Armchair Oscars – 2000

Best Picture

Gladiator (Directed by Ridley Scott)
The Nominees: Chocolate, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Erin Brockovich, Traffic

My Choice:
Almost Famous (Directed by Cameron Crowe)
My Nominees: The Contender (Rod Lurie), Dancer in the Dark (Lars Von Trier), George Washington (David Gordon Green), Requiem for a Dream (Darren Aronofsky), Traffic (Stephen Soderbergh), Wonder Boys (Curtis Hansen)


The new century could not have opened with a more lackluster year at the movies.   With a very few exceptions there just weren’t many truly bright, original movies that found an audience in 2000.  The bad year  culminated in one of the worst films ever to receive the Oscar for Best  Picture.

Ridley Scott’s Gladiator was a stale reconstruction of a dead  genre, a joyless, noisy action picture featuring muddy special effects,  wooden performances and a plot seemingly pried from a video game. Many claimed  that it was a throwback to the forgettable sword and sandal epics of  the 1950s like Ben-Hur and Spartacus, but I believe that had it been made at that time it would have been forgotten today. Unlike those films, Gladiator lacks any real passion or joy. It features characters that are morose and  depressing and casts them under muddy cinematography that makes the sky  look eternally overcast.

I realize that the film made $187 million at the box office and it has a legion of fans but I am not the film’s only detractor. I recently read the comment index for the film at the Internet Movie Database and I find that I am not alone.
Actually, none of the nominees for Best Picture of 2000, save for Steven Soderbergh’s drug-era epic Traffic really had any spark. I liked Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon but I was not overwhelmed by it. The only place to really find great movies in 2000 was to look between the middling reviews and bad box office to find those truly original films that, for one reason or another just didn’t find an audience. Such is the case for Cameron Crowe’s lovely, semi-autobiographic gem, Almost Famous. The film received almost as much critical praise as Gladiator but the film’s plot was tricky which meant that the studio didn’t know how to sell it. That led to a lackluster showing at the box office because anyone who actually saw it came away singing its praises.
Almost Famous is director Cameron Crowe’s semi-autobiographical account of his own life as a young Rolling Stone reporter. The movie parallels his 1973 tour with The Allman Brothers (the film’s hero tours with a struggling band named Stillwater). The hero is William Miller (Patrick Fugit), a fresh-faced, wide-eyed 15 year old with a head full of musical knowledge who has spent his time writing about music for his school paper. He is not a smug, smart-aleck teenager like so many movie teens but a shy, determined kid with a good heart and a open mind.

William’s world has been established by the values set in place by Elaine (Frances McDormand), his mother who forbids Rock and Roll which she sees as a conduit of drugs and displaced values. But she’s not a wicked witch. She’s an intelligent woman who dotes over her children while trying to keep them from falling between the cracks that are forming in their generation. When William is 11, his older sister, Anita (Zooey Dashenel) constantly fights with her mother and leaves home to become a stewardess. She leaves William with a stack of records that she thinks will help shape his future.

At 15, William finds a mentor in writer Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who informs him that he has arrived at the end of true Rock and Roll and that commercialism is about to put a stranglehold on the industry.“Rock and roll is dead; you got here just in time for the death rattle. Still, the kid persists and Bangs, liking his unflappable spirit (and the fact that he doesn’t do drugs) decides that he may yet have what it takes to be a great writer.
Visiting a concert for Black Sabbath one night, William persists at getting backstage access to talk with the band. Finding only a constantly slamming door he hurls a flurry of correct information and earnest compliments at the band Stillwater as they try and get backstage. That earns him a backstage pass. They distrust journalists as “the enemy” but there is something honest about William and they let him in. In particular is Russell (Billy Crudup), the lead guitarist who sees something special in the kid.

Two women emerge as the guiding force in William’s life, one is his mother, whom he constantly calls to ensure that he isn’t doing drugs. The other is Penny Lane (Kate Hudson), one of those constant companions that travels with the band but insists that she is not a groupie. She calls herself a “Band Aid”, a sort of muse who gives a lift of inspiration to the band.. She’s naïve but not stupid, a hippie one decade too late. She has values but you can see that she may be too spiritual for her own good.

He is invited to go on the road with Stillwater and promises his mother that he will only be gone a few days. But as the tour goes on, he endears himself to Stillwater who find that he isn’t the kind of smug, hateful journalist that they believe is choking the life out of rock music. It is on the road that William begins to see what keeps the band together and the kind of petty squabbles that can break them apart. One particularly brilliant scene involves and argument over a T-Shirt in which Russell is in full focus while the other guys stand behind him out of focus. This rubs Jeff Bebe (Jason Lee), the lead singer the wrong way. “I can tell by your face that you want to get into this”, says Russell. Says Jeff, “How can you tell, I’m just one of the out of focus guys.”

William finds himself emotionally attached to Penny and to Russell. There is a hint that she may have been his girlfriend at one time but the movie avoids a phony explanation and leaves it at a suggestion. William cares about these two so much that it pains him to see either of them hurt, especially when Russell sells Penny in a poker game to another band for $50 and a case of beer. The way Kate Hudson handles that revelation is a case of very skilled acting, she acts with her face so that we can read every emotion.

The tension mounts on William when he gets a phone call from Rolling Stone who ask him to write an article on Stillwater. They have no idea that he is only 15 but they give him a deadline to get an interview with Russell. The problem? Russell doesn’t do interviews and the second half of the movie hinges Williams dreams on doing just that. This is interesting because it’s later revealed the Rolling Stone becomes the intersecting dream of both William and the band, he wants to write for it and they want to be in it. It’s at that moment that we realize that he may yet find his dream.

Every time I revisit Almost Famous, I am struck by the details and about the sights and sounds of the era. This is not a biography of a band but of a time when the words Rock Music had a certain aura and the time just before the music industry tried to make that aura marketable. What is irresistible about Almost Famous is the generosity of Cameron Crowe as a director. His characters are so interesting that he trusts that the audience will follow their journey. The puts them in the perfect setting, a recreation of a time when 70’s rock music caught somewhere between the death of music with a social conscious and the era when rock became pure capitalism.

Best Actor

Russell Crowe (Gladiator)
The Nominees: Javier Bardem (Before Night Falls), Tom Hanks (Castaway), Ed Harris (Pollack), Geoffrey Rush (Quills)

Michael Douglas (Wonder Boys)
My Nominees: Christian Bale (American Psycho), Javier Bardem (Before Night Falls), Billy Crudup (Almost Famous), John Cusack (High Fidelity), Ralph Fiennes (Sunshine), Tom Hanks (Cast Away), Ed Harris (Pollock), Gary Oldman (The Contender), Mark Ruffalo (You Can Count On Me), Will Smith (The Legend of Bagger Vance)


Russell Crowe received three Best Actor nominations in three years. The first and the last were brilliant performances – both real-life characters – first as Jeffrey Weigand in Michael Mann’s The Insider and then as John Forbes Nash in Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind. It was great work so, naturally, he lost. In between, he won the Oscar for his least effective performance, that of the brawny Maximus Decimus Meridias in Ridley Scott’s morose action epic Gladiator.

Thinking back on Gladiator, it is not hard to imagine the dozen or so actors who could fit into the role of Maximus with the same effect.  This is the standard action movie character, all muscles, brawn, sweat and conflict. Look closely and there isn’t really much to the character beyond  what is onscreen. There are no dimensions, no depth, the character is just . . . nothing. My opinion is that Russell Crowe won the Oscar for Gladiator due to  the flurry of mega-hype surrounding the movie. I generally like his work, this wasn’t his best.

The first year of the new millennium was a good year for actors in leading roles. It was a good year for actors in all categories but many were not nominated. I would have been happy to see nominations for John Cusack in High Fidelity; Ralph Feinnes in Sunshine; Will Smith as a mysterious golf caddy in Robert Redford’s The Legend of Bagger Vance; Billy Crudup as the rock god in Almost Famous; Christian Bale as a fastidious axe murderer in American Psycho;  Gary Oldman as the Ken Starr-like Senator in The Contender. The list goes on and on and none were nominated. But the biggest crime was overlooking Michael Douglas for his single best performance as a college professor who gets a wake-up call on his own arrested development in Curtis Hansen’s Wonder Boys.

Douglas spent his career playing men trapped under the thumb of dangerous women in movies like Fatal Attraction,Disclosure, War of the Roses and Basic Instinct. In Wonder Boys, however, the women are more a befuddlement than a threat. This was one of Douglas’ very few chances to play comedy and he does it with the flare of a master. He  plays Grady Tripp (I love that name), a college English professor who was once the BMOC but now wanders his Pennsylvania campus in an ugly pink bathrobe, smokes pot and nurses a never-ending case of writer’s block. Seven years ago, he wrote a great award-winning novel called “The Arsonist’s Daughter” and is now stuck writing a follow-up that has crossed north of 2000 single-spaced pages. He is stuck for an ending and has just kept on writing.

Grady’s direction in life is more or less aimless, his personal problems are only dealt with when they pop up into his field of vision. A big literary festival is taking place on the campus run by Walter Gaskell (Richard Thomas), head of the English Department and Grady’s supervisor.   Grady doesn’t much like Walter and steers clear of him especially in light of the fact that he is sleeping with Sara, Walter’s wife.

That’s not his only problem. Over the course of several days, his problems seem to converge into a sort of Murphy’s Law traffic jam. His wife Emily (whom we never see) has just left him. One of his students, James (Tobey Maguire) is a depressed loner who may be suicidal. Another of his students (Katie Holmes) is living in a room in his house, is madly in love with him, but hasn’t yet turned to sleeping his bed. His agent (Robert Downey Jr.) is buzzing around like a blowfly itching to take a look at that nearly decade old manuscript. Oh yeah . . . and Sara is pregnant.

What we see in Grady is a man who once had a happy bend on life. In his youth he was probably announced as the next big thing, but is now under threat of becoming a one-hit wonder. He doesn’t seem to look too deeply into life, just living for the day. The problem is that he never imagines having to deal with the day he just left behind. Then, somehow, the cosmic forces fall on him and he ends up in a whirl-wind of problems involving his girlfriend, his student, his editor, his boss, his boss’s dog, his car, his job, his marriage and a violent confrontation with a James Brown look-alike that he mistakenly calls Vernon.

All of these elements converge upon Grady in the course of one weekend and what is amazing is the way he is able to juggle all of these oddities without caving under the pressure. It would be easy to play the character as coming unglued but Douglas is too smart for that, he sees Grady as gentle, befuddled and low-key. That plays to the nature of the character, a college professor still wandering in a haze of his long-forgotten glory days. Now north of 50 he finds that responsibility not such a foreign concept after all.

If there is a consistency in the characters that Michael Douglas plays it is that he most often plays men who find out too late that they are in over their heads. We see that in Fatal Attraction, Basic Instinct, Romancing the StoneDisclosure and others. Wonder Boys takes that same idea and turns it loose on a screwball comedy. He takes a role that could have contained a lot of mugging and over-acting and keeps it just this side of sanity. While all the insanity is happening around Grady, he keeps himself in check. We first see him as a laid-back guy, proud of his achievement who that he is stuck in a spiral of problems that he has built for himself. The journey of Wonder Boys is how he is able to cope with that chaos and who he will be when he will choose to be when he reaches the other side. What Grady does in life may not echo in eternity, but at least he is grown up enough to make better choices.

Best Actress

Julia Roberts (Erin Brockovich)
The Nominees: Joan Allen (The Contender), Juliette Binoche (Chocolat), Ellen Burstyn (Requiem for a Dream), Laura Linney (You Can Count On Me)

Ellen Burstyn (Requiem for a Dream)
y Nominees: Joan Allen (The Contender), Gillian Anderson (The House of Mirth), Bjork (Dancer in the Dark), Renee Zellweger (Nurse Betty)


The Oscars should always be full of surprises. That’s part of the magic. Yet, when it becomes so abundantly clear that a particular actor is going to win an Oscar beyond any reasonable doubt, the fun just leaves the proceedings. That’s especially true when you know in your heart that the actor who is about to receive the award doesn’t deserve it.

Julia Roberts was a box office phenomenon, a movie star in every sense of the word. She has a million dollar smile and a charming screen presence. In her best work, she is irresistible, which was true of her performances in films like Steel Magnolias, Mystic Pizza, Pretty Woman, Something to Talk About and Notting Hill. I would have been happy to see Roberts nominated for any one of those films but the academy decided to reward her for one of her least appealing performances.  In the title role of Erin Brockovich, She played an unemployed single mother who becomes a legal assistant and almost single-handedly brings down a California power company accused of polluting a city’s water supply.

This is a powerful subject but I saw the same material done much better with essentially the same story a few years earlier in A Civil Action and with Meryl Streep in Silkwood. The other problem is that I never felt like I was looking at Erin Brockovich, I was always seeing Julia Roberts playing Erin Brockovich. I know that the real Brockovich is known for short skirts and a plunging neckline, but Roberts looks uncomfortable in some scenes and that may be from the costume designer trying to squeeze Roberts into ill-fitting clothes that are more of a distraction than a distinction. I don’t think this is her best work. I think that the academy overlooked better work in My Best Friend’s Wedding, Notting Hill and Something to Talk About and I still think her best performances are yet to come. For my taste, there just wasn’t anything new here.

I had a difficult time deciding on my Best Actress for 2000. I was stuck between Ellen Burstyn’s work as a diet pill addict in Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream and Gillian Anderson as Lily Bart a 19th century socialite who has her reputation destroyed by spite and jealousy in Terence Davies’ adaptation of The House of Mirth. Both play women destroyed by the trappings of their surroundings, both are heartbreaking both are brilliant. But I go with Burstyn because her Sara Goldfarb travels further into her personal Hell and goes there on her own.

I was shocked the lengths of pain and horror that Ellen Burstyn goes through as a diet pill addict whose life comes unhinged. I have probably seen every movie that Ellen Burstyn has ever appeared in but nothing could have prepared me for the depths of despair that she puts herself through in this movie. This is a role that many actresses would instinctively turn down.
Burstyn plays Sara Goldfarb, a lonely old widow who lives in her dusty little tenement and has a constant companion in her television set and her stockpile of sugary snacks. There is no real activity in her life, no real human contact other than occasionally pulling her lawn chair outside to sit in front of the building with the other old ladies and the occasional visit from her son Harry (Jared Leto) who stops by only to pilfer things that he can pawn for drug money. As the movie opens she is chaining the television set to the radiator and we sense that this is an ongoing routine.

Sara is hooked on an odd television show called “The Tappy Timmons Show,” a bizarre audience participation show that lies somewhere between The Price is Right and one of those 12-step infomercial’s that inform you that you can change your life in 3 days. The host is always leading the audience in chanting “We got a winner!” One day she gets a junk phone call telling her that she has been selected to be on the show. She is overjoyed and soon becomes obsessed with slipping into her red dress, which doesn’t fit anymore thanks to all the sugar. She decides to lose weight and to help her, a doctor prescribes diet pills. For a while, the pills work. She loses weight and she is filled with boundless energy, soon however she complains to the pharmacist that “the pills, they don’t work so good anymore.” She ups her dosage and  slowly begins to lose her mind.

She has hallucinations. She thinks her refrigerator is attacking her. She sees things in speed up and she waits for a call from the television show that never comes. In one cold-hearted moment she goes to see her doctor, complains about the visions, about the refrigerator and her doctor -who never even looks at her – simply prescribes more pills and then quickly leaves the room. Sara begins to panic. She leaves her house, goes to the television station, thin, pale, hair unkempt and begins rattling “I’m Sara Goldfarb, I’m gonna be on television.” She is finally put into shock therapy.

What separates Burstyn from other actors who have portrayed drug addicts is that we see the progression of her illness. We understand why she is hooked on diet pills and we know that it isn’t based on a simple weakness of the flesh. Most movies show drug addicts in the midst of their addiction and portray it as some kind of sexy-ugly process. Sara gets hooked on pills because of her need to lose weight because she thinks that someone has finally acknowledged her existence. This lonely old lady has finally had a small ray of sunshine in her life even if it is only a paper moon.

In one heartbreaking moment, Sara explains to Harry her need to lose weight and to get on the show, “I’m somebody now, Harry. Everybody likes me. Soon, millions of people will see me and they’ll all like me. I’ll tell them about you, and your father, how good he was to us. Remember? It’s a reason to get up in the morning. It’s a reason to lose weight, to fit in the red dress. It’s a reason to smile. It makes tomorrow all right. What have I got Harry, hm? Why should I even make the bed, or wash the dishes? I do them, but why should I? I’m alone. Your father’s gone, you’re gone. I got no one to care for. What have I got, Harry? I’m lonely. I’m old.”

Performances like this are one in a million. Most actresses wouldn’t put their image on the line as Burstyn does. She wears fat suits to look heavy, she wears wig to make her hair look unkempt and stringy. It was a brilliant choice for director Aronofski to stage a scene in which Sara fantasizes that she is on the TV show because we see that Burstyn still looks beautiful. It’s a contrast so that we can see her at her best before we see Sara spiral into Hell.

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