The Golden Season: Oscar Preview 2006

| February 17, 2006 | 0 Comments

It pains me to do this, but I have to get something off my chest, a secret I’ve been living with for years. Call it a confession, if you must, but here it is: I love the Academy Awards. I mean, I really love them. And no, I don’t just mean the annual ceremony. I love the entire Oscar season, which, as any true fan will tell you, begins around September 1st every year and doesn’t end until that last and most coveted statuette is handed out several months later. I can’t help it, I love every shameless, predictable minute of this annual three-ring circus, from pre-season prognosticating to post-show analysis. Following studio campaigns, predicting nominees and winners, debating the merit of this film or that–it’s my bread and butter! I even love Oscar history: I can name over half of the Best Picture winners, the years they won, and the films they were up against. It is a sickness, I know, but one in which I have no desire to be cured. For me, the Academy Awards are like March Madness, the Kentucky Derby, and a presidential race rolled into one! What’s not to love about that?
Well, this harmless obsession I have wouldn’t really be a problem if it didn’t conflict entirely with my love of cinema as a progressive art form. Let’s face it, though: the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has done more to stifle the artistic development of the medium than any organization out there. It rewards the safe, the ordinary, the non-challenging, while often ignoring the most innovative or provocative work being produced. Its historic tendency to celebrate films that extol racism, sexism, or staunch conservatism has gradually been replaced by a preference for extreme political-correctness. And winning an Academy Award is ultimately as much about politics and money as it is about artistic merit. Thus, at their best, the Oscars are silly and fairly pointless; at their worst, they contribute to the overall decline and degradation of the film industry.
So how do I reconcile my love of All Things Oscars with my love of Cinema-With-A-Capitol-C? I guess I don’t, really. Despite their inherent connection, I essentially see the two as separate interests. I have a passion for film that transcends mere entertainment value. I want to be moved, inspired, provoked or challenged by what I see. On the other hand, the Oscars are just entertainment: they’re a way to pass time, something silly and fun to get excited about, but nothing to put much stock in. They are, in other words, a guilty pleasure. Considering how I feel about what they truly represent, I suppose I should call them a very guilty pleasure.
Besides, one of the most enjoyable things about the Oscars is getting all worked up about the decisions the Academy makes every year. As a friend of mine astutely pointed out, sometimes it’s as much fun rooting against a film as it is rooting for one. Given my recent campaigns against contenders like The Hours and Seabiscuit, I certainly have to agree with him. And ‘s hard to deny the tinge of satisfaction felt when a movie that one truly adores actually gets some recognition. Last year’s win for Million Dollar Baby, for example, proves that occasionally they do get it right. Anyway, regardless of the quality of the films the Academy actually selects, the Oscars remain a great conversation starter, a good way to get people talking about and debating film.
This brings me, finally, to this year’s awards. The nominations were announced a couple of weeks ago, and they offered few surprises for anyone who has been paying attention this season. Brokeback Mountain led the pack with eight nominations, cementing its long-running status as the front-runner for the Big Prize. As expected, Crash and Good Night, and Good Luck also scored a healthy number of nods, as did (ugh!) Memoirs of a Geisha, though only in technical categories. The acting nominations were equally predictable: don’t let anyone tell you that Terrence Howard’s Best Actor nod was a big surprise, or that Russell Crowe’s exclusion in that same category was a shocking snub. For the most part, this was one year in which Oscar precursors like the Golden Globes and the Guild Awards pretty much laid the course for the Academy’s selections.
Still, as in every year, there were a few curveballs thrown into the mix. Who could have guessed, for example, that William Hurt would pick up a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his ten minutes of screen time in A History of Violence? Or that the last Star Wars installment would somehow fail to grab a Visual Effects nod? By my estimation, the biggest surprise was probably that, for the first time in twenty-five years, the Best Picture and Best Director categories lined up perfectly. I thought for sure that Capote’s Bennett Miller would get pushed out of the Director race by Woody Allen or David Cronenberg or Fernando Meirelles, but no. And in the category of pleasant surprises, I’m glad to see that all the bafflingly negative buzz surrounding Munich didn’t prevent it from picking up nominations for Picture, Director, and Screenplay. Of course, it doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of actually winning any of those awards, but at least it didn’t lose its spot to Walk the Line or something.
Anyway, as predictable as the nominations are, they’re also remarkably solid. I mean, I can’t think of the last time the Best Picture line-up was this good; I could make a case for every one of these films, even Capote. You could, of course, argue that they missed the ball by not including (insert film or artist of your choice here) in some category, but there are very few major stinkers competing this year–though I think I did mention that Memoirs of a Geisha is up for six awards. For a full list of nominations, scroll down to the bottom of this page.
In the three weeks leading up to the Big Show on March 5th, I’m going to dissect the major eight categories, offering my thoughts and predictions on who I think will win and who I think actually deserves to win. In the meantime, I encourage you, the reader, to do the same, because what are the Oscars good for but an excuse to rant and rave about film? Were you surprised by the nominations? Who do you think will win the big awards? Who should win? Who was overlooked? Post your thoughts and comments on the matter. Get angry and get excited… I know I’m going to!
A lot can happen in three weeks. Or nothing at all. It’s time to wait and see.
NOMINATIONS FOR THE 78th ANNUAL ACADEMY AWARDS:
Best Picture
Brokeback Mountain
Capote
Crash
Good Night, and Good Luck
Munich
Best Actor
Philip Seymour Hoffman, Capote
Terrence Howard, Hustle & Flow
Heath Ledger, Brokeback Mountain
Joaquin Phoenix, Walk the Line
David Strathairn, Good Night, and Good Luck
Best Actress
Judi Dench, Mrs. Henderson Presents
Felicity Huffman, Transamerica
Keira Knightley, Pride & Prejudice
Charlize Theron, North Country
Reese Witherspoon, Walk the Line
Best Supporting Actor
George Clooney, Syriana
Matt Dillon, Crash
Paul Giamatti, Cinderella Man
Jake Gyllenhaal, Brokeback Mountain
William Hurt, A History of Violence
Best Supporting Actress
Amy Adams, Junebug
Catherine Keener, Capote
Frances McDormand, North Country
Rachel Weisz, The Constant Gardener
Michelle Williams, Brokeback Mountain
Best Director
George Clooney, Good Night, and Good Luck
Paul Haggis, Crash
Ang Lee, Brokeback Mountain
Bennett Miller, Capote
Steven Spielberg, Munich
Best Adapted Screenplay
Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana, Brokeback Mountain
Dan Futterman, Capote
Jeffrey Caine, The Constant Gardener
Josh Olson, A History of Violence
Tony Kushner and Eric Roth, Munich
Best Original Screenplay
Paul Haggis and Bobby Moresco, Crash
George Clooney and Grant Heslov, Good Night, and Good Luck
Woody Allen, Match Point
Noah Baumbach, The Squid and the Whale
Stephen Gaghan, Syriana
Animated Feature
Howl’s Moving Castle
Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride
Wallace & Gromit in the Curse of the Were-Rabbit
Art Direction
Good Night, and Good Luck
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
King Kong
Memoirs of a Geisha
Pride & Prejudice
Cinematography
Batman Begins
Brokeback Mountain
Good Night, and Good Luck
Memoirs of a Geisha
The New World
Costumes
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
Memoirs of a Geisha
Mrs. Henderson Presents
Pride & Prejudice
Walk the Line
Documentary Feature
Darwin’s Nightmare
Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room
March of the Penguins
Murderball
Street Fight
Documentary Short Subject
The Death of Kevin Carter: Casualty of the Bang Bang Club
God Sleeps in Rwanda
The Mushroom Club
A Note of Triumph: The Golden Age of Norman Corwin
Film Editing
Cinderella Man
The Constant Gardener
Crash
Munich
Walk the Line
Foreign Language Film
Don’t Tell (Italy)
Joyeux Noël (France)
Paradise Now (Palestinian Authority)
Sophie Scholl — The Final Days (Germany)
Tsotsi (South Africa)
Make-Up
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
Cinderella Man
Star Wars: Episode III–Revenge of the Sith
Original Score
Gustavo Santaolalla, Brokeback Mountain
Alberto Iglesias, The Constant Gardener
John Williams, Memoirs of a Geisha
John Williams, Munich
Dario Marianelli, Pride & Prejudice
Original Song
”In the Deep,” from Crash
”It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp,” from Hustle & Flow
”Travelin’ Thru,” from Transamerica
Short Film (Animated)
Badgered
The Moon and the Son: An Imagined Conversation
The Mysterious Geographic Explorations of Jasper Morello
9
One Man Band
Short Film (Live Action)
Ausreisser (The Runaway)
Cashback
The Last Farm
Our Time Is Up
Six Shooter
Sound Editing
King Kong
Memoirs of a Geisha
War of the Worlds
Sound Mixing
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
King Kong
Memoirs of a Geisha
Walk the Line
War of the Worlds
Visual Effects
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
King Kong
War of the Worlds
The Golden Season: Best Original and Adapted Screenplay
With the possible exception of Best Picture, no Oscar categories get me more worked up, year after year, than Original and Adapted Screenplay. I can brush off wins or losses in the other categories, but I always end up either quite pleased or quite miffed by the writing awards. I’m sure this has a lot to do with the fact that I am a writer, but I think it’s definitely more than that. My favorite films every year tend to be dialogue and character based rather than visual spectacles, so they often end up competing in the screenplay categories. In recent years, movies such as Ghost World, Adaptation, Y Tu Mama Tambien, American Splendor, and In America have been left out of the Best Picture race, but still managed to pick up screenplay nods. I’m always happy to see them up for something, but this can prove to be quite the set-up for a disappointment; all those films listed above, for example, lost the award.
And as someone who has participated in Oscar pools for the last eight years, I know all to well what sports fans mean when they talk about “betting with your heart, and not your head.” In 2002, I put my money on Memento to win Best Original Screenplay, even though I knew, deep down, that the Academy would give it to Godsford Park. Every once and a while, though, the best script (or your favorite, anyway) happens to also be the front-runner. Last year, for instance, I was able to comfortably bet on Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, playing with both my heart and my head.
Alas, the same cannot be said of either of the writing awards this year. My favorites in both Original and Adapted are certainly long shots. As in several of the major categories, these ones are most likely going to come down to Brokeback Mountain and Crash.
Original Screenplay
Nominees: Crash, Paul Haggis, Bobby Moresco; Good Night, and Good Luck, George Clooney, Grant Heslow; Match Point, Woody Allen; The Squid and the Whale, Noah Baumbach; Syriana, Stephen Gaghan
With Match Point, Woody Allen has now been nominated for a screenplay Oscar fourteen times; he remains the all-time record holder in this category. That nice little statistic having been shared, don’t think it means he has a ghost of a chance this year. As is the case most of the time (though not quite all of the time), the two favorites in contention here are both Best Picture nominees. Crash was the front-runner to win this award long before anyone was even suggesting that it could be nominated in any other major categories. It’s certainly got a lot going for it here: it’s dialogue-heavy, it’s “important,” it’s packed to the brim with Big Moments, and it’s written by the guy who penned Million Dollar Baby, which he didn’t win for last year (which means he’s “due”). Considering that Crash probably isn’t going to pull off that Best Picture steal everyone keeps warning us about, this would be the place to honor it. The only film that really has a shot at toppling it is Good Night, and Good Luck. If voters decide that it was Clooney’s year more than it was Haggis’s, it could slip in for the win. But don’t count on it: the sharp, sophisticated discourse of Good Night is no match for the sharp, verbal fireworks in every single scene of Crash. Besides, Clooney will get his due in the Supporting Actor race.
After two viewings, I would have stood by Haggis to take this one home. Having seen his film a third time, though, I’m beginning to recognize what its detractors see (or, rather, don’t see) in it, though I still say they protest a bit too much. Really, this is a fairly strong group of nominees; though I have little affection for either Match Point or Syriana, I understand and do not contest their inclusion. I could get behind a win for Good Night, and Good Luck, but the real gem here is The Squid and the Whale. It’s the most intimate of the five films, the most moving, the most sincere. And despite all the nasty slurs and insults that are thrown about in Crash, Baumbach’s script certainly cuts the deepest. I’d give him the Oscar for just one of Jeff Daniel’s painful but funny tirades.
Will Win: Crash
Should Win: The Squid and the Whale
Best Adapted Screenplay
Nominees: Brokeback Mountain, Larry McMurtry, Diana Ossana; Capote, Dan Futterman; The Constant Gardener, Jeffrey Caine; A History of Violence, Josh Olson; Munich, Tony Kushner, Eric Roth
A famous writer struggling to complete his most acclaimed novel while dealing with issues of journalistic integrity and moral responsibility? Sounds like a winner to me. And in a different year, Capote might have been the horse to bet on. Too bad it has to compete with the unstoppable juggernaut that is Brokeback Mountain. McMurtry and Ossana have already picked up the Golden Globe and the Writer’s Guild award for their adaptation of the Annie Proulx short story; their win here seems as imminent as Ang Lee’s. Had Steven Spielberg and DreamWorks not botched Munich’s award campaign with a misguided release strategy, the film might have been a viable spoiler in this race. Instead, it joins A History of Violence as a just-happy-to-be-nominated also-ran. Even if voters are feeling especially ” “political” when it comes time to send those ballots out, they are much more likely to lend their support to the faux-humanism of The Constant Gardener than to the unsettling moral ambiguity of Munich.
No, this is definitely Brokeback’s award to lose. But while it’s hard to find fault in its script, which gracefully spans several decades without losing any momentum, I still say it isn’t quite as strong as Munich’s. Kushner, who had never before written a theatrical feature, deftly balances complex narrative plot turns with intense human drama. The dialogue is strong, the plotting is impeccable, and the characters are richly drawn. But the film is also seriously, undeniably bleak, which can be a real Oscar turn-off; Brokeback looks downright uplifting by comparison. Kushner should consider the nomination a vote of confidence; he’ll be back here soon.
Will Win: Brokeback Mountain
Should Win: Munich
The Golden Season: Best Supporting Actor and Actress
What exactly constitutes a supporting performance? That’s one question I usually find myself asking after the Academy Award nominations are announced each year. The criteria seems to change constantly, and I’m willing to bet that a number of would-be contenders have missed prospective nominations because voters were confused about which category they actually belonged in. Such uncertainty may have killed Maria Bello’s Oscar chances this year, given that her strong performance in A History of Violence probably got votes for both Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress. Sorry Maria, but thanks for playing. You can take a seat next to Scarlett Johansson, who once again didn’t quite make the Academy’s shortlist.
Still, though, what does constitute a supporting performance? Is it length of time on screen? Anthony Hopkins appears for only sixteen minutes in Silence of the Lambs, yet he won Best Actor for his portrayal of Hannibal Lector in the film. Conversely, Billy Bob Thornton may actually have more screen time in A Simple Plan than “lead performer” Bill Paxton, yet he received a Supporting Actor nomination for his efforts.
So maybe it has more to do with the nature of the role: supporting actors play characters whose story arcs are secondary to those of the main protagonist. But is there anyone out there who would really consider Jake Gyllenhal’s character in Brokeback Mountain secondary to Heath Ledger’s? If so, would those same people dispute Reese Witherspoon being up for Best Actress, despite the fact that she is “merely” Joaquin Phoenix’s love interest in Walk the Line?
And what about ensemble films? Are we to assume that every actor in one of those is delivering a supporting performance rather than a lead one? Given the nominations for George Clooney and Matt Dillon (who are up for their “supporting” work in ensemble dramas Syriana and Crash, respectively), that would seem to be the Academy’s philosophy on the matter. It’s all so confusing!
Regardless of the shaky rules that govern them, Supporting Actor and Actress are, historically speaking, the most unpredictable of the major categories. Will we see a James Coburn or Anna Paquin or Marisa Tomei-style upset this year? God, I hope so. Otherwise, this is going to be one boring telecast.
Supporting Actor
Nominees: George Clooney, Syriana; Matt Dillon, Crash; Paul Giamatti, Cinderella Man; Jake Gyllenhaal, Brokeback Mountain; William Hurt, A History of Violence
Back in June of last year, I prematurely announced that Paul Giamatti would win Best Supporting Actor for his funny, fierce, and scene-stealing performance in Cinderella Man. Eight months later, he’s one of three actors with a serious shot at taking home the award. Some would argue that this is actually a four-man race, but the chance of Gyllenhaal riding a wave of Brokeback support to a victory here is pretty slim. And with all due respect to William Hurt (who’s occupying the same hey, why-not? spot as Alan Alda was last year), this contest will surely come down to Paul, George, or Matt.
It’s hard to imagine anyone passionately loving Clooney’s adequate but entirely forgettable performance as a CIA operative in Syriana. Then again, he’s got a Golden Globe that suggests otherwise; maybe it’s all the suffering he endured (onscreen and off) that awards voters are reacting so strongly to. Giamatti, whose contribution to Cinderella Man is the very epitome of strong support, picked up the SAG award a few weeks ago. If only the acting branch of the Academy were voting, he’d probably be a lock for the win, especially considering that his highly acclaimed performance in Sideways failed to make the Best Actor cut last year. But with all branches of the Academy voting, this could go either way. Or, as some have suggested, Matt Dillon’s intense portrayal of a racist cop could be the underdog that beats them both. He hasn’t received the accolades that Clooney or Giamatti have, but, to put it mildly, Crash has more supporters than Syriana and Cinderella Man combined. Will that be enough for him to win, though?
In the most competitive of the major categories, I reluctantly give the edge to Clooney. The Academy loves to use its awards to celebrate an artist’s numerous accomplishments; by giving him this, they could indirectly honor him for his work on Good Night, and Good Luck. This is one instance, though, in which I’d love to be proven wrong.
Will Win: George Clooney
Should Win: Paul Giamatti
Best Supporting Actress
Nominees: Amy Adams, Junebug; Catherine Keener, Capote; Frances McDormand, North Country; Rachel Weisz, The Constant Gardener; Michelle Williams, Brokeback Mountain
Had you asked an entertainment journalist in September who would win this year’s Best Supporting Actress award, he or she probably would have said either Diane Keaton or Shirley McLaine. My, what a Battle of Hollywood Royalty that would have made for! Too bad neither of their films had actually opened in September; tepid responses to both In Her Shoes and The Family Stone wiped out their chances. Ditto for Uma Thurman, whose hype surrounding her performance in The Producers couldn’t survive the first screenings of the movie. So, unlike the very tight Supporting Actor race, this one is pretty much locked down. Rachel Weisz, whose performance in The Constant Gardener has already won the Globe, the SAG, and a whole slew of critics’ awards, appears to be running unopposed. A month ago, when Brokeback Fever was in full swing, Michelle Williams emerged as the dominant front-runner. However, like fellow nominee and husband Heath Ledger, she peaked too early. And the other nominees? They could all safely stay home on Oscar night.
It’s no shocker, of course, that voters prefer Weisz to the competition: her turn as The Great White Martyr is as brazen and showy as the other performances are modest and understated. In this group of talented but underused actresses, Amy Adams takes the cake for her absolutely wonderful work in the phenomenal Junebug. Her performance is charming, hilarious, and moving; it’s also the catalyst for the film’s devastating third act. Adams is one of many first-time nominees competing this year. She won’t win, but I have a feeling we’ll being seeing a lot more of her real soon.
Will Win: Rachel Weisz
Should Win: Amy Adams
Four categories down, four to go. Stay tuned for coverage of the Best Actor and Actress awards.
The Golden Season: Best Actor and Actress
By now, it should be clear that I am a shameless, unrepentant awards season junkie. I live for the meaningless thrill of a good Oscar race, and enjoy all the hype and hoopla of this annual spectacle. That having been said, even I have to admit that the media’s coverage of the Academy Awards (and its precursors) has gotten severely out of hand in recent years. These days, entertainment journalists spend a whopping five months or so talking Oscar; predicting who will get nominated and who will win has become a yearlong obsession for some, and every Tom, Dick, and Harry is throwing his two cents into the ring. Ed Gonzalez of Slant Magazine hit it on the nose in a recent piece regarding the sport of award season prognosticating: “the mere concept of credibility in the world of film journalism has shifted to Oscar batting averages, and film appreciation has become synonymous with poring over columns of statistics.” You said it, Ed. By the way,
I’m aware of the enormous irony of criticizing this trend within an Oscar column, so don’t bother pointing it out to me.
Here again my internal conflict–the struggle between my artistic tastes/standards and my giddy enjoyment of the silliness that is the Academy Awards–rears its ugly head. For as harmless as it seems, this annual media blitz actually affects the Academy’s selections. Like the tail wagging the dog, journalists’ Oscar predictions narrow the field of play, killing the chances of some contenders and solidifying the inevitable victory of others. Couple this with the sheer number of critic awards (some of which are handed out as early as November), and it’s no wonder the Oscars have become such a predictable affair. And here I am contributing to this madness!
Of all the major categories, Best Actor and Actress are the biggest causalities of ubiquitous awards season coverage. You call a nominee a “sure thing” or a “front runner” for long enough, and the possibility of anyone but that individual winning becomes nil. I can’t remember the last time I was even remotely surprised by the Academy’s lead actor selections. No, wait, yes I can: it was 2003, when Adrien Brody won Best Actor over Jack Nicholson and Daniel Day Lewis. But that happened because there were actually two frontrunners; they split the vote, and Brody capitalized. In most years, a single person is locked in for the win by late January. That’s certainly the case this year, so predicting these categories is an exercise in stating the obvious. But that never stopped me before, so why should it now?
BEST ACTOR
Nominees: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Capote; Terrence Howard, Hustle & Flow; Heath Ledger, Brokeback Mountain; Joaquin Phoenix, Walk the Line; David Strathairn, Good Night, and Good Luck
In December, before the nominations were announced and the other big award shows had aired, this was the closest and most compelling of the major Oscar races. Buzz was strong for no less than three candidates, all of whom had their ardent supporters. Would the Academy honor Philip Seymour Hoffman’s sharp, nuanced take on Truman Capote? Would they go for Joaquin Phoenix’s passionate turn as country-music legend Johnny Cash? Or would they fall for Heath Ledger’s anguished performance as Enid Del Mar, a Wyoming ranch hand struggling with his own emotions and desires? In the midst of all the Brokeback adoration, Ledger seemed to have the edge, but Hoffman and Phoenix were right there with him. It was going to be one hell of a fight!
Two months and many award shows later, there’s no drama or excitement left in this category. Over fifteen of the major critic groups (including Los Angeles, Chicago, and the National Board of Review) have given Hoffman Best Actor honors; he’s also taken home the Golden Globe and the SAG award. He seems unbeatable at this point, especially considering that support for his closest competitors has waned quite a bit these last few weeks. Ledger would have been more formidable had he campaigned a little harder, whereas Phoenix’s chances pretty much died when Walk the Line missed out on a Best Picture nomination. I’m almost inclined to believe that if anyone has a shot at toppling Hoffman, it’s Terrence Howard. He showed the Academy that he really wanted that nomination, and he’s still fighting as if he has a shot of winning. He doesn’t, really, but his enthusiasm will not go unnoticed by voters.
So who actually deserves to win here? All five of the men nominated gave pretty strong performances, though I could easily name a few others (Damian Lewis for Keane or Ayad Akhtar for The War Within, for instance) whose unsung work I’d rather see honored. Still, among this bunch, Hoffman and Howard deserve special credit for carrying the otherwise unremarkable pictures that they were in. What power and interest Capote and Hustle and Flow hold, they owe almost entirely to their lead actors. It’s a tough call, but I ultimately have to go with Hoffman. He nails Capote’s speech and mannerisms, while subtly suggesting the insecurity and uncertainty lying beneath his meticulously constructed public persona. It’s a great performance in a pretty average film. AMPAS, you have my support on this one.
Will and Should Win: Philip Seymour Hoffman
BEST ACTRESS
Nominees: Judi Dench, Mrs. Henderson Presents; Felicity Huffman, Transamerica; Keira Knightley, Pride & Prejudice; Charlize Theron, North Country; Reese Witherspoon, Walk the Line
I’m ashamed to admit this, but I have actually caught only three of the nominated performances in this category; somehow I never got around to seeing Felicity Huffman play a man in the process of becoming a woman or Dame Judi Dench play, well, herself. But with all due respect to the women competing this year, you wouldn’t have to have seen any of these films to know that Reese Witherspoon’s victory here is a foregone conclusion. Like Hoffman, she’s been racking up awards since her film opened, including the requisite Globe and SAG wins. Nearly everyone who has seen Walk the Line (film critic or otherwise) is absolutely smitten with her portrayal of June Carter, and the Academy has a long history of confusing charm and charisma with great acting. Award-magnet Huffman will certainly get some votes from anyone looking to honor a more serious performance, but for now she’ll probably have to settle with just being an Emmy and Golden Globe winner. Meanwhile, Witherspoon will be the latest young woman to be christened an Oscar Starlet for an enjoyable but decidedly limited performance, following in the footsteps of 1998 winner Gwyneth Paltrow.
Given my narrow perspective on this race, it’s difficult for me to say who actually deserves to win–though I have a sinking suspicion that Dench wouldn’t be my first choice even if I had seen the film. But if I were voting, I’d check off Charlize Theron’s name in a heartbeat. Her performance in North Country isn’t as great a revelation as the one she delivered in Monster, but it’s strong and memorable enough to prove that her Oscar-winning turn as Aileen Wuornos was less about the make-up and more about the woman underneath it. It’s sturdy, emotionally resonant work, and much more worthy of praise than the charming but less-than-remarkable performances delivered by Witherspoon and Knightley. But when it comes to Oscar love, sometimes all it really takes is looking good in a dress and being able to carry a tune.
Will Win: Reese Witherspoon
Should Win: Charlize Theron
Oscar night is just a few days away. Stick with me as I discuss and predict the final two categories, Best Director and Best Picture.
The Golden Season: Best Director
I think it would be appropriate, at this stage of the game, to play a little Oscar 101, just for anyone who’s still confused about the rules that govern the nomination process. When it comes to selecting the films and artists in competition, each category is filled in by its corresponding branch of the Academy. In other words, costume designers pick the Costume Design nominees, screenwriters pick the Screenwriting nominees, and so forth. On the other hand, every member of the Academy has a say in the films that will be competing for Best Picture, regardless of what particular branch they belong to.
This is an important distinction to recognize, because it helps account for the discrepancy that often exists between the Best Picture and Best Director nominees. Conventional wisdom might lead one to believe that the two categories would or should be identical–after all, doesn’t it make sense for the directors of the year’s best films to also be nominated? But pretty much every year, there’s at least one odd-man-out, some schmuck who couldn’t quite land a Best Director nod, despite the fact that his baby is competing over in the Best Picture category. Too bad for him, but it means that somebody else is going to grab that nomination, effectively becoming the odd-man-in. This is the annual Wild Card slot in the Best Director race, a position that has been occupied, in recent years, by the likes of Pedro Almodóvar, Spike Jonze, and Fernando Meirelles. In 2001, there were actually two of these guys competing, as both David Lynch and Ridley Scott picked up nominations despite the fact that their films (Mulholland Drive and
Black Hawk Down, respectively) weren’t up for Best Picture.
Besides providing a nice little surprise on the day the nominations are announced (did anyone out there predict that Mike Leigh would nab that fifth slot last year?), this annual tradition illuminates the good taste and adventurousness of the director’s branch of the Academy. And since history shows that only one film has ever won Best Picture without an accompanying Best Director nomination (the awful, racist Driving Miss. Daisy, for those of you keeping track at home), the Wild Card nod also helps steer the entire Academy away from making disastrously bad choices–I think ‘thank yous’ are in order for those voters who killed the Oscar chances of Finding Neverland and Chocolat by not nominating their respective directors. That having been said, no one has ever won Best Director when his film wasn’t up for Best Picture. That pretty much relegates the Wild Card nominees to last place. Still, it’s an honor just to be nominated, right guys?
This year, for the first time since 1981, there is no Wild Card. All of the five Best Director nominees have films competing for Best Picture. Why now and why these five men? Your guess is as good as mine. It wasn’t a lack of potential, alternate nominees: David Cronenberg, Fernando Meirelles, Woody Allen, Terrence Malick, and Peter Jackson all had their supporters in the media. Some even suggested that the Director’s branch might go for Michael Haneke, perhaps as compensation for the fact that his highly acclaimed Caché was disqualified from the Best Foreign-Language category on a technicality. But none of these filmmakers were able to slip onto the ballot, so what gives? Is there anyone out there who really thinks that first-time director Bennett Miller deserved a nod more than, say, Cronenberg, who has yet to ever be nominated in this category? Or what about Allen, whose Match Point is considered by many critics (though not this one) to be a stunning return to form? Maybe support for all five of the Best Picture nominees is so strong and universal throughout the Academy that the director’s branch felt compelled to honor each of their maestros.
Just some things to think about on Oscar night while you wait for Ang Lee to make that long and long awaited walk to the podium.
BEST DIRECTOR
Nominees: George Clooney, Good Night, and Good Luck; Paul Haggis, Crash; Ang Lee, Brokeback Mountain; Bennett Miller, Capote; Steven Spielberg, Munich
Here’s a factoid that’s been thrown around a lot this season, but bears repeating: in the last two decades, only one person has ever picked up the Golden Globe and the Director’s Guild Award in one year, only to subsequently lose Best Director at the Academy Awards. That person is Ang Lee, who was defeated at the 2001 ceremony by the double-nominated Steven Soderbergh. It must have been quite disappointing, but Lee can take solace in the fact that history will definitely not be repeating itself this year. The versatile auteur has more than just a Globe and DGA win to his credit this time: his Brokeback Mountain, which has been honored by virtually every major and minor critics’ group in the nation, is a bona fide cultural phenomenon. To date, it’s also the highest grosser of the Best Picture nominees, and unlike Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, both technically and intrinsically American. Even if Crash somehow manages to trump Brokeback for the Big One (which it won’t), there is no way first-time director Haggis is taking this from a revered, Jack of All Genres like
Lee. He’s the night’s surest thing, and you’d have to be nuttier than Nick Nolte in The Hulk to bet against him.
Oh, and I almost forgot: Oscar loves make-up sex! The fact that Lee did lose in 01′ is probably reason enough for some Academy members to vote for him now. I’ve never been a big fan of this trend, this tendency to honor artists not just for the work they are nominated for but also for past accomplishments. If I thought like that, I would have rooted for five-time loser Martin Scorsese to win last year, even though I greatly preferred Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby to his Aviator. Films and performances should win Oscars based on their particular merit alone. So as happy as I am to see Ang Lee become the first non-white male to win Best Director, my support lies elsewhere. Munich is both a spectacular piece of entertainment (intense, thrilling, engrossing) and a complex, sophisticated bit of socio-political commentary. Only a filmmaker as skilled and confident as Steven Spielberg could have pulled off such an amazing tight rope act. I feel a little guilty voting for the world’s most successful filmmaker in such an indie-oriented year. But Spielberg trumps the competition, and no matter how many times he’s been honored before (twice, in this category), he still deserves to win here.
Will Win: Ang Lee
Should Win: Steven Spielberg
All that’s left is the Big Prize itself, Best Picture. Will it be Crash or Brokeback? Or will my dreams of Munich sweeping in for a (very) surprising victory come true? Check back in for my analysis of the last major category, and tune in on March 5th for the awards themselves.
The Golden Season: Best Picture by Andrew Dowd
A biopic that plays like an intimate character study. A smart, insulated newsroom drama in black-and-white noir. An L.A.-based, Altman-esque ensemble. A violent, globe-trotting political thriller. And an epic, languid ode to forbidden desire.
At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be much connection between this year’s crop of Best Picture nominees. But look closer, as a certain Oscar winning movie recently advised us (hint: it was the one with the plastic bag floating in the wind), and you’ll see how much these five films really do have in common.
Trying to find a tangible link between Best Picture contenders can be an exercise in futility or a real no-brainer, depending entirely on the year. The 1998 line-up is the most obvious example of the latter: three of the nominees (Saving Private Ryan, The Thin Red Line, and Life Is Beautiful) were WWII films, while the other two (Shakespeare In Love and Elizabeth) were 16th century costume dramas. Other years, there hasn’t seemed to be much at all tying the top competitors together. I challenge anyone out there to find a real connection–thematic, stylistic, or otherwise–between 2001′s A Beautiful Mind, In the Bedroom, Moulin Rouge, Godsford Park, and The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. Go on, I dare you, try to find one!
When it comes to form, content, or specific thematic intentions, this year’s five nominees are vastly different from one another. What they all share, though, is a refreshing commitment to exploring real issues affecting the world today. All of the nominated films are serious, relevant, and challenging cinematic experiences. Four out of the five contenders are period pieces, yet every last one of them is a reflection of American culture circa 2005–even Munich, which uses the Israeli response to the Black September massacre as a medium through which to examine and criticize our own War on Terror.
Really, you have to go all the way back to 1976 to find a Best Picture line-up this provocative: the incendiary nominees that year included Bound For Glory, Network, All the President’s Men, and Taxi Driver. Of course, even that race saw a light crowd-pleaser in contention, and none of those films really had a chance against Rocky, which, unlike its more daring competition, was warm and safe and uplifting.
This year, though, there is no Feel Good candidate for voters to back, no epic fantasy, no escapism. These films offer harsh truths and bleak realities. There are no real blockbusters in the mix either, as the highest grossing film (Brokeback Mountain) has yet to cross the $100 million mark. And with only one Hollywood studio film competing (Munich), some have dubbed this year’s Oscars “The Wannabe Indie Spirit Awards.” It’s not such an unfair label, especially when you consider that Capote, Brokeback Mountain, and Good Night, and Good Luck are all up for the Big Prize at the ISAs, too. It’s like a repeat of the art-house heavy 1997 Oscars, except that Jerry Maguire (which was the lone studio nominee that year) was a hell of a lot more popular than Munich is. Since many Americans have yet to see any of the nominees, some are predicting this will be the lowest rated Academy Awards telecast in history. I’m skeptical of this prediction, but we’ll know by Monday morning.
Ultimately, what else can be said about this year’s Best Picture line-up? How about that, politics aside, it’s the best one we’ve seen in years. Of course, everyone’s opinion will differ on which of these films is the “scrub”–i.e. the movie that doesn’t quite deserve its place among the others. For many, that distinction probably belongs to Crash, whose detractors seem to be coming out in full force to denounce it. For me, Capote is the one that seems a bit out of its league. But regardless of how one feels about the individual nominees, this year’s selections, on a whole, reflect an exciting shift in the Academy’s preferences. An investment has been made in quality over quantity, substance over style, and artistry over spectacle. Whether this endorsement of truly worthy candidates is a precedent or a momentary spell of good judgment remains to be seen. Me, I’m just glad to see some great films getting some real attention for once.
On that note, let’s proceed with my analysis of the last of the major categories, the Big Prize itself, the Grand Royale of all movie awards…
BEST PICTURE
Nominees: Brokeback Mountain; Capote; Crash; Good Night, and Good Luck; Munich
Say what you want about entertainment journalists, but they’re nothing if not creative storytellers. Case in point: this season, they’ve concocted one hell of a tall tale. Somehow, they’ve convinced everyone that this year’s sewn-up, locked-down, signed-and-sealed Best Picture category is actually a two-film race. Sure, Brokeback Mountain seems like the logical winner; after all, it has won the Golden Globe, the Producer’s Guild Award, the Director’s Guild Award, the British Academy Award, and more critic awards than any other film released last year. But according to self-appointed Oscar experts and bored media pundits, Crash has been gaining momentum all year and solidifying its fan base. Remember, it’s also set in Los Angeles, which is, you know, where most Academy members live. Forget that it has as many critics as it does supporters: that just means it’s controversial and edgy. So what was once a clear-cut, single film race has become a dead-heat between two strong contenders, right?
Sorry guys, but I just don’t buy it. Sure, it is true that Crash has been building momentum for a long time. The numerous nominations it received prove that it’s certainly a popular movie. But Brokeback Mountain is more than just a movie: it’s a cultural event. You know a film has entered the American Lexicon when MAD TV starts churning out parodies of it. Brokeback, like Titanic or Casablanca or The English Patient before it, is an epic four-hankie weeper; the only thing that Oscar loves more than a love story is a doomed love story. The fact that it also tackles, with grace and compassion, a controversial social issue, doesn’t hurt its chances one bit. If anything, it helps them, because it allows the Academy to believe they are shaping public opinion. Make no mistake, Brokeback Mountain will win this award. But don’t cry for Paul Haggis: he’ll have a screenplay Oscar to console him.
Capote. They’re all fine films, but if I had a vote, I’d cast it in favor of last year’s most unjustly ignored masterpiece, and this category’s long shot, dark horse contender. In a different year, under slightly different circumstances, Munich could have been the film to bet on. As it stands, it will probably go home empty-handed on Sunday night. But in a year (and category) dominated by progressive socio-political films, Munich towers above all of them, a thriller as ideologically complex as it is purely, viscerally exciting. This is the work of a master filmmaker at the top of his game. Hopefully, in time, it will get the adoration and respect it deserves.
Will Win: Brokeback Mountain
Should Win: Munich
That’s all for me, folks. Of course, I’ve got my personal opinion about all of Oscar night’s categories, from cinematography to animated short, but ‘ll spare you my never-ending musings on the subjects. Tune in on Sunday for the awards themselves, at which point this crazy carnival ride can finally stop, at least for a few months. Enjoy the show and thanks for reading.
The Golden Season: Best Picture by Andrew Dowd
A biopic that plays like an intimate character study. A smart, insulated newsroom drama in black-and-white noir. An L.A.-based, Altman-esque ensemble. A violent, globe-trotting political thriller. And an epic, languid ode to forbidden desire.
At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be much connection between this year’s crop of Best Picture nominees. But look closer, as a certain Oscar winning movie recently advised us (hint: it was the one with the plastic bag floating in the wind), and you’ll see how much these five films really do have in common.
Trying to find a tangible link between Best Picture contenders can be an exercise in futility or a real no-brainer, depending entirely on the year. The 1998 line-up is the most obvious example of the latter: three of the nominees (Saving Private Ryan, The Thin Red Line, and Life Is Beautiful) were WWII films, while the other two (Shakespeare In Love and Elizabeth) were 16th century costume dramas. Other years, there hasn’t seemed to be much at all tying the top competitors together. I challenge anyone out there to find a real connection–thematic, stylistic, or otherwise–between 2001′s A Beautiful Mind, In the Bedroom, Moulin Rouge, Godsford Park, and The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. Go on, I dare you, try to find one!
When it comes to form, content, or specific thematic intentions, this year’s five nominees are vastly different from one another. What they all share, though, is a refreshing commitment to exploring real issues affecting the world today. All of the nominated films are serious, relevant, and challenging cinematic experiences. Four out of the five contenders are period pieces, yet every last one of them is a reflection of American culture circa 2005–even Munich, which uses the Israeli response to the Black September massacre as a medium through which to examine and criticize our own War on Terror.
Really, you have to go all the way back to 1976 to find a Best Picture line-up this provocative: the incendiary nominees that year included Bound For Glory, Network, All the President’s Men, and Taxi Driver. Of course, even that race saw a light crowd-pleaser in contention, and none of those films really had a chance against Rocky, which, unlike its more daring competition, was warm and safe and uplifting.
This year, though, there is no Feel Good candidate for voters to back, no epic fantasy, no escapism. These films offer harsh truths and bleak realities. There are no real blockbusters in the mix either, as the highest grossing film (Brokeback Mountain) has yet to cross the $100 million mark. And with only one Hollywood studio film competing (Munich), some have dubbed this year’s Oscars “The Wannabe Indie Spirit Awards.” It’s not such an unfair label, especially when you consider that Capote, Brokeback Mountain, and Good Night, and Good Luck are all up for the Big Prize at the ISAs, too. It’s like a repeat of the art-house heavy 1997 Oscars, except that Jerry Maguire (which was the lone studio nominee that year) was a hell of a lot more popular than Munich is. Since many Americans have yet to see any of the nominees, some are predicting this will be the lowest rated Academy Awards telecast in history. I’m skeptical of this prediction, but we’ll know by Monday morning.
Ultimately, what else can be said about this year’s Best Picture line-up? How about that, politics aside, it’s the best one we’ve seen in years. Of course, everyone’s opinion will differ on which of these films is the “scrub”–i.e. the movie that doesn’t quite deserve its place among the others. For many, that distinction probably belongs to Crash, whose detractors seem to be coming out in full force to denounce it. For me, Capote is the one that seems a bit out of its league. But regardless of how one feels about the individual nominees, this year’s selections, on a whole, reflect an exciting shift in the Academy’s preferences. An investment has been made in quality over quantity, substance over style, and artistry over spectacle. Whether this endorsement of truly worthy candidates is a precedent or a momentary spell of good judgment remains to be seen. Me, I’m just glad to see some great films getting some real attention for once.
On that note, let’s proceed with my analysis of the last of the major categories, the Big Prize itself, the Grand Royale of all movie awards…
BEST PICTURE
Nominees: Brokeback Mountain; Capote; Crash; Good Night, and Good Luck; Munich
Say what you want about entertainment journalists, but they’re nothing if not creative storytellers. Case in point: this season, they’ve concocted one hell of a tall tale. Somehow, they’ve convinced everyone that this year’s sewn-up, locked-down, signed-and-sealed Best Picture category is actually a two-film race. Sure, Brokeback Mountain seems like the logical winner; after all, it has won the Golden Globe, the Producer’s Guild Award, the Director’s Guild Award, the British Academy Award, and more critic awards than any other film released last year. But according to self-appointed Oscar experts and bored media pundits, Crash has been gaining momentum all year and solidifying its fan base. Remember, it’s also set in Los Angeles, which is, you know, where most Academy members live. Forget that it has as many critics as it does supporters: that just means it’s controversial and edgy. So what was once a clear-cut, single film race has become a dead-heat between two strong contenders, right?
Sorry guys, but I just don’t buy it. Sure, it is true that Crash has been building momentum for a long time. The numerous nominations it received prove that it’s certainly a popular movie. But Brokeback Mountain is more than just a movie: it’s a cultural event. You know a film has entered the American Lexicon when MAD TV starts churning out parodies of it. Brokeback, like Titanic or Casablanca or The English Patient before it, is an epic four-hankie weeper; the only thing that Oscar loves more than a love story is a doomed love story. The fact that it also tackles, with grace and compassion, a controversial social issue, doesn’t hurt its chances one bit. If anything, it helps them, because it allows the Academy to believe they are shaping public opinion. Make no mistake, Brokeback Mountain will win this award. But don’t cry for Paul Haggis: he’ll have a screenplay Oscar to console him.
I’ve already written that this a particularly strong Best Picture line-up. Honestly, I could make a credible case for any one of these movies to win, though I might have to strain a little bit on Capote. They’re all fine films, but if I had a vote, I’d cast it in favor of last year’s most unjustly ignored masterpiece, and this category’s long shot, dark horse contender. In a different year, under slightly different circumstances, Munich could have been the film to bet on. As it stands, it will probably go home empty-handed on Sunday night. But in a year (and category) dominated by progressive socio-political films, Munich towers above all of them, a thriller as ideologically complex as it is purely, viscerally exciting. This is the work of a master filmmaker at the top of his game. Hopefully, in time, it will get the adoration and respect it deserves.
Will Win: Brokeback Mountain
Should Win: Munich
That’s all for me, folks. Of course, I’ve got my personal opinion about all of Oscar night’s categories, from cinematography to animated short, but I’ll spare you my never-ending musings on the subjects. Tune in on Sunday for the awards themselves, at which point this crazy carnival ride can finally stop, at least for a few months. Enjoy the show and thanks for reading.

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