I've been thinking about this year's crop of Best Picture nominees -- one epic set in Middle-earth, one on the high seas in the 19th century, a third during the Depression of the 1930s, a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions straight outta contemporary but timeless working-class Boston, and one very modern, sophisticated, off-kilter, not-quite-love story based in neon-lit Tokyo. And I've been thinking not only of what each -- or all -- tells us about how we live now, but also about what the quintet, taken together, say about the state of making movies.
You know me: I'm a Lord of the Rings fan and I want that epic final chapter (and all who serve her) to win; achievement on such a grand aesthetic and, yes, popular level is what the Oscar is forged for. On the other hand, it's striking to me that for all the modern technical wizardry involved in the artistry of The Return of the King, four of the nominees are very traditional, both in narrative and in story line. Courage and determination triumph over menace; armies of good beat armies of evil. In Seabiscuit, the underdog (underhorse?) triumphs, representing a win for the little guy. In Mystic River, the wounds of childhood (and the absence of protective mothers) in a very ''family values'' neighborhood play out in adulthood (and in the unreliability of wives and daughters).
Only Lost in Translation gets at something new, goes about it in a new way, and feels at ease with emotional and narrative ambiguity. It's only one film -- and yet it's in the running! Audiences get it! Critics love it! Academy voters nominated it! I'm hard-nosed enough to realize that there'll always be pedantically uplifting Seabiscuit-style squarepants productions hammering their hooves for Oscar's attention. But I'm hopeful that the nomination of Sofia Coppola's oddball beauty -- a love story without a moral, or even a conclusion -- means there's an aesthetic (and maybe even political) shift under way. Now, by the way, is your chance to launch into your ''Where's the love for American Splendor?'' protest. I'd join the march.
I guess I do wonder where that love is. If we've now reached the point where the nomination of one moderately offbeat, Tokyo-set romantic comedy starring a certain unfamiliar, unpopular avant-garde actor named Bill Murray counts as an ''aesthetic (and maybe even political) shift,'' then what, exactly, are we shifting away from? To me, the aesthetics, as well as the politics, are a lot simpler: Lost in Translation was a popular indie, it featured Murray doing a can't-miss version of his usual comfy ironic mannerisms...and so it got the token ''small film'' slot. Period.
Look, at the risk of being branded the ultimate sourpuss, I'm compelled to put a few feelings front and center: I am not -- repeat, not -- a fan of four out of the five of this year's Best Picture nominees. With the exception of The Return of the King, I believe that they're overblown, overrated, and overhyped. That doesn't mean that I thought 2003 was a bad year for movies; there were dozens of films I loved. I just didn't think that four out of these five were particularly good. Master and Commander, to me, was a brilliant piece of historical-logistical engineering but a sodden, repetitive, and leaky-hulled story; Seabiscuit muffled a terrific story in a glaze of mythological Americana; Lost in Translation, while artfully shot and staged, was precious and almost fetishistically chaste, with Murray winning too much praise for trotting out a ''mature,'' slightly melancholy variation on his hangdog nonchalance; and as for Mystic River, it is simply the most unjustly acclaimed Hollywood drama of the last 15 years, a slipshod and pretentious potboiler full of chintzy thriller devices, and even plot holes, that too many critics who ought to have known better let slide by.