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Thursday, April 14, 2005 04:34 am

flicks 4-14-05

Why do so many actors become directors, and why has this resulted in a conspiracy against Martin Scorsese? His recent Academy Award loss to Clint Eastwood marks the third time he has lost the Best Director award to an actor. Previously Robert Redford and Kevin Costner snatched the award Scorsese deserved. Is Million Dollar Baby really the best movie of 2004? Yes, it’s a good drama, but “best” seems a bit of an exaggeration. I don’t even consider it the best 2004 film directed by an actor, and I’m not referring to Mel Gibson’s blockbuster The Passion of the Christ, either.

No, the winner here is Garden State, an absolute gem of a comedy that never falters in cleverness and creativity. Zach Braff, star of TV’s Scrubs, took on triple duty as star, writer, and director, and his feature debut as a filmmaker is an absolute triumph. Unlike other actors-turned-directors, Braff demonstrates a unique vision. Even the most successful — particularly Ron Howard and Rob Reiner — never transcend the level of excellent, but standard, storytelling. Braff stars as a troubled young man who returns home to his estranged family for his mother’s funeral. He immediately sets the tone by skewering the somber graveside service with a woman delivering the loopiest rendition of “Three Times a Lady” since Eddie Murphy as Buckwheat massacred it on Saturday Night Live. Natalie Portman gives excellent support as his eccentric love interest.

Did anyone really enjoy sitting through The Passion of the Christ? If Mel Gibson’s purpose was to force the audience to experience Christ’s pain, he succeeded. Controversy is the only reasonable explanation for the success of this repetitive and melodramatic bombast. Clarity is often sacrificed to hammer home an agenda. I suppose it might have helped to read the book.

Gibson has now directed two period epics, but neither can compare with Warren Beatty’s astonishing classic Reds (1981). Beatty’s grand biography of the Communist journalist John Reed puts him in a class by himself among actor/directors. Don’t worry — I’m not including Buster Keaton, Charles Chaplin, Orson Welles, Jacques Tati, and Woody Allen in that group, because their status as directors far overshadows their abilities as actors. Reds is quite an accomplishment for someone who rarely directs, and it is unfortunate that this masterpiece’s reputation seems to have faded with time. Rent it to see why Beatty deservedly won the Best Director Academy Award — the only time it was correctly bestowed on an actor.

DVDs scheduled for release Tuesday (April 19): Birth, A Love Song for Bobby Long, House of Flying Daggers, and Primer.

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