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Oscars on the fly 

Editor's note: Every year, in the weeks leading up to Oscar Night, film critics and Academy members are flooded by screeners of the films up for big awards. The thinking here is that these films need to be seen again while the viewer stays mindful of the various awards they're nominated for. This way, everyone involved can make supposedly informed decisions.

            So we decided to simulate this process. With no screeners in hand, we chose to send new film reviewer Andy Davis out to the theaters and the video stores. His assignment: See every film nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Actress within three days. Then compile all observations and predictions in an Oscar preview.

            This is his report:

Day one

I start with In America, a visually rich film about an Irish family down-and-out in '80s Manhattan. It's mawkish and obvious, with groaners shooting for profundity, but the crowd seems to like it. That's important with the Oscars. But I'm here to judge Samantha Morton for Best Actress. Morton has a dramatic scene, and she's great. She's making it feel truer than what you normally see. She's the only thing in the movie that affects me.

            I cut over to another theater to see Something's Gotta Give. Diane Keaton has already won Best Actress for a comedic role (Annie Hall), which doesn't happen often. Frankly, putting aside the impulse to be charitable, Keaton really isn't that good. She's just mugging. As I leave the theater, I feel like I look like a pervert who only came to see Keaton naked as I shuffle out in my bulky winter coat, the lone male in the theater, past scores of older women.

            Monster is heartbreaking and great, with smart photography that presents fetching color postcards of trash America. Charlize Theron is pitch-perfect as serial killer Aileen Wuornos, aided by an astonishing make-up and prosthetics job that buries her glamour under an extended jaw and a crust of hard living. It's an uncanny performance, though not a gimmick. She never wavers, never showboats. If she doesn't win the Oscar, I want to see rioting in the streets. Of course, Whale Rider could change my mind.

            House of Sand and Fog is a captivating dual character study about two lives haplessly intersecting in the worst way. It's close to flawless. I'm here to see Ben Kingsley as Best Actor. I make my own nomination, for Jennifer Connelly's Legs in a Supporting Role. Kingsley was utterly professional, disappearing into the role without a hint of technique. Even though you know him from countless other things, this character seems like all he could ever be. Perfect acting, but this is not really what the Oscars are about.

            City of God is a Brazilian film about a chaotic slum of casual brutality. It takes a dizzy spin around a trio of characters as they evolve along with the slums over two decades. Up for Best Directing, it takes a page from everything, especially Scorsese and Tarantino. The director has a long background in commercials, and a lot of dazzling stylistic flair injects the movie with hopping momentum. It's a pretty amazing film, but it's foreign, and an art-house flick. The Academy likes to go with what people know. It's also hard to stomach at times. A strong contender, but it won't win.

Day two

I am refreshing myself on Johnny Depp's performance with the Pirates of the Caribbean DVD. It's hard to forget. Hell, you would be qualified to vote if you had seen the commercials. He twitches and bobs like a drunkard constantly coming to, but somehow makes it debonair.

            Bill Murray is up for Best Actor in Lost in Translation, Sofia Coppola's movie about two Americans who find each other in a Tokyo hotel. To remember his performance, I listen to Roxy Music's "More Than This" (from the Karaoke moment in the film). That pretty much brings it all back... suave despair and a pained sense of ridiculousness.

            Both nominees are charming and entertaining, but without much depth. People's Choice? Yes. Oscar? No. Translation might get Best Director, but it probably seems too slight for Best Picture.

            Lord of the Rings: ponderous pronouncements scrambled up with swooping-camera CGI spectacle, plus two hobbits who seem to be auditioning for the parts of the children on Barney. I enjoy watching Sam beat up on a cartoon Gollum --- it's a good measure of the overall ridiculousness. But still, in some sick way, I didn't want to miss anything. The other two in the series didn't win Best Picture, and everyone seems to love this one the best, so it's a strong possibility.

Day three

Keisha Castle-Hughes is totally charismatic in Whale Rider as a Maori girl enduring marginalization on the way to becoming her people's leader. She captures the private stubborn thinking of children perfectly, and wins your admiration without overplaying her hand. But "It's an honor just to be nominated" is actually true when you're 13, and that's what the Academy will be thinking.

            Seabiscuit, up for Best Picture, is a solid biopic about a racehorse that beats circumstance and odds in Depression-era America. It often manages to edge beyond the typical flatness of the genre, but then hobbles itself with grand sweeping themes that aren't the best fit. The story and the acting are too generic at points, despite other strengths in the same areas. Overall, it's an even-keeled picture with uneven qualities.

            Back in the theaters now to see Jude Law in Cold Mountain. His character's transformation over three years of Civil War is more achieved by the bags under his eyes than what's behind his eyes. He shows up and does his job, basically. He and Nicole Kidman, his love interest in the film, provide the bedrock for more interesting performances, including a no-longer stilted Natalie Portman, and of course Renee Zellweger. Whoever says she goes overboard with her role has never lived in the South.

            Naomi Watts is nominated for Best Actress for her work in 21 Grams. As with Kingsley, the paradox of the Oscar rises: How do you single out stalwart acting that doesn't draw attention to itself? Watts is never less than convincing as she goes from grief to revenge (despite the implausibility of the script, which has her aligning with the recipient of her husband's heart to avenge his death). But there was nothing here to blow me away, like there was from her in Mulholland Dr.

            Master and Commander is full of the verve and humor of an old-fashioned adventure movie. It doesn't shuttle you from plot point to set piece, but instead eases you through the daily lives and relationships onboard the ship while telling its tale. It tells the story of one of Napolean's ships, which is pursued by an underdog member of the British fleet. But the friendship between the ship's captain and doctor upstages that adventure story. Pending Mystic, it deserves Best Picture. Best Director would be well-earned as well. Probably won't get either, except that Master director Peter Weir has never won on a nomination.

            Mystic River follows the long-delayed fallout, spurred by a fresh tragedy, of a childhood trauma that affected three best friends, now adults grown apart. Best Director? Kind of workman-like, and Clint Eastwood has given the film a dull, uninspired look. He also gets the only self-conscious performances from kids I've seen all weekend.

            Best Picture? I don't think so, but people seem to love this movie. It has enough goodwill to win. It's certainly a solid picture, but the story and the acting are the main attraction. Sean Penn for Best Actor? He snakes around the obvious moves, creeping you out and earning your sympathy all at once. Again, I think this is a nomination that resonates with people, so it's quite likely. And it would be totally deserved.

            Today was my most Herculean effort so far --- 17 straight hours of film-viewing. The marathon is over, and I stagger out a better man. For the first time in my life, I am fully qualified to predict the four main Oscars.

            Best Picture: Lord of the Rings. Best Direction: Lost in Translation.Best Actor: Sean Penn. Best Actress: Charlize Theron.

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