If you are at a dinner party and someone starts talking about the greatest pieces of music ever written, you would be safe to nominate Beethoven’s Ninth, or “Rigoletto,” or maybe “Rhapsody in Blue.” But if you name “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” “Les Miz” or something by Radiohead, you’re going to have to clean up all those jaws that have dropped to the floor.
That’s the thing about art. We all know what’s important, and we know what we love, and they’re not always the same thing.
Which brings us to movies and awards. As with every year, many of the films released in 2009 fall into the category of either “Eh, whatever” or “OMG, what were they thinking?” And then there are three types of good pics: awards front-runners, dark horses and the terrific work that, for whatever reason, does not seem to be considered a contender.
It’s that last-named group that interests me.
Which brings us to Paul Rudd in “I Love You, Man.” He is amazing as a man whose imminent wedding causes him to rethink what it means to be a manly man. Rudd never pushes for laughs as his character tries to fit in with other guys, trying out poker-party machismo and locker-room bantering while remaining painfully aware of his own awkwardness. Rudd gives as layered a performance as any dramatic actor this year.
With Oscar nomination to be announced Tuesday, it’s clearly too late for anyone to change their vote. That’s OK; I’m not campaigning for Rudd. I want to use him as a metaphor: Dying is easy, comedy is hard. And honoring comedy is apparently hardest of all.
Equally remarkable is Gerard Butler in “Law Abiding Citizen” as he evolves from Mr. Nice Guy to smarter-than-anyone revenge killer, targeting his family’s murderers and the overly lenient justice system. You’ve seen this plot before, but Butler is totally original. His character is so multidimensional that the audience is simultaneously horrified and rooting for him. It’s another facet from the actor after his work in romantic comedies, musicals, small-scale dramas and actioners like “300” (which, come to think of it, was another terrific film ignored in awards-land).
The past year was full of other wonderful work skipped over in kudos chatter: Alexandre Desplat’s score for “Cheri” (not to mention Alan MacDonald’s production design and Consolata Boyle’s costumes for that film); the well-staged and edited action sequences in “Taken”; the rich details created by Ang Lee and his team for “Taking Woodstock” (including that amazing tracking shot as everyone is walking to the festival); the tech work in John Woo’s “Red Cliff”; and Nia Vardalos, who magically elevates “My Life in Ruins.”
But amid the awards and the Oscar handicapping, has anyone mentioned this work? Not that I’m aware of.
This isn’t one of those “what’s wrong with the awards voters!” screeds. There are enough of those at this time of year, and they’re almost always silly. (The subtext is usually “Those voters are idiots because they didn’t pick my favorites.”)
The point is that awards recognize terrific work, but they can’t be expected to honor all terrific work.
Some of my favorite films are “King Kong” (1933), “Bride of Frankenstein,” “The Palm Beach Story,” “Two for the Road,” “Don’t Look Now,” “Local Hero,” the “Bourne” movies (especially 2 and 3) and “The Painted Veil” (2006). And there are favorite performances, such as Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates, Sean Connery as 007, Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau, Vanessa Redgrave in “Atonement.” These got minimal kudos attention, if any. But that’s OK.
I think if most people had to pick between the films I just mentioned and some best-pic Academy Award winners that I also love — from “All Quiet on the Western Front” to “Lawrence of Arabia” to “The Lord of the Rings” — they would probably say the Oscar films are greater. And I understand that. But I don’t know why I understand it, since I love all the films equally.
They have all became part of my life; I have absorbed their images and sensibilities. Even though I’ve seen them endlessly, I will always stop to watch for a few minutes when I’m channel surfing, as if catching up with old friends.
And one of these days, I will be flipping around my hundreds of TV stations and will happily rewatch Paul Rudd playing air-guitar as he attempts a reggae accent (“Slap-a da bass, mon!”) or Gerard Butler slyly gain the upper hand in a verbal smackdown with a female judge — two of the year’s most enjoyable scenes.
So, take that to your dinner party.