Many of the year's best movies may be ignored
Published: Tuesday, January 31, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 30, 2006 at 10:32 p.m.
What: Nominations for the 78th annual Academy Awards
When: Announced 8:30 a.m. today For more information: www.oscars.org
There are a variety of reasons great movies get the cold shoulder: The academy's complicated rules disqualify some of them. Many (shockers like "Land of the Dead," for instance) are outside the taste zone of the academy, whose members tend to be older, richer and more liberal than the average American. And some haven't developed the kind of buzz that leads a movie into Oscar's warm embrace.
In the latter category, the surprise is Steven Spielberg's "Munich." Before its release, the drama was considered the favorite. Critics loved it. But by Saturday, when nomination ballots were due, its momentum was gone. Spielberg's the-movie-speaks-for-itself failure to do interviews didn't help "Munich's" cause. And some of the qualities critics have most admired - its subtlety, its refusal to simplify a complicated political situation in the Middle East - seem to be working against it with Oscar voters, who like their politics obvious, populist and feel-good (think "Erin Brockovich"). The too-subtle-to-hug problem will also damage chances for "A History of Violence."
"Brokeback Mountain," on the other hand, fits right in with Oscar sentiments. Sure, it's sad, but the romance between male shepherds also gives Oscar voters like Rita Moreno or Brad Pitt a chance to pat themselves on the back for supporting human rights and for being OK with a theme - homosexuality - that is controversial in most places, but not Hollywood. We already know "Brokeback" isn't a finalist in a few categories - makeup, sound editing - so it's not going to rack up "Titanic" numbers, but it seems likely to nab around 10 nominations.
Non-controversial controversy will also work in the favor of a couple of other titles: "Good Night, and Good Luck," which comes out in opposition of someone (Joseph McCarthy) virtually everyone in the world is opposed to, and "Crash," which boldly argues that racism is wrong. Both will get at least six nominations and perhaps several more, depending on whether Oscar voters - aided by the year's most relentless Oscar campaign - can agree on which of the many supporting actors in "Crash" deserve nominations.
"Munich" is not the only movie whose Oscar hopes are fading. When critics went ape for "King Kong," its fortunes rose, but when audiences decided they liked "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" better, "King Kong" disappeared from the best-picture picture (as did best-actress contender Naomi Watts). Before it hit theaters, it looked like "Memoirs of a Geisha" was the sort of period yawner that wins respectful reviews and Oscar nominations, regardless of quality. But it wasn't a fave of critics or moviegoers, so it'll have to settle for the pretty categories - costumes, art direction, cinematography.
And what about "The New World," the lush period drama that has divided critics and been mostly ignored by audiences? Its iffy reception would seem to doom it at the Oscars, but director Terrence Malick somehow came up with seven nominations for his last movie, the even less warmly received "The Thin Red Line," so the thinking is that Oscar voters like him. Really, really like him.
At least those movies are all eligible for Oscars. Plenty of good movies aren't. Eight of the 58 submissions for best foreign-language film ended up being disqualified. Reasons ranged from films that were not in the language of the country that submitted them (the entries from Italy and Singapore) to violations of the rule against showing entries on TV (the Netherlands won't have a foreign-film contender this year because of that rule).
The most unfortunate ineligible film is "Cache." Universally hailed as one of the best movies of 2005 in any language, "Cache" was submitted by Austria but disqualified because the dialogue is French (a language that, last time I checked, was still foreign). Because fondness for "Cache" is so widespread - and because the twisty drama has been so well publicized in New York and L.A., where the vast majority of Oscar voters live and take Pilates - it will be interesting to see if that support turns into nominations in other categories. Best director and screenplay, for instance, are categories that often find room for foreign entries, which is what happened two years ago with the Brazilian "City of God."
In a year when many of the best films were documentaries, it would also be cool to see some of them show up in other categories, but you're not likely to see "March of the Penguins," for instance, among the best-picture contenders, despite the big fat smooch it has gotten from critics and audiences.
On the other hand, "Penguins" will probably make it onto the list of five doc nominees (it's already on the short list of 15 semifinalists), something that cannot be said for "Why We Fight," which traces the causes of the Iraq war all the way back to a warning from Dwight D. Eisenhower, or "Ballets Russes," the sort of arts-based nostalgia that frequently wins the top documentary prize. Both were declared ineligible on technicalities. "Grizzly Man," last year's fifth-most-popular nonfiction movie, was apparently eligible but didn't make the semifinalist cut.
It also will be interesting to see if the efforts by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to "young up" their membership list will make a difference. Academy members retain voting privileges as long as they pay their dues, so Luise Rainer, who is 96 and has been essentially retired from movies for more than 60 years, has the same amount of voting power as folks like Will Ferrell and Gael Garcia Bernal, who probably see a lot more movies and who became members of the academy last year.
Those new voters could make this year's Oscar voices less predictable if they opt for well-regarded but low-profile actors such as Amy Adams (who could get a supporting nomination for "Junebug") or Q'Orianka Kilcher (the newcomer who stars as Pocahontas in "The New World") or Cillian Murphy (the cross-dressing lead in "Breakfast on Pluto" who may be better known to other twentysomethings than to the rest of the moviemaking world).
Who knows? Maybe they'll do something really unpredictable and actually vote to recognize the year's best films.
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