Rewarding the Oscar Also-Rans

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:

Best Picture:

· Children of Men

· United 93

· Borat

· 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.

Best Director:

· 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)

Alfonso Cuaron

Five very distinct directors working with inherently diverse material, but all doing so with a sense of humor and a gift for the surreal. Handed a serious budget for the first time outside the Harry Potter franchise, Cuaron created a dazzling nightmare vision of an infertile future. With extraordinary camerawork, aching suspense, and the surprisingly strong use of a cast with wildly different acting styles, his was the year’s best directing effort. Del Toro and Gondry both made smaller, more personal movies, and the results were frequently extraordinary. Del Toro offered monsters and fantasy life as vibrant as dreams, while Gondry brought tremendous humor and low-fi charm to an insightful vision of a daydreamer. Altman gave us his last great juggling act. With wonderful narrative weaving bathed in warmth and grace, what better final legacy for the late, great filmmaker than the year’s most watchable movie?

Best Actor:

· 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

Daydreaming one’s life away or bending the truth, struggling with American culture, being a gentleman at war, or going undercover, the characters here were all at odds with the world around them. Bernal offered his first truly great performance, capturing the charm and chaos of a boyish man with only one foot in reality. Eckhart took an unscrupulous professional bullshitter and made him drip with such charisma that you couldn’t help but sympathize with the unfeeling bastard. As the doomed general defending Iwo Jima, Watanabe brought elegance and tenderness to the military role, encapsulating everything great about the Eastwood masterpiece. The Departed was a brilliantly written and directed crime thriller, but it wouldn’t have worked without DiCaprio as its fulcrum. He carried the most complex character with a tortured anxiety that lent the movie its soft underbelly.

Best Actress:

· Maggie Gyllenhaal (Sherrybaby)

· Charlotte Gainsbourg (The Science of Sleep)

· Ivana Baquero (Pan’s Labyrinth)

· Meryl Streep ( APrairie Home Companion)

· Annette Bening (Running With Scissors)

Maggie Gyllenhaal

Gyllenhaal has a certain spark, a rare personal magnetism that almost always makes her worth watching. Sherrybaby gave her a rare lead role, and a chance to shine through in a gritty movie. Gainsbourg and Baquero, on the other hand, were put to perfect use in grander, stranger visions. Gainsbourg offered a perfectly offbeat romantic foil for Bernal, struggling with her lover’s lesser commitment to reality. Baquero, meanwhile, was the vessel that carried Pan’s Labyrinth to magical places where Del Toro could excel.

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)

Alain Chabat

As Bernal’s callous co-worker, Chabat delivered some of the year’s funniest lines while also playing the character most grounded in the truth Bernal chooses not to face. It’s a mix few actors could pull off successfully. McAvoy and Sheen were both doomed to be overlooked, because they shared the screen with the year’s best male and female performances, respectively. But no character faced a harsher arc this year than McAvoy’s young doctor, who quickly turns from wide-eyed altruism to insatiable corruption under Idi Amin’s wing. It was a role he handled with great humanity and nerve. And while there aren’t many awards to be won this year for playing The Prime Minister against that Oscar lock The Queen, Sheen made a dynamic Tony Blair, struggling against the royalty while growing in his understanding of it. A strong, understated performance in a movie sharing those qualities.

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

And here we have our most underappreciated group. It would be easy to miss Rose, since more times than not, when she was on screen, either Jennifer Hudson was singing or Eddie Murphy was stealing the movie. But with humor and vulnerability, she was the human element of a movie that too often coasted on glitz and bombast. As one of Idi Amin’s wives, cast aside and reduced to adultery, Washington’s knowing performance helped elevate the movie beyond politics into something more personal. In the year’s crowd-pleasing indie darkhorse, everyone else had something flashy to coast on, but Collette had to hold the ensemble together, playing straight to everyone else’s punch lines. It’s a thankless task, but one she handled with great aplomb.

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.