Thursday, December 07, 2006

The Good, the Bad, and the NBR

The National Board of Review, once upon a time the closest thing to a ratings board for Hollywood movies, is now a diaphanous and fairly dubious group who nonetheless bestow the first major awards in the pre-Oscar qualifying heats. Every year, we awards trackers lend them further and false credibility by continuing to predict, await, scrutinize, and discuss their choices. Yes, it's a silly ritual with no valid defenses—auguring only for the future silliness of the Golden Globes and the Oscars, and not always very accurately. But no, we can't help it, and yes, we frigging love it. So, winners and responses:

Best Film: Letters from Iwo Jima This movie may well be wonderful, and God knows there isn't a strong case to be made for many of its competitors among already-released movies. Eastwood's Mystic River also won here, and Million Dollar Baby was a big hit with this group in 2004. Still, Eastwood's recent run of awards success has made him seem like old hat, and his increasingly divisive status among audiences and Oscar-hawks, plus the lack of an existing fan-base for Letters until it opens on December 20, are likely to make this an unpopular NBR win.

Honor Roll of Runners-Up: Babel, Blood Diamond, The Departed, The Devil Wears Prada, Flags of Our Fathers, The History Boys, Little Miss Sunshine, Notes on a Scandal, and The Painted Veil I'm surprised by the rousing favor shown to Edward Zwick's Blood Diamond, both despite and because of the embarrassing fact that the NBR was equally kind three years ago to Zwick's The Last Samurai (Best Director and runner-up for Best Picture). Samurai's reviews were middling and Diamond's have mostly been awful, but this strange affinity persists. Most of the rest of this list is predictable for this group, which means it is dispiriting in the extreme, and virtually incoherent outside of studio allegiance. I'm sorry to see the mediocrity of Flags get bestowed with a medal of honor, and however much fun their performances are, it's hard for me to imagine endorsing The Devil Wears Prada or Notes on a Scandal as films. Still, in a bum year, it's hard to be too critical.

Top Independent Films: Akeelah and the Bee, Bobby, Catch a Fire, Copying Beethoven, A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, Half Nelson, The Illusionist, Lonesome Jim, Sherrybaby, 10 Items or Less, and Thank You for Smoking Invariably a strange and qualitatively variable list, ranging from the exceptional (Half Nelson) to the proficient (Akeelah, Guide, Sherrybaby) all the way to the dolorous and overrated (Bobby, Catch a Fire, Illusionist, Thank You for Smoking). I walked to the theater twice to become the only person on my block who saw Copying Beethoven, and both times I turned around, unable to commit. Now I'll never know. 10 Items or Less is currently playing downtown, but I am telling you, I'm not going. There's just no way. There's noooo way.

Best Director: Martin Scorsese, The Departed Hopefully the beginning of a good roll for Marty. I actually have a hard time seeing anyone but him winning Best Director. The Departed's three biggest threats for Best Picture are probably Dreamgirls, Letters from Iwo Jima, and The Queen, but I think Scorsese is certain to trump Condon, Eastwood, or Frears even if their movies win.

Best Actress: Helen Mirren, The Queen Neither the film nor the performance struck me as digging very deep or accomplishing very much. An Oscar for Mirren seems pretty inevitable; I'm hoping that it isn't, but if not her, who? Cruz can't beat her. Dench can't. Streep would be a major, major upset.

Best Actor: Forest Whitaker, The Last King of Scotland One of my favorite NBR picks, especially since this group seems tailor-made for the Peter O'Toole and Will Smith camps. Whitaker was sensational in Scotland, but the buzz was flagging due to the picture's middling performance. This prize ought to keep him near the head of the pack.

Best Supporting Actress: Catherine O'Hara, For Your Consideration Not a supporting performance, really, but a very funny and proficient one, especially given her saggy vehicle. Is this how she'll stay categorized throughout the season?

Best Supporting Actor: Djimon Hounsou, Blood Diamond I've been calling Hounsou a contender for months. Oddly, now that he's actually won something and people are calling it a surprise, I feel less sure than ever that he'll be an Oscar nominee: the NBR doesn't have a great track record in the Supporting races, and as stated above, they're such an easy lay for Zwick movies that this citation feels less than sincere. Still, it's a wide-open race, and any awards recognition can help (especially if you're a past Oscar nominee, like Hounsou is). An extra fun twist: after 2001, when the Berry and Washington wins sparked this absurd furor of "OH MY GOD, ALL THE WINNERS ARE BLACK!!!", I can only imagine how the media will hyperventilate about TWO actors playing African men being awards contenders in the same year... a "trend," surely?

Best Foreign Language Film: Volver Not the most exciting or creative pick, but it's a very agreeable movie, and there hasn't been much auspicious competition this year.

Best Documentary Feature: An Inconvenient Truth Not the most exciting or creative pick, but it's a topical and informative movie, and there hasn't been much auspicious competition this year.

Best Animated Feature: Cars Not the most exciting or creative pick, but it's a very profitable movie, and there hasn't.... hey wait, AGAIN? (I hope one of the other groups goes for A Scanner Darkly, which at least pushes the bounds of animation a lot further than Cars does, or else the deliciously macabre and beautifully designed Monster House.)

Best Ensemble Cast: The Departed My second trip through this movie today only confirmed that it deserves every Ensemble Cast award in sight. Damon, DiCaprio, Wahlberg, Farmiga, Sheen, Baldwin, Winstone, Anderson, O'Hara, Rolston, Dale... all of them sensational. And even though Jack begs too much for attention and affection, he fit the piece better on second look than he did on the first.

Best Original Screenplay: Stranger Than Fiction One of two unforgivable citations. An unfunny, unromantic "romantic comedy" that can't even make sense of its own devices (is Harold real or not?) or keep track of a tiny ensemble (who is Queen Latifah playing?) or live up to its basic conceptions (shouldn't Karen's novel sound better than things I ordered from Arrow Book Club in fifth grade?). And this is the NBR's pick for the best-written movie of the year. Stranger than fiction, indeed, and also more outrageous.

Best Adapted Screenplay: The Painted Veil Brought to you by Ron Nyswaner, the genius craftsman who wrought for us Tom Hanks' florid exegesis on opera in Philadelphia. But, I haven't seen The Painted Veil, so maybe this honor is deserved. (What, I don't sound convinced?)

Breakthrough Performance Female – Tie: Jennifer Hudson, Dreamgirls and Rinko Kikuchi, Babel I found Kikuchi serviceable but a little opaque, and if her character weren't deaf, I wonder if she'd be receiving all this praise. As for Hudson... I really want Dreamgirls to knock me over when it comes. Really, I do. But I keep being underwhelmed by the appetizers: I don't like the trailer, I don't love "Listen," and Hudson's take on "And I Am Telling You, I'm Not Going" sounds over-rehearsed and bizarrely phrased, like someone trying awfully hard not to recycle an earlier and still-definitive rendition. Maybe watching her perform it will help. Serve me these words on a saucer if I'm wrong. But the hype on Hudson is starting to feel like homework: "You're gonna love me!" indeed.

Breakthrough Performance (Male): Ryan Gosling, Half Nelson Will any of the other critics' groups have the gumption to cede Best Actor to him? I have hope for the NYFCC, at least. Hilary Swank started here for Boys Don't Cry, then conquered the Manhattanites, and finally rode her momentum all the way to Oscar. No one since has so fully deserved to repeat that trajectory as Gosling does.

Best Directorial Debut: Jason Reitman, Thank You for Smoking The other unforgivable award, not just because Smoking is so smug and empty, but because the direction is the worst part: indulging some actors while neglecting others, and supervising one of the ugliest-looking comedies in some time. Still, the movie made money, so here's a trophy. And it's from the people who gave the same prize to Garden State, against which most of the same complaints could be lodged, so go figure.

Freedom of Expression Award: Water and World Trade Center For so handsomely beautifying and simplifying complex cultural problems, though at least Water offered some stirring scenes and one exceptional performance along the way.

Get Outta Our Face Award: Apocalypto, Borat, Fast Food Nation, The Good German, The Good Shepherd, Hollywoodland, Little Children, The Pursuit of Happyness, United 93, and Venus Little Children especially seems like the NBR's cuppa, and In the Bedroom was a big hit with them, so Todd Field can't be happy. (But then, judging from his movies, is he ever?) People will say Dreamgirls lost out big here, too, which is pretty true... and yet, the Hudson nod isn't negligible, and bear in mind that the NBR also "snubbed" the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Boy did that kill some Oscar momentum.

(Images © 2006 Warner Bros.; © 2006 Lions Gates Films/Starbucks Entertainment; © 2006 Fox Searchlight Pictures; © 2006 Sony Pictures Classics; and © 2006 ThinkFilm)

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