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By Other Voices

What a Difference a Day Made

Or two days, as it were.

Last week the four major guilds from the film industry announced their nominees (the writers, the directors, the producers and the actors). What we are left with are four films that hit the grand slam, including the Screen Actors Guild’s Best Performance by an Ensemble, establishing in the minds of many a collectively “definitive” list of shoo-ins for the Oscar’s Best Picture line-up.

The films coming into the new year blazing are Brokeback Mountain, long considered the frontrunner in the race; Capote, one of the most critically acclaimed films of the year that settled in nicely with an uncharacteristically “small” slate of Producers Guild of America nominees; Crash, lurking on the outskirts of major Oscar potential for months and solidifying this week as a film that elicits genuine passion seven months after theatrical release; andGood Night, and Good Luck., director George Clooney’s politically charged film that I believe, with obvious potential for technical branch support, has become the competition for Ang Lee’s opus.

My immediate reaction is to chalk these films up as “sure things,” given the sweep of the industry’s above-the-line consensus. And the only two times I can recall a film doing this number on the guilds and still missing a slot in the top five from the AMPAS were Almost Famous in 2000 and Being John Malkovich in 1999. So the precedent is there and with a year so unforgiving in its unpredictability, one has to at least humor the possibility of one of those four films being vulnerable – right?

Most agree that Brokeback Mountain’s slot is secure. It is the undeniable “it” film of the season and has been a part of a drastic social statement in a year full of topical cinematic content. It has already received major category support from the guilds, and will most assuredly be met with respect from various technical factions.

Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto garnered a surprising nomination from his peers, the American Society of Cinematographers, in 2002 for his work on Frida. So with further acclaim this year for Lee’s film, the assumption that he’ll grab his first Oscar nomination is a healthy one.

The dearly departed Geraldine Peroni is virtually assured allegiance from her fellow editors, along with co-collaborator Dylan Tichenor, who took over the reins of piecing together one of the year’s most heralded films.

The emotive flavor of the film’s score and song accompaniment will fittingly secure Gustavo Santaolalla at least acknowledgement, if not a nomination for Best Original Score, while the attention to period detail in the film’s twenty some year timeline should draw some attention from the design branches.

The film looks to have friends in ALL places.

The competition seems to have become George Clooney’s Good Night, and Good Luck., interestingly, another topical film, this one even more to the point and unapologetically “left.” It, too, has the likely support of various technical branches on the way.

The film’s moody cinematography, picking up every plume of cigarette smoke on its black and white canvas, is the most identifiable of characteristics. Lenser Robert Elswit has already won awards for his work from the Los Angeles and Boston film critics, and he also has his duties on Syriana to keep him very visable.

Stephen Mirrione’s task of editing is on display, with the integration of real news footage into the narrative, while, again, attention to period detail (bogusly slighted by the New York Times) will surely attract the design categories once again.

I think it’s safe to say both films will get enough love to place firmly in the final line-up – but what to make of the last two grand-slammers?

Crash has done one thing that is important to take note of — it has stayed fresh in the minds of awards giving bodies.

For much of the fall, I felt that, with the consistency of disappointing awards product, one of the best reviewed films of the year, Ron Howard’s Cinderella Man could survive it’s label of “dead” and claim a position as one of the Academy’s favored five. While that label has at least been proven hyperbolic, what with Russell Crowe, Paul Giamatti and writers Akiva Goldsman and Cliff Hollingsworth regularly gathering awards recognition, the lack of support from the Directors Guild of America for a helmer they have proven an endearment to in the past is the real knock-out punch.

In the wake of all of this, Paul Haggis’ tale of racial tension seems to have stepped up to claim the throne of pre-season nominee. The amount of love it has evoked from its strong contingent of devotees makes it a prime candidate for tons of #1 votes in the next week or so on the Best Picture section of ballots.

The film is also a contemporary one. There is typically one contemporary tale nominated for Best Picture. And the editors will surely rally behind Hughes Winborne, who weaves the many overlapping stories together as a defining characteristic of the film. Musical support is also on the way, with Bird York’s song “Into the Deep” being one of the ubiquitous tunes of the awards season.

Then we come to Capote. I by no means consider it a bad film. It’s an exceptional one. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s performance is astounding. Adam Kimmel’s cinematography is some of the most underrated work of the year and, more than that, I’d go so far as to call it some of the best of the year. And the way writer Dan Futterman unfolds the tale in a cinematic language is writing at its most resilient.

I get it. What I don’t get is how the collective critical assessment of the film came to be the collective industry assessment of the film.

Capte is obviously an actors’ movie. The Screen Actors Guild’s nomination for Best Ensemble is surprising on one hand, given how much of an anti-ensemble this thing is, but on the other hand, thespians seem to love Catherine Keener (having a great year) and Chris Cooper(SAG nominated for American Beauty and Seabiscuit).

Given that Truman Capote is one of the most iconic of literary figures, you can bet the writers would rally behind it, and even though Bennett Miller is a newbie, the film could certainly be viewed as a directors’ movie. Balancing the internal clockwork of Truman Capote with his outer actions is a delicate task.

But since when is Capote a producer’s movie? On a $7 million budget, the film has obviously turned a profit with a $12.2 million gross thus far, but it certainly hasn’t exploded into the black like Crash’s nearly $47 million in the plus column.

The PGA is a different group of people than it was four years ago. In 2001 the guild merged with the American Association of Producers (AAP), apparently an organization of associate producers in videotape television which formed in 1983. So their consistency of prognostication (which was never that great – usually getting three out of five) is out of date. The last two years the PGA has nominated four of the eventual five Best Picture nominees, and with six films nodded this year, there is a high probability that we’ll see that again.

But is the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, notorious in its appreciation of fluff and rose-colored views of life, really at a place where they would nominate five emotionally low-key films for the first time in a LONG time? And five films so timid in representation? Even the indie-heavy 1996 slate had Jerry Maguire in the mix.

Walk the Line received only a PGA nomination of the big four, and it’s the only “popular” film of the lot. It is unquestionably vulnerable.

Steven Spielberg’s Munich only received a DGA nomination, and the guild would seemingly recognize Spielberg if he were to film paint drying. Vulnerable.

These two films have been discredited this week in the wake of underperformance from the big four, but I think that is a big mistake. Especially in the case of Munich, a film that is suffering from “never saw it” syndrome at the moment, but has surely found itself in front of the eyes of Academy members. But both Walk the Line and Munich are largely production-oriented films that exhibit something every branch will be attracted to.

Who can imagine an editor voting for Capote? A production designer? Though I love the lensing so, a cinematographer? In a category that year after year represents an “in” club of individuals (much like the composers), who is Adam Kimmel anyway? Capote has the support of actors, directors, writers and, it seems, producers, sure. But last I checked, those branches represented about 2,500 people from an organization that is roughly 6,000 strong. It’s a nice piece of the pie, but it isn’t the whole pie by any stretch of the imagination.

So my point is this. The biggest mistake anyone could make at this juncture is to begin considering anything – anything – hell, even Brokeback Mountain and Good Night, and Good Luck. – “sure things” based on the information we have thus far. There are lots of guilds still to announce their opinions of the finest in 2005 cinematic product. And together they make up a vast majority.

Be wary of the desire to announce “game over.” We still have a ways to go.

January 10, 2006

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