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Fine films but off Oscar's radar

/*The argument against awarding Oscars to supposedly frivolous entertainment is that it would crowd out spots for films of vaunted social-cultural importance.

It is a compelling line of debate: In these days of hyper-commercialism and caution, it takes guts to back movies like the elegant, moving Atonement, the terrifying No Country for Old Men, the sharp, iconoclastic Michael Clayton and even the bombastic There Will Be Blood.

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Still, when wide audiences embrace movies that seem slight, they often have deep reasons for it. I think Juno chokes on its own self-adoring cleverness, but my e-mails suggest that it answers the hunger of teenagers and their mothers for an adolescent female who is responsible and hip.

Juno is up for four awards, including best picture, but I can think of several others that could have been honored not just for pleasing crowds, but also for resonating with them.

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The Bourne Ultimatum --You'd think U.S. audiences would tune in or line up for movies and TV shows about the CIA, yet the only "agency" films pulling them in on the big or little screen are the Bourne series of adventures about the human killing machine who rediscovers his humanity after a bout of amnesia.

TV's 24 has been feeding the anti-terrorist vengeance fantasies of liberals and conservatives alike. The Bourne films have been questioning in the most tumultuous and visceral ways the brutalization of a country that resorts to fighting evil with amoral means.

Except for No Country for Old Men, no American film of the past year can match The Bourne Ultimatum for pure filmmaking. Paul Greengrass is the reigning master of the jittery, hyper-realistic style, and there should be a way of honoring a performer like Matt Damon, who manages to act, simultaneously, as a movie artist and a martial artist.

The Simpsons Movie --Although The Simpsons TV show has won renown for its brilliant references to movies - and literature, theater and song - it hasn't gotten credit for its influence on contemporary moviemaking. The Simpsons explored the humor and sadness of dysfunctional families years before they became mainstays at the Sundance Film Festival. (The glut of such films probably affected the critical and popular reaction to The Savages, one of the best of them.)

Happily, The Simpsons Movie treats domestic disarray with a new generosity. It celebrates the messy warmth of a slob like Homer Simpson and the heroic strength of his devout, disciplined neighbor, Ned Flanders, all the while tying their fates to pressing issues such as ecological disaster - and the government's inept response to it.

As graphic or dramatic art, it isn't in the same class as Ratatouille - the cartoon feature that for my money is the best film of 2007 - but when it comes to biting yet cozy household dramedy, The Simpsons Movie is just about peerless.

Hairspray --Astonishingly some quarters condescended to the film version of the Broadway musical Hairspray for somehow being way too "pop."

Yet from its first incarnation as a John Waters instant classic, Hairspray has viewed civil rights and rock as the key ingredients of the American teenage revolution that turned popular culture into youth culture. Waters considered it his "dance movie"; his blend of gleeful crudity and glitz with forward-thinking kept it from becoming his message dance movie.

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Director-choreographer Adam Shankman follows suit. In its own exuberantly (and ingeniously) hyperactive way, Shankman's Hairspray leaves people feeling good at heart at least in part because its pop connections either trigger dynamic memories or broaden and even blow their minds.

3:10 to Yuma --Not counting No Country for Old Men, the Academy-approved Western was The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, which won a best supporting actor nomination for Casey Affleck (who should have won a best acting nod for Gone Baby Gone).

But the traditional Western that satisfied audiences with a compelling narrative and contemporary resonance was James Mangold's remake (and expansion) of the well-liked 1957 oater, 3:10 to Yuma, with Russell Crowe as a stagecoach bandit and Christian Bale as the beleaguered rancher who, for a $200 payday, takes the job of getting Crowe on the train to Yuma prison.

How contemporary can a 19th-century story get? In this film's first shocking act of violence, the lien-holder on Bale's spread orders his thugs to set fire to Bale's barn; a drought has laid waste to the rancher's land, and the railroad will buy it for a profit. The movie grows to encompass ill-paid Chinese rail workers, individual grudges among would-be lawmen and the dubious power of torture.

And as Crowe's right-hand thug, Ben Foster becomes a creature of pure flamboyant will, comparable to Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men. The original 3:10 to Yuma was a humble marvel about individual honor. This one suits a time when sparks fly on either side of law and disorder.

michael.sragow@baltsun.com


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