More Oscar picks for 2006

It may seem futile to post one’s choices for Academy Award nominations well after the official announcement has been made. But I take this as my opportunity to herald the well-deserved noms (Frances McDormand in “North Country” and Matt Dillon in “Crash”), the glaring omissions (Ralph Fiennes in “The Constant Gardener” and, I’m telling you, Andy Serkis for “King Kong”!) and the out-of-left-field surprises (William Hurt for Best Supporting Actor with less than 10 minutes of screen time in “A History of Violence”?).
Now, I submit my picks in the screenplay, directing and producing categories, some of which line up with the Academy’s, some of which don’t. Be sure to let me know where I went right and where I’ve gone wrong by visiting to post your comments or e-mailing You can also start your predictions for who will win come March 5, a night sure to be filled with vindication and disappointment.

Best original screenplay
• “40 Year Old Virgin” (Judd Apatow, Steve Carell): It’s no secret that the Academy looks down its nose at comedies in general, let alone so-called “potty-humor” romps like “Virgin.” But director Apatow and star Carell achieve what perhaps no other specimen from that genre has: non-stop hilarity seamlessly woven with genuine characters and a story with more heart than almost any film this year.
• “Cinderella Man” (Cliff Hollingsworth, Akiva Goldsman): While it may not have been the box office champ it should have been due to boxing burnout (thanks a lot, “Million Dollar Baby”), “Cinderella Man” nevertheless featured one of the most stirring stories in theaters. Its screenplay not only captured colorful real life characters like boxers James Braddock and Max Baer, but also the desperation and spirit of America’s most depressed era.
• “Crash” (Paul Haggis): By far the most original original screenplay of the year, director Haggis’ ensemble drama is rife with dialogue that is alternately snippets of fury-filled real-world conversations and poetic speeches about race with the kind of insight we all wish we could articulate. As Don Cheadle’s detective muses to open the film, “We’re always behind this metal and glass. I think we miss that touch so much, that we crash into each other, just so we can feel something.”
• “Good Night, and Good Luck” (George Clooney, Grant Heslov): The real achievement in Clooney and Heslov’s screenplay is its use of words they never wrote. By utilizing journalist Edward R. Murrow’s most profound quotations (“We cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home”) and the most blistering of Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s attacks (like calling Murrow “the cleverest of the jackal pack”), “Good Night” nimbly proves to be the most potent political film of the year.
• “Syriana” (Stephen Gaghan): Many critics and filmgoers have frowned on Gaghan’s Mideast oil pot-boiler as being too dense and impersonal to either decipher or connect with. For my money, I’ll take a film that challenges its audience to keep up while presenting all sides of the story (the way Gaghan’s “Traffic” did) over something spoon-fed and sappy any day.
• Honorable Mention — “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” (Simon Kinberg): While it certainly doesn’t seem like the caliber of film one would expect to see honored on Oscar night, Kinberg’s clever and bouncy script takes an idea that sounds like it was pitched by some clueless Hollywood big-wig looking for a Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie blockbuster, and mines it for all it’s worth, with creative plot turns and witty dialogue. The scenes with Pitt and Jolie in couple’s therapy sound like they could have been lifted from a Woody Allen movie.

Best adapted screenplay
• “Brokeback Mountain” (Larry McMurtry, Diana Ossana from Annie Proulx short story): With a running time of 134 minutes and a decade-spanning plot, it would seem unlikely that this acclaimed film’s source material should be a short story. But McMurtry and Ossana’s stripped and touching screenplay manages to serve director Ang Lee’s epic camera lens while retaining Proulx’s original simplicity.
• “Capote” (Dan Futterman from Gerald Clarke book): Futterman, an actor in films like “The Birdcage” first approached his friends Bennett Miller and Philip Seymour Hoffman to direct and star in a Truman Capote biopic he had written after reading Clarke’s biography. Futterman’s passion for the project comes through in his confident, solid screenplay, but it is the control he exhibits through the careful structuring of his subject’s moral decline that is most noteworthy.
• “The Constant Gardener” (Jeffery Caine from John le Carre book): Having never read le Carre’s popular novel, I can’t really comment on Caine’s skill at translating the story from page to screen. What I can say, however, is that the time-jumping narrative is endlessly captivating, whether it’s during intense conspiracy-revealing exchanges or the quiet and delicate hushed whispers of the film’s central love story.
• “Munich” (Tony Kushner, Eric Roth from George Jonas book): Steven Spielberg’s films are never better when he is working with a superior screenwriter (see “Saving Private Ryan”) and, after seeing “Munich”, I’d like to see him work with Kushner again. The “Angels in America” playwright, along with Roth, builds suspense, terror and, most impressively, humor into the mythology of Israel’s super secret response to the 1972 Olympics’ murders.
• “King Kong” (Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh from Meriam C. Cooper and Edgar Wallace story): The team that so skillfully adapted Tolkien into the “Lord of the Rings” films should be commended for their efforts with a Hollywood original. As with “Rings,” the “King Kong” fanatics can savor the scattered references to the 1933 original (including a racially insensitive tribal dance and Cooper himself), while everyone else can appreciate the blending of a classic story with fresh modern touches.
• Honorable Mention — ”Sin City” (Frank Miller): Adapting his own material is no less a feat than if someone else had attempted to capture Miller’s dark/cool comic book creation for the screen. Whether you find yourself cringing, laughing or gasping, there’s no denying that Miller’s characters and dialogue leap out and grab you as much as director Robert Rodriguez’ stark imagery.

Best director
• David Cronenberg for “A History of Violence”: In a culture that has become so accustomed to death on screen, few directors have been able to jolt their viewers back to reality more than Cronenberg does in his psychological drama. Even more impressive than his depiction of the violence referenced coldly in the title is his mastery of silences between the characters; particularly in the film’s final scene.
• Peter Jackson for “King Kong”: There was no shortage of big budget studio mega-pics this year (“Star Wars: Episode III,” “War of the Worlds,” “Harry Potter”) but the only one that truly exhibited more substance than style was Jackson’s “Kong.” While studios are wasting the big bucks on hacks like Michael Bay (“The Island”) or McG (“Charlie’s Angels”), Jackson is proving that, if there is a larger-than-life story to tell, he is definitely one of the few directors who knows how to tell it.
• Ang Lee for “Brokeback Mountain”: While most of the conversation surrounding Lee’s cowboy epic focuses on an early scene between his two protagonists in a tent, the auteur’s true skill is more evident in a scene decades later during the last visit the two men have on that mountain. Filled with bickering, grumbling and conflicted emotions, the scene paints a picture of stubborn solitude in heated combat with forbidden love.
• Fernando Meirelles for “The Constant Gardener”: Meirelles chose to shoot much of his African drama in Kenya (rather than the more affluent South Africa) and use non-actor natives in many roles. The ironically unconventional choices add credibility to the beautiful film, made with obvious fury for African atrocities and compassion for the victims of them.
• Steven Spielberg for “Munich”: Many of Spielberg’s most acclaimed films are filled with obvious symbolism and rather simple character objectives (there’s not a lot of hidden complexity to “E.T.”, as good as it is). Which is why “Munich” is impressive for its many surprises — occasionally disturbing, occasionally humorous — and the layered difficulties its protagonists (or are they antagonists?) face.
• Honorable Mention — Ron Howard for “Cinderella Man”: With this obviously inspirational sports flick, most people going in would expect the film’s hero to win his climactic fight against all odds. But, as with “Apollo 13,” Howard’s genius is in his ability to make his audience forget that they know how the story will end by keeping the stakes always high and our attention on the improbability of success.

Best picture
• “Capote”: From its title and basis on the life of author Truman Capote, it would seem that this independent feature is just another in the long line of dramatic biopics to be released in recent years. But unlike its predecessors, “Capote” is unafraid to both lionize and demonize its subject, a man who walked a fine line between artistic passion and reckless obsession; between humanity and inhumanity.
• “The Constant Gardener”: Few movies this year managed to cover so many genres at once — political thriller, sweeping romance, poignant drama, murder mystery — while somehow remaining unique in its style and pure in its tragic final message: love conquers all.
• “Good Night, and Good Luck”: George Clooney and Grant Heslov’s passion project is a much-needed shot in the arm for today’s journalistic and political worlds. It’s ironic that it took a nearly documentary-style look at CBS’s courageous newsroom of 50 years ago to provide that shot.
• “A History of Violence”: No film stayed with me this year after leaving the theater quite like “A History of Violence.” Essentially, it’s a fairly simple tale of a small-town Indiana family struggling with its past and uncertain about its future. But beyond that, it has much to say about the nature of trust, loyalty, second chances and, of course, violence in American culture.
• “Walk the Line”: Last year’s Oscars nominated the flawed musical biopic “Ray” for best picture, mistaking Jamie Foxx’s tour-de-force performance for a strong total package. This year, the Academy did not repeat that mistake with “Walk the Line” which combines powerful portrayals of Johnny and June Carter Cash (Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon) with skilled storytelling that focuses on the love story at its core rather than the predictable biopic plot (rise to stardom, fall from grace, redemption).
• Honorable Mention — “Brokeback Mountain”: If the romantic leads of “Brokeback Mountain” were a man and a woman, would the film have attracted as much attention as it has? Would it be considered worthy of an Oscar nomination? Probably not. But even if the success of the film is based more on its message than its story, it is still a beautiful example of the human condition and the love that dare not speak its name.

Worst of 2005
• “Madagascar”: The company that brought us “Shrek” lowered the bar this year for CGI animation with this half-hearted trifle of one-dimensional cartoon characters.
• “Fantastic Four”: A mega disappointment for both die-hard comic fans and simply anyone who was hoping for another good “Spiderman” or “X-Men”-like franchise.
• “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe”: Not only did it fail to capture the magic of C.S. Lewis’ beloved novel, it’s preachy ho-hum action failed to capture any magic at all.
• “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”: Though Tim Burton is far and away the most visually creative director in Hollywood, it would be nice if the characters in this soulless remake actually had half as much depth and color as his film sets.
• Tom Cruise in “War of the Worlds” and the rest of the media: Enough has been said about Cruise this year. So I’ll leave it at that.

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