The Academy NIT

Lazy people across the US look forward to March every year. For those of us who love television, but don’t actually enjoy that many TV shows, March annually presents two great spectacles: The NCAA Tournament and the Academy Awards.

Whether we admit it or not, we get so sucked into the competition that we fail to honestly scrutinize the competitors. In college basketball, teams left out of the NCAA tournament square off in the NIT � officially known as the National Invitational Tournament, but now commonly known as the ‘Not Invited’ Tournament. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is just as cockeyed. After all, this is the ceremony that nominated Ray over Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, that gave a nod to Johnny Depp’s blandest performance over Paul Giamatti’s best, and that awarded Kevin Costner over Martin Scorsese. And unless you count the bloated, trophy-for-sale antics of the Golden Globes, the movie world has nothing like the NIT . . .

Until now.

So without further ado, ladies and gentlemen, I present the best of the rest. This year’s nominees for the first annual Academy NIT:

Best Picture:

  • Jarhead
  • Match Point
  • Me and You and Everyone We Know
  • The Squid and the Whale
  • Walk the Line

It seems fishy that Walk the Line was recognized as one of the year’s best pictures by just about every critics group, but not the Academy, even with two nominated lead performances. Why the short shrift when it comes to best picture? The Academy loves Woody Allen, but failed to ante up when it came to his finest work since before even Bullets Over Broadway. Match Point is tight, unflinching, sexy, funny, and deeply unsettling. It may be the best movie of the year. Certainly an NIT favorite.

Jarhead got meager reviews on the grounds that it was an uneventful war movie. But really, it was a dashingly executed movie about an uneventful war. Tense, witty, and cinematically engaging throughout, Sam Mendes’ latest was a critically overlooked gem.

In a true meritocracy, we would see some recognition for Miranda July’s quirky, but achingly humane Me and You and Everyone We Know, and more than a polite screenplay nomination for the sensitive and hysterical Squid and the Whale. But the Academy doesn’t reward indie movies for merit. It would rather acknowledge famous stars slumming for prestige or buzzword subjects, like racism and homophobia. It’s the greatest shame of the ceremony.

Best Director:

  • Woody Allen (Match Point)
  • Curtis Hanson (In Her Shoes)
  • Sam Mendes (Jarhead)
  • Nick Park & Steve Box (Wallace & Gromit in the Curse of the Were-Rabbit)
  • Robert Rodriguez & Frank Miller (Sin City)

It’s fine to reward directors who just build connective tissue around great acting performances (like Capote‘s Bennett Miller) or ones who merely shepherd their own scripts to the screen competently (Crash‘s Paul Haggis). But let’s hear it for higher filmmaking. Allen’s work on Match Point is a lesson in tension, pacing, and making the most of actors’ sometimes limited skill sets.

In his first film without the late, great cinematographer Conrad Hall, Mendes created a rich visual fabric for Jarhead without sacrificing the actors or plot (like, say, Terrence Malick’s gorgeous work in The New World).

Rodriguez and Miller deserve recognition for crafting such a novel cinematic world in adapting Miller’s graphics. Gromit might have the most expressive face in Hollywood this side of Don Cheadle � and he’s a dog made of clay with no mouth. Credit Nick Park with a rich, inimitable vision.

Meanwhile, it’s about time Curtis Hanson got the credit he deserves. Ever since L.A. Confidential, he’s boldly leapt genres, always bringing a sharp eye, an intimate sensibility, and a top-flight track record with acting performances. He elevated In Her Shoes from chick-lit novel to under-appreciated big screen drama. Now that’s a director worth nominating.

Best Leading Actor:

  • Eric Bana (Munich)
  • Jeff Daniels (The Squid and the Whale)
  • Robert Downey Jr. (Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang)
  • Jake Gyllenhaal (Jarhead)

Four strong, edgy performances with none of the flash that gets Oscars. Bana once again showed the presence and risk taking that gives him the rare ability to stand out in huge-scale productions.

Daniels anchored a movie’s greatness, balancing the pretense and cruelness of his character with a stealthy, knowing charisma that kept us watching no matter how much we despised him. In a sadly overlooked, overwhelmingly funny movie, Downey illustrated why Hollywood’s never quite been able to quit him, with a smart and wildly entertaining turn as a thief-turned-actor-turned-sleuth.

Meanwhile, Gyllenhaal may have gotten his first Oscar nomination for the wrong movie. His performance in Brokeback Mountain was just as a pattern within Ang Lee’s magnificent paintings. Mendes called on Gyllenhaal as much more of a fulcrum to Jarhead, and he delivered unfailingly.

Best Leading Actress:

  • Maria Bello (A History of Violence)
  • Toni Collette (In Her Shoes)
  • Miranda July (Me and You and Everyone We Know)
  • Laura Linney (The Squid and the Whale)

These awards tend to go to roles with heavy accents, disfiguring makeup, graphic sex with Billy Bob Thornton, or Judi Dench giving the exact same performance for the umpteenth time. But for those who like the meal more than the garnish, it’s a Laura Linney world, and she delivered again this year in her laughing but tormented turn opposite Daniels.

Bello might be too classically good looking to get the credit she deserves, but she almost never disappoints. This year she excelled in the role of a wife who learns of her husband’s dark past and must deal with the consequences. Toni Collette embodied everything that made In Her Shoes worthwhile; she was funny, understated, and soulful. The same goes for July, who wore many hats in making Me and You, but reflected the greater project with her childlike, but headstrong performance.

Best Supporting Actor:

  • Matt Damon (Syriana)
  • Jesse Eisenberg (The Squid and the Whale)
  • Mickey Rourke (Sin City)
  • Peter Sarsgaard (Jarhead)

George Clooney put on lots of weight and had his fingernails ripped off to be nominated for his wonderful performance in Syriana. But for a movie that painfully lacked subtlety other than its nifty plot construction, Damon deserves credit. He took an equally pivotal role and performed it to modestly fit the ensemble. Eisenberg broke out in his role as Daniels and Linney’s oldest son. To be so funny, so smart, and stand up so ably to the elder actors is quite an accomplishment.

Mickey Rourke was both witty and menacing in a genuinely strange role that captured everything wonderful about Sin City. Sarsgaard, though, was the best. His lack of Oscar nomination is befuddling. His track record is hot and cold, but he played a character profoundly on the edge of losing it with none of the ‘actorly’ excess typical of such roles. It was the year’s best supporting performance.

Best Supporting Actresses:

  • Hope Davis (The Matador)
  • Q’Orianka Kilcher (The New World)
  • Shirley Maclaine (In Her Shoes)
  • Emily Mortimer (Match Point)

Standing next to a turn from Pierce Brosnan that made his James Bond work look understated, it would be easy to lose Davis if she weren’t so quietly expressive and so funny, even in the film’s straightest role. Q’Orianka Kilcher is the find of the year as the girl whose smile and cadence carry The New World‘s stunning, ethereal remembrances of love.

While most noticed Maclaine in 2005 for going down with the Hindenburg that was Rumor Has It, she had already given a lesson in poise and nuance with her role as Collette and Cameron Diaz’s regret-stricken grandmother in In Her Shoes.

Then there’s Mortimer, the greatest essayer of meek and vulnerable, but substantive women the silver screen currently knows. She was the strong undertow to the flashier waves of Scarlett Johansson in Allen’s masterpiece.

Perhaps the greatest lesson of looking into the shadows and trying to recognize the year’s other best work is that we end up piling nominations onto the same few cinematic bandwagons just as much as the Oscars do. There’s nothing wrong with that. The Academy will mostly reward performances from Capote and Walk the Line in the crevices of an evening dominated by Brokeback Mountain. And deservedly so.

But maybe we can hope that as Ang Lee is swept away by an avalanche of praise, there will be just a few eyes turned to cinema’s own little version of the NIT, and to 2005’s diverse coterie of under-heralded treasures like Match Point, Jarhead, The Squid and the Whale, and Me and You and Everyone We Know.