Saturday, March 04, 2006

Oscar Anomie

In which the sad and peculiar truth is revealed that I just don't care much about this year's Academy Awards. Every year I look forward to writing the Oscar prediction features on my website, but this year, aside from having no time, I just haven't had any inclination. There have been worse Oscar years, but none in recent memory that have left me so frankly apathetic about this year's big show. I'm still trying to understand this, but here are my best guesses:

1. Brokeback As time goes by, I like the prohibitive favorite in this year's top races less and less. And I feel bad about this, because as a progressive cultural marker, I want to be excited about it. If a big gay love story is about to win Best Picture at the Oscars, I'd love to feel like cheering. And the movie's okay, an easy trade up from early 00s Best Picture winners like Gladiator and A Beautiful Mind. In fact, Million Dollar Baby is the only Picture victor of the whole decade that I've found all that moving, though Chicago was good and plucky, and I'll take the Return of the King win as an oblique nod to The Fellowship of the Ring. But that's just the thing with Brokeback Mountain: it isn't the best, it isn't the worst, and its competence feels neither engagingly plummy nor aesthetically ambitious. Nothing in the film has the charge of the premise; subversive subject aside, the movie is just as determinedly middlebrow and almost as domesticated as traditional bait like The Cider House Rules. To me, everything impressive about it also feels glassed-off and distant. As it has loped to the forefront of the competition, its own remoteness has come to define the whole derby. (It hasn't helped that none of the key players—not the fratty and giggle-prone Ledger and Gyllenhaal, not the perpetually scowling Williams or the vapid cockatoo Anne Hathaway, not self-serious writers Ossana and McMurtry or the chirpily apolitical Ang Lee—have inspired any affection as podium personalities.)

2. Best Actress This category, perennially my favorite, is at best a compromise solution. Knightley, winning as she is, is beautifully courted by the camera and woven in by the editing. Considered in the abstract, apart from all the pristine favors done her by the film, what's special in the performance fades a bit. Huffman's proficiency feels a little cold, once you're out of the theater and away from Transamerica's thin, homespun charms. Theron's stuck in a frightened film that seems to cut away from her own best ideas about the character; Dench is an instant irrelevance. And then there's Witherspoon. The almost certain winner has one sterling scene—her first, slightly hoarse barroom rencontre with Cash—but the role is written within hoary limits, and there's every reason for her to fall back on her usual diet of knitted brows and saucer faces, which is just what she does. Voting for any of them feels like voting for John Kerry. Most years, even the lean ones, at least have a Moore in Far from Heaven or a Theron in Monster to inspire idolatry; sometimes, like last year, the leading women outstrip the men without breaking a sweat. This year's bum crop just feels inert.

3. I Don't Even Feel Like Continuing Who needs this? I don't feel as bilious toward this year's awards as I'm sounding like I am. Honestly, I'm just indifferent. But this is what happens every time I start writing about them, or even thinking about writing about them. (Cue Sandra Bullock: "I'm whiny all the time, and I don't know why!")

To resist this slide into grouchiness, I'd like to salute the nominees that do make me feel proud to watch the show, and have a little of that Academy magic attached to them. I wish there were more of them, but these'll do for an Honor Roll of the legitimately Oscarable:

Best Picture

Best Director
Bennett Miller, Capote
Steven Spielberg, Munich
(the latter for the film's wild ambitions and strongest passages, forgiving its lapses—it's the one political "issue" movie of the year that feels genuinely courageous, pushing itself to all of its own edges)

Best Actor
Philip Seymour Hoffman, Capote
Terrence Howard, Hustle & Flow
(Ledger has slipped a bit in my regard, and Strathairn is strait-jacketed by Clooney's stunningly narrow conception, but I will say that Phoenix unexpectedly improved on second view—a truly promising performance in need of a more daring director. Like, say, Bennett Miller.)

Best Supporting Actress
Amy Adams, Junebug
Catherine Keener, Capote
Rachel Weisz, The Constant Gardener

Best Original Screenplay
Noah Baumbach, The Squid and the Whale
(the ending notwithstanding)

Best Adapted Screenplay
Dan Futterman, Capote
Tony Kushner and Eric Roth, Munich

Best Cinematography
Emmanuel Lubezki, The New World
(by many leagues the year's best nomination, in any race)

Best Original Score
Dario Marianelli, Pride & Prejudice
(judicious and delicious understatement, perfectly matched to the film)

Best Original Song
"Travelin' Thru" from Transamerica

Best Sound
War of the Worlds

Best Sound Effects Editing
War of the Worlds

For the record, I'm predicting most of the same winners that everyone else is, but they go like this: Picture/Brokeback Mountain, Director/Lee, Actress/Witherspoon, Actor/Hoffman, Supporting Actress/Adams, Supporting Actor/Giamatti, Original Screenplay/Crash, Adapted Screenplay/Brokeback Mountain, Cinematography/Brokeback Mountain, Foreign-Language Film/Tsotsi, Film Editing/The Constant Gardener, Art Direction/Good Night, and Good Luck., Costume Design/Memoirs of a Geisha, Original Score/The Constant Gardener, Original Song/"Travelin' Thru" Sound/Walk the Line, Sound Effects/War of the Worlds, Visual Effects/King Kong, Makeup/The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Documentary Feature/Murderball, Documentary Short/God Sleeps in Rwanda, Animated Feature/Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, Live Action Short Film/Six Shooter, Animated Short/9

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Blogger tim r said...

I commiserate with your funk Nick, which feels like mine last year. The weird thing for me is that though I have my own reservations about Brokeback, which I think is altogether too careful a film and eventually a rather indistinct one, I'm somehow disproportionately happy that it's the Oscar front-runner. I think the moment can be embraced, basically, even if the movie only deserves an affectionate peck on the cheek. And though Best Actress is dispiriting — hardly a day goes by that I don't lament the measly fortunes of the truly revelatory Annette Bening — the beefiness of Best Actor is some compensation, no? I had much the same experience as you with Phoenix, who I think is significantly preferable to Witherspoon in their film, I think Stathairn works very well and stealthily within his movie's strait-jacket, and Ledger for me gives the most unexpectedly impressive perf of the last two or three years, in a role he could have fluffed horrendously. Leaving Hoffman and Howard who are pure class. I think the category's an embarrassment of riches, actually, and in a way it's a shame Hoffman's so comfortably ahead of the pack: we might have had a real four- or five-way anyone's-to-win race here.

If you're predicting an Adams win, which I'm not sure I am, surely that's one champagne cork to pop without prejudice? Just trying to find a silver lining for you: I do hate to see a fellow Oscar addict in the doldrums...

2:59 AM, March 04, 2006  
Blogger Javier Aldabalde said...

I don't understand how anything Steven Spielberg did in "Munich" could be considered courageous or enlightening. It's an exciting thriller but other than that??

ps: go Emmanuel!!

4:42 AM, March 04, 2006  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

Clearly, Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress are spirit-lifters, and Cinematography is a pretty classy field, too. The comparison to last year is part of what baffles me about my own resistance to the hoopla this year, because every nominated Picture is preferable to Ray and Finding Neverland; even my least favorite of the nominees, Good Night, and Good Luck., is about comparable to The Aviator. And in truth, I probably haven't been absorbed at my usual levels since '02. (On the Best Actor tip, too, I'm disappointed to say that Hustle & Flow was not well served on a second viewing, especially since that uniquely amber quality in the cinematography seems kind of harsh and coarse on DVD, and a return trip to GNGL really exacerbated my frustration with that movie, too, of which Strathairn was a collateral victim.)

I do think last year's riches in Best Actress helped. Or I think my mind is probably just in so many other places right now that I'm distracting myself from the customary obsession. Dunno. Thank goodness I have Nathaniel's Oscar party to look forward to, a guaranteed mood-creator.

4:51 AM, March 04, 2006  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

Two more tiny energy boosts about this year's race, both courtesy of the Nominees Luncheon: this photo of Matt Dillon, a truly handsome man, and the amazing one-piece pantsuit donned by that enviable and brainy fashionista Charlize Theron.

6:39 AM, March 04, 2006  
Blogger John T said...

I have to agree that there's a teensy bit of funk falling out of this year's categories, but that's more for me coming from the Best Actress category than anything else (I'm enamored completely with Brokeback). There's no one to completely root for-there's no Annette Bening, no Julianne Moore, no Nicole Kidman. Reese is my fave of the five (would certainly make my top five for the year), but there's no drama surrounding it, and there's nothing that really makes me want to stand up and say well-done. The thing that's keeping me interested is the hope that one of the Brokeback actors will pull an underdog win (though I want Weisz to beat Williams, I'll settle for either, or even the sterling Amy Adams).

Your Charlize Theron point brings up another thought though-which Best Actress nominees will be best and worst dressed? My money's on Charlize or Felicity for best, Reese for worst.

9:57 AM, March 04, 2006  
Blogger NATHANIEL R said...

you are too kind.

I admit that even I am in the doldrums about this year. This is NOT because of Brokeback which I completely adore (and moreso as time goes by)

but because of the acting races. supporting actor has a teensy bit of drama as to who will win but i'm not excited about any of the contestants.

supporting actress is a great race but with weisz out in front at both globes and sag it loses the air of "competitive" --even though someone could upset.

I'd love for Ledger or Gyllenhaal or Adams or Keener or Williams to surprise in their fields. but i'm not really expecting anyone to surprise.

i think i would be more excited if AT LEAST we have daring dressers in the women's categories. But there's no sally kirkland, helen mirren, bjork, courtney love, or cher in the mix to surprise us fashion wise either.

this is the real travesty of the actress category ;) this year

12:28 PM, March 04, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I share some of your lethargy, even though I do love Brokeback. This certainly won't be a year to remember, unless--horror of horrors--Lionsgate's Miramax imitation (130,000 screeners and $4+ million) steals Best Picture for Crash. And you know what? I almost hope it happens. Crash is a wretched film, but at least I could have pure and virtuous disgust at this year's awards instead of this feeling that nobody's going to remember any of this in a few years.

2:54 PM, March 04, 2006  
Blogger NATHANIEL R said...

oh goatdog. you really want a personal reason for a larger emotion trumping a historical win?

it's sad that so few people are as excited about Brokeback winning as they should be. i know people are bored and whatnot as its total dominance but the truth is that the ONLY thing people remember as time goes by is the Oscars.

seriously anybody think people can recite 5 golden globe winners of the top of their head (apart from awards junkies) even non-invested moviegoers could name 5 best-picture winning films off the top of their heads.

the weirdest thing for me about Brokebacks success has been the feeling amongst gay people that it's not gay enough. it makes me feel VERY old. Because it's certainly the gayest mainstream film i've ever seen.

i remember back when the only gay you could ever see was if you travelled to the arthouse to see a foreign import (like, say, My Beautiful Laundrette) and some of those very gay films from the new queer cinema are awesome. But it's not the same thing as a cultural zeitgeist event that's happening at the malls and in the oped pages.

so i wish people were more excited.

4:54 PM, March 04, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, I did say "almost," and I typed up a second comment that read "I can't believe I just typed that," but I didn't post it. It might actually kill me if Crash were to win.

For various reasons, I haven't been able to devote the time to being properly enthusiastic about the year-end awards season. I still haven't posted my annual "year in review" or given out my Goaties yet. I do love Brokeback, and I'm sure I'll feel just as excited as usual tomorrow--more, even, because Brokeback is both historically important and one of the best films of the year. Today, though, I felt really blah about the whole thing, which apparently makes me say rash, inexcusable things (see previous comment). So mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

11:30 PM, March 04, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am made somewhat uneasy by the embrace of BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN on political and zeitgeist grounds. In truth, it is a curiously conservative film both in terms of queer content and formal considerations. I would go so far as to say it's reactionary in its outlook. Not that I demand a rah-rah, everything is rosy for gays vista, but have you ever considered that the reason BROKEBACK has become oddly popular in mainstream circles is its comfortable affirmation that everything you've ever heard about homos is true (i.e., depressive, repressed, ultimately incapable of commitment, tortured, mega-conflicted, etc., etc. ad infinitum)?

I'm also left scratching my head at how we ignore the film's marketing campaign: we, the filmmakers, are actually straight and isn't it just great how we can empathize with our oppressed brethren and STILL make an Oscar-winning piece of entertainment??!!

No, thank you. Not for me.

12:54 PM, March 05, 2006  
Blogger NATHANIEL R said...

anonymous. i don't buy the belief that brokeback is reactionary and somehow anti-gay at ALL.

you will never be able to tell an honest story about "the closet" without the repression, depression, tragedy. that's the WHOLE POINT.

I don't like the idea that we have to rewrite history because today is different than yesterday (and it's not that much different which is the other tragedy). I think we need to acknowledged how horrendously tragic it is when people don't feel safe or comfortable being themselves. so in this way I think Brokeback is entirely progressive. It's showing us tragedy all over due to societal constraints against people expressing their love?

i don't understand how it could be any more progressive than it is (and still be rooted in reality)

and really --we should ALWAYS ignore the marketing campaign. marketing campaigns are a tiny blip in time. Films are forever. Should I enjoy Moulin Rouge! and Chicago less because their initial campaigns pretended they weren't musicals? Should I hate that Mexican vampire flick Cronos because the video cover is a voluptous naked woman with her neck bleeding and I know (having seen the film) that the movie is cerebral horror (rather than typically vampiric) and there is no voluptuous naked woman anywhere in the running time?


2:45 PM, March 05, 2006  

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