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Sunday, January 31, 2016

Ten Years Later... the 78th Academy Award Nominees

On this day in 2006

Hate to have to point it out, but the Oscars have actually always been "so white," even in the year that it honored a movie that's all about racism (but in a way that won't make white people feel uncomfortable, because it depicts everyone as racist) with the Best Picture Oscar. So, ten years later, let's look at the Oscar nominees for the 2005 film year, focusing mainly on the "big six" categories.

Best Picture
Crash (winner)
Brokeback Mountain
Good Night, and Good Luck.

Since winning in the big award ten years ago, Crash has gone on to be considered one of the worst Best Picture winners ever, and it's hard to argue with that. Crash is heavy handed and pandering, tackling its subject in the most superficial way possible, though it features several great performances nevertheless. Also nominated were Brokeback Mountain, the one actual masterpiece of the Best Picture lineup and a film that, at the time, several Academy members went on record as saying that they wouldn't even watch because of its subject matter; Capote, a finely rendered biographical film about Truman Capote writing his true crime book In Cold Blood; Good Night, and Good Luck., a politically charged film about Edward R. Murrow's battle with Joseph McCarthy and the power of the media as a voice of dissent; and Munich, Steven Spielberg's drama about Israeli retaliation for the massacre of its athletes at the Munich Olympics. To be honest, of the nominated films, Brokeback is the only one I would actually nominate for Best Picture, though Capote, Good Night and Good Luck., and Munich are all films that have their strengths and would at least make my long list for best of the year.

I Would Nominate: Brokeback Mountain, Cache, L'Enfant, A History of Violence, The Squid and the Whale

Also Worth Considering: The Constant Gardener, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, Grizzly Man, The New World, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, Tsotsi

Best Director
Ang Lee, Brokeback Mountain (winner)
George Clooney, Good Night, and Good Luck.
Paul Haggis, Crash
Bennett Miller, Capote
Steven Spielberg, Munich

The Best Director nominees went five-for-five with the Best Picture nominees, one of the few occasions in the years just before the Best Picture field was expanded to more than 5 when there wasn't at least one nominated Director whose film didn't end up in the Best Picture lineup. Personally, Lee is the only one of the nominees that I would actually choose for a Best Director lineup, though Clooney does some interesting things in Good Night, and Good Luck., and Spielberg is always a master of the visual language of filmmaking and Munich is no exception, despite some flaws.

I Would Nominate: Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne, L'Enfant; Michael Haneke, Cache; Werner Herzog, Grizzly Man; Ang Lee, Brokeback Mountain; Park Chan-wook, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance

Also Worth Considering: Noah Baumbach, The Squid and the Whale; David Cronenberg, A History of Violence; Peter Jackson, King Kong; Fernando Meirelles, The Constant Gardener; Terrence Malick, The New World; Cristi Puiu, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu

Best Actor
Philip Seymour Hoffman, Capote (winner)
Terrence Howard, Hustle & Flow
Heath Ledger, Brokeback Mountain
Joaquin Phoenix, Walk the Line
David Strathairn, Good Night, and Good Luck.

There's really nothing to complain about with 2005's Best Actor lineup. It's still sort of surprising that a movie as small and as out of the Academy's typical set of sensibilities as Hustle & Flow was able to net Terrence Howard a nomination but, then again, the Best Supporting Actor field was crowded with potential nominees from Crash so if the members of the Academy wanted to recognize multiple actors from their eventual Best Picture winner, they had to open things up a bit. Also nominated were the eventual winner, Philip Seymour Hoffman, for his great performance as Truman Capote, Heath Ledger for his performance in Brokeback Mountain which proved what he was capable of as an actor after years spent toiling in more typical "becoming a movie star" fare, David Strathairn for his performance as Edward R. Murrow, and Joaquin Phoenix for his performance as Johnny Cash. Famous people playing famous people was a big deal in 2005. Absent from the list is Ralph Fiennes for his wonderful performance in The Constant Gardener.

I Would Nominate: Ralph Fiennes, The Constant Gardener; Philip Seymour Hoffman, Capote; Terrence Howard, Hustle & Flow; Heath Ledger, Brokeback Mountain; David Strathairn, Good Night, and Good Luck.

Also Worth Considering: Steve Carell, The 40-Year-Old Virgin; Presley Chweneyagae, Tsotsi; Robert Downey, Jr., Kiss Kiss Bang Bang; Viggo Mortensen, A History of Violence; Bill Murray, Broken Flowers

Best Actress
Reese Witherspoon, Walk the Line (winner)
Judi Dench, Mrs. Henderson Present
Felicity Huffman, Transamerica
Keira Knightley, Pride & Prejudice
Charlize Theron, North Country

Truth be told, 2005 wasn't a terribly competitive year in the Best Actress category, with very few memorable leading roles played by women. Reese Witherspoon's work as June Carter Cash in Walk the Line holds up and when I re-watched the film fairly recently, it was better than I had remembered it. Meanwhile, Keira Knightley makes a case for herself as the go-to-girl for refined British period pieces in Pride & Prejudice even if, in a better year for women in leading roles, her performance would be easily lifted out of the short-list. Still, her nomination wouldn't be as easily dropped as those attained by Judi Dench and Charlize Theron, wonderful actresses both but, in the case of Dench, not particularly challenged by what she's tasked to do in Mrs. Henderson Presents, and, in the case of Theron, stuck in a film so nakedly Hollywood-ized that it resembles nothing so much as a parody of the sort of Hollywood "social justice" movie that is so frequently and unthinkingly nominated for Oscars. With respect to Felicity Huffman as a transgender woman in Transamerica, it's difficult to begrudge a great character actor like Huffman her moment in the sun, but there's no way (as she herself recently acknowledged) that this would pass the controversy test in 2015 (Eddie Redmayne's nomination as Lili Elbe this year notwithstanding). Yet, even though the options weren't great, the Academy still passed over Naomi Watts for her breathtaking work in King Kong and Joan Allen for her typically great turn in The Upside of Anger. It also missed the opportunity to look outward from Hollywood towards some of the great performances turned in by women in non-English language films.

I Would Nominate: Joan Allen, The Upside of Anger; Emmanuelle Davos, Kings and Queen; Luminita Gheorghiu, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu; Naomi Watts, King Kong; Reese Witherspoon, Walk the Line

Also Worth Considering: Vera Farmiga, Down to the Bone; Lee Young-ae, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance

Best Supporting Actress
Rachel Weisz, The Constant Gardener (winner)
Amy Adams, Junebug
Catherine Keener, Capote
Frances McDormand, North Country
Michelle Williams, Brokeback Mountain

The Supporting Actress field is a little better because there was more to choose from. While I prefer Catherine Keener's work in The 40-Year-Old Virgin to her turn in Capote and while, as much as it pains me to say so, I wouldn't have nominated Frances McDormand any sooner than I would have Charlize Theron for North Country, this list is pretty sound. Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams, and Amy Adams are all fantastic in their respective performances, any of which is strong enough that it could have been nominated in any given year over the last ten years. Personally, I would make room for Laura Linney's stellar turn in The Squid and the Whale and would give serious consideration to Maria Bello in A History of Violence and Emily Blunt in My Summer of Love, but this lineup is pretty good as it is.

I Would Nominate: Amy Adams, Junebug; Catherine Keener, The 40-Year-Old Virgin; Laura Linney, The Squid and the Whale; Rachel Weisz, The Constant Gardener; Michelle Williams, Brokeback Mountain

Also Worth Considering: Maria Bello, A History of Violence; Emily Blunt, My Summer of Love

Best Supporting Actor
George Clooney, Syriana (winner)
Matt Dillon, Crash
Paul Giamatti, Cinderella Man
Jake Gyllenhaal, Brokeback Mountain
William Hurt, A History of Violence

I've never really gotten why people were so keen on Syriana, so it's difficult for me to see George Clooney's win as anything other than an acknowledgement that since he was nominated for so much that year (Best Director and Original Screenplay for Good Night, and Good Luck.), the Academy felt they had to give him something. He's fine in the film, which is itself fine, but best of the year? On the plus side, the Academy nominated Jake Gyllenhaal for Brokeback Mountain, in which he turns in what is still one of his best performances to date, and William Hurt for his delightfully bizarre interpretation of a mobster in A History of Violence. Meanwhile, Paul Giamatti is a great actor but Cinderella Man is kind of forgettable and the nomination feels like a mea culpa for not nominating him for Sideways, and while Matt Dillon is good in Crash, if I was going to nominate someone from the cast for Best Supporting Actor, he wouldn't be my first choice. Not nominated, because the Academy doesn't recognize acting behind a CGI character as "real" acting, was Andy Serkis for making the title character in King Kong seem more human than monster, Jeff Daniels for what may very well be his best performance in The Squid and the Whale, or Val Kilmer for his fantastic turn in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.

I Would Nominate: Don Cheadle, Crash; Jeff Daniels, The Squid and the Whale; Jake Gyllenhaal, Brokeback Mountain; William Hurt, A History of Violence; Andy Serkis, King Kong

Also Worth Considering: Kevin Costner, The Upside of Anger; Ed Harris, A History of Violence; Terrence Howard, Crash; Val Kilmer, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang; Michael Pena, Crash

All things told, Brokeback Mountain had the most nominations with 8, with Crash, Good Night and Good Luck., and Memoirs of a Geisha tied for second at 6 nominations. All four of the acting winners were first time nominees, as were 11 of the other 16 nominees.

The Best Animated Feature slate struggled for the third year in a row to fill out its ranks and consisted of only three nominees, including the eventual winner Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit and nominees Howl's Moving Castle and Corpse Bride. Meanwhile, over in the Foreign Language Film category the nominees were Tsotsi (the eventual winner and only the second film from South Africa ever to be nominated), The Beast in the Heart (Italy), Joyeux Noel (France), Sophie Scholl - The Final Days (Germany), and Paradise Now which sparked controversy for being nominated as a submission from Palestine and was protested by Israeli groups in the United States. The nomination was later amended and designed as a submission from "the Palestinian Authority" and later as a submission from the "Palestinian Territories." Not nominated, though submitted on behalf of Austria, was Cache, which was disqualified for consideration as a result of a rule that in later years would be done away with, and The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, submitted on behalf of Romania. In the Best Documentary Feature category, Grizzly Man was not nominated, which of course invalidates the whole notion of this being a "Best" list. The nominees were March of the Penguins (winner), Darwin's Nightmare, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Murder Ball, and Street Fight.

In the crafts and technical categories, Memoirs of a Geisha and King Kong made their presences known, with room also being found to recognize War of the Worlds, The Chronicles of Narnia - The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Pride and Prejudice, Cinderella Man, and Star Wars Episode III - Revenge of the Sith (nominated only for Best Makeup and not for any of its effects). While over in the screenplay categories all of the Best Picture nominated films found a place in either the Original (Crash, Good Night and Good Luck.) or Adapted (Brokeback Mountain, Capote, Munich) races, with the ranks being filled out by Match Point, The Squid and the Whale, and Syriana in the Original Screenplay category, and by The Constant Gardener and A History of Violence in the Adapted Screenplay category.

Looking back at the nominees for the 2005 year, what I'm most struck by is how narrow the search for the "best" really is. Not counting the nominees in the Short film categories, Animated Feature, Documentary Feature, or Foreign Language Film, the spread of the 18 categories left, which amounts to 82 nominees, was filled in by only 27 films, only 8 of which ended up with only one nomination. While there are a lot of problems with AMPAS' nomination process (some of which are, of course, being discussed right now), surely one of the major contributing factors to those issues is that the same few films just get nominated for everything, with the voting members not broadening their horizons to consider anything made outside of Hollywood.

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