Screen Trade: A ‘Beautiful’ slice of old H’wood

There is, how shall I put this, a certain disdain from the critical fraternity about the quality of this year’s potential Oscar candidates. A general feeling that Hollywood has given us, as the French say, even more shit than usual.

I have been singing that song for a very long time. The ’90s were the worst decade in Hollywood history, I wrote. 2000 was worse than any year in the ’90s, I wrote.

And I am not going to argue that 2001 will go down as the best since our ’39 vintage, when we had “Stagecoach” and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” and “Wuthering Heights” and “Ninotchka” and “Of Mice and Men” and, oops, “The Wizard of Oz” and, oh yeah, “Gone With the Wind.”

No, this was surely not ’39.

But I thought “Monsters, Inc.” was one of the best movies of the year. And “Shrek” was right up there, too, galumphing stride for stride.

So you might say this was the greatest year in the history of feature-length cartoons. Or if not the year, then pretty damn close.

I thought “The Matrix” was the best special effects pic I ever saw. But wonderful as it is, it’s not even in a class with “The Lord of the Rings,” an amazing technical achievement. (I thought “Harry Potter” was going to grab all the technical awards until “Rings” came along.)

So you could argue that this was the greatest year for special effects ever. Or if not the year, then pretty damn close.

So is 2001 really so terrible?

My first movie was in 1936, with Shirley Temple wowing the masses in “Captain January.” I fell in love with the medium on that Evanston, Ill., afternoon. I still have the crush, too, and I want to remind us, briefly, what things were like back then: Hollywood made all kinds of product, but two staples were Westerns and musicals. Today they’re gone, and some of the greatest stars ever — the Duke and Fred and Ginger — might not even work today. Not because their talents weren’t valid, but what would they star in?

For me, the movie of the year was “A Beautiful Mind.” Dazzling work by Russell Crowe. A remarkable screenplay by Akiva Goldsman. All of it marshaled by Ron Howard, the least recognized director of our time.

Understand something, please. When I say I thought it was the movie of the year, what I mean is this: I liked it most.

I was comfortable with it. Familiar with it.

Why? Because “A Beautiful Mind” is the kind of movie Hollywood used to make. Pics of its kind were a staple of the industry.

If you were to ask me for a list of the greatest directors, I would say yes Bergman, sure Fellini, absolutely Lean. But that was later. My early gods were guys like Kazan and Huston and Stevens. Here’s what Kazan directed in his prime:

1950: “Panic in the Streets”

1951: “A Streetcar Named Desire”

1952: “Viva Zapata”

1953: “Man on a Tightrope”

1954: “On the Waterfront”

1955: “East of Eden”

I’m not saying these are all masterpieces — though clearly there was talent in the room — what I’m saying is this: These are the films Hollywood used to give us.

Whatever you want to call that kind of intelligent drama, it is on its way to being just another dodo, as Westerns are, as musicals are.

I don’t know why that is, and I’ll bet the studio heads don’t either. Because these are bright men and women and they all loved “Waterfront” and “Streetcar” and would kill to have equivalent stuff made by their studios and out there battling for honors now.

But they’re not. Because what is being made is constantly shifting and changing. I loved Astaire and Rogers dancing across Manhattan, thrilled to the Duke walking alone into a situation that only he of all mortals might survive.

Would those stories work today? “A Beautiful Mind” sure does. Maybe the miracle is not that it’s so good but that it got made. What if a bunch of them were out there now? Would they work, too?

They aren’t, so we’ll never know.

Just as no one alive today will know what audiences might be looking at when the next century stretches awake. People then — if such things as movies still exist — might wonder that earlier movie lovers were interested not just in cartoons or special effects — but laughter and tears as well.