I fancy myself a movie-lover, so over the last several years I’ve tried to pay more attention to the Oscar nominees. I thought, “These must be the best films of the year, so I should watch a handful of them.” People are raving about this year’s nominees, but after watching some of them, I sadly feel neither the admiration nor the emotional connection that everyone else does. I feel like the little boy from the fable trying to point out to the fawning crowd that the Emperor’s not wearing any clothes. To prove it, I am going to rant about some of this year’s nominees and you can judge for yourself whether the Emperor is truly streaking, or I just don’t have any fashion sense.
Crash (nominated for best picture, director, supporting actor, editing, song, and screenplay)
I’m starting with the worst offender. Ostensibly a series of inter-connected stories dealing with issues of race. After she experienced a traumatic car-jacking incident, a rich woman doesn’t trust the locksmith that her husband hired. An old shopkeeper takes matters into his own violent hands after he blames a locksmith for people breaking into and destroying his shop. A rookie cop tragically overreacts after he argues with a hitchhiker he picked up. Race is an important issue and we need dialogue about it. Agreed. However, the way the script is written and because of the casting, it’s easy to conclude that these and other stories in Crash are about race. If you look deeper, you can see that they aren’t—the racial stuff is a contrivance. It seems like maybe originally there was no common theme so someone decided to paint them all over with a coat of “race”. The rich woman is white and the locksmith is latino, but that had no real bearing on the story. Rich women might look down on their locksmiths regardless of race. Even in some of the stories that were truly about race (e.g. a black TV producer is asked by the star of the show to make one of the supporting characters sound more “black”) it didn’t seem that anything insightful was being said about the issues.
On top of that, the movie was emotionally manipulative. When the locksmith gets shot by the shopkeeper, the locksmith’s cute little daughter runs into the line of fire at that very second—in slo-mo if I recall correctly (how tear-jerking!). Oscar-nominated supporting actor Matt Dillon plays a cop who feels up a rich lady during a pat down, and later he gets the chance to save that same lady from a car accident (how redemptive!). As if that wasn’t bad enough, the story lines are all connected in a way that is far too neat and coincidental. As a result, nothing seems realistic because the connections seem too perfectly tied into bows. I heard one critic agree with me about the manipulativeness of Crash, but Roger Ebert chose it as the best movie of 2005—seriously? The Emperor is soooo naked in this one! (3 out of 5)
Capote (nominated for best picture, actor, director, and supporting actress)
With regard to this movie about non-fiction writer Truman Capote and his friendship with the murderers of a Kansas family (the incident that was the subject of his landmark book, In Cold Blood) I concede that some serious acting ability was required for Philip Seymour Hoffman to so realistically portray Capote with his squeaky voice and odd mannerisms. However, the character was not very likeable. He basically befriended these murderers for his book and maintained that friendship until he finished. There may have been a turning point to true affection near the end, but I don’t see the point of watching two hours about a rather unlikeable person without gleaning some insight into humanity. I’m sure I missed the point, but that’s why I didn’t enjoy the film. (2.5 out of 5)
Walk the Line (nominated for best actor, actress, editing, and sound mixing)
The biopic about music legend Johnny Cash was very fun in parts (i.e. the musical performance numbers) but when the music stopped, the story was extremely typical: sex, drugs, and rock & roll. Hard living musician hits rock bottom and is redeemed by the love of his music and a good woman. The story’s downright cliché. I think Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon both do excellent jobs of inhabiting the main characters, Cash and his wife June, but there is a lack of freshness that begs the non-Cash-fan question, “Why did this movie need to be made?” (3.5 out of 5)
Munich (nominated for best picture, director, editing, music, and adapted screenplay)
I’ve already reviewed this movie, so I’m just going to reiterate that this movie was OK, but it lacked meaning for me as someone who didn’t fully appreciate the historical/cultural context of the story. (3 out of 5)
A History of Violence (nominated for best supporting actor and adapted screenplay)
This one didn’t get too many nominations considering how critically acclaimed it’s been this year. This is the story of a gentle small-town coffee shop owner discovered by violent men who claim that he was once one of them (and they owe him a debt of vengeance). To me this felt like half an intimate drama and half gangster flick, but the halves didn’t gel together. For a much better movie about a small town dealing with the violent past of one of its gentle residents, I much preferred the 1996 Billy Bob Thornton movie Sling Blade (which won a screenplay Oscar). (3.5 out of 5)
Brokeback Mountain (nominated for best picture, director, actor, supporting actor, supporting actress, cinematography, music, and adapted screenplay)
The heavy-hitter. The big caveat is that the movie asks you to be willing to accept the central love story between two men. If you can, then the directing, acting, script, etc., all add up to a rather intimate and moving story. It can get slow in parts and the lead character is fairly non-talkative, but nevertheless, it’s a movie where you can really get to know the characters and feel their tragedy. (4 out of 5)
Phew! After all that you can see that I felt let down by almost all of the nominees mentioned, but I didn’t give any of them a failing grade. Take that as you will. I’ll still be watching come Oscar night to see who wins. I’m just not so sure I care which way the results go.