Brokeback Mountain (2005)

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Starring: Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Williams, Anne Hathaway, Randy Quaid, Linda Cardellini, Kate Mara

Director: Ang Lee

Summary: The story of a forbidden and secretive relationship between two cowboys over a period of 20 years

Other Nominations: Director*, Actor (Ledger), Supporting Actor (Gyllenhaal), Supporting Actress (Williams), Adapted Screenplay*, Original Score*, Cinematography

Back in the day, Brokeback Mountain was fairly groundbreaking and extensively talked about, as it was one of the first mainstream American films to focus not just on gay characters, but on a gay relationship in a respectful way. So with the benefit of the passage of time to distance myself from the fervor, I have to say that it still holds up on its own merits really well.

What strikes me about the movie are the choices they made. It’s easy to make a “star-crossed lovers” story about two gay men whose love was doomed by societal norms; it’s more interesting though to make a story about how that kind of relationship isn’t just tragic for those directly involved, but also how sad it is for the women they’re married to, who will never be the true object of desire for their husbands. In many ways, the women come off as more sympathetic than their husbands a lot of the time, especially in the case of Heath Ledger and Michelle Williams-making the gay/bisexual(?) characters as flawed, often unlikeable and human as they did is a bold choice that elevates the story from merely a tragedy into something that is often times exceptional. The other choice that lept out to me was one that says a lot about Hollywood and the MPAA operates: that a movie about two cowboys in a gay relationship only has female nudity; male nudity has always been treated differently than female nudity in film (in terms of MPAA ratings and it reminded me of a lot of things they talk about in the documentary This Film is Not Yet Rated (which I recommend).

Besides that, the performances are what makes the film really shine, specifically those from Ledger and Williams. For the latter, I don’t really have much more to say other than that Williams is good in everything and she is again here with an effective and subdued performance. Ledger unfortunately mumbles to the point where, before I got used to it, I considered putting on CC-he sounds like Boomhauer from King of the Hill. However, ignoring that his facial expressions and body language throughout are brilliant and he would have been my choice for Best Actor over Philip Seymour Hoffman.

As for what didn’t work for me, there are a couple of things. First, I liked how they slow-played the relationship for the first 30 minutes (which makes sense considering the people involved, the time and the place), but then the relationship goes from 0-100 in an instant without enough of a real buildup for me. Second, the middle third drags a bit and got dull at times. Still, this is a really solid piece of filmmaking that held up to the hype.

Rating: B+

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Capote (2005)

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Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Clifton Collins Jr., Chris Cooper, Bob Balaban, Bruce Greenwood, Amy Ryan, Mark Pellegrino

Director: Bennett Miller

Summary: The story of Truman Capote and the writing of his novel “In Cold Blood”

Other Nominations: Director, Actor (Hoffman)*, Supporting Actress (Keener), Adapted Screenplay

When Capote came out on DVD back in the day, I rented it on Netflix and gave up half an hour in; after watching it fully this time, I can understand why I did that a decade ago, but I can also now understand why the movie was acclaimed. The movie’s biggest failing is that it starts very slowly-the first 40 minutes or so aren’t really about the murder, but they also don’t really let us get inside the head of its subject all that much-it’s not exactly a crime story or a biopic, but somewhere unsatisfyingly in between. However, the movie starts to shine once we start focusing on the relationship between Capote and one of the subjects of his novel, convicted murderer Perry Smith. Capote feels a sort of kinship with Smith due to their shared intelligence and similar backgrounds despite their very different paths (“It’s as if Perry and I grew up together in the same house and one day he stood up and went out the back door, while I went out the front”). Over the course of the rest of the film, Capote’s feelings get more complex as he has some darker motivations of his own and the film adds up to a remarkably strong portrait of a man who created a groundbreaking novel, but at what cost?

While the script is good, Hoffman puts on a great performance and he does a lot to make that last hour so memorable. Besides just looking and talking almost exactly like Truman Capote, Hoffman also delivers on both the superficial easy-going nature of the man as well as the darkness and sadness that lies beneath. Besides the slow start, the only other complaint I have is that they gave Harper Lee (played by Keener) plenty of screentime (which makes sense, she was his friend and was part of the research for the book), yet left the person as much a blank slate as they started with-why Keener got a nomination, I don’t know, there was almost no material for her to work with here. While this, along with a slow start, prevents Capote from reaching levels of real greatness, the last hour of the movie is so well-executed and Hoffman’s performance is strong enough that it’s still a worthwhile watch.

Rating: B

*Crash (2005)*

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Starring: Sandra Bullock, Don Cheadle, Matt Dillon, Jennifer Esposito, Brendan Fraser, Terrence Howard, Ludacris, Thandie Newton, Michael Pena, Ryan Phillippe, Larenz Tate, Shaun Toub, Bahar Soomekh, Ashlyn Sanchez (her first film), Keith David, Tony Danza

Director: Paul Haggis

Summary: Los Angeles citizens with vastly separate lives collide in interweaving stories of race, loss and redemption

Other Nominations: Director, Supporting Actor (Dillon), Original Screenplay*, Original Song (“In the Deep”), Film Editing*

Is this the worst Best Picture winner ever? Well, no: it’s not as mind-numbingly boring as Chariots of Fire, it’s not as hideously antiquated as The Broadway Melody or Cimarron, and it’s not the kind of pointless, episodic mess that Cavalcade or Around the World in 80 Days were. However, it’s up there and easily the worst of the five nominees of 2005.

Everything about it feels either overly simplistic or bizarre and wrong-headed in planning or execution. What’s striking is how many deeply unlikeable assholes there are (basically, every significant character besides Pena, Sanchez and Soomekh)-it’s like they thought “well, we want to make this movie feel even-handed, but we don’t know how to impart depth and nuance, so let’s just make everybody a jerk instead.” There are some fine character arcs here (like with Dillon, Cheadle and Howard), but overall the screenplay feels contrived in a way that a very similar movie, Traffic, did not: every situation seems perfectly set up to deliver some big moment or character-altering epiphany. While it does explore some issues that other films about race often ignore and the idea of there being such a fine line between a “good” person and a “bad” person when it comes to racism, many times it doesn’t explore its issues very well, or there’s a major misstep. Also, for a film about racism in Los Angeles, it glaringly lacks a legitimate Asian-American perspective. It’s a flawed film that features good acting (Pena and Dillon giving my favorite performances) and some good ideas, but ultimately doesn’t really conjure up a lot of meaningful thought for the viewer afterwards and pales in comparison to the better films there are on race.

Rating: C-

Good Night, and Good Luck (2005)

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Starring: David Strathairn, George Clooney, Robert Downey Jr., Patricia Clarkson, Frank Langella, Jeff Daniels, Tate Donovan, Ray Wise, Alex Borstein

Director: George Clooney

Summary: Broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow looks to bring down Senator Joseph McCarthy

Other Nominations: Director, Actor (Strathairn), Original Screenplay, Art Direction, Cinematography

The subject of TV’s power and potential to either educate or influence in dangerous ways was clearly a subject near and dear to George Clooney: he wanted to do a live TV broadcast version of Network around the same time (he didn’t because according to him, the younger audience he showed the original to failed to recognize it as satire). What he did do was this film, which doesn’t tackle the subject as effectively as Network, but still an admirable effort nonetheless. The movie is focused and keeps a small feel, detailing how Edward R. Murrow (expertly played by Strathairn) helped put some of the final nails in Joseph McCarthy’s coffin and how even in the infant days of TV, perceived “bias” in the media and corporate interests influencing content were already issues. It also gives a proper context that some other films would have overlook: Murrow correctly states that McCarthy “did not create this situation of fear, he merely exploited it” (meaning that he was just the most obvious face of a much bigger problem, which is true), and the focus is on how unconstitutional McCarthy’s methods were rather than the issue of Communism itself being good or bad or even whether McCarthy was right or wrong about Communists infiltrating the government and media (which to an extent, they did). Finally, it harkens back to a now sadly bygone era where you had nationally trusted journalists with credibility across the whole general public and spoke with a remarkable clarity and eloquence-someone who regardless of partisanship, could potentially change your mind about an issue or at least have you look at it in a new way.

There are a number of good aesthetic decisions made here as well, like making the film in black and white, which not only harkened back to the era of TV depicted, but also allowed them to depict McCarthy entirely with actual archive footage so that the film’s portrayal of the man himself could not possibly be considered inaccurate or hyperbole. Overall, while other films have tackled these themes better (such as Network and The Insider), it’s a solid look at how different and how much the same our relationship with the media has been since the advent of TV.

Rating: B

Munich (2005)

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Starring: Eric Bana, Daniel Craig, Ciaran Hinds, Omar Metwally, Mathieu Kassovitz, Hanns Zischler, Ayelet Zurer, Geoffrey Rush

Director: Steven Spielberg

Summary: Five men are chosen to eliminate those responsible for the Munich Olympic terrorist attacks

Other Nominations: Director, Adapted Screenplay, Original Score, Film Editing

I’m not a fan of post-Saving Private Ryan Steven Spielberg’s work in general, but I have to admit he crafted a quality movie here. This is less a film about the Munich Olympics terrorist attacks than it is a broader look into the moral ambiguity that is created through a perpetual cycle of vengeance like there is with the Israel-Palestine conflict: if every act of vengeance always begets another act of vengeance, then a conflict can never end until one side annihilates the other, and at that point is there a difference between the good guys and the bad guys? In doing so, the film sees the conflict in something other than just black and white terms-an unusual step for a Hollywood film, and one that only a Jewish director could get away with without being savaged (although he still got a lot of flack for it regardless).

The other focus the film has is how these missions to assassinate the terrorists responsible for the Munich massacre end up poisoning their souls, making previously unthinkable lines get crossed, and how that poison never leaves you-you can never escape the paranoia that your life (and your families lives) are in danger. This works pretty well too, although much like the previous thing, it suffers from an inability to keep things subtle. The biggest issue the movie has is that it will make sure that the audience cannot possibly miss what the movie’s themes are because every line of dialogue is basically screaming them at you. I enjoy a straightforward movie, but there’s a difference between making your themes clear and driving home those same themes over and over again, in the exact same way (through dialogue between characters) every single time and without adding any new insight over the course of the film.

When it’s at its best, Munich is a great, tense thriller which explores its themes well; when it’s at its worst, the movie beats you over the head with its themes with blunt dialogue and it completely disregards the idea of “show don’t tell.” Still, a very solid film that’s consistently engaging and one of the best from later-career Steven Spielberg.

Rating: B

2005 in Review

Other Notable Films from 2005

Batman Begins

Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit

Sin City

A History of Violence

Serenity

V for Vendetta

Diary of a Mad Black Woman

2005 in Review

Brokeback Mountain: B+

Good Night, and Good Luck: B

Munich: B

Capote: B

Crash: C- (Won Best Picture)

I’m going to join the chorus and agree with the majority opinion that Brokeback Mountain should have easily won Best Picture over Crash. Brokeback Mountain, even in today’s environment where mainstream movies and TV shows are willing to seriously deal with LGBT themes, is a well-acted and well-written film with a lot of nuance; Crash isn’t really any of those things (although the acting is perfectly fine), but it won, and it fits perfectly in with the Academy’s shaky track-record historically when it comes to what films about race to honor (i.e. Driving Miss Daisy winning the same year Do the Right Thing wasn’t nominated). Beyond Crash though, this was a really solid year with four good movies that were worthy of their nominations.

For 2006: Seven different languages are spoken/signed in this film; Martin Scorsese didn’t realize he was directing a remake until after he signed on; A foreign-language film that was ineligible for the Best Foreign Language Film category; This film features both Bryan Cranston and Dean Norris, pre-Breaking Bad, and is also set in Albuquerque; and Helen Mirren won both an Oscar (for this movie) and later a Tony for portraying the same person.