My Latest at Life As A Human: The Popculturist Tells a Tale of Two True Grits
You should know before I start that when comparing the Coen brothers’ new adaptation of True Grit to the 1969 John Wayne version, there is so much more to talk about than just John Wayne vs. Jeff Bridges. There are other performances to compare, of course — Kim Darby and Hailee Stanfield, Glen Campbell and Matt Damon, and Robert Duvall and Barry Pepper, to name a few. But then there are also questions of tone and cinematographic style to discuss, and themes, structure, and faithfulness to Charles Portis’ novel. It doesn’t come down to just Wayne and Bridges. Try as I might, though, I can’t stop thinking about anything else.
First Favorite Movie
The "Copying NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour" series rolls on here at Sakeriver with our next entry: my first favorite movie.
I have no idea what the first movie I ever saw was. I mean, I can barely remember which movie was Jason's first and he's only seen about ten of them, so the odds of me remembering which of the hundreds (or possibly thousands) of movies I've seen over the past thirty-one years was my first are slimmer than a runway couture model. Most likely it was one of the Disney animated features; who knows?
Most of my earliest movie memories are tied to a place. I remember lying on my stomach on the living room floor at my dad's condo watching Ghostbusters for the first time. (I also remember him having to stop the movie after the scene where the terror dog breaks out of the statue, because I was so scared.) Or watching The Neverending Story with my brother and cousins on the little TV in my grandparents' bedroom. And while I don't remember actually watching it, I remember talking to my dad about Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory by the dining table of his first house, before he moved into the condo.
None of those could really be called my favorite, though. Well, possibly The Neverending Story, but that movie didn't hit theaters until 1984 and I probably didn't see it until a year or two after that, after it had come out on video. And by that time I'd definitely already seen what is probably my first favorite: Star Wars.
The funny thing about Star Wars, though, is that I'm way too young to have gotten caught up in the buzz on my own. I was born two years after the original release, and I was 1 and 4 when Empire and Jedi came out, respectively. Yet despite the fact that there's no way I saw any of them in the theater, I was obsessed with them from a very young age. I had Star Wars sheets on my bed, I had all manner of action figures and toys (though I recall losing the wings to my T.I.E. fighter pretty quickly), and I'm pretty sure I dressed up as Han Solo for Halloween when I was in kindergarten. Even when I was playing with non-Star Wars toys, I still found a way to turn them into stuff from the movies--the most common thing I built out of Legos were lightsabers and X-wings. I even remember desperately wanting the C-3PO breakfast cereal, which didn't turn out to be nearly as exciting as I thought it would. How could I have even known about these movies, being that young? I guess I can thank my sci-fi-fan mom for that.
And there we are. My first favorite, one of my all-time most-watched, and still an integral part of my movie library today: Star Wars. Your turn!
Booty the Beese
I've been meaning to write a post about Disney's Beauty and the Beast (or, as Jason calls it "Booty the Beese") for a while now. Three months ago it was one of Jason's favorite movies, and we watched at least a few minutes of it several times each day. As always, though, procrastination managed to steal away the relevance of the topic to my daily life, and now Jason is much more into Cars and Toy Story.
I had a bunch of little bullet points to develop, but the main idea I had for the article was to talk about how unsettlingly close to a Stockholm syndrom sort of scenario the movie is. Need to find a woman to love you so you can undo your pesky curse? Easy enough: just grab the first pretty face that comes by, hold her prisoner with no hope of escape, scream at her, and threaten to starve her and she'll come around. Yep, that definitely sounds like "the most beautiful love story ever told."
You can imagine my dismay, then, when I saw this video linked by one of my Facebook friends this afternoon:
Same point and funnier than I could have done it. So I guess that idea is out the window. All that's left is a few of those leftover bullet points:
- Somehow, the animation in Beauty and the Beast doesn't seem to hold up as well as the animation in The Little Mermaid, despite--or perhaps because of--the fact that it's so obviously more technologically advanced. The ballroom scene, of course, seems pretty dated now, but even the more traditionally animated scenes seem less impressive than their older counterparts. If nothing else, the cels seem to stand out more from the backgrounds.
- I do have to admit, though, what they accomplished with the backgrounds in terms of parallax processing and simulating a rotating camera is pretty darn impressive.
- Comparing the two movies again, it's interesting how much more like a Broadway musical Beauty and the Beast is than The Little Mermaid, both in terms of the songs and the voice acting.
- Angela Lansbury's performance of the title song may be the best, most affecting song performances in any Disney movie. She was 65 when that movie was in production, already over 40 years into her film career and more than 80 credits under her belt. It's a pretty song to begin with, but hearing the age and experience in her voice adds a poignancy that gets me in a way I wasn't able to understand when the movie was new. I tell you what, Peabo and Celine have got nothing on her.
Inception has been out for a while now, so I imagine that most people who care have either already seen it or have otherwise been made aware of what happens in it. What's more, my interpretation of the film seems to be the standard one, so I doubt I'm putting anything new out there. Even so, I don't want to be the one to ruin it for anyone, so please be advised: THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS. If you haven't seen the movie yet and you think you might, STOP READING NOW.
LAST WARNING: SPOILERS FOR INCEPTION AHEAD
It's the last shot that makes you have to rethink the movie. Until the last ten seconds of Inception, you are basically watching a heist movie. Granted, it's an awesomely executed heist movie with a setting and concept that provide a unique twist on the genre, but at root, it's still a heist movie. And then you get to that last shot. Director Christopher Nolan leaves us with the image of Cobb's top, still spinning on the tabletop where he has forgotten it. The top starts to wobble, perhaps starts to right itself, but before you know whether or not it falls for good there's a hard cut to black.
It was a genius move on Nolan's part, ending the film that way. And what it does is invite you to revisit what you think you knew about what was going on the whole time. We know that Cobb's top is his totem, and that it will only behave like a normal toy and fall over in the real world--in a dream, it will continue to spin forever. Clearly, this final image is meant to get us asking whether or not Cobb is still dreaming in the end.
So, let's assume that he is still dreaming. What then? What can we notice about the previous two hours that might shed some light on things?
The first thing that I thought of is the scene where Cobb is in Mombasa, running away from Cobalt Engineering's hitmen. "Huh," I thought to myself, "It's kind of interesting that they were shooting at him. The only other times we saw anyone shooting at people was in Fischer's mind, where his subconscious projections were militarized due to his anti-extraction training. I wonder if there's any parity there." I reasoned that if Cobb is still asleep at the end of the movie, then he's asleep for the whole movie, so perhaps those hitmen were actually someone's subconscious projections.
That seems a little far-fetched, though. Let's try a different tack: what about the plot structure? As anyone who made it through high school English should be able to tell you, a plot generally consists of exposition, rising action, a climactic moment or scene, falling action, and a conclusion. Obviously there's some variation between different works and authors, but that's the general pattern.
If we look at the plot structure of Inception, then, it's very interesting that the climactic moment of the film is not the point at which the inception job succeeds. No, in fact, by the time we see Fischer enter the strongroom in the Alpine fortress and talk to his dad, the climax has already occurred. The true climax of the film happens one layer down from that, when Cobb realizes that he has to let Mal go.
What this suggests is that the inception referred to by the movie's title is not Fischer's decision to break apart his father's empire, but rather Cobb's decision to finally forgive himself for his wife's death.
This interpretation makes a lot of sense when you consider that Nolan has already shown himself to be the sort of director that is willing to employ an unreliable perspective in his films. Take Memento, for example: by telling the story in reverse, the audience remains as clueless of Leonard's real story as he himself is. Or look at The Prestige, which itself follows the very same pattern of misdirection as the magic tricks it describes--the pledge, the turn, the prestige. In Inception, we're told that the subject can't have any inkling of what's really going on, and that he needs to feel that he's come up with the idea on his own. What better way to hide it from Cobb that he's being worked on than to hide it from the audience?
Given that Ariadne is the only one to accompany Cobb into the lowest level, it would appear that she and Miles are the two who are working on Cobb. If we make that assumption, it makes certain other details become clearer. For example, the given explanation of Ariadne's motivation for drilling into Cobb's past and his issues--that she's concerned with the effect it will have on the job at hand--never quite rings true. On the other hand, if what she's really after is getting Cobb to get over his dead wife, it makes a lot more sense. It would also explain why she's so good at manipulating dream spaces from the start--she's not actually new at it.
But what about the top, you ask? We've seen Cobb spin that top several times to make sure it would fall over, and it did. Ah, but both Cobb and Arthur said that it was imperative that each person's totem was only known to himself, the implication being that if anyone else knew how it worked, they could fool you into believing that the dream is reality. And yet, despite that little gem of knowledge having been given to us, it's never actually used--we never see anyone actually dupe one of the extractors by faking his totem. Anton Chekhov once famously said, "If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it's not going to be fired, it shouldn't be hanging there." The fact that we never see a totem being faked could be an example of sloppy writing, but it's also possible that it's a particularly deep example of Chekhov's gun.
There are more clues--for example, Ariadne's name, or the hidden meaning in the film's soundtrack (Google them for more info)--but those aren't ones that occurred to me as I was coming up with this theory. Having heard them now, though, it all does seem to point to Ariadne and Miles planting a seed in Cobb's mind.
The one thing that is still niggling in the back of my mind, though, is the possibility that there's an even higher level of deception at work here. Could it be that, in fact, the movie's real "inception" is something within us, the audience? Could Christopher Nolan be playing extractor to our target, trying to plant an idea within our minds?
Nah, that'd just be paranoid. Maybe.
Not a Post About the San Diego Comic-Con
Comic-Con is this weekend, and being the nerdy kind of guy I am, I feel like I ought to write about that. Maybe something about how despite living in San Diego for five years, I still haven't been. Or something about the opportunity to take interesting pictures of cosplayers. Or at least some local's grumbling about 100,000 extra tourists clogging the roads.
I'm not going to write about that, though. No, today I want to write about The Little Mermaid.
I've seen The Little Mermaid--or parts of it--at least thirty times over the past year. This would be considered odd for a normal, rational adult, but since a toddler is the one calling the shots with respect to the DVD player these days, I don't really have the luxury of being a normal, rational adult. Instead, I get to go days on end with "Part of Your World" stuck in my head. (It happens to be right in my vocal range, too, which used to entertain Jason and now causes him to shout "NO SINGING, DADDY!" Which is both hilarious and a little heartbreaking for me. But I digress.)
Anyway, you can't watch The Little Mermaid thirty times without noticing certain interesting little tidbits. Well, you can't if you're me. (I may also be playing a little fast and loose with the word "interesting.") If you're me, you start thinking about plot holes and imposing an actual adult perspective on the characters.
For example, when Sebastian discovers that Ariel has been turned into a human and decides to go back and tell the Sea King all about it, saying:
I'm gonna march meself home and tell him right this minute and don't you shake your head at me, young lady! Maybe there's still time. If we could get that witch to give you back your voice, you could go home with all the normal fish and just be... just be... just be miserable for the rest of your life.
I find myself turning to Juliette and saying, "No she wouldn't. She's sixteen. Realistically, she'd be mooning all over some other mer-teen before she turned seventeen."
Or, when King Triton, discovering that his daughter has made a Bad Deal with Ursula, tries to remedy the situation by shooting the contract with his trident, I recently wondered why he didn't just shoot Ursula instead. I mean, it's clear that the contract would be undone by the Sea Witch's death, which we see not ten minutes later when Prince Eric kills her by stabbing her with a sunken ship. And that's after she's become a gigantic sea-goddess, having stolen Triton's power. Presumably she would have been even more vulnerable at the point when she was face-to-face with Triton.
But, no, it doesn't even occur to Triton to shoot the witch. He shoots the scroll, instead, which is impervious to his might. Which brings me to an interesting observation: in the entire course of the movie, only two characters are ever seen killing anyone. Ursula, of course; she not only accidentally fries her two pet eels, but also pops a live shrimp-looking creature into her mouth as a snack in her first scene. The other is Eric, who, as mentioned, kills Ursula in the climactic scene.
Looking a little closer, we see that two other characters attempt to kill: the shark that chases Flounder and Ariel around the sunken ship, and Louis, the French chef who tries to cook Sebastian. They don't succeed, but not for lack of trying. So we have a sum total of four characters who attempt fatal violence toward other characters.
It's interesting that three of them are bad guys. We have the shark, which is less a real character than a sort of embodiment of mindless, chaotic evil. Then there's Ursula, the calculating, power-hungry schemer. And finally Louis, who while only really there for comic relief, is nonetheless cast in a villainous (if mildly so) role. What, then, does it say about Eric that he's in the same company as the other three?
This is a pretty recurrent theme in our cultural mythology about heroic figures, actually. We are presented with the two central male figures in a girl's life: the father and the husband. (To be clear, I'm describing the mythology here, not the way I think it is, must be, or should be in real life.) Both appear powerful, but the former is ultimately shown to be impotent, while the latter conquers his foes. And it's the latter who eventually carries off the girl. These are the kinds of stories we tell ourselves. And that we tell our kids, I guess.
OK, OK, yes, I did just spend over 400 words examining cultural mythologies and archetypes as presented in a Disney movie. I know. But you watch the same kid's movie thirty times and see what happens to you.
If you had asked me five years ago whether I would some day watch The Little Mermaid five times in a weekend, I'd probably have looked at you like you were an idiot. (I was a jerk, five years ago, I guess.) Of course, since Jason seems to have inherited our passion for movies, this has now come to pass. I'm not sure, exactly, but it's possible that I am now the world's expert on The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and The Sword in the Stone. I'm at least on my way.
Anyway, the other day we were watching the end of Beauty and the Beast again, though this particular time was somewhat less tedious since we had skipped the first two-thirds of the movie. (Jason doesn't care much about continuity; he just likes particular scenes and doesn't care what order they come in.) We came to the scene after the climactic battle between the Beast and Gaston (OH NO! SPOILERS!) where the Beast has been mortally wounded and is dying in Belle's arms. In case you don't recall the exact scene, Belle begs the Beast not to die, the Beast tells her it's better this way, he slumps back and closes his eyes, and Belle collapses on top of him, weeping.
Just as the sad music came up, I heard Jason say, "Oh no! Booty night night." I looked over and he was pointing at the screen, saying "Night night!"
"She's not sleeping, buddy, she's sad," I replied.
"Sat," he repeated, nodding. "She sat."
Then it occurred to me: Jason sometimes gets Beauty ("Booty") and the Beast ("Beess") mixed up. Moreover, both characters were in a lying position with their eyes closed, so I couldn't be quite sure which one he was talking about. And it got me to wondering how much of the scene he understood. It seemed like he understood that something important was happening, and that it was bad--at least, the "Oh no" suggested that. But there was really no way that he could already understand a concept like death--he still struggles with the idea that Big Sur is too far from San Diego for us to see his grandparents every day. But if he was actually talking about the Beast's apparent death, how could I begin to explain that to him?
Before I could figure out a course of action, the movie ended and Jason wandered off to find something to pull off of a shelf.
I've since been able to determine that he probably did mean Belle, because now any time a character cries in a movie, whether it's Belle or Ariel or whoever, Jason will announce "Sat! Sat!" And, actually, that in itself is kind of remarkable to me, that he can extrapolate the concept to other people and other circumstances. But he's doing things like that all the time lately, which is why Juliette and I have been asking each other "Can you believe that?" a lot.
Sunday night, as is our annual tradition, Juliette and I watched the Academy Awards. There were a number of moments that caught my attention for being nice or interesting, heartwarming or funny or cringe-worthy. Sandra Bullock’s acceptance speech, for example, which was simultaneously heartfelt and funny. Or Gabourey Sidibe’s tears after being introduced by Oprah. Or Jeff Bridges finally winning. The one that I’ve been thinking about the most over the past couple of days, though, was Kathryn Bigelow’s win of Best Director. It turns out that Bigelow was the first woman to win that award, something that was pointed out a lot leading up to the ceremony, and even several times during it. What I can't stop wondering, though, is just how important her win is.
Before I go any further I should say that I'm sure that it was well-deserved. Although I haven't seen The Hurt Locker, I have only heard excellent things about it. Literally every person I've heard speak about it, whether a friend or a reviewer, has said it was a great movie. And I also thought that Bigelow's acceptance speech was nice. True, she may have made some small political statement, but she presented herself with respect and humility, and what seemed to be genuine gratitude.
It was actually the speech itself that really got me to thinking, because I couldn't help comparing it to Halle Berry's acceptance speech when she won for Monster's Ball. That speech really rubbed me the wrong way, and it's stayed in my mind over the years. The part I always come back to is this:
This moment is so much bigger than me. This moment is for Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, Diahann Carroll. It's for the women that stand beside me, Jada Pinkett, Angela Bassett, Vivica Fox. And it's for every nameless, faceless woman of color who now has a chance because this door tonight has been opened.
Now, to be sure, it is important that a woman of color finally won Best Actress, just as it's important that a woman won Best Director. But I just can't help but feel that neither is quite the same as, for example, Hattie McDaniel's Best Supporting Actress win in 1939. I don't even really think it's the same as Dorothy Dandridge's nomination for Best Actress in 1954.
Don't mistake me as saying that Berry's and Bigelow's wins don't matter, and especially don't mistake me as saying that we're past racism and sexism these days. Race and gender inequalities are real and serious problems. They are problems that, while we certainly have made gains on them over the past 50 years, we are not through with. I doubt we'll be through with them in my lifetime. Sometimes I doubt we ever will be. So, yes, it is important that a black woman can be Best Actress and that a woman can be Best Director. It's something that we should be proud of, that we live and participate in a society where things like that can happen.
Why, then, am I so set on Berry being different from McDaniel or Dandridge? The main thing is that I'm not sure that Berry's win really did open any doors. How much more of a chance does an unknown young woman of color have at becoming a Hollywood star now than she did before 2002? And now that Bigelow has won Best Director, does that really mean that women will have an easier time becoming movie directors?
Even before Halle Berry won her Oscar, I don't think it can really be said that minorities are underrepresented in acting. Just off the top of my head I can think of a number of well-respected black actors and actresses: Angela Bassett, Morgan Freeman, James Earl Jones, Whoopi Goldberg, Sidney Poitier, to name a few. And while it does seem that more directors are men than women, I don't know that I think that's due to some sort of institutional bias against women as directors. In fact, one of the earliest directors of a narrative film was a woman (Alice Guy-Blaché), and women have been making hugely successful films since at least the 80's (Big, directed by Penny Marshall, made over $100 million in 1988).
I can't help feeling that what I'm saying is going to bother people, but I really don't mean to denigrate Halle Berry or Kathryn Bigelow or their accomplishments. (And, to be fair, Bigelow doesn't seem to be trying to make her award into something more than that.) And I know that there's a natural tendency to make a big deal out of firsts. I just can't help feeling that Kathryn Bigelow's and Halle Berry's awards don't mean much more than that they did a good job in their work.
What do you think?
Sakeriver Movie Awards for 2007
I wonder how many different ways I can say that I've been lazy lately? Less than two hours remain before the Oscars start (my traditional deadline for these awards) and I haven't even reviewed the last Oscar-nominated film we saw. But enough complaining--here we go.
Best Drama: Once
This was the only no-brainer this year. I simply loved this film. The combination of amazing chemistry between the leads and wonderful music just worked so well for me. Once was definitely my favorite movie of the year, and is now one of my favorites of all time.
Runners-Up: I Am Legend, The Namesake, No Country for Old Men
Best Comedy: Superbad
This category was a bit more difficult, since there were a number of strong contenders. Knocked Up and Juno were probably more well-rounded but in terms of sheer laughs, I think Superbad wins. And, surprisingly, there was a sort of tenderness at the heart of the film, under all of the swearing and toilet humor, an understanding of and nostalgia for the feeling of being a teenager that I really loved.
Runners-Up: Dan in Real Life, Juno, Knocked Up
Best Actor: Kal Penn (The Namesake)
Kal Penn really impressed me with this movie. Obviously, a big part of it was having a great script to work with. Still, for an actor who was previously best known for his roles in movies like Van Wilder and Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle to deliver a dramatic performance that wasn't just convincing but was actually really good, that's an achievement, I think.
Runner-Up: Ryan Gosling (Lars and the Real Girl)
Best Actress: Ellen Page (Juno)
This was probably the hardest category for me this year, but not because there were a lot of choices. In fact, I couldn't think of a single particularly memorably performance by an actress in a leading role. I ended up going with Ellen Page because even though I don't think the role was much of a stretch for her, she was the first person to come to mind. And she did do a pretty good job. (I know, stunning praise.)
Best Supporting Actor: Tommy Lee Jones (No Country for Old Men)
I think it's a real shame that Tommy Lee Jones's performance in No Country for Old Men was overlooked at this year's Oscars. Javier Bardem was certainly more noticeable in his turn as Anton Chigurh in that movie, but even though Bardem was certainly chilling and inscrutable, it was a little over the top. Jones, on the other hand, was just about perfect. He managed to do so much, and never overdid anything.
Runners-Up: Michael Cera (Juno), Irfan Khan (The Namesake)
Best Supporting Actress: Jennifer Garner (Juno)
In the supporting role category, this is the year for tight, unpretentious performances. Jennifer Garner was just spot-on as a woman looking to be an adoptive mother. It was a great example of how much can be done with just a subtle look, and how much more convincing it is to hold in an emotion rather than reach out and ask for a reaction from the audience.
Runner-Up: Kelly Macdonald (No Country for Old Men)
Sakeriver Movie Awards for 2006
Huzzah! More than a full day remains before the Oscars and the SMAs are ready and rarin' to go!
OK, enough of that silliness, on with the show (I know you are all just waiting with bated breath):
Best Drama: The Departed
I really wanted to give this one to The Great New Wonderful--not only was it a really, really good movie but picking such an unknown film would have been really satisfying to my inner snob. In the end, though, I had to go with Scorsese. A lot of people think that this could be the one that breaks Scorsese's long streak of losing at the Oscars and I can see why. Thrillers don't get much more intense than The Departed and, besides, the whole cast was fantastic.
Runners-Up: Babel, Children of Men, The Great New Wonderful, Pursuit of Happyness, The Queen
Best Comedy: Little Miss Sunshine
I'm not completely sure why I picked this one. Borat was funnier, and all of the runners-up were smarter. Still, Little Miss Sunshine had a certain charm to it. I can't quite put my finger on what about it I like so much; I just like it. Not exactly high praise, I know, but there you have it.
Runners-Up: Borat: Cultural Learnings of American for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, Stranger than Fiction, Thank You for Smoking, Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story
Best Actor: Will Smith (Pursuit of Happyness)
This was another close one for me--Hugh Jackman really did a fantastic job in The Fountain. Ultimately, I chose Will Smith because I think his role was a little more challenging. See, the "down-on-his-luck guy who struggles and eventually makes good" story has been told enough times now that the shine has worn off, and it's really easy to let that role slide into cheese. Smith, though, actually brought tears to my eyes. I'm a pretty jaded movie snob but even I found this movie heart-warming, and that was entirely due to Smith's performance.
Runners-Up: Leonardo DiCaprio (The Departed), Paul Giamatti (Lady in the Water), Hugh Jackman (The Fountain)
Best Actress: Helen Mirren (The Queen)
So, it does turn out that Helen Mirren wins my award this year because she's the only one who qualified, but don't let that fool you. She really did do a fantastic job with this performance, investing her character with both authority and vulnerability. Mirren's performance inspired me to learn more about the real Queen Elizabeth--I can't think of much higher praise I could offer.
Best Supporting Actor: Alan Arkin (Little Miss Sunshine)
Funny and moving--what more could you ask for? That's Alan Arkin for you. On the one hand, his grouchy old man schtick made me laugh out loud. At the same time, the relationship with his on-screen granddaughter was really quite touching. He really made the movie, for me anyway.
Runners-Up: Billy Crudup (Trust the Man), Robert Downey, Jr. (A Scanner Darkly), Eddie Murphy (Dreamgirls), Mark Wahlberg (The Departed)
Best Supporting Actress: Emma Thompson (Stranger than Fiction)
What struck me about Emma Thompson in Stranger than Fiction was how old she looked. That's one of the things I find so interesting about her, the way she can look so different from movie to movie. In this one, she just nailed her character--a curmudgeonly hermit of a writer. I'm never surprised when Thompson does a good job, but I'm always impressed.
Runners-Up: Adriana Barraza (Babel), Jacinda Barrett (The Last Kiss)
Sakeriver Movie Awards for 2005
I wonder whether or not posting my picks on the same day as the Oscars will become a tradition--this is the second year in a row that I've done it. This year it was only partially due to procrastination. As it turned out, 2005 was a difficult year for film. Box office returns were the lowest in recent history and most of what came out was crap. On the other hand, the few good films were really good. All of this made it difficult to make decisions in many of the categories--either because there were a few really great choices or because there were none. But anyway, on with the show.
Best Drama: Brokeback Mountain
I suppose my pick of Brokeback Mountain is probably not terribly surprising given how much buzz that film has generated this year. It's already won both the Best Drama and Best Director Golden Globes and in all likelihood it will easily win those categories at the Oscars. For me, though, it was actually a tough decision because Match Point was so good. In the end, though, I went with Brokeback because even though I think that Match Point was smarter and better written, and even though both films were technically excellent, Brokeback was more emotionally evocative for me. Though both films had wonderful acting, Brokeback's performances were deeper, and while both made excellent use of cinematography and setting to deliver their respective stories, Brokeback's majestic use of landscape made the setting take on a life of its own.
Runners-up: Match Point, Dear Frankie, Shopgirl, Jarhead, Serenity
Best Comedy: The 40 Year-Old Virgin
Here, again, I had a tough choice between two excellent candidates. I eventually went with The 40 Year-Old Virgin because I felt it was a better film all around. Kung Fu Hustle made me laugh harder and was brilliant in managing to both parody and represent the Hong Kong martial arts genre, but Virgin was one of those rare movies that manages to be both truly hilarious and truly touching. The idea of a sex farce with characters that you care about seems unlikely, but that's exactly what Virgin is.
Runners-up: Kung Fu Hustle, The Matador
Best Actor: Heath Ledger (Brokeback Mountain)
Despite the fact that Heath Ledger's performance runs afoul of my biggest acting pet peeve--don't screw up the accent--the fact is that he did some really amazing work with this role. His performance as the laconic Ennis Del Mar was so nuanced and so quietly passionate. Being able to pull so much emotion out of such a sparse script is really what acting is all about.
Runners-up: Joaquin Phoenix (Walk the Line), Pierce Brosnan (The Matador), Jonathan Rhys Meyers (Match Point), Steve Carell (The 40 Year-Old Virgin)
Best Actress: Reese Witherspoon (Walk the Line)
This category was hard to pick, but for a completely different reason than the first two. There just weren't any female performances that really wowed me this year. Part of this is probably due to the choices we made in what movies to see--in particular I think having seen Transamerica might have made this easier. In any case, I chose Reese Witherspoon because, even though her performance didn't strike any major chords with me and it was completely overshadowed by what Joaquin Phoenix did in that movie, it was certainly the best work she's ever done.
Runners-up: Emily Mortimer (Dear Frankie), Claire Danes (Shopgirl)
Best Supporting Actor: Jason Schwartzman (Shopgirl)
Jason Schwartzman has this great quirkiness that he brings to all of his roles, from Max Fischer in Rushmore to Albert Markovski in I Heart Huckabees. I'm not sure exactly how to describe it--maybe a sort of awkward, geek-chic self-absorption--but whatever it is, I like it. His performance in Shopgirl was a lot of fun to watch, and provided a great comic counterpoint to the LA fable that forms the rest of the movie.
Runners-up: Jeremy Irons (Kingdom of Heaven), Jamie Foxx (Jarhead), Peter Sarsgaard (Jarhead), Michael Caine (The Weather Man)
Best Supporting Actress: Michelle Williams (Brokeback Mountain)
I wasn't too impressed with Michelle Williams at first but the more I think about it, the more I appreciate her performance. My attention in Brokeback Mountain was so focused on Ledger and Gyllenhaal that I hardly even noticed her, but having had time to reflect on it, I think that is really to her credit. A lesser actress would have seen the character's struggles as an opportunity to really act, and would consequently have overdone it. In fact, that's more or less what Anne Hathaway did in the same film. Williams, though, gave a much more subtle performance--you never see the actress in her thinking "OK I'M CONFLICTED RIGHT NOW"--which allowed her to play off of Ledger in a much more realistic way. It's a little ironic, really, that sacrificing the "spotlight" in that film is what brought her so much critical attention.
Runner-up: Emily Mortimer (Match Point)