With the Academy's 'big dance' on the horizon, it's time to recognize those motion pictures and performances overlooked by Oscar's self-serving system of artistic determination.
With the Academy Awards arriving this weekend, it’s time for Stale Popcorn's second annual Academy NIT, where we recognize the best of what Oscar ignored and nominate the otherwise un-nominated. It's our version of the National Invitational Tournament in college basketball, now commonly known as the 'Not Invited' Tournament. This year, AMPAS made some bold and smart decisions: recognizing Ryan Gosling’s wonderful performance in the small and so-so indie Half-Nelson; not giving picture, director, or screenplay nods to the well-acted, but mediocre Dreamgirls; rewarding Letters from Iwo Jima rather than its far inferior companion piece Flags of Our Fathers. These were all wise moves. But there were plenty of misses, miscues, and downright goofy nominations as well. So while the real contenders prepare for the industry's big dance, here are this year’s Academy NIT nominations:
· Children of Men
· United 93
· Little Children
· Thank You For Smoking
A scene from Children of Men
First off, let's hand it to the Academy. Whatever wins best picture this year will be much better than Crash. But this list of nominees quite frankly looks better than theirs. Children of Men was the most cohesive and transporting work to hit the big screen in recent memory. It’s a pure cinematic experience that transcends science fiction and politics in creating its own world. In contrast, United 93 took a real place and time so often reduced to rhetoric and sentiment, and instead offered a dry, visceral recreation more sobering and terrifying than any horror movie.
If United 93 was the year’s most visceral movie, Borat was easily the second. It may not be traditional Oscar fare, but both Sacha Baron Cohen and his character made a stunning leap from small screen to big, with possibly the most committed and immersive comic performance ever captured on camera. Todd Field’s Little Children was the year’s most unique movie. Equal parts chamber drama and surreal comedy, it reinvented the voiceover and showed us the haunted humor of infidelity and sexual deviance. Thank You For Smoking, on the other hand, was not only funny, intelligent, and inventively directed, with a sinfully fun protagonist, but it could easily change the way you watch movies. Just try to visualize the scene in Déjà vu when the medical examiner lights up a cigarette next to a dead body and not think of Aaron Eckhart and Rob Lowe cutting a deal.
· Alfonso Cuaron (Children of Men)
· Guillermo Del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth)
· Michel Gondry (The Science of Sleep)
· Todd Field (Little Children)
· Robert Altman (A Prairie Home Companion)
· Gael Garcia Bernal (The Science of Sleep)
· Aaron Eckhart (Thank You For Smoking)
· Sacha Baron Cohen (Borat)
· Ken Watanabe (Letters From Iwo Jima)
· Leonardo DiCaprio (The Departed)
Gael Garcia Bernal
· Maggie Gyllenhaal (Sherrybaby)
· Charlotte Gainsbourg (The Science of Sleep)
· Ivana Baquero (Pan’s Labyrinth)
· Meryl Streep ( APrairie Home Companion)
· Annette Bening (Running With Scissors)
Streep managed two great performances this year. She was nominated for her turn in The Devil Wears Prada, but she was even better in Altman’s career coda. Anchoring the ensemble as a spurned lover, doting mother, and show performer, she radiated with an intensity and presence that pretty much only Meryl Streep, firing on all cylinders, can provide. As for Bening, she’s not a great actor, but she’s a very good one, and she handles characters bursting at the seams as well as anyone. Besides, have you seen her at an awards show lately? She looks like her head is about to explode. Give her an Oscar already, and it might as well be for a showy role in a showy movie based on a showy book.
Best Supporting Actor:
· Alain Chabat (The Science of Sleep)
· James McAvoy (The Last King of Scotland)
· Michael Sheen (The Queen)
· Brad Pitt (Babel)
· Bill Nighy (Notes on a Scandal)
Meanwhile, Brad Pitt’s good looks and celebrity have always gotten him dismissed as a mere movie star, when he’s actually a very strong actor, one who frequently takes tremendous risks. Babel is a deeply flawed movie, but its soul of suffering is carried by Pitt, especially in a late scene where panic takes a backseat to the quiet need to face tragedy. But it’s Nighy who stands above the others. Overshadowed by his two nominated co-stars, Nighy delivered a performance of remarkable pain and nuance as Blanchett’s affable old goof of a husband, subjected to infidelity and caught in the crossfire of a loaded companionship.
Best Supporting Actress:
· Anika Noni Rose (Dreamgirls)
· Kerry Washington (The Last King of Scotland)
· Toni Collette (Little Miss Sunshine)
· Phyllis Somerville (Little Children)
· Maribel Verdú (Pan’s Labyrinth)
Anika Noni Rose
For all the fun Little Children has with Jackie Earle Haley’s sex offender character, it is Phyllis Somerville’s portrayal of his mother that must carry all the weight of the accompanying denial and grief. Similarly, for all the majesty of Pan’s Labyrinth’s fantasy worlds, Verdú must anchor the harsh flipside. Oddly enough, the Academy loves to reward beautiful women who take on roles that require a prosthetic nose or homely makeup. Verdú’s performance forced her to not only tone down her looks, but also to follow her character into some of the ugliest, most difficult places any character went this year - and with her soul intact.
In 2006, amidst the disappointment of Dreamgirls and the mediocrity of Bobby, there were many standouts and breakthroughs. While the Academy picked up on Mirren, Murphy, Gosling, and Whitaker, there were many more treasures that they missed. So while Kings of Scotland and Queens of England take home Oscar gold, let’s remember the worlds of Cuaron, Gondry, and del Toro, the unmentioned works of Streep and DiCaprio, and all the underappreciated treats that kept 2006 from being a bust. From the NIT's perspective, it wasn't that bad after all.