Oscar picks for 2006

As a self-proclaimed movie buff (or “film enthusiast”, to add some haughtiness to it), I eagerly await the announcement of Academy Award nominations every year to see which choices I’ll cheer and which I’ll jeer come Oscar night.
But unlike other opinionated “enthusiasts,” I find I have neither the time nor the funds to see every potential nominee during the year - especially during the deluge of hopefuls that pop up in November and December. Nevertheless, I’m sure I could make more than one car payment with what I’ve spent on film-going this year (the recent box office slump has nothing to do with me).
So, even though the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will already have released the names of their honorees by the time this column goes to print (the announcement was made on Jan. 31), I thought I’d belatedly announce whom they were right to select and whom they missed, at least according to my popcorn-munching experiences. Come March 5, these are the names I’ll be shouting at the screen for the eight big categories. Then it’s off to the theater to start tallying for 2006.

Best supporting actress
•Maria Bello in “A History of Violence”: In one of the best films of ‘05, Bello gave one of the most complicated and layered performances of the year. As a small town housewife who begins to doubt her husband’s history, Bello captured an appropriate mix of fear, anger and, most intriguingly, excitement at the “new” man in her house.
•Frances McDormand in “North Country”: The Oscar veteran redirects her “Fargo” dialect toward a gutsy and powerful performance in the Minnesota-based Iron Range drama. As Charlize Theron’s hardnosed and filthy-mouthed co-worker, McDormand ultimately packs an unexpected emotional punch as only she can.
•Thandie Newton in “Crash”: Though Paul Haggis’ Los Angeles ensemble film features memorable performances from several women (including Sandra Bullock in a rare dramatic turn), Newton shines as a wealthy TV director’s wife who suffers sexual and racial harassment at the hands of a cop. Despite her character’s victimization, the actress plays her unsympathetically, allowing us to see her grow by the film’s titular resolution.
•Michelle Williams in “Brokeback Mountain”: The mountain of this film’s namesake is a very long way from “Dawson’s Creek.” Williams earns her stripes in the quiet way she lets us see Heath Ledger’s put-upon wife make decisions, whether it’s to ignore what she suspects of her husband’s friendship with another man, or to take action, as passively as her Montana upbringing will allow her.
•Renee Zellweger in “Cinderella Man”: With the numerous nominations Zellweger’s received in recent years (including a win in this category for “Cold Mountain”), it would seem easy to overlook her portrayal of boxer James Braddock’s Depression-era wife. But the gritty actress brings new life to the cliché of “supportive spouse” by delivering seemingly the same lines Adrian Balboa spoke in the “Rocky” series but making them sound new and believable.
•Honorable mention - Catherine Keener in “Capote” or “40 Year Old Virgin”: While the Academy is more likely to honor Keener for her understated work as novelist Harper Lee in “Capote,” the actress delivered a double punch this year as the “hot grandma” to Steve Carell’s innocent virgin. In both very different roles, Keener’s addictive smile anchors both her leading men and the audience.

Best supporting actor
•Matt Dillon in “Crash”: In what is really a return to form for the underused Dillon, the actor shows dramatic chops by giving us a bigoted and disenchanted L.A. cop whom we can understand, if not like. Unlike other actors his age (some of whom refuse to grow up), Dillon conveys the sadness and frustration of a man whose experiences have deluded the way he sees the world.
•Jake Gyllenhaal in “Brokeback Mountain”: While he could deservedly receive recognition for turns in both “Jarhead” and “Proof” this year, Gyllenhaal’s tour de force was clearly in “Brokeback.” As the energetic and unforgettable Jack Twist, the young actor embodies the longing of a man in love who cannot be with the object of his affection and, much as he tries, cannot return to the summer that haunts him.
•Michael Pena in “Crash”: Though it is unlikely to receive the same praise from critics as some of his co-stars, Pena’s performance in the ensemble drama is possibly the most palpable and human. As a young father who defies the stereotypes thrust upon him by others, Pena’s climactic confrontation with an angry customer is one of the most moving moments on screen this year.
•Mickey Rourke in “Sin City”: Few actors can bring a surreal comic book character like the barbaric Marv to life while simultaneously making him the most believable and pitiable figure in Frank Miller’s violent opus. Rourke seems to rise from Hollywood hell to give a tortured and compelling performance.
•Andy Serkis in “King Kong”: It’s time to give Andy Serkis his due. While it’s understandable why his work as Gollum in the “Lord of the Rings” films was overlooked (since it only came through in CGI form), it was nevertheless a gross oversight considering his on-set performance was the key inspiration for animators to create the special-effects creature. Serkis makes magic again as the perfect study in ape behavior and tragic title character in Peter Jackson’s latest epic (his scurvy cook Lumpy is more than memorable as well).
•Honorable mention - Richard Jenkins in “North Country”: In arguably the most honest performance of the year, character actor Jenkins plays a conflicted father who struggles to support his rebel daughter leading the first class-action sexual harassment suit against his own Iron Range mining company. Jenkins’ Hank Aimes is a man most of us know, and ultimately exhibits the courage most of us hope we’d have in his position.

Best actress
•Felicity Huffman in “Transamerica”: OK, confession time. The only movie on my list I’ve not yet actually seen is “Transamerica.” However, on the strength of Huffman’s past performances alone (most notably in TV’s “Sports Night” and “Desperate Housewives”), I’m prepared to believe the hype that her portrayal of a trans-gendered man on a cross-country road trip with his unwitting son is nothing short of revelatory.
•Gwyneth Paltrow in “Proof”: While the film adaptation of the wonderful David Auburn play doesn’t quite live up to its potential, Paltrow does. As a grieving daughter who’s lost her math genius father, the Oscar-winner proves herself worthy by letting us see both maturity and vulnerability in a woman unsure of both her talent and her sanity.
•Charlize Theron in “North Country”: Speaking of past Oscar winners proving their wins weren’t flukes, Theron not only energizes this real-life drama with spirit and pathos, she isn’t afraid to show imperfections in her character (internal, not external as in “Monster”), a working mother just asking for a fair shake while shaking off a troubled past.
•Rachel Weisz in “The Constant Gardener”: The Golden Globes nominated Weisz in the Best Supporting Actress category (where she won) for her role as a passionate activist fighting to end medical atrocities in Africa. I bump her up to Best Actress not so much for the size of her role in the film, but for the strength and beauty of her inspired performance in Fernando Meirelles’ time-jumping narrative.
•Reese Witherspoon in “Walk the Line”: As someone who lived in Memphis at the time of “Walk the Line’s” filming, I too scoffed a little at the thought of gifted comic actress Witherspoon tackling the beloved June Carter Cash, the country girl in love with a damaged man. But Witherspoon, like her co-star Joaquin Phoenix, manages to perfectly embody the spirit of Carter Cash, providing wonderfully comic moments just as naturally as the tender dramatic ones - and some impressive singing pipes as well.
•Honorable mention - Naomi Watts in “King Kong”: It isn’t easy to act opposite of a 25-foot gorilla that isn’t really there. But Watts makes it look easy, turning a classic film role into a complex nearly modern woman who uses her wits to tame the beast and her heart to ultimately undo him.

Best actor
•Ralph Fiennes in “The Constant Gardener”: Many critics have isolated the moment early in “The Constant Gardener” when Fiennes’ diplomat is told that his wife is thought to be dead. Well, add my name to the list because the actor teaches a master class in control and subtlety through the simple expression on his face while hearing the news. The class continues throughout the taut drama with Fiennes at the center of both a complex conspiracy and an enduring love story.
•Philip Seymour Hoffman in “Capote”: In a year of great performances, Hoffman’s portrayal of famed author Truman Capote is, very simply, the greatest. It’s difficult enough for an actor to convey the complicated duplicity of an artist willing to compromise almost everything (even another man’s life) for the sake of his work. Couple that with Hoffman’s flawless characterization of the eccentric writer, down to the last tic, and the achievement is nothing short of miraculous.
•Heath Ledger in “Brokeback Mountain”: Who would have thought that a hunky pretty boy from Australia could so perfectly capture the rugged, stubborn and quiet pain of the rural Midwestern male? Sexual preference aside, Ledger’s Ennis Del Mar is the essence of dirt roads, callused hands and flannel shirts, and he transcends bad makeup to age 30 years as a man living in sadness, holding on to a sliver of hope for love.
•Viggo Mortensen in “A History of Violence”: Shaking off the heroic mantle of Aragorn, Mortensen initially appears to be the ideal alpha male in David Cronenberg’s psychological thriller. But as the story progresses, the actor conveys more in small ways than any other actor this year. After the film, one reflects back on the moment when his Tom Stall tells Ed Harris’ gangster, “I think it’s time for you to leave now,” and realizes there was more to Tom Stall the whole film. Mortensen just knew how to hide it.
•Joaquin Phoenix in “Walk the Line”: Much has been made of how much Phoenix seems to resemble the legendary Johnny Cash but, really, they don’t look that much alike. And while Phoenix’ singing in the film is admirable, it’s clear he’s more of a tenor as opposed to Cash’s rumbling baritone. I contend that the mistaken resemblance is more a product of the actor’s uncanny ability to capture Cash’s essence and, through his well-like eyes, we can see how the Man in Black got himself into that Ring of Fire.
•Honorable mentions - Russell Crowe in “Cinderella Man,” David Straithairn in “Good Night, and Good Luck,” Eric Bana in “Munich”: This three-way tie is necessitated by the strength of the performers’ indelible performances. All three play real men from different periods of history (though Bana’s Israeli operative is a little more historically ambiguous) who, each in his own way, beat the odds convincingly. Whether it’s Depression woes and boxer Max Baer; the Red Scare and Senator Joe McCarthy; or the demons of the 1972 Olympics murders, these are men who overcame and these are actors who know how to bring truth and intensity to that cliché.
Look for four more categories next week: Best original screenplay, best adapted screenplay, best director and best picture (plus “The Worst of 2005”).

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