Fine year for the Academy (with a few exceptions)
“Walk the Line,” the biopic about the love affair between Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash, has taken in nearly $120 million; and earned Academy Award nominations for both its lead actors, Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon.But “Walk the Line,” in a small surprise, is not up for the best picture Oscar that will be awarded Sunday night, March 5 (6 p.m., ABC). And in a hopeful guess at the reason behind that, I think “Walk the Line” was too straightforward and uncomplicated to be considered a major artistic achievement. Johnny Cash himself was, in life, notoriously complex, a lover of God and women, a user of booze and pills, who could sing with conviction about romance, murder, the Almighty and “A Boy Named Sue.” But while it didn’t glide past Cash’s faults, “Walk the Line” didn’t mine for the contradictions either, preferring the easy-to-grasp story of a man, inspired by the love of a good woman, battling his demons. It made for fine entertainment – note again the $120 million and counting – but not a film that sticks with the viewer.The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, as a collective, seems in a mood to honor the more complex and ambiguous. In a slate of nominees that I celebrate (with one monster qualification), the Academy has shown a taste for films that leave the audience with more questions than answers, for characters that elicit an unsettled sort of sympathy.Instead of Johnny Cash heroically overcoming his addictions and insecurities, we get the slick, two-faced Truman Capote, manipulating a murderer to get a story, in Bennett Miller’s “Capote.” In “Munich,” Steven Spielberg gives us a Mossad agent who experiences a case of bloodlust and a shaking of his conscience while exacting revenge on the kidnappers at the 1972 Munich Olympics. It’s easy – even for Middle America, judging by its $72 million take at the box office – to warm to the gay ranch hands in “Brokeback Mountain.” But the lasting impression of Ang Lee’s film is a sense of frustration that Ennis can’t find the will to act on his love. And Paul Haggis’ “Crash” is about the complexity of the human character, directly addressing how each of us is capable of magnanimity one moment, fear and hatred the next.Of the best picture nominees, only George Clooney’s “Good Night, and Good Luck” holds up its protagonist, newsman Edward R. Murrow, in an unambiguous light. But surely not everyone finds the film’s cautionary message, about the need for the media to stand up to political and corporate power, one that should be heeded. And the film hardly bathes Murrow in a glowing light – not with its grainy black-and-white, the smoky jazz and chain-smoking that fill the screen, or the heavy bags under the eyes of David Straitharn, suggesting the weight the actor puts into his portrayal of Murrow.
There’s not a marshmallow in the bunch, nothing along the lines of such goodhearted mush as “Seabiscuit,” “Erin Brokovich” and “Chocolat” from recent years past. Each of the nominees sought to open the viewers’ eyes to the world around them. Whichever film wins the top prize will be far better than the 2002 winner, “A Beautiful Mind.” In fact, there were another few films – Tommy Lee Jones’ modern Western “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada,” Noah Baumbach’s “The Squid and the Whale,” the South African film “Tsotsi” or Fernando Meirelles’ “The Constant Gardener” – that would easily clear that bar. It was a good year for films, and a fine year for the Academy.
Of course, my cheering of the Academy would be totally unrestrained – to the point of possibly apologizing for the numerous insults I’ve hurled – had it nominated the best, most morally nuanced film of the year, “A History of Violence.”In what way “Munich,” a worthy film, surpasses, or even equals David Cronenberg’s masterpiece is a puzzle to me. Like Spielberg’s film, “A History of Violence” examines violence, retribution and conscience. But where “Munich” raises these issues in a manner that is obvious and familiar, Cronenberg’s film is unlike anything we’ve ever seen. Through Viggo Mortensen’s Tom Stall, who may have once been the unrestrained mobster Joey Cusack, “A History of Violence” explores how a person’s nature and past can never be fully put to rest. Apart from that central theme, Cronenberg almost casually weaves in narratives about small-town virtues, family relations and forgiveness – not to mention two of the most memorable sex scenes in recent cinema. That Cronenberg does so with a sense of humor, and in what is easily his most accessible film, makes “A History of Violence” my pick of 2005.
In other categories: I favor Heath Ledger, from “Brokeback Mountain,” in a close call over Philip Seymour Hoffman in “Capote,” who I think will be the likely Oscar winner, as best actor. Mortensen should have been nominated, and I wish there had also been a way to include Jeff Daniels, outstanding and out of character as the divorced dad in “The Squid and the Whale.”Reese Witherspoon will take the Oscar for her portrayal of June Carter Cash in “Walk the Line.” In a weak field, I’d go with Felicity Huffman – the Aspen hometown favorite, and excellent as the transsexual Bree in “Transamerica.”I was just pleased to see William Hurt nominated as the deranged mob boss Richie in “A History of Violence.” And his screen time was so brief that I won’t mind when Jake Gyllenhaal, Jack from “Brokeback Mountain,” gets the supporting actor statue.
In the most glaring oversight of the year, Maria Bello was overlooked for supporting actress, though her performance as Edie Stall in “A History of Violence” was captivating. Whoever wins – Michelle Williams from “Brokeback Mountain” or Amy Adams from “Junebug” – should at least mention Bello in the acceptance speech.The best picture will go to “Brokeback Mountain,” which is my pick as the second best film of the year.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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