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“Was it all just a dream?” Michael Moore asks at the beginning of Fahrenheit 9/11, his custard-pie-in-the-face salute to the Bush Administration for using weapons of mass destruction as weapons of mass distraction. Moore was referring to the previous four years, from hanging chads to Swift boats, but he might as well have been referring to the first half of 2004, from The Passion of the Christ to Fahrenheit 9/11. After a century of purring like a kitty-cat, the American movie industry suddenly coughed up a pair of hairballs, and the result was mass hysteria—well, mass-media hysteria.

   Mel Gibson’s splatter film, which purports to tell the Gospel truth about Jesus’ trial and execution, either did or didn’t inspire the Pope to say “It is as it was.” Meanwhile, Moore’s campaign attack ad got a big fat thumb’s up from Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based insurgent group. And it’s tempting to pit the two movies against each other in some kind of international red-state/blue-state showdown—earnest religiosity versus sarcastic secularism, faith versus doubt. But what’s more interesting than who endorsed which one is the fact that people felt compelled to take sides. Not since Birth of a Nation has the country been so divided over cellulose fibers.

   That may explain why neither movie will play a prominent role in this year’s Oscar telecast (Sunday, February 27, 7pm on ABC). By definition, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences strives for consensus, smoothing over the rough spots, tossing out the hairballs. Gibson, who conquered the Academy with the strikingly similar Braveheart, has had to settle for a mere three nominations this time—cinematography (all that red blood), makeup (all that red blood) and original score (all those borrowings from The Last Temptation of Christ). And Moore, who staked everything on a Best Picture nod, isn’t even nominated for Best Feature Documentary.

   Did Academy members deliberately ignore these hot potatoes? Only their hairdressers know for sure. But there’s no denying that each movie offered something that Academy members tend to overlook: a distinctly personal vision. Despite Gibson’s desire to tell it like it was, The Passion of the Christ is very much The Gospel According to Mel, a right-wing ideologue’s Bible lesson, soaked in the blood of the lamb. And despite Moore’s carefully cultivated image as a working-class mascot, Fahrenheit 9/11 is very much The World According to Michael, a left-wing ideologue’s history lesson, the facts and opinions soaked in gasoline, then lighted, like a Molotov cocktail.

   Both movies benefited from the controversy that ignited around them, and neither director was above fanning the flames, but it takes more than controversy to fill a movie theater. You also have to be able to sense something in the air. Approaching it from different directions, Gibson and Moore both tapped into the zeitgeist, this feeling that the country, bitterly divided, is up for grabs. That’s why Moore could reasonably expect to swing an election, and it’s why Gibson, without having left ancient Judea, can be given at least some credit for having done so. It’s not the economy, stupid. It’s Deuteronomy. Like it or not, movies now have political clout.

   But we’re here to celebrate artistic achievement, not political clout, even if it’s harder and harder to tell the one from the other. Was Hotel Rwanda’s Don Cheadle nominated for Best Actor because of his stellar performance (I found it a little thin) or because the Academy wants to acknowledge a neglected genocide? Was Vera Drake’s Imelda Staunton nominated for Best Actress because of her stellar performance (I found it a little thin) or because the Academy is worried about Roe v. Wade? Politics aside, I’m sorry to report that, once again, the Academy has voted for movies that don’t even belong on the ballot. What follows is my attempt to redraw the electoral map.

 

I believe I can fly

They’re saying it’s Martin Scorsese’s year. At least they were saying that. Now they’re saying it’s Clint Eastwood’s year. Personally, I think 1976 (Taxi Driver) was Scorsese’s year. I also think 1978 (New York, New York), 1980 (Raging Bull), 1983 (The King of Comedy), 1988 (The Last Temptation of Christ) and 1990 (Goodfellas) were Scorsese’s years. But The Aviator, for all its cinematic razzle-dazzle—and there’s no movie of the last 12 months that I enjoyed watching more—doesn’t add up to all that much. Leonardo DiCaprio puts on quite a show as Howard Hughes, the business tycoon whose obsession with flying turned into an obsessive-compulsive nightmare. And Cate Blanchett is a veritable hoot as a Katharine Hepburn who perhaps existed only in her movies. But Scorsese and scriptwriter John Logan don’t offer us a very complicated portrait of Hughes, the living embodiment of American business in its skyscraping heyday. OCD isn’t a tragic flaw, it’s a personality disorder.

 

It’s about time

Made for a tiny fraction of the cost, Shane Carruth’s Primer gets more out of a two-car garage than The Aviator gets out of an entire continent. And it’s an enjoyable piece of do-it-yourself sci-fi to boot. First-time writer/director/editor/star Carruth drew on his experience as a software engineer in putting together this paranoid thriller about R & D gone bad. And the time-travel premise, which has a pair of inventors meeting themselves coming and going, leads to some great wisecracks—e.g., “I haven’t eaten since later this afternoon.” Still, it’s the atmosphere, Carruth’s feeling for low-rent scientific endeavor, that makes Primer such a provocative look at the way we do business today. Scorsese had more than $100 million to play with. Carruth had to make do with whatever was lying around. The result is a triumph of good ol’ American know-how.

 

They shoot horses, don’t they?

There’s so much to like about Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby that you find yourself not wanting to pick at its flaws. There’s the movie’s pace, for one thing—almost funereal, but with just enough spring in its step to go 15 rounds. And there’s the championship bout of comic understatement between Eastwood and Morgan Freeman, who appear to have studied each other’s moves for years. Finally, there’s Hilary Swank, who proves all over again that, given a role she can sink her teeth into, she’s going to clamp down like a rabid dog. Speaking of which, it isn’t hard to understand why disabled-rights organizations have protested a paralyzed boxer’s request to be put down, but you have to respect Eastwood for following the story wherever it led him. To my mind, there’s more religious feeling in Frankie’s decision to take Maggie’s life in his own hands than in all the torture scenes included in The Passion of the Christ. Let’s hear it for unhappy endings.

A soupçon of asparagus

And let’s hear it for unhappy beginnings. When Sideways opens, Paul Giamatti’s Miles is a bit of a slob and a bit of a snob. Still reeling from a divorce, he’s taken refuge in the rarefied realm of wine connoisseurship, and it’s hard to believe no movie’s explored this ripe territory before. Coming off About Schmidt, which I found drab and condescending, director Alexander Payne has deepened his emotional palette, added complexity. As Miles, Giamatti is remarkably unremarkable, which must have confused the Academy, cheating him out of a nomination. Thomas Haden Church, who is nominated, gets off some great lines. And Virginia Madsen does a lovely job of convincing us that there are women out there who might go for a guy like Miles. Movie of the year? Perhaps not, but Payne has made great strides in the comedy of disappointment. Rarely has failure been limned so successfully.

 

But seriously, folks

It was kind of a depressing year for comedy, and I mean that in a good way. For not only did Sideways drag Miles through the gutter before allowing him to step onto the curb, several other movies cultivated a bummer vibe while ostensibly going for laughs. Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou was so successful at this that it wound up dividing us critics down the middle. (I loved it.) So, in its willfully idiosyncratic way, did I Heart Huckabees. (I hated it.) And so did that cult fave Napoleon Dynamite. (I thought it was O.K.) Then there was Coffee and Cigarettes, Jim Jarmusch’s series of Beckettian blackout sketches, which didn’t attract much of an audience but deserved to. And 50 First Dates, which leaned too heavily on Groundhog Day but managed to generate real emotion while finally convincing me that Drew Barrymore is a goddess. And let’s not forget Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, which features Jim Carrey at his darkest, meanest and most utterly hilarious.

 

Can we be adult about this

It was also a depressing year for love in the movies, and I mean that in a good way, too. For my money, Mike Nichols’ Closer, which stars Natalie Portman, Clive Owen, Julia Roberts and Jude Law as a pair of intersecting love triangles, goes places that Sideways isn’t even aware exist—the blackened heart of sexual jealousy, for one. Some found it shallow. I found it deeply shallow, and I mean that in a good way, too. While we’re on the subject of ailing, flailing relationships, allow me to mention We Don’t Live Here Anymore, which also features a pair of intersecting love triangles. (Laura Dern’s treacherous performance as a jilted wife should have been nominated.) And how about The Door in the Floor, where the perennially underrated Jeff Bridges, in that don’t-mind-me way of his, gives a wonderful performance as a beloved children’s writer who only wants what’s best for his wife. Finally, there’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a wonderfully disjointed movie about two people who are meant to be together and meant to fall apart, over and over again.

 

There’s gotta be more to life

I’ve come to dread the biopic, with all its inherent limitations. Real lives just can’t be squeezed into a smooth story arc, but that doesn’t stop directors from trying. Jamie Foxx does a beautiful job of impersonating Ray Charles in Ray, nailing the way the singer walked and talked and fingered a keyboard. If only the movie were prepared to dig as deep as he was. Instead, it tidies up Charles’ messy life, finds a childhood trauma to explain a man whose resentment and despair were lifted only when he broke into song. (That’s when Ray soars as well.) Likewise, Finding Neverland treats the creator of Peter Pan as if he’s Peter Pan, a man-boy who refuses to grow up. But isn’t that a cop-out? Didn’t James Barrie’s relationship with the real-life Lost Boys have to have been a little more complicated than that? Asked to play Barrie’s inner child, Johnny Depp himself seems lost. Toss The Aviator onto this pile and you’ve got three Best Picture nominees that, however interesting the lives they portray, have had the life sucked out of them.

 

Hurray for Hollywood

Sucking the life out of something is a Hollywood specialty, especially among the blockbustersaurs, but I was surprised at the number of cinematic T. rexes that managed to tread lightly this year, even do a little jig. Spider-Man 2 brought that mega-franchise to squirming life with masterful action sequences and soulful performances by Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst. Harry Potter 3 blotted out all memories of Harry Potter 1 and Harry Potter 2, thank God. And I, Robot, though cobbled together from old sci-fi flicks, still felt like a shiny new product—slick, sleek and surprisingly dark for a popcorn movie. That leaves Hellboy, the most purely enjoyable comic-book movie since Darkman, and Van Helsing, which I appear to be the only movie critic in the world who actually enjoyed. As for Troy, where Brad Pitt bared his butt but not his soul, and Alexander, where Angelina Jolie chewed scenery from one end of the known world to the other, what can you say about them that hasn’t already been said? O.K., I’ll say it again: They sucked.

 

Doc or I’ll shoot

For a while there, I was writing about a different documentary every week, each one of them determined to add its 2 cents to a presidential election that cost hundreds of million of dollars. And although I’m all for this kind of participatory democracy, even when (especially when?) the boom mic is dangling at the top of the frame, I must confess that I was relieved when Metallica: Some Kind of Monster came to town. Finally, a documentary about something other than all the lies George Bush has been telling! But this behind-the-music look at the world’s most venerable heavy-metal band as it struggles through a midlife crisis is actually much more than that. Directors Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky don’t have to mention This Is Spinal Tap when the group hires a therapist at $40,000 a month; the connection is understood. But as the headbangers start to share their feelings, especially the commercially viable one called rage, you gradually realize that the movie’s about the very meaning of rock ‘n’ roll. It’s a touchy-feely triumph.

 

Odds and ends

The Incredibles should have been nominated for Best Picture. Polar Express should have been nominated for Best Animated Feature. Shark Tale shouldn’t have. Oscar overlooked two excellent sports movies, Miracle and Friday Night Lights, the former featuring an admirably hard-nosed performance by Kurt Russell as the coach of the 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey Team. Oscar also overlooked Before Sunset, a wistful little film about a couple at the beginning of a beautiful relationship, and Open Water, a wistful little film about a couple about to be eaten by sharks. Dawn of the Dead and Shaun of the Dead will make a fantastic double-bill someday. So will The Passion of the Christ and Kill Bill: Vol. 2, Quentin Tarantino’s unjustly ignored revenge fantasy. But the movie this year that really got me thinking about the role of religion in our lives was the blissfully blasphemous Saved!, a teen comedy set in the wacky world of evangelical Christianity. JESUS LOVES YOU, reads the bumper sticker on one kid’s car, EVERYBODY ELSE THINKS YOU’RE AN ASSHOLE.

 

Between a Rock and a hard place

There’s been some grumbling out in La La Land ever since this year’s new host, Chris Rock, told Entertainment Weekly that handing out awards for art is “fucking idiotic.” Fasten your seatbelts, ladies and gentlemen, it’s going to be a bumpy night. And I mean that in a good way.

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