February 28, 2005 12:00 PM

And the Oscar Should Go To…

Blockbusters rich in special effects have a place in Hollywood, but how refreshing to find most of 2004’s Oscar-nominated movies so human-scaled and the performances so commendably subtle. Which only makes choosing what and who deserves to win gold statues at the 77th Academy Awards (Feb. 27 on ABC, 8 p.m. ET) that much harder. But no one ever said being a movie critic was easy, so here are my picks.

Best Picture




Watching Million Dollar Baby, you know it’s special. The next day, the full weight of the movie’s meaning and complexity hit you like a Mack truck. A powerful meditation on the meaning of faith, love and charity, the drama tells the story of the growing friendship between a veteran boxing coach (Clint Eastwood) and a would-be pugilist (Hilary Swank). To call it a boxing film is to label a Rolls-Royce merely a car.

The other nominees each have their merits: The Aviator is lushly entertaining. Finding Neverland movingly reveals the roots of artistic inspiration. Ray gets your toes tapping and your tear ducts working. And Sideways, my runner-up choice, is warm and winning. Not one, though, stays with you the way Baby does. Like all great art, it lingers in your thoughts—and your heart.

Best Actor

Don Cheadle, Hotel Rwanda

Johnny Depp, Finding Neverland

Leonardo DiCaprio, The Aviator

Clint Eastwood, Million Dollar Baby

Jamie Foxx, Ray

Foxx sure didn’t hide behind Ray Charles’s trademark shades. In a searing performance as the legendary music man, he went far beyond simply zeroing in on Charles’s distinctive voice and physical mannerisms. Foxx dug into the man’s pain and flaws, showing how each contributed to the triumph of his music. Runner-up: Cheadle could have showboated while saving lives in Rwanda but instead gave a carefully calibrated turn as a man of conscience doing what he must.

Best Actress

Annette Bening, Being Julia

Catalina Sandino Moreno, Maria Full of Grace

Imelda Staunton, Vera Drake

Hilary Swank, Million Dollar Baby

Kate Winslet, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Give Swank the right role and she packs a wallop. Mirroring her breakout part as a yearning outsider in 1999’s Boys Don’t Cry, Swank was radiant in Baby as a dirt-poor waitress determined to girl-fight her way to self-respect. With acting as sinewy as her physique, Swank didn’t waste a line or a look, making her performance all the more striking for its lack of vanity or excess. Runner-up: Staunton, who brought a touchingly tragic dimension to a housecleaner’s downfall.

Best Supporting Actor

Alan Alda, The Aviator

Thomas Haden Church, Sideways

Jamie Foxx, Colleteral

Morgan Freeman, Million Dollar Baby

Clive Owen, Closer

Supporting nods often go to the very young or the elderly. At 67, Freeman qualifies as a veteran if not a codger and respect is due. He has already gone home Oscar-less three times (with nominations for Street Smart, Driving Miss Daisy and The Shawshank Redemption) and it would be a crying shame if he didn’t win this year for his spare, pitch-perfect performance as a retired boxer in Baby. Runner-up: Church, for nailing both the comedy and pathos in his role as a once-golden boy growing old.

Best Supporting Actress

Cate Blanchett, The Aviator

Laura Linney, Kinsey

Virginia Madsen, Sideways

Sophie Okonedo, Hotel Rwanda

Natalie Portman, Closer

Every time Blanchett, leading with her jaw, briskly strode onto the screen as Katharine Hepburn in Aviator, she lifted the movie. Sure, she had Hepburn’s starchy New England accent and angularity down pat, but her performance was more than an impression: It was a considered, witty interpretation of the fabled star. Runner-up: Madsen, who, with little more than a warm, knowing smile, turned her Sideways character into a woman obviously wise in experience.

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