lists of five, the voters further exercise their flawless instincts and award the trophy to the most exceptional nominee in each category. If something seems a little strange, like Renée Zellweger's monotonous hill-country caricature triumphing over Holly Hunter's heroic, movie-saving performance, or Master & Commander winning a Sound Effects prize that Kill Bill and The Triplets of Belleville aren't even contending for...just keep on going, folks, nothing the matter. A-okay.

How the Oscars Work, Version B: Superior actors like Patricia Clarkson and Shohreh Aghdashloo and brave, ambitious movies like City of God and Mystic River snag major nods, even though they often have no chance of winning. Box-office booms for these unlikeliest of hits, and maybe appetites increase for films more nourishing than American Wedding. Crazy people like me—and perhaps like you, if you're reading this—make sure we see every nominee, just to play all the reindeer games of predicting and casting our own phantom votes. Plus, actor's actors like Ben Kingsley and Marcia Gay Harden suddenly become sexy to a wider public, who then get curious about buried treasures and offbeat pictures hidden in their past bodies of work. Or maybe, someone who discovers City of God and likes it decides for the first time in life to look for another Brazilian street epic to see...but where is one to be found?

Here's the point of this annual feature: I celebrate the year's nominees and throw an assist to interested fans and telecast watchers by checking out an underappreciated or lesser-known film by each of the year's acting nominees, as well as an older film that seems reasonably similar to the movies nominated in the Picture and Director categories. This crapshoot doesn't always pan out: not all the movies I've capsule-reviewed below are created equal, as it turns out. But some are real gems, and all of them should be interesting to fans of the individual performers or pictures.

I hope you enjoy this Rental Guide. E-mail me your impressions if you track down any of these titles, or if you have other recommendations!


Best Picture/Director

City of God

Rental Adventures
Pixote (1981; dir. Hector Babenco)

Many American filmgoers only became cognizant of modern Brazil and its ferocious social disparities with the electric City of God and, if they were really lucky, last year's documentary release, Bus 174. In fact, Brazil has had a thriving national cinema for some time, and even enjoyed a prior international-breakout hit about the desperate lives of the urban homeless. Hector Babenco's Pixote, though set in São Paulo instead of City of God's Rio, tells an equallly nightmarish tale of abandoned children, criminal role models, and collapsed social-welfare systems. Babenco, who later enjoyed some Academy attention for his English-language pictures Kiss of the Spider Woman and Ironweed, introduces Pixote with his own direct address to the camera, establishing the real-world desperation behind his film by showing us his young, unprofessional cast in their daily habitats of poverty and malnourishment. Most movies would have trouble equaling the power and pathos of this prologue, but Pixote, capped by one of the saddest, most grotesque codas in film history, is remarkably up to the task. Fernando Ramos da Silva as the title character (Pixote means "Peewee"), Marilia Pera as a toughened prostitute, and Jorge Juliao as the cross-dressing teenage gang-leader Lilica all contribute outstanding, unforgettable performances.
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

The Wizard of Oz (1939; dir. Victor Fleming)

Before there was Minas Tirith, there was...Oz.

The Lord of the Rings trilogy is such a sui generis triumph of pop filmmaking, a totally accessible story made pungent by dynamic, painstaking filmmaking, that it's a daunting task to think of any parallel. James Cameron's Titanic has popped up in multiple reviews, which is logical enough: the last time a make-or-break gamble by a big studio milked a high concept for a billion dollars of worldwide box-office. Titanic is a really superior film, tinny dialogue notwithstanding, but you have to reach back even further for a movie that had to construct an entire universe of fantasy locations and a spontaneous alliance of noble wayfarers and orchestrate them into a narrative spectacle so rousing and colorful that everyone from small children to retirees can instantly grasp the experience. The Wizard of Oz is probably not a new experience for anyone reading this website, but it's always worth another look: a 65-year-old movie that still feels more contemporary than many films half-a-decade old.
Lost in Translation

Guinevere (1999; dir. Audrey Wells)

The day of the Oscar broadcast, I watched Lost in Translation a second time. It remains one of those movies which I appreciate but don't adore, and for some of its more impassioned fans, this is not nearly enough; for many, this movie has stopped being a movie altogether and feels as intimate and deeply known as actual experience. I still wish Scarlett Johansson had a better-defined role, and I wish she was an inspired enough actress to make Charlotte's blankness seem more like a textured characterization than an evident limit in the writer-director's expressive ability.

Five years ago, another female auteur, Audrey Wells, told a similar (but different) tale of a young, still-forming woman who becomes muse, friend, and empathetic partner to an older, male artist feeling the tremors of midlife crisis. Guinevere isn't a perfect movie any more than Lost in Translation is, and even though it's about a photographer, Wells' images still aren't as lovely as Coppola's. Still, Sarah Polley—whose character is not named Guinevere, but that's a story point—is subtle and entrancing, conveying depth of personality even though she is still struggling to know those depths herself. Stephen Rea (The Crying Game) is just as exquisite as her friend/svengali/fellow lost soul, and Jean Smart nails a few whipsmart scenes as Polley's frosty, skeptical mother. Wells had a much bigger hit last year with Under the Tuscan Sun, about a woman who finds herself; the woman in Guinevere remains lost, but her director still sees her clearly, and it's no surprise that it's the tougher, richer film.
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

Billy Budd (1962; dir. Peter Ustinov)

Maritime dramas ain't easy, especially when the ship doesn't have the good sense to capsize in a huge, mad spasm of adolescent romance (see above). Daily operations on a sailing ship don't necessarily lend themselves to the rhythms and momentums of narrative, so Weir's Master and Commander attempts the unique strategy of dispensing with narrative almost entirely: there's a story, but it begins and ends at almost arbitrary moments, and it plays second fiddle (sometimes literally) to the mundane universe of sailor society.

Herman Melville's novella Billy Budd, strangely subtitled "An Inside Narrative," offers a distinctive hybrid of the two approaches. There's a grabber of a plot involving threats of mutiny and an on-deck capital punishment, but the real engines of the story are more intangible: jealousy, lurking evil, homoerotic desire. Peter Ustinov's 1962 adaptation is a handsomely shot version of the tale, though he over-indulges his own performance as the vessel's captain. The real problem is the inevitable difficulty of transplanting Melville's enigmatic prose and sidewinding stories onto celluloid. Billy Budd is a fine film, but if you come away wondering what the fuss is about, stop at the bookstore on your way home from the Blockbuster.
Mystic River

The Yards (2000; dir. James Gray)

The mystery in Clint Eastwood's Mystic River is boring. It is predictable without having the grand reverberations of destiny, and the staging of the big revelations saps the movie's force instead of deepening it. The mystery of this film is much more unfathomable, since by any stretch, a murder-mystery with a guessable villain, a mismatched ensemble, a god-awful score, and a maddening insistence on cross-cuts whenever possible should be a slog to sit through. But Mystic River still absorbs.

I think the unsung hero of Mystic River is its cinematographer, Tom Stern, whose sad, chilly images square the movie in the domestic-tragic arena even more than the hard-working performances or grand designs of the script. Photography is also crucial to another domestic tragedy of recent years, though the extreme widescreen and burnished browns of James Gray's The Yards don't recall Mystic River in any obvious way. The Yards, too, has an impressive cast, spanning from 70s icons (Burstyn, Caan, Dunaway) to up-and-comers still looking for that meaty career-making role (Wahlberg, Joaquin Phoenix, Theron, pre-Monster). I wish critics had backed this movie as they did Eastwood's; I feel sure it's the superior achievement, holding in emotion where Mystic River screams it out. In that way, Mystic River is much closer to Little Odessa, Gray's histrionic first feature, but he's already confident enough in his second picture to let the pervasive rue of his characters seep through the shots. The deaths in The Yards, required by the genre, pack real surprise, and the scars of childhood feel like more than quick-sketch premises for what comes later. Make sure to get the DVD—if any American movie in the last five years deserves letterboxing, it's this one.

Kentucky (1938; dir. David Butler)

Seabiscuit himself is a fringe character in David Butler's Kentucky, a Derby drama with good horse sense but very little idea of the temperaments and behaviors of human beings. Even allowing for melodramatic excess, the Hatfield/McCoy clichés of the plot is pure drivel, with saucer-eyed Loretta Young and disobedient scion Richard Greene hoping that love can dissolve the rivalry of their families. The Technicolor photography is a little overdone, though like so many films from the late 30s, this pop-colored Dixieland sudser feels like a sketchy rehearsal for the still-filming Gone with the Wind.

Sadly, the biggest impression made by Kentucky, far in excess of its Oscar-winning supporting turn by Walter Brennan (honey-baked ham) is the ghastly gallery of African-American stereotypes who grin, dance, scold, comfort, feed, steal from, and dote on the bland white princes and princesses in their midst. Measured against movies of its time, it still feels uniquely offensive: the blatant nostalgia for the verdant, pre-Yankee South doesn't help at all. I wish that Seabiscuit, filmed more than six decades later, felt like much progress, but if you, like me, wondered why that African-American groom called "Sam" was bumming around in half of the scenes as a mute helpmeet to dull white people, Kentucky's legacy might not have felt so far off. For horse lovers and Oscar historians only.

Best Actress

Keisha Castle-Hughes
Whale Rider

Rental Adventures
The Piano (1993; dir. Jane Campion)

Keisha Castle-Hughes is the first debut performer in years to be nominated for an acting Oscar, which is jolly well for her but tough going in terms of this feature article. Thank goodness she's not the first antipodean adolescent to show a knack for this whole acting thing. Anna Paquin blew the top off the world's head, and brought home an Academy Award, for her intuitive, jealous performance in this, her first screen effort.

Clearly, the Palme d'Or-winning, triple Oscar-winning The Piano is yesterday's news to a lot of people, but I hear there are actually people in the world who haven't yet been lucky enough to see it. What on Earth do these people have better to do? I'm sure The Piano has flaws, and if I even cared to be objective about this film, I could probably think of some. (Cliff Curtis, a Maori actor who appears as Castle-Hughes' ne'er-do-well father in Whale Rider, has spoken publicly of his misgivings about playing one of The Piano's primitivist stereotypes.) But The Piano is so lavishly, ingeniously filmed, so brave in sounding the limits of desire, self-betrayal, and empathetic possibility, that normal filmic standards barely apply. This was the movie that turned me on to movies, so I'll never achieve objectivity—but I'm still looking forward to that 33rd screening.

Diane Keaton
Something's Gotta Give

Shoot the Moon (1982; dir. Alan Parker)

The best surprise among all the rentals I did for this feature was Alan Parker's Shoot the Moon, a dark divorce drama that Edward Albee could have been proud to write. Indeed, part of the enormous gratification of watching Shoot the Moon is that the principal artist behind it, director Alan Parker, is usually such a glibly theatrical slickster. His Mississippi Burning was an Academy favorite despite its outrageously superficial grasp of racial crises; meanwhile, the studied, tonally complex, sublimely lived-in Shoot the Moon couldn't score a single nod. Not for Keaton, who proves yet again (as though, after Reds, it still needed proving), that she is a powerhouse of emotional control even when nobody's laughing. Not for Albert Finney, superior as the husband who decides after many years of marriage that he can't even look her in the eye anymore, though he has an infant's grasp of the ramifications to his decisions. The young actresses playing their children, including a very young Tracey Gold and Tina Yothers, are instantly convincing as the restless children of an ailing household, and unlike nearly all films of this type, the most overheated, volcanic scenes are also the best, including Finney's disastrous attempt to bring his estranged oldest daughter an unwanted birthday present. As far as I know, Shoot the Moon isn't available yet on DVD, but digital snobs should concede their standards for a moment: this movie is too good to miss.

Samantha Morton
In America

Under the Skin (1997; dir. Carine Adler)

Samantha Morton is such a fearless and distinctive actress that I'm amazed the Academy has already noticed her two times in her still-young career. True, the roles which have garnered Oscar's attention are probably the most conventional in her entire repertoire—the patient, admiring kook in a Woody Allen film and a noble, reticent mother. Morton inhabits both parts with the absolute integrity she shows in all her work, but you don't have to dig far into her career to discover another plane entirely of sublime craft; while it's a mistake to infer that Morton's performances are the only virtues of these estimable pictures, it's nonetheless impossible to imagine them existing without her trademark blend of ethereality and steely reserve to anchor them. Under the Skin was Morton's breakthrough to the cineaste crowd, winning her a Best Actress prize from the Boston Society of Film Critics, and the same group's Best New Filmmaker award to writer-director Carine Adler, even though hardly any audiences got to see it. As a young woman dangerously derailed by her mother's death, Morton boozes and fucks and sports mom's chemo wig on her evenings out. Impressively, the performance escapes caricature entirely, until a final act that, depending on your point of view, either compromises or further perverts all that's come before. And it's to Adler's enormous credit that, rather than simply pointing her camera at this volcanic performance, she creates the bold, expressive movie that Morton's work deserves, full of alluring sound, suggestive locations, and Nan Goldin-esque framings.
Charlize Theron

The Astronaut's Wife (1999; dir. Rand Ravich)

It's well-known by now that Charlize Theron reinvented not just herself but her entire career with Monster; readers of my long review will already know that I'm staunchly in the camp who believe her turn as Aileen Wuornos is the greatest performance in the past decade of Best Actress Oscar winners, an achievement that would crown any career. Who knows if Theron will ever be as great again. As we wait to find out, I'm at least gratified to discover that her prior portfolio isn't the total boneyard I'd thought. I've long been partial to James Gray's The Yards, as noted above, but an even more pleasant surprise is Rand Ravich's sci-fi parable The Astronaut's Wife. Dumped into theaters in August 1999, the movie was hit with the vilest morning-after critical epithets (it was not pre-screened for journalists). The commonest complaints of viewers and reviewers: no suspense, too derivative, no resolution. But just beneath the veneer of intergalactic horror (Theron's husband is Johnny Depp, hasn't seemed the same since his last voyage, when his shuttle strangely lost contact with him for several minutes), lurks a sharp and worldly-wise allegory about how the denied horrors of everday life are worse than any alien encounter. Theron plays a good woman who's made nervous by her husband's juvenile addiction to adventure, then truly appalled by his embrace of corporate politics and hi-tech killing machines, and finally made to wonder if she wishes to bear children into a world where even her beloved is so infinitely corruptible. (Quivering demureness, creepy twins, a soulless husband obsessed with space and building bomber-planes: I think the working title was The Laura Bush Story.) Watched for what it is, rather than for what it seems to be, The Astronaut's Wife is quite brilliant: a horror movie that knows that all the real horrors are already happening.
Naomi Watts
21 Grams

Tank Girl (1995; dir. Rachel Talalay)

Does Naomi Watts sleep? Since becoming a star with Mulholland Drive and The Ring, she has either filmed or signed on to film nine big-ticket movies in two years. This binge approach to her career makes sense when you consider the long starvation that preceded it. Watts is leaving behind a big, heaping pile of trash projects, and even in the rare good ones—John Duigan's Flirting is a sublime prep-school dramedy, selected last year as Nicole Kidman's rental adventure—Watts herself is cramped into bit parts and all but unrecognizable. I wasn't sure where else to turn, unmoved by the prospect of the courtesan fantasy Dangerous Beauty and dismayed by memories of the prurient Wide Sargasso Sea, so I thought I'd at least take a chance on Tank Girl, Rachel Talalay's 1995 adaptation of the irreverent comic-book series. 20th Century Fox has boldly set this movie alongside the likes of Peter Brook's Marat/Sade in its Avant-Garde Cinema series...which turns out to be absolute heresy, because Tank Girl isn't avant-garde at all, it's just crappy, simultaneously chaotic and deadly dull. It is an interesting 2003 scrapbook, since besides Watts' appearance as the sidekick Jet Girl, there's Malcolm McDowell, so good in Robert Altman's The Company, having some fun as a deranged water-tyrant of the apocalyptic near-future, and Thirteen's riot-grrl director Catherine Hardwicke designed the production. But if this is suddenly getting you interested: NO. Or at least, don't blame me.

Best Actor

Johnny Depp
Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl

Rental Adventures
Dead Man (1996; dir. Jim Jarmusch)

Somehow Depp has emerged as the unofficial mascot of this feature, since he headlines not only his own rental selection but also those I've picked for Charlize Theron (The Astronaut's Wife), Bill Murray (Ed Wood), and Benicio Del Toro (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas). It's sensible of people to wonder if I'm just a Depp freak, seizing any opportunity for more, but I gotta tell ya, it's just a fluke. I realize it's become de rigeur lately to declaim what an unappreciated genius he is, immune to all artistic compromise, but if you'll allow me, anyone who can pop up in Chocolat, The Man Who Cried, and the odious From Hell all in the space of a year has known compromise, and lain down by its side.

But say this for Depp: even when his movies don't pan out, they are usually interesting gambles, and even when they don't click for me, they clearly click in a big way for others (as opposed to bad movies made by many actors, which click for almost no one). Dead Man is an exemplary case of this phenomenon. I don't see that Jarmusch's existentialist/revisionist Western illuminates much of anything, and the sedative pacing and too-crisp photography (by the usually faultless Robby Müller) seem like aesthetic errors with no redeeming irony or subversive edge. But then again, it's elsewhere been hailed as a masterpiece, popping up on a few Best of Decade lists a few years back. So, even though it's not my cup of tea, and I don't think much of Depp in it (Jarmusch's Ghost Dog and Forest Whitaker's laconic cool are much more my speed), I still think you might give it a try.
Ben Kingsley
House of Sand and Fog

Searching for Bobby Fischer (1993; dir. Steven Zaillian)

What a gem this movie is. I must admit, I haven't seen it in years, but every time I do, the unbelievable grace of Max Pomeranc's performance as pre-adolescent chess prodigy Josh Waitzkin warms my heart. The Academy made itself look really good by nominating Conrad L. Hall's superlative but understated photography, but attention could just as easily have been paid to the gorgeous screenplay that Steven Zaillian fashioned out of Fred Waitzkin's memoir of raising a talented kid with ambivalence about his own gifts. Zaillian has also had the intuition to cast the whole film with intelligent, unexpensive actors, so that everyone, from major supporting players to one-scene walk-ons is flavored with the kind of rich humanity that Joan Allen, Joe Mantegna, Laura Linney, Laurence Fishburne, David Paymer, Austin Pendleton, William H. Macy, and Tony Shalhoub know how to impart. And of course there's Kingsley, excellent as usual as the hard-driving chess coach that Josh's father hires for him, even though Josh seems much more comfortable wtih the pure gaming pleasure of the Washington Square fast-clocker played by Fishburne. Searching for Bobby Fischer gives human drama a good name; even if it doesn't sound like your kind of movie, I bet you'll find that it is.

Jude Law
Cold Mountain

Gattaca (1997; dir. Andrew Niccol)
eXistenZ (1999; dir. David Cronenberg)

Here's what I'm thinking: Jude Law is so insanely gorgeous, his features so exquisitely exaggerated, that casting directors and filmmakers themselves can't help but be reminded of fantasy, if not outright unreality. So, even apart from Law's recurring appearances as objects of worldly fascination (from the seductive The Talented Mr. Ripley to the misbegotten Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil), he's had a whole sideline career as a preternatural being and/or perfected vessel of human lust. I could just as easily have listed Spielberg's A.I. in this list, but as intriguing as that film is, I'm even more moved by Andrew Niccol's Gattaca, a cool tale of post-Human Genome Project eugenics, and David Cronenberg's eXistenZ, which taps into similar virtual-reality paranoias as The Matrix without the deluded, cumbersome conceit that there's any such thing as a clear zone of self-aware "reality" left in our game-fueled, virulently amoral society. Good for Law for not coasting on his looks, and for so frequently putting them in the service of provocative, astute inquiries into our pervasive obsessions with technological rapture and terror.
Bill Murray
Lost in Translation

Ed Wood (1994; dir. Tim Burton)
Hamlet (2000; dir. Michael Almereyda)

The Bill Murray Renaissance continues unabated, with his much-beloved supporting turns for Wes Anderson finally leading to his first Oscar nomination, as a lead, for Sofia Coppola. Both of these directors make interesting if uneven movies. Strangely, in both cases, the Academy has paid the most attention to the writing (a nomination for Anderson's The Royal Tenenbaums and a win for Lost in Translation) when the scripts are precisely what need more work, better focus, and cleaner balance among the characters than either Anderson or Coppola has yet achieved. Michael Almereyda isn't a perfect director either—he has his own tendencies to let strong beginnings and overall conceptions get a little fuzzy in execution, especially near the end. But his Hamlet is still a compelling exercise (Murray is an intriguing Polonius), and it's run through with a smart, wry commentary on the corrupting influence of money, a phenomenon that Anderson and Coppola would both do well to think about a little more.

Meanwhile, it's never a bad time to return to the hilarious, poignant Ed Wood, an early sign of Murray's promising future in character work—though truth be told, he's not especially good in it, appearing uncomfortable and not at all convincing as a 1950s aspiring transsexual. But he's just a sideline to the main attractions: stunning, milieu-appropriate photography, a gleeful screenplay, an exquisite tone (only semi-ironic), and a magnificent acting duet between Johnny Depp and an Oscared Martin Landau.
Sean Penn
Mystic River

Casualties of War (1989; dir. Brian DePalma)

I am so grateful that Sean Penn has brought his blazing talent to the movies, and I'm glad for any performer who still maintains that acting is a serious, important, and ethically responsible profession. The only downfall of Penn's evident earnestness about his craft is that he winds up being cast in several films that try to ride the coattails of his own seriousness, aspiring to a profundity that his acting frequently achieves but his pictures less often do. This is true, I think, of Mystic River and even more of 21 Grams, Penn's companion release from 2003. But Casualties of War, a 1989 Vietnam War drama directed by Brian De Palma, trumps them both as a high-minded drama that portends a level of moral gravity on which it never fully delivers. Michael J. Fox, acting way out of his depth as an infantry grunt disgusted by the moral license of his superiors and unit-mates, is the top-billed star of Casualties of War, and his performance, sadly, is emblematic of the movie: small-scaled talent and limited vision aspiring with clear but insufficient energy to Say Something about this debased historical episode. De Palma, an overrated director whose shortcomings are always clearest in his studio outings, never justifies his film's reenactment of battlefield atrocity (a Vietnamese woman is held captive by an American regiment and impressed into service as a sexual object). Only Penn, who invests his misguided character with both an outsized stupidity and an innate moral crisis that David Rabe's script never describes, makes the drama compelling and the story illuminating.

Best Supporting Actress

Shohreh Aghdashloo
House of Sand and Fog

Rental Adventures
Maryam (2000; dir. Ramin Serry)

By virtue of her Oscar nomination and her upcoming television pilot, Shohreh Aghdashloo is, as far as I know, Hollywood's first crossover Iranian actress. But she's long been a hero and mainstay of Iranian and Iranian-American cinema, as evidenced by her honorific special billing at the end of Maryam's credits. Maryam is not an especially well-made movie, and the ending in particular feels too pat, given the circumstances. But the story of an Iranian-American girl's coming into political consciousness during the period of the Shah's overthrow in the 1970s is undoubtedly new material for a lot of potential renters. The trumpeted Iranian imports that have screened in the states are, for obvious reasons of censorship, never quite so overtly political, so Maryam, which is much closer to My So-Called Life than to Taste of Cherry is an enlightening complement. Aghdashloo is very good as Maryam's warm, peacekeeping mother...and casting directors may wish to know that she not only acts, she also catered the whole movie with delicious Persian food! Mmmmmmm.
Patricia Clarkson
Pieces of April

High Art (1998; dir. Lisa Cholodenko)
The Safety of Objects (2003; dir. Rose Troche)

Patricia Clarkson gave one of the most astounding, memorable supporting performances of the entire 1990s in Lisa Cholodenko's High Art, playing Greta, a former Fassbinder actress whose mermaid beauty and wry wit are still dimly perceptible beneath her coked-up haze and tripwire jealousies. Grotesquely, the performance was one of many superlative achievements in this category that 1998 Oscar nominators passed over in favor of Brenda Blethyn's screech in Little Voice, Judi Dench's cameo in Shakespeare in Love, and Lynn Redgrave's mug in Gods and Monsters. But at least High Art ignited Clarkson's career, allowing her to become the badge of esteem in so many indie projects of the last few years. 2003 alone saw Clarkson lighting up her corner of four low-budget pictures, of which Rose Troche's The Safety of Objects was the least hyped. It's not much of a movie, but Clarkson is typically enticing as a casually sexy divorcée who thinks her ex-husband has kidnapped their daughter (and whose May-December affair with Dawson's Creek's Joshua Jackson is morbidly interrupted). Glenn Close and Election's Jessica Campbell are also of interest here.
Marcia Gay Harden
Mystic River

Gaudí Afternoon (2001; dir. Susan Seidelman)

Since I'm a sucker for good actresses, there's no way I'm going to skip over a project like Gaudí Afternoon when it rolls around, despite every sign that I should. An intended theatrical release that got dumped onto DVD, a self-consciously "quirky" plot, and a box cover where all four actresses look uncomfortably made-up into mix-n-match Barbie versions of themselves (a dishwater-blonde Judy Davis, Lili Taylor dressed up like Ron Howard). If Harden looks especially bizarre to you on the cover, like a bull-chinned drag queen playing Marcia Gay Harden, trust your instinct: she is, in the perennial language of dumb trailers and inane taglies, "not what she seems." The movie isn't anything at all, and in fact, it's by far the worst of all the movies I watched for this assignment—yes, worse than Tank Girl. I hope these talented women had a ball on location in Barcelona; would that their fun communicated to their audience in even the slightest degree.
Holly Hunter

The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom (1993; dir. Michael Ritchie)
Things You Can Tell Just By Looking at Her (2000; dir. Rodrigo Garcia)

Holly Hunter is one of the strongest, most sensational character actresses of her generation, which is kind of a marvel, considering that her small size and Conyers twang could easily have typecast her in a narrow range of parts. Instead, she is uncannily flexible with her bold gifts, able to stretch them all the way into comic lunacy or severe drama, and at almost every second, she manages to play more than one emotion at a time. Check out the contrast here, in two superlative turns that debuted on cable TV though each is a screen-sized achievement. In The Positively True Adventures..., Hunter's hilarious tour-de-force as Wanda Holloway, the Channelview, TX, woman who tried to assassinate her daughter's cheerleading rival, ignites a goofily inspired send-up of tabloid-derived TV movies. In her interview scenes as Wanda, she makes the whole story come alive before we've even seen a single location or any of the other actors, and she keeps us in stitches until suddenly making us feel for this southern-fried Gorgon.

Contrast that with Things You Can Tell..., where she pretty calmly decides to abort the baby she's conceived with her boyfriend (the late Gregory Hines), but she isn't prepared for the emotional riot that awaits her after the operation. Hunter shatters in one long, backward dolly down the sidewalk, easily one of the most stinging sequence-shots in the last few years. There just isn't anyone better.
Renée Zellweger
Cold Mountain

White Oleander (2002; dir. Peter Kosminsky)

I've gotta laugh whenever I read Renée Zellweger being compared to Streep or De Niro (believe me, it happens) just because she gains some pounds for Bridget Jones's Diary, or sorta learns to dance in Chicago, or lets fly with the Appalachian drawl in Cold Mountain. Ironically, one of Zellweger's most interesting performances in recent years was the one role where she seemed to be playing the most proximate version of herself, a kind, pretty actress whose insecurities visibly get the best of her—and that's before she has the whole, fraying rug of her self-confidence pulled out from beneath her by a sneering, scheming Michelle Pfeiffer. Both women are quite good in this film, as are Robin Wright Penn as a born-again stripper and Matchstick Men's Alison Lohman as the teenage foster-child who brings these other women's stories together. The film, too, ain't half bad, with some edgy photography by Elliot Davis (Out of Sight, Thirteen), and though I saw the film in theaters, I bet it's just the right emotional size to work beautifully on DVD.

Best Supporting Actor

Alec Baldwin
The Cooler

Rental Adventures
Miami Blues (1990; dir. George Armitage)

Alec Baldwin, handsome, gifted, and intense, is often cited as an inexplicable case of major stardom that never quite happened. His legendary temper, of course, is often blamed for his stalled career, even when he was connecting with the public in The Hunt for Red October and with the critics in Glengarry Glen Ross. But maybe more people share my hesitation about Baldwin's performances, which often seem to me to be kind of interesting and kind of boring at the same time. I just can't make up my mind. I enjoyed his ferrety take on Stanley Kowalski in the TV version of A Streetcar Named Desire in 1995, with Jessica Lange as Blanche, though I'm not sure I didn't appreciate the novelty of the approach more than the actual interpretation. Probably my favorite Baldwin turn to date was in 1990's Miami Blues, where he played a sadistic killer who is also strangely likable, as he shacks up with a ditzy call-girl played by Jennifer Jason Leigh (who else?) and funds their oddball domestic experiment with a little robbery here, a little murder there. What I loved about the film in my first viewing is the trickster tone: it plays like a comedy with truly upsetting violence, and its best moments are throwaway non sequiturs. But then, returning to Miami Blues for this feature, the magic seemed to have dimmed. I still like the film, but I can't quite account for my earlier enthusiasm. The Baldwin Riddle continues.
Benicio Del Toro
21 Grams

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998; dir. Terry Gilliam)

Easily the most fascinating item on Criterion's DVD of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas—and I include the film itself in this competition—is the title menu, where the hand of some invisible artist inscribes the film's title in real time, in the trippy, scratchy font familiar from the poster. Who knew that watching ink get spilled could be so engrossing; then again, there's the movie itself, which is like watching paint dry, a different activity entirely. Other people's acid trips (or heroin trips, or drug binges, or popper fantasias, or everything else we see in this movie) just aren't that interesting, and the visually profligate Gilliam keys up everything in the movie, including the outrageously mannered performances of Johnny Depp as the Hunter S. Thompson figure and Benicio Del Toro as his lawyer/accomplice, without ever providing a reason for us to care about either the characters or the film's own unbridled disorganization. Del Toro seems to administer his trademark intensity pretty indiscriminately, in high-minded dramas like Traffic, in low-minded exploitation like The Hunted, and in fatally self-important auteurist projects like Fear and Loathing or, for that matter, 21 Grams. I'm getting a little tired of his hatchet face and constant brooding, and Fear and Loathing is an unpleasant enough ordeal that I'm guaranteed to give his and Gilliam's movies a wide berth for the foreseeable future.
Djimon Hounsou
In America

The Middle Passage (2000; dir. Guy Deslauriers)

Part of why Djimon Hounsou's work in In America is so wonderful is that, despite the exoticist trappings that still cling to the role of the strapping, wailing, dying benefactor, the screenplay accommodates a decent range of tones in his performance, and the whole film (not just his role) is stylized in the direction of urban fairy tale. This seems quite different than the noble-savage stereotyping of Hounsou in Spielberg's Amistad and, worse, in Shekhar Kapur's The Four Feathers; I was losing hope that Hounsou would ever find a movie whose primary interest in him was not pure objectification.

Hounsou's peculiar and unfortunate relation to screen objectification lends a poignant, doubtless unintentional irony to his English-language narration of Guy Deslauriers' The Middle Passage, a French production about the horrors of the West African/American slave trade of the 18th and 19th centuries. Most of the film, which is not a narrative fiction but a kind of narrated historical diorama, is set in the clogged, filthy, diseased cabin of a slave ship, as we observe the conditions of this horrific transport and realize that no stories are possible in such dehumanized conditions. It's a powerful piece of educational cinema, with the English-language narration written by famed novelist Walter Mosley.
Tim Robbins
Mystic River

Jungle Fever (1991; dir. Spike Lee)

This was an opportunistic pick on my part, since Robbins' role in Jungle Fever is limited to just two scenes as Wesley Snipes' snide boss at an urban architectural firm. It's a fall-guy role, allowing Robbins little choice but to embody the kind of unself-conscious racist jerk we've seen elsewhere in Spike Lee's filmography. If I'd really wanted to see Robbins sport his stuff, I would have finally delved into one of his offbeat dramas and thrillers (Jacob's Ladder, Bob Roberts, Arlington Rd.) which tend to have interesting word of mouth, and which he can presumably afford to film with those bogus paychecks he signs for shit like Nothing to Lose and Antitrust.

But I wasn't really interested in Robbins, I was interested in Lee, whose career is so exciting and so maddening. Jungle Fever, centered around an interracial romance, is a pretty emblematic work for this director, because it's actually inter-everything: there's no conflict, no tension that Lee won't explore, even if that means entire subplots that don't belong in the same movie. And his own thinking about social inequality, which is so deft in certain passages in his films, is perennially undercut by the sophomoric designs of other scenes, like the all-girl rant against men in the middle of Jungle Fever, which is probably meant to offset the remarkable chauvinism of the rest of the film, but just makes matters worse because the gesture is too obvious to feel sincere, and it still can't frame a discussion of gender in any terms beyond outright antagonism. Still, there's enough vitality and regional poetry even in Lee's middling films to make them worth renting. Check it out some night when you're feeling generous.
Ken Watanabe
The Last Samurai

Tampopo (1985; dir. Juzo Itami)

Oscar 2003's final attempt to complicate this feature: Aghdashloo wasn't easy, Castle-Hughes required a cop-out, and Ken Watanabe's tiny catalogue of films are mostly Japanese-language pictures unavailable on these shores. But it turns out he was one of the taciturn sidekicks in Tampopo's, Juzo Itami's well-known and well-liked paean to pork noodles, spaghetti Westerns, Godardian metacinema, and lots of other heterogeneous inspirations. The film has an odd structure, with a central story about a widow trying to rehabilitate her shabby noodle restaurant (with the help of some itinerant truckers and ancient chefs), but Itami regularly cuts away to self-contained vignettes on the subject of food. We hear elegies to boar sausage, see slapstick routines about pasta, and watch a man and woman make love using a variety of culinary toys (egg yolks, crayfish, you name it). It all sounds weird, and it is, but everyone I know who has seen Tampopo is charmed by it. The slim little teenage truck-driver who sidles up to the noodle bar may not remind you one whit of the imperious, lofty-browed samurai whose charisma runs circles around Tom Cruise, but that's just part of the mystery of the movies!

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