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Million Dollar Baby (Best Picture, 2004)

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Morgan Freeman has one of the great American voices.

I wouldn’t have expected a movie about an aspiring female boxer to get this kind of critical and popular attention.  However, it hits on two important things. First, as Freeman’s character says in the opening voiceover, “People love violence.”  No contesting that – human history reaffirms the love daily.  Secondly, the ending of the film ties into a debate that has repeatedly returned to haunt us: the right to die.

I’m not here to pontificate or make a political statement, but the question of the final section of the film intrigues me.  Does a person have the right to end their life on their own terms?  I’m not generally a fan of suicide, but on the other hand there do seem to be times when keeping someone alive artificially seems to me to be more for the benefit of the survivors than the one hooked up to the machines.  In such extreme cases, it is rare that the person in question can express their own wishes, since I’m referring to those in vegetative states or who are actually brain-dead. Maggie’s situation is yet more ambiguous.  Maggie is the female boxer who is the primary focus of the film.  I really believe that Hillary Swank completely deserved the Best Actress Oscar she won for this role – it’s a stellar performance.

Sucker-punched during a fight, Maggie falls, hits the corner stool, and breaks her neck.  She is left a quadriplegic.  Eventually one of her legs becomes infected and has to be amputated.  She asks her trainer, Frankie, played by Clint Eastwood, to help her die while she can still remember the cheers of the crowds who watched her fight.  As he struggles with the decision, having always wrestled with his religious faith, she tries biting her tongue repeatedly in an attempt to bleed to death.

And this is the thing about this film, why it spoke to so many and got so much critical acclaim.  It’s not ROCKY, it’s not actually a film about boxing.  It’s a film about persistence, faith, and affection.  It’s a film about the extent of human rights and the black-and-white nature of sin.  It’s emotional without being campy and thought-provoking without being preachy.  Like many of the greatest message movies, MILLION DOLLAR BABY asks hard questions without actually providing any answers.  It sets the stage for the conversation and then quietly backs away, leaving the audience to debate amongst itself.

Crash (Best Picture, 2005)

CRASH exists in an uncomfortable position in the Best Picture lineup.  When it won Best Picture at the 78th Academy Awards, there was a massive uproar.  CRASH beat out the one most of us thought would win, BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN.  To be honest, I’d never heard of CRASH before Oscar nominations were released that year. Some think that CRASH benefited from anti-homosexual sentiments among the Academy voters.  On the other hand, Roger Ebert said that in his opinion, the best film won.  He predicted CRASH would win.

I’m on the side that still thinks BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN should have gotten the honor.  It was an astonishing, challenging movie filled with complicated performances, most notably, of course, Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal.  I don’t know how much anti-homosexual prejudice played a role in the Academy voting, and I am uncomfortable claiming or assuming anything since I have no way to prove or disprove the accusation.  I just think BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN was an extraordinary, once-a-decade film.

This is not to say that CRASH did not deserve to be nominated.  In a less controversial year, in fact, it might have been the general favorite.  It does all the things that are predictably favored by Academy voters – it shows America’s underbelly, the petty everyday racism and prejudice that most of us don’t even think about until forced to do so.  CRASH tries to force us to do so.  Nobody in the film ends up really happy or even permanently changed.  It’s pervaded with a cynicism that’s of a different flavor from that of CHICAGO.  CHICAGO grins through the cynicism, making it appear fun and glamorous to play the system for all you can get.  CRASH, on the other hand, is bitterly cynical.  Some of the characters may have a revelation at some point in the story, but we’re left believing that the feeling will pass much sooner than it should and everything will go back to the way it was to begin with.

I realize that the world portrayed by CRASH is very common.  That doesn’t mean I have to like this film.  And I don’t.  I prefer films that show how the world should or could be, something to inspire us to do better and treat each other better.  I think that’s one of the reasons I like the Star Trek franchise so much – it shows a more positive option for our future.  Relentlessly grim stories that show a world without hope for improvement are neither inspirational nor appealing to me, though I can see how others might see the image of the world as it is and say “this must change.”  Stick or carrot, I guess.  I prefer the carrot, the image of something for which to strive.

Next Up: The Departed (Best Picture, 2006) and No Country For Old Men (Best Picture, 2007)