So what do we think of the Oscar nominations?

I guess it’s my job to complain about unfortunate omissions and additions—and complain I shall!—but when your #1 and #2 movies (Brokeback Mountain and Munich, respectively) are among the five Best Picture nominees, any minor misgivings sound needlessly churlish. No doubt Hollywood will be patting itself on the back plenty for this, but the nominees (and 2005 films in general) are remarkably engaged with the world around them. Brokeback Mountain, Munich, and Good Night And Good Luck are all period pieces, but drop them in a time capsule and they’ll say something very particular about what it was like to live in America in 2005. On the other hand, drop Crash in a time capsule and you’ll see what it’s like to live inside some dude’s ruthlessly deterministic screenplay. In any event, the Oscars are shaping up to be the most politically charged affair in memory, and that’s even before you consider that Jon Stewart is hosting and Robert Altman is achieving lifetime achievement honors. (Early prediction: Altman’s speech will be a bombshell along the lines of Harold Pinter’s recent Nobel oratory. Ever the iconoclast, he’s always been a Hollywood outsider and I imagine he’s allergic to the self-serving pageantry that is the Oscars. He’s also unafraid to voice provocative opinions—remember when he basically blamed Hollywood for the September 11th attacks?—and too old to care about the repercussions.)

Because I’m too lazy to write a proper essay, let me break down the four major categories:

Best Picture

Nominees:
Brokeback Mountain, Capote, Crash, Good Night And Good Luck, Munich

Thoughts: Munich was probably on the bubble here, just eking past Walk The Line and properly so—the lead performances in Walk The Line, particularly Witherspoon’s, are first-rate, but the film doesn’t do enough to shimmy out of biopic conventions. Inaugural A.V. Club Film Poll winner A History Of Violence seemed like it had an outside shot, but were it not for William Hurt’s presence in the supporting category, I’d have wondered aloud whether any Oscar voters had even seen the film. Crash is the only stinker in the bunch, yet it also has the most momentum, thanks due to an aggressive campaign and the collective bad taste of Academy voters. (And they’re not the only ones: Crash recently took the critics guild award for Best Picture here in Chicago, a fact that would incense me more if I…well…remembered to vote.)

Will Win: Brokeback Mountain. Unless Crash continues its ascendancy and positions itself as a darkhorse possibility, there’s no stopping Brokeback. Obviously, people can feel good about voting for it (and there’s nothing Hollywood types like more than feeling good about themselves) and it’s certainly a landmark of sorts, but not so incidentally, it’s actually a worthy choice and deserves to win for reasons that have nothing to do with its politicization.

Should Win. Brokeback Mountain.

In A Perfect World: Brokeback Mountain. Though if the world were progressive enough culturally and aesthetically to give the prize to the year's other great gay film, Tropical Malady, what a world it would be!

Best Actor

Nominees:
Philip Seymour Hoffmann, Capote; Terrence Howard, Hustle & Flow; Heath Ledger, Brokeback Mountain; Joaquin Phoenix, Walk The Line; David Straithairn, Good Night And Good Luck

Thoughts: All great actors, all fine performances. It’s especially gratifying to see Howard’s name on the list, because his terrific work is one of the few elements that bring legitimacy to Hustle & Flow. I wish there were room on that list for Jeff Daniels in The Squid And The Whale or Ralph Fiennes in The Constant Gardener, but everyone deserves to be there.

Will Win: Hoffman. It’s a stunt performance to some degree: Much like that other Hoffman in Rain Man (he won, too), you find yourself a bit too conscious of the acting mechanics required to pull it off—the voice, the walk, the effete gestures—but it nonetheless transcends imitation and gets inside the mind of a deeply flawed man.

Should Win: Ledger. What this handsome devil said.

In A Perfect World: Ledger.

Best Actress

Nominees:
Judi Dench, Mrs. Henderson Presents; Felicity Huffman, Transamerica; Keira Knightley, Pride & Prejudice; Charlize Theron, North Country; Reese Witherspoon, Walk The Line
Thoughts: A weak category overall, with Dench doing her usual imperious business in Mrs. Henderson Presents (her two scenes in Pride & Prejudice are far more potent than anything she does in this film), Knightley charming it up to no special effect in Pride, and another deglammed Theron performance. That leaves Huffman and Witherspoon as the only deserving candidates—and again, the two major contenders—though Transamerica is such a lackluster Amerindie that it’s hard to separate Huffman from it.

Will Win: Witherspoon. More voters will have seen Walk The Line, for one. For two, Witherspoon clearly has more acting chops than her starlet contemporaries, even if she seems more inclined to take roles in fluff like Just Like Heaven, Legally Blonde, and Sweet Home Alabama than heartier fare like Walk The Line or Election. But mostly, she’s just an incredibly vibrant June Carter Cash, one part heartbreak for every two parts indomitable good cheer.

Should Win: Witherspoon.

In A Perfect World: Witherspoon. Uh oh. Am I becoming some middlebrow Oscar type? I’m afraid to look in the mirror.

Best Supporting Actress

Nominees:
Amy Adams, Junebug; Catherine Keener, Capote; Frances McDormand, North Country; Rachel Weisz, The Constant Gardener; Michelle Williams, Brokeback Mountain

Thoughts: Still haven’t seen Adams’ reportedly excellent work in Junebug, nor have I worked up the energy to sit through North Country. Of the remaining three, I’d have liked to have seen Keener get a nomination for The 40-Year-Old Virgin, in which she’s both her usual terrifying self and yet surprisingly tender, too. She’s just the right woman to frighten away poor Steve Carrell and lead him through his belated coming-of-age.

Will Win: Weisz. She won the Golden Globe and the Screen Actors’ Guild awards, which are solid Oscar bellwethers, and she seems right on the verge of becoming a huge movie star, so a win might push her over the edge. Supporting categories are typically where the surprises come from (Anna Paquin in The Piano immediately leaps to mind), so it’s not a lock by any means.

Should Win: Williams. Since Dawson’s Creek, Williams has been laboring hard in off-Broadway and indie circles to prove herself as a more substantial actress and she’s certainly done so in Brokeback Mountain, in which she carries a grief every bit as crippling as her husband’s.

In A Perfect World: Patricia Clarkson, The Dying Gaul. In many ways, Clarkson plays the Michelle Williams role in this film, victimized by the passion between her husband (Campbell Scott) and another man (Peter Sarsgaard), only her pain manifests itself in a Medea-like act of revenge. Clarkson’s relationship with “the other man,” conducted under false pretenses through an internet chat room, exists uneasily between sympathy and malice, and her performance makes sense of those conflicting emotions.

Best Supporting Actor

Nominees:
George Clooney, Syriana; Matt Dillon, Crash; Paul Giamatti, Cinderella Man; Jake Gyllenhaal, Brokeback Mountain; William Hurt, A History Of Violence

Thoughts: Another weak category. Clooney doesn’t do anything special in Syriana, other than deliver another in a line of solid, understated performances that don’t call attention to themselves. (I guess he gained some weight for the role and the Academy loves those dramatic method stunts, e.g. De Niro in Raging Bull or Adrian Brody in The Pianist.) Giamatti didn’t get so much as a nomination for either American Splendor or Sideways, which might explain his presence here for another fine character turn that doesn’t approach his transcendent work in the earlier films. And I still don’t know what to make of William Hurt’s performance in A History Of Violence: On a certain level, it’s an inspired piece of casting, exploiting his signature expression of confusion/mild disdain (favorite line-reading of year: “How do you fuck that up?!”), but it’s also hammy and not in keeping with the tone of the rest of movie.

Will Win: Clooney. Another open category, with just about everyone a possible contender, especially Giamatti and Gyllenhaal, but Clooney’s ubiquity in the nominations overall might lead to an award in the only category where a win is all that feasible. On the other hand, how many people left Syriana marveling about Clooney’s performance?

Should Win: Gyllenhaal. Compared to Ledger, his performance (and character) seems less complicated and therefore less intriguing, yet his Jack Twist is the film’s catalyst, an open-faced and innocent kid who geninely believes his love for Ennis has a future, whatever the evidence to the contrary.

In A Perfect World: Carrell’s electronics shop crew, The 40-Year-Old Virgin. There’s a reason the uncut DVD version of this movie runs an unseemly 133 minutes: Paul Rudd, Seth Rogan, and Romany Malco improvise such a wealth of hilarious material that it’s hard to show any discipline when deciding what to leave on the cutting-room floor. So many comedies today are built on sloppy, unstructured improv that it’s a miracle to see it done this well.

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