Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

2005 Films, Part 1: The Oscars and the Year in Review

In 2005, many entertainment journalists wrote trend stories about the decline in box-office sales, and that’s valid. However, a related “trend” seemed to be that people did not flock to see the latest crappy blockbuster. In the vacuum created by a dearth of dominant blockbusters (either good or bad), many semi-indies and films from mini-majors stepped in to fill the gap. While there was no Lord of the Rings in 2005, many smaller films demonstrated thoughtful, moving and laudable work. Four of the five films nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars also qualified for the Independent Spirit Awards by having official budgets of under 20 million (Munich was the exception). Considering the average Hollywood film budget is in excess of 40 million, surely that’s some sort of small victory.

To the Oscars themselves: Jon Stewart performed well in what is admittedly not his ideal venue. He’s a wit with an outsider’s sensibility, and the audience by and large treated him as such. Lisa de Moraes of The Washington Post observed that had Billy Crystal, “one of them,” made Stewart’s crack about giving generously to the Academy because some actresses could barely afford to cover their breasts, the audience would have roared. Billy Crystal also has always been a cheeseball, and for all its occasional pretensions of Art, Hollywood remains sentimental and schmaltzy at its core. In that sense, Crystal (who in other contexts can be very annoying) was a great match, but by no means the only one. Steve Martin succeeded with a debonair class, and Whoopi Goldberg always seemed rather amused by the whole proceedings while embracing them.

Still, while Stewart was not a perfect fit, I liked his stint overall. His line about Dick Cheney shooting Bjork in her swan outfit got the most play, but his shout-out to Martin Scorsese about having no Oscars was gutsy, spot-on and funny. He was on target mocking the montages, most of all when after the “social progress” montage when he quipped, “and none of these were a problem ever again.” The fake campaign ads were funny, particularly the bits about Dame Judi Dench taking out a woman’s eye in a bar fight, and Reese Witherspoon’s all-American image. Meanwhile, the mere idea of a sound mixer taking out an attack ad, yet alone a geek-appeal one, was inspired.

Regarding the Oscar nominations, I was thrilled Amy Adams nabbed one, and dismayed that Grizzly Man was overlooked (although it got bounced before the final round). Other than those, I really would have been pleased with just about anyone winning. And while I was rooting for Amy Adams, the always captivating Rachel Weisz won for her most meaty role to date. Meanwhile, Hoffman received his just reward, and Ang Lee’s consistently subtle, inspired directing (The Hulk excepted) finally won prominent recognition.

Ben Stiller’s green screen suit bit was funny but went on a little too long; I felt the same about Tomlin and Streep’s act. Still, kudos for giving Altman, like Blake Edwards last year, a salute that honored his unique style. I tend to like montages of past films in the sense it’s fun to see if you can recognize them (Turner Classic Movies has a fantastic one recounting film through the decades that they often run to fill a time gap), but in an Oscar telecast they’re almost always filler and pointless. The film noir montage seemed to have no tie-in whatsoever, and Lauren Bacall was clearly experiencing difficulties. Poor Jake Gyllenhaal trotted out to salute big-screen films, and as many a wag has noted, the irony of this pitch is that you’re supposed to watch these big-screen clips on your tiny TV screen to thrill to the, uh, idea of seeing that clip on a big screen? Along with the intermittent calls to end movie piracy, the stench of desperation was thick: “come to the movies! We’re relevant, really we are! Don’t rent or buy or copy those DVDs we hock... help our box office!”

The quality of Oscar-nominated songs can range from the very good to the godawful. Overall, the caliber’s increased since the Titanic disaster of 1997, (when many worthy nominations in different categories were tragically sunk), with the best recent year being 2003, when both Annie Lennox and Alison Krauss performed. This year, all three songs were, uh, so-so. It wasn’t as much a battle of excellence as it was a battle of genres. “In the Deep” was okay, but below par for a KCRW entry. Dolly Parton showed she was a class act with a spirited, no-frills performance of her “Travelin’ Through,” and earned serious style points by enthusiastically cheering when the “Pimp” crew won. And while I prefer my hip-hop and rap without pimps, bitches and racial slurs, the “Pimp” crew was so excited, it’s hard out here not to cheer them at least a little.

While some people were upset by Crash winning, I was not, and it certainly does not rank as one of the great Oscar travesties, let alone a case of an obvious and appalling snub to some other staggeringly brilliant piece of work. Best Picture has gone to decent but unremarkable films such as Chicago, A Beautiful Mind, Gladiator, Driving Miss Daisy, as well as legendarily unworthy picks such as The Greatest Show on Earth. (Driving Miss Daisy, let’s remember, beat out 1989’s Born on the Fourth of July, Dead Poets Society, Field of Dreams and My Left Foot, while Do the Right Thing, Glory, and Henry V were not even nominated!) Let’s keep it all in perspective!

It was a banner year for several actors. The most obvious would be George Clooney, who wrote and directed Good Night, and Good Luck in addition to choosing a secondary role versus the lead in the film. His turn in Syriana, which nabbed him an Oscar, was one of his more weighty roles in recent years. At one point I thought Clooney was largely another pretty-boy actor, but while some people can’t stand his politics, I’ve been impressed by his range, thoughtfulness, and humility. Like many an actor who hit success late, he does not take it for granted. He also has a strong grounding in American film history of the 60s and 70s.

Catherine Keener turned in solid work in The Interpreter, Capote, and The 40-Year Old Virgin. I’ve always thought Keener was all right, but didn’t see what the fuss was over her in Being John Malkovich... I just didn’t buy her as the object of obsessive affection. This year, however, I was very impressed by her ability to ground a film with very natural performances. She comes off as a real person regardless of the character she plays. While this task may have been hardest for Virgin, in the other two films, acting opposite Penn and Hoffman, she effortlessly creates the sense these relationships go back years.

Ralph Fiennes remains a fantastic actor, but occasionally chooses subpar films. This year worked well for him, as he played a sensitive hero, a cartoon villain, and the embodiment of pure evil. (In addition to those three films, all reviewed below, he appeared in three films I didn’t see, The White Countess, The Chumscrubber, and Chromophobia.)

Meanwhile, Rachel McAdams earns the breakout award with her three films this year. Yes, she’s pretty in that Hollywood way and possesses a disarming smile, but she also manages to sneak some snark and wit into what could fairly cookie-cutter roles. Her turn in Red Eye shows she can carry a movie and handle “plucky heroine” as well as the requisite “pretty adjunct to leading man.” (It’s interesting she had films in 2005 with both Wilsons). Her decision not to appear nude on the cover of Vanity Fair turned out to be a shrewd PR move (who the hell is Tom Ford anyway? His mammoth ego does not match his claimed influence). Here’s hoping she gets some good roles in the future...

On other fronts, Natalie Portman and Jessica Alba battled for the title of Geekbait Queen. Normally, a single Star Wars film would easily trump Alba’s two comic book adaptations (plus Into the Blue), but stripper with a chest, er, heart of gold trumps pregnant young mother. Portman, however, has reclaimed the lead again this year with a shaky accent but strong performance in V for Vendetta (plus a funny turn on SNL).

And now, to the films. Warning: There are some spoilers, although as usual I try to avoid discussing the very end of a film except in general terms. Read or skip them as is your wont.

I’ve added links to a few articles. There’s also audio interviews and discussions on some of the films, mostly from NPR. You’ll need Windows Media Player for some and Real Player for others. The Treatment segments run about 26 minutes, but most others are under 10 minutes, unless otherwise noted. We’re high-tech this year, baby!

No comments: