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The night of the gilded statuettes 

So the annual Award Ceremony of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science (it always seems so impressive written out in full like that), better known as Oscar Night, looms before us, haunted by the ghosts of stars and movies past.

            After weeks of the usual hype, assisted by the usual learned speculation among the media, the ceremony will once again provide a grand occasion for the display and advertising of designer clothes, the garbled reading of cue cards, bland and boring acceptance speeches, and the inevitable sour disappointment of yet another empty celebration of fraudulence and sham.

            And yet, and yet, every film critic feels the compulsion to comment on the proceedings and, above all, to mention the chasm between what should win and what probably will win and, as always, hope for the best.

            Although they now and then stumble upon an appropriate selection, the members of the Academy, many of whom never see the movies they vote for, have earned a reputation over the years for making the incompetent, the fashionable, or the politically correct candidate their choice. The nominees for the various awards for many years reflect some of those traditional criteria, above all in that vast and populous category that might be called the Undeserving, a well that never seems to run dry --- think of the sappy and passive Jude Law in Cold Mountain or Diane Keaton's overrated performance in Something's Gotta Give.

            In some relatively minor areas, those nominees display the trends and fashions of the past year in motion pictures. It was, for example, a good year for costume pictures. So Girl With a Pearl Earring, also deservedly nominated for art direction and cinematography --- in a really outstanding movie, perhaps all those arts belong together anyway --- shares space with The Last Samurai, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, and Master and Commander.

            The lavish spectacle that recalls the golden age of Hollywood generally beats out the rest of the competition --- remember the grand horror of Gladiator? --- and since neither Samurai nor Master performed well at the box office, I would imagine that The Lord of the Rings will win.

            Since The Lord of the Rings has also received nominations in no less than 11 categories, surely no one would be surprised if it turned out to enjoy a grand night on the order of James Cameron's awful Titanic of a few years ago. It has been nominated for sound editing and original song (quick, can anyone out there hum a few bars?), though curiously, not for cinematography, and already ranks among the most profitable pictures in history (not a wholly irrelevant point).

            One tip: if it wins for best editing, one of the early awards, then it will probably win everything else. That prize, often bestowed on large, uncontrolled movies like Lord of the Rings, which for all its splendor runs at least 20 minutes too long and uses three or four different endings, serves as a good indicator of general success, and thus may launch the sort of steamroller that flattens the competition on Oscar night.

            On the other hand, The Lord of the Rings also ranks among the great achievements in the cinema of fantasy, and certainly deserves both the nominations and several of those precious statuettes. It's hard to believe that any other picture could win for visual effects, or makeup, or original score, or even, yes, sound editing. In some of the more familiar and, let=s face it, more interesting categories, however, a number of surprisingly good movies in a reasonably good year for the cinema could provide at least some serious competition.

            Despite the possible dominance of Middle Earth over the rest of the field, some fine films deserve recognition.

            The best movie of the year, in this critic's judgment, is Mystic River, which should but probably won't win in a few other categories, including Clint Eastwood for best director, Sean Penn for best actor, Tim Robbins and Marcia Gay Harden for their brilliance in supporting roles. The virtually seamless unity of the cast, the remarkable directorial control, the bleak and terrifying emotional power of the whole production accounted for a work of rare and moving integrity.

            Although the script of Dennis Lehane's novel also contributed a good deal to Mystic River, the Oscar for best adapted screenplay should by rights go to American Splendor. The movie not only exhibited an unusual creativity in translating a series of comic books to the screen, it also accomplished something important and most uncommon in film, an achievement that the Academy seldom notices. The mingling of the comic book drawings of Harvey Pekar, the actor who plays him, along with the real Harvey, and the complicated narrative strategy suggest a high degree of experimentation with film itself, a successful attempt at moving the art of cinema a frame or two in a new direction.

            Whatever the glories and triumphs of a gilded, if not a golden, night, the Academy seldom notices or cares about such an achievement, especially in a small independent movie without any major stars.

            That neglect remains one of the greatest problems of Oscar night, a failure to acknowledge and celebrate the grand possibilities of motion picture art, the miracle of film itself. Prepare yourself for the blockbusters and steamrollers, the endless stream of presentations, the stale song-and-dance numbers, the fatuous appreciations, but also prepare yourself for the disappointment that always accompanies neglected merit and obscure beauty, the hangover of the Academy Awards.

            Now enjoy the show.

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