Wednesday, February 01, 2006


So, where were we?

First of all, it's time to measure up my guesses against the reality of expensive Oscar campaigns and a season of glad-handing and self-promotion that can only now really kick into high gear.

In the Best Picture and Best Actor categories, I resisted the temptation to let my instincts get the best of me (as they often do in the annual office Oscar pool), thus avoiding embarrassment by leaving A History of Violence and Jeff Daniels (The Squid and the Whale) on the sidelines. In both of those categories I went a stunning five for five, which either makes me a prognosticator of Nostradamian proportions or, as is more likely, a whole lot closer to the mindset of the mainstream Academy voter than I would ever care to admit (I believe it was the philosopher Frederic "Chef" Forrest who once said, of navigating the mainstream, never get out the boat. Absolutely goddamn right.)

I took minor cuts and abrasions in the Best Actor and Actress categories, but still ended up looking okay, my Oscar cred still reasonably intact. As my daughters would say, kudos, kiddo, for correctly guessing Keira Knightley, not exactly a sure thing, and Dame Judi Dench and Felicity Huffman, exclusive representatives of Harvey Weinstein this year. Knightley is poised to become perennial Oscar royalty on the order of Winona Ryder (didn't she used to be Oscar royalty?) or Kate Winslet just by scoring this nomination. And Huffman was, in fact, pretty much a lock, given the kind of notices and buzz she seems to be generating. But, of course, Reese Witherspoon is the lock, the key, the whole treasure chest. It will be an upset on the scale of Truman-Dewey if anyone else steps up into the limelight to pick up the Best Actress trophy.

Which brings us to my one miscue here. I really thought that, by considering the pallid box office returns, the mixed-to-scathing reviews, and the actress's own insistently dour self-promotion, as exemplified by the movie's print ad campaign, North Country's Charlize Theron and her chances at a nomination had been effectively scuttled. I figured that "they" (that nebulous bloc of Academy voters who some seem to insist vote with one mind in order to make statements through nominations and ultimate winners, as if the Oscars were a political convention instead of a popularity contest) wouldn't take the bait offered by North Country's glum purposefulness. I figured "they" would see through the coal-smudged visage of Theron, our newest poster girl for dressing down and uglying up in order to snag awards, and reject this blatant bid for glory out of hand. But instead "they" snapped up the bait as eagerly as if Theron had been smeared head-to-toe with Velveeta and willingly perched herself on the golden hook. And in doing so, "they" stole away that fifth slot from Naomi Watts, who, until I finally drifted off to sleep very early this morning, I still hoped would somehow shake off the stigma of working in an effects-heavy blockbuster and get voters to understand the gargantuan act of soulful empathy that was her performance in King Kong. I've found Watts, in the brief time I've been aware of her, to be enchanting and full of comic talent (Mulholland Dr., I (Heart) Huckabees) as often as I have found her strident and shallow (The Ring films, 21 Grams). But she reached unexpected heights of emotional directness as Ann Darrow, and I do believe the movie really would be the routine adventure tale some already claim it is without her light touch (that desperate, but not too desperate, vaudeville dance was inspired) and shot-to-the-heart immediacy.

I teetered slightly in the Best Director category here, going with the historically reliable formula of one nominee in the Picture and Director categories being orphaned, without a matching nomination in the other category that would give it credibility as a contender. Almost without fail in recent Oscar history, Director/Picture would match up in four, and sometimes only three nominees. Then there would be the odd Best Picture nominee(s) whose director(s) was (were) not nominated, or the Best Director nominee who was apparently not good enough in "their" (the Academy's) eyes to warrant a corresponding nod in the Picture category. This is why, even though my Picture guesses were down the line correct, I varied from the pattern in the director category. I figured that "they" would want to honor Munich in some way without giving the film too much credence in the actual horse race. Leaving its director, Steven Spielberg, out of the Director category might be just the way to say "Thanks for the serious work" while not appearing to overtly endorse Spielberg to the voting body, many of who are ticked at the (Jewish) director for suggesting that Israel might actually bear some moral responsibility for the events his film details. I also figured that "they" might want to fill the vacant slot with someone who is universally respected in the industry as an artist among businessman and hacks-- Terence Malick-- whose films are not always universally praised and adored. Well, I was wrong. For the first time since 1981, all five Best Picture nominees had corresponding nominations for their directors. As Marlee Martin recently put it, what the @#&* do I know?

It was in my predictions for the Best Supporting Actor and Actress categories that I took the most significant hits. The inclusion of Catherine Keener, Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams, George Clooney, Matt Dillon and Paul Giamatti was no big surprise to me. But I admit walking out on a very shaky, brittle branch when I proclaimed from the treetops Diane Keaton's name for her alternately funny and annoyingly affected work as a dying matriarch in the arch, insistently symmetrical and patronizing dramedy The Family Stone. I was, however, clothes-lined by the nonappearance of Maria Bello, who I thought, until I clicked on that Oscar link this morning, was as solid a lock here as Reese Witherspoon was in the Best Actress category. As for Terrence Howard, I admit being influenced by some crystal ball-gazers who assumed he'd pull a Jessica Lange/Jamie Foxx double-header this year. And I just took a wild guess that Donald Sutherland might slip in as one of those supporting performance nominations that seem to materialize out of thin air (think Jim Broadbent and Iris). Jake Gyllenhaal and Amy Adams are well-respected, non-controversial choices, to be sure, and I think Adams has a chance of emerging out of left field as the only serious threat to Rachel Weisz here. But the inclusion of William Hurt's funny/creepy Hopper-esque turn in A History of Violence seems kind of perverse, especially when Maria Bello was overlooked (I know, I know, "their" right hand routinely knows not what "their" left hand is doing), and Frances McDormand seems to have swung a nomination based almost solely on her being well-liked in the industry-- I don't remember anyone singling out her performance in North Country as being anything remotely special.

A few other observations and questions before putting all this to bed until early March:

Brian expressed relief, in discussing the nominations over at The House Next Door, that Chicken Little was excluded from a nomination for Best Animated Film. I would second that and add my own relief over the absence of Robots and Madagascar, two other box-office hits that were clearly not worthy. In fact, this is easily the best group of nominees in the category since its recent inception. I wouldn't balk at any of them winning, though I think that Wallace & Gromit and the Curse of the Were-rabbit ought to, and will.

What happened to Tommy Lee Jones? The 2005 Cannes Film Festival award-winner for best actor in The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (which he also directed) came up empty, even as Sony Pictures Classics seemed to be doing all the "right things" to roll the movie out, up its prestige quotient and get it seen by the Academy membership. I have to think that most voters weren't willing to leave their houses and schlep to Beverly Hills for the string of special screenings, and I suspect that those screeners mostly stayed anchored at the bottom of the stack near their recipients' DVD players, because the movie, whether it is or not, seems to have been perceived as a bit of an unpleasant drag. Truly, the time is probably not ripe for a morally righteous riff on Sam Peckinpah's Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, and maybe there are only a few cinephiles who would find such a project tantalizing anyway (we'll see for sure when the movie officially opens next week). But I would have thought that Jones, a tough cookie who still commands respect in an ADD-addled industry a decade removed from his Oscar-winning glory days in The Fugitive, might have snuck into the Best Actor field despite all this, and had there not been such a plethora of strong choices in that category I still think he could have.

Were there some special circumstances I'm unaware of that prevented Grizzly Man from being nominated in the Best Documentary category, or this just another of those egregious, well-documented examples of the nominating committee being hopelessly (willfully?) out of touch? A look at the films that did get nominated (Darwin's Nightmare, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, March of the Penguins, Murderball and Street Fight) suggests there is definitely a heightened awareness from the days in which films like The Thin Blue Line and Hoop Dreams could go completely unrecognized. But Werner Herzog's film was one of the most highly praised, formally fascinating documentaries to come along in quite some time (though it was nowhere near the box-office hit that Penguins was, nor does it sport the trenchant topicality of Enron). If anyone can enlighten me as to any convoluted Academy regulations that may have prevented Grizzly Man from being honored, I'd sure appreciate it if you would. Otherwise, I'll just have to assume that we're looking at yet another instance of the documentary branch of the Academy dropping a very high-profile ball.

I'd like to think King Kong is a lock in the technical categories, but there seems to be an inexplicable backlash going on in regard to this movie, and as brilliantly effective as Kong's art direction and sound are, supporters of Peter Jackson's movie can probably only really count on his prodigious effects team being recognized with yet another Oscar for Best Visual Effects. Jackson has found a way to humanize special effects in a way that sets him apart from profligate digital tub-thumpers like James Cameron and George Lucas. He-- gasp-- pays attention to the actors, believes they can find and create ways to connect with the vast green-screenery that translates to the audience in real, powerful ways. This belief is at the heart of the effectiveness of teaming Naomi Watts with Andy Serkis as a physical presence on the set for her to play against and with, above and beyond simply providing a template on which to layer the titular CGI beast. And it must be recognized eventually that Jackson's talent as a creator of spectacular action meshes brilliantly with his talent as a director of actors. This is why King Kong deserves to be the fourth Peter Jackson film in as many years to take home the visual effects award. (Would this not be a record of some sort?) As for the much-derided three hour-plus length of the film, I can only say, the movie drags and sags if you perceive it as doing so. One man's bloat is another man's bounty, and even as I was emotionally (and, yes, physically) exhausted by the movie's finish, I simply did not want it to end. Believe me, there are plenty of 90-minute films I couldn't say that about. Jackson's movie isn't out to topple the untopple-able legacy of the 1933 original. Instead, it seeks to expand on that legacy and co-exist with it as spectacular cinema on its own terms. I wish the Academy went a little further in recognizing that.

Okay, it's time for me to put the Oscars to bed until March. (I'll be putting myself to bed as well, but unfortunately I'll be getting back up a whole lot sooner than Oscar Day.) I'll leave you with a link to blogger Edward Copeland, who has an amazing collection of observations and factoids relating directly to this year's slate of Oscar nominees that's up and available for your perusal and amusement on his home page. In fact, Edward would be a very good person to ask about the Grizzly Man problem and that run of special effects wins. Would four years running in victories in the Best Special Effects category be a record, Edward? And do you know, did Herzog or his distributor simply forget to file the proper paperwork in time?


Lester said...

You seem to have a knack for predicting the nominees over the past couple of years. Great job Dennis. I was beginning to doubt myself for not liking the "Grizzly Man". The narrative style of this doumentary just never connected with me or my wife. Looks like I am not alone.

Edward Copeland said...

As for Grizzly Man, it just didn't make the documentary short list -- the notoriously picky doc branch just didn't like it enough to include it, so we knew going in that it wasn't going to be a finalist. Really, the only "well-known" documentary on the short list that they left off was Mad Hot Ballroom. As for visual effects, that' highly likely. The closest I can find is Richard Edlund who won 3 out of 4 years from 1980-1983, though his awards for Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi were actually special achievement awards, not competitive ones.

Edward Copeland said...

By the way, I tracked down the original Academy shortlist for doc feature -- these were the 15 from which they took the 5:

"After Innocence"
"The Boys of Baraka"
"Darwin's Nightmare"
"The Devil and Daniel Johnston"
"Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room"
"Favela Rising"
"Mad Hot Ballroom"
"March of the Penguins"
"Occupation: Dreamland"
"On Native Soil: The Documentary f the 9/11 Commission Report"
"Street Fight"
"39 Pounds of Love"
"Unknown White Male"

Dennis Cozzalio said...

So I guess Grizzly Man (or Herzog, or Timothy Treadwell) maybe just rubbed the nominating committee the wrong way, eh? I certainly know some viewers (Murray) who would see it that way! Thanks for checking on that for us, Edward, and for stopping by with the info. Oh, and by the way, you are now no longer "Edward Coleman" in the body of the post above. As I got it right on the sidebar, I can only offer the lateness of the hour as my lame excuse! I hope you'll check in again soon! The company in the comments section on this blog just keeps getting better and better!

Edward Copeland said...

The documentary branch has gotten slightly better with reforms over the year, but when they used to be mainly made up of a lot of old retirees with a lot of free time on their hands, they were notorious for stopping documentaries one or two reels in. I believe that's what happened in the cases of Hoop Dreams and Crumb back in 1994.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Yeah, it's hard to imagine that old guard letting something like Darwin's Nightmare, or even The Devil and Daniel Johnston, or Rize, make a complete pass through a projector. And, oh, how I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall during that aborted Crumb screening.

Brian Darr said...

Paraphrased from a comment I left at a Cinemarati post, my pet theory on the lack of Grizzly Man on the doc. shortlist is the fact that there's really nobody to admire in the film. I can't remember any of the Oscar-nominated docs I've seen (and there's plenty of them I haven't seen so I'm sure there's a counter-example) that didn't have some kind of role model-type in the film. In that way it's the anti-Murderball.

I actually missed my chance at seeing Wallace and Grommit and wish it would make a return visit to the area. In the meantime I'll be perfectly happy to cheer on the Miyazaki movie against all odds; it's every bit as good as Spirited Away imho.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Brian: I think you're on to something with your theory. In fact, someone I talked to just yesterday basically made that exact comment to me. He seemed annoyed by Treadwell, but also by the perception that Herzog was condescending to Treadwell through his narration and editorial choices (I wouldn't agree with this objection, though it'd be difficult to challenge the former), and felt there was nowhere for him to latch onto that wasn't somehow distasteful to him.

As for the animated films, I feel sure you'll appreciate W&G. I too loved Howl's Moving Castle, though I found it somewhat less overwhelming and transcendent than Spirited Away-- and I sat down with my daughter recently to see Kiki's Delivery Service, and that was a far better movie than I'd remembered. One comment that has been brought up since the early morning hours yesterday that I didn't think to make myself, but is worth passing along: I don't know if it can be considered a "statement" by the Academy any more than any of the other nominations or apparent trends within them can, but it sure was interesting that all of the animated films were created through either traditional drawn cels or stop-motion, with minimal CGI augmentation. If this doesn't point up the obvious fact that Pixar is less guided by their technology than their mastery of storytelling, I'm not sure what could.

Edward Copeland said...

If you all want to see an example of some silly Oscar "reporting" by Nikki Finke, read my latest post at