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Reviews

Panning the Gold

Just because a film wins awards doesn’t mean the critics liked it. In fact, they frequently said it was trash—before the statue arrived. From 2006, highlights of scorn levied at eight years of Oscar winners.

John Mack, Los Cardencheros, Torreon, Coahuila, Mexico, 2009. Copyright the artist, courtesy Robert Mann Gallery.

It’s not just we common folk who are sometimes disappointed by the Academy’s selections. Occasionally a high-profile movie review will have nothing but contempt for the films that later speed away with a limo full of statuettes. So here, as a tonic for your Oscars hangover, is a scattering of critical scorn.

2000 Winner, Best Visual Effects, Best Editing, and Best Sound: The Matrix

Bob Graham, San Francisco Chronicle: “It’s astonishing that so much money, talent, technical expertise and visual imagination can be put in the service of something so stupid. Folly on such a monumental scale is almost exhilarating.”

2002 Winner, Best Original Score: The Fellowship of the Ring

David Elliott, San Diego Union-Tribune: “Like hearing Wagner’s Ring Cycle remastered by a genius of the kazoo.”

2003 Winner, Best Documentary: Bowling for Columbine

John Powers, NPR: “He’s better at scoring easy political points than at giving us a clear vision of things. In fact, he has the gifts of a good adman, but he’s a slipshod filmmaker … at once punchy and incoherent, the film has the scattershot shapelessness of a concept album made by a singles band.”

1998 Winner, Best Foreign Film: Life Is Beautiful

Jonathan Rosenbaum, Chicago Reader: “Sincere and lachrymose, directorially ham-fisted, and terminally sappy … borders on the nauseating.”

David Edelstein of Slate.com was even more succinct: “Benigni’s movie made me want to throw up.”

1998 Winner, Best Costumes and Best Set Decoration: Titanic

Barbara Shulgasser, San Francisco Chronicle: “No amount of excellent period costuming and brilliant set decoration can substitute for a good story and decent acting. Either this overblown movie should have been conceived as a network miniseries (where the standards for excellence are lower) to be served up with subplots intact over several nights, or as a far, far shorter movie.”

2005 Winner, Best Adapted Screenplay: Sideways

Charles Taylor, Salon.com: “Makes you feel like you’re trapped at dinner with a wiseass who’s trying to convince you what a sensitive guy he is.”

Taylor has a reputation for panning otherwise almost universally lauded films, such as Traffic (“a failure of a very high order”) and Memento (“It’s told backwards because telling it forwards would tip us off much sooner that it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.”).

2000 Winner, Best Original Screenplay: American Beauty

J. Hoberman, Village Voice: “Bland and nasty, American Beauty has the slightly stale feel of a family sitcom conceived under the spell of Married…With Children.”

2005 Winner, Best Supporting Actress: Cate Blanchett in The Aviator

Desson Thomson, Washington Post: “Blanchett is so wrongly cast it’s almost campily intriguing to watch her mannered failings.”

The actress portrayed Katharine Hepburn in The Aviator, and while most critics thought she filled the role admirably, others were less impressed. “Ms. Blanchett doesn’t look a thing like Hepburn, a discrepancy she tries to overcome by adopting a purposeful gait and delivering an overblown approximation of the actress’s legendary lock-jaw,” said the New York Times. “For the most part Ms. Blanchett sounds as if she’s channeling one of Hepburn’s own overblown performances.”

2005 Winner, Best Supporting Actor: Morgan Freeman in Million Dollar Baby

Josh Bell, Las Vegas Weekly: “Giving the same old ‘wise, old sage’ performance…right down to the homey bits of wisdom in the voice-overs, Freeman is warm and entertaining, but clearly coasting.”

1999 Winner, Best Actress: Gwyneth Paltrow in Shakespeare in Love

Amy Taubin, Village Voice: “Paltrow plays every scene as if she’s sprinkling fairy dust on her own head. Paltrow has a nice voice but, with no technique for shaping a line of verse, not to mention a character, she relies mostly on heavy breathing to rev up her own feelings.”

“It’s impossible not to feel pity for her,” Taubin continues. “With Shakespeare in Love opening just weeks after Elizabeth, she’s in the unenviable position of arriving late at the party and discovering that she’s wearing the same dress and hairdo as the new girl of the year.” And yet Paltrow walked away with Best Actress—one of the seven Oscars Shakespeare in Love amassed—while Elizabeth only received “Best Makeup.”

2004 Winner, Best Actor: Sean Penn in Mystic River

Stanley Kauffmann, New Republic: “As in all his films, Penn comes on as an actor. Whatever the character’s clothes, setting, vocation, Penn is always an actor. It isn’t hamminess, it’s more subtle—the feeling that he is there to wring our withers and all we have to do is wait. He is closest to verity in his quieter moments, when he lets his striking aquiline face work for him. But when he heats up, in fury or in grief, I always feel that he has flicked on a switch…He delivers the necessary emotion with a kind of pride in his accomplishment. Another way to put it is that Penn’s outbursts seem a nightclub comic’s mimicking of Penn’s outbursts.”

1996 Winner, Best Director: Mel Gibson for Braveheart

Desson Howe, Washington Post: “Anyone with good hair and a few rock videos (or a lucrative acting career) can get a director’s job from the studios these days. But few can guide a big project to more than competent completion. Gibson has shown the world how good he looks in a kilt … he has demonstrated how easily he can arouse women of the Middle Ages … and yes, he has guided this tale to completion. But now it’s time to put the pants back on and return to Los Angeles. Veteran detective Danny Glover, who is still facing retirement, needs help against an international terrorist ring—or something like that.”

2006 Winner, Best Picture: Crash

Steve Schneider, Orlando Weekly: “Audiences everywhere are about to find out how abominably off-putting an extended diatribe masquerading as an ensemble drama can be.”

Carina Chocano, Los Angeles Times: “A grim, histrionic experiment in vehicular metaphor slaughter.”

David Edelstein, Slate.com: “Might have been a landmark film about race relations had its aura of blunt realism not been dispelled by a toxic cloud of dramaturgical pixie dust.”

Peter Debruge, Miami Herald: “Contrived, obvious and overstated, Crash is basically just one white man’s righteous attempt to make other white people feel as if they’ve confronted the problem of racism head-on.”

Josh Bell, Las Vegas Weekly: “By the time he bathes L.A. in redemptive snowfall at the end, you’ll either be ready to cry or puke. You can guess which side I fell on.”

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TMN Contributing Writer Matthew Baldwin has maintained the blog defective yeti for more than a decade. He is also responsible for Infinite Summer (an internet-wide reading of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest) and is a board games enthusiast. He lives in Seattle with his wife, his son, and a good-for-nothing cat. More by Matthew Baldwin