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Saturday, December 03, 2005

I wanna thank my mom, my dog, Jesus...: Part 1

It's getting to that time of the movie year again when CGI-laden blockbusters and event movies, not to mention movies that end in a number, all fizzle out and the Hollywood studios reveal their prestige pictures that they hope will bag them some of the plethora of awards that carry so much currency (literally and metaphorically) in Tinseltown today.

Nominations for the Golden Globe awards - which are bafflingly influential on Oscar voters - are announced on December 19th and from there, it will be a non-stop gong-fest until the mother of all tear-stained, over-earnest, self-congratulatory Bacchanalia arrrives: Oscar night on March 5th next year.

Upon hearing that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences had been formed to hand out Oscar awards in 1927, one famous studio exec allegedly said: 'What art? What science?'The Oscars are constantly being disparaged by critics, industry insiders and even actors - Marlon Brando and George C. Scott being their most famous critics. Dustin Hoffman, Meryl Streep and Sean Penn all later denounced the awards but quickly changed their tune when they actually won an award. Everyone in Hollywood wants to win an Oscar and anyone who says otherwise is a total liar. The industry is obsessed with the awards and every studio times their releases every year to cash in on award fever.

So here are a few of the movies in contention as well as the actors and directors hoping for a chance to hide their grimaces and desperation behind a fake smile in one of the five camera shots as some extravagantly paid, overly gift-basketed presenter says 'And the Oscar goes to...

This posting will look at the movies competing for the big cheese - Best picture of the year. The acting categories will follow later!

Best Picture:
This year, movies that tackle topical and political issues are at the top of all critics lists for awards. Many are commenting on how this year is to be the Year of the Gay in Hollywood - gay characters, that is, not gay actors. Heaven forbid! Besides, there are no gay actors in Hollywood anyway, right? (There are just superstars who pay young actresses to be in relationships with them, convert them to Scientology and have babies in a manner that makes the movie Rosemary's Baby look positively normal).

The traditional route to winning an Oscar in the past - as parodied so well by Kate Winslet in Ricky Gervais' Extras - is to play a character with a disabilty or mental illness. This year, Hollywood is treating homosexuality as the new disabilty - it gives actors meaty (!) roles to sink their teeth into, especially considering that movies tend to treat homosexuality as being an enormous trauma. This disturbing trend nevertheless gives actors the chance to emote, convey desires and emotions with their eyes and body language - and all that other claptrap that Lee Strasberg graduates will spout on about in interviews (as well as constantly reminding us of their real-life heterosexuality lest there be any doubt).

Brokeback Mountain, Ang Lee's adaptation of Annie Proulx's novella about a doomed love affair between two Wyoming ranchhands - Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhall - is really the one to watch for this year. Observing the reaction to a movie that debunks myths about cowboys and traditional masculinity in a country where some states have adopted constitutional bans on gay marriage will be fascinating to behold.

Promising to be even more controversial is Steven Spielberg's latest Munich, which he finished in rapid time in order for it to be eligible for this year's awards. The action of the movie takes place in the aftermath of the 1972 Olympics where 11 Israeli athletes were killed by members of the Palestinian terrorist group, Black September. The film focuses on the Mossad agents sent by the Israeli government to hunt down the killers. A Jewish director entering the wasps nest that is the Arab-Israeli conflict is sure to provoke enormous debate over the next few months. Time Magazine has already devoted its latest cover to the movie.

2005 is also looking up to be the year of George Clooney. Stephen Gaghan, the Oscar winning screenwriter of Traffic (2000), is the writer-director of Syriana, a political thriller based upon the explosive contemporary topic of oil control in the Persian Gulf. Clooney himself serves as director, co-writer and star of Good Night and Good Luck, a highly praised account of legendary journalist Edward R. Murrow's battle against the Senator Joe McCarthy's House UnAmerican Activities Committee in the 1950s. Like most historical films, Good Night registers many present-day anxieties and comparisons between McCarthyism and the censorious climate of George W. Bush's America have already been fiercely debated Stateside. One look at the film's various taglines indicate where Clooney's political sympathies lie: 'In A Nation Terrorized By Its Own Government, One Man Dared to Tell The Truth' and 'We will not walk in fear of one another'.

Clooney stands a chance of being nominated as an actor in Syriana and Good Night as well as director and screenwriter of the latter. Not bad for the man who starred in the abominable Batman and Robin!

Rob Marshall, who directed Chicago to Oscar glory three years ago, is in contention this year for an adaptation of Arthur Holden's Memoirs of a Geisha. The movie is building considerable attention, particularly for it's stars Ziyi Zhang and Gong Li. Whether they can penetrate the astonishing racism of the Academy remains to be seen.

Biopics are strongly represented again this year. Walk the Line tells the story of the late, great Johnny Cash and his wife June Carter Cash, played by Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon, who both perform their own singing, and, by all account, deliver superb performances on top of it. Philip Seymour Hoffman, an actor better known to most viewers as 'What was he in again?' headlines the biopic of flamboyant journalist Truman Capote in Capote. Incredible reviews are pushing Hoffman to the fore for the acting prizes which was enough to earn Ray a Best Picture nod last year largely on the strenth of Jamie Foxx's performance.

Other contenders include the superb and avowedly political The Constant Gardener, directed by City of God helmer Fernando Meirelles and featuring strong lead performances from Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz. The early releases for Ron Howard's Cinderella Man and Paul Haggis' melting-pot drama Crash might see them struggling to stand out in voter's memories during the end of year rush. David Cronenberg's ambiguous and thought-provoking A History of Violence must be in the running and, just this week, surprisingly excellent reviews are arriving in for the movie that might well challenge Titanic to be the biggest in the history of cinema: Peter Jackson's remake of King Kong. Can the big hairy ape - Kong, not Peter Jackson - make it onto the Best Picture roster?

It's possible that Kong will snag the place on the list that is often set aside for the 'serious comedy' or the more light-hearted contender. Musicals are given far more weight these days and fantasy films cannot be ruled out in the wake of Lord of the Rings' Oscar haul of 11 trophies 2 years ago. For that reason, The Chronicles of Narnia, Mrs Henderson Presents and Pride and Prejudice might be legitimate runners. Mixed reviews for the movie adaptation of stage musical Rent will hurt its chances and, having seen the movie adaptation of the musical The Producers , I can say that it is unfathomably dreadful and if it gets a single Oscar nomination, I am boycotting the awards. But then again, the whole point of that movie is that there is no accounting for taste and that is certainly a guiding maxim of the Academy of Motion Pictures, Arts and Sciences (Hello? Forrest Gump, A Beautiful Mind and Chicago are all recent winners here!)

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