You could be winging your way to an all-expenses-paid vacation to the Mexican Riviera if you manage to best the master at his own game.
The grand prize winner who outguesses Ebert will receive a five-night trip for two to Allegro Playacar in Riviera Maya, Mexico. Six first-prize winners will receive a three-night trip for two to the same resort.
All trips are courtesy of Apple Vacations, and will include air transport, hotel accommodations, and all meals and drinks. In addition, 10 second-prize winners will receive an autographed copy of Roger Ebert's Movie Yearbook 2006, featuring reviews, interviews and essays.
Two years ago "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" won the top Academy Award, while the trilogy marched toward revenues north of a billion dollars. This year, a documentary about penguins marching across Antarctica has so far outgrossed all five best picture nominees. That's the kind of statistic movie critics like to explain, hail, condemn or smother in labyrinthine analysis. I simply find it interesting. It was a year in which Hollywood movies in the traditional style were mostly not very good; the "Rings" wannabe "King Kong" was a splendid movie but perceived as a disappointment, and weekend after weekend box office was "won" by low-rent horror films aimed at teenagers.
The five best picture nominees, however, were (as usual) the kinds of projects passed over by the major studios. We are entering an era when the studios do not often attempt to make Best Pictures, and most of the nominees are generated by independent filmmakers and specialty distributors. This may say more about audiences than it does about studios, which would cheerfully make good movies if they thought they could sell them. Hammered by the idiocy of formula television and video games, a generation is forming that has no feeling for narrative and character. The Oscar nominees represent filmmaking at a high level, but who do you know who has gone to see more than two or three of them?
The likely winner of this year's best picture award is "Crash," a film that was all but written off last September, when Oscar season kicked off at the Toronto Film Festival. Conventional wisdom says that a movie that opens in early May will be forgotten by early June, but "Crash" held and built all summer long, supported by word of mouth and was still doing well in September. It's the kind of film people feel strongly about, and I've heard a curious note in the voices of people discussing it: They sound serious and moved, and as if it made them take a longer look at themselves. They think of it as making an important statement. (See my essay on Page 11D.)
"Brokeback Mountain," another powerful film, was thought to be the Oscar leader, but I sense that its support has faded in recent weeks as voters take another look at "Crash." "Brokeback" has the more purely emotional appeal; it tells the story of two men in love for a lifetime and unable or afraid to act on their feelings. "Crash" stands back. It has scenes of powerful emotion, but because of its large cast, it is more about ideas than lives, especially the idea that in a multicultural society, racism is more complex than we like to think, and doesn't sort its victims into the good and the evil but finds everyone can be a little of both.
Prediction: "Crash" My preference: "Crash"
Philip Seymour Hoffman has been the front-runner in this category almost since the day the movie premiered. It is an unlikely role: He plays the mannered society creature Truman Capote, a favorite of talk shows and Manhattan social circles, and shows him venturing into the alien land of Kansas to write a book about the brutal murder of a farm family. Researching and writing the book takes years longer than expected, and involves him deeply in the lives of the convicted killers, Dick Hickok and Perry Smith. He's caught in an emotional vise: He loves Perry, but needs for him to die in order for the book to have an ending.
The runners-up are probably Heath Ledger, as the more repressed and fearful of the two cowboys in "Brokeback Mountain," and Joaquin Phoenix, whose performance as Johnny Cash in "Walk the Line" was notable not least for how much he sounded like the singer. I thought Terrence Howard gave the year's most complex and nuanced performance in "Hustle & Flow," as a pimp who wants to become a rap artist, and finds his life and his attitudes toward women transformed by the experience of art.
Prediction: Philip Seymour Hoffman Preference: Terrence Howard
Reese Witherspoon, hands down. Not only because she is funny, touching and convincing as June Carter Cash in "Walk the Line," but because the category offers few strong contenders. Felicity Huffman is said to have a good chance for "Transamerica," in which she plays a man who hits a speed bump (a son he didn't know about) just before he's scheduled for gender reassignment surgery. It's a virtuoso performance, but on the day the nominations were announced, the movie had grossed less than $1 million at the box office, and it is still under $1.5 million. Has it really involved moviegoers?
Prediction: Reese Witherspoon Preference: Reese Witherspoon, with a nod to Charlize Theron or Keira Knightley
If it's a "Crash" year, and it may be, Matt Dillon could win as the racist cop with a tortured private life. Dillon has been acting since he was 15, has been in more than 40 movies, is almost always good and is well-liked. George Clooney, however, is said to be the front-runner, not only for his CIA man in "Syriana" but because of roll-over sentiment for his supporting role and co-writing credit for "Good Night, and Good Luck," and his unbilled role as a producer of that movie.
There is a theory that actors sometimes win because the Academy regrets having passed them over for an earlier role; Paul Giamatti, nominated as a loyal boxing manager in "Cinderella Man," should have been nominated last year for "Sideways," and that may help him, but "Cinderella Man" has faded after its June opening. Jake Gyllenhaal may win if Heath Ledger does, but if not, probably not; William Hurt's role in "A History of Violence" was small and brilliant; the nomination reflects that.
Prediction: George Clooney Preference: Matt Dillon
Traditionally a wild-card category, in which the voters select a dark horse. This year that may mean an Oscar for newcomer Amy Adams, whose work in "Junebug" is the most effective and in some ways most difficult performance in any category this year. The key question: Have enough voters seen it? She plays a pregnant young wife in a tragicomically dysfunctional family, and it's her love that keeps the other characters from spinning out of control.
Conventional wisdom says Rachel Weisz has charmed a lot of voters with her work on behalf of "The Constant Gardener," in which she is indeed very good. Some feel Michelle Williams might win for "Brokeback Mountain," but if the cowboys lose, and I think they might, I doubt she'll win. Catherine Keener's work in "Capote" is as wonderful as her work always is, but peripheral to the movie's main line, and Frances McDormand was powerful in "North Country," but does the film have much momentum?
Prediction: Amy Adams Preference: Amy Adams
The most reliable Oscar predictor is the Directors Guild of America Award; the director who wins it almost always goes on to win the Oscar, and so that means the best director this year will be Ang Lee for "Brokeback Mountain." If "Crash" wins as best picture, and I expect it will, its writer-director Paul Haggis will nevertheless be seen by voters as a newcomer, and a vote for Lee in this category will be a way to honor "Brokeback." The dark horse may be George Clooney; "Good Night, and Good Luck" has won genuine admiration for its strong, clear message and its distinctive black-and-white style.
Prediction: Ang Lee Preference: Paul Haggis
An interesting category this year because there are no traditional Disney or Dreamworks entries, and wo of the three nominees use the traditional technique of stop-action animation, which in an age of computers is considered almost quaintly old-fashioned. The third, by Hayao Miyazaki, mostly follows his lifelong craft of frame-by-frame drawing.
Miyazaki is the most-respected of living animators, but his “Howl’s Moving Castle” was not among his best work. “Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride” found comedy and even sweetness in the most unlikely material. But the winner will be “Wallace and Gromit in the Curse of the Were-Rabbit,” a head-on collision between eccentricity and whimsy. “Stand back! There may be a large rabbit dropping!”
Prediction: "Wallace and Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit" Preference: "Wallace and Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit"
I have seen two of the nominees, "Paradise Now" from Palestine, and "Tsotsi," from South Africa. That puts me at a disadvantage, since I can't factor the quality of the other three films into my prediction, but on the basis of the power of "Tsotsi," I think it has a good chance of winning. Following last year's South African nominee "Yesterday," it dramatizes that country's filmmaking renaissance. And it's unusual in showing a character undergoing a deep change of heart in a situation that could have been, but is not, sentimental. A criminal (Tsotsi) played by Presley Chweneyagae, had a grim childhood, has grown into a killer, and then unexpectedly comes into possession of an infant that forces him to look at his life in a new way.
Prediction: "Tsotsi" Preference: "Tsotsi," pending seeing the other nominees.
This category is marred by the inexplicable absence of Werner Herzog's "Grizzly Man" which didn't even make the list of 15 finalists. I've been trying for weeks to uncover the inside story on why Herzog was passed over, but there doesn't seem to be a "Hoop Dreams"-type scandal, so I suppose we must mark it down to simple bloody-minded wrong-headedness on the part of the committee.
Of the nominees, "March of the Penguins" is the presumed winner, not only because of its record-breaking box office performance but because, darn it, people like the movie. So do I, but I like "Murderball" more. It's the story of astonishing sports heroes: Champions of full-contact quadriplegic wheelchair rugby. If enough voters have seen it, "Murderball" has a good chance. "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room" is also a great doc, essentially convicting the corporation and its weasels of terrorism, but the penguins are likely to waddle right up to the Oscar. Let's hope they aren't still onstage next year, waiting for it to hatch.
Prediction: "March of the Penguins" Preference: "Murderball"
Here I think Paul Haggis and Bobby Moresco have a good chance of winning with "Crash," a screenplay that cuts among some 20 major characters and handles melodrama and coincidence with the aplomb of Charles Dickens. To tell a story so complex and yet so clear and affecting is a worthy accomplishment. Stephen Gaghan's "Syriana" tells a story equally complex, but deliberately not as clear, and is also deserving. I have great admiration for the ruthless architecture of Woody Allen's "Match Point," the heartfelt insight of Noah Baumbach's "The Squid and the Whale," and the passion of George Clooney and Grant Heslov's "Good Night, and Good Luck," but I doubt they have a chance.
Prediction: "Crash" Preference: "Crash" or "Syriana"
Here's where "Brokeback Mountain" will be honored, for the screenplay by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana. Reading McMurtry's Lonesome Dove trilogy last summer, I was struck by the loneliness of the lives of his cowboys, their loyalty to one another, and the tangential nature of their romantic relationships with women. "Brokeback Mountain" seems like a logical extension of some of their characters.
The other four nominees (Dan Futterman for "Capote"; Jeffrey Caine for "The Constant Gardener"; Josh Olson for "A History of Violence," and Tony Kushner and Eric Roth for "Munich") seem unlikely to win, not so much because of anything they lack, but because "Brokeback Mountain" has so much.
Prediction: "Brokeback Mountain" Preference: "Brokeback Mountain"
Other predictions (except for documentary short and live action short, where I haven't yet seen the nominees):
Art direction: "King Kong" (2006)
Cinematography: "Good Night, and Good Luck"
Film editing: "Crash"
Sound mixing: "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe"
Sound editing: "King Kong"
Original score: "Brokeback Mountain"
Original song: "Travelin' Thru" from "Transamerica"
Costume design: "Pride and Prejudice"
Makeup: "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe"
Visual effects: "King Kong"