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The Best Year in Movies?

At times wild and weird, the 78th Academy Awards capped an interesting year in pictures.


The height of irony came, appropriately, at the end of the show, but there were plenty of other moments to remember this year, both good and bad. The stage numbers have become a favorite for many, though perhaps not for the reasons the show's producers might hope. Lots of people tune in to see how surreal surreal can get; as we saw with the fiery cars, zombie people, and dancing pimps and hos, pretty surreal. (Speaking of music, I'm sure I wasn't the only person in the television audience who thought Itzhak Perlman's medley of movie scores was all one tune until he performed the score from "Brokeback Mountain." The right winner was chosen that time. Gustavo Santaolalla's music was the only one that stood out.)

Some of the better preprogrammed moments were preprogrammed decades ago. They included the various montages of old films, including the tribute to film noir — beautiful if seriously incomplete — and the lovely ode to political films, culminating with the famous passage from "Network," when the fed-up anchorman inspires his viewers to turn off their televisions, stick their heads out of their windows and yell, "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!"

The montage of clips was inspiring, but it also felt like a supposed reminder of how seriously movies take on social topics, for example, "Brokeback." Jon Stewart quickly and humorously deflated that notion. But the Oscars this year were more film-friendly than usual; they even included clips from the nominees as intermissions before commercial breaks. The only thing absent from the overloaded Oscars in recent years has been the movies themselves. So it's encouraging that the Academy Award producers chose to honor them in these various ways. I would urge them to continue.

One way would be to get rid of things that are either irrelevant or redundant. The Academy Awards show could trim its time greatly by limiting the televised awards. The relevance of many — like the shorts, both fiction and documentary — is questionable. Some categories should simply be eliminated altogether. The sound categories? If you can't tell the difference between editing and mixing, you probably don't have an opinion on the winner. Another montage deserving scrutiny is the one honoring fallen Hollywood icons. Keep it, but develop it naturally. If hardly anyone of importance dies, just give those few longer screen time, don't pad the thing. The national audience neither knows nor cares who produced "Adventures in Babysitting." So why are we reminded when she passes?

Some other observations on the good and the bad:

Good: Clint Eastwood was nowhere to be found.

Good: Jon Stewart was everywhere he needed to be, without overstepping.

Good: Larry McMurtry won an Oscar. It was good to see a true writer, with horrid glasses and tie askew, looking as if he had just left the typewriter or was soon headed back to it, accept the statuette.

Bad: Felicity Huffman got screwed. Maybe she hasn't been in the game long enough or her work on television worked against her. But did anyone consider how amazing it is for an actor to play the opposite gender trying to pretend to be the one she really is and make it look real? June Carter was the least noteworthy element of a middling biopic.

Good: Blockbusters were almost universally ignored or pushed to the fringe.

Good: Even smaller movies like "The Squid and the Whale" were recognized, at least as nominated films in smaller categories such as Best Screenplay.

The Best: The announcement of Philip Seymour Hoffman as Best Actor. First, it was unexpected, or at least extremely iffy, with a natural contemporary leading man such as Joaquin Phoenix up for his portrayal of a much more recognizable 20th-century artist. But the Academy got it right with this one. Hoffman deserved the win. It was the best of those nominated. And that's what makes the moment all the sweeter. This was not a make-up award, not an apology for overlooking him in the past. Hoffman as Truman Capote was at the height of his power, in his best role. Accordingly, the Oscars were the best they've been in a while.

This year's awards seemed to reflect a new appreciation for the smaller story, even if they failed, as they most always do, to talk about the very images they pretend to honor. It's true we could wish for more bold originality and visual artistry in our film-going experiences. Robert Altman's ghostly voice from his own past intoning that he doesn't care about stories was a brief antagonistic moment amid much fluffy groupthink. The contenders were mostly small-scale art-house movies, the only major studio contribution being Steven Spielberg's "Munich." The results highlighted again the disturbing split personality in Hollywood, but they were nothing to protest. We weren't left mad as hell this March, and we can take it for one more year. S


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