By Matt Singer
The new issue of Newsweek has the magazine’s annual roundtable discussion with the year’s most important directors. Typically, this ritual predicts three or four of the nominees, leaving room for one or two surprises.
When the Academy Award nominations were announced this week, Newsweek proved prescient indeed: all five members of their roundtable George Clooney (“Good Night, and Good Luck”), Paul Haggis (“Crash”), Ang Lee (“Brokeback Mountain”), Bennett Miller (“Capote”), and Steven Spielberg (“Munich”) earned nominations. All five also directed nominees for Best Picture. Without commenting on the merit of recognizing these particular filmmakers (I’ve seen four of the five films and liked all four, though not enough to include any of them in my top ten list for 2005) this strikes me as a rather ominous indicator of just how predictable (or, if you’re more cynical, purchasable) this year’s nominations were and, to a large extent, how seemingly wrapped up most of the races are (Reese Witherspoon, please continue to walk the line straight to your Oscar).
Still, there were some pleasant surprises, of the sort that fall into the category “Yes, it really is an honor to be nominated, because you sure as hell aren’t winning.” Not surprisingly, most of these were from the independent film world, and to these proud few, an IFC News salute:
Noah Baumbach, “The Squid and the Whale”: There might have been better movies in 2005, but was there a better screenplay than Noah Baumbach’s deeply personal tale of bitter divorce amongst the ranks of Brooklyn bohemia? They whoever they are say writers should write what they know, and Baumbach’s familiarity with his subject matter oozes out of every frame of his carefully observed dark comedy. It’s hard to be thoughtful and funny about any subject, let alone about divorce, let alone about your own parents’ divorce, but Baumbach pulls it off time and again in “The Squid and the Whale,” from the scene where Jesse Eisenberg’s Walt passes off Pink Floyd’s “Hey You” as an original talent show composition to the sequence where Jeff Daniels as his depressed dad tags along for one of Walt’s date and insists on seeing “Blue Velvet” instead of “Short Circuit.” His characters are so real they don’t just exist as complete entities; they actually seem to change over the course of the film, as the events of the parental separation gradually affect both the children (whose allegiances are constantly shifting) and the adults (who reveal sides of themselves we can’t anticipate). My parents and my childhood couldn’t be more different than Baumbach’s but, to his credit, no 2005 movie felt more relatable.
Jake Gyllenhaal, “Brokeback Mountain”: In all the hoopla and hullabaloo surrounding his Australian co-star, Jake Gyllenhaal has been quietly, frustratingly lost. I’m not trying to diminish Ledger’s performance, merely to observe that Gyllenhaal has been strangely absent from the collective congratulations that Brokeback has been receiving for the last two months. Face it: Heath’s got it easy. He gets to act cool and tough and aloof: all hallmarks of great male performances in the Brando tradition. But watch Gyllenhaal in the key climactic scene between the two, when he has to deliver the line that’s already become the film’s contribution to the lexicon (“I wish I could quit you!”). It is Gyllenhaal who more powerfully conveys the couple’s sense of loss and, in the shots that contrast their early, happy beginnings and their sad ends, it is Gyllenhaal who more convincingly portrays a middle-aged depressive. Going against Clooney (who won the Golden Globe) and Giamatti (who could win for missing out on Sideways), Gyllenhaal is almost certainly doomed to fail, except in the case of a massive Brokeback sweep. But his nomination is an encouraging reminder that the film succeeded not because of Heath Ledger, but because of the contributions of a superb ensemble.
“It’s Hard Out Here For a Pimp” from “Hustle & Flow”: No rap song has ever come together so quickly, so creatively, and so perfectly as “It’s Hard Out Here For a Pimp” does for DJay (Terrence Howard) in his homemade studio. The way all of the elements the beat, the hook, the lyrics, the backup singers flow together (they probably hustle a little too) could only happen in the movies. But you know what? This is the movies! And the song, written by rap group Three 6 Mafia, provided one of the most memorable movie moments (musical or otherwise) in 2005, which is why it deserved its inclusion as a nominee for Best Original Song. I have no idea if Howard or Three 6 Mafia (who you can read a little about here) or some combination of the two will perform the song at the awards, but it always brings a smile to my face when the stodgy Oscars gets livened up by a musical performance completely out of place amongst all those uptight squares in their tuxedos. Maybe they can get Jack Valenti to sing along to “Whoop That Trick” too. I’ve got my fingers crossed.