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Best Picture Movie Marathon, Part 71

Part 71: 2005


MOVIES:

  • Million Dollar Baby (winner)

  • Sideways

  • Ray

  • The Aviator

  • Finding Neverland (hidden gem)


Million Dollar Baby

Director: Clint Eastwood

Starring: Clint Eastwood, Hilary Swank, Morgan Freeman, Jay Baruchel, Mike Colter, Lucia Rijker, Brian F. O'Byrne, Anthony Mackie, Margo Martindale, Marcus Chait, Riki Lindhome, Michael Pena, Benito Martinez, Bruce MacVittie, Grant L. Roberts

Oscar Wins: Best Director, Best Picture, Best Actress (Hilary Swank), Best Supporting Actor (Morgan Freeman)

Other Nominations: Best Actor (Clint Eastwood), Best Film Editing, Best Writing (Adapted Screenplay)

 

Spoilers Ahead! If you haven’t seen this movie and somehow have avoided spoilers, just a note that some major spoilers are revealed here.

 

Like basically every boxing movie that Hollywood is obsessed with (Rocky, Raging Bull), Million Dollar Baby is not a boxing movie – it’s a movie about a boxer. It spends the first 90 minutes of its near 3-hour run-time telling us that most familiar of sports flick stories: a scrappy, down-and out athlete who, with nothing but heart and the help of a crusty old trainer, rises all the way to a title bout for the world championship. The only kicker is that this athlete is a girl.

 

Unfortunately, trainer Frankie Dunn (Clint Eastwood) doesn’t train girls. As the owner of a run-down gym in Los Angeles, Frankie plays host to a variety of talented fighters, wanna-be-fighters, and fighters long past their prime, including Eddie Dupris (Morgan Freeman), who works (and lives) at the gym.



One day a feisty Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank) shows up at the gym, hoping Frankie can train her. But Frankie want’s nothing to do with women boxers and the freak show atmosphere that surrounds their matches. She assures him that she’s tough, but he doesn’t care. “Tough ain’t enough,” he says.

 

But Maggie, as we’ll learn, is nothing if not tenacious. She’s already paid for six months at the gym and doesn’t plan on going anywhere. With a classic Clint Eastwood scowl, Frankie must accept the fact that there will be ovaries in his man cave. Eddie makes it clear that he could easily refund her money and send her packing, but his stubbornness is more willing to accept her money and deal with her existence for a few months.

 

Over time, Maggie breaks through Frankie’s tough façade. Even though she’s old (31) and poor (she works as a waitress and lives off the meals people leave behind), Maggie has heart. Fighting is “the only thing I ever felt good doing,” she tells him. It’s enough to win Frankie over and he agrees to work with her.

 

ENTER TOKEN SPORTS MOVIE TRAINING MONTAGE!



Thankfully, Maggie is a quick study. She wins 12 fights in a row, knocking out most of her opponents in the first round. Eventually, though, Maggie meets her match in a fighter known for playing dirty. When a series of unfortunate events lead to a life-threatening injury, Maggie’s (and Frankie’s) world is changed forever.

 

Though Million Dollar Baby imagines itself as an affirmation of female power, it still buys into white male authority and female submissiveness. One the one hand, Maggie is a ball-buster, literally fighting her way into a sport dominated by men. However, Frankie only agrees to train her if she doesn’t question his methods. He also says that he’s going to forget that she’s a girl, whatever that means.

 

Of course, Frankie never forgets that. This daddy/daughter submissive relationship is a common theme throughout the movie. Frankie is a lonely man who no longer has any relationship with his biological daughter. Maggie has been fatherless since childhood. The two, wounded by life and disillusioned, establish a familial bond that will eventually lead Frankie to the brink of a debilitating moral dilemma.



I also took issue with the film’s portrayal of disability as a whole. OK HERE IS THE SPOILER! In her final fight, Maggie receives a foul punch that results in her breaking her neck, rendering her a C1 ventilated quadriplegic. After which, Million Dollar Baby falls into the worst of Hollywood’s disability tropes. Her life is suddenly not worth living. She’s permanently trapped in the hospital, lonely, and depressed. She even gets pressure sores on her arms and legs that result in amputation. I mean, even half decent care would have prevented such injuries. Rehabilitation could also have helped her at least get out and about in a wheelchair so she could make something of her life. Instead, she remains so dependent on Frankie that she can’t even kill herself without his help. Her shining white knight thus makes the ultimate sacrifice by euthanizing her.

 

Even though Million Dollar Baby is typical Hollywood fluff, it’s no less heartbreaking. This unassuming drama may not have been the best picture of the year according to yours truly, but it still floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee.

 

Sideways

Director: Alexander Payne

Starring: Paul Giamatti, Thomas Haden Church, Virginia Madsen, Sandra Oh, Marylouise Burke, Jessica Hecht, Lee Brooks, Missy Doty, M.C. Gainey, Alysia Reiner, Shake Tukhmanyan, Shaun Duke, Stephanie Faracy, Natalie Carter, Patrick Gallagher, Joe Marinelli

Oscar Wins: Best Writing (Adapted Screenplay)

Other Nominations: Best Director, Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Thomas Haden Church), Best Supporting Actress (Virginia Madsen)

 

Miles Raymond (Paul Giamatti) is running late. It’s one of those alcoholic mornings that begin in the afternoon and progressively get worse until you indulge yourself in coffee and carbs. But Miles isn’t an alcoholic, per se, he’s an oenophile – a lover of wine (except Merlot). He’s the guy in your group who will describe a Cabernet as “quaffable, but far from transcendent”.

 

You can hate him and his snobbish comments all you want, but no one hates Miles more than Miles. Unhappy with his life, his work, his book, his divorce, and his overall state of being, wine is the one thing that fuels him. When Miles, in one of the film’s better moments, describes the qualities of the pinot noir grape that most attract him, he speaks of its thin skin, its vulnerability, its persnickety behavior to grow in an environment that’s not too hot, not too cold, not too wet, or not too dry. “Only when someone has taken the time to truly understand its potential can Pinot be coaxed into its fullest expression,” he says. It doesn’t take a sommelier to realize he’s talking about himself.

 


Sideways begins with Miles, a middle school English teacher and wanna-be novelist, taking his sweet time getting to an appointment he’s already late for – he stops for a coffee, grabs a croissant, then finally arrives to meet his best friend, Jack (Thomas Haden Church), complaining that traffic held him up.

 

Much like Miles, Jack is also stuck in his own life. An actor reduced to voice overs after a career that peaked several years ago, Jack is one week away from saying “I Do”. As the future Best Man, Miles as agreed to take Jack to wine country, intent on helping him spend his ‘last week of freedom’ indulging in fine dining, scenery, golf, and wine…lots and lots of wine.

 

For it’s wine that Miles knows best. He caresses grapes on the vine as some might touch their lover’s face or hand. Paired against Jack, who chews gum while tasting and thinks nothing of opening a warm bottle of expensive Champagne, these two are a classic odd couple pairing.



As we learn on their drive, and throughout the film, these two men are all but made for each other. While pessimistic Miles downplays his own success and eagerly changes the subject when someone brings up the 750-page manuscript he’s working on, Jack is basically jumping at the bit to tell everyone who’ll listen that his friend is about to be published. When Jack falls into familiar patterns that test his loyalty, Miles tries to remind him why they’re even on this trip in the first place. These are men who often know what is best for each other, never for themselves.

 

Inevitably, romance is bound to insert itself. Jack, always a man of impulse, begins an affair with Stephanie (Sandra Oh), a saucy pourer at a tasting room. Sandra’s friend, Maya (Virginia Madsen), begins to see something more in her old pal, Miles. With the players set and enough wine to keep everyone merry, the games are ready to begin.

 

At the center of Sideways is the story of a man coming to terms with the fact that he is entering middle age without achieving any of his dreams. Miles had aspirations to be a great writer, putting all his effort and energy into his magnum opus; unfortunately, his manuscript is bloated and unwieldly. Miles doesn’t want to compromise his vision, but he’s not sure he has the energy to keep going. He’s also still broken about his divorce, drunk-dialing his ex despite her moving on. Miles lived with the assumption that his life, like his wine, would get better with age. It did not.



Jack isn’t doing so hot, either. With little to no acting work in his future, Jack engages in ravenous sex with everyone except his fiancée. Both men find comfort in indulgence, living and existing within the thing that both excites them and depresses them.

 

When Sideways hit theaters, there was a 16% increase in sales of Pinot Noir in the US. It also increased tourism to the Santa Ynez Valley and, hilariously, decreased Merlot sales by 2%. With a budget of $16 million, it brought in $109 million at the box office. Even today it has a 97% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Why?

 

The cast was basically unheard of at the time. Even Giamatti, the most famous among them, wasn’t quite what you would call a box office draw. The subject of wine is certainly interesting to a lot of people, but there have been several movies about wine that haven’t performed nearly as well. I think the answer is much simpler, actually. It’s a movie about being a bookish, socially awkward 40-year-old white man. For wine snobs, you can’t get more relatable than that.

 

While Miles and Jack are far from perfect, they’re still good guys and want to do the right thing. Life has thrown them both sideways and they, like all of us, are just trying to keep their footing. Like Lost in Translation, Sideways is not a film that relies on gimmicks or effects, but on humanity and storytelling. If it were a wine, it might be a Cabernet; quaffable, but far from transcendent.

 

Ray

Director: Taylor Hackford

Starring: Jamie Foxx, Kerry Washington, Clifton Powell, Aunjanue Ellis, Harry Lennix, Terrence Howard, Larenz Tate, Bokeem Woodbine, Sharon Warren, Curtis Armstrong, Richard Schiff, Wendell Pierce, Chris Thomas King, David Krumholtz, Kurt Fuller, Warwick Davis, Patrick Bauchau, Robert Wisdom, Denise Dowse, Regina King, Rick Gomez, Rhett J. Smith

Oscar Wins: Best Actor (Jamie Foxx), Best Sound Mixing

Other Nominations: Best Film Editing, Best Costume Design, Best Director, Best Picture

 

I guess you can’t really blame Ray for going soft on its subject. As one of the most beloved musicians of the 20thcentury, Ray Charles was a man everyone knew and adored. His fusion between the gospel music of his childhood and the R&B of his teenage years resulted in the invention of soul music, a genre that now houses the likes of Aretha Franklin, Smokey Robinson, The Supremes, Lauryn Hill, even Amy Winehouse, Adele and Alicia Keys.

 

But Ray is far from a realistic portrayal of this man’s life (unsurprising really, as Charles’ family did authorize the film and Charles himself even contributed to it before his death in 2004). While it does dive deep into a life filled with trouble and pain, as well as triumph and success, it never quite gets to the root of who Ray is. Like other Hollywood biopics, Ray suffers from being a bit bloated and safe, but strikes gold with Jamie Foxx as its star. His spectacular – maybe eerily accurate – performance as Charles is one of those career-defining roles, certainly worthy of the Oscar he took home for it.



The best thing about Ray is how it dramatizes Ray’s musical influences, the changes in his style and he reactions to those developments. In his youth, Ray indulges in gospel, jazz and country music. He gets his footing by imitating the style of popular musicians at the time, such as Nat King Cole and Charles Brown. But no recording studio wants to hire a parrot. Ray is told to find his own style…and his own voice.

 

By combining past with present, Ray achieves a musical breakthrough. While the merging of gospel and R&B was a sacrilege to some folks, it opened the door wide open for this young kid from Georgia. With the creation of “soul music”, a flurry of hits sprung forth from Ray Charles. Over the course of a few years, he skyrocketed from lounge singer to recording superstar, allowing him to take charge of his career and gain control of his catalog.



Ray’s personal life is also on display. We witness the drowning death of his brother at age 5; losing his sight by age 7; his early, lonely days on the road; the marriage to his devoted wife, Della (Kerry Washington); his almost constant battle with drugs; and his romantic involvements with other women on the road. It’s not so much an accurate representation as it is a Reader’s Digest version of events. In reality, Ray Charles fathered 12 children (not 2) with multiple women. His heroin addition, which seems to be more accurately portrayed in the movie, also lasted a good portion of his adult life.

 

However, Ray skimps on the details about how Ray developed his talent, including his ability to copy the styles of other singers and musicians just by hearing them play. We also gloss over Ray’s time at a specialized school for the blind and basically his entire life after 1970. But the gist is what we’re here for and it’s the gist that we get.



The one constant in Ray is Jamie Foxx, who does more than mimic Ray Charles; he inhabits him. Donning the trademark black glasses and sitting at the piano, the actor vanishes. Foxx moves his body in the same angular fashion as Ray Charles, swaying back and forth on a piano bench or walking into a room. Most impressively, Foxx humanizes Charles, showcasing his natural sweetness and harmony with the world, thanks to an acute sense of hearing and an instinct for pleasing people.

 

While the performance is Foxx’s, the music isn’t. Though it’s been said that Foxx could do a great impression of Charles’ trademark voice, the singing in Ray is all done by Ray Charles himself. Still, Foxx does an amazing job lip synching to every tune. Hell, I even thought it was Foxx singing until IMDB’s trivia tab told me otherwise.

 

Though Ray is not a perfect film, it’s nonetheless an entertaining one. From “Hit the Road Jack” to “I Got a Woman”, “You Don’t Know Me” to “Georgia on My Mind”, you’re sure to find at least one song in this cinematic jukebox that will have you tapping your feet and singing along. And while Ray may turn a blind eye to the darker parts of Charles’ life, it gives Jamie Foxx plenty of space to mess around, bringing to life those old sweet songs that keep Charles on our mind.

 

The Aviator

Director: Martin Scorsese

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Cate Blanchett, John C. Reilly, Kate Beckinsale, Alec Baldwin, Alan Alda, Ian Holm, Danny Huston, Gwen Stefani, Jude Law, Willem Dafoe, Adam Scott, Matt Ross, Kevin O'Rourke, Kelli Garner, Frances Conroy, Brent Spiner, Stanley DeSantis, Edward Herrmann, J.C. MacKenzie, Josie Maran, Kenneth Welsh

Oscar Wins: Best Art Direction, Best Supporting Actress (Cate Blanchett), Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing

Other Nominations: Best Supporting Actor (Alan Alda), Best Actor (Leonardo DiCaprio), Best Director, Best Picture, Best Sound Mixing, Best Writing (Original Screenplay)

 

In the last two decades of his life, Howard Hughes sealed himself away from the world. The was the world’s richest man, and with his billions, bought himself a room he never left.

 

In a way, his life was a journey to that lonely room – but he took the long way around. As the heir to his father’s fortune, he made movies, bought airlines, and dated Hollywood’s most famous and beautiful stars. Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator makes the smart decision to focus on these glory years, though we certainly see glimpses of what’s to come. Indeed, some of the film’s best moments feature Hughes fighting his demons, knowing full well he’s losing his grip on reality.  

 

Wanna-be movie director Howard Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio) arrives in LA with everything he needs to be successful: good looks and a LOT of money. His first project, a World War I aviation movie named Hell’s Angels, helped put him on the map – not necessarily because it was a good movie, but because it was an expensive one. Originally shot as a silent film, then reworked after the release of sound, Hell’s Angels combined amazing cinematography with ballsy stunt work. At the time, it was the most expensive movie ever made which, as you can imagine, garnered a lot of publicity for Hughes.



Women were his for the asking, but he didn’t go for the easy kill. Jean Harlow (Gwen Stefani) was no pushover. Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale) wouldn’t take his jewelry (“I’m not for sale!”), and during his relationship with Katharine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett), they both wore the pants in the relationship. But none of these women could truly compete with Hughes’ one true love – aviation.

 

Using mostly his own money, Hughes would design and build some of the most revolutionary airships ever seen at the time. He was so passionate about it that he just went and BOUGHT Trans-Continental Airlines (which he renamed TWA). He also worked closely with the US government to design a new spy plane, broke speed records left and right, even designed and built the H-4 Hercules (aka the ‘Spruce Goose’), a beast of an airplane that, to this day, has the largest wingspan of any aircraft in aviation history.

 

But deep inside this wealthy lothario is a troubled genius…and this is where The Aviator, and Leo for that matter, truly excels. Initially just an eccentric, Hughes’ behavior drifts into what can only be labeled as peak OCD. He walks into a men’s bathroom and is too phobic about germs to touch the doorknob to leave; he gets stuck on words and keeps repeating phrases until they sound just right in his head. Slowly but surely, Hughes drives into ever-destructive madness that not only destroys his career, but his mental and physical health.



Like many Scorsese films, The Aviator benefits from a great cast. For the first hour or so, Leo gets to do what he does best – be a charming playboy. But by the film’s second half, Leo (who was only 30 when he did this film, by the way) morphs into someone completely unrecognizable, a part that certainly challenged his acting chops and earned him a much-deserved Oscar nomination.

 

The other standout here is easily Cate Blanchett, who had the near impossible task of bringing Katharine Hepburn to life. Though she did win an Oscar for her part, her performance is either loved or hated by critics. Personally, I loved it. Even if it’s just an impersonation of the famed starlet – as most people have said – what an impersonation! Her angular presence, her very unique Bryn Mawr accent, her boho style and awkward sexiness are all present and on display here. I venture it would be hard to find someone who could do better justice to the Queen of Hollywood.

 

The remaining cast, including Alec Baldwin, John C. Reilly, Alan Alda, Ian Holm, and Jude Law also all give great performances. Even the miscast Kate Beckinsale gives a solid performance here. Add to that stunning special effects, a kick-ass soundtrack, and a color palette that pays homage to the history of cinema and you’ve got yourself one hell of a film that soars high above all the competition.

 

Finding Neverland

Director: Marc Forster

Starring: Johnny Depp, Kate Winslet, Dustin Hoffman, Julie Christie, Radha Mitchell, Freddie Highmore, Nick Roud, Joe Prospero, Luke Spill, Ian Hart, Oliver Fox, Mackenzie Crook, Kelly Macdonald, Angus Barnett, Toby Jones, Kate Maberly, Matt Green, Catrin Rhys, Tim Potter, Jane Booker, Eileen Essell, Jimmy Gardner, Paul Whitehouse, Murray McArthur

Oscar Wins: Best Music (Original Score)

Other Nominations: Best Costume Design, Best Art Direction, Best Actor (Johnny Depp), Best Film Editing, Best Picture, Best Writing (Adapted Screenplay)

 

Johnny Depp has never quite gotten around to putting away his childish things. Instead, he spreads them liberally throughout his career, diving into the farthest corners of his imagination box to portray everything from a transvestite to a pirate, The Mad Hatter to Willy Wonka. Even in his more serious roles, he succeeds in bringing a childlike innocence to his characters. Nowhere is that more obvious than in Finding Neverland, where he plays J.M. Barrie, creator of Peter Pan and eternal child himself.

 

The film begins in a London theater in the early 1900s. Barrie (Depp) is watching his latest play fall apart on stage. He needs something new, something fresh, before his impresario (Dustin Hoffman) gives him the boot.

 


While strolling through the park one day in the very merry month of May (or June or July – it was nice outside), Barrie happens upon the Davis family – consisting of mother, Sylvia (Kate Winslet), and her boys Peter (Freddie Highmore), George (Nick Roud), Jack (Joe Prospero) and Michael (Luke Spil). As he watches them play, a kind of spark seems to ignite in his eyes. They represent an innocence and purity that strikes him so powerfully that he’s unable to think of anything else.

 

Through his larger-than-life dog, Porthos (the real hero), Barrie weasels his way into the family, becoming ‘Uncle Jim’ to the boys. He plays games with them, dresses up with them, leads them in imaginative games involving pirates and Indians and cowboys. The children adore him and Sylvia is grateful for his attention and friendship. Their time together, which grows from an afternoon of playtime to him actually vacationing with the family, unshackles Barrie’s creativity as a new story about never growing up begins to take shape.

 


But not everyone is swept up in his magic. Sylvia’s young son Peter is skeptical. If Barrie never grew up, Peter was perhaps never a child. He is wise beyond his years, feeling the recent loss of his father more sharply than his brothers. When his mom falls ill, he calls her out on her lying. “I won’t be made a fool!” he says. He doesn’t like playtime, doesn’t get the magic behind making up a fun pirate name. But Barrie is determined to break him open – to reveal the child underneath.

 

In addition, Barrie’s wife Mary (Radha Mitchell) unsurprisingly doesn’t approve of Barrie galivanting all over creation with Sylvia and her boys. A brittle social climber who wanders around her dark home like a widow in waiting, Mary doesn’t like the rumors surrounding her and her husband’s apparent desire to take advantage of a sad woman and her children. Sylvia’s mother, Emma du Maurier (Julie Christie) is also not amused by a 43-year-old man wanting to become the playmate of her grandchildren.

 

Despite the hate, Barrie refuses to let go of Sylvia and her boys. These games and adventures they embark upon are an escape into the childish world of fantasy, not an initiation into the adult world of sexuality. Barrie has a kind of childlike innocence about him that steers him past all those obstacles. Peter worries Barrie is trying to replace his father, but he’s not. If anything, he wants to be his brother. All the relationships in this film, including the one between Barrie and Sylvia, remain platonic.



Perhaps the most whimsical part of Finding Neverland are those moments when imagination leaks into the everyday…a tinkling bell here, a glimpse of a hook hand there. When Mary opens her bedroom door, we see a dark room. When Barrie opens his, we see Neverland. These moments not only sow the seeds of Peter Pan in Barrie’s mind, but do a masterful job of illuminating the creative process, giving Finding Neverland that little touch of whimsy it needs to take it from good to great.

 

“Gay and innocent and heartless.” That’s how J.M. Barrie describes the perennial condition of youth in the final line of Peter Pan. He saw it as a time of magic and cruelty, of unfettered imagination and heartbreaking realism. By the end of Finding Neverland, it’s hard not to agree with that statement. Like that crocodile in Peter Pan, time is chasing after all of us. Even if we remain young at heart, indulging ourselves in fantasy and imagination, we can’t outrun adulthood and the reality that comes along with that.

 

While Finding Neverland is based on people that did exist in real life, it’s by no means a biopic of Barrie and the Davis family. Rather, it’s a celebration of the joy of childhood, the fleetingness of life and the creation of art. More than anything though, it’s simply a beautiful story, birthed by both comedy and tragedy and told with such elegance and wit that you can’t help but feel dusted by its magic.

 

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