The night before the Academy Awards, I dreamed Imelda Staunton was making the rounds of the Kodak Theater in Vera Drake drabs and hairnet, discreetly proffering wake-up cuppas to seniors slumbering in the aisles. My unconscious knows its business. With Chris Rock pitifully bound and gagged and two Grizzled Ones duking it out for the top honors, the Oscars have finally bloomed into what they were always meant to be — geezer night, plus frocks. I’m all for it, in principle. For years, the “death reel” has been my sentimental favorite, though the list of recently deceased was suspiciously short this year. But really — aside from the lovely tribute to Sidney Lumet, who would richly deserve his Lifetime Achievement Award if there were nothing but Dog Day Afternoon on his resumé, and the honorary award to Roger Mayer for propping up film preservation and the Hollywood aged — what was to like this year? After cleaning up the lion’s share of the big spoils, Clint Eastwood said, “The senior gals and guys are there, willing to do their best for you.” Glad to hear it, but their best wasn’t good enough for me this time around. Million Dollar Baby: a perfectly okay movie as ludicrously oversold as was last year’s Mystic River. Hilary Swank: fine, though hardly up to Kate Winslet’s vibrantly complex turn in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Morgan Freeman: should have gotten Best Supporting Actor for Unforgiven, but far from his best here in a hackneyed role as Eastwood’s black sidekick. As to The Aviator, aside from a couple of ooh-ah set pieces the movie is a shallow biopic, and even the estimable Cate Blanchett (easily the evening’s number-one looker in a no-frills yellow gown) wasn’t so much acting as overdoing an imitation of the late, great Kate. For my money, the best picture of the year hands down was The Incredibles, which earned a raucous cheer from the otherwise dispirited friends I was watching with when Brad Bird won Best Animated Feature, and again when the lovely Edna, fashion consultant to the Superfamily, showed up to give Pierce Brosnan grief. I’d have given Best Actor to Don Cheadle, but I was okay with Jamie Foxx (and his formative granny) for Ray, though I’d rather have seen him win Best Supporting Actor for Collateral, one of the two criminally overlooked pictures of the year. The other being Jonathan Demme’s clever, suave The Manchurian Candidate, and quelle scandale that Meryl Streep, who had the time of her life transposing Angela Lansbury into Hillary Clinton crossed with Condi Rice, wasn’t even nominated for Best Supporting Actress. Had they consulted me, she’d have won in a three-way tie with Laura Linney for Kinsey and the unsung, un-nominated Juliet Stephenson, who channeled volumes of wit through lightly raised eyebrows as Annette Bening’s assistant in the otherwise slight Being Julia. As to Chris Rock, how could the poor bastard help but fail, having been simultaneously pre-sold by the media as Mr. Controversy and pre-warned by the Academy to hold the expletives and the politics? Aside from Rock’s amusing trip to the Magic Johnson Theater — where Sideways is, shall we say, not a known quantity, let alone a hot ticket — there was little to laugh at but Robin Williams’s wicked (if severely truncated by that cowardly lion, ABC) riff on Spongebob Squarepants’ sexual preferences and the Botoxed bevies of Beverly Hills. Nor was there a single moment of danger, with the closest thing to dissent being Sean Penn wagging his finger at Rock for dissing Jude Law. One longed for a political wacko — the ghost of Brando perhaps, or Michael Moore, or Sean Penn for that matter — to liven up the proceedings. Even pomposity was in short supply, unless you count Mike Myers mischievously quoting André Bazin. In the department of Disruption and Bad Manners there wasn’t much going on either: A Best Short Film nominee was captured enjoying a quiet snooze, Javier Bardem (admittedly a glaring omission for Best Actor) didn’t show to cheer director Alejandro Amenabar when he won Best Foreign Film for The Sea Inside, and Born into Brothels’ Ross Kauffman found it necessary to publicly remind his co-director and former squeeze Zana Briski that he is today her partner only in filmmaking. In general, other than the tuneless ditty — written by Jorge Drexler, crooned by a hapless Antonio Banderas and smothered in hot licks by Carlos Santana — that won Best Original Song for The Motorcycle Diaries, there was as little to gripe about as there was to praise, always a bad sign. Still, there’s always the apparel. Aside from a few tastefully garbed lovelies like Bening and Kirsten Dunst in classic black and Oprah in gold lamé, the prevailing aesthetic seemed to be mermaid chic topped with humongous chandelier earrings. Poor Laura Linney arrived in hair so gooped it made her look like a freshly oiled sea lion. Some postmortem fashion mavens swooned over Hilary Swank’s dress, but to me it looked like a pneumatically enhanced Speedo with a fish tail (“I’m just a trailer park girl” being no excuse). Beyoncé’s eyelids sagged beneath the exponentially increasing lashings of glitter piled on between songs. Johnny Depp seemed to be going for a young Mark Twain look. Natalie Portman looked as if she’d been wrapped in restroom-brown tissue paper. But even Barbra Streisand, in a gown that made her look great with child, was the very essence of glamour compared to some of the getups at Saturday’s equally downbeat Spirit Awards (Chris Rock would have been better placed there than Sam Jackson, a fine actor and cool dresser but no MC), where, in keeping with Sideways’ sweep of the awards, a casual dress code got completely out of hand. Presenter Marisa Tomei came close to worst-dressed in a dress clearly inspired by a vegetable garden in late autumn. But Maria Bello took the cake in a peasant number that looked as though it had been designed by Leo Tolstoy while suffering an aggravated attack of serf envy. Good swag, though.