The 2005 Best Picture nominees

The 78th annual Academy Awards, for the film year 2005.  The nominations were announced on January 31, 2006 and the awards were held on March 5, 2006.

Best Picture:  Crash

  • Good Night and Good Luck
  • Munich
  • Brokeback Mountain
  • Capote

Most Surprising Omission:  Walk the Line

Best Eligible Film Not Nominated:  King Kong

Rank (out of 84) Among Best Picture Years:  #5

The Race:  When looking at the race in March of 2005, Oscarrace listed its five predicted nominees as Brokeback Mountain, Cinderella Man, Memoirs of a Geisha, The New World and Untitled Spielberg Olympics Project.  Oscarwatch was similar, with Kingdom of Heaven in place of New World and with Vengeance as the title for the Spielberg film.  There were sure bets that people were going with and some of them were risky as could be.

There was very strong early word on Brokeback Mountain – it had a director that was now overdue for an Oscar, having been passed over for a nomination in 1995 for Sense and Sensibility and having won the DGA in 2000 for Crouching Tiger, but not the Oscar.  It also had the critically acclaimed story from the New Yorker by Annie Proulx as a strong source and Larry McMurtry doing the adaptation.  Cinderella Man was from director Ron Howard, who now had an Oscar and any serious film from him now how to be considered a contender – especially given that it starred two Oscar winners (Russell Crowe and Renee Zelwegger) and one actor who had been passed over for a nomination the year before (Paul Giamatti).  Memoirs of a Geisha had the massive selling book behind it, and was the second film from Rob Marshall, whose Chicago, sight unseen, had been the favorite for the Oscar through all of 2002 and actually went on to win.  Kingdom of Heaven was the new film from Ridley Scott – meaning that the 2000, 2001 and 2002 Best Picture winning directors all had films in the race (so did Peter Jackson, the 2003 winner – his King Kong was still an unknown quantity but was thought to at least be in the race) and Scott’s film, set in the 12th Century, had modern implications, with its story of Christian / Islam battles in the Holy Land.  New World had Terrence Malick behind it and critics were anxious for him to finally make a fourth film (and his third had earned 7 nominations).

Then there was Spielberg.  Like Chicago in 2002, this film was already expected to be a contender, if not the front-runner to win Best Picture in spite of the fact that it wasn’t even finished.  Spielberg was providing another double whammy – a summer fantasy film (War of the Worlds), then a serious film for Christmas.  But his film about the Munich massacre didn’t have a set title and was nowhere near being done.  Yet, with his long absence from the race, Spielberg seemed to be back with a vengeance (no pun intended).

The first thing to shake up the race was the departure of Harvey Weinstein from Miramax, the company he had founded.  That meant that his strong campaigning ways would not be a part of the Oscar race.  This came at the same time that Kingdom of Heaven, the first of the possible contenders opened.  While it got some good reviews and a solid first weekend, business quickly dropped and it was apparent that it would lose a lot of money and would go nowhere in the Oscar race.  Opening the same weekend, Crash, a film about L.A. from Paul Haggis, who had was coming off the Oscar-winning Million Dollar Baby, earned an absolute rave from Roger Ebert and started to garner some strong word of mouth from people in the industry.  And with a miniscule budget, unlike Kingdom, it would be a money-maker, rather than a colossal financial failure.  Then came Cinderella Man, and in spite of strong reviews, it couldn’t garner any traction in a box office where everyone was flocking to Star Wars and Batman, prompting an article from Sharon Waxman about what went wrong only two weeks after it had opened.  It still seemed a strong contender but it’s “sure thing” status was gone.  And among the summer fare, the only film that was even a remote contender for anything other than technical categories was Batman Begins, the new Christopher Nolan reboot.  The race would be on hold until Labor Day.

With Labor Day came The Constant Gardener from director Fernando Meirelles (Oscar nominee for City of God) and starring Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz.  With no other strong Oscar contender in the month, it was able to garner strong reviews and stick around long enough to make an impression.  But as the month ended, came two new strong contenders: A History of Violence, from director David Cronenberg and Capote, a new film about Truman Capote’s time in Kansas writing In Cold Blood.  Both film instantly earned buzz in multiple categories and earned excellent reviews and solid box office in limited release.

So, going into the fall, the race was already drastically different.  Kingdom of Heaven was done and Cinderella Man was weakened.  No one yet knew if New World or Munich would even open before the end of the year.  And no one had yet seen Memoirs of a Geisha.  But Brokeback now had the Golden Lion from the Venice Film Festival to build upon.  And it had a host of new contenders – Crash, The Constant Gardener, A History of Violence, Capote, and the newest film opening – Good Night and Good Luck.  This was George Clooney’s second film as a director, about the television showdown between Edward R. Murrow and Joseph McCarthy.  It used a platform opening, with strong reviews and good word of mouth and a slowly building box office in all the major cities and had joined Brokeback as a sure thing in the race.

Only one more major contender would arrive before mid-December.  Opening against the latest Harry Potter film as counter-programming, Walk the Line was the musical biopic of Johnny Cash.  With great reviews for stars Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon, strong reviews and strong box office, it immediately leaped into the fray in all the major categories, helped by it’s likely sweep of the Golden Globe Comedy / Musical categories, as there were no other serious contenders; a good sign as each of the last four winners of Best Picture – Comedy / Musical had earned an Oscar nomination.

Before any of the final slew of major contenders could come out the awards season began.  The National Board of Review kicked things off by giving Best Picture to Good Night and Good Luck and Best Director to Ang Lee with most of the major contenders (Crash, Capote, Munich, A History of Violence, Walk the Line, Memoirs of a Geisha) included in their Top 10.  Then came the New York and LA Film Critics, both of whom gave Best Picture and Director to Brokeback.  The Broadcast Film Critics, who had become the best barometer for the Academy, included all the same group except A History of Violence, and added in The Constant Gardener, Cinderella Man and King Kong.

Then came the long awaited openings of Brokeback and GeishaBrokeback was an immediate hit – getting great box office in a limited run, critical raves and phenomenal word-of-mouth.  It wasn’t quite the same for Geisha, which had the box office, but couldn’t pull off the critical acclaim.  This was followed by the Golden Globe nominations.  Brokeback had the lead with 7 noms, and was competing with Good Night and Good Luck for Picture, Director and Screenplay (as well as Woody Allen’s newest film, Match Point, which had earned him his best reviews in years, yet had missed out on the critical BFCA nomination).  The Constant Gardener was also in the race for Picture and Director and while it was joined by A History of Violence in the Picture race, it was Spielberg and Jackson who earned Best Director nominations (without Picture nominations).  Walk the Line, as expected, had the Picture, Actor and Actress Comedy / Musical categories wrapped up.  But Crash had only earned two nominations (Screenplay and Supporting Actor) and Capote only one (Actor).

This was soon counter-acted by the remaining critics awards.  While Brokeback would take Picture and Director in Boston, it would be Capote that would win the National Society of Film Critics while Crash would win the Chicago Film Critics (and Cronenberg taking Best Director in both).  In the meantime, Munich finally opened and the reviews were mixed as many critics couldn’t decide what to make of the film.

Then came the various guilds.  First was the Writers Guild – the adapted race included Brokeback, Capote, Constant Gardener and A History of Violence while the original category had Crash, Good Night and Good Luck and Cinderella Man.  Next came the Producers Guild and they had Brokeback, Capote, Crash, Good Night and Good Luck and Walk the Line.  Finally, came the Directors Guild, and they had Brokeback, Capote, Crash, Good Night and Good Luck and Munich.  The SAG Ensemble went with Brokeback, Crash, Capote, Good Night and Good Luck and Hustle and Flow.  The race had suddenly taken shape.  Only two films had ever earned DGA, WGA, PGA and SAG nominations and not been nominated by the Academy – Being John Malkovich and Almost Famous.  That left four almost guaranteed nominees, with Munich, Constant Gardener, Walk the Line, A History of Violence and Cinderella Man all hoping to slide in and take the fifth spot.

The Results:  Like the previous three years, the DGA matched Best Picture 5/5.  But for the first time since 1998, it matched Best Director 5/5 and for the first time since 1981 it matched them both.  Munich had joined Brokeback, Crash, Good Night and Good Luck and Capote with Picture and Director nominations – only the fourth time in the 5 Best Picture nominee era (1944-2008) that they matched perfectly.  Brokeback was in the lead with 8 nominations; no other film had more than 6.  But many astute Oscar observers pointed out that Brokeback didn’t have a Best Editing nomination – a category that no Best Picture winner had been without since 1980.

Then came the wins.  Brokeback started winning everything in sight.  It already had won Best Picture, Director and Screenplay at the Globes (a trifecta that had ended with Oscar gold the last three times and six of the last seven).  It took Best Picture and Director at the BFCA (which had ended with Oscar gold the last three times).  It won the DGA, PGA and WGA (all six previous films to do this had won the Oscar and only two films in the previous 50 years to win the DGA and WGA had failed to win Best Picture at the Oscars).  It then became the first film since Schindler’s List to win Picture, Director and Screenplay at the BAFTA’s.  All that remained was for to it to win the Oscar.

But then came the cracks in the armor.  First, there was the win for Crash at the SAG Ensemble (having already won the WGA Original Screenplay).  Then came the smear campaigns – the most prominent being the derogatory remarks by Tony Curtis and Ernest Borgnine about the “gay cowboy” film and how John Wayne would spin in his grave.

But going into the awards ceremony, it still seemed like the easy winner; what had come before was just too overwhelming to ignore.  Then came the writing awards, and they were split between Brokeback and Crash.  But then there was Best Director and Ang Lee, after being snubbed in 95 and nominated in 00, had finally won.  It seemed all that was necessary to do was to give Brokeback the Oscar.  And then Jack Nicholson went up and opened the envelope and seemed visibly stunned (later saying because he had voted for Brokeback) and announced the winner as Crash.

The poster that gives away a later part of the film.

Crash

  • Director:  Paul Haggis
  • Writer:  Paul Haggis  /  Robert Moresco
  • Producer:  Paul Haggis  /  Cathy Schulman
  • Studio:  Lions Gate
  • Stars:  Don Cheadle, Matt Dillon, Sandra Bullock, Terrence Howard, Thandie Newton, Ryan Phillipe
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Supporting Actor (Dillon), Editing, Original Song (“In the Deep”)
  • Oscar Points:  315
  • Length:  110 min
  • Genre:  Drama  (Social)
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Box Office Gross:  $54.58 mil  (#49  –  2005)
  • Release Date:  6 May 2005
  • Metacritic Score:  69
  • Ebert Rating:  ****
  • My Rating:  ***
  • My Rank:  #68  (year)  /  #327  (nominees)  /  #67  (winners)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Supporting Actor (Dillon), Original Song (“In the Deep”)
  • Nighthawk Points:  40

The Film:  If I just wanted to get my feelings about this film across, I could simply quote the line from A.O. Scott that appears on metacritic as his review summary: “So what kind of a movie is Crash? A frustrating movie: full of heart and devoid of life; crudely manipulative when it tries hardest to be subtle; and profoundly complacent in spite of its intention to unsettle and disturb.”  But that’s not really enough.  I’ve said it once before.  Crash masquerades as a film with a message.  In reality, Crash is a message, wrapped in the package of a film.  That was one of the things that instantly struck me when I first saw the film, at the same time that it looked like it might suddenly unseat Brokeback and win Best Picture.  That this film could be taken seriously, as either a portrait of Los Angeles, or a look at racism, seemed strange at the time and only more so after it actually won the Oscar.  But, now, six years later, I can watch the film again and see it’s even weaker than it seemed in the first place.

There are all sorts of problems with Crash.  The first is its ridiculous notion of Los Angeles.  Haggis seems to have gotten a notion of LA like Woody Allen’s Manhattan, where people can just run into each other.  Yes, there are 1.5 million people in Manhattan, but there are only 23 square miles of it, and when you have large neighborhoods that these people avoid, the area is even smaller.  What’s more, people in Manhattan walk – they walk everywhere and that’s how they run into each other.  Then there is LA, where the 3.7 million people are spread out over 486 square miles.  What’s more, people in Los Angeles don’t walk.  They are isolated in their cars and their cell-phones and their individual bubbles.  Nothing in Crash is remotely plausible because LA is not a city of Dickensian coincidences.  In a film like Magnolia, you can watch how connections unfold, because those connections already existed and we are simply learning about them.  But in Crash, we are expected to believe all these characters keep cutting across each other, when they would clearly be in completely different parts of the city.  And it’s not like we won’t see these coincidences coming.  After all, it’s early in the film that we see Matt Dillon’s brutal racist treatment of Thandie Newton, yet, we know they must meet again, because they’re there together on the freaking poster.

Then there is the racism.  I’m not in any way going to claim that we live in a post-racial society.  A quick look at the voting shifts in 2008 make it very clear that parts of the country historically known for racism were just about the only parts of the country to vote in higher percentages for McCain than they had for W.  But nor do I believe that every person who voted for McCain did so because of race or that I voted for Obama because he was black.  But in Haggis’ world, it seems like race is the underlying factor in every single decision, every single minute of everybody’s lives.

What’s more, in Haggis’ world, it doesn’t seem to matter what you believe.  There are characters who suddenly swing on a turn and don’t do what we believe they would (that’s called lazy writing – having characters act out of character because it’s what you need for the plot).  But then there are characters who act sensibly, but then are betrayed by the plot.  Look at the early moment with Sandra Bullock.  She’s a good little liberal, wants to believe the best in all people, that the races are equal.  But, she has that flinch.  Even thought they’re well-dressed young black men, she’s rich and just walking down the street and she has a knee-jerk reaction.  That seems to be Haggis’ point – that underlying fears of other races can’t ever quite escape our brains.  But, then those two men carjack her.  The whole damn point is her instinctive flinch of people she shouldn’t be flinching from, but then, there she is – right about the whole situation.  It takes what could be a thoughtful, painful little truth and makes it completely pointless.  But then, so much of the film is like that – complain about the black guy who doesn’t sound black to the director who is just the same, blackball the racist cop by ignoring the fact that the black cop he killed was probably corrupt.  Everything becomes about race.

But then here’s where I have to cut myself off.  Because there are all those people who think that Crash is one of the worst films to ever win Best Picture, and I’m sorry, but that’s just stupid.  Was it a terrible choice to pick Crash?  Yes.  Was it made more awful that it seemed homophobic to not pick Brokeback (which wasn’t my #1 film of the year, but had swept all the awards and was an unprecedented loser and is in a virtual tie for #1)?  Absolutely.  But is Crash a bad film?  No.  Is the writing trite and the plot completely constructed?  Yes.  But there is smart dialogue in the film, and even some truths, although they are often blurred over.  It is well-constructed, artfully edited to move smoothly between the stories (actually too smooth – as all the stories blend into each other, but that’s a weakness of the writing, not the editing).  It is well-shot and has a haunting original song at the end.  It has a very good cast that works very well – not only with a great actor like Don Cheadle, but with all the others who rise above their pasts and give such good performances (not only the Oscar-nominated Dillon, but Howard, Phillipe, Newton, Bullock, Fraser, and especially Michael Peña).  Crash is not a mediocre film like Braveheart or Out of Africa or a flat-out bad film like Broadway Melody or Cimarron.  It is a good film that is undone by its script.

When I watched it again, this became my #1 film of the year.

Good Night and Good Luck

  • Director:  George Clooney
  • Writer:  George Clooney  /  Grant Heslov
  • Producer:  Grant Heslov
  • Studio:  Warner Independent Pictures
  • Stars:  David Strathairn, George Clooney, Frank Langella
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Actor (Strathairn), Cinematography, Art Direction
  • Oscar Points:  215
  • Length:  93  min
  • Genre:  Drama  (True Story)
  • MPAA Rating:  PG
  • Box Office Gross:  $31.55 mil  (#89  –  2005)
  • Release Date:  7 October 2005
  • Metacritic Score:  80
  • Ebert Rating:  ****
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #1  (year)  /  #37  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Actor (Strathairn), Supporting Actor (Clooney), Editing, Cinematography, Art Direction
  • Nighthawk Points:  385

The Film:  Watching Good Night and Good Luck a second time, I was thinking about how unfair it was that I film I felt such an affinity for would again end up #4 in the year, a great film, but not quite great enough to compete with the top 3 of Munich, Brokeback and King Kong.  Then the film unfolded before me, a 1950’s version of All the President’s Men that could remind us that the press wasn’t always vilified – that the Fourth Estate holds a very important place in our society.  Watching the film the first time, I had been so focused on its politics that I hadn’t seen how amazing it is and I realized that this film actually was just bumping aside those other brilliant films to end up as my #1 film of the year.  The other films hadn’t gotten any worse – indeed, Munich and Brokeback had both moved up slightly on my overall ranking of Best Picture nominees.  But this one had moved just ever so higher.

First of all, it is a reminder of how different things combine to become more than the sum of their parts.  First, there is the script – because what you say and what you don’t say is so important in television journalism and it is just as important in this film.  There were some slight changes made to the way things happened – Don Hollenbeck’s suicide is moved closer to the actual Murrow / McCarthy showdown for dramatic purposes, and the changes to the format of Murrow’s show also came much later than they seem to in the film.  But those things work for dramatic purposes.  The core of the story, the writing, comes from the historical record itself – from the shows, from the conversations, from the record.  Which leads into the next thing.  This is an absolutely brilliant cast.  It is so wonderful to finally see David Strathairn, over-looked for so many years in all the John Sayles films – get his due for the performance of his career.  But he isn’t the whole film – the ensemble cast of George Clooney, Frank Langella, Jeff Daniels, Patricia Clarkson, Robert Downey Jr. and Ray Wise are fantastic (it’s a credit to Clooney that as a director he knows exactly how to use himself – the only one of his four films in which he plays the lead is Leatherheads, which is part of his love for old screwball comedies – but he’s an essential supporting piece in the others).  But the greatest choice was who not to cast – by not trying to get anyone to match the real bombast of McCarthy – instead using the actual senator as he begins the self-destruction that couldn’t come soon enough – makes the hysteria of the era all too real.  It reminds us that this is not just a film – it is a look at history, at an all too painful part of our recent past.  And when watching McCarthy’s hysterical rantings contrasted against the measured performance of Strathairn (just look at him as he gives us the following powerful lines: “We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. We must remember always, that accusation is not proof, and that conviction depends upon evidence and due process of law. We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason if we dig deep into our history and our doctrine, and remember that we are not descended from fearful men.”).  It is a reminder that journalism, when done right, can help shape the decisions that we make.  Murrow might not have been the one who actually undid McCarthy – he was admittedly late to the party in confronting the senator and his true undoing was his incredible arrogance in assuming that he was more popular than the Army – but his powerful confrontation gives us words that needed to be said to a nation that needed to hear it.

But the film isn’t all about the cast and the writing.  This film is a first-rate production from the top on down.  First, there was the choice to film in black-and-white.  Certainly this was a necessary decision if they were going to use the original McCarthy response – but everything about the film screams that it should be in black-and-white.  This is a different era, in which colors hadn’t really formed, in which smoke trickled up across the camera lens.  And these sets (which were actually extremely minimal) give us the claustrophobic feel of the early television era, made more pronounced by the first-rate cinematography.  When we watch Friendly at Murrow’s feet, tapping him to let him know the timing, that tight shot up at his face is a reminder of how things used to be done.  And look at how crisply the film is edited – at 93 minutes, an extremely short Best Picture nominee – and not a minute of it feels wasted.  Even the extraneous sub-plot, the secret marriage of Clarkson and Downey, isn’t a waste.  It’s a reminder of a different world from what we live in now and provides the nice humorous moment at the end when we realize that Murrow, so good at seeing the news of the day, can be blind to something right in front of him that everyone else already knows.

Some films, like King Kong, are brilliant for the sheer scale of spectacle.  Others, like Brokeback, are brilliant for the sheer weight of emotional force which draws you in and leaves you gasping.  A film like Munich is brilliant in the ways in which it makes you think deeper about what has gone on, about what you really believe, and makes you the doubt the easy answers you have been given.  But sometimes there is brilliance in simplicity, in black-and-white, in small claustrophobic sets, in ensemble casts, in the way they remind you that what appears so horrific in the recent past, sometimes isn’t as far back as we think it is and can be happening everyday.  I watch Good Night and Good Luck and I remember reading All the President’s Men for the first time and then seeing the film and remember how much I wanted to be a journalist because it’s an important job and there are too many times it isn’t done right.  And sometimes it is done so well that decades later we look back and think, yeah, that’s something that was done right.

note:  Interested in knowing more about Edward R. Murrow?  The Tufts Digital Collections and Archives (of which I am a part – we’re thanked in the end credits) has the Edward R. Murrow papers.  You can find an introduction to Murrow and his work here.  If you want to dig deeper, there is a collection guide here.  Episodes of This I Believe, his radio show, can be found here.

A film that dares not to take a side.

Munich

  • Director:  Steven Spielberg
  • Writer:  Tony Kushner  /  Eric Roth  (from the book Vengeance by George Jonas)
  • Producer:  Steven Spielberg  /  Kathleen Kennedy  /  Barry Mendel
  • Studio:  Dreamworks
  • Stars:  Eric Bana, Geoffrey Rush, Ciarin Hinds, Daniel Craig
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Editing, Original Score
  • Oscar Points:  185
  • Length:  164 min
  • Genre:  Drama  (True Story)
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Box Office Gross:  $47.40 mil  (#62  –  2005)
  • Release Date:  23 December 2005
  • Metacritic Score:  74
  • Ebert Rating:  ****
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #2  (year)  /  #38  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Editing, Cinematography, Original Score, Sound, Sound Editing
  • Nighthawk Points:  295

The Film:  In a conflict in which so many people want to take a side and want to believe their side is right, this film has the courage to not take one.  And of course, Spielberg was lambasted for that choice, but also, supposedly, for taking the Palestinian side.  Because in this conflict, as with so many today, if you don’t take our side, you must automatically be taking the other side.  As Avner comes to realize, sadly a bit too late, there is no peace at the end of this.

It begins, in some ways, where Schindler’s List left off.  A horrific story told in great detail.  It is September of 1972 and we are still in Germany and soon there will be Jews dying again.  It is told straightforward, with great cinematography and editing, with a pulsing score in the background that makes us realize what is going to unfold here.  In Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan, we had already seen Spielberg’s ability to show us the ultimate of man’s inhumanity to man, the very things that make us wonder whether we as a species even deserve to survive.  This is a smaller scale of the same thing – needless death in the midst of what is supposed to be international cooperation and brotherhood.  We compete in the Olympics rather than go to war – that is the theory.

From there, we veer off from established history.  We know that the Munich massacre happened, we know that Golda Meir approved the reprisals (with that haunting quote lingering in the air: “Forget peace for now.  We have to show them we’re strong.”)  We are reminded that no one gave up the land – that they had to fight for every inch of it and by damned, they were not going to give it back.  So now comes the main crux of the story – the revenge against those who attempt to make the Israeli people live in fear, even in the midst of international peace.  It is how Spielberg handles all of this that makes Munich such a brilliant film.  Not just the story – the way we get sudden moments of suspense (the heart-wrenching race to keep the child from being blown up) contrasted against moments of ironic tranquility (the leader of assassins making a nice meal for his team while stuck a continent away from his family).  But the performances – the growing doubt in the team as they move their way through the list (“We are supposed to be righteous. That’s a beautiful thing. And we’re losing it. If I lose that, that’s everything. That’s my soul.”).  The technical aspects involved – the sudden editing cuts, but knowing when the slow down and let the action flow; when to take sound away and make everything go quiet like it sometimes does in real life, and when the let an explosion rock the world with sudden ferocity.

But there is the uncertainty in the film that brings it to true greatness.  Look at the how the team is criticized when it returns to Israel over their vengeance on the hired killer who took out one of their own.  They did that one off the clock, as they point out, and it’s vengeance – pure and simple – just like everything about their task.  Or look at the key scene in the film – the sudden peace when they find themselves sharing a safe house with the PLO, so eerily reminiscent of the Christmas peace in 1914 when both sides shared a simple moment with each other.

I’ll repeat here a point I made four years ago.  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? Four years after the Beijing Olympics 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.

The film everyone thought should have won.

Brokeback Mountain

  • Director:  Ang Lee
  • Writer:  Larry McMurtry  /  Diana Ossana  (from the short story by Annie Proulx)
  • Producer:  Diana Ossana  /  James Schamus
  • Studio:  Focus Features
  • Stars:  Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhall, Michelle Williams, Anne Hathaway
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Actor (Ledger), Supporting Actor (Gyllenhall), Supporting Actress (Williams), Cinematography, Original Score
  • Oscar Points:  390
  • Length:  134 min
  • Genre:  Drama
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Box Office Gross:  $83.04 mil  (#22  –  2005)
  • Release Date:  9 December 2005
  • Metacritic Score:  87
  • Ebert Rating:  ****
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #3  (year)  /  #39  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Actor (Ledger), Supporting Actor (Gyllenhall), Supporting Actress (Williams), Supporting Actress (Hathaway), Editing, Cinematography, Original Score
  • Nighthawk Points:  495

The Film:  “Love is a force of nature.”  That’s the tagline for Brokeback Mountain.  It might not say enough.  Force can imply so much, but in a story like this it seems so inadequate to describe what is happening.  What starts as a trickle of rain, suddenly sweep up into a major thunderstorm in one night.  Then, as they grow, it becomes like a hurricane, sweeping destruction through their lives as they hope to contain its fury.

The film about gay cowboys.  That’s how this film was described before people saw it.  That’s how so many small-minded bigots continued to describe it, whether they had seen it or not.  Never mind the fact that they aren’t cowboys (they’re sheep herders).  But here’s the more important fact about this film: in a lot of ways the sexuality of the characters is irrelevant.  (As I write that, I remember Harvey Fierstein in The Celluloid Closet talking about how he wrote Torch Song Trilogy because he was tired of having to reimagine the films he watched with gays – the straights could do that this time).  What is relevant between Ennis Del Mar, that mysterious man who says almost nothing, and Jack Twist, that youthful reckless energetic man desperate for something to ignite him, is the level of their passion.  When they first have sex, on a cold night, in the tent, it seems a momentary passion to both of them.  But what happens in the years after they leave the mountain makes it clear to them how strongly they feel for each other.  Just look at the intensity of their physical need for each other once they get outside in their first reunion.  Is what shocks Alma the fact that her husband is kissing another man?  Or is it that he is displaying such passion for something, the kind of passion she has certainly never seen from him before.

And that may be what we really need to know about Ennis.  I remember a U2 line “I love you because I need to  /  Not because I need you.”  Watching the film, watching Ennis interact with his wife, with his daughter, with the world around him, with the exception of rage, do you ever see any intensity of emotion?  Is it that he needs Jack, that he really is gay no matter what he might say?  Or is that Jack is the one person who allows him to access those emotions that he keeps locked away?  And is that the real reason why he won’t go away with Jack?  Does it really have nothing to do with those old men in his town that were killed by the homophobic bigots, but rather that Ennis, a man who since his parents died, has kept emotions at bay, can not stand to feel so often the emotions that rise to the surface whenever Jack is around?  As I’ve said before, I won’t say they’re in love, because they never get the chance to discover that.  They never get to spend enough time together.  But is that because of the fear of who would find out or Ennis’ fear of what emotions can feel like?

Of course, all of this might have been an irrelevant conversation had the film not been so well-made.  It’s clear that Ang Lee, between this and Sense and Sensibility and Crouching Tiger and Ice Storm and Lust, Caution has mastered films about sealing away your emotions.  Heath Ledger in this film suddenly became the heir of Marlon Brando and James Dean, a young passion-filled actor working to keep everything below the surface.  Jake Gyllenhall suddenly proved that he wasn’t a Tobey Maguire clone, destined for blandness.  Michelle Williams put away the ghost of Dawson’s Creek and found herself in the Oscar race for the first of many times.  And poor Anne Hathaway, ignored come awards season in favor of her co-stars, but blinding us all with her carnal sensuality after years of petticoats and pretty princesses.

Brokeback Mountain sits down here as my #3 film of the year, but in a virtual tie with Good Night and Good Luck and Munich.  It is an overwhelming experience, leaving you emotionally drained, watching these people fight so hard against the force of their passions.  You just want to cry, wishing these people could find a measure of happiness, but you find your have no tears left.

Oh yeah. The other nominee. Still a great film, but mostly overlooked.

Capote

  • Director:  Bennett Miller
  • Writer:  Dan Futterman  (from the book by Gerald Clarke)
  • Producer:  Caroline Baron  /  William Vince  /  Michael Ohoven
  • Studio:  Sony Pictures Classics
  • Stars:  Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Chris Cooper, Clifton Collins Jr.
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Actor (Hoffman), Supporting Actress (Keener)
  • Oscar Points:  235
  • Length:  114 min
  • Genre:  Drama  (True Story)
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Box Office Gross:  $28.75 mil  (#95  –  2005)
  • Release Date:  30 September 2005
  • Metacritic Score:  88
  • Ebert Rating:  ****
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #21  (year)  /  #240  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Actor (Hoffman)
  • Nighthawk Points:  35

The Film:  If you’re going to go on a long night’s journey into the darkness of your soul, you might well as have something to show for it.  Truman Capote traveled to Kansas because a news item in The New York Times caught his eye and he decided, almost on the spot, to write his next book about it.  The crime that brought him to Kansas had cost a family their lives.  Out of it would come his best work, perhaps the best true crime book ever written, and a runaway success.  All it cost Capote was his soul.

That’s the story we’re given in Capote, which covers several years in Capote’s life as he first investigates the crime, then, once the criminals are caught, pushes himself into the life of Perry Smith.  The filmmakers – director Bennett Miller, writer Dan Futterman and star Philip Seymour Hoffman (all three of them classmates) – wisely decided that rather than make a biopic about Capote, the drama in his life could be tightened into this one sequence of events.  It makes the film more focused and more interesting.

Of course, one of the tricky things about making a movie about a writer, is that writing itself isn’t a particularly interesting job.  Think of how many characters in Woody Allen’s films over the years have been writers and how often you have actually seen them writing.  We don’t see Capote doing much writing.  We see his life – the parties, the flirting, the Holly Golightly aspect that went straight into his characters.  But we get an idea of what he saw.  We see what brought those words to the surface.  What he learns is what he could have become.  He has long known that he has been saved by his intelligence, by his charm, by his talent.  He found his way out of the south and found the city that would give him life.  But it was a close thing.  He looks into Perry Smith, that cold-blooded murderer, with one of the most haunting lines in all of journalism: “In his confession, Smith said, ‘I didn’t want to harm the man.  I thought he was a very nice gentleman.  Soft-spoken.  I thought so right up to the moment I cut his throat.’ ” (In Cold Blood, p 302).  You read that line, or hear Clifton Collins or Robert Blake say it, and you pull away in revulsion at this man who can even think that line, let alone say it, let alone have lived it.  But Capote knows what he could have been, if he hadn’t had just enough talent or charm: “It’s as if Perry and I grew up in the same house. And one day he stood up and went out the back door, while I went out the front.”

Capote could have, like other films, suffered by comparison.  So many of these events are covered in the brilliant black-and-white, starkly bleak In Cold Blood, made in 1967.  And there was another film, covering the same events, coming hard on its heels.  But it is enough different from In Cold Blood, giving us the human element behind the writer rather than the criminals.  And when Infamous would come, months later, it was the latter film that would suffer badly by comparison.  Instead, we have this dark night of the soul, dark years of the soul.  And we can read the book – one of the great works in journalism history.  And then we can wonder if it was worth the price that came with it – for Capote, and for the books that he would never again finish.

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