to an Oscar? Triple nominee Clooney with Matt Damon (l-r)
of the ‘indies’
Laura Leon, Ann Morrow and Shawn Stone
budget favorites are mostly absent from this year’s Academy
Award nominees, as so-called serious films dominate—whether
or not that’s a good thing
ado has been made about the slate of independent films selected
as the year’s best. But this isn’t necessarily the good news
it once was; for one thing, the line between independent and
Hollywood features is blurrier than ever, considering the
tangled web of big-studio ownership (and distribution stewardship)
of smaller studios, along with the reality that a lesser budget
is not a guarantee of quality—a fact that is especially relevant
to this year’s crop of nominations.
of the Best Picture nominees don’t deserve a fraction of the
acclaim that they’ve been lavished with, namely, Munich,
Capote and, especially, Crash.
an interlocking structure that rips off Robert Altman’s Short
Cuts and a patently unbelievable plot, Crash deals
the race card to shameful effect, playing to white liberal
guilt even as it wallows in racial and gender stereotypes.
Yet because of its boilerplate platitudes regarding racial
tensions in the melting pot of Los Angeles, Crash is
being considered as the do-right, feel-good candidate—at least
among the insulated fat cats of the Academy. The disgrace
of this ill-deserved nomination is that Crash edged
out the vastly more relevant Syriana, which also has
an interlocking plot and great ensemble acting. One of the
many differences between the two films is that Syriana is
believable—and anyone who thinks it’s just a conspiracy-theory
thriller need only ponder the labyrinthine connections between
Bush America and Saudi Arabia. It’s also thought-provoking
rather than pandering, suspenseful instead of repetitive,
and peopled with interesting characters with purposeful motives.
It does not, however, provide any easy answers to its thorny
dilemmas, and in Los Angeles, the land of superhighways, oversized
vehicles and conspicuous gas consumption, America’s globally
destructive appetite for oil is a subject that isn’t as easily
avoided as the county’s ghettos and barrios.
by merit rather than topicality, however, Brokeback Mountain
is the year’s best picture. Directed by Ang Lee with sensitivity
and skill (two qualities noticeably lacking in Steven Spielberg’s
heavy-handed Munich), this moving and naturalistic
love story transcends even its evocative setting and way of
life to allow the characters to be themselves.
in this category mirror the Best Picture nominees, but 2006
is one of those odd years in which the winning director many
not have made the winning picture. George Clooney created
something powerful and elegiac in Good Night, and Good
Luck. The story of TV journalist Edward R. Murrow vs.
red-baiting Sen. Joseph McCarthy, shot in austere black &
white, resonates with today’s press issues. He won’t win.
Steven Spielberg went out on a personal and political limb
with his haunted, daring film about the hunt for the Palestinians
who killed Israel’s Olympians in Munich. He won’t win.
Capote’s Bennett Miller showcased terrific acting,
but unbalanced the story to the point of perversity—it seemed
as if the audience was intended to have more sympathy for
the serial killers than for journalist Truman Capote. Screenwriter
Paul Haggis helmed Crash with an impressively sure
hand. Too bad the film itself is ridiculous, The Big Chill
of American racism. Crash, however, may win best picture
if (as L.A. Weekly suggested) the aging Academy membership
gets the gay heebie-jeebies. Even if Crash edges out
Brokeback Mountain for the big one, Ang Lee is a shoo-in
for Best Director. His work may have been excruciatingly one-note,
but he told a moving story about gay cowboys that made a lot
of money (relative to the film’s small cost). Attention will
with a soul: Howard in Hustle & Flow.
Seymour Hoffman seems to have this one locked up for his work
as the title character in Capote. And why not? He’s
mesmerizing. Well, not so fast. Good Night, and Good Luck’s
David Strathairn, as the chain-smoking, perpetually tense
Edward R. Murrow, was equally uncanny in a better film. And
Joaquin Phoenix was so compelling as Johnny Cash in Walk
the Line that he charmed you away from noticing how awful
his singing was. Best of all was Terrence Howard as DJay,
the pimp-with-a-dream in Hustle & Flow. While the
film itself was deeply—and I do mean deeply—flawed, Howard
was utterly convincing as the character he has called an “emotionally,
morally deformed child.” Howard played a character that could
be philosophical, poetic, kind and stone cold: In a shattering
scene, DJay puts one of his “hoes” and her baby out on the
street, and Howard still doesn’t lose the audience. Howard
should win. Heath Ledger is Hoffman’s main competition, but
only if there’s a Brokeback sweep.
the Line’s (l-r) Witherspoon,
was one of the most paltry years for actress roles since,
well, the 1970s, this year’s race is a nail biter, albeit
a subdued one. Felicity Huffman, hot off a string of wins
at other awards shows, is a strong contender for her gender-twisting
(and then some) role as a transsexual candidate who discovers
he fathered a child decades before in Transamerica.
In her favor is the fact that most Academy voters did not
see the film until recently, when producer Harvey Weinstein
sent it out, and tradition has it that the performances that
are freshest in the minds of the voters tend to win Oscar
gold. Still, in this the year of Brokeback Mountain,
and with Heath Ledger a strong favorite for Best Actor and
Jake Gyllenhaal also a contender in the supporting category,
the Academy may not want to look too politically correct by
honoring yet another gay/lesbian/transsexual/what-have-you
performance. That gives the edge to Reese Witherspoon, who
proved her considerable and far-reaching mettle with her tough-as-nails
turn as June Carter Cash in Walk the Line. While this
reviewer believes that Witherspoon’s best work is yet to come,
her wins at the Golden Globes, etc., for this role, and the
likeability of it, will garner her the statuette. One would
like to have seen what might happen within this field had
Joan Allen been recognized for her outstanding work in The
Upside of Anger, but the Academy tends to ignore wife
and mother roles in favor of those requiring an actress to
gain weight, look ugly, or play afflicted (see the Best Supporting
Actress category). Rounding out the field are Keira Knightly,
a long shot whose work in Pride and Prejudice showed
just how ably this comely lass can switch from buccaneering
babe to classic chick lit; Charlize Theron, whose work in
North Country far outpaced her award-winning showboating
in Monster; and the perennially nominated Judi Dench,
who was as charming and funny as could be expected in the
overrated Mrs. Henderson Presents.
is usually a tough call, due to the abundance of meaty roles
for men in the male-dominated storytelling of Hollywood. Yet
this year it’s no contest, as George Clooney stands head and
shoulders (and paunch) above his rivals—Matt Dillon (Crash),
Paul Giamatti (Cinderella Man), Jake Gyllenhaal (Brokeback
Mountain) and William Hurt (A History of Violence)—for
his portrayal of a weary undercover operative who gets caught
in the quicksand of international malfeasance in Syriana.
As do most of his Syriana co-stars, Clooney subtly
brings out a wealth of information about his character with
limited screen-time and dialogue (credit also goes to director
Steven Gaghan for his incisive writing). As the operative
tries to juggle several hot potatoes at once, including placating
his superiors at the CIA, staying alive in the treacherous
underbelly of Middle East terrorism, and acting with integrity
in the face of widespread corruption, we get a sobering, even
saddening portrait of a man who can no longer stay ahead of
the game despite his ingenuity and experience.
get it out in the open: Frances McDormand does not deserve
to be nominated. It doesn’t matter that, in North Country,
she plays a miner bucking the odds against a male-dominated
industry and, later, Lou Gehrig’s disease. But then again,
Oscar does love it when performers let themselves get all
ugly and drool-faced for the camera—so there she is. Catherine
Keener demonstrated command and grace in the turgidly long
Capote, but it’s the kind of quiet role that needs
a less formidable field to win. Amy Adams shone in the indie
Junebug, and should the Academy wish to look like it
cares about smaller pictures, she might have a shot. However,
the real competition this year will be between the two actresses
who already have won a shelf full of awards between them,
Rachel Weisz and Michelle Williams. Weisz has come a long
way from her corseted Mummy days, and a win for her
might also be acknowledgement of the otherwise overlooked
Constant Gardener. Williams’ best shot, on the other
hand, is if Jake Gyllanhaal doesn’t take Best Supporting Actor.
While she does play the oft-overlooked wife and mother, bear
in mind that her particular cross to bear in Brokeback
Mountain is a gay hubby, and not regular old stress and
unhappiness. The prevailing thought is that Brokeback Mountain
has peaked too early, meaning that it might not sweep all
of its nominations. The odds are dead even, but my money will
be on Weisz.
evil twin categories mean different things for different nominees.
This can be where literate films not otherwise (or barely)
noted in other categories get their due, like Match Point
(Woody Allen), Syriana (Stephen Gaghan) and The
Squid and the Whale (Noah Baumbach) in the original category,
or The Constant Gardener (Jeffrey Caine) and A History
of Violence (Josh Olson) in the adapted category. Unfortunately,
these films rarely win. Look for Good Night, and Good Luck.
(George Clooney and Grant Heslov) to lose to Crash
(Paul Haggis and Bobby Moresco) for the original Oscar; Brokeback
Mountain (Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana) will beat Capote
(Dan Futterman) and Munich (Tony Kushner and Eric Roth)
for the adapted. If nothing else, these wins will typify the
Academy’s lack of imagination in this year of clever comedies
like the beautifully written The 40-Year-Old Virgin.
. . .
And the Rest
of the Penguins
Animated Feature category is stronger than usual, with Hayao
Miyazaki’s dark Howl’s Moving Castle, Tim Burton’s
buxotic (and blue) Corpse Bride and the delightful
Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit.
Each is charming in its own way, with Wallace & Gromit
likely to be found a bit more charming by the Academy. . .
. The idiosyncratic Best Documentary Feature committee excluded
a number of worthy films on the usual technicalities, and
ignored Werner Herzog’s brilliant Grizzly Man, but
still managed to nominate a strong lineup including Murderball,
Darwin’s Nightmare and Enron: The Smartest Guys
in the Room. Still, it’s those cuter-than-cute birds in
March of the Penguins who’ll win. . . . “In the Deep”
from Crash is fine; Dolly Parton’s “Travelin’ Thru”
from Transamerica is sweet; but Hustle & Flow’s
“It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” is a terrific song that actually
played an important part in the film. While the Academy membership
certainly contains its share of studio pimps, they’re not
giving any love to a street pimp. So Dolly will win for Best
Original Song. . . . In a final up-yours from the Academy
to onetime technical wunderkind George Lucas, Star Wars
Episode III: Revenge of the Sith earned just one nomination.
Best Makeup. That’s gotta sting.