An Honor To Be Nominated Redux

Well, another Oscar season has come and gone, along with the usual surprises, upsets and disappointments. Boy, who could have predicted Deadpool would become the very first write-in candidate to win Best Picture? Pretty crazy!

Actually, I started writing this on the Friday before the Oscars, at which time I had no idea what won or even if this year would bring the usual surprises, upsets and disappointments. As it turned out, this was a particularly unusual year. But in the days leading up to the event, a remarkably boring year would have meant that La La Land won every single award it was up for. But even the fact that nobody really thought that was likely…and that nobody could have predicted what actually happened…means that very few Oscar scenarios can truly be described as boring.

For those of us who aren’t likely to be receiving one any time soon, it can often seem like the only thing the Academy Awards are good for is complaining. No matter how many “substandard” movies take home the big prize, we still cling to the belief that the Best Picture winner should in fact represent the very pinnacle of cinematic achievement. Our own personal tastes coincidentally match the Academy’s just enough to make us believe in the inherent fairness of the system, despite the fact that a case for a superior alternative can be made for virtually every year the Oscars have been given. The argument is the same every year. Only the titles change.

This recurring theme was part of the impetus behind the creation of An Honor To Be Nominated. I introduced the column several years ago over at The Morton Report and it’s floated around the interwebs since, cropping up at The Digital Bits, One Perfect Shot and, of course, right here. The original concept was pretty simple: taking a look back at the movies that did not win Best Picture and seeing how they withstood the test of time.

Regardless of what site was publishing it, Honor never really set the world on fire. Obviously, some columns were more popular than others. Pretty much anything about Star Wars is gonna attract some eyeballs. But by its very nature, the column was going to have to look at some movies whose cultural moment had passed. I wasn’t exactly shocked that my analysis of The Blind Side didn’t prove to be click-bait. But considering how hugely popular the movie was at the time, I thought it was interesting to see how little lasting impact it had.

While I truly loved the original concept for Honor, I found myself running into a hurdle greater than public indifference that sapped a little of my enthusiasm for the project. Namely, most of the movies that have vied for Best Picture are pretty good. I realize this doesn’t sound like it should be a problem. But what I mean by this is that while only some of these movies are true masterpieces, and just a handful are outright terrible, the majority are simply above average. Their ratings on Rotten Tomatoes tend to land in the high-80-to-low-90 percentiles. That commitment to competence and professionalism doesn’t exactly inspire passion.

But if I cast the net wider to include ALL the nominated films in every category, an interesting thing happens. The pool now includes cult movies, blockbusters, bloated would-be epics that Oscar didn’t quite take the bait for, and odd outliers that had no business being there but crashed the party anyway. For all the pomp, circumstance and importance placed upon them, you’d think that an Academy Award nomination would at the very least guarantee a measure of immortality. It really doesn’t.

When you think of the films of 1977, you probably think Star Wars, Close Encounters Of The Third Kind and Annie Hall, all of which were nominated for and indeed won Oscars. But when’s the last time you spared a moment for I Never Promised You A Rose Garden? Or The Other Side Of Midnight? Or The Slipper And The Rose? All of them were up for trophies too, believe it or not, and Oscar history is littered with countless such forgotten also-rans. Hell, in the early years of the awards, some categories had so many contenders you’d think an Academy Award nomination was the equivalent of a participation ribbon.

Taking a broader look at the other categories reveals all kinds of interesting quirks and trends. For instance, people always seem surprised when a foreign language film is nominated in any category other than Best Foreign Language Film. But they’ve actually done reasonably well at the Oscars over the years, especially if your name happened to be Federico Fellini, Ingmar Bergman or Akira Kurosawa. It’s interesting to note that some but not all of the Harry Potter, James Bond and Star Trek movies have competed for Oscars. And while the Academy is unquestionably lax in diversity across the board, representation of women at least becomes a lot more interesting when you take the focus off of the Best Director category and look at writers, designers and editors. In some cases, better. But in others, a lot worse. For example, did you know that Best Cinematography is the only category (apart from Actor and Supporting Actor, obviously) that has never had a female nominee? Now you do.

From now on, An Honor To Be Nominated will be reconsidering all the movies nominated in any category. The title is remaining the same. Sure, a handful of movies have been nominated for just one or two awards and won everything they could. But most movies come up as a bridesmaid in at least one category. Even Ben-Hur and Titanic lost a couple of awards. (Trivia note: the biggest sweep so far was enjoyed by The Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King, which went 11 for 11.)

In rethinking the parameters of this column, I’ve settled on a few ground rules. One, I’ll be ignoring short films, except for those very rare instances where shorts managed to compete alongside features. Those are few and far between, however. Second, the movies had to be nominated and compete for their awards, so no special recognition and honorary awards like those given to Fantasia or early makeup winners like Planet Of The Apes. While most of these honorary appointees ended up competing in other categories anyway, a few slip through the cracks.

Finally, I’ll be making a best effort at tracking down some of these movies but, as anybody who has been following the JET’s Most Wanted project knows, even Oscar nominees aren’t guaranteed an afterlife. So there are some nominees and winners (particularly documentaries, foreign films and early contenders) that simply aren’t available. Rest assured that I’ll continue to spotlight these orphans as Most Wanted picks.

The new (and hopefully improved) An Honor To Be Nominated debuts on Thursday, March 3, and will appear biweekly every Thursday. The Academy doesn’t really have a special day of the week that they announce their nominations on but they’ve most often fallen on a Thursday lately, so I’m going with that. I know this announcement doesn’t rate as high as Red Vines and Junior Mints parachuting down from the sky but I hope you’ll enjoy this new direction and that we can rediscover some interesting movies together.

An Honor To Be Nominated: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

THE CONTENDER: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)

Number of Nominations: 10 – Picture, Director (Ang Lee), Adapted Screenplay (Wang Hui-Ling and James Schamus and Tsai Kuo Jung), Foreign Language Film, Original Score (Tan Dun), Original Song (“A Love Before Time,” music by Jorge Calandrelli and Tan Dun, lyrics by James Schamus), Art Direction (Tim Yip), Cinematography (Peter Pau), Costume Design (Tim Yip), Film Editing (Tim Squyres)

Number of Wins: 4 (Foreign Language Film, Original Score, Art Direction and Cinematography)

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is frequently (and justifiably) criticized for seeming to favor certain movie genres over others. It is highly unusual to see a broad comedy, a horror flick or a superhero epic compete in any category, much less Best Picture. But there are really only three types of feature film that the Academy treats as completely separate entities, relegated to their own categories: animation, documentaries and foreign language films. These movies are expected to stay within their own little niche groups, competing only against each other, and for the most part, they do. Only three animated films have been nominated for Best Picture so far (Beauty And The Beast, Up and Toy Story 3) and no documentaries have ever broken out of their race.

Foreign language films have had slightly better luck but not much. As of 2016, less than 10 non-English-language movies have been up for Best Picture, and that’s including Clint Eastwood’s US-produced, Japanese-language Letters From Iwo Jima. They’ve competed and occasionally won in other categories, including acting, directing and writing, but Best Picture remains just out of reach for most international productions. Of course, it hardly comes as a surprise that an organization that has struggled with diversity should remain stubbornly America-centric.

In theory, the Best Foreign Language Film category ought to provide a thoughtful alternative to the Best Picture category, a true lineup of the best in international cinema. But the rules in that category are both convoluted and restrictive. For example, each country is required to submit one, and only one, film for nominating consideration. This effectively turns the category into the Olympics of moviemaking. These submissions reflect the prevailing current attitude of each country, so there’s no way that someone like acclaimed Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi, officially banned from filmmaking by his country’s government, is ever going to have one of his movies submitted for Oscar consideration.

Considering how narrow a field the Foreign Language Film category has to select from, it’s a bit disappointing how many foreign-language Best Picture nominees were already represented in that category. This includes the strange case of Jan Troell’s The Emigrants, nominated for Best Foreign Language Film in 1972 and then nominated for four additional awards, including Best Picture, the following year thanks to some of those convoluted rules I mentioned. But by far the most honored foreign-language film in Oscar history is Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, nominated for 10 Oscars back in 2001, coming in just behind Best Picture winner Gladiator as the most nominated film of the year.

Ang Lee is undeniably one of the most respected filmmakers working today but it’s easy to overlook the fact that he’s also one of cinema’s most quietly eclectic and innovative directors. Unlike many international directors, Lee achieved crossover success outside of his home country early on. He received consecutive Best Foreign Language Film nominations for his second and third films, The Wedding Banquet and Eat Drink Man Woman. He successfully transitioned to Hollywood with Sense And Sensibility and The Ice Storm but suffered a high-profile setback with the costly western Ride With The Devil (although that too has enjoyed a bit of a re-evaluation since). Returning to Taiwan for his next feature may have seemed like a lateral or even backwards step. But Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon proved to be an enormous stride forward in both Lee’s career and for filmmaking in general.

While mainstream Western audiences had never seen anything like Crouching Tiger before, Eastern audiences (as well as hardcore Western movie buffs well-versed in the Hong Kong movie scene) immediately recognized this as a traditional wuxia movie, albeit one with a classier pedigree than usual. Wuxia tales are essentially Chinese martial arts fiction and they’d been part of the Chinese and Hong Kong film industries for about as long as those countries had been making movies. They exploded in popularity in the 1960s and 70s thanks to such producers as the Shaw Brothers and actor/directors like Jimmy Wang. But movies like The One-Armed Swordsman, Master Of The Flying Guillotine and even the acclaimed A Touch Of Zen didn’t really reach Western shores until much later. And when they did, they were often relegated to the drive-in and grindhouse circuit, all but guaranteeing that no one would ever take them seriously.

A truly international coproduction, Crouching Tiger was the first real attempt at reaching both Eastern and Western audiences simultaneously. And despite the fact that nothing in his filmography up ’til then suggested that a martial arts movie would be in his wheelhouse, Ang Lee proved to be the ideal director to bridge that gap. Lee has always been a meticulous filmmaker, paying careful attention to the details of his film’s specific periods, be it contemporary Taiwan, 18th century England or suburban America in the 1970s. Crouching Tiger was his first foray into a more fantastic realm but Lee takes his time and works up to that aspect of the story, grounding it in sets and costumes that feel both authentic and lived-in.

But Lee’s greatest gift as a filmmaker lies in his ability to find the emotional truth that lies beneath scenes of grandly sweeping romance. (He can also reverse that, turning very ordinary gestures into symbols of aching romance, as in Brokeback Mountain). This was evident in Sense And Sensibility, where his humanistic worldview meshed beautifully with Emma Thompson’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel to create a film both sardonic and sweet. In Crouching Tiger, he crafts two towering romances with such subtlety that you’re barely aware he’s doing it. Indeed for about half the movie, aristocratic governor’s daughter Jen (Zhang Ziyi) is presented as a rebellious spirit, rejecting her arranged marriage and having secretly trained to be a warrior for years. We don’t learn anything about her clandestine relationship with the desert bandit Dark Cloud (Chen Chang) until we’ve fully started to know her as a strong, independent character in her own right. When that aspect is finally introduced, it doesn’t weaken her in the slightest. She rejects him as well, continuing to forge her own path, right or wrong. Her literal leap of faith that concludes the film is no empty romantic gesture. It’s transcendent because she fought long and hard to reach the top of that mountain. That choice…that wish…is nobody’s to make other than Jen’s alone.

But the truly timeless romance at the heart of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is the unrequited love between master swordsman Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-Fat) and Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh). Both warriors have sacrificed their own personal happiness in the name of duty and honor. They are clearly meant for each other, two souls tied together by common history and extraordinary ability, but doomed to remain separate. Given that both move with a grace and agility that defies the laws of physics, it makes perfect sense that their love also exists on a higher plane. Chow is given one of the most yearningly romantic lines in movie history to drive the point home: “I would rather be a ghost drifting by your side as a condemned soul than enter heaven without you.”

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was also the first real indicator of Ang Lee’s tremendous technical skill. In recent years, he has proven himself to be every bit as fascinated by and adept with the most cutting-edge filmmaking technologies as James Cameron, Robert Zemeckis and George Lucas. But in Lee’s hands, these tools are used much differently, creating indelible images of visual poetry. Even a movie like Hulk, which even the most ardent Ang Lee supporter has to admit is kind of a misfire, looks and feels like no other superhero movie before or since.

Lee’s key collaborator on Crouching Tiger is undeniably the legendary action choreographer Yuen Woo-ping. Yuen made his name in the 70s and 80s working with such icons as Jackie Chan and Jet Li. He had just broken through internationally a year previous, helping to transform the look of movies forever alongside the Wachowskis with The Matrix. Largely thanks to the success of that film, wire fu was not an entirely alien concept to Western audiences when Crouching Tiger debuted. But hardly anyone had used the technique with such style and fluidity prior to this. Lee and Yuen start slowly but steadily build on their use of the effect. The actors genuinely seem to be defying gravity and yet still seem to be accomplishing this feat through their own physical effort. By the time Chow and Zhang take to those vertiginously swaying bamboo trees, it’s clear that this has moved far beyond a simple visual effect and entered the realm of magical realism.

In the wake of Crouching Tiger’s success, a wave of sumptuously filmed, serious-minded wuxia films hit cinemas. Zhang Yimou delved into such wildly colorful efforts as Hero, House Of Flying Daggers and Curse Of The Golden Flower. Chen Kaige produced the middling The Promise and, more recently, Monk Comes Down The Mountain. Wong Kar-wai, who had experimented with the genre early in his career with Ashes Of Time, took a stab at a more contemporary martial arts film with The Grandmaster. Even the Kung Fu Panda franchise owes its existence to the success of Ang Lee’s film.

Surprisingly, it took over a decade for an official sequel to arrive, despite the fact that the movie’s source material is just one in a series of five books. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword Of Destiny debuted theatrically in Hong Kong and China and on Netflix in the rest of the world this past February. (It also received a cursory release on a tiny handful of American IMAX screens.) With choreographer Yuen Woo-ping taking over as director and only Michelle Yeoh returning from the original cast, Sword Of Destiny is an odd, unsatisfying but not entirely worthless follow-up.

Where Lee struck a perfect balance between Eastern and Western sensibilities, Yuen immediately tips things in favor of the West. The movie was shot in English, not Mandarin, and digital effects are much more of a factor this time out. Sword Of Destiny essentially retells the original movie’s Quest for the Sword plot with less focus, tossing in a quartet of comic relief warriors-for-hire and a pair of would-be romantic relationships that are pale shades of those in the first film. But many of the action sequences are impressive, especially those involving the always-incredible Donnie Yen. If this was just a direct-to-video martial arts flick, you’d probably think it was pretty good. But as a follow-up to a bona fide modern classic, it can’t compete.

When the Oscars were finally handed out on March 25, 2001, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon had virtually no chance of winning Best Picture. It had already overcome nearly insurmountable odds just by landing a nomination. And for Ang Lee and everyone involved with the film, the awards were no doubt appreciated but they were kind of beside the point. The real prize was how well audiences around the world responded to the film. Even today, it remains the highest grossing foreign language film ever released in the United States, proving that there are indeed some things that transcend borders and language.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Sony Pictures Classics.

An Honor To Be Nominated: Born On The Fourth Of July

THE CONTENDER: Born On The Fourth Of July (1989)

Number of Nominations: 8 – Picture, Director (Oliver Stone), Actor (Tom Cruise), Adapted Screenplay (Oliver Stone and Ron Kovic), Original Score (John Williams), Sound (Michael Minkler, Gregory H. Watkins, Wylie Stateman and Tod A. Maitland), Cinematography (Robert Richardson), Film Editing (David Brenner and Joe Hutshing)

Number of Wins: 2 (Director and Film Editing)

If you won the Oscar office pool back in 1990, you earned some serious bragging rights for the rest of the day. (Also, if you actually remember that as a particular source of pride, you may want to explore some other hobbies. For real.) There was no clear front-runner going into the ceremony. Indeed, most of the conversation leading up to the event had revolved around what hadn’t been nominated, most notably Spike Lee being passed over for Best Picture and Director for Do The Right Thing.

The battle for Best Picture that night was really between two films: Oliver Stone’s Born On The Fourth Of July and the genteel Driving Miss Daisy (or, as Spike Lee calls it, Driving Miss Motherfuckin’ Daisy). Miss Daisy led the field with the most nominations, nine of ‘em in total, but it was by no means a lock. Its biggest perceived obstacle was the fact that director Bruce Beresford had been ignored in the Best Director category. At the time, only two films had ever won Best Picture without securing a director nomination, the last one being Grand Hotel back in 1932. It’s still exceedingly rare. Argo pulled it off a few years back. But in 1990, those kinds of long odds were about as close as the Oscars got to science.

Born On The Fourth Of July, on the other hand, seemed like a pretty safe bet. Oliver Stone had already mined his Vietnam experiences for Oscar gold with Platoon a few years earlier. In fact, the Academy seemed to be quite fond of Mr. Stone and his work in general. He’d won his first Oscar for writing the screenplay to Midnight Express and was also nominated for Salvador, while Michael Douglas had just won the Best Actor trophy for his work in Wall Street. After Stone won the Best Director award that evening, it seemed to be a foregone conclusion that Born On The Fourth Of July would be that year’s Best Picture.

Not so fast, Sparky. As we know, the Academy decided for whatever reason to honor Driving Miss Daisy instead. Whatever else you may think about Spike Lee, he is absolutely correct in his assessment of that film. Today, Driving Miss Daisy is mostly forgotten. Nobody studies it or talks about it. It’s soft-edged, inoffensive and the best thing you can really say about it is that it’s a nice movie you can watch with your grandparents. But as satisfying as it may be for ironic purposes to say that Do The Right Thing lost to Driving Miss Daisy, it’s not true. Lee’s movie wasn’t even in the race. If anybody should be pissed off at the triumph of Hoke and Miss Daisy, it’s Oliver Stone.

On paper, Born On The Fourth Of July looks like a road map straight to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. It’s the true story of Ron Kovic, a gung-ho, anti-Commie supporter of the war in Vietnam who volunteered for the Marine Corps, was wounded and paralyzed on his second tour of duty, and eventually became one of the most visible and best-known anti-war activists of the 1970s. The material is tailor-made for Stone, a fellow Vietnam veteran and self-appointed chronicler of the Secret History of the United States of America. But honestly, half of Stone’s work was done the second he cast Tom Cruise as Kovic.

In 1989, Cruise was already an enormous movie star thanks to his instantly iconic turn in Risky Business and the runaway success of mega-blockbuster Top Gun. He was even able to make Cocktail, a movie that is actually dumber than a bag of hammers, into a smash hit. And to his credit, Cruise has always been very smart about his career and the projects he picks. He had already started the effort to be taken seriously as an actor and not just as an impossibly good-looking movie star by teaming with respected filmmakers and well-established Hollywood stars. First, he joined forces with Martin Scorsese and Paul Newman for The Color Of Money. Two years later, he hooked up with Barry Levinson and Dustin Hoffman on Rain Man. Both Newman and Hoffman won Best Actor Oscars for their work in those films, while Cruise wasn’t even nominated.

Born On The Fourth Of July would be Cruise’s first shot at carrying a Big Prestige Picture on his own. And if it’s easy to see why Stone wanted Cruise, it’s even easier to understand why Cruise said yes. The role of Ron Kovic is straight out of the Movie Star’s Guide to Getting an Oscar Nomination. Are you playing a real person? Check. Do you age noticeably over the course of the film, say a decade or more? Check. Do you suffer some form of physical impairment or disability? Check. Is this character reflective of a broader political statement on either historic or current events? Check. Does the role fit comfortably within your wheelhouse as a movie star while still stretching you somewhat as an actor? Check and check again. Well, right this way, Mr. Cruise. We’ve been expecting you.

To be fair, Cruise is actually good in the role. He isn’t done any favors by the series of unflattering and unconvincing hairpieces he’s required to wear. Also, at 27 years of age, he was a bit long in the tooth to pull off playing a high school senior in the film’s early sequences. Stone’s solution to this, surrounding him with equally aging classmates played by the likes of Kyra Sedgwick, Frank Whaley and Jerry Levine, gives the impression that Ron Kovic went to the same high school as Kathleen Turner and Nicolas Cage in Peggy Sue Got Married. But Cruise/Kovic goes on quite a journey in this film and the actor sells the moments that matter most, whether it’s his steely-eyed determination to walk again, his eventual despair over being trapped in a body that no longer obeys his commands, or his growing disillusionment with the government and his rebirth as an advocate for change.

Cruise is such a uniquely American movie star (himself born, improbably enough, on the third of July) that his casting here is used as a canny bit of cinematic shorthand by Stone. Cruise is one of the few actors who could go from “America, love it or leave it” to “the war is wrong and the government lied to us” without making one extreme or the other sound hollow. The mom, baseball and apple pie Tom Cruise at the beginning of the film who volunteers to go end Communism in Vietnam is the same god-fearing, flag-waving guy at the end calling the government a bunch of thieves and rapists. A lot of other actors probably could have played Ron Kovic. But none of them would have been able to drive home Oliver Stone’s thesis about America as effectively or efficiently as Cruise.

Perhaps the strangest thing about revisiting Born On The Fourth Of July today is how conventional it is. Stone will never be accused of being a particularly subtle filmmaker but his movies are usually more dynamic, challenging and provocative. His earlier films courted controversy with their subject matter. Later films like The Doors, JFK, Natural Born Killers and Nixon would push boundaries stylistically. Say what you will about the historical accuracy of JFK, it’s tough to argue with its Oscar wins for Cinematography and Film Editing. But Born On The Fourth Of July is a pretty straight-forward biopic, told linearly with helpful subtitles to establish time and place every time we jump ahead a few years. The two Oscars this movie took home, one for Stone as director and one for Film Editing, feel in no way inevitable.

In fact, a look at the entire list of winners and nominees for the 62nd Academy Awards inspires a collective shrug. Of the five movies up for Best Picture, perhaps the one that has had the most lasting cultural impact is Field Of Dreams, another perfectly nice, crowd-pleasing movie of the sort that almost never wins Oscars. At the end of the day, the great American movie of 1989 really was Do The Right Thing and the Academy dropped the ball by only recognizing it with two nominations (Supporting Actor for Danny Aiello and Original Screenplay for Spike Lee). But righteous indignation had no place at the Oscars that year. Born On The Fourth Of July was the most incendiary movie up for Best Picture but it doesn’t burn hot. Instead, it’s one of Oliver Stone’s warmest, most sun-dappled movies. It isn’t angry so much as it is mournful and nostalgic, from Robert Richardson’s lush cinematography to John Williams’ elegiac score. Perhaps Stone won the Oscar simply for delivering the least controversial movie of his career.

Born On The Fourth Of July is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Universal Studios Home Entertainment.

An Honor To Be Nominated: The Blind Side

THE CONTENDER: The Blind Side (2009)

Number of Nominations: 2 – Picture, Actress (Sandra Bullock)

Number of Wins: 1 (Actress)

When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences increased the number of Best Picture nominees from five to ten back in 2009, it was supposed to increase the likelihood of audience-pleasing blockbusters getting into the race. It was a move intended to boost the ceremony’s dwindling viewership by giving Joe Sixpack and Suzy Chardonnay a horse in the race. It wasn’t necessarily a terrible idea, although it hasn’t really worked out that way in practice. This year’s highest-grossing nominee, The Martian, was only the 8th biggest hit of 2015. That’s certainly respectable but not the kind of fanbase that inspires the Titanic-level passion AMPAS was counting on. Viewership for last February’s telecast was down from last year, ranking as the least-watched Oscar ceremony since before the rule change went into effect.

But the new rule did actually seem to have the desired effect that first year. Viewership went up, with almost 42 million Americans tuning in (as opposed to about 34 million this year). The year’s highest-grossing movie did indeed secure a Best Picture nod (although, to be fair, Avatar probably would have received it anyway), as did Pixar’s Up, which is still one of their biggest hits. But arguably the biggest beneficiary of Oscar’s bigger tent that year was the feel-good smash The Blind Side.

Movies like The Blind Side very rarely get nominated for Academy Awards. On the surface, this belongs to the subgenre of inspirational real-life sports dramas that became increasingly popular in the 2000s. Disney practically created an algorithm dedicated to cranking them out, from The Rookie (also directed by Blind Side’s John Lee Hancock) to Miracle to Glory Road to the more recent Million Dollar Arm. As much as Oscar is a sucker for a good biopic, it doesn’t seem to have a lot of use for sports movies (unless that sport happens to be boxing for some reason).

Even more unusual than its subject matter, however, is its politics. People have complained about Hollywood’s “liberal agenda” for so long that it’s no longer even a cliché. It’s now simply an assumed fact. But The Blind Side is unabashedly a Red State movie, even if its politics are more implicit than explicit. The closest the movie gets to party politics is a moment when Kathy Bates, interviewing for the job of tutor to Michael Oher (Quinton Aaron), cautiously tells Leigh Anne Tuohy (Sandra Bullock) that she’s a Democrat as though she were confessing that she’s a convicted felon.

Hancock never foregrounds the movie’s conservative nature, an approach that works for the most part and is often refreshing. The Tuohy family’s Christian faith is neither denied nor overly emphasized. Too often, movies treat religious belief in either a condescending manner or, in the case of the increasing number of faith-based features, as a means to proselytize. Here, it’s simply an inherent part of their lives, as it is for most people of all faiths.

Even a later moment that invokes a more contentious Republican issue works in context. Leigh Anne responds to a threat from a street-level drug dealer (Irone Singleton) by warning him, “I’m a member of the N.R.A. and I’m always packing.” That line is a lot more loaded today than it was even seven years ago. But in the context of the movie, it works. It’s less a pro-gun sentiment than an anti-bullying one, displaying Leigh Anne’s protective, maternal instincts. It’s an important, effective moment precisely because of how underplayed and matter-of-fact it is. Standing up to this guy is not a big deal or a supreme act of courage for Bullock’s character. It’s simply the way she goes through her life every day.

The Blind Side does a lot of things well, especially in its depiction of Leigh Anne Tuohy and her family. And that’s great but it also ends up turning Michael Oher into an observer to his own story. A lot could be said about where this movie fits in to the long history of “White Savior” films. But the fact that this is based on a true story makes that a trickier landscape to negotiate. I have no doubt that Michael Oher loves his family very much. But I’m also quite confident that his rise to football stardom wasn’t just the result of genetics and a puppy-dog-like devotion to protecting the people he cares about, which is essentially what the movie suggests.

Quinton Aaron plays Oher as a sweet, shy, instantly likable guy. With his soft eyes and wounded expression, he may be the least intimidating 6’8” giant in movie history. And for all the adversity and hardship Oher had to overcome as a kid, almost none of it is actually in the movie. Literally everybody likes him to some degree, even the dealers and addicts in his old neighborhood. They only threaten him after he loses his temper on them defending his new adopted family. If The Blind Side has any bad guys, it’s just the abstract concepts of Ignorance, Poverty and Racism.

In many ways, race is The Blind Side’s blind side. Apart from Aaron, practically the only people of color are the people who live below the very clean and art-directed poverty line on the other side of the tracks. Which is odd, considering that Oher is brought to Wingate Christian School by an African-American mechanic trying to enroll his own son as well as Big Mike. The school’s board of admissions quickly approves the other boy but he’s never seen or heard of again. The film goes to great, almost absurd lengths to isolate Michael when it really doesn’t need to. What it ought to do instead is put us in his head so we can feel the drive and survival skills he clearly possessed. He’s far too passive for too much of the film.

But the filmmakers clearly decided early on that they weren’t making The Michael Oher Story. This is The Leigh Anne Tuohy Story but even there, it’s only marginally successful. Sandra Bullock’s nomination (and win) for Best Actress was considerably less of a surprise than the movie’s Best Picture nod. Here was a very well-liked movie star in a juicy role that played to all of the strengths and attributes that made her an audience favorite in the first place. The Oscar was practically a foregone conclusion. But it’s a bit of a curious role in that it doesn’t really have a dramatic arc. Bullock nails the character and is extremely effective and moving in moments tamping her emotions down beneath her all-business exterior. But when one of her ladies-who-lunch friends comments, “You’re changing that boy’s life,” her response (“No. He’s changing mine.”) feels more like it was dictated by the Screenwriter’s Bible than a genuine reply. By the end of the movie, she seems like pretty much the same person she was to begin with, only now she has an adopted son.

Had it been released a year earlier, The Blind Side would probably not have received a Best Picture nomination (although Bullock would certainly still have been a contender in her category). While it’s hard to argue with the movie’s crowd-pleasing success, John Lee Hancock isn’t a particularly inspired or challenging filmmaker. There are important issues to deal with inside The Blind Side but the movie itself is uninterested and incapable of addressing them. And maybe that’s OK. After all, there are plenty of other movies capable of taking a more nuanced look at these themes and ideas. But there’s nothing inherently wrong with a movie that simply wants its audience to be a little bit more compassionate toward each other.

The Blind Side is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Warner Home Video.

An Honor To Be Nominated: A Touch Of Class

THE CONTENDER: A Touch Of Class (1973)

Number of Nominations: 5 – Picture, Actress (Glenda Jackson), Original Screenplay (Melvin Frank & Jack Rose), Original Song (“All That Love Went To Waste,” music by George Barrie, lyrics by Sammy Cahn), Original Score (John Cameron)

Number of Wins: 1 (Actress)

In box office circles, you’ll occasionally hear talk of the “Oscar bump”, the supposed lift in a movie’s revenue after it’s nominated for Academy Awards. It’s a temporary effect, of course, but it’s curious just how short-lived the Oscar bump can be. You might think that an Oscar win would give a film some kind of immortality but it isn’t true. Case in point: the almost-forgotten Best Picture nominee and Best Actress winner A Touch Of Class.

I’m an active user of Letterboxd, the movie-lover’s social network, and one of the features I enjoy is learning who else has seen a particular film. When I watched A Touch Of Class, I was surprised that only 105 other people had seen it. Not 105 of my friends, 105 Letterboxd users period. By comparison, 5,839 people have watched that year’s Best Picture winner, The Sting. What makes that low figure even more of a shock is the fact that A Touch Of Class was actually a pretty good-sized hit back in 1973, riding a wave of popularity to those five nominations.

The movie itself is a trifle and, like the dessert, it hasn’t aged particularly well. George Segal stars as an American insurance adjuster living in London with his wife and family. He has a chance encounter with Glenda Jackson, a fashion designer and divorced mother of two. Sparks fly and soon the two of them are off to Spain for an illicit affair. After a rocky start that almost has them calling the whole thing off before it even gets started, the pair begins to fall in love. Returning to London, they decide to keep the affair going, renting a cheap flat in a shady part of town (all the girls who live in the building have the surname “French”) and getting together for secret trysts whenever possible.

A Touch Of Class was co-written and directed by Melvin Frank, a member of the old guard in Hollywood who cut his teeth writing for Bob Hope and Danny Kaye vehicles. On the surface, A Touch Of Class seems very modern and sophisticated. But deep down, it’s a resolutely old-fashioned movie that only works as well as it does thanks to Segal and especially Jackson.

George Segal was at the height of his popularity in 1973, coming off of such hits as The Owl And The Pussycat. Glenda Jackson, on the other hand, was actively looking to change her image. She’d already won an Oscar a few years earlier for her role in Ken Russell’s Women In Love and was nominated again for John Schlesinger’s Sunday Bloody Sunday. In other words, she was considered a very capital-S Serious Actress. With A Touch Of Class, she was making a bid for more mainstream commercial success.

Segal and Jackson have an undeniable chemistry and that rapport makes it easy to gloss over some of the movie’s bumpier patches. Because it’s fun to watch their banter, you can almost overlook the fact that Segal’s character is a fairly unlikable cad, eager to cheat on his wife for no good reason. We don’t see a lot of his wife but she seems perfectly nice and inoffensive. It never seems like there’s trouble at home or friction in their relationship, so Segal’s really just a bastard, albeit a charming one.

At least Jackson is fairly upfront about her desires and expectations. She’s looking for something less than a relationship but something a little more than a one-night stand. She seems to realize that the smart play would have been to end things after the trip to Spain. The fact that she keeps seeing Segal anyway doesn’t make her seem stupid or weak, just human. On screen, Glenda Jackson had a presence that always made her seem much smarter than everybody else in the film (probably because she really was). Her work in A Touch Of Class probably wasn’t the most-deserving performance up for the Oscar that year. Personally, I would have given the award to Ellen Burstyn for The Exorcist. Perhaps a more appropriate award for Jackson would have been Most Valuable Player.

Even at the time, A Touch Of Class was an unlikely Oscar contender. It would be a similar situation twenty years later when the fluffy Four Weddings And A Funeral found itself battling it out for the top prize with heavyweights Forrest Gump and Pulp Fiction. There have certainly been worse movies nominated for Best Picture than A Touch Of Class but very few as inconsequential.

A Touch Of Class is available on DVD from Warner Home Video.

An Honor To Be Nominated: Tootsie

THE CONTENDER: Tootsie (1982)

Number of Nominations: 10 – Picture, Actor (Dustin Hoffman), Supporting Actress (Teri Garr and Jessica Lange), Director (Sydney Pollack), Original Screenplay (Larry Gelbart, Murray Schisgal & Don McGuire), Cinematography (Owen Roizman), Sound (Arthur Piantadosi, Les Fresholtz, Dick Alexander & Les Lazarowitz), Original Song (“It Might Be You,” music by Dave Grusin, lyrics by Alan & Marilyn Bergman), Film Editing (Fredric Steinkamp & William Steinkamp)

Number of Wins: 1 (Supporting Actress, Jessica Lange)

It’s a commonly held belief that when it comes to the Academy Awards, comedies get no respect. There’s an element of truth to that. Comedic actors are rarely recognized for their performances, at least in comedies. The best way for a comedian to nab an Oscar is to get serious, as in the cases of Robin Williams, Whoopi Goldberg, and Mo’Nique. There are a handful of examples of actors winning for a comedy, Kevin Kline in A Fish Called Wanda leaps to mind, but these are rare.

When it comes to Best Picture, comedies are infrequently nominated and almost never win. The last comedies to win were The Artist in 2012 and Shakespeare In Love back in 1999. Neither of those movies are exactly what you’d consider typical contemporary comedies. Prior to them, comedy winners included Annie Hall, The Sting, Tom Jones, The Apartment, You Can’t Take It With You, and It Happened One Night. You might be able to make a case for a couple others but not many.

The Academy seems to think that making comedies is easy. After all, they’re fun, right? They look like everyone was having fun. So making them is a lot simpler than recreating World War II or showing someone suffering from a debilitating disease. The reality is that making a great comedy is extraordinarily difficult. Every single element has to work in perfect harmony, from the script to the performances to the direction to the cinematography to the editing. If just one thing is out of sync, the whole operation falls apart.

In 1982, the Academy momentarily recognized how much work went into crafting a great contemporary comedy and honored Tootsie with 10 nominations. If you haven’t seen the movie in a while, that may seem excessive. But rewatching it again recently, it struck me as entirely appropriate. Tootsie is indeed a great comedy, one of the best of its decade, and it more than holds up over 30 years later.

The movie was a passion project for Dustin Hoffman and he spent several years developing the script with playwright Murray Schisgal and Larry Gelbart, among other, uncredited writers. The attention to detail pays off. The movie could easily have been an unbelievable, cross-dressing farce. But the characters are so richly developed that the movie strikes a chord. You never for one second question Hoffman’s decision as difficult actor Michael Dorsey to put on a dress and audition for a role on a soap opera as Dorothy Michaels.

Both of Hoffman’s performances are relaxed, engaging, and hilarious. The movie cannily plays off the star’s own reputation as an intense, difficult method actor. Tootsie features him at his warmest and most sympathetic. Hoffman takes what could have been a broad caricature and creates a wholly relatable human being.

The film’s supporting cast is no less perfect. Stalwart character actor Dabney Coleman has one of his juiciest roles as the lecherous TV director. Bill Murray graciously removed his name from the opening credits and advertising so audiences wouldn’t expect a Bill Murray movie along the lines of Stripes. But his appearance is crucial. Hoffman needs a foil that’s his equal and the two of them have an easy rapport that immediately conveys the characters’ history.

Perhaps the movie’s shrewdest casting was director Sydney Pollack’s appearance as Michael’s agent. Hoffman had to persuade Pollack into taking on the role. In fact, Dabney Coleman was originally cast in the part. But Pollack turned out to be the right choice. His incredulous reaction upon meeting Dorothy Michaels for the first time is worth the price of admission.

In particular, Tootsie was a tremendous vindication for Jessica Lange. She’d made her film debut in Dino De Laurentiis’ disastrous 1976 remake of King Kong. After that debacle, she found it almost impossible to find work. She subsequently made only a few film appearances until returning with a vengeance in 1982 with acclaimed performances in both Tootsie and Frances, eventually winning the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.

Her win was not without controversy. After all, her role in Tootsie was the leading lady. It was widely assumed she was promoted in the Supporting Actress category so she wouldn’t be competing with her own work in Frances for Best Actress. Sure enough, she was nominated in both categories, much to the annoyance of costar Teri Garr. When both women were nominated for Best Supporting Actress, Garr resigned herself to the fact that she would probably lose to Lange, especially since it was widely (and correctly) assumed that the Best Actress race already belonged to Meryl Streep for Sophie’s Choice.

Sydney Pollack would go on to win Best Picture and Director a few years later for Out Of Africa, an interminable slog of a movie which is nevertheless exactly the kind of prestigious, sweeping epic the Academy loves to throw Oscars at. Tootsie is a far superior movie but despite its many nominations, it never had much of a shot. It’s funny, it’s contemporary, and it makes it all look easy. That isn’t the kind of movie that wins awards. But it is the kind of movie that has a legacy far beyond its initial run.

Tootsie is available on Blu-ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection.

An Honor To Be Nominated: Star Wars

THE CONTENDER: Star Wars (1977)

Number of Nominations: 10 – Picture, Supporting Actor (Alec Guinness), Director (George Lucas), Original Screenplay (George Lucas), Art Direction/Set Direction (John Barry, Norman Reynolds, Leslie Dilley & Roger Christian), Sound (Don MacDougall, Ray West, Bob Minkler & Derek Ball), Original Score (John Williams), Film Editing (Paul Hirsch, Marcia Lucas & Richard Chew), Costume Design (John Mollo), Visual Effects (John Stears, John Dykstra, Richard Edlund, Grant McCune & Robert Blalack)

Number of Wins: 6 (Art Direction/Set Direction, Sound, Original Score, Film Editing, Costume Design and Visual Effects) plus a Special Achievement Award to Ben Burtt for Sound Effects

Whenever people complain about the Oscars (which happens pretty much any time the Oscars are discussed), they’ll often say that the Academy is a bunch of elitist snobs. Popular movies, the ones normal people actually like to go see and enjoy, are almost never nominated and they certainly never win.

But even a cursory glance at a list of nominees over the years shows this isn’t true. Plenty of blockbusters have been nominated over the years. Some of them, like The Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King, Titanic, and Gladiator, even won. In those rare cases where a movie actually becomes a phenomenon, it becomes almost impossible for the Academy to ignore.

That was certainly the case back in 1977 when Star Wars, not yet Episode IV or A New Hope or any of that other nonsense, crashed Hollywood’s biggest night with ten nominations. I don’t imagine anyone believed that an homage to Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers would actually win Best Picture and I’d give just about anything to have been a fly on the wall to hear Alec Guinness’ reaction at being nominated for Best Supporting Actor. I’d bet that he a good, long laugh over that one.

Don’t get me wrong. When I was a kid, I loved Star Wars. I turned 8 in 1977, so I was the movie’s target audience. I saw it countless times in the theatre, I had the toys and action figures, I collected the Marvel comic book. If it had anything to do with Star Wars, I wanted it.

You’ll note I used the past tense. I don’t love Star Wars anymore. I still like it very much but it’s always dangerous to revisit a movie you loved as a kid. There’s always a risk that you’ll be a little embarrassed by it and wonder why you ever liked it in the first place. Fortunately (and perhaps surprisingly, if you haven’t seen it in a while) Star Wars holds up. Watching it again recently, I enjoyed it and could see why I loved it so much back then. It’s a grand, rousing space adventure and I’d certainly never seen anything like it before.

But I don’t love it anymore. Part of it is simply that I grew up, my tastes expanded, and I moved on. I also loved Kraft Macaroni & Cheese when I was a kid. If I had some today, I might still like it. But I haven’t had any in years and I haven’t really missed it.

But another part of it is that George Lucas couldn’t leave well enough alone. It’s ironic that the version of Star Wars that’s widely available today isn’t the same movie that won six Academy Awards. Starting with the 1997 Special Edition re-releases, Lucas has continued fiddling around with the film, tweaking effects, adding scenes, and generally making a mess of what was perfectly fine to begin with.

All of the new digital effects are unnecessary and distracting. That would be bad enough. But the movie won an Oscar for film editing. Watching the new tinkered-with version, you’d be hard-pressed to understand why. Establishing shots now go on too long, simply to give you enough time to properly appreciate all the added bits of business.

Lucas’ biggest mistake was adding back in a deleted scene of Han Solo encountering Jabba the Hutt before taking off from Mos Eisley. Supposedly, Lucas cut the scene because he couldn’t afford to create the stop-motion creature Harrison Ford would have been interacting with. Maybe so, but it seems more likely that it was dropped because the scene serves absolutely no purpose. It simply repeats almost verbatim the same information we just heard in the cantina scene with Greedo. It slows the movie down just when it should be picking up the pace.

George Lucas’ steadfast refusal to release the original theatrical versions of these movies borders on mania. In 2006, the theatrical version was finally released as a limited edition DVD. But Lucas stacked the deck against them by putting out transfers that were done for a laserdisc release back in 1993. You could almost hear him saying, “See? Don’t my new versions look so much better?”

I know, I know, every time Star Wars gets messed with, the Internet goes ballistic. It would be easy to write it all off as fanboy nitpicking. But it goes beyond whether or not Han shot first. Take another look at the names of the people who won Oscars for their work on Star Wars. George Lucas is not one of them. No matter what he’d like to believe, Lucas did not single-handedly create this film. To continually change it is a sign of disrespect for his collaborators. It says their work wasn’t good enough.

If you want to look at Star Wars as just one small part of a much bigger saga that begins with Jar Jar Binks and ends with an Ewok hoedown, that’s fine. That’s certainly how George Lucas sees it. But if you want to view it as a significant cultural landmark from 1977, that’s become increasingly difficult. Movies are products of the times in which they were made. Audiences should always have the option to see them within their proper context. Maybe someday, we’ll be able to do that again with Star Wars.

Star Wars, or a reasonable facsimile thereof, is available on Blu-ray and DVD from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.

An Honor To Be Nominated: Erin Brockovich

THE CONTENDER: Erin Brockovich (2000)

Number of Nominations: 5 – Picture, Actress (Julia Roberts), Supporting Actor (Albert Finney), Director (Steven Soderbergh), Original Screenplay (Susannah Grant)

Number of Wins: 1 (Actress)

When the nominations for the 73rd Academy Awards were announced, it was by no means a sure thing that Steven Soderbergh would pull off his double-nod hat trick. Traffic was definitely on most voters’ radar. But his other 2000 release, Erin Brockovich, had come out back in March, almost an entire year earlier. Oscar voters have notoriously short memories.

Only one nomination was really a lock and that was Julia Roberts for Best Actress. Roberts had been nominated twice before and the fact that she would ultimately win this time is about as close as the Oscars get to a sure thing. Her competition included Juliette Binoche for Chocolat, Joan Allen for The Contender, Ellen Burstyn for Requiem For A Dream, and Laura Linney for You Can Count On Me. Great actresses and fine performances all but if you missed that category on Oscar night, you should have seriously considered retiring from the office Oscar pool.

But Erin Brockovich ultimately did just as well as Traffic in terms of nominations, each film scoring five nods. Interestingly enough, the two films competed against each other in several categories, including Best Picture, Best Director (which Soderbergh won for Traffic), and Best Supporting Actor (Albert Finney lost out to Traffic’s Benicio Del Toro). If Erin Brockovich had been based on a book, the two films would have competed in the screenplay category, too.

Today, Traffic is more often discussed and analyzed while Erin Brockovich is mainly remembered as the movie that finally won Julia Roberts an Oscar. That’s to be expected. Traffic is certainly the more complex, ambitious, and technically impressive of the two. But Erin Brockovich definitely has more going for it than merely the sight of America’s sweetheart swearing like a sailor and running around the desert in push-up bras.

What’s most striking about Erin Brockovich is that it’s a big Hollywood movie disguised as a gritty independent feature. Soderbergh was the ideal choice for such a project. He was capable of taking the best elements of each, making something more complex than your usual mainstream legal drama but also more crowd-pleasing than a typical indie.

What Soderbergh and writer Susannah Grant realized was that for the movie to work, it needed to tell two stories. As a biopic of the real Erin Brockovich, a single, out-of-work mom turned legal researcher, part of the overcoming adversity story needs to be about the landmark lawsuit against Pacific Gas & Electric. And while it would be easy to just tell the PG&E story, the audience won’t really care about it unless we care about Brockovich.

To accomplish this, Soderbergh necessarily relies on movie shortcuts, first and foremost of which is the casting of Julia Roberts. Roberts was (and is) a hugely successful movie star, beloved and idolized but accessible. Before the opening credits have finished, we’ve seen her fumble her way through a bad job interview, learned she’s twice divorced with three kids, and get in a car accident. Within five minutes, the audience is already on her side.

But what makes Roberts’ performance so interesting is that she doesn’t soften the character to play for sympathy. As Roberts plays her, Brockovich is a fairly abrasive personality. Sure, she’s usually right and she’s undeniably smart, quick-witted, and frequently charming. But she’s also tactless, short-tempered, and rude. The audience isn’t turned off by this behavior because Soderbergh surrounds Roberts with actors more than capable of holding their own against her.

Albert Finney is terrific as Erin’s boss, Ed Masry. It’s satisfying when Erin tells off the prissy, button-down, high-priced lawyer who underestimates her ability. But it’s equally satisfying in the very next scene when Ed tells Erin that she went too far. Aaron Eckhart could have had a thankless role as Erin’s biker neighbor turned babysitter turned boyfriend, George. But he delivers a subtle, complex performance. When he leaves, we get that Erin is finally getting a level of respect and satisfaction in her work that she’s never before experienced. But we also kind of wonder what took him so long to get fed up with her.

More than ten years after its release, it’s tempting to view Erin Brockovich as one of those movies that snuck into the Best Picture race purely on the strength of a powerhouse movie star performance…such as, oh I don’t know, The Blind Side maybe? But revisiting it, it holds up better than you might think.

Steven Soderbergh is (or, I suppose I should say, was*) one of the few filmmakers who could comfortably move between the mainstream Hollywood and low-budget independent worlds. Given the subject matter and setting, some might consider classifying this with his indie work. But make no mistake. Erin Brockovich is a big, glossy Hollywood studio picture. It just happens to be an extremely smart and accomplished one. Those are rare but they do exist.

Erin Brockovich is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Universal Studios Home Entertainment.

*2017 Update: Nope, it’s “is” again.

An Honor To Be Nominated: Traffic

THE CONTENDER: Traffic (2000)

Number of Nominations: 5 – Picture, Supporting Actor (Benicio Del Toro), Director (Steven Soderbergh), Adapted Screenplay (Stephen Gaghan), Film Editing (Stephen Mirrione)

Number of Wins: 4 (Supporting Actor, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Film Editing)

Steven Soderbergh released two films in 2000, Erin Brockovich and Traffic. Both were critically acclaimed. Both were hits at the box office, each one making over $100 million. And when Oscar time rolled around, both received multiple nominations. In fact, Soderbergh became the first filmmaker since 1938 to receive two nominations in the same year for Best Director. But while the previous record-holder, Michael Curtiz, went home that night empty handed, Soderbergh actually won.

For a while, it seemed as though Traffic might also win Best Picture. But the Oscars played out differently that year. The year’s biggest prize went to Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, making it one of the few Best Picture winners not to be honored in either the directing or writing categories. Even so, Traffic did extremely well, winning four of the five categories for which it was nominated.

Perhaps it isn’t surprising that Traffic won accolades and awards. But it is somewhat surprising that it was a hit. This is a complex, multilayered story with a sprawling cast of characters that rarely intersect in obvious ways.

Michael Douglas plays the newly-appointed drug czar whose new job takes a back seat when he discovers his daughter (Erika Christensen) is herself heavily addicted. Benicio Del Toro is a mildly corrupt Tijuana cop who finds his own limits when recruited by General Salazar (Tomas Milian), who wants to break the Tijuana cartel for reasons of his own. Catherine Zeta-Jones is a wealthy mother-to-be who only discovers her “legitimate businessman” husband (Steven Bauer) is a trafficker after he’s dragged to prison by the DEA. Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman are DEA agents assigned to protect the key witness in Bauer’s case. And those are just the main plot threads.

But Soderbergh, who almost always acts as his own cinematographer under the pseudonym Peter Andrews, developed a unique visual shorthand to keep the various stories clear. Working with color, different film stocks, and post-production tricks, Soderbergh gives each story its own individual style. It’s a brilliant move. The film runs slightly over two hours but never feels long. There’s simply too much story to tell for your interest to flag. But it’s also never confusing, a charge I’ve heard leveled at screenwriter Stephen Gaghan’s similar follow-up, Syriana.

It’s fair to say that Traffic hit a nerve with the public that Syriana would never have been able to find. I admire Syriana quite a bit but the labyrinthine machinations of the oil industry are a lot more abstract to most people than the war on drugs. I imagine everyone has a story to tell about how drugs have affected their lives or someone close to them. One of Traffic’s great strengths is its ability to make us see not only our own story reflected back but the bigger picture we never dreamed existed.

If Soderbergh and Gaghan deserve credit for economy of storytelling, the ensemble cast earns most of the kudos for making us believe in these characters. We learn almost nothing about the personal lives of Cheadle and Guzman. But we can fill in the blanks thanks to their effortless chemistry. Zeta-Jones makes a thoroughly believable transformation from idle rich wife to a ruthless Lady Macbeth. And the Oscar-winning Del Toro is a smart, soulful survivor. The moment when he half apologetically confirms to a pair of American tourists that their “stolen car” is a police scam speaks volumes.

Traffic seems to view the war on drugs as futile but surprisingly ends on a note of some hope. The smile on Cheadle’s face as he walks away from Bauer’s home and the contented look Del Toro has as he watches a baseball game suggest that all is not lost. But there is a good chance that this “war” is being fought all wrong.

The world has changed a lot in the years since Traffic debuted. Drug cartels have turned Mexico into a war zone. The director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, or the so-called “drug czar,” is no longer a Cabinet-level position. Yet, Traffic remains relevant. No doubt it will continue to as long as illegal drugs are bought, sold, and abused. Rather than the screeching anti-drug harangue it could have been, Soderbergh made a quietly powerful, thoughtful film examining the problem from multiple perspectives. Whether or not it’s his crowning achievement is debatable. But it’s a high-water mark that brilliantly displays Soderbergh’s ambitions and confidence as a storyteller.

Traffic is available as on Blu-ray and DVD from both The Criterion Collection and Universal.

An Honor To Be Nominated: Nashville

THE CONTENDER: Nashville (1975)

Number of Nominations: 5 – Picture, Supporting Actress (Ronee Blakley & Lily Tomlin), Director (Robert Altman), Original Song (“I’m Easy,” music and lyrics by Keith Carradine)

Number of Wins: 1 (Original Song)

In my Honor To Be Nominated column on Jaws, I wrote that 1975 was the year the Academy got it right. Every single film up for Best Picture that year can make a legitimate claim to greatness. And just look at some of the movies that weren’t up for the big prize: The Man Who Would Be King, The Day Of The Locust, Night Moves, The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Yes, 1975 was a very good year.

But if I were forced to pick just one movie from 1975 as my favorite, it would have to be Robert Altman’s Nashville. Don’t get me wrong. I’m crazy about a lot of these other movies, especially Jaws. But Nashville has a scope and ambition few other films have ever come close to replicating. It aims high, weaving 24 characters into a beautiful tapestry that forms a microcosm of America, and hits the mark.

The massive project began innocuously enough. Country-western music was enjoying a surge in popularity and United Artists wanted to make a movie capitalizing on it. They approached Altman and while he wasn’t interested in their idea, he agreed to develop his own country-western movie.

He sent writer Joan Tewkesbury to Nashville to get a feel for the place and its people, instructing her to keep a journal of her visit. The journal became the basis for Tewkesbury’s screenplay. United Artists didn’t know what to make of the sprawling script and passed on the project. So Altman was forced to raise funds independently, not for the first time in his career and far from the last.

When the film was released, it failed to impress one key demographic: the actual people of Nashville. Country stars complained that the movie completely misrepresented them and their city. Not only that, they hated the music, almost all of which was written for the film, often by the actors themselves. In an interview on the DVD, Altman quips that their complaint about the music really meant they were just upset that he hadn’t used any of their tunes.

Altman is probably correct about that. The music feels authentic, from the patriotic bombast of “200 Years” as performed by Henry Gibson’s pompous superstar Haven Hamilton to Keith Carradine’s Oscar-winning “I’m Easy”. The soundtrack is a key element to the film’s success. If the music didn’t work, nothing in the movie would work.

Even though Nashville captures a very specific time and place, it’s eerie how much of the film remains relevant, even prescient today. One of the key threads running through the picture is the organization of a fundraiser for presidential candidate Hal Phillip Walker.

Walker is running on the “Replacement Party” and his campaign van appears throughout, broadcasting populist messages about running lawyers out of Congress and changing the national anthem to something ordinary people can sing. By the time the fundraiser begins, you half expect Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, and other Tea Party favorites to show up.

Altman ties politics and fame together in another way that would come true a short time later: (Spoiler alert for those of you who haven’t seen this) the assassination of a celebrity. After John Lennon’s murder, Altman was contacted by a reporter from the Washington Post who asked if he felt responsible. Altman turned the tables and suggested the media should feel responsible for not heeding his warning.

Despite its Oscar nominations and critical acclaim, Nashville was not a popular success. Altman finished the ’70s with movies that met with mixed reviews and little box office before embarking on Popeye, the multi-million dollar disaster that effectively ended his Hollywood career for over a decade. Nashville would be Altman’s last trip to the Academy Awards until he was welcomed back into the fold in 1992 with The Player.

In some ways, it’s just as well that Robert Altman’s only Oscar was an honorary one. Even by the New Hollywood standards of the 1970s, his movies were too iconoclastic. Altman often worked within the system but he always did it his own way, refusing to be reigned in by the demands of the studios. Rewarding him for a specific achievement would have been tantamount to giving an unruly child an extra helping of dessert.

Robert Altman left behind an extraordinary body of work, one of the most impressive filmographies of any filmmaker who ever lived. But Nashville remains his masterpiece, a movie that continues to inspire and amaze audiences even today. It’s the closest to a cinematic equivalent of a novel I’ve ever seen. Like a good book, it’s worth revisiting again and again.

Nashville is available on Blu-ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection.