Wednesday, February 01, 2006

AMPAS loves you

Well, the Oscars weighed in, and the surprises mostly came in the "It's surprising that happened the way it did" variety.

Now, we begin the long, hard slog to March, when everyone everyone thinks will win today wins. In the meantime, the media will try to make it a race, overinflating the hopes of Crash, Felicity Huffman and maybe even Terrence Howard. The big four races are locked up. Supporting Actress and Adapted Screenplay are rapidly becoming that way. Which leaves Supporting Actor and Original Screenplay.

So there you go.

It was a resolutely downbeat year for AMPAS, as they nominated glum "thinkpieces" in all five slots of the Best Picture (and Best Director) races. All five nominees were also given nominations for directing and screenwriting, the first time that's happened since 1964, the year of My Fair Lady, Becket and Mary Poppins. The uplifting (if formulaic) Walk the Line and the tons-o-fun King Kong couldn't crack the lineup (though Walk the Line was probably in sixth).

It was also nice to see some parity. There's less distance between the top nominations getter in the BP category (Brokeback Mountain with 8) and the bottom nominations getters (Capote and Munich with 5). Everyone please ignore that I said "top" and "bottom" in that sentence.

What was I happy with?

-I was overjoyed to see Munich crack the lists for picture, directing and writing. A smart, literary film like this doesn't come along very often. Ignore the naysayers, who have gotten too caught up in the Israel/Palestine thing. The film is really about the aftereffects of violence and makes a nice companion piece to the excellent A History of Violence.

-As overjoyed as I was by that, Terrence Howard had me even MORE overjoyed. I still prefer Philip Seymour Hoffman's work overall in the Best Actor category, but if you see Hustle and Flow, you'll see a star born in Howard, who takes a part that's written as a stereotype and makes it all his own.

-I have never been on the Keira Knightley train, but her work in Joe Wright's sublimely directed Pride & Prejudice deserves mention. She plays against type effortlessly and somehow creates an effervescent Elizabeth Bennett. So. . .I'm glad she got in.

-Supporting Actor is a nice enough category. I'm just happy that no one else from Crash made it in and William Hurt hung around long enough to crack the category for his blistering 10-minute turn in A History of Violence.

-Chanhassen dinner theatre veteran Amy Adams made the Supporting Actress lineup, and all was right with the world. (Oddly enough, I just found out that I SAW Ms. Adams in a Chanhassen production so very long ago. It's odd because I hated the production, but have nothing but love for her.)

-The cinematography nomination for Batman Begins was muchly deserved.

Mostly, I'm glad that AMPAS spread the wealth this year. In every category, I agree with four out of the five choices (or at least see how four out of the five came to be there). And that's something that never happens to me.

So as you venture out this weekend to see one of the Best Picture nominees, which one should you see? Follow my handy guide!

Brokeback Mountain: An old-fashioned Hollywood weeper of a romance. See? I almost had you there, huh? Okay. . .it IS an old-fashioned Hollywood weeper of a romance, except the lovers are two men. For lack of a better word, the movie is tasteful, though it stirs up the emotions any good tragic romance does. If you're worried about rampant male nudity and/or copulation, don't be. It's not in there. Ang Lee's film is a gay romance even your mother can see. It's so tame, some conservatives argue it shows the HARMFUL effects of homosexuality on society (I don't see how they're getting that out of it, but walk in with an agenda. . .). Whatever you walk in expecting, this is sure to push your buttons.

Capote: A very, very, very, very dry film, yet a marvelous one. It's so subtle that it's a wonder it made it to the top five at all. Hoffman's performance is as good as you've heard, while Catherine Keener grounds the movie. And the direction captures the idiosyncracies of the Great Plains like few films ever have. In a year where the crusading journalist was trumpeted right and left (from the praises showered upon the post-Katrina newsmen to Good Night, and Good Luck), this is a reminder of the ethical responsibility all journalism carries and just how easy it is to cross lines. This isn't as manipulative as Brokeback Mountain, but it, too, will get you talking.

Crash: This is out on DVD, so don't bother leaving your house to watch it. Remember how I said Brokeback Mountain would push your buttons? This one will jab at them repeatedly until they're stuck and no longer function. You'll cry out for mercy, but Crash will not give it to you. Some commentators say the film, in its liberal guilt, circles all the way around to actually be racist in the end, but I think the movie's mostly just bad. Still, there are plenty who have enjoyed it. If you're one of them, please make a case for it in the comments section.

Good Night, and Good Luck: Another rousingly manipulative piece. George Clooney has made a film about journalists who ask hard questions, but he seems to have forgotten that what Edward Murrow did (important as it was) ran absolutely contrary to the idea of objectivity as practiced by journalists everywhere. Murrow wasn't as in-your-face as the Fox News commentators, but Clooney is essentially celebrating him for starting us down the path that led to O'Reilly, Hannity and the like. The irony, of course, is that Clooney regularly gets into matches of verbal fisticuffs with O'Reilly (who reportedly liked this film). It was all a little too media self-lovey for me, BUT (and this is a big but) it's handsomely made with strong performances and a killer soundtrack. I'm not as enamored of it as so many in the media are, but you're not going to want your money back. It's another skillful button pusher.

Munich: My favorite film of the year is also one of the year's most controversial. It's easy to sour on Steven Spielberg for making films that are too thematically simplistic (Saving Private Ryan takes two-and-a-half hours to say, "Y'know, war sure is rough!"), but this one has been attacked for being too thematically complex. Just when you think you've got its political or social positions pinned down, it spins off in a completely new direction. This is why it's angered the right AND left in equal measure. Tony Kushner and Eric Roth's script is about how violence saps our souls but also about how there are times when violence is absolutely necessary. Spielberg has described it as a prayer for peace, but buried within it is the contradictory message that sometimes war is called for. Munich is an intellectually rigorous tug-of-war with no easy answers, which makes it all the more remarkable that it's even nominated. If you feel like you enjoyed it but don't know why, David Poland has an excellent scene-by-scene breakdown of the film here. I don't guarantee that you'll enjoy it as much as I did, but it will give you something to chew on with no easy answers.

To be honest, though, the nicest thing about the whole list of nominees is that it called back to recognize so many worthy films, which will be remembered now for years to come simply because of their nominations. In addition to the five listed above, we have Walk the Line. Hustle and Flow. Pride & Prejudice. A History of Violence. Syriana. Cinderella Man. Junebug. The Constant Gardener. The Squid and the Whale. King Kong. Batman Begins. And many, many others. I don't like every film nominated this year, but I'm glad the list is so wide-ranging.

That's all on the Oscars for now. I'll probably weigh in with category-by-category predictions and commentary as the day draws ever nearer so Jared can flop at the Oscar pool again.


Anonymous said...

Your analysis of Brokeback Mountain as an old-time weepy romance disturbs and disgusts me. The film is far too cynical and understated to fit in with such company.

In other news, you've posted a lot. Congratulations for keeping the new wave of blogs from being an abject failure.

As always, I remain gloriously yours.

Todd VanDerWerff said...

I'm not going to argue that the cynicism and understatement aren't there (and I tend to view the film as an anti-romance, as I don't believe the two characters are really "in love" at all).

But 95% of the film's viewers seem to view it as a weeper.

Who am I to fight progress?