If this is a just world we live in — and I realize there's some scattered evidence that it's not — then "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" will be a lock for several of the 11 Oscars it's up for on Sunday night.
Surely it's the best picture of the year. Peter Weir's "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World" is an ambitious and masterfully shot screen rendition of two of the late Patrick O'Brian's celebrated seafaring novels. But seafaring movies, while not all that common anymore, have a long movie tradition; "Return of the King" — or should I say the entire "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, which was shot as one grand epic — is unprecedented. (Click for photos from "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.")
Of the other Best Picture nominees — a worthy group of films — Sofia Coppola's "Lost in Translation" is the most intriguing. (Click for photos from "Lost in Translation.") It's illuminated by a very quiet, very moving performance by Bill Murray; it's also great to look at; and, as its writer/director, Coppola makes not one false move: She never goes for the obvious shot or plot development. However, it is a movie in which nothing happens. Well, pretty much. This is an interesting accomplishment in itself, but on a level subsidiary to the cornucopia of accomplishments of "Return of the King," a movie in which a whole lot happens, often all at once.
Clint Eastwood's widely admired "Mystic River" may be too dark and downbeat to hold up against the crowd-pleasers in this category. And "Seabiscuit" ... well, "Seabiscuit" is a movie about a horse. Actually, I missed "Seabiscuit." If "missed" is the word. To be honest, I am disinclined to sit through movies about horses, dogs, cats, any kind of quadruped. I know this is irrational, and, I suppose, indefensible, but there it is. I know several people who liked "Seabiscuit." But Shadowfax, Gandalf's great white stallion in "Return of the King," could probably kick Seabiscuit's skinny butt. I don't think I'll ever know for sure, though.
If "The Return of the King" is the best picture of the year, then surely it must follow that Peter Jackson, whose titanic achievement it is, is the best director. I know that Academy members sometimes like to split their votes in the Best Picture and Best Director categories in order to honor two deserving films instead of just one. And in any other year, directors Peter Weir, Clint Eastwood and Sofia Coppola might have had equal chances of winning. But not this year. (Besides, Coppola, who's only 32 years old, will have other Oscar shots.)
A complicating factor in the Best Director category is the presence of the Brazilian Fernando Meirelles, whose "City of God," a violent and sleekly rendered descent into the hellish drug-gang slums of Rio de Janeiro, is a revelatory experience, not least because it so clearly announces the arrival of a gifted new director. Unfortunately — at least Oscarwise — "City of God" is subtitled (the actors speak Portuguese). This in no way obscures Meirelles' talent as a director, of course — it's entirely apparent anyway — but it no doubt weighs against him. You shouldn't miss this movie in any case: It's a wild ride.
Who's the best actor of the year? Well, let's see. You have to love Bill Murray's performance in "Lost in Translation" — it's a marvel of restraint and delicacy. But Sean Penn has never won an Oscar, and this is a situation that cries out to be rectified. (In addition to "Mystic River," Penn was also a vivid presence this year in "21 Grams.") Love Jude Law, but the Academy clearly wasn't loving "Cold Mountain" all that much (note the lack of Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actress nods). It'd be a hoot if Johnny Depp took the award for his flamboyant freebooter in "Pirates of the Caribbean" — this is a guy who's never even been nominated for an Oscar (can you believe?). But that's about as likely as Seabiscuit trotting off with a lifetime-achievement feedbag for Best Horse.
Best Actress. Okay: Naomi Watts, like Sean Penn, really acted up a storm in "21 Grams"; but the movie was overwrought and uninvolving. (Not that Watts, in my book at least, doesn't benefit from a lot of residual goodwill left over from "The Ring." Speaking of which — let me run this by you — don't you think the English-language "Ring" was a better movie than the Japanese original, "Ringu?" Good, glad we agree.)
Charlize Theron is being heavily tipped to win Best Actress for "Monster," and she probably will: Anytime a beautiful actress puts on a fake nose (Nicole Kidman in "The Hours") or a face-obscuring fright wig (Cameron Diaz in "Being John Malkovich") critics seem to see it as some sort of existential breakthrough. Theron was vividly physical in the title role of Aileen Wuornos, the dead-end hooker/killer, but the much-gushed-about makeup transformation she underwent struck me as a prosthetic stunt. And the movie itself, well ... if it only had a brain.
And let us not forget 13-year-old New Zealander Keisha Castle-Hughes, who's up for Best Actress for "Whale Rider." Since there are still people grumping about 11-year-old New Zealander Anna Paquin winning Best Supporting Actress for "The Piano" back in 1993 — 11 years old! — little Keisha may have to be content with counting her blessings and behaving herself until some future filmic possibility impends.
Best Supporting Actor. Umm ... Benicio del Toro was grindingly tormented in "21 Grams" — maybe too much so — but this needlessly complicated movie didn't really live up to its dinky premise. Alec Baldwin is a way-underrated comic actor who gets better and better with every picture (he was just about the only bearable thing in the otherwise entirely insufferable "The Cat in the Hat"), and he was both funny and scary in "The Cooler" — which, however, is a wan and lukewarm movie. Charismatic Japanese star Ken Watanabe turned in a performance of impressive gravity in "The Last Samurai," but the picture itself ... please. Actually, I think Tim Robbins is gonna take this one. Here's another man who's never won an Oscar. And you've seen "The Player," right? And "Short Cuts"? "The Shawshank Redemption"? "High Fidelity"? Go, Tim!
The Best Supporting Actress category is a really hard call. I don't think Holly Hunter should be tainted by her association with Anna Paquin in "The Piano," but she did already win an Oscar, and for that very movie, so ... maybe not. Patricia Clarkson was pretty searing as a dying-of-cancer mother who's undergone a double mastectomy in "Pieces of April," but that worthy film didn't get what you'd call a big release. (Please see it anyway.) I think Renée Zellweger may be the winner here. Everybody loves Renée, right? And she selflessly agreed to pork up for a second "Bridget Jones" movie, so we like her feistiness, and of course her crooked little smile.
I'm told that the Iranian actress Shohreh Aghdashloo gives a wonderful supporting performance as Ben Kingsley's wife in "House of Sand and Fog." But I haven't seen "House of Sand and Fog." I don't know why, some vague aversion. Is it about a horse?