Thursday, August 17, 2006

The Fifties: A Midterm Progress Report

The Oscars. The Emmys. The Tonys. The Obies. The Césars. The Kansas City Film Critics Circle Awards. Employee of the Month. National Junior Honor Society. And now: The Fifties.

With the awards-baity fall movie season about to bow, 'tis the season for assessing the goods that have been on offer thus far in the year. Most prognosticators agree that United 93, World Trade Center, The Devil Wears Prada (care of Meryl Streep), and Half Nelson (care of Ryan Gosling) are the only January-August releases likely to have any impact on the top categories of next year's Oscars. Of course, we've already seen plenty of potential action in places like Animated Feature, Documentary Feature (especially with An Inconvenient Truth and Why We Fight), and Visual Effects. Maybe a screenplay nod for Little Miss Sunshine, too, but that's about it.

Still—and you had to know this was coming—I'm less interested in psyching out the Academy than in looking back at my own favorites from the winter, spring, and summer seasons of 2006. I'm not the first to hop this train, but now that I've officially seen 50 of this year's stateside releases, it seems like an opportune moment for a progress report. Plus, since no awards slate, real or imaginary, is complete without a Mrs. Harris controversy, you'll just have to accept the fact that I'm considering that film, which was intended for theatrical distribution but somehow got sold last fall to HBO, as a 2006 release. Grin and bear it. Be happy for Annette.

And with that—we're off!

Best Picture
Dave Chappelle's Block Party
Drawing Restraint 9
Inside Man
Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story

Runners-Up: L'Enfant, The Descent, Three Times
I'm still waiting for a real gobsmacker to roll down the pike. For now, Olivier Assayas' patient, subdued, but visually specific melodrama about a recovering drug addict ambivalently re-fitting herself for motherhood stands handily above the rest of the pack.

Best Director
Olivier Assayas, Clean
Michel Gondry, Dave Chappelle's Block Party
Spike Lee, Inside Man
Neil Marshall, The Descent
Michael Winterbottom, Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story

Runners-Up: Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, L'Enfant; João Pedro Rodrigues, Two Drifters
Again, Clean is so carefully and unpretentiously observant, gathering force as it continues without any histrionics, that I can't vote against Assayas. Still, Spike Lee makes a strong bid here, letting loose with an energetic, suspenseful, but deftly comic approach to a sturdy screenplay that needn't have been as witty and memorable as Lee made it. He expands his repertoire considerably, as well as his commercial prospects, but also makes Inside Man tonally and formally consistent within his body of work.

Best Actress
Annette Bening, Mrs. Harris
Maggie Cheung, Clean
Ana Cristina De Oliveira, Two Drifters
Gretchen Mol, The Notorious Bettie Page
Keke Palmer, Akeelah and the Bee

Runners-Up: None
Mol is the whole show in Bettie Page, fabricating personality, depth, and variation despite a weirdly tentative and direction-less script. Still, Cheung takes the cake with her deft underplaying, the way she listens to fellow actors and visibly reflects on what is happening rather than recycling clichés of zoned-out addiction or listless, weary recovery. Plus, she isn't unaccountably dull, like Cate Blanchett is in Little Fish.

Best Actor
Chang Chen, Three Times
Steve Coogan, Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story
Jérémie Renier, L'Enfant
Denzel Washington, Inside Man
Ray Winstone, The Proposition

Runners-Up: None
The ever-reliable Chang is something of a space-filler here. Renier, Washington, and Winstone rise more than admirably to their occasions, each of them responsible for some truly special moments in their films. Edward Norton (Down in the Valley) and Aaron Eckhart (Thank You for Smoking) won admiring reviews, but I found them both too smug by half, too transparent in assembling their performances. I'm clapping most loudly for Coogan, who plays "himself" as an even pettier, funnier, more feather-fluffing hedonist than he did in Coffee and Cigarettes, but I'll still be surprised (and dismayed) if any of these fellas winds up on my year-end list.

Best Supporting Actress
Seema Biswas, Water
Emily Blunt, The Devil Wears Prada
Charlotte Rampling, Lemming
Meryl Streep, A Prairie Home Companion
Emily Watson, The Proposition

Runners-Up: Jeanne Balibar, Clean; Joan Cusack, Friends with Money; Edie Falco, Freedomland; Meryl Streep, The Devil Wears Prada
Amidst the shimmering decorousness and obvious scripting in Water, Seema Biswas plays the single persuasive human, and she's fascinating. I'm not sure the movie means to be about her by the end, but she's so conflicted and captivating that she carries the whole film everywhere she moves. All of that being said, I'd be nearly as happy recognizing the other terrific nominees. Your whole heart goes out to Watson in The Proposition, even when she's technically on the side of wrong. Rampling is as deeply unnerving in Lemming as Emily Blunt is enchanting in her third-tier role in Prada. As for Streep, she's very funny in Prada, but the whole movie's being handed to her without quite challenging her, and she has a few more facets and less predictable timing in Prairie.

Best Supporting Actor
Rob Brydon, Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story
Woody Harrelson, A Prairie Home Companion
David Morse, Down in the Valley
Nick Nolte, Clean
Jérémie Segard, L'Enfant

Runners-Up: Jim Broadbent, Art School Confidential; Rory Culkin, Down in the Valley; Robert Downey, Jr., A Scanner Darkly; Jason Isaacs, Friends with Money; Clive Owen, Inside Man
Brydon is a hoot, and also very touching; Harrelson catches the light in his jaunty routines with John C. Reilly; David Morse keeps a stellar balance of the autocratic and the affectionate as Evan Rachel Wood's father in Down in the Valley, worried into bullishness. Still, Nolte's restraint and honest sentimentality as a grieving father in Clean, befriending his unreliable daughter-in-law against the wishes of his dying wife, make the very, very most of a trickily written role.

Clean, Olivier Assayas
Inside Man, Russell Gewirtz
Mrs. Harris, Phyllis Nagy
A Scanner Darkly, Richard Linklater
Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, Frank Cottrell Boyce

Runner-Up: Lemming, Dominik Moll and Gilles Marchand
The writing has been the most consistently inconsistent element in most of the good movies I've seen this year; there haven't even been enough strong showings to warrant separate races for Original and Adaptation. If Clean and Inside Man weren't so well directed, the scripts might not seem very special. By contrast, Mrs. Harris and A Scanner Darkly are more arresting as pieces of writing than the interesting but not particularly urgent films manage to let on. Tristram Shandy is the cleverest by far, both at rhyming so well with the source novel's entropic ribaldry and at finding jokes as well as honest emotion inside so many corners of the filmmaking process.

Best Cinematography
Clean, Eric Gautier
The Descent, Sam McCurdy
L'Enfant, Alain Marcoen
The Road to Guantánamo, Marcel Zyskind
Three Times, Mark Ping-bin Lee

Runners-Up: Dave Chappelle's Block Party, Ellen Kuras; The Hills Have Eyes, Maxime Alexandre; Poseidon, John Seale
All five of these films make superb choices about what to shoot, and though only Three Times is self-consciously beautiful, they all furnish their viewers with intensely hypnotic visual experiences. L'Enfant narrowly surpasses Clean in its precise choreography of camera movements, and in the subtle, seemingly on-the-fly framings that nonetheless impart to the proceedings, as does Gautier's work in Clean, an almost novelistic wealth of detail.

Best Film Editing
Clean, Luc Barnier
Dave Chappelle's Block Party, Jeff Buchanan, Sarah Flack, and Jamie Kirkpatrick
Inside Man, Barry Alexander Brown
Police Beat, Joe Shapiro and Mark Winitsky
United 93, Clare Douglas, Richard Pearson, and Christopher Rouse

Runners-Up: Brick, Rian Johnson; The Descent, Jon Harris; Mission: Impossible III, Maryann Brandon and Mary Jo Markey; Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, Peter Christelis
A race that would hold up just as well at year's end, though only United 93 stands any chance at being so recognized. Among distinguished company, Dave Chappelle's Block Party not only finds the buried jewels in what I expect were mounds of footage, but each embedded performance has a distinctive shape and cadence, and the whole film follows a lovely arc from straightforward concert doc to a more resonant urban collage.

Best Art Direction
Art School Confidential, Howard Cummings
The Descent, Simon Bowles
Monster House, Ed Verreaux
Poseidon, William Sandell
Three Times, Huang Wen-ying

Runners-Up: Drawing Restraint 9, Matthew D. Ryle and Matthew Barney; Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, John Paul Kelly
It started the summer as the bête noire among blockbusters, but I found Poseidon to be a craftily made and mounted picture, nowhere more so than in its pristine design by Sandell, who knows his way around watery wreckage (see The Perfect Storm and Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World). The ornate gorgeousness of Three Times also begs to be considered, but in the end, the deliciously macabre Monster House is my favorite, getting everything right from the omnivorous house of the title to the three appealingly drawn protagonists to the laugh-out-loud graphics of an arcade game called "Thou Art Dead."

Best Costume Design
The Devil Wears Prada, Patricia Field
Drawing Restraint 9, Matthew Barney
Friends with Money, Michael Wilkinson
Little Miss Sunshine, Nancy Steiner
The Notorious Bettie Page, John A. Dunn

Runners-Up: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, Penny Rose; A Prairie Home Companion, Catherine Marie Thomas; The Proposition, Margot Wilson
I'm tempted to place the star next to Prada's colorful and off-the-wall ensembles, which parody couture without being contemptuous of it, or else next to the aptly chosen daywear of Friends with Money, so attuned to how the abashedly rich keep dressing down as normal folks, while Jennifer Aniston's Olivia keeps popping up in duds that her gal-pals have probably bought for her. Still, there's no getting around the rococo parade outfits, the scrumptious textures, and the wild, weird meditations on Japanese culture that Matthew Barney built into his almost sculptural clothes for Drawing Restraint 9.

Best Sound
Dave Chappelle's Block Party
Inside Man
Miami Vice
Mission: Impossible III
United 93

Runners-Up: Clean; The Hills Have Eyes; A Prairie Home Companion; Tsotsi
Miami Vice may get an awful lot of things wrong, but the sound design isn't one of them. Note the expertly chosen and smartly incorporated songs, a score by John Murphy that detours away from the more obvious residues of the TV show, and some truly horrifying foley work for the shoot-outs and trailer-park explosions. The overlaid dialogue and sound elements of United 93 are nearly as crucial to the effectiveness of that film, and Block Party is one of the better-sounding concert docs, without losing its necessarily ragged edge. Already a sterling field, then... hopefully with still more glories to come between now and New Year's Eve!

Meanwhile, my Dishonor Roll of 2006 so far would run like this:
Worst Picture: Ask the Dust
Worst Director: Michael Caton-Jones, Basic Instinct 2
Worst Actress: Natalie Portman, V for Vendetta
Worst Actor: Kevin Kline, A Prairie Home Companion
Worst Supporting Actress: Idina Menzel, Ask the Dust
Worst Supporting Actor: Simon Baker, The Devil Wears Prada
Worst Screenplay: Lady in the Water, M. Night Shyamalan
Worst Cinematography: Thank You for Smoking, James Whitaker
Worst Film Editing: Why We Fight, Nancy Kennedy

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Blogger Yaseen Ali said...

I am thrilled to see so much love for Clean, which I'd rank among the best of 2006 as well if it hadn't been released here in Canada last year. Maggie Cheung deserved all kinds of awards attention post-Cannes, but she doesn't seem like the kind of actor who cares much about Golden Globes or Oscars. Eh.

Also, glad to see Seema Biswas get a mention for Water (she won the Canadian Genie for Best Actress earlier this year). I share your thoughts about the film (the romantic track is painfully transparent), but I also loved the cinematography and little Sarala in it as well.

Your "Worst" citations were fun, but can you expand on Natalie Portman? She wasn't stellar, but I'm sure you could have found something even less accomplished in the fifty films you've seen this year. I thought she was solid, no more, no less.

11:06 PM, August 17, 2006  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

Ali: So glad you're a Clean fan, and a partisan of Seema Biswas' terrific performance, too.

As for Portman: I'm not categorically anti-Natalie, but I think she tends to come across stiffly in her more serious roles. I found most of her line readings in V for Vendetta really painful, and even though she seemed more intellectually involved in what she was doing, her energy registered way down at Padmé levels. I could have stuck Sharon Stone in this spot, but she at least manages "presence" on screen, even when her film and her performance are for the dogs; and while Bryce Dallas Howard had a lot of trouble in Manderlay and Lady in the Water, she at least mined a couple more moments out of those atrocious scripts than Natalie did out of hers.

12:57 AM, August 18, 2006  
Blogger tim r said...

Portman would be way down on my own dishonour roll, but (whisper it softly) so would Cheung, if the truth be told. I found it a deeply bizarre performance, almost Sphinx-like in the way it seemed to withhold all the necessary dimensions to make the character accessible, interesting or even human. For me she was an insurmountable flaw in a movie I wished I'd liked more. Still, I'm glad we agree on Blanchett in Little Fish. Z z and indeed z.

One of our few other points of departure this year is that I'm struggling to see what's so atrocious about Manderlay. I guess everyone comes out of that film with their own take on it, but I found my intellect engaged and my attitudes messed with, quite productively.

We're on the same page a lot though, and it's particularly great to see Bening make it in, like she did for me last year, given your ambivalence to her generally. She really is a joy to watch in that part. I think Reese Witherspoon must whisper a little thank you to HBO, every day...

4:26 AM, August 18, 2006  
Blogger NATHANIEL R said...

i'm relatively ambivalen on Cheung myself (well, just this performance I mean) I liked it OK. But Tim has put more eloquently into words the problem I had with it. It was like "give me something --anything." I love her mystery but in this one role --too mysterious for me.

totally agree on Portman. All she's doing is hitting the surface beats of each scene. She hits them OK but absolutely no character emerges... which is her job, even if the screenplay makes for a sucky human resources department.

6:14 AM, August 18, 2006  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

Whooo, damn—Maggie's getting knocked around. I'm eager to revisit that film in order to write a full review, at which point I'll make a longer case. I agree that the performance operates on an extremely subdued register, and I wonder why it is that I felt so pulled into Emily instead of held away from her, as Tim and Nathaniel did. More to follow.

2:14 PM, August 18, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm glad at least somebody saw and remembered Tristram Shandy - in terms of 2006 American releases, I'd go ahead and give it Screenplay, Actor AND Picture.

And thank you for dismissing Cate Blanchett's catatonic nothingness in Little Fish. Her reputation alone won her Best Actress at the Australian version of the Oscars over infinitely more deserving candidates.

10:23 PM, August 18, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ask the Dust was a so-so movie, but I disagree on Idina Menzel as worst supporting actress. I thought she did a wonderful job in her too small role. She was one of the few bright spots in the movie.

7:43 PM, August 19, 2006  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

I didn't dislike Menzel as much as I did Portman, Kline, or the perpetually Baker in their vehicles; at least in the movies I have seen, no supporting actress has really stunk up the joint in 2006, which has been a lovely relief.

I do think Menzel failed to make her character cohere very clearly, though—doing her best to use her natural effusiveness as a way into the character (and admittedly without much help from the script). Still, for this odd episode in the story to work, I thought I needed to know this woman a little more intimately, and to be able to parse out her various motivations and attitudes a little more clearly than Menzel allowed me to do.

Thanks for writing in!

8:03 PM, August 19, 2006  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

(That was meant to read "perpetually bargain-basement Baker," but then, for an actor like him, maybe it's more fun to supply your own adjective?)

8:04 PM, August 19, 2006  
Blogger RC said...

i haven't heard of clean before i read this post.

obviously a favorite of yours, i will have to investigate.

--RC of

2:07 AM, August 21, 2006  

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