Going for ‘Broke’: LEO critics predict who’ll ‘Crashâ&a

Like a good horse race, the 2006 Oscars is shaping up to be quite an interesting contest. The pre-emptive favorite for best picture and best director, “Brokeback Mountain” (which I did not like, and for which my negative opinion elicited a number of accusations of homophobia) seems to have a certain momentum working against it. “Capote” or “Crash” could sweep in out of nowhere and screw up all the conventional Oscar odds. Maybe it will happen this way: “Munich,” “Capote” and “Brokeback” split the vote among the vast majority of Academy voters, and the dark-horse candidate “Crash” coasts to an unlikely victory. No doubt “Brokeback” will pick up some awards, but I can sense a “Brokeback” backlash already taking shape.

Best Film and Best Director: “Brokeback” and Ang Lee. I personally would go with either “Crash” or “Capote,” although the vote could split between “Brokeback,” “Capote” and “Good Night, and Good Luck,” in which case “Crash” could become a winner. Think of “Crash” as you would think of Mitt Romney within the arena of the Republican primaries — an evidently threatening contestant and an entrant previously ignored. It’s disingenuous, of course, to say “it’s all in the voting,” but that is true.

Best Actor: There is very little doubt that the great Philip Seymour Hoffman will win for his portrayal of Truman Capote.

Best Actress: The battle is tight between Felicity Huffman as the transsexual in “Transamerica” and Reese Witherspoon in her wonderful turn as June Carter Cash in “Walk the Line.” Either actress is deserving. I predict Witherspoon will win.

Best Supporting Roles: There is far less agreement as to frontrunners. Among the women, “Brokeback”’s Michelle Williams has a good shot. I would rather see either of her closest competitors (Amy Adams from “Junebug” or Rachel Weisz from “The Constant Gardener”) take home the statue. Among the men, Clooney, Giamatti and Dillon are all about even, and if the vote splits the right (wrong) way, then the odious Jake Gyllenhaal might end up getting called to the podium. I hope that doesn’t happen. I predict Giamatti (“Cinderella Man”) will win a well-deserved squeaker.

Best Writing: There is some blood-and-guts competition here. In the adaptation category, Larry McMurtry and his partner Diana Osanna seem to be the prohibitive favorites for their work translating Annie Proulx’s “Brokeback Mountain” to the screen. “Capote” and “The Constant Gardener” will provide some competition, but not enough to thwart McMurtry and Osanna. In the original screenplay category, my main man Stephen Gaghan has a shot, but it’s a long one. His complex writing for “Syriana” is likely to be bested by “Good Night, and Good Luck” or “Crash.” Interestingly, “Good Night” is not quite so original as some may think, having been written around the texts of Edward R. Murrow’s actual broadcasts during the McCarthy years, and “Syriana” was initially misclassified as a result of it having been “suggested by” ex-CIA agent Robert Baer’s book, “See No Evil.” What is original and what is not is a highly subjective call in Hollywood.

Of course, as it is every year, how things shake out will depend more on popularity, demographics and social connections than merit. I will posit one final prediction: Johnny Carson and Billy Crystal notwithstanding, Jon Stewart will prove to be one of the all-time best Oscar hosts.

Best Picture: In this category, “Brokeback Mountain” will probably win the Oscar. It was an amazingly successful movie and one that looked a lot like a John Ford movie. But I just can’t overcome the notion that although a lot of people saw it, “Brokeback” was still preaching to the converted. There are much more revolutionary gay- and lesbian-themed films out there.
My ideal choice, then, will be “Capote,” a much more artistically interesting and emotionally intense film.

Best Actor: Similarly, I would put Phillip Seymour Hoffman down for best actor. Frankly, I’m not sure what “good acting” is. Is it being charismatic? A technical exercise? Is it, as some writers have suggested, just seeming different on the big screen than you do in interviews? I’m not sure, but Hoffman’s character affected me the most, so I’ll go with it as my personal choice.

It seems plausible that the Academy would agree. They love biopics. I think they think it’s more of a feat to play someone who actually existed than, say, thinking up a character from scratch.

Best Actress: To be honest, I haven’t seen a lot of the best actress roles. I thought Reese Witherspoon was too stiff as the famously charismatic June Carter Cash in “Walk the Line,” so I’ll go with somebody I think was actually very good. Miranda July completely endeared herself to me in “Me, You and Everyone We Know,” but since she wasn’t nominated, she of course won’t get the award.

Best Supporting Roles: While I found “Crash” way too trite, I found Matt Dillon’s role enjoyable. He’s lost the wiry cool he had in movies like “Drugstore Cowboy,” but he seems much more sympathetic now. Ever had a family member you really had nothing in common with, but you always loved like hell? That’s what he’s like in “Crash.” I’m going to just throw out a guess and say he wins.

Again with the “Capote.” Katherine Keener is good at bringing warmth to her characters. She would be bad at playing, say, Eva Braun, but as sweet Southern writer Harper Lee, she’s great. For some reason, though, my Magic 8 Ball says the best supporting actress award will go to Rachel Weisz.
Best Director: It will go to Kentucky’s own George Clooney. And why not? It was a good film and beautifully shot and paced. On a global scale, it wasn’t the most original work, but it had a good classic aesthetic.

Diversify and reduce risk. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences takes a cue from Wall Street when compiling its annual list of Oscar nominees, using these unspoken guidelines as if it building a stock portfolio instead.

Hollywood has a hard enough time maintaining a worldwide audience’s attention after all the fashion heroes and victims have walked the red carpet. So why would it want to risk becoming even more irrelevant to viewers on March 5 by nominating films that are artistically daring but making no money? Aren’t movies hailed, after all, as the great democratic art form?

That’s why this year’s list, just like any other year’s list, comprises Hollywood-approved Oscar bait, along with more chance-taking gambles, so the awards don’t seem completely out of touch. Nowhere is this compromised approach more apparent than the decision to give the still-vital director Robert Altman, whose biggest hit is 1970’s “MASH,” an honorary Oscar after nominating him five times but never handing over the statue.

And then there’s the inevitable and condescending nods to maverick films through nominations in the less flashy categories. Terrence Malick’s rapturous, convention-defying “The New World” was only nominated for Best Cinematography. The Village Voice’s annual poll chose “A History of Violence” as the best film of 2005. Yet director David Cronenberg’s tone-shifting dissection of the boundaries between a married couple and the excesses (and thrills) of movie violence didn’t gel with voters’ tastes. The movie, while good, doesn’t match the depth of Cronenberg’s best work, but it has an impassioned following. To placate these fans, Hollywood nominated the movie’s screenplay and gave a Best Supporting Actor nod to William Hurt’s 10 minutes of screen time.

Best Actress: This category had few meaty roles, but Reese Witherspoon, as June Carter Cash in “Walk the Line,” emanates energy and vulnerability in a performance that stays one step ahead of caricature.

Best Picture: The frontrunners are “Brokeback Mountain,” which is elevated by Best Actor nominee Heath Ledger (whose baritone voice struggles to assert control over his emotions for another man), and the beautifully acted but dramatically reductive “Crash,” which repeatedly cycles through a bad behavior-good behavior reversal for its racist characters. Steven Spielberg’s tough-minded “Munich” is the best of the nominees, but it only got on the list because the world’s most popular filmmaker is at the helm. Although the plot sometimes resembles a checklist of assassination targets, the film lucidly ties its characters’ justifications for killing in moral knots, and eschewing the sort of sentiment that Spielberg detractors typically allege.

At Oscar time there exists mandated procedures for members of the august cabal known as movie critics. They are clearly set forth in our handbook. We are to publish a column a week before the ceremony, setting forth in all the major categories: 1) Who should win, and 2) Who will win. Failure to follow orders results in immediate suspension. No hearing. No appeal.

Obviously, there is no discretion. It is an inviolate requirement. Let it be written, let it be done.

Ah, not so fast. At the risk of offending Jack Valenti — who isn’t the head of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences any more but seems like it — I doth protest.

Not going there. Tired of the exercise. I can hear the vigilantes riding up on their black steeds, ready to snatch the Critic’s Pass from my wallet.
Know what? I’m not even going the rebel way, i.e. giving you a winner in each category that isn’t even nominated. That’s so ’70s.
Here’s what you get — Culture Maven on Film’s personal opinion as the most worthy nominee in each category. Totally subjective. Devoid of the predictive.
OK, enough preamble.

Best Picture: “Brokeback Mountain” is an admirable exercise, long overdue, eminently acted and beautifully shot. Actually the same can be said for “Good Night, and Good Luck.” Besides, the latter is in glorious black and white. But, hey, there’s only one statuette per category.

Best Director: There’s just something about how George Clooney uses smoke and music to frame “Good Night, and Good Luck.” It’s really evocative. Shouldn’t the director of the best flick also win the Oscar? Yeah, well, maybe. But not this year for me. (Reread the preamble if you don’t understand.)

Best Actress: This is the easiest choice of all. Felicity Huffman. There’s a brilliant scene in the hospital after he/she’s had her/his operation when Huffman’s demeanor oh so subtly shifts from masculine to feminine. This is acting of the highest order. None of the other nominees comes close.

Best Actor: This is a better, best, bestest of all situation in the toughest category. Actually the toughest in years. Better: Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Best: David Strathairn (“Good Night, and Good Luck”). Bestest of all: Heath Ledger.

Best Supporting Actress: In “Junebug,” Amy Adams lights up the screen like no other actor of any gender this year.

Best Supporting Actor: William Hurt is the paradigm of diffused menace in “A History of Violence.”

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