2006 Academy Awards Review

With little time remaining in the run-up to the Academy Awards and the film industry currently in the throes of its worst season, filled with movies not big enough for summer and not good enough for end-of-year releases, I wanted to try writing sort of a fun post looking back at a past Oscar year. After Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death, I thought 2006 was as good a year as any.

I’m going to go through most of the major categories, list the winners and nominees, and then say what my picks would be. Note that while I am comfortable with non-American films, I am in fact American and speak only English, so there is undoubtedly going to be a bias throughout.

An Overview of 2005 in Movies

As is often the case, the box office in 2005 was dominated by big-budget franchises: Star Wars: Episode III—Revenge of the Sith (George Lucas, USA 2005), The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe (Andrew Adamson, USA/UK 2005), Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (Mike Newell, UK/USA 2005), and Batman Begins (Christopher Nolan, USA/UK 2005) all topped $200 million. They were joined by The War of the Worlds (Steven Spielberg, USA 2005), King Kong (Peter Jackson, New Zealand/USA/Germany 2005), Wedding Crashers (David Dobkin, USA 2005), and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Tim Burton, USA/UK 2005). That is probably the last time any of these films will be mentioned, for obvious reasons.

Many of these films have faded away—the Chronicles of Narnia series thankfully fizzled quickly, King Kong and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory proved to be unmemorable to pretty much anyone. As a result, the current list of “most popular” films of the year on the IMDb reads quite differently: Capote (Bennett Miller, USA/Canada 2005), Batman Begins, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Sin City (Frank Miller/Robert Rodriguez/Quentin Tarantino, USA 2005), Pride and Prejudice (Joe Wright, France/UK/USA 2005), V for Vendetta (James McTeigue, USA/UK/Germany 2005), Star Wars: Episode III—Revenge of the Sith, and Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee, USA/Canada 2005) are the frontrunners there.

However, quietly, it was actually an excellent year for films. They just weren’t the most popular ones. That will become very clear as we journey through the awards (And one is very clear from the title of the blog!), so let us begin.

One note: I do not like the bizarre segregation between the sexes in the acting awards. It’s really an antiquated notion. However, it is rather difficult to split up the performances in a different way that makes sense, so I’m going to keep that division in place for this post, though I will change one other spot.

Best Male Actor in a Supporting Role

Actual Nominees (Winner in bold): George Clooney-Syriana (Stephen Gaghan, USA 2005), Jake Gyllenhaal-Brokeback Mountain, Paul Giamatti-Cinderella Man (Ron Howard, USA 2005), Matt Dillon-Crash (Paul Haggis, USA 2004), William Hurt-A History of Violence (David Cronenberg, USA/Germany 2005)

My Nominees (Pick in bold): Ed Harris-A History of Violence, William H. Macy-Thank You for Smoking (Jason Reitman, USA 2005), Kevin Bacon-Where the Truth Lies (Atom Egoyan, Canada/UK 2005), Cillian Murphy-Red Eye (Wes Craven, USA 2005), Colin Firth-Where the Truth Lies

Okay, maybe it’s a weird pick, but seriously tell me that Clooney’s performance in Syriana (which is a fine performance and I could easily have put here instead of either Cillian Murphy or Ed Harris) is anywhere near as believable and memorable as Macy’s selfish crusader Senator Finistirre in Thank You for Smoking or Bacon’s sleazy former lounge singer in Where the Truth Lies. Thank You for Smoking’s triumphant acting is largely the result of brilliant casting, but Macy actually has some work to do to keep his character from becoming a cartoon, and he did it remarkably well.

Clooney won because of the incredible tidal wave of pro-Clooney sentiment that washed over the world that year—he was going to win something, and giving him a more-deserved Best Director nod apparently would have been going too far. Paul Giamatti and William Hurt were classic legacy nominations—nominated because they’re great actors rather than anything about their particular performances. Gyllenhaal was a lead performance, no matter what the Oscars say.

Best Female Actor in a Supporting Role

Actual Nominees: Rachel Weisz-The Constant Gardener (Fernando Meirelles, UK/Germany/USA/China 2005), Michelle Williams-Brokeback Mountain, Catherine Keener-Capote, Amy Adams-Junebug (Phil Morrison, USA 2005), Frances McDormand-North Country (Niki Caro, USA 2005)

My Nominees: Maria Bello-A History of Violence, Nora Zehetner-Brick (Rian Johnson, USA 2005), Scarlett Johansson-Match Point (Woody Allen, UK/Russia/Ireland 2005), Michelle Williams-Brokeback Mountain, Rachel Weisz-The Constant Gardener

Maria Bello is one of the best actors on the planet, and she’s never gotten her due. A History of Violence got shafted all the way around, and she was amazing. I wouldn’t argue too strenuously on this one, though—I feel like any of Williams, Weisz, Bello, Zehetner, or Johansson was a fine pick, and it’s really splitting hairs to differentiate them. And I’m probably overrating Zehetner for affecting the sexiest voice in history. Emma Watson could have been a nominee as well.

Best Female Actor in a Leading Role

Actual Nominees: Reese Witherspoon-Walk the Line (James Mangold, USA/Germany 2005), Judi Dench-Mrs. Henderson Presents (Stephen Friers, UK/USA 2005), Charlize Theron-North Country, Keira Knightley-Pride & Prejudice (Joe Wright, France/UK/USA 2005), Felicity Huffman-Transamerica (Duncan Tucker, USA 2005)

My Nominees: Naomi Watts-Stay (Marc Forster, USA 2005), Rachel McAdams-Red Eye, Ziyi Zhang-Memoirs of a Geisha (Rob Marshall, USA 2005), Felicity Huffman-Transamerica

This is a weird category, because it’s so full of actors and names who have seemingly disappeared since. Who remembers when Charlize Theron was supposed to be the greatest young female actor in the world or  Keira Knightley was supposed to have actual talent?  Who remembers Transamerica? Who ever watched Mrs. Henderson Presents in the first place?

Rob Marshall made two average films back-to-back. The first, because it was a musical with a bunch of stars in the cast, got a ton of attention. The second, while at least as good a film, got none at all. I’m not going to say that everyone should have seen Memoirs of a Geisha—it was okay but nothing special—but Ziyi Zhang was incredible. She had a complex, layered role and performed it absolutely perfectly. Somehow, her career in the US essentially stopped at this point, but that doesn’t diminish just how good she was in this film. I only nominated four because I could not come up with another lead female performance that was generally Oscar-caliber. It was a bad year in this category, unfortunately.

Best Male Actor in a Leading Role

Actual Nominees: Philip Seymour Hoffman-Capote, Heath Ledger-Brokeback Mountain, David Strathairn-Good Night, and Good Luck., Terrence Howard-Hustle & Flow (Craig Brewer, USA 2005), Joaquin Phoenix-Walk the Line

My Nominees: Joseph Gordon-Levitt-Brick, David Strathairn-Good Night, and Good Luck., Viggo Mortensen-A History of Violence, Heath Ledger-Brokeback Mountain, Philip Seymour Hoffman-Capote

I only changed out two of the nominees, but frankly I think that Gordon-Levitt and Mortensen were the two strongest performances of the year. For all the praise I just heaped on Ziyi Zhang, Viggo Mortensen was in an entirely different category, producing one of the finest performances I have ever seen in a film. It’s not just that he has to play essentially two parts or the way his voice and accent suddenly changes when he goes from “Tom” to “Joey,” it’s the way his entire demeanor and movement changes as well, and the way he allows “Joey” to peek through “Tom” early on and “Tom” to peek through “Joey” later, making it clear that both personas are in fact parts of the same man. It’s the way that Cronenberg is able to get away with using so little establishing dialogue because Mortensen is able to establish his character so fully on his own. Few performances have ever been as good as this one, and it’s frankly a crime that it wasn’t even nominated in reality.

This isn’t to denigrate Hoffman’s performance, which was a fine, usually Oscar-worthy performance. It was sort of like being Miguel Cabrera in 2013: that’s usually enough for MVP, but Mike Trout was doing something unbelievable out in Los Angeles. (Yes, I know Cabrera actually won, but while I’m pretending that I get to decide the Oscars, I’m going to also pretend I pick the AL MVP.)

Best Picture/Best Director

First, a note: It is an absolute absurdity to separate these two categories. The director is the artist in charge of the film and the finished product is charged to him/her. The best director is the person who made the best film, and the best film is the one that was made best. The Academy Awards separate them for political reasons, but I don’t have to. I’m also going to follow in the spirit of the more recent Best Picture rule and nominate every film that I think was a worthy nominee (essentially, an 8/10 film or better).

Actual Nominees (Director): Ang Lee-Brokeback Mountain, Bennett Miller-Capote, Paul Haggis-Crash, George Clooney-Good Night, and Good Luck., Steven Spielberg-Munich

Actual Nominees (Picture): Crash, Brokeback Mountain, Capote, Good Night, and Good Luck., Munich

My Nominees: Match Point, A History of Violence, Thank You for Smoking, Brick, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (Alex Gibney, USA 2005), Cache (Michael Haneke, France/Austria/Germany/Italy/USA 2005), Where the Truth Lies, Good Night, and Good Luck., The Interpreter (Sydney Pollack, UK/USA/France/Germany 2005)

Brokeback Mountain, Crash, and Munich were all examples of Holocaust Movie Syndrome. Brokeback Mountain and Munich were decent films that got attention because of a mix of subject and star power (Spielberg being the star power for the latter) while Crash was a horrible abomination that should never have been seen. I think Capote was just getting nominated because of Hoffman, because not only did I not think it was anything special, but neither did anyone else.

However, meanwhile, there were a ton of truly great films out that year that got little attention.

Anyone (There might be someone, somewhere.) who can recognize the title of this blog would know that Brick would at least be in contention for me. Rian Johnson crafted a beautiful neo-noir set in a modern high school that managed to reimagine the visual cues of noir without giving up any of its other strengths. The dialogue is sharp and smart, the acting is almost universally excellent (Emilie de Ravin is really the lone exception.), and the film just looks amazing. I honestly could easily take any of Match Point, A History of Violence, Brick, or Thank You for Smoking, but there is a reason I used a line from Brick for the blog title.

Woody Allen has always been a genius as a filmmaker, but Match Point represented a turning point—the arrival of a mature, confident Allen who still had some fresh ideas. It’s a completely serious rumination on the nature of justice and conscience that borrowed more than a little from Crime and Punishment but updated it so smartly that it’s easy enough not to recognize the story.

A History of Violence was a dark, smart film about a man who cannot escape the violence within himself that ends with a Flannery O’Connor like plea for grace from the family that has at different points both accepted and rejected him. The acting is incredible, and Cronenberg imbues the film with an absolutely pitch-perfect visual atmosphere for every single second.

Thank You for Smoking isn’t about the tobacco industry. It’s not a send-up of the battles between Congress and “Big Tobacco” in the ‘90s. It’s not even about “responsibility,” as Nick Naylor seems to suggest at the end. It’s a film about argument, and it understands argument far better than most people. Hell, it deserves a nomination just for the scene where Nick is explaining debate to Joey, which is the absolute heart of a nearly perfect film.

Where the Truth Lies deserves some special notice for its presence in the same year as Brokeback Mountain. While the latter was supposedly showing us how far society had come, the former was being given an NC-17 that both Egoyan and Bacon suggested was due to homophobia on the MPAA review board. Some critics (and I) said that the way that Gyllenhaal and Ledger went about “proving their masculinity” after Brokeback Mountain’s release was evidence that we hadn’t come as far as many suggested, but Where the Truth Lies may have been an even stronger indictment of American society’s attitude about homosexuality. It didn’t get much attention because it ended up being released unrated and so it disappeared from view, even though it was an excellent film.

Why are documentaries never nominated for Best Picture? I suppose one could argue that they should be judged by such different criteria that they shouldn’t be, but they are eligible (and indeed have been nominated, albeit very rarely), so that doesn’t seem to be the actual reason. Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room may be the best documentary I’ve ever seen—explaining a very complex situation so fully that a lay person can understand it and being very entertaining along the way.

For anyone who wonders, I’m skipping the writing awards because those really should be given based on the screenplay, not based on what appears on screen. I don’t have access to those screenplays, so I cannot fairly judge them.

Advertisements

Movie Review: “Argo” (Ben Affleck, USA 2012)

Let’s start with something that everyone should understand before going in: This film is a political film. It is 100% intended to help Barack Obama win re-election. It’s a jingoistic film meant to say, “Oh, look how awesome the USA is! And how peaceful solutions work! And how Muslims are capable of self-sacrifice and bravery too!” (Yes, sadly enough, it has to make that last point.) It’s Ben Affleck and George Clooney’s (also credited as a producer) contribution to Obama’s re-election fund, just as running the trailers for Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow, USA 2012) since about June is Kathryn Bigelow’s and doing the same for Lincoln (Steven Spielberg, USA/India 2012) is Steven Spielberg’s. This type of politically-motivated filmmaking and releasing around election dates is not the slightest bit unusual. The only thing that’s unusual is that a couple of big-budget big studio films (Argo and Lincoln) are openly on the Democratic side (Even Spielberg, who made the most obvious piece of pro-Bush propaganda ever in The War of the Worlds [USA 2005], seemingly confirming that his foray into the business side of Hollywood had converted him politically!) where Hollywood’s heavy money is typically entirely on the Republican side (and those are around–Red Dawn [Dan Bradley, USA 2012] is the obvious typical piece of right wing action propaganda).

Unlike Clooney’s own political entry for this election, The Ides of March (George Clooney, USA 2011) (“You can lie, you can cheat, you can start a war, you can bankrupt the country, but you can’t fuck the interns!” It’s great when a movie tells you everything you need to know about it in one line.), Affleck makes his political point with a bit of subtlety and care. One thing that has appeared clear throughout Affleck’s directing career so far is that he’s interested in taking a tight narrative within a typical genre and adding a confounding element, exploring what that confounding variable does to adjust the meaning and shape of that narrative. He’s also shown that he completely lacks visual imagination (which may be a side effect of going into directing immediately able to do whatever he wants, though the aforementioned Clooney has actually shown an impressive visual imagination in spite of the same circumstances), and a disturbing willingness to cast himself in spite of his own extreme limitations as an actor.

Considering Affleck’s career in those terms, Argo is exactly what one would expect. He begins with a fairly typical spy-thriller concept about a covert operation to pull a few hidden American embassy employees out of a riotous Iran filled with anti-American sentiment but adds the twist that the cover for the operation is . . . making a movie! So, we get a little comic relief foray into Hollywood making fun of itself. However, that foray is really nothing more than a short bit of comic relief–the film does not become a self-referential comedic genre exercise along the lines of The Spanish Prisoner (David Mamet, USA 1997), The Player (Robert Altman, USA 1992), and The Cabin in the Woods (Drew Goddard, USA 2011). For me, that was a disappointing non-development, because I love that sort of self-referential comedy. However, I understand the decision on Affleck’s part (and it turns out that doing anything comedic would be problematic, after recent events that Affleck could not have anticipated), because it would have been easy for the levity to take over the film, and he keeps things very serious by putting the relief in its own box separated from everything else. It was almost like Hannah and Her Sisters (Woody Allen, USA 1986), which keeps Allen’s comedic plot separated from the more serious moments. The comedy gets enough breath that it does relieve what could have been an oppressively serious film, and keeping it separated from the serious plot was sensible, if not what I would choose.

Also, while it was a shame to see Affleck cast himself in ostensibly the starring role again, it turns out not to have been a problem in several ways. First, the character doesn’t show much of any emotion, allowing Affleck’s limitations to hide under his bizarre ’70s beard. Second, the few times when the character should show emotions, Affleck smartly doesn’t show his own face, relying on Alexandre Desplat’s excellent score and the situation to fill in what he himself cannot do. It’s a too-little-used but often effective trick (Watch The Omen [Richard Donner, UK/USA 1976] and pay attention to Gregory Peck’s emotional breakdown. It happens off-screen. Jerry Goldsmith’s score, one of the best in film history, gives that film a bit of an unfair advantage here, but why are people so rarely willing to admit to their actors’ limitations?), and Affleck definitely deserves credit for being willing to use it on himself. Overall, it turns out that his performance simply does not matter to the film.

However, Affleck once again lets himself down with a complete lack of visual imagination. The film just doesn’t have anything interesting to it visually. It’s competent, sure, but it’s absolutely nothing special, which is a shame for a film that had some potential otherwise. I would love to see him work with a more interesting cinematographer and see what would happen, but Rodrigo Prieto is frankly uninteresting. The genius of Conrad Hall made Sam Mendes look like an interesting director for nearly a decade. I’m not sure there is another genius like him around, but what about Peter Deming or Robert Richardson? Just somebody who’s done something interesting before might be enough to take him from “passable” to “good.”

There isn’t much anyone could do acting-wise throughout the film, so no one stood out in a good or bad way.

Overall, it’s an okay film. It’s nothing special, but it’s certainly decent.

Originally Written and Posted on Facebook October 12, 2012. Slightly edited.

A small update since this film has now won three Academy Awards, including the coveted Best Picture prize. That award doesn’t mean this film is any better than I thought it was from the beginning, but its win brings up the question of why such an average film would win the prestigious award. The answer is that, while this is a clearly political film, it’s also a film that praises the film industry. The entire movie-within-a-movie subplot, which pulls back from skewering Hollywood in any meaningful way, conveys the message that films have a power to help solve the world’s political problems (a message that could easily be seen as self-congratulatory, given the film’s obvious political goals). It’s not exactly the same message as The Artist (Michael Hazanavicious, France/Belgium/USA 2011) used to take home the award last year, but the spirit is very much the same, and it’s a spirit that wins this award with some regularity.

2013 Oscar Predictions

            This is my post predicting the Oscar winners for the year. Please note that these are predictions of who will win the awards, not analyses of who should win.

 

Best Picture

Predicted Winner: Lincoln (Steven Spielberg, USA 2012)

            Lincoln is a lock here. The Best Picture Oscar, like sports MVPs, is determined by the building of a narrative that carries the winner rather than reality. Mike Trout in 2012, Peyton Manning in 2012, Matt Kemp in 2011, and Letters from Iwo Jima (Clint Eastwood, USA 2006) were unquestionably better candidates for their respective awards than Miguel Cabrera, Adrian Peterson, Ryan Braun, and The Departed (Martin Scorsese, USA/Hong Kong 2006); but the narratives carried by the latter won the day. Cabrera’s and Braun’s narrative as the “lone player carrying his team to the playoffs” and the “old-school candidate,” Peterson’s narrative as the “only reason his team could compete,” and The Departed’s narrative as “Scorsese’s chance to win after years of coming up short” all won out over clearly superior alternatives.

            Lincoln, a film that is (a) clearly a political statement of support for the very popular current President more than a film about its subject and (b) a seeming hagiography of perhaps the most sacred of the sacred cows in American history, was a lock for this award the day it was announced.

 

Best Director

Predicted Winner: Benh Zeitlin for Beasts of the Southern Wild (USA 2012)

            I’m going out on a limb here. First, let’s realize that logically there is no way that this award can be separated from Best Picture. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has seemingly decided that Best Picture has to go to a commercially successful film that does good things for the industry while Best Director goes to its actual best picture choice.

            Now, it’s possible that Lincoln would still be the pick, but here’s the rub: Spielberg has already won two Oscars. Here’s the list of directors with at least three: William Wyler, Frank Capra, and John Ford. William Wyler is on anyone’s list of the 10-15 greatest filmmakers from anywhere in history, and he is easily the least accomplished of those. Spielberg is just nowhere near that level of accomplishment. As a result, I don’t think the Academy hands him another trophy. Since the Academy almost never awards foreign language films with any of the major awards, that leaves us with a battle between Ang Lee for Life of Pi (USA/Taiwan 2012) and Zeitlin. Beasts of the Southern Wild is generally more highly thought of than Life of Pi by the higher class of film critics, and Ang Lee already has one Oscar. That’s enough for me to give Zeitlin the nod.

 

Best Male Actor in a Leading Role

Predicted Winner: Daniel Day-Lewis for Lincoln

            Um, duh. He’s playing Abraham Lincoln.

 

Best Female Actor in a Leading Role

Predicted Winner: Jessica Chastain for Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow, USA 2012)

            She’s winning all of the precursors. I’m glad to see it, because I’m happy to see Jessica Chastain do anything.

 

Best Female Actor in a Supporting Role

Predicted Winner: Anne Hathaway for Les Misérables (Tom Hooper, USA/UK 2012)

            They love to give this one to “hot” (not attractive but on a hot streak) young actors. Hathaway really isn’t as hot as she was a few years ago, but she’s the closest thing there is this year.

 

Best Male Actor in a Supporting Role

Predicted Winner: Tommy Lee Jones for Lincoln

            Raise your hand if you knew that Tommy Lee Jones has only won for The Fugitive (Andrew Davis, USA 1993). Not a lot of raised hands for that one, right? They love to give this one to old guys, like Christopher Plummer last year. Jones fits the bill.

 

Best Original Screenplay

Predicted Winner: Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola for Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson, USA 2012)

            They like to give the writing awards to smaller films. Anderson is, for reasons passing understanding, a critical darling.

 

Best Adapted Screenplay

Predicted Winner: Lucy Alibar and Benh Zeitlin for Beasts of the Southern Wild

            See above. Incidentally, this is going out on much less of a limb than my Best Director pick.

 

Best Foreign Language Film

Predicted Winner: Amour (Michael Haneke, France/Germany/Austria 2012)

            This one is pretty obvious. It’s the one nominated for Best Picture and Best Director, so very clearly the Academy is putting it above the other foreign language films. I’m rooting for it to win Best Picture just so a foreign language film wins.

 

Best Animated Feature Film

Predicted Winner: Brave (Mark Andrews/David Chapman/Steve Purcell, USA 2012)

            I’m not putting too much thought into this. They tend to give it to the big animated film if it’s supposed to be any good, which Brave supposedly was.

 

Best Documentary Feature

Predicted Winner: 5 Broken Cameras (Emad Burnat/Guy Davidi, Occupied Palestinian Territory/Israel/France/Netherlands 2011)

            There wasn’t a big hit documentary nominated (thankfully, Dinesh D’Souza’s Obama film didn’t make the cut). Without that, it’s usually a good bet to pick either the most depressing picture or one about either the Holocaust or the Middle East. This is one about the Middle East.

 

Other notes

  • I think Skyfall (Sam Mendes, UK/USA 2012) takes home multiple statues. It will likely win at least one of the music awards (possibly both). It’s also up for cinematography and sound editing. A surprisingly strongly-reviewed film of that stature will definitely win something, and it’s quite possible that we get more than one.
  • Daniel Day-Lewis would become the first male actor to win three awards for a leading role. He would join Jack Nicholson, Ingrid Bergman, Meryl Streep, Walter Brennan, and Katharine Hepburn as the only actors ever to win at least three Oscars. I’ve never been his biggest fan, but it’s at least a good bit of trivia.
  • Peter Jackson is getting shut out, deservedly. I hope he realizes it’s coming.
  • The National Film Critics Society is really the best at doing this of any body that does it. It gave Best Picture and Director both to Amour. Those of you who are going to avoid it for not being in English are likely missing out on one of the best the year has to offer.
  • The San Diego Film Critics Society is my favorite for acting awards, and it gave out some surprises this year. Day-Lewis unsurprisingly won leading male actor and Christoph Waltz wasn’t a shocker for supporting male actor for Django Unchained (Quentin Tarantino, USA 2012). However, Michelle Williams took home leading female actor for Take This Waltz (Sarah Polley, Canada/Spain/Japan 2011) and Emma Watson (!) won supporting female actor for The Perks of Being a Wallflower (Stephen Chbosky, USA 2012).
  • Another prediction: Seth Macfarlane says nothing funny all night (like the rest of his career) and never hosts the Oscars again. Next year, they’ll pick another unfunny comedian who does song and dance and we will repeat.