Thursday, March 02, 2006

Panning for gold

I didn't necessarily want it to be this way, but the calendar dictates that my first post on my first blog will concern...the Academy Awards. Is your pulse quickening yet? I mean, I could have started with something else--laid a little Robert Bresson or Wong Kar-Wai on you, to show how educated or hip I am--but to begin a blog a few days before the Oscars, and just not mention it, or skip over it as if it's of no consequence (it isn't, is it?) just doesn't sit well, as much as I moan over its self-importance and groan over its exclusions (such as, in a bad year for actresses, where was the love for Laura Linney in THE SQUID AND THE WHALE? Hell, Laura Linney in THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE, over Judi Dench's appalling camera-hugging in MRS. HENDERSON PRESENTS, by far the worst film to receive any Oscar attention this year? How, my stomach's seizing up already). Attention must be paid, not that Willy Loman wouldn't have killed for all the free publicity the Oscars get.


It's the year of the "dependies" (indie-ish films from the specialty branches of the major studios, dependent on their largesse) and as such it's a solid cross-section of middle-brow, left-leaning, blue-state fare, a good year for Jon Stewart to host and not a bad one for Robert Altman to receive his honorary old goat statuette in. [For a director who's shunned and ridiculed the pomp and circumstance of Hollywood, it's interesting how many times he's been in contention for awards; did he feel somewhat used all these years, as politically and artistically correct cover for so many other unfortunate business-as-usual nominations?] CRASH, which the pundits have been keeping alive to drum up more excitement for a Best Picture slate lacking in glitz and glamour (and as a hedge against the presumptive BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN win), and the queasy bloodbath that is MUNICH, left me non-plussed. CAPOTE and GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK., were more the thing, but cold to the touch (the latter, however, has a killer Diana Reeves soundtrack; she makes a much better impression on my iPod than in the film, where her appearances were somewhat intrusive).

BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN will, and should, win. Its plain-spoken artistry, lucid storytelling, and above all its iconic lead performance by Heath Ledger put it way ahead of the pack. Ledger, I fear, will be edged out by the superb Philip Seymour Hoffman, but he, and the film, are already the stuff of movie legend. That should be consolation on Monday morning.

My predictions, and personal choices, are as follows (thanks to John Calhoun for putting together my crib sheet):

PICTURE: BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, my prediction and my choice.

ACTOR: Hoffman my prediction, Ledger my choice. Here's hoping for an upset, not that Hoffman doesn't impress but, c'mon, Ledger is a true original, a character for the ages, and Hoffman a highly skilled impersonation along the lines of last year's turn by Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles.

[If Hoffman does win, he'll follow Foxx in another Oscar tradition--going from an Oscar winner to a mind-croggling, popcorn-stuffed action flick. Foxx went from RAY to STEALTH; Angelina Jolie from GIRL, INTERRUPTED, to GONE IN 60 SECONDS (and pretty much the rest of her career to date); Anthony Hopkins from THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS to FREEJACK; and Sally Field from NORMA RAE to BEYOND THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE. Hoffman, enjoying the payday, dukes it out with Tom Cruise in MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE III.]

ACTRESS: Such a weak field. Did anyone see NORTH COUNTRY or just drop it in their Netflix queue when it snagged its nominations, like I did? Felicity Huffman is the only memorable thing about TRANSAMERICA, that and its cheeky, non-judgmental suggestion that a career in gay porn might just be the best move for a troubled teen. I liked Keira Knightley in PRIDE AND PREJUDICE but it's lightweight, not so much as MRS... (can't finish it) but no match for Reese Witherspoon's down-to-earth chops in WALK THE LINE. She's my prediction and choice, y'all.

SUPPORTING ACTOR: Paul Giamatti was nominated in the wrong year, and good as he was in BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN Jake Gyllenhaal is no match for George Clooney, Hollywood's consummate liberal pro. That's the way things work. It's Chinatown, Jake. A win for SYRIANA will make up for GOOD NIGHT's other losses come Sunday evening, and he's genuinely good in that impenetrable movie, too.

SUPPORTING ACTRESS: My neighbor, Michelle Williams, really got to me in BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN (she and Ledger, and their daughter, live blocks away from me; their stars shine all the way up the street) but Rachel Weisz's performance in the underwhelming CONSTANT GARDENER is the most full-bodied role in the lot. She's my prediction and choice. So why wasn't Ralph Fiennes nominated for the same film? [Even my mom liked THE CONSTANT GARDENER. I have an aversion to thrillers that end with an incriminating tape conveniently played in public, exposing and embarrassing the bad guy; see also THE RECRUIT and MINORITY REPORT, or not, now that I've gone and ruined the endings for you. Such a lame device. Did John Le Carre cop out the same way in the book?] Points, though, to Amy Adams, for effective politicking that led to this year's "huh? What's that?" nomination for JUNEBUG (a nice movie, by the way, one for the queue).

DIRECTOR: No contest. Prediction and choice: Ang Lee. Such a fine career. And that includes HULK, the most thoughtful and complex of all superhero-type films. I don't think Mom went for it.

ADAPTED SCREENPLAY: It's got to be Larry McMurtry, an old Hollywood hand, and Diana Ossana for their sage adaptation of BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN. Prediction and choice.

ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY: CRASH has to win something. Better luck next time, Woody Allen and Noah Baumbach (THE SQUID AND THE WHALE). CRASH is my prediction, Baumbach my choice for his exquisitely funny-painful miniature.

ANIMATED FEATURE FILM: The Oscars love the WALLACE & GROMIT guys, who are moving up from the animated short film ranks. Membership has its privileges. My prediction and choice.

FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM: TSOTSI has CRASH-like levels of rawness and sentimentality, in equal measure. And Africa is perpetually in the news. JOYEUX NOEL is an uplifting bore, the kind the French love to throw up to the Oscars, SOPHIE SCHOLL a rather dry procedural till its shocking, straight-from-the-history-books climax, and PARADISE NOW, a fine, low-key political drama, a victim of overheated politics. [I haven't seen the Italian nominee.] TSOTSI is my prediction, PARADISE NOW my choice.

ORIGINAL SONG: Much as I expect the live performance of "It's Hard Out There for a Pimp" to shake up a telecast that's promising to be rather staid, everyone loves Dolly Parton, and it's hers to lose for her TRANSAMERICA ditty (which may not even have been part of the print I saw late last summer). Dolly's my prediction and choice and I'm counting on her to wear a fun outfit.

ORIGINAL SCORE: The only standout, frankly, is BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, very limpid accompaniment to the tragic story. Did John Williams really need two more certificates for his wall, for two of his less memorable efforts? His shelves must be groaning with statuettes. Gustavo Santaolalla, prediction and choice.

FILM EDITING: I'd probably take a scissors to all five of the nominees, but I imagine the flashback structure of THE CONSTANT GARDENER will prove beguiling. Or maybe the multi-threaded layering of CRASH, which is de rigeur in LA-set stories anymore (NINE LIVES and HAPPY ENDINGS are two other recent, tiresome examples). Hmmm...this is how Oscar pools (I knew there was a reason for the contest) are lost. My prediction is CRASH, and my choice is WALK THE LINE...for no other reason than that I enjoyed the movie, even if it did go on.

CINEMATOGRAPHY: Dion Beebe has gotten some ASC attention for MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA, but I think the vistas (and enclosures) of BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN will win out. THE NEW WORLD also has adherents. I'm predicting, and choosing, Rodrigo Prieto for BROKEBACK.

ART DIRECTION: If KING KONG doesn't win for its outstanding recreation of Depression-era New York, I'll be disappointed. GEISHA's hothouse exoticism is alluring, too. KONG is my prediction and choice.

COSTUME DESIGN: GEISHA. Unless anyone objects to Japanese clothes draped on Chinese ladies. My prediction and choice.

SOUND MIXING: It usually goes to the noisiest nominee, with WAR OF THE WORLDS edging out NARNIA and KONG. I'm going out on a limb, though, and predicting WALK THE LINE, a subtler piece. My choice, however, is the room-shaking WAR.

SOUND EDITING: WAR. The "tentacle" sequence in the house is all the more alarming given the snake-like precision of the cues. Prediction and choice.

MAKEUP: NARNIA was just too kids-movie fakey for me. STAR WARS, eh. The character designs for CINDERELLA MAN are on the nose, making it my prediction and choice.

VISUAL EFFECTS: KONG was another great leap forward for digital effects, maybe too much so--the Kong of movie myth has become an utterly convincing simian (thanks to actor Andy Serkis, too), robbing the story of its potency. It is astonishing work, however, far outclassing the uneven NARNIA and the familiar WAR OF THE WORLDS. KONG is my prediction and choice.

DOCUMENTARY FEATURE: 2005 was a watershed year for the form, with many outstanding films--so where was GRIZZLY MAN, the best of the bunch? My bad for not seeing DARWIN'S NIGHTMARE or STREET FIGHT, which, to be fair (on me) wasn't screened much. I admit, too, to only seeing MURDERBALL in its wash-your-mouth-out-with-soap edit on A&E this Tuesday; there was something about the subject that made me squeamish (sensitivity aside, let's face it, it's a perfect SNL sketch, if only it weren't true) but the guys won me over when they weren't bashing each other in their gladiatorial wheelchairs. But they won't be enough to stop the MARCH OF THE PENGUINS, a great technical achievement and one of the few genuine crowdpleasers in all Oscardom this year. I predict PENGUINS, but choose ENRON: THE SMARTEST GUYS IN THE ROOM, the best of the hot-button political documentaries in release.

DOCUMENTARY SHORT: I can't go against an acquaintance, so my pick and prediction has to be A NOTE OF TRIUMPH: THE GOLDEN AGE OF NORMAN CORWIN, directed by Eric Simonson, and featuring soon-to-be Oscar winner Robert Altman. Maybe he's marshalling his friends to vote for it. He'll need to, to beat GOD SLEEPS IN RWANDA, the sort of bedraggled-but-inspirational historical subject the Academy loves. For Simonson, whose film is my prediction and choice, I hope God sleeps a little longer.

ANIMATED SHORT: I've read nice things about the wrapped-in-burlap 9, so why not? Just not another Pixar win. 9: My prediction and choice.

LIVE ACTION SHORT: Irish playwright Martin McDonagh has been blazing away in London and New York for a decade now with lapel-grabbing shockers like THE BEAUTY QUEEN OF LEENANE and THE PILLOWMAN, and there's no reason to suspect that Hollywood won't succumb to his SIX SHOOTER, my prediction and choice.

In a break from tradition, the tie-breaking question this year for my Oscar-watching group (another reason to like, if not genuflect before, the ceremony) is not "how long will the show last?" but "How many BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN or gay cowboy jokes will there be?" I'm going to say 15...and hope that's about ten too many. Surely Jon Stewart can come up with some Edward R. Murrow rib-ticklers.

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