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Thursday, February 23, 2012
Breaking down the Oscar nominees

By Jim Caple

The Los Angeles Times published a terrific piece over the weekend on just who are the 5,765 members of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences who vote on the Oscars each year. There were some surprises -- Woody Allen and George Lucas are not members, but Meat Loaf is -- and some not-so-shocking revelations, i.e., the vast majority of Academy members are white males.

Meat Loaf
Meet Meat Loaf, Oscar voter.

In other words, the Academy sounds a bit like the Baseball Writers' Association of America, except we don't have Meat Loaf as a member (though we often have meatloaf stains on our shirts). But as I've written before, one difference is baseball writers reveal their Hall of Fame and MVP/Cy Young votes while the Oscar voters do not. They should release and explain their ballots, if only so I could find out who voted for "The Tree of Life" and ask them for a refund.

Speaking of which, here is my annual rundown of the Best Picture nominees:

"The Tree of Life": The multiplex where a friend's parents saw this movie posted a notice stating that in the middle of "The Tree of Life," the film veers off into a long and strange sequence involving dinosaurs and the creation of the Earth and that patrons were warned their money would not be refunded if they continued into the theater. I have three thoughts about this warning:

1. How bad is a movie if a theater feels compelled to warn you there will be no refunds?

2. The Charlotte Bobcats and Pittsburgh Pirates should have to post similar warnings next to their ticket windows.

3. Why couldn't there have been this warning at the theater where I saw "The Tree of Life"?

This steaming, pretentious pile was easily the year's worst, most self-important, most self-indulgent movie. I nearly walked out three times and wish I had. Rewarding it with a Best Picture nomination is like giving an NCAA berth to Binghamton (1-26 overall and 344th in the Sagarin ratings).

"The Help": The acting is superb (particularly Viola Davis), but what could have been a much better movie is trivialized by the decision to focus so much attention on the privileged young white woman who dreams of becoming a New York writer rather than sticking to the abused black maids who tell her their anguished stories. This is like telling the story of Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier by concentrating on a young white beat writer for the New York Herald Tribune. "Jackie received two more death threats today, was forced to enter the ballpark through the 'colored' entrance, was called racial epithets by several fans, was refused service at the hotel restaurant, and a bigot spit on his wife. But that's nothing compared to the way the copy editors butchered my game story. And there was no mustard for the free hot dogs in the press box, and the free beer was lukewarm …"

"Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close": I try to see every Best Picture nomination each year, but friends warned me this movie is so emotionally manipulative that I decided to save my money and watch the Alamo Bowl instead. That might have been a mistake, considering my alma mater gave up 67 points and 777 yards.

"Moneyball": This is the first baseball movie to receive a Best Picture nomination since "Field of Dreams," which frankly was a better movie and was more believable.

Look. The 2002 Athletics were coming off a 102-win season. They had the 2002 Cy Young winner (Barry Zito) and the 2002 MVP (Miguel Tejada). They had third baseman Eric Chavez, who hit 34 home runs, drove in 109 runs and won a Gold Glove. They had Tim Hudson, who has averaged 14 wins and a 3.40 ERA over his 13-year career. They had Mark Mulder, who averaged 18 wins from 2001-05. They had Jermaine Dye (24 home runs) and Billy Koch (44 saves). Yet we're supposed to believe they won the American League West because general manager Billy Beane signed Scott Hatteberg and traded away promising rookie Carlos Pena? I'm sorry; I think Billy has been a great general manager, but the only way this version of Oakland's 2002 season would have been more of a fantasy was if Hatteberg, David Justice and Shoeless Joe Jackson walked into the Oakland Coliseum from an Iowa cornfield.

Oscar nominees

"The Descendants": George Clooney is up for Best Actor for this movie, but the really noteworthy performance is by Laird Hamilton, the great big wave surfer. Hamilton plays Troy, the guy who was driving the boat when Clooney's wife has an accident that sends her into a coma. It's a small role -- as I recall, he's on screen for about 30 seconds -- but this nonetheless represents an enormous leap forward for Hamilton's screen career. After all, his previous film role was as Kevin Costner's stunt double in the legendary bomb "Waterworld."

"Hugo": This is an extraordinary movie in that it is based on a children's book yet isn't overloaded with "clever" pop culture references and fart jokes, which is almost as rare a thing as a Detroit Lions playoff victory. It's also a loving homage to early cinema, particularly the movies of George Melies, who made more than 500 films from 1896-1913, including "A Trip to the Moon," "The Impossible Voyage" and "The Absolutely Last Cubs World Series Victory Parade You Will Ever See."

"Midnight in Paris": I loved this movie, but it doesn't stand a chance because comedies almost never win -- the Pirates have won as many World Series in the past 52 years as comedies have won Best Picture. I'm not counting what AMC's Tim Dirks terms borderline or hybrid comedies such as "Shakespeare in Love." I'm talking about straight-forward comedies like Woody Allen makes. Like "Annie Hall," which won in 1977. Or, well, "Midnight in Paris."

Owen Wilson deserved a Best Actor nomination for his performance as a modern writer who finds himself transported nightly to 1920s Paris. The real crime, however, was Corey Stoll not receiving a Best Supporting Actor nod for his role as Ernest Hemingway. Sure, it isn't a big part, but sometimes a brief performance can be so overwhelming it dwarfs everyone else -- like Judi Dench as Queen Elizabeth when she won a supporting actress award for roughly eight minutes of screen time in "Shakespeare in Love." Or Willie McCovey, who won the 1959 Rookie of the Year Award despite not making his major league debut until July 30 and playing only 52 games. I'm not saying Stoll is going to finish his acting career with the equivalent of 521 home runs, but his Hemingway was a Hall of Fame performance.

"War Horse": This is another nominee I regret to say I haven't seen yet because I was busy standing in line waiting for Spielberg's other movie of the holiday season, "The Adventures of Tintin." Spielberg spent decades getting Tintin to the big screen, and why he allowed it to be released at the same time as another of his moves is as mystifying as Ozzie Guillen's tweets. By the way, it's bad enough "Tintin" was snubbed for Best Picture but to not even be nominated for Best Animated Film? That's Hollywood's biggest scandal outside of green-lighting "Juwanna Mann."

Uggie the dog
Baseball can learn from Uggie.

"The Artist": In a movie world of explosions, car chases, explosions, $14 tickets for rote 3-D effects and more explosions, this is just a wonderful movie -- a glorious, black-and-white, virtually dialogue-free salute to Hollywood's silent days. The beauty, however, is that it all still seems as fresh and current as a rookie hopeful texting his parents about his big game in spring training. It's funny, touching and fast-paced, and you leave the theater humming the music with a grin on your face as broad as Tim Tebow's shoulders.

I just wish teams would take a clue from this movie and allow fans to enjoy an occasional moment of silence at a game instead of making us endure the constant ear-bleeding music, annoying commercials and canned instructions/demands to cheer. This cone of silence doesn't have to be for an entire game, but is a half-inning or five minutes of peace and quiet too much to ask?

"The Artist" is my favorite movie of the year and my pick to win Best Picture. When I saw it, the loudest sound in the theater was the audience applauding. There's a lesson in there for sports teams, if they would just pay attention.

Jim Caple is a senior writer for You can follow him on Twitter @jimcaple.