William Goldman: Screentrade

As the Magna Carta so famously begins, all critics are assholes and failures. But rarely is that truism more in evidence than in December, when they weigh in on Hollywood’s purest aesthetic achievements, all in the name of Oscar.

My Oscar for greatest critical quote is not “The Best Picture of the Year.” It’s this: “The Best Picture of the Year By Far.”

Now what masterpiece was this critic writing about? A little thought here, please. The Crowe? The Cruise? “The Return of the King”?

Wrong, sports fans.

David Sheehan of CBS TV, the network that did not bring us the Reagan miniseries, was waxing misty over … over … wait for it … yes … of course … what else but … “Mona Lisa Smile.”

We’re grateful he’s decided to retire from reviewing.

Want to know who I voted for?

I never remember. Only partially because of gray hair, but more, I think, because of how I do it.

When I get the Academy envelope, I open it, mark it, lick it shut and mail it off — all in the span, seriously, of at most five minutes. For example, last year I loved “Chicago” and I loved “The Pianist,” but only Price and Waterhouse know how I voted.

This year I again have two — “In America” and “Mystic River” — and the following is an attempt to explain why I feel they’re the two best pictures of the year — best for me.

As we know, there is no best, just what we like most. I also want to throw in some words about another equally well-reviewed film, “Lost in Translation,” which did not work for me, and why.

“In America” begins with a young Irish family — father, mother, daughters aged 10 and 5 — lying to authorities at the Canadian border so they can get into the United States. Soon we have a glimpse of the New York skyline and then, to their surprise, they have to go into a tunnel to get under the Hudson River, and it’s like being on another planet for them; they’ve lost contact with the world –

– spooky, silent –

– and then this fabulous explosion of music and light and the soundtrack is blasting “Do You Believe in Magic?” — because they’re there!

They’re in New York City and their faces are pressed to the windows as Times Square appears wondrously around them, and the montage lasts close to a minute — and as I sat there in the theater all I knew was this: Whatever this family was after, I wanted them to win!

Flashback –

1940 and I am living in a small town outside Chicago and I am 9 and for some reason, we got the New York Sunday Times and anyone who knows me will tell you I don’t remember what I did yesterday — but my God, I remember sitting on the rug in our living room and turning the pages of what is now I guess called the Arts & Leisure section –

– filled with theater ads and movie ads –

– and I truly remember sitting there thinking, “I have to try and get there someday. In all the world, that’s where I want to be.”

I made it 50 years ago this year, and do not plan on leaving.

Think I was moved by “In America?”

“Lost in Translation” opens with a wonderful shot of a girl’s behind.

Then several skillful minutes of Bill Murray arriving in Tokyo. (An aside — I love Bill Murray.) He’s a famous star, sees a big picture of himself as the limo drives him to his hotel, an ad of his pushing some kind of liquor. He gets to his hotel, a fuss is made over him, he goes to his room. Jet lag has him bad, so he goes to the bar for a nightcap.

We overhear some hotshot young businessmen talking about him, and they cannot believe it. “He’s here with us,” one of them says. Talk about respect.

Then it turns out that Murray has just been in a movie where there is a fabulous vehicle chase, buses destroyed, explosions and we find out he did his own driving.

Bill Murray is playing a famous ACTION STAR.

Look, I started following him over a quarter-century ago, on “Saturday Night Live” and in the movies, from “Meatballs” on, and maybe in real life he can kick the crap out of Harrison Ford and maybe stripped he has pecs that make Arnold look flat-chested — but I do not believe it, not for a New York minute.

Murray is a comedy star. He’s goofy and he fumbles, and the minute you try and shove this other persona at me, make me think he is the toughest guy on the planet, sorry, I do not go there.

And I stopped, from this moment on, believing in this flick. And when belief goes, caring is right behind.

“Mystic River” opens a couple of decades ago, and three kids are messing around in the streets when a cop comes by, accuses the kids of being troublemakers and takes one of them home to report him to his mother — only the kid isn’t a troublemaker and the cop isn’t a cop, and he and another guy in the car, pretending to be a priest, kidnap the boy and brutalize him sexually. (The story, by the way, takes place in Boston.)

And the sex scenes are scarring as hell — but you don’t see any penis shots, no nudity at all, and no one is beaten on the screen. The only spoken line is from the child: “Please. No more.”

And the movie follows the three kids into the present as adults, and I knew nothing of the story, had no idea what was to follow, who lived, who died, who got to smile — but as the story unfolded, my mind flashed to a couple of dead heroes, George Stevens, Elia Kazan, and I realized that “The Place in the Sun” guy, he could have done this movie too, and so could the man who directed “On the Waterfront.”

Why did I love “Mystic River”?

Because I was familiar with it — it’s the kind of movie Hollywood used to make when I was a kid — the kind of movie that made Hollywood great and that made me fall in love with the movies.

Once upon a time.

I have had more friends bitch about movies this year than any year in my memory. But that kind of thing is no longer a surprise, because Hollywood isn’t in the quality business any more. How can it be when movies are starting to cost a quarter of a billion dollars?

It’s all lowest common denominator now. So when a flick comes along that moves me like “In America,” rocks me like “Mystic River,” all I can do is give thanks.

And remind myself that things could be a lot worse.

I mean, what if David Sheehan was running a studio?

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