There are a lot of things to say about this year’s Oscar picks. First, among the best picture contenders, this is the most worthy, challenging, intellectually satisfying field in years. Second, this year’s Oscar show may be the lowest-rated in the history of forever, because to date not a one of these worthy, challenging and intellectually satisfying films has done any sort of business in the theaters.
Numbers: At this moment, the three highest-grossing Best Picture nominees (Crash, Brokeback Mountain, Munich) have done less business in aggregate than the single Adam Sandler film The Longest Yard, and only barely edge out the terrible Superhero film Fantastic Four. All five combined made less than Madagascar — or the 2000 Best Picture, Gladiator. The average domestic gross of the Best Picture films this year at the time of their nomination is $37.1 million; adjusted for inflation, I suspect strongly this is the lowest-grossing class of Best Picture nominees in the entire eight-decade history of the Academy Awards. Whichever film eventually wins is very likely to be the first Best Picture in a decade not to crack the $100 million mark — the last Best Picture to fail that was The English Patient.
Just how uncommercial is this crop of nominees? Consider this: a nominee for Best Documentary — March of the Penguins — has made more money than any of the Best Picture nominees. I guarantee you that has never happened before, ever. When Hollywood’s best films can’t compete with chilled, aquatic birds, there’s something going on.
This is not to say that box office should be a factor in deciding which films should be most honored. The money isn’t actually the point. The point is that the “best” movies of the year are profoundly alienated from what Hollywood is actually selling at the moment. When the highest grossing Best Picture nominee (Crash) is only 48th in terms of yearly grosses, what you’re saying is that the film industry is failing at the task of marrying art and commerce — or, at the very least, failing at the task of convincing moviegoers that art is worth seeing. Among the top ten domestically-grossing films of 2005, there’s not a single acting, directing or screenwriting nomination; the most significant Oscar nomination among that pack is Cinematography (for Batman Begins). You have to go into technical and wardrobe awards before the films in the top ten show up in any appreciable quantity.
Maybe film companies don’t care — but on the other hand remember that the film industry (rightly or wrongly) perceived itself in a slump last year; the $8.8 billion total gross was the lowest since 2001, and 2005 was the first year since 1991 that there was a shinkage rather than an expansion of total grosses. The general chatter on the ground was that in 2005, Hollywood wasn’t making films that people wanted to see; based on the Best Picture nominees, you could additionally say that Hollywood also recognizes that the best work of the film industry was not what it was actually busy selling to all of us. This damn well ought to be a teachable moment for someone.
Enough ranting. Here’s a quick take on the nominees and front-runners.
Best Picture: “Brokeback Mountain,” “Capote,” “Crash,” “Good Night, and Good Luck,” “Munich.”
In my opinion the Oscar race is pretty much already decided: barring a freakish mishap, it’s a Brokeback year. Aside from the film’s inherent quality, it’s also got Hollywood social momentum going for it, as the relatively liberal Academy will consider it a fine poke in the eye of the folks who freak out about men loving men, particularly when those men are cowboys. However, I see two chances for wild card situations: Crash takes place in LA and is socially conscious, and its cast won the Best Ensemble award at the SAG awards the other night. Actors are the largest branch of the Academy, so that might mean something. I suspect it won’t, actually, because the dynamic for a Best Ensemble award is not the same for a Best Picture award, but you never know. The other dark horse is Good Night, if the actors line up for George Clooney for Best Director and the rest of the Academy decides it’s more important to send a message about government intrusiveness than about the right of Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal to openly kiss. But I think that’s a dark horse indeed. Capote and Munich are just there as filler — very good filler, mind you. But filler.
Early Pick: Brokeback Mountain
Director: Ang Lee, “Brokeback Mountain”; Bennett Miller, “Capote”; Paul Haggis, “Crash”; George Clooney, “Good Night, and Good Luck.”; Steven Spielberg, “Munich.”
This is one of the very few years where all the Best Picture and Best Director nominations line up; usually there’s an odd man out. I think Ang Lee will nab this, both as part of a larger sweep for Brokeback and also because he’s due; he really ought to have won in 2001 for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, in my opinion. His only real competition comes from George Clooney, who aside from his fine work in Good Night is also primarily an actor, and the Actor’s branch of the Academy is notorious for dropping director Oscars into the lap of its brethren, often at expense of more deserving directors (ask Martin Scorsese about this: He lost out to both Robert Redford and Kevin Costner this way, not to mention Clint Eastwood). Nevertheless I expect it to come Lee’s way. Miller, Haggis and Spielberg are not actually in consideration this time around; even if Crash were to somehow come away with Best Picture, I would expect Director to go with Ang or Clooney.
Early Pick: Lee
Actor: Philip Seymour Hoffman, “Capote”; Terrence Howard, “Hustle & Flow”; Heath Ledger, “Brokeback Mountain”; Joaquin Phoenix, “Walk the Line”; David Strathairn, “Good Night, and Good Luck.”
This is the hardest category to handicap. The only person I’ll immediately vote off the island is Terrence Howard, with the notation that I’m surprised and pleased he got the nomination at all — he truly deserves it. Hopefully he’ll be happy with it as his reward. But after that things get iffy. I’d toss out Phoenix next, but since Reese Witherspoon is a genuine contender in Best Actress, and their performances are a matching set, I’m hesitant to discount him entirely. If David Strathairn gets the Oscar it’ll blow up any predictions about Brokeback and suddently Good Night will look like a real contender. But in the end I think it’s between Ledger and Hoffman, and I’ll give Hoffman the slightest of edges because he’s an actor other actors have admired for a while now. On the other hand, Ledger has achieved his ambition not to be seen just as a pretty boy, painfully biting back his emotions through Brokeback, and it’s hard to ignore a great performance no one was really expecting. It could go either way; I’m with Hoffman now, but I reserve the right to change my mind later.
Early Pick: Hoffman
Actress: Judi Dench, “Mrs. Henderson Presents”; Felicity Huffman, “Transamerica”; Keira Knightley, “Pride & Prejudice”; Charlize Theron, “North Country”; Reese Witherspoon, “Walk the Line.”
I bet you Keira Knightley is surprised as all hell this morning. Enjoy it, Ms. Knightley, because your big moment will be on the red carpet. Judi Dench: Not a chance, not in the least because six people saw Henderson in the theater. Theron’s performance in North is Norma Rae all over again, and she’s got that ill-advised Aeon Flux flick out there at the moment. It’s down to Huffman and Witherspoon, really, and while Huffman’s got the transsexual thing going for her, I’m really having a hard time imagining a universe in which the pretty, successful and driven Ms. Witherspoon doesn’t get this statuette.
Early Pick: Witherspoon
Supporting Actor: George Clooney, “Syriana”; Matt Dillon, “Crash”; Paul Giamatti, “Cinderella Man”; Jake Gyllenhaal, “Brokeback Mountain”; William Hurt, “A History of Violence.”
Interesting category. I’d throw out Hurt early, but it’s nice to see him taken seriously again. If either Dillon or Gyllenhaal win you can take that as an early indicator of their films’ fortunes, although the reverse is not true. It’s possible Clooney could get this if the pals in the Actor’s branch decide not to gang up on Ang Lee in the director category. Giamatti’s presence is very interesting; I suspect he’s here more because he was flagrantly ignored last year for Sideways than for his performance in Cinderella (which, to be clear, was very good), and if he wins it’ll be one of those “we’re sorry for not giving this to you when we should have” moments. I’d say for now Giamatti’s in the lead, followed narrowly by Gyllenhaal and Clooney.
Early Pick: Giamatti
Supporting Actress: Amy Adams, “Junebug”; Catherine Keener, “Capote”; Frances McDormand, “North Country”; Rachel Weisz, “The Constant Gardener”; Michelle Williams, “Brokeback Mountain.”
Good category — nice to see Amy Adams getting a nod, although I find it unlikely she’ll get a win; McDormand I think is out of it completely. Catherine Keener, I think, deserves an Oscar on general principals, but ultimately the real competition will be between Weisz and Williams. Between the two of them I’m leaning more toward Weisz at the moment, but this is definitely one of the categories where it’ll need to be revisited closer to the date to see how the wind blows. And don’t count Keener out completely; anyone who can make an actual human character in a film like The 40-Year-Old Virgin deserves your love.
Early Pick: Weisz
Other thoughts: I’ll be very surprised if Larry McMurtry & Diana Ossana don’t get Oscars for Brokeback’s script and it’s very possible that George Clooney & Grant Heslov will get script awards from Good Night as well, not just for the script itself but because Clooney and Heslov are both better known as actors, and I’ve already impressed upon you the mightiness of the Actor’s branch — in fact, let me go on the record with them as front-runners for Best Original Screenplay. I expect Wallace & Gromit in the Curse of the Were-Rabbit to get Best Animated Film. Best Original Song will go to “Travelin’ Thru” by Dolly Parton, because everyone loves Dolly. March of the Penguins is a no-brainer for Best Documentary, but Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room has a chance for political reasons, and Murderball has a shot because it’s cool to see paraplegics who can kick your ass.