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Elevator to an Oscar? Triple nominee Clooney with Matt Damon (l-r) in Syriana.

march of the ‘indies’
By Laura Leon, Ann Morrow and Shawn Stone

Big 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

Much 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.



Capote’s Keener

Best Picture

Three 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.

With 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.

Judging 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.



Best Director

The films 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 be paid.



Pimp with a soul: Howard in Hustle & Flow.

Best Actor

Philip 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.



Walk the Line’s (l-r) Witherspoon, Phoenix

Best Actress

In what 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.


Best Supporting Actor

This 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.


Best Supporting Actress

Let’s 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.


Best Original Screenplay

Best Adapted Screenplay

These 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


March of the Penguins

The Best 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.




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