A number of unusually strong movies were released last year — films made by gifted directors, writers and cinematographers, and cast with actors working at the top of their talents. The game around Academy Awards time is to designate one-each of these people, and one of their movies, as best of the year. This can’t be done in any meaningful way, but let’s play along.
Best Picture: “Crash”
Is “Crash” a better picture than “Capote”? Can you say apples and ottomans? “Capote” is a really exceptional movie, essentially a low-budget indie made by a first-time feature director and a first-time screenwriter. And of course it has Philip Seymour Hoffman in the title role. More of him in a moment.
But “Crash” is a mesmerizing ensemble piece (from a story by director Paul Haggis) about racial flashpoints in Los Angeles, and it’s blessedly free of preening high-mindedness. It features Don Cheadle, Matt Dillon, Terrence Howard, and, yes, Sandra Bullock doing some of their strongest work, and it’s unified by cinematographer J. Michael Muro’s fluid camera and glowing imagery. It also has, in a charismatic comic performance, Ludacris, of whom we must see much more in the future.
Best Director: Paul Haggis, “Crash”
Haggis got an Oscar nomination for his script for “Million Dollar Baby” last year. But the only other movie he’s directed was a 1993 Canadian rock flick called “Red Hot.” That was surely disposable juvenilia; “Crash” suggests a master in the making.
Best Actor: Philip Seymour Hoffman, “Capote”
Heath Ledger is equally deserving here for his incredibly moving performance as Ennis Del Mar, the world-weary cowboy who suddenly discovers he’s bisexual in “Brokeback Mountain.” And Russell Crowe gave one of his warmest and most subtle performances in the under-appreciated “Cinderella Man” (too bad about the dorky title), playing a simple man, but not playing him simple-minded. Joaquin Phoenix was really something to see (and hear) in the Johnny Cash biopic “Walk the Line,” and David Strathairn was a suitably commanding presence in “Good Night, and Good Luck.” (Unfortunately, he nailed the celebrated probity of ’50s newscaster Edward R. Murrow so squarely, the character became an uninvolving black hole of integrity.) There’s also much to recommend the work of Don Cheadle in “Crash,” Jonathan Rhys-Meyers in “Match Point” (he carries the movie), and Colin Firth in the sadly underrated “Where the Truth Lies.”
But in the same way that there was no denying Jamie Foxx’s incarnation of Ray Charles in 2004, there’s really no getting around the fact that Hoffman gave his most hypnotic performance to date in “Capote,” virtually channeling the late “In Cold Blood” author’s epicene manner and his calculating careerism. There was nothing else remotely like it in a movie last year. Amazingly, for an actor who’s been so memorable in films like “Magnolia” and “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” Hoffman has never even been nominated for an Oscar. This is his year.
Best Actress: Rachel Weisz, “The Constant Gardener”
Maria Bello would be an excellent choice in this category, for her performance as the shocked and conflicted wife of a man who’s suddenly revealed to be a former mob assassin in “A History of Violence.” So would Gwyneth Paltrow, who negotiated the emotional complications of “Proof” with such remarkable finesse. Keira Knightley brought irresistible high spirits to the role of Elizabeth in “Pride & Prejudice.” And Patricia Clarkson demonstrated yet again her effortless command of character and psychological nuance in “The Dying Gaul.” But Weisz, who’s been bubbling-under for a decade in movies like “About a Boy” and “Runaway Jury,” really broke through in “The Constant Gardener,” bringing righteous fire and a steely determination to the role of a British diplomat’s wife who finds it impossible to be diplomatic about the poverty, corruption and exploitation she sees all around her in the cultural catastrophes of Kenya.
|“Howl’s Moving Castle”|
|“The Constant Gardener”|
|“Pride & Prejudice”|
|“March of the Penguins”|
Best Supporting Actor: Clifton Collins Jr., “Capote”
Terrence Howard was quietly riveting in “Crash,” playing a suave TV professional who thinks he’s climbed above the indignities of petty racism until he finds himself dragged right back down into them. Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, appearing in only his third feature film, brought a vast reserve of prickly charm to the carjacker he plays in “Crash.” William Hurt was explosively funny in a way he’s never been before playing the demented gangster boss in “A History of Violence.” And Jeremy Irons was full-on hysterical as the hyper-pompous bishop in “Casanova.” But Collins, portraying the condemned murderer Perry Smith, a doomed loser on his way to death row, managed to convey all the sorrow in the world with just a roll of his big, liquid eyes. It’s a breakthrough performance.
Best Supporting Actress: Thandie Newton, “Crash”
Catherine Keener, as the imperturbable novelist Harper Lee in “Capote,” adds a sense of laser-ray intelligence and compelling stillness to every scene she’s in. Scarlett Johansson has never been quite so emotionally open as she is in Woody Allen’s “Match Point.” And Hope Davis masters every nuance of the officious prig of a sister she plays in “Proof.” But Newton delivered a startling burst of raw outrage as the violated wife of Terrence Howard, and I think she may prevail.
Best Screenplay: Paul Haggis and Robert Moresco, “Crash.”
Director Atom Egoyan’s script for “Where the Truth Lies” is a work of sour brilliance, and Dan Futterman’s somber screenplay for “Capote” (based on a biography by Gerald Clarke) is a model of spare eloquence. But Haggis and Moresco created a tide pool of human complexity and conflict, and you walked away drained of any cynicism you may have brought to the picture and its always volatile subject.
Best Cinematography: Roman Osin, “Pride & Prejudice”
There’s no discounting the gorgeous, wintry tones Adam Kimmel created in “Capote,” or Bobby Bukowski’s luminous imagery in “The Dying Gaul,” or Peter Suschitzky’s intense control of the bright, pop-arty color design that’s almost another character in “A History of Violence.” In fact, there are so many worthy artists in this category — J. Michael Muro for “Crash,” Rodrigo Prieto for “Brokeback Mountain,” Philippe Rousselot and Neal Norton for the eye-popping “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” — that singling out just one really is pointless. However, Osin’s extraordinarily kinetic camerawork in “Pride & Prejudice” — dancing around in complex minuets, zooming in and out of windows, rolling through crowded hallways and up atop the majestic bluffs of rural England — is a feat that’s hard to beat.
Best Animated Feature: “Howl’s Moving Castle,” Hayao Miyazaki
Tim Burton’s “The Corpse Bride” would be a natural contender here, and Dave McKean’s “MirrorMask” is a bold new combination of live action and otherworldly computer fantasia. But “Howl’s Moving Castle” is another world altogether — the most enchanting animated picture since Miyazaki’s last masterwork, the 2001 “Spirited Away.” If you haven’t seen this one, you really, really should.
Best Documentary: “March of the Penguins,” Luc Jacquet
The admirable “New York Doll” and “The Nomi Song” had the misfortune to be released in the same year as the most stirring (and, well, adorable) nature doc ever made.
Worst Movie: “The Libertine”
Hands down. The first-time director, Laurence Dunmore, arose out of TV commercials and music videos. The star, Johnny Depp, has never before been rendered so charmless. The story is about a 17th century English aristocrat purportedly infamous for his ambisexual decadence, so you’d expect the movie to be filled with flamboyant deviltry and carnal rut. But you’d be disappointed. Not only does this weirdly static and sexless movie not turn you on, it turns you off. Relatively few people have seen it (it died on arrival in theatres). Hope you weren’t one of them.