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The 2005 Best Picture nominees

“It’s time to ask yourself what you believe,” Indiana Jones was told some 19 years ago (both in movie and in actual time). In his first few adventures on film both he, the hero, and we, the viewers are forced to confront the idea of actually having to believe something, to have an opinion. Kingdom of the Crystal Skull doesn’t ask that of its viewers. It is the fifties science fiction story reborn in a modern summer blockbuster. The only people who will wonder whether to believe in the new film are the same kind of nuts who spend their spare time expounding theories that the Pentagon wasn’t hit by an airplane. That doesn’t mean films don’t ask us to confront our beliefs. It just means this summer’s adventure fare is not the best choice.
So let’s take a look back a couple of years. To the 2005 Oscar race to be exact, not only because a group of films came out that asked us to confront our beliefs but because those beliefs that were confronted have a resonance in the world at large today.
Are you racist? Even a little bit? More than you might be careful admitting? Do you have liberal beliefs that can be applied in theory, but in practice you’re much more nervous around people not like you than you want to admit? Isn’t that the core question of Crash, the film that came out on top? Well, actually, that’s the core problem with Crash. It’s not a film with a message. It’s a message made of film.
There are a number of problems with Crash. The first is that in an early scene, Sandra Bullock, the liberal who believes that we are all equal still feels uptight when she passes the young blacks. Haggis makes you feel her discomfort because the two young men are articulate and interesting. Then he undermines her point by having them carjack her. Yes, she felt nervous. But it turns out she should have been nervous. They’re hoods. But at least Bullock’s reaction was a normal one, as opposed to the ridiculous way Ryan Phillipe’s character reacts at the end of the film. There is nothing about the character, nothing about the story to make you feel that he would have done that.

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Crash (2005): it won the Oscar but didn't deserve it

But Haggis’ film doesn’t exist in the real world. It exists in the fantasy world where people in Los Angeles come and go and connect. I lived in the LA suburbs for eleven years. People in LA don’t have these connections, they don’t live in a world of Dickensian coincidence. They’re isolated in their cars and backyards, their pools and cellphones. They’re not thrown together on public transportation in close together cities like in New York and Boston. There is a separation in LA. Crash tries to show how all people are connected, sort of like Magnolia, except Magnolia was a story about various people and we slowly learned how they were all interconnected. Crash tries to force connections between people.
In the end, it became obvious that the choice was between Crash and Brokeback. But with the failed battles for gay rights during the election of 04, with close minded idiots like Ernest Borgnine and Tony Curtis espousing that such a movie like Brokeback would make John Wayne roll over in his grave, with the thought that everyone could feel like a good Hollywood liberal by voting for the film that addresses racism, they voted for the weaker film.
What exactly was it that made people vote against Brokeback? Unlike Crash, it’s not a message picture. It’s a story about two people overwhelmed by passion for each other, beyond any reason. I don’t say it’s a love story because Ennis and Jack never get a chance to find out if they love each other. There is no question that they are filled with an overwhelming physical desire (as seen in their first reunion scene) and a devastating emotional need (especially evident at the conclusion). It just happens that these two people can’t be together because they’re both male. Fifty years ago it could have been because they were of different races. And that’s the other overwhelming question that will come up in this year’s election. Do you believe that two people don’t have the right to marry because they’re the same gender? Because people feel okay with the issues brought to mind in Crash because as a nation we have moved on. That’s why we have a black man running for president. The only real thought provoking moment in Crash is when the store owner is referred to as an Arab because people still don’t grasp that Iranians aren’t Arabs, they’re Persians. It’s not a good sign to have only one real moment like that in a film designed around a message. Brokeback never had that problem because it focuses on telling a story of these two poor tragic lovers.
In the end it’s easy to see that I think Brokeback is a much better film. Nor am I alone. We don’t have to wait for history to make that judgement like they did with Citizen Kane or Raging Bull. Between the major awards and critics groups, Brokeback had twice as many nominations and three times as many wins. It took Best Picture from every awards group except the ensemble from SAG and took three of the Critics groups. Even the Academy gave it more nominations and the Directors, who traditionally have better taste then the Academy as a whole (Gladiator or Traffic? Chicago or the Pianist?) gave it the Oscar.

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Brokeback Mountain (2005): the second best film of the year and the one everyone thought would win

What I haven’t pointed out so far is that Brokeback was not my top film of the year. My number one film of 2005 was Munich. And if there’s any film from 2005 that makes you wonder what you believe, it’s Munich.
This is already becoming a core argument in this election. Bush has already made a speech in Israel arguing against apeasement. McCain has pointed out the need for the connection between Israel and the US. Right wing books constantly point out pro-Palestinian supporters and how dangerous they are (most notably books by David Horowitz). People take firm stances on one side or the other.
All of this is what makes Munich such a good film. It refuses to take a side. As is said in the movie “there is no peace at the end of this.” Because unlike racism (do you believe that another race is inferior) or homophobia (do you believe homosexuality is morally wrong) this is not a simple question. There are two different groups of people existing in the same land, a land which is holy to both sides (and to a whole other group that encompasses most of the Western world). Both sides have committed horrible acts against the other side. In Munich we hear Avner’s mother tell him “we had to take it because no one would ever give it to us. Whatever it took, whatever it takes, we have a place on Earth at last.” Spielberg goes along with this point but doesn’t back down from showing the horrible repercussions that come with defending a land and a people with whatever it takes.
The most striking moment, of course, is when Avner’s group ends up in the same safehouse with the PLO and two of them talk to each other through the night. War has its calm moments like this, and much like the Christmas ceasefire in the first World War, everything becomes more poignant when you have a moment to talk and think. I believe moments like this exist because one of my closest friends growing up had beliefs that were the polar opposite of mine and we still found we had so much in common to talk about.
Crash wants you to make a moral and political decision. History has vindicated its point of view. Brokeback wants to tell a tragic story that comes down on one side of a moral and political view. History will vindicate its point of view. Munich has the courage not to take a side in its debate. It dares you take the time and think about what side you have chosen. That is what makes it such a brilliant film.

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Munich (2005): Spielberg's film is my #1 for the year

Now ask yourself this. Do you have a side? Do you feel one way or another about what goes in the Middle East? Now ask yourself this. How do you feel about Tibet? As the Olympics go to China will you spare a minute for this land, held for decades by an occupying power held in check over ancient feuds over whose land it is? Now take a look at Gaza and the West Bank. And decide if you still feel the same.

You have an easier path than Indiana Jones did. You don’t have to make a leap of faith to save your father from certain death. But then again, how easy is it to really decide what you believe?

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