All roads lead to Oscar.
The studio campaigning, the televised award shows, the critic’s group awards, the people’s choice awards, and the craftsman guild awards are all warm-up shows for the Big Game—the Academy Awards. The Oscar nominations were announced last Tuesday, and the movies that can boast a nomination (or many), will now have that extra added prestige that can be added to their ads or DVD releases, translating into big bucks. For my money, the Academy Awards is the only award show that matters. Of course, giving awards for a subjective art form to people who are well paid for their work is a little silly, but calling attention to movies that would otherwise be ignored is a great thing. That is where the Oscars make other awards like the Grammys (U2 and Mariah Carey? Please…) look downright ridiculous. So kudos to the Academy for honoring films that didn’t exactly explode at the box office. But you can’t please all of the people all of the time. I’ve seen all the films nominated in all the major categories, and the nominations would be quite different had I picked them.
Amy Adams, Junebug
Catherine Keener, Capote **should be Scarlett Johansson, Match Point
Frances McDormand, North Country **should be Maria Bello, A History of Violence
Rachel Weisz, The Constant Gardener
Michelle Williams, Brokeback Mountain
Catherine Keener and Frances McDormand are both highly respected actresses, but their roles weren’t of the caliber of the other nominated three. If anything, Keener should have received a nod for her charming, sweet turn in the raunchy “The 40 Year-Old Virgin.” But comedy is almost always overlooked, so “Capote” it is. Maria Bello, who has received numerous nominations and awards so far for her riveting performance in “A History of Violence,” was robbed in this category. Her character was the conscience of the movie, and the one with whom the audience identified with the most. “Match Point” was a fine return to dark social drama for Woody Allen, and the sultry femme fatale of the film was Scarlett Johansson. When her character breaks out of a “type” and turns into a real person, it’s an unexpected twist and it breaks your heart. Fun Fact: Johansson has been robbed before, most notably failing to receive a nomination for “Lost in Translation” and “The Girl With the Pearl Earring” in 2003.
George Clooney, Syriana
Matt Dillon, Crash **should be Mickey Rourke, Sin City
Paul Giamatti, Cinderella Man **should be Jeffrey Wright, Broken Flowers
Jake Gyllenhaal, Brokeback Mountain
William Hurt, A History of Violence
Speaking of robbed, Paul Giamatti got the shaft the last two years in a row in the Best Actor category. First, the surprise indie hit “American Splendor” failed to get him noticed, and then he was slighted for “Sideways,” which boasted nominations in five other categories! The Academy feels so bad for him that Giamatti would have gotten a nomination this year even if he were in “The Dukes of Hazzard.” Instead, he plays Burgess Meredith to Russell Crowe’s Sylvester Stallone in this year’s “Rocky,” “Cinderella Man.” A similarly heavy-handed movie, “Crash,” offers Matt Dillon his first nomination in a role that required him to put a sympathetic face on a one-dimensional stereotype. I’ve seen more believable characters on Saturday morning cartoons. Which leads us to Mickey Rourke, who should not just be nominated, but be in the running to win as single-minded thug Marv in “Sin City.” Under a ton of make-up and bandages, Rourke rose above a mere comic book portrayal to give the pill-popping killer a heart. Jeffrey Wright was at his quirky best in “Broken Flowers,” a perfect foil to Bill Murray’s subtle comic role. His casual but focused performance made their unusual friendship seem completely natural. Originality counts for something, since William Hurt was nominated for the eight hilarious and baffling minutes he was onscreen in “A History of Violence,” so Rourke and Wright’s omissions are a mystery.
Judi Dench, Mrs. Henderson Presents **should be Joan Allen, The Upside of Anger
Felicity Huffman, Transamerica
Keira Knightley, Pride & Prejudice
Charlize Theron, North Country **should be Naomi Watts, King Kong
Reese Witherspoon, Walk the Line
Okay, we get it. Judi Dench can act. She does consistently good work. But that doesn’t mean she deserves a nomination for every tepid period piece she makes, especially something as cloying as “Mrs. Henderson Presents.” And, yes, after “Monster,” Charlize Theron has proved that as well. Likewise, she need not be noticed whenever she gets her face dirty. My two picks to replace the Academy’s are about as far apart as you could get, but they are showcases from beginning to end for their lead actresses. The single juiciest role for a woman this year was Joan Allen’s in “The Upside of Anger,” and she was absolutely fierce. Since it was released in the spring, many Oscar voters seem to have forgotten it, and no other oversight this year is as offensive as this one. In “King Kong,” Naomi Watts had the Herculean task of bringing a romance to life between herself and a giant ape (or, a man in a silly body suit, covered in wires, up on a ladder in front of a green screen). The fact that it’s as convincing as the romance in “Brokeback Mountain” means that she deserves to be noticed.
Philip Seymour Hoffman, Capote
Terrence Howard, Hustle & Flow
Heath Ledger, Brokeback Mountain
Joaquin Phoenix, Walk the Line
David Strathairn, Good Night, and Good Luck **should be Eric Bana, Munich
Are these the five best performances of the year by male actors? They may be. This is an impressive list in a very tough category. I would like to have seen Bill Murray for “Broken Flowers,” Jonathan Rhys-Meyers for “Match Point,” Ralph Fiennes for “The Constant Gardener,” or Viggo Mortensen for “A History of Violence.” David Strathairn was fine in “Good Night, and Good Luck,” but so much of the role was a re-creation of actual newscasts. The script never gave him the freedom to expand Edward Murrow to much degree. Eric Bana, on the other hand, was devastating as a man of morals asked to perform a series of ugly tasks for his country in “Munich.” He slowly unravels as paranoia creeps in, and he begins to question the sincerity of the very mission that is eating his soul.
Ang Lee, Brokeback Mountain
Bennett Miller, Capote **should be Fernando Meirelles, The Constant Gardener
Paul Haggis, Crash **should be David Cronenberg, A History of Violence
George Clooney, Good Night, and Good Luck **should be Peter Jackson, King Kong
Steven Spielberg, Munich
Capote **should be The Constant Gardener
Crash **should be A History of Violence
Good Night, and Good Luck **should be King Kong
These last two categories really need some shaking up. My favorite film in this category is “Munich,” Steven Spielberg’s gripping and human exploration of the quagmire that is the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Though it’s set in 1972, it seems even more relevant and exciting today. I recently watched “Crash” for the second time to make sure that I hated it as much as I did last spring in the theater, and, it turns out, I still do. Like “Cinderella Man,” “Crash” shoves its message down our throats with all the subtlety of a jackhammer, reducing characters’ dialogue to boring talking points in a racist “anti-racist” lecture. Ambiguity worked for “Munich,” but director/writer Paul Haggis prefers forced irony and convenient plot twists to answer all of our questions on racism once and for all. I don’t have any venom left for perfectly good films like “Capote” and “Good Night, and Good Luck,” but they don’t venture far enough into the emotional truth or big picture as my three nominees for Best Picture/Best Director. “The Constant Gardener” is a tour-de-force juggling act where Fernando Meirelles balances intrigue and dirty politics with an affecting, revelatory romance. David Cronenberg quietly gets under your skin and then suddenly blasts you with some intriguing questions about human nature in “A History of Violence.” And, yes, I understand that after three nominations in a row and one win, Peter Jackson may not need any more recognition, but “King Kong” is truly the eighth wonder of the world. An epic film that dares to be a defining metaphor for Depression-era America, it also represents a life’s achievement for its director. The Oscars’ bias against fantasy films is alive and well after a three year absence. Either that, or they’ve just had enough of Jackson, and they’ll nominate him when he cuts his budget down below $200 million.