Friday, April 29, 2011

Shadow of a Doubt review

Hey Friends. I'm excited to announce two articles in the pipeline for publication at the great website as well as an upcoming interview with Chris Gethart.
Be sure to cick on my artice 20 Greatest Actor/Director Pairings of All Time. I think it's one of my better ones

Here's a review of a Hitchcock film "Shadow of a Doubt" and how it's a product of its era:
So many Hitchcock films are great in their own right, that a lot of the films beyond “Birds,” “Psycho,” “North by Northwest,” “Rear Window,” “Rebecca” (only because it won Best Picture) and “Vertigo” easily get lost in the shuffle.

Shadow of a Doubt is another uniquely great film of Hitchcock that is definitely worth watching. It made a strong impression on me as a child and I only recently rediscovered it. The film features Joseph Cotton (primarily known for appearing alongside Orson Welles in “Third Man” and “Citizen Kane”) and Teresa Wright.

Cotton plays a serial killer by the name of Charlie with a need to lay low, so he crashes with his sister and her family for a while. His sister’s oldest child (Wright) is also named Charlie and feels a special connection to her uncle because she’s named after him and she’s also just plain bored with her parents. Like those Disney heroines who sing about how they can’t fully blossom into adulthoods under the boring old status quo, she philosophically muses about how her parents just don’t get life in a somewhat meandering monologue that’s obviously designed solely to justify her later attachment to Charlie. He would be the Prince Charming if we go with the Disney analogy and if that sounds kind of creepy because he’s they’re related, it sort of is. Relative to the usual levels of Freudian undertones you find in Hitchkock, the pairing can safely be read as just an innocent relationship between a girl and her favorite uncle.

In fact, I’d call this Hitchkock’s most innocent film in some ways. The film was released in 1943. This was right around the time that American cinema was being heavily encouraged to produce homespun American films (i.e. Mrs. Miniver, Going My Way, Meet me in St. Louis) to encourage the nation why America was so special and worth fighting for. I really see similarities here. I think it was Judy Garland’s daughter Lorna Luft who said on one of the AFI specials that “Meet me in St Louis” is such a great film because you just want to live there. I felt the exact same way about this film. The Newton household (and the town of Santa Rosa, for that matter) is a very charming and attractive place even though there’s a serial killer living in it. It helps put you at ease that he’s not really actively killing people while staying there. The signs of malice in Charlie don’t really manifest themselves into anything dangerously until well over halfway through the film which gives Hitchcock plenty of time to spend in a dreamy Vincente-Minelli-like world where we witness young Charlie meet her young friends in the park or the family engaging in the kind of dinners together that might have even been rare back then.

It’s a great film because this makes it all the more jarring when Cotton’s Uncle Charlie finally unleashes some of his murderous proclivities at the sweet, innocent niece. The drama creeps up on you but it’s a doozy.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

How do I honestly look at the 1990's?

In order to make my top 100 List or for any discussion on films in the 1990's period, it's near impossible to look at that decade with any objectivity and I thought it was worth discussing that because we all are children of one decade or another, aren't we?

The 90's was when I grew up. My movie diet during the 90's was a very different regiment than it is now.

One of the very first films I fell in love with was "Batman Forever" which has been eloquently torn apart all over the internet since. It's now remembered as the omen before the storm that was "Batman and Robin." While the performances of Jim Carrey and Tommy Lee Jones would seem like overacting to adult eyes, they were larger-than-life to my 11-year old eyes. "Batman Returns" was too scary and dark for me but "Batman Forever" was bright and colorful and the violence was playful rather than just violent. Of course, if you're desensitized to violence, you would be dissapointed. Still, I can't say "Batman Forever" wasn't one of the best moviegoing experiences of my life.

I remember watching "Home Alone" and loving it, but it was hard to retain that love after watching it at least 10 times. Watching Home Alone was the go-to activity for any summer camp on a rainy day or any teacher without a lesson plan.

I had the same experience with the "The Lion King" which I remember watching it 3 times in one day in school. My homeroom teacher, my science teacher (same as my homeroom teacher) and my drama teacher all had their classes watch the same film. Talk about overload. Then a month later, I went to visit my aunt and uncle whose 2-year old daughter watched that movie all the time. When they took us on a big yacht trip, we got so seasick and had to be put down in the galley. To take our mind off our seasickness, my aunt put in a movie but the only thing they had was the Lion King, so it was the worst thing ever. I just wanted to throw up from seasickness and to make it worse, I was watching this film, I had recently watched 3 times and had practically memorized the Lion King by then.

I also grew up thinking all the great films involved sports and dogs. "Oliver and Company" "Homeward Bound" "All Dogs Go to Heaven" were some of my early movie-going experiences. I don't know if this is still the case today with kids' films but "Cool Runnings" "Iron Will" "Sandlot" "League of their Own" "Rookie of the Year" "The Air Up There" and "Mighty Ducks" were among the defining films of my childhood and they all revolved around sports.

If there were great films going on at the time like "Crying Game" "In the Name of the Father" "Howard's End" or "Ed Wood", I was pretty unaware of them and watching them in retrospect isn't the same as being there in the moment. It's true that argument applies to any film before the 90's too, but there's much more distance from a classic film so that we appreciate it as a classic. 90's films are still looked at through the same paradigm as films of the 00's which I'm much more familiar with.

Click on this link, please, to my column at examiner:

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Harvey and Year of Living Dangerously

2 More film reviews:
Also reviewed Network and 12 Angry Men here

I watched both of these films in an effort to keep up with supporting actresses in my supporting actress survey (click on supporting actress tag below):

Harvey (1950)
Harvey is a very uplifting and sweet film based around the peculiarly conceived notion that a man, Elmer, imagines himself to be in the presence of a 6-foot bunny rabbit. The film works well because the storyline makes some clever shifts. The film’s first act is about a mix-up in which Elemer’s sister Vetta accidentally gets locked up in a mental institution instead of her crazy brother. The second act centers around the rabid pursuit of Elmer after his sister is freed. In the third act they finally catch him, but convincing the doctors and themselves that he’s crazy is a whole other battle.

Josephine Hull won an Oscar (Supporting Actress) as the fussy sister who's somewhat of a social climber and hopes to marry her daughter off to a respectable man. James Stewart was also nominated as Elmer. The fact that you hardly notice that he keeps inviting people to dinner and that later becomes a significant plot point is what I think is most clever about this film: Elmer's sweetness really sneaks up on you.

The film isn't as much chaotic fun as a comedy like "Arsenic and Old Lace" or "His Girl Friday" but I found it very endearing. It had a great message about how people who are different or "crazy" might really be very valuable to the people around them if we stop to open our eyes.

Year of Living Dangerously:
When some middling reviews came out on “The Way Back,” there was some quote in the press (too lazy to look it up at the moment) that it was a big surprise because people felt that Weir never made a bad film. As far as I’m concerned, that’s pretty accurate. I’ve seen four Peter Weir films to date-Truman Show, Dead Poets’ Society, Witness, and Master and Commander-and they all rank among the best films I’ve ever seen. Weir was hired to direct “Witness” because making a film about the Amish needed to be treated with great cultural sensitivity and it was assumed that as an Australian, he’d approach their way of life as an outsider.

The same can be said for “Year of Living Dangerously” which makes a noble attempt not to look at the 3rd World through Western eyes. The story’s protagonist is Guy (Mel Gibson) an Australian reporter on assignment to cover political tensions in Indonesia. He’s greeted at the airport by an eager local photographer, Billy (played in an Oscar-winning gender-switching performance by Linda Hunt), who strikes up a professional partnership and serves as a local guide. As tensions rise and the country becomes closer towards violent revolution, so does the relationship strain between Billy and Guy. Part of that strain between them is over a complex triangle of affections between the two and an enigmatic attaché at the British Embassy played by Sigourney Weaver. More importantly, Billy questions whether Guy came to the country with intention of helping the people of Indonesia or exploiting them.

The film is beautifully shot, features excellent performances from the three leads, and is very well-paced.

Film Review: Johnny Belinda

Hey Guys, I have watched a lot of movies recently (nothing new, just older stuff) and in a burst of inspiration, I got back into my film reviewing groove for the first time in a while.
Be sure to check out (or at least give a charity click to:
Best Websites of 2010
Biggest Oscar Mistakes of the Last Decade

Johnny Belinda (1948):

Thiz film is the tale of an ostracized deaf girl, Belinda (Jane Wyman), in a remote corner of the world who finds hope through a caring doctor. The good doctor (Lew Ayres) is new in town and despite the her father’s inability to pay (living with his sister, he’s one of the poorer residents of the town), he teaches her sign language.

It’s an uplifting and engaging story, but it does take some surprisingly dark turns for a movie from 1948. For instance, Belinda gets raped and impregnated. I would have expected slightly more repercussions over the rape thing. It’s the kind of non-derivative plot point I admire that after Belinda is raped, the doctor convinces the dad not to direct his energy towards anger at the mystery perpetrator but rather towards comforting the daughter and it shows how strong Belinda is that she’s never let herself get caught up in victimhood too much. Still, the film rushed things a little too fast when Belinda’s emotional trauma from the incident seems to be cured over the course of a single conversation and a suggestion by the doctor that they go into town. It also seemed like a very plausible and worthwhile idea to go after the rapist. Although he eventually got his, it was a little disconcerting that the villain
went unpunished for so long in the movie.

The strength of the film is in the relationships between Belinda, her aunt, her dad and the doctor. Although the young woman develops closer bonds with her father (Charles Bickford) and Aunt (Agnes Moorehead) through her maturation, it’s really about the relationship between the young woman and the doctor (Lew Ayres) if we’re going by who gets top billing in the opening credits. Their relationship definitely straddles the line between platonic and romantic love. In the middle of the film, the doctor suggests to the dad he marry the daughter to save her the shame of being a single mother, but the dad says that it’s no use if he doesn’t love her. It doesn’t seem that particularly evident that he’s later willing to marry her except for economic necessity (there’s one sort of half-kiss between them) and, ironically, that doesn’t take anything away from the film’s storybook ending.

Jane Wyman won a well-deserved Oscar for the film as Belinda even though she didn’t speak a word on screen. She’s the first husband of Ronald Regan and their marriage was being strained at the time because both of their acting careers had plateaued. Wyman’s marriage was already through by the time she won the Oscar, but winning did give her plenty of consolation after a reportedly rough year. Also, Agnes Moorehead slept with JFK (and famously spilt the beans that he wasn’t a good lover) which means two actresses in this film had sex with presidents. Bit of trivia for you.

One other thing that strikes me about this film is that it’s set in Nova Scotia, Canada, but it seems like some of the actors and actresses weren’t informed of this, because they’re talking in Irish accents.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Updating my Top 100: 100-88

While top 10 lists are pretty attainable to keep in your head, it's near impossible to really keep a Top 100 although somewhere in my archives I did tackle the task of trying to create the top 100 films I've ever watched.

I decided recently to try redrafting it, since I've seen many more films and my take on films has changed as I've gone along. The first time I ever made a top 100 list was in 2003 (the cut was a much lowered bar: films like Cool Runnings and Aspen Extreme made it) and because a) it really is hard to squeeze all the new films into 100 and b) films need some time to age, I'm going to go with greatest films up to 2003. A lot of the newer films are just going to surface in the bottom ranks of the list just because comparing classic films and recent films are like apples and oranges.

This entry was tiring and I'm not sure if I'll make it all the way to one even though I have the list written out. Leave comments and click on my links and I might be inspired to continue!

100. Cider House Rules, 1999, dir. by Lasse Holstrom, starring Tobey MaGuire, Michael Caine, Jane Alexander, Charlize Theron, Kathy Baker, Paul Rudd
A beautifully shot coming-of-age period piece that my coworker at Blockbuster made fun of me for liking and that I'm still ashamed to say that I have a lot of reverence for. It's not necessarily a profound film and if Miramax succeeded in getting the film an Oscar win over Dreamwork's American Beauty (fresh off the heels of Saving Private Ryan vs Shakespeare in Love, the two were engaged in a fierce marketing battle) then there might really be reason to hate this film. Nevertheless, it is a good film.

99. You Can Count on Me, 2000, dir. and written by Kenneth Longorean, starring Laura Linney, Mark Ruffalo, Matthew Broderick, John Tenney
I always group this one with "Wonder Boys" and "Almost Famous" as very honest character-driven pieces that came out in the same yaer, and I could easily exchange this with "Almost Famous." It's a film about how little of an adult you feel like when you're in the presence of your adult sybling. Laura Linney plays a "responsible" single mom and Ruffalo plays the "irresponsible" brother coming for a visit. Both characters are full of doubt about themselves in different ways and the way in which these two lost souls intersect on this visit is very moving.

98. 25th Hour, 2002, dir. Spike Lee, starring Ed Norton, Rosario Dawson, Barry Pepper, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Barry Pepper, Brian Cox, Anna Paquin
It's been a somewhat frustrating experience originally liking and championing this film when it first came out and then watching it get praised in retrospect for all the wrong reasons. When publications such as The AV Club,, Rolling Stone, Paste Magazine and others came out with Best Films of The Decade list* 25th Hour seemed to come at the top of many of these lists because a lot of people wrongly hailed this film as the definitive cinematic artifact of 9/11. In truth, it has absolutely nothing to do with 9/11 except that Spike Lee filmed it in New York right after the event and you can see the buildings missing in the skyline in the background. I like 25th Hour because it's a film with a great sense of dramatic tension, with the story taking place over just one night, and I think the characters are taken in very interesting directions. It's also very well-acted.

*I don't have the time to look up specifically which ones named it so high. I believe AV Club had it listed at #2 and Roger Emerson of Roger Ebert ran a poll in which 25th Hour placed pretty high for the wrong reasons.

97. Sunshine State, 2002 dir. John Sayles, starring Angela Bassett, Alan Rickman, Mary Steenburgen, Edie Falco, Timmothy Hutton, James McDaniel, Gordon Clapp, Jane Alexander

I love good ensemble films and I love films that have a great sense of place. There's also no place I love more than Florida which is what this film is about. It's about a seaside town is an unrealized slice of paradise to a lot of people. The beachside town has historical significance for the black residents because it represented a civil rights victory enabling them to get a "piece of the beach." From that subpopulation, a woman forced into exile through a teen pregnancy (Bassett) and the much more succesful ex-NFL player who impregnated her are both returning to town because a decision has to be made as to whether to sell their land to make way for a new development. In the meantime, there's a seaquarium mermaid entertainer who's bored to death of living in the same town too long (Falco) and a tightly wound spokeswoman for the new development freaking out that no one's sharing her enthusiasm (Steenburgen) and failing to notice that her husband is repeatedly attempting suicide (Clapp).

96. Our Man Flint, 1966, starring James Coburn, Lee J. Cobb, Gila Gollan

It's difficult to quantify just why this is a great film except by the measure that I've watched it over and over and over and still enjoyed it. It's camp, which I previously wrote (in my post about Glee and the 1960's Batman show) is something you enjoy because it's consciously bad. The film is a parody of James Bond films that is played straight in a way, but is ultimately very silly and I find the film both hillarious and very classy. The actor, James Coburn (Great Escape among other films), was a very slender actor who stood out for me in the films I saw him and like the actor who played James Bond he won an Oscar well after his superhero days. He won in 1998 and was a very pudgy old man when he appeared on the podium to accept*.

*I saw his acceptance speech only in retrospect

95. Birth of a Nation, 1915, dir. by DW Griffith, starring Lillian Gish
This film prompts an interesting debate: It's undoubtedly a historic artifact, being the first major epic, the first silent film to tell a story, the first movie that approached feature length, and a number of other firsts. It's also a very racist and misguided film that helped launch the popularity of the Ku Klux Klan. I omitted this film the last time I made my list but I recently reconsidered because the film has great historical value. More importantly, there's just a certain magic existent in it: you're watching the experience of right and wrong change right from under your eyes.

94. Catch Me If You Can, 2002 dir. by Stephen Spielberg, starring Leo DiCaprio, Tom Hanks, Christopher Walken, Amy Adams, Martin Sheen, Jennifer Garner, Ellen Pompeo
I thought it was a great time capsule and one of many great examples of how Spielberg's films are always solid stories that rarely dissapoint. Beware, there are always a lot of Spielberg haters out there.
Link to a review

93. X-Men 2, 2003, dir. by Bryan Singer, starring Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellan, Famke Jannsen, Hugh Jackman, Brian Cox, Alan Cumming, Halle Berry, Shawn Ashmore, James Marsden, Anna Paquin, Kelly Hu, Rebecca Rojmain

I wasn't a comic book geek growing up. Of the few superhero series I was exposed to as a kid, X-Men was one of my enthusiastic favorites and I was delighted to see the cartoon (or rather the comic) translated cinematically so well. X-Men 2 was superior to the first in working the kinks out. I've enjoyed the scientific bent, the realistic modern tone, the sleek visuals and the great special effects. Most importantly, the cast is incredible.

92. Evita 1996 dir. Alan Parker, starring Madonna, Antonio Banderas, Jonathan Pryce

I remember watching this in a movie theater when I was in 8th grade. I was in my third year of Spanish and I have always had an interest in Latin Ameircan culture and history (I later took courses on Latin American history and geography in college) but I was dissapointed with this film because they almost never spoke. I didn't know the difference between a musical (songs interspersed with dialogue) and an opera (all songs) back then. This film has grown a lot more on me in subsequent viewings. One of the few Non-Disney musicals to be made in the 25 or so years prior to the genre's return with "Moulin Rouge" and "Chicago", this film wins me over for its great musical numbers and because it's rich in historical context. Although it's merely song and dance, the film has almost as much to say about the period as a history textbook.

91. To Kill a Mockingbird, 1962 dir. Robert Mulligan, starring Gregory Peck, Robert Duvall, Mary Badham, Phillip Alford

I was struggling with placement here and whether to put this at all. The film is ranked 58th on imdb and it's on the AFI top 100, so others haven't hesitated to list this as a classic. My brief conflct, aside from taking up a space on the list, was that the book (which I've personally read) itself is a masterpiece. Is this just something to watch if you're too lazy to read the book? I think in this case, the performances elevate it. Gregory Peck competed against Peter O'Toole of "Lawrence of Arabia" and won at the Oscars, and it was because he took an iconic figure and made it his own (O'Toole did the same thing too, to be fair). I also do like a good courtroom drama (even though I detest lawyers and being in court).

90. Master and Commander, 2003 dir. Peter Weir, starring Russell Crowe, Paul Bettany
In a way, this movie is the best historical epic I've ever seen because even though it doesn't serve the story, it serves history. For example, in a story set in the Napoleonic Wars on the high seas (where every minute of this film takes place) we would naturally be looking forward to seeing exciting naval battles amd while we do get our share of exciting naval action, we mostly experience the HMS Surprisespending their time waiting and trying to maintain their sanity so that when a battle actually does come, you realize the magnitude of it. The human element of the movie, the multi-layered friendship between Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany, doesn't disspaoint either

89. Wait Until Dark, dir. Terrence Young, starring Audrey Hepburn, Alan Arkin

Audrey Hepburn is such a sweet, precious concoction that it's hard to imagine her in a thriler. That is, it's hard to imagine anyone wanting to kill her. In "Charade" (which also makes my list), the villains are so quirky and (even cute in a Looney Tunes kind of way) that you never really feel like she's in danger. Wait Until Dark is a great thriller that really does push that line. The film is also very minimalist in its use of space. Audrey Hepburn plays a blind women and the film takes place almost entirely in her apartment. As the audience, we are privy to more than she is and are given the point of view of the villains. A pair of thieves willing to kill for a valuable stash of trafficked drugs in Hepburn's possession. With their mark being blind, they set up their ruse in our plain sight. It's a brilliantly suspenseful film

88. Gangs of New York, 2002 dir. Marty Scorsese, starring Leo DiCaprio, Daniel Day-Lewis, Cameron Diaz, Liam Neeson, Jim Broadbent, John C Reilly, Brendan Gleason, Gary Lewis
Review Here

Friday, April 08, 2011

Stand-up comic declares war on the internet!

Chris Gethard is a stand-up comic and comedic actor. He's currently making the rounds of the comedy scene in New York City through stints at the UCB Theater, appearance in internet videos and guest star spots on TV shows.

However, Gethard hasn't caught my attention for his acting. He's caught my attention (and the attention of a few others including Dan O'Brien at this morning) for his curiosity about how internet anonymity brings out the worst in people and his creative attempts to be proactive about it.

One of the commenters on his IMDB page decided to post something really nasty about Gethard and Gethard tracked the commenter down and flew him to New York for an interview on his YouTube channel:

Chris Gethard is a comedian by profession, but in this video, he's not going for humor. He's acting as a social scientist, and perhaps with this video he's creating an artifact of Web 2.0, that seems as valuable to me as any book put out there by 98% of professors who lecture in media, new media, technology and culture, sociology, and the like.

In another similar "sociological experiment" Chris did a comedy routine on's video feed in front of a live audience in which he talked about his experience with commenters on the website. The fact that he performed it in front of a live audience is significant here. Comics like to point out the deficiencies of the world around us so their act often demonstrates how dumb a person is or how dumb a group of people are

In the video, he's making the live audience laugh by pointing out how dumb the commenters are and because the live audience isn't really the target of his jokes, it works comedically. But his larger audience is the people watching his routine through and he's downright attacking them. He goes on to provoke them further at the end of the routine to give them his worst and he'll even go on the message boards themselves and respond to it.

I checked the message board myself and the fact that Chris called them out didn't alter their behavior that much. These people, who might be perfectly civilized adults in real life, knew that this comic was going to read their comments and they still posted terrible things. It's to Chris's credit that he directly showed me how these people really had lost it. It's also to Chris's credit that because of his experiment, I understood how bad it would feel to read all these hurtful comments and how cruel people can be to anyone who gets put involuntarily or voluntarily put in front of any kind of spotlight where they're exposed to strangers. If Chris had a PhD in front of his name, he might be published somewhere for something like this. Who knows?

How much Chris is personally affected or bothered by the problem isn't something I'm sure of but there are some stars who aren't particularly geared towards fame and act rather unusually towards some of its trappings. Some people (3 very very random examples: Kanye West, skier Bode Miller in the 2006 Olympics, Greta Garbo) don't react to media and fame in ways that their press agents would be proud of. They get caught up in what the public at large thinks of them and trying to rebel against it. Chris, in a way is one of those rebels. He's not just answering the media's questions
(even though the media isn't news outlets) about him but daring viewers (like that live audience) to be critical of the media itself.

For example, I specifically remember several years ago, being on an internet message board and discussing on Tina Fey's page whether someone like Tina would read about what we were writing in the IMDB message boards. It seemed inconceivable that even though imdb is the easiest place to look up information about films, that she being famous would use it. She probably has her own version of imdb (and the internet for that matter) and wouldn't ever use the same website as us commoners, and therefore wouldn't ever see any messages we'd be writing about her or her show on the web page.

Ironically, this was parodied in a Saturday Night Live sketch in which Sigourney Weaver is obsessed with what everyone's saying about her on imdb.

This is ridiculous to us because of sheer numbers. It's not that Sigourney Weaver or Tina Fey aren't able to look up comments people have made about them to imdb, but even if they did directly address some of the people who were commenting about them, it would be such a small ripple that most of their fan base will never personally hear from her.

Because of the vast scale of with the thousands upon thousands of forums, only a few message boards (usually, the just-released films, ongoing TV shows and main message boards) get any traffic at all. Because Gethard's show business career is very small at this point, only four people have ever bothered visiting Gethard's message board and posting something which doesn't make for very much active discussion, so he's very likely to see it. It would be very easy for commenters to not consider that difference between Tina Fey and Chris Gethard and voice their opinions of both the same way.

The difference between the ordinary person and the famous person used to be much larger, especially with twitter, and I think because Chris Gerhard is currently on the bottom of the rung of fame that he's in a unique position to be at the center of this discussion and I think it's been a good discussion to have so far.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Best Supporting Actress Grades of All Time (Pt II)

Part I is here

I've also written historical highlights over on helium:

Best Best Supporting Actresses of All Time (Part II):

1991 Mercedes Ruehl, Fisher King C+
Character: Anne, girlfriend of an out-of-work radio DJ (Jeff Bridges) who's (and I'm referring to the DJ, here) guilt-stricken over inadvertently causing a shooting spree

Analysis: I like this film very much and was originally going to give Ruehl a decent grade because she create a unique character and commands attention when she's on screen. Then again, the shrill domineering wife stereotype (never mind that she's not yet a wife, she still fits that stereotype) has been around since the days of W.C. Fields and beyond. My other problem is that Amanda Plummer, a shy bookworm who's sworn off men through adulthood, gave a more memorable performance. Ironically, neither Plummer nor Ruehl had very prominent careers after winning the Oscar.

1992 Marisa Tomei, My Cousin Vinny D-
Character: Mona Lisa Vito, Loudmouth car mechanic and girlfriend to "Cousin Vinny" (Joe Pesci)

Analysis: I'm pretty sure that no other award in the history of the Oscars generated speculation in the Hollywood Reporter that Tomei was only rewarded the Oscar because the presenter (Jack Palance) that night read the wrong name off the teleprompter. That's literally how far below the standard she was. How awkward it must have been to be Marisa Tomei that night: Going to all the post-show galas with many of the people who are congratulating her don't actually believe she legitimately won! Nonetheless, Tomei made up for her "fluke" win by legitimately earning two more nominations.

As for my judgement? I'm in the camp that it was a pretty unremarkable performance. If I'm marking Ruehl several points down for playing to a stereotype, than I can't ignore Tomei whom I would mathematically express as something like Ruehl's stereotypical shrill squared. Not completely flunking her because it was an honest effort and I'm not questioning the legitimacy of the award.

1994 Dianne Wiest, Bullets over Broadway B+
Character: Helen Sinclair, an aging Broadway diva who commands a lot of attention for cast and crew around her

Analysis: Anyone else see the irony that Woody Allen-- largely incapable of writing outside his own personal experiences and still hated by all of womanhood for dumping Mia Farrow-- has been able to write and direct the women in his films to five Oscars?
Oddly enough, I'm not the only one who picked up on the notion that the quality of Woody Allen's characters declines the further they stray away from the mold of nebbish Jewish men living in New York. While the sheer volume of quality movies proves this is an oversimplification, I can't help but notice how well this film plays into that theory. The main character, played by John Cusack, is a neurotic New York playwright with a confusing love life. Wiest's character isn't a fully fleshed-out person but rather a distraction for Cusack's journey to artistic self-confidence.

At the same time, that doesn't really take anything away from Wiest's performance which is an entertaining part of an otherwise unremarkable film. Wiest's role is fairly stereotypical but she really owns it and has fun with it.

1995 Mira Sorvino, Mighty Aphrodite A

Character: Linda Ash, a prostitute who begins a platonic friendship with the protagonist (Woody Allen) after he discovers she's the birth mother of his adopted daughter

Analysis: I really liked this character. She's just a giddy ball of energy and I was completely disarmed by her. There was just the right amount of room in the script for Sorvino to launch off from and do something with it.

Although I was not following the Oscars at this age, I do know that not everyone has felt like Sorvino winning was a good thing. She hasn't had much of a career after this film and she is the daughter of a famous enough Hollywood actor, so those are a couple reasons to resent her right there. Additionally, I do think Kathleen Quinlam could have also done Oscar justice by taking home the trophy, but I don't bear a grudge towards Sorvino because, as I said, she was terrific.

1997 Kim Bassinger, LA Confidential B-
Character: Lynn Bracken, a prostitute who becomes romantically entangled with a pair of cops in a noirish expose of police corruption

Analysis: This is an odd one because I could put forth an argument that this was a moving performance and a deserving win, but I can just as easily argue the opposite. I can see her as being a prostitute with a heart of Gold (sort of like Donna Reed and others) who infuses the very bloody story with some brighter moments. On the flip side, if you take the performance away from the context of the story, it's not particularly memorable. Similarly, if you're watching the film expecting a juicy crime thriller, she's kind of chewing up scenery and getting in the way from the good stuff. So let's call it a split decision with a B-

1998: Judi Dench, Shakespeare in Love F
Character: Queen Elizabeth I 

Analysis: Epic fail! Dench did very little except dress up and wear a stern facial expression for 12 minutes of screen time. I am aware that Straight won an Oscar on half that screen time, but she was actually doing stuff. Dench largely sat on a throne and looked regal. This was clearly a make-up for Dench not winning the year before for "Mrs. Brown." It also highlights the Academy's compulsion to award an Oscar to anyone or anything that has to do with British royalty. Dench went on to score four more Oscar nomintions but a lot of them are for movies that seem designed just to get best actress nominations.

2000: Marcia Gay Harden, Pollock B
Character: Lee Krasner, wife of the brilliant but perpetually drunk and child-like artist Jackson Pollock (Ed Harris)

Analysis: Major bonus points for that distinctive New York accent.It is true that Marisa Tomei and Mercedes Ruehl donned a New York accent (or perhaps a New Jersey accent for Tomei? She sounds like the women of Jersey Shore) but I felt like if Rex Harrison's character from My Fair Lady were on a street corner with Lee Krasner. Anne and Mona Lisa Vito, he would be able to pinpoint Krasner to within a 3-block radius in Queens, he would call out Mona Lisa for being a fake, and plead for Anne to stop talking because her shrill voice was annoying the hell out of him.

In other words, Harden did her homework. It's easiest to measure the effectiveness of Harden (and Harris, for that matter) on the basis of how into the film you are, since it's really a relationship film that rests on their shoulders. I was pretty engaged for the first half, got a little tired two-thirds of the way in, and nearly tuned out with 30 minutes to go but held on. So that would be somewhere in the range of a grade of C. On the other hand, it's a testament to Pollock and Harris that the relationship between the brilliant crazy artist and the long-suffering wife has its own uniqueness here in that it's nothing I've quite seen before.

Jennifer Connelly, A Beautiful Mind A
Character: Alicia Nash, wife of brilliant mathematician John, who gets more than she bargained for in her husband when it turns out he's a schizophrenic (in addition to being socially awkward).

Analysis: I've always felt that Connelly won this one from the trailer alone. Specifically, that one tear-inducing line which is cemented in my brain from all the TV spots I must have seen too many of in 2001: "I need to believe anything extraordinary is possible." (In the extended cut of the trailer, she actually follows that line with "Boo yah! How do you like them apples, Maggie Smith?") In all honesty, I liked the movie a fair amount and find the performance very deserving. I just specifically don't remember that line ever popping up in the film or even working in the context of the film.

Anyways, this is a undoubtedly great performance when you consider the fact that Alicia Nash is a terrible character on paper and, therefore, if you feel any sparks flying between Connelly and Crowe, you have to credit that entirely to Connelly. For example, has anyone noticed how awkwardly scripted the John-Alicia romance was in the film? In an earlier scene, John tried to pick up a girl using the ill-advised method of treating her as if she were a biological specimen.

Later, Alicia shows up and asks him to dinner for a reason that isn't really given and he tries to consummate their relationship by saying he dislikes social protocol and would prefer to skip to the intercourse. Is the film suggesting growth on John's part? He hasn't really picked up social nuance since the earlier scene. Perhaps, we're meant to believe that John has just found the right woman for him (and by that I mean one who will tolerate idiocy)? If this seems too good to be true, that's because it isn't. The real Alicia Nash divorced John after just six years of marriage and the two were remarried nearly 40 years later in the year of the film's release, 2001 (publicity stunt?).

Catherine Zeta-Jones, Chicago D+
Character: Velma Kelly, an inmate on Chicago's death row who passes the time singing and dancing with her new gal pal Roxy Hart (Rene Zellweger)

Analysis: This analysis gets interesting when you consider that Chicago has become one of the most popular plays in the last 20 or so years and there have probably been many famous stars who played the role of Velma. I know that everyone from Wayne Brady (Who's Line is it Anyway?) to Usher to Jerry Springer has played Billy Flynn.

Whoever played Velma before Zeta-Jones (internet broadway database lists the originator as Bebe Neuwirth) must have been an improvement, because Zeta-Jones' performance rung hollow for me. It never resonated past the singing and dancing. For that reason, it wasn't the least bit memorable. Zellweger, on the other hand, infused her part with pathos underneath all the glitz and glamor.

2003 Rene Zellweger, Cold Mountain B+
Character: Ruby Thewes, a tomboy hillbilly helping the more lady-like Ada Monroe (Nicole Kidman) defend their plantation against evil homesteaders

Analysis: Zellweger's win had been a pretty easy target for haters and I'm not surprised that she was voted the Worst Supporting Actress Winner of All Time. This was the first Oscar season I closely followed so I have some sense of context for this one. For one, this was a year in which Miramax (controversial movie studio known for actively campaigning for their films) hate was pretty high and "Cold Mountain", a late December release got the bulk of the hype that year. I don't know what the Oscar voters were thinking, but the purveyors of the internet at the time were reacting to Cold Mountain's snub as if the Wicked Witch of the West had finally been melted. From that point of view, Zellweger's anti-conformist tomboy can be seen as carefully crafted Oscar bait.

Personally, I have seen A LOT of films from 2003 and, while it's a close call, I unabashedly maintain that Cold Mountain is the best of all of them (See my article celebrating the talents of Anthony Minghellia for more). Likewise, I understand how you can make a joke that Zellweger comes off as she's auditioning to replace Ellie May Clampett on "'The Beverly Hillbillies" but that's only because we're likely to make fun of anyone who wins an Oscar for playing a Hillbilly. The fact of the matter, however, is that Cold Mountain boasts several great acting performances and Zellweger sticks out in the cast. She brings an energy and provides a sort of Han-Solo-like comic relief to the epic. I think it's based on whether you buy the film as a whole.

2004 Cate Blanchett, Aviator C
Character: Katharine Hepburn, the 4-time Oscar winning actress

Analysis: I wasn't really impressed with this. I think the Academy just loves Katharine Hepburn and four Oscars wasn't enough. It also makes more sense when you consider that it was a great way to honor her because she literally died the previous year. Personally, I don't even think this performance channeled Katherine Hepburn as much as it did a slightly raunchier version of Hepburn's character in "Bringing Up Baby" or "Philadelphia Story." I never felt like watching her performance got me any closer to realizing Hepburn as an actual person.

Between the ladies of The Aviator, I preferred Kate Beckinsdale's saucy take on Ava Gardner which went virtually unnoticed throughout the entirety of awards season.

2005 Rachel Weisz, Constant Gardener A-
Character: Tess Quayle, activist traveling to Africa accompanying her Diplomat husband and sticking her nose in the business of evil pharmaceutical companies

Analysis: Oscars in the supporting categories ideally should go to scene stealers and Weisz's character really lit up the room in the film's initial scene. While her husband-to-be is conducting a question and answer session at an official state function, Weisz stands up and makes a lot of noise about how the British are really just imperialist pigs disrupting the whole stuffy Victorian affair. From that point on, she has your attention and while it's the way the scene was written that first hooked you onto her character, she sustains it.

The character drifts from present to past (by which I mean she lives on in the memory of her husband) and so Weisz is playing the image of a woman from the point-of-view of a man who's in love with her. If she appears overly idealized in some cases, that's why. It's a very clever role and Weisz is a very good actress. I'm happy to see her enjoying a respectable career since her Oscar.

2006 Jennifer Hudson, Dreamgirls A-
Character: Effie White, a singer being given the chance of a lifetime by a Motown-like recording artist

Analysis: It's a pretty big coincidence that this was the only season of American Idol I watched start to finish, so I was familiar with Hudson beforehand. Her singing and dancing are, of course, up to the standard of what you would expect in a musical like this and the singing is what you remember more than anything else. That's how all musicals are.

In my book, however, Hudson won this on the acting. Lots of people can sing and you can't sing anyone with pipes into a film and have an Oscar. There have been a lot of musical stars like Rex Harrison, Yul Brenner, and Liza Minelli who have won Oscars but I believe they all cemented their wins through acting. Hudson herself was only the 7th best singer in her season of American Idol. The character had an arc that went upward and downward and I think Hudson got on both slopes of it.

2007: Tilda Swinton, Michael Clayton A
Character: Karen Crowder, A corporate attorney and spokeswoman for the morally dubious multi-billion dollar conglomerate of "U North."

Analysis: "Michael Clayton" was a movie of fascinating characters and Swinton's Karen Crowder was no exception. In an early scene the camera lingers on her looking at herself in the mirror without a shirt and adjusting her bra. She's a woman who's heavily invested in image from a professional sense and who also knows of the challenges she has as a woman in a man's world. Perhaps, she also knows the advantages of being a woman as well as no one would think of her as malicious if she were to do something deadly. The reveal that she is the antagonist is a twist but Swinton has a darkness underneath her all along and it's a potent performance because you can see it lurking underneath the surface.

2011: Octavia Spencer, The Help B-
Chracter: Minny Jackson, a sassy maid in 1960's Mississippi who displays impressive resilience after being fired and blacklisted by one of the the town's most prominent society debutantes

Analysis: I enjoyed Octavia's character for what she was meant to be: A satisfying  B-story and comic relief. I would even go so far as to say that I don't think Octavia had a false note in her performance. At the same time, the sassy black maid is a little bit too stock of a character for me to be pleased to see earn it someone an Oscar.

Mind you, there was a sizable backlash to this film when it came out that there are better role models to glorify than African-American maids in the 1960's, but I'm not in that camp. I agree with the counterargument voiced by Viola Davis in interviews that it does a greater disservice to limit true and courageous stories about the African-American experience because they aren't exclusively of positive
role models.

My problem is that it made the most sense for the Academy to give Octavia an Oscar for mostly strategic purposes. Viola was Oscar-worthy but Meryl Streep was immsensely due after 12 successive losses and they decided to award Octavia instead. In addition, Jessica Chastain gave a better performance (at least, in my opinion) but after getting negative press for failing to nominate a black actor the previous year (which statistically was not really that big of a deal), the Academy didn't want to hear grumbling over racial diversity again. In short, Chastain didn't stand a chance.