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February 23, 2006 - Image 14

Resource type:
The Michigan Daily, 2006-02-23

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-0 S


the art of politicking and big stars schmooze
shamelessly to see their names on the ballot.
It's no wonder given the stakes. Attention
from the Academy can mean big business for
small films that rely on critical acclaim and
strong word-of-mouth to sell themselves. This
year's "Capote," for example, saw a surge of
interest that sent it back into wide release after
a surprise best picture nomination rescued it
from box-office decay. Careers are made, vali-
dated, rescued and occasionally conjured from
the ether of anonymous artistry. For an actor or
director, the words "Academy Award nominee"
can be tantamount to a 20-year contract. 4*1
But of all the Oscar races, almost all of which
are followed with leering intensity by a nation
of entertainment gurus and film freaks, none is
more pivotal and all consuming than the con-
test for best picture. Unlike the other categories
which are internally nominated - directors
choose nominees for best director, actors for the
acting nods and the like - best picture nominees
are selected by the entire voting Academy mem-
bership. And while other categories highlight
the best in selected areas of filmmaking, such as
cinematography or sound editing, best picture is
the synthesis of all its component categories.
In a sense, the category is misnamed. After all,
the best picture winner isn't always the best film
of the year. Nor is it even expected to be. The
best picture Oscar is conferred upon a film that
the Academy is proud to stand behind, know-
ing that decades down the line, cinema fans will
look back on any best picture as a significant
contribution to the art - and more importantly,
the history - of cinema. Landmark films like
"Titanic" or the concluding chapter in the epic
"Lord of the Rings" trilogy might not have been
the most artistically accomplished works of their
years, but they both took center stage at the end
of the night with Oscar's top prize for the sheer
audacity and the enormous cultural resonance

they stirred.
This habit of rewarding the most important
film of the year, rather than what might techni-
cally be the best, has led the Academy to a fairly
predictable preference pattern when it comes to
the best picture race.
Generally speaking, voters go big.
The Academy loves nothing more than a tight-
ly constructed epic centered around a small-
scale emotional core that grips at the heart while
empowering the human spirit.
But this year's nominees for best picture,
though they display more emotional honesty
and complexity of feeling than any crop in
years, were constructed on a decidedly smaller
stage. The films all showcase fine performances,
exceptional direction and riveting screenplays,
but what ultimately sets them apart is the way all
five nominees fearlessly confront and embrace
the difficulty of their various subject matters.
Tackling violence in the Middle East,
"Munich" is director Steven Spielberg's medi-
tation on the cyclical and self-defeating nature
of revenge. Mossad agent Avner (Eric Bana,
"Troy") leads an unofficial mission for the
nation of Israel to hunt down and assassinate the
architects of the massacre of Israeli athletes at
the 1972 Munich Olympics. But as soon as the
team has taken out one target, two more leaders
inevitably rise to take his place. The bloodshed
escalates. A different narrative focus might have
sold a macro statement about the character of
violence with more conviction, but as it stands,
"Munich" only works to show how destructive
the violence becomes to one man as it tears away
the life of our staid, cinema-ready hero.
Though critics liked "Munich" and the Acad-
emy loves Spielberg, the film can't win. The
direction is stylish, the dialogue is cleanly writ-
ten and the subject is socially important, but
"Munich" is an interesting story grasping at a
point. Coming into awards season hyped as the
next "Schindler's List," "Munich" soared where

it should have flown.
Also glad to be nominated is Bennett Miller's
"Capote." An eerie and intense dissent into the
morally compromised mind of famed author
Truman Capote, the film is executed with con-
siderable skill and restraint from the little-
known Miller. Yet the film's dramatic power
is entirely vested in Philip Seymour Hoffman,
whose miraculous transformation into the bril-
liant author is startling in its depth and intensity.
Unlike "Munich," "Capote" was never tipped for
a nomination and its success at the announce-
ment ceremony was something of an upset. The
film won't win because ultimately, it's not ambi-
tious enough for Oscar. If "Munich" was over-
reaching in its quest for universal truth, "Capote"
is perfect in its striving for a straight, but small,
character study.
The race for best picture therefore falls to
three serious contenders: "Crash," "Good Night,
and Good Luck" and "Brokeback Mountain."
Of these picks, "Crash" is the weakest. Plumb-
ing the various faces of modern racism in Los
Angeles, the film is controversial and confronta-
tional. But it's also preachy, obvious and flawed
on a basic narrative level. The film boasts some
of the most effective scenes and challenging
ideas of the year, but it also displays some of the
weakest in overall filmmaking (filming a little
girl jumping in front of a bullet as her mother
cries out in slow-motion agony is so insipid it's
almost insulting).
Still, "Crash" is a more powerful and resonant
film than "Capote" and has far more buzz than
"Munich." The film has been gaining momentum
since its nominations, and is the favorite to pick
up a best screenplay Oscar. Though "Crash" is
hardly the frontrunner, the.Academy may decide
to make a political point of rewarding a film that
tackles a subject as taboo as race relations. Vic-
tory for "Crash" would be an upset, but it's not
out of the question.
Another film with an outside chance of a sur-

prise triumph is actor George Clooney's sec-
ond directorial effort, "Good Night, and Good
Luck." The film, famously shot in sharp black
and white, follows the battle between renowned
journalist Edward R. Murrow and Senator
Joseph McCarthy.
Stirring, efficient direction and a mesmerizing
performance by David Strathairn, mimicking
Murrow's voice and mannerisms with astound-
ing accuracy, made the film an early critic's
favorite. The subjects of censorship and media
responsibility resonate, particularly in today's
political climate, but "Good Night" peaked early
and lacks a solid emotional core, aiming square-
ly for the brain with no attempt to ensnare the
heart. Put plainly, it's not a movie for Oscar
They want grand, sweeping landscapes fram-
ing quiet heartbreak and devastating loneliness.
They want a movie that is quintessentially the
best in American film, and that touches the very
experience of humanity in a profoundly moving
and unaffected manner.
Really, they want "Brokeback Mountain."
Long pegged, even months before its release,
as the "gay cowboy" movie, "Brokeback" is a
triumph of filmmaking skill. Every element,
from the dialogue to the performances, and par-
ticularly director Ang Lee's graceful, patient sto-
rytelling, is so perfectly executed that the film
stands as one of the finest examples of American
"Brokeback Mountain" fits the model of a
best picture. "Good Night" has themes that may
resonate with the entertainment industry, but
it lacks big, obvious emotion. "Crash" is the
more obvious candidate if you're looking for an
upset. But in the end, the Academy voters know
that "Brokeback" is a great film, one whose
artistry will influence the way future movies
are made, and perhaps most importantly, it's a
film that Hollywood can proudly call the best
picture of 2006.



david strathairn
george clooney
robert downey jr
good night.
and, good luck.

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