Slate Does the Oscars

A running roundup of this year’s coverage.

Ad Report Card: Pepsi’s Britney Exposure,” by Rob Walker

“The advertising during the Academy Awards hardly generates the sort of buzz that spots during the Super Bowl get. But this year there was one much-hyped premiere: Britney Spears shilling for Pepsi. … [T]he new maneuver this time is to  actually dwell on the disturbing spectacle of a nation unable to look away from its favorite milquetoast Lolita.”

Wilson the Volleyball, Reconsidered,” by James Surowiecki”Wilson is important to Hanks not as someone who will listen to him or pay attention to him (however silently). Wilson is important to Hanks as someone who relies on him, who, in some sense, needs him.”

Summary Judgment: An Oscar Night With Class,” by Yael Schacher”Critics insist the ceremonies had more class than those of recent years. Notably classic elements: the grand, epic winner, Gladiator, for best picture; the ‘old fashioned, ‘50s’ glamour gowns; performances by Yo-Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman; the dryly witty Steve Martin.”

The Artist as Critic,” by Michael Brus Ed Harris’ Pollock, the art biopic nominated for two Oscars, has received a mildly favorable reception by the critics. Except for two, that is. The Chicago Sun-Times’ Roger Ebert awarded it four stars, his highest rating and called it a “confident, insightful” narrative about an artist’s life. And while the New Republic’s Stanley Kauffmann acknowledges the film as “creditable” and “generally intelligent,” he pronounces the entire genre of art biopics worthless.

The Sound of Music,” by Adam Baer

“The music from Crouching Tiger should win Best Original Score by a mile. Crouching Tiger’s score is an expert fusion that—thanks in no small part to Yo-Yo Ma’s deft cello-playing—spins one memorable musical thread with pitch-bending flavor into a dreamlike pattern.”

The Breakfast Table

“Oscar night approaches. Are you excited? A part of me is, just as I can’t seem to shed the childish excitement of going to a movie after all these years.” Essayist Phillip Lopate and Geoffrey O’Brien, the editor in chief of the Library of America, talk about their favorite films—Oscar nominees and otherwise.

Hanks? No Thanks,” by Erik Lundegaard”On Oscar night I’ll have my rooting interests— Crouching Tiger, Ang Lee, Laura Linney, Benicio Del Toro—but, as with last year’s World Series, I’ll mostly be rooting against. In baseball I’m ABY (Anybody but the Yankees), and when it comes to this year’s Academy Awards, I’m ABH (Anybody but Hanks).”

Erin Go Brockovich,” by Franklin Foer”Soderbergh shouldn’t win for Traffic, the heavy favorite, but for Erin Brockovich. Traffic is the Ralph Nader of this year’s Oscar race: an appealingly radical choice, beloved by Hollywood’s intelligentsia, that stuns you with its articulateness and whips you into a frenzy of outrage. That is, until you examine it a little more closely and realize how little it’s actually saying.”

Crashing the Oscar Race,” by David Edelstein

This year, Slate asked Buck Loughlin, last seen co-hosting the climactic dog competition in Best in Show, to talk with film critic David Edelstein about this year’s Oscar race. Click here to read the edited transcript.

Short List,” by Eliza Truitt

Gladiator, Traffic, Crouching Tiger—if you’ve been a part of society in the past year, you’ve heard of all the Oscar-nominated films. But The Periwig-Maker? A Soccer Story? How about My Mother Dreams the Satan’s Disciples in New York, one of last year’s winners? They’re short films, and as such they get short shrift when it comes to national exposure. They make the rounds at festivals, but none attain the exposure of full-length films. The best way to catch short films is to watch them online.”

Lani Guinier’s Oscar Fever,” by Timothy Noah

“If you belong to a ‘political minority within the academy, which might like art films,’ [the Academy’s voting system] strengthens your hand. Of course, not all Academy minorities are this enlightened. Judging from past balloting, there’s a distinct Academy minority that believes that anybody playing a streetwalker with a heart of gold automatically deserves to be nominated for Best Supporting Actress.”

Life and Art: Billy Elliot,” by June Thomas”In Billy Elliot, the eponymous 11-year-old hero escapes the macho mining culture of his hometown by taking up ballet and vying for a scholarship to the prestigious Royal Ballet School. The plot isn’t as fanciful as it might sound, and as a sentimental sob story, Billy Elliot is surprisingly effective. But as history, Billy is bunk.”

Lite Traffic: OK Movie, Lousy Drug Policy Analysis,” by Mark A. R. Kleiman

Traffic is actually two movies. One is a pretty good Pulp Fictionesque thriller about drug enforcement on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. The other is a rather silly essay on drug policy and how it is made in Washington.”

The Movie Club

David Edelstein, Roger Ebert, J. Hoberman, Sarah Kerr, and A.O. Scott are film critics at, respectively, Slate, the Chicago Sun-Times, the Village Voice, Vogue, and the New York Times. Last December, Slate asked them to compare notes on the year in film.

David Edelstein’s Slate reviews of the Best Picture contenders:

Chocolat“For the first half of Chocolat, the liberal, life-affirming whimsy made my teeth ache, but the director, Lasse Hallström (last year’s Cider House Rules), knows how to build a house, even a house made of something brown and runny that isn’t chocolate.”

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon“It might be the wildest female coming-of-age picture ever made. … My first viewing left me dazzled but slightly confused; a second deeply impressed; a third rhapsodic. I’ll probably buy the film on DVD and revisit it occasionally, like a sumptuous coffee-table book; but I wish I hadn’t needed to rediagram it in my head to turn it into the masterpiece it so obviously wants to be.”

Erin Brockovich

“Early in her career, Julia Roberts reportedly needed lots of stroking and calming down, like a skittish thoroughbred. But she now has a hard-won self-possession, and the joy of Erin Brockovich is watching her cut loose, talk dirty, stride into an office on those long legs and blast the hell out of anyone in her way.”

Gladiator“I’m as much of a bloodthirsty Roman as the next male moviegoer. … But Gladiator’s combination of grim sanctimony and drenching, Dolby-ized dismemberings left me appalled.”

Traffic“There is a kind of Nightline earnestness to this enterprise, but that’s not a bad thing: It hearkens back to a tradition of pulpy thrillers that tackle the big issues of the day. Where it differs is in its lack of answers—and in its soul.”