Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Million dollar baby vs. billion dollar nutcase

Now that January is finally over, maybe I can find something to write about besides people who have died.

The obvious thing to discuss, of course, is the Academy Award nominations. But somehow I find it hard to whip up enthusiasm for the topic this year. Maybe it’s the inevitable letdown following three consecutive years in which a key component of the Oscar race was the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Or maybe it’s the fact that it seems as though I have personally seen fewer of the nominees than at any other time I have been doing this web site.

Nah, that’s never stopped me before. Actually, I find the fact that I have seen so few of the movies strangely liberating. Talk about approaching a challenge without the baggage of preconceived biases! After all, seeing a movie with your own eyes might be a reasonable precondition for judging the quality of the movie, but who ever said that the Academy Awards were about the quality of movies? Now, I know at least some of you are thinking that I am being a bit hypocritical. After all, didn’t the Academy last year load a bunch of awards on The Return of the King, after I myself had declared it far and away the highest quality movie of the year? Yes, it did, although it remains to be seen whether this is a trend or an anomaly. In the end, I have to admit that it’s more fun to criticize the Academy than to have it agree with me. Somehow, I don’t think this pleasure will long be denied me.

Already I can discern the old patterns returning. For example, the new crop of nominees neatly follows the tried and true formula of pitting a couple of powerhouse movies (The Aviator and Million Dollar Baby) with powerhouse directors (Martin Scorsese and Clint Eastwood) against each other, while adding to the mix a low-profile potential spoiler (Sideways) as well as the high-class foreign entry (Finding Neverland). Just as Hollywood is addicted to formulas for making big-budget movies, the town is also addicted to them when it comes to handing out laurels. And they’ve even shortened the campaign season to allow for the shortened attention span of a younger audience.

In the past, my predictions have gone awry because I have been too quick to divide up the predicted awards among the worthiest nominees. History, on the other hand, shows that the Oscars are often a winner-take-all game. Usually, if not always, one motion picture tends to dominate. The trick is to figure out which picture it will be. The only thing that is sure, though, is that the quality of the movie under consideration this year will be but a single factor in the voting. There is also a multitude of political and historical factors at play as well.

For example, one might logically think that it is Martin Scorsese’s turn this year, since he has had an indisputably stellar career as a director and failed to get recognition two years ago for Gangs of New York. Clint Eastwood, on the other hand, got his late-in-his-career recognition a dozen years ago for Unforgiven. It’s surely Scorsese’s turn this time, right? Maybe. But being a contrarian, I’m going with Eastwood’s flick. Not only is the buzz from people who have actually seen the movies better for Million Dollar Baby, but one could sense a much greater disappointment in the universe last year when Eastwood didn’t get the statue for Mystic River than when Gangs of New York was edged out the previous year by Chicago.

Anyway, that’s the way I’m betting this year. If you need a good laugh, check out all of my annual Oscar predictions.

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As a rule, I don’t do product endorsements, and there is a good reason for this. It has to do with principle and integrity and, mostly, the fact that no one pays me to do them. You would think, for example, that after all the glowing commentaries in which I have mentioned TiVo, the company would at least have sent me a free tee-shirt or something. But no, nada, zip, nothing. Maybe the folks at Bose will be more forthcoming.

During last month, which was by any standard a difficult month for me, I treated myself to a pricey new toy. I invested some $300 (plus shipping) in a pair of headphones. Specifically, I purchased the Bose QuietComfort 2 Acoustic Noise Cancelling Headphones. I don’t know how the damn things work (and I’m too lazy to look into it), but they are amazing. They allow me to hear the softest sounds on whatever MP3 file I am listening to, while at the same time giving me the strange sensation of having gone deaf when it comes to trying to hear anything going on around me in the real world.

In particular, they made a long-haul flight from California to Europe a few days ago nearly tolerable by making it possible to actually hear movies and music on the airplane’s onboard entertainment system. While the sound of the jet engines didn’t completely disappear, it was reduced to the gentle softness of hearing the ocean in the distance. And watching a movie on the plane, an experience I have previously described as a movie buff’s version of hell, was actually elevated to the quality of watching a movie at home on a small television set, i.e. still not ideal but definitely a lot more bearable. It almost makes me anxious to go on more long-haul flights. (I said “almost.”)

-S.L., 3 February 2005

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