The Great Wait for Oscar Bait

It’s here! The season for considering Oscar candidates has finally arrived! And if you’re like me, you’ve been anticipating it all year. You waited on line for The Departed, Martin Scorsese’s sprawling return to crime. You’re geared up for Dreamgirls, the long-awaited Jamie Foxx-Eddie Murphy version of the famous musical. You’ll set aside your burning hatred for those stupid singing paper bags and Fandango up some advance tickets for Clint Eastwood’s dual World War II films, Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima.

But before you do all that, you should take a quick glance back at the movie year so far. In terms of quality, 2006 is on pace to be the slowest since 2000, which was so bad that Chocolat and Erin Brokovich could be passed off as two of the year’s best efforts. But no matter how much this year needs autumn to redeem it, it’s worth examining the previous nine months, and shedding light on the hidden gems, dreck, and mundanity found within. After that, it will be easy to see why Oscar season is more crucial this year than any in recent memory.

While Cars was probably the year’s best summer (and animated) movie, it speaks volumes that the Pixar movie was deemed the company’s worst outing in years. Even its hotshot-in-a-small-town story was derivative of movies like Doc Hollywood. It was an entertaining and technically superb movie, but it lacked the soul and ingenuity of previous efforts like Finding Nemo and Monsters Inc. Even to the Pixar faithful, it was no more than a solid outing. The same is true of Talladega Nights, which was very funny and Cars’ only competition for the summer’s best, but marked a clear step down from Anchorman, the previous collaboration between Will Ferrell and director Adam McKay.

The summer season offered little more than a limp mélange of sequels and high-profile book adaptations, with nothing stellar among the biggest releases, paving the way for the modest Little Miss Sunshine to seem like a breakthrough. At the same time, in a year full of wisecracking animal movies you shouldn’t bother seeing (The Wild, Open Season, Barnyard), Ice Age 2 was the archetype, outperforming the original at the box office, but sacrificing the bit of heartfelt storytelling that made the first film worth noticing.

Meanwhile, there have been just four must-see movies in pre-Oscar ’06, and they will combine to domestically gross less than The Da Vinci Code’s opening weekend. United 93 was a lean, visceral thriller that spared the politics and revealed 9/11’s events in the most direct cinematic treatment they may ever receive, even if that doomed it to limited commercial appeal. Thank You For Smoking, on the other hand, was the funniest, most intelligent comedy in quite some time and there’s no handy excuse for people not seeing it. Aaron Eckhart delivered one of the decade’s great comedic performances as a slimy, but entirely charismatic tobacco industry lobbyist. He stands out from a spectacular ensemble (including a shockingly funny Rob Lowe) in Jason Reitman’s superbly written debut feature. The under-seen Brick also brought a much-needed dose of originality with its high school interpretation of film noir.

Of the year’s required viewing, the only one still in theaters at the start of October was The Science of Sleep, Michel Gondry’s intensely quirky follow-up to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Gondry wrote his own script this time around, and his work is imperfect, sometimes letting the plot stumble while finding difficulty actually ending the film. But in his story of a man whose dreams, fantasies and reality become conflated, the French director crafted a funny and emotionally resonant movie full of unique images. He made dazzling use of stop-motion animation and found a captivatingly energetic lead performance from Gael Garcia Bernal. Between Thank You For Smoking, Science of Sleep, and Brick the arthouses really outdid Hollywood for most of the year.

With so few worthy efforts to rank among the year’s best, and the slew of mediocre blockbusters, some of the most interesting Hollywood stories have come and gone quietly. Tom Cruise got a lot of attention off-camera, but what got lost in the shuffle was the fact that Mission: Impossible III was one of the year’s better efforts, with inventive action sequences, a great villain, and a terrific sense of humor. There aren’t many good meat-and-potatoes action movies anymore, so it’s worth recognizing one when it arrives.

We should also acknowledge the surprising breakthrough year for Spike Lee. Despite years of showing great cinematic potential as a director, while struggling to make movies that were politically relevant as well as attractive to audiences, Lee finally got it right by dividing himself in two. When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, Lee’s Hurricane Katrina documentary and one of two movies he released this year, was a stronger and more genuine look at wrongdoing in America than any of his earlier social indictments. This was due largely to Lee forming an essay from real people, rather than inventing the sort of thinly characterized puppets that populate so much of his other work.

His other movie, Inside Man, was not only easily the best movie to open in more than 2,000 theaters before summer, but marked Lee’s first real step into popcorn filmmaking. It was his most lively and cohesive work as a director in more than 10 years. The on-screen cat and mouse game was compelling, and off-screen, it was great to watch the developing relationship between Lee and cinematographer Matthew Libatique, who previously collaborated on the wonderfully shot (but atrociously written) joint She Hate Me. By getting divorced from himself, Spike the director and Spike the social commentator have created two artists worth watching, instead of one that keeps swinging and missing.

In contrast, two of Hollywood’s best middle-of-the-road directors hit their first major stumbles this year. Paul Weitz, who previously helmed American Pie, About a Boy, and In Good Company, launched the disastrous American Dreamz. Weitz was never going to be the next Scorsese, but Hollywood needs its versatile craftsmen, and with About a Boy, he appeared to fully blossom into one of the industry’s better ones. It really doesn’t take a visionary to spoof American Idol and President Bush, though, and when Weitz tried to tackle them with less than his A-game, he got a muddled mess of limp satire. Hopefully he can recover with his planned adaptation of Nick Flynn’s Another Bullshit Night in Suck City.

Another of Hollywood’s most dependable filmmakers suffered a lesser bump in the road. In his first few narrative features, director Todd Phillips had tremendous success, both commercially and in entertainment value, with Road Trip, Old School, and Starsky & Hutch. But this autumn was hard on Phillips. As a writer-director, he suffered poor receipts and his greatest artistic struggles with School for Scoundrels. The movie was funnier than critics made it out to be, but it had too many down moments, and wasn’t as committed as his earlier works. Old School was enthusiastically stupid (in a good way) and Starsky & Hutch was dedicatedly kitschy. School for Scoundrels was a dark comedy that hedged its bets with ill-fitting sweetness. To make matters worse, Phillips also produced the year’s biggest trainwreck: All the King’s Men.

Next time someone says, “They don’t make movies like they used to”, just point to All the King’s Men. It sucks in the same exact way that misfired prestige movies have sucked all throughout Hollywood’s history. Overcast and miscast, over-scored and blandly directed; poorly focused and marketed misleadingly (the main character was really Jude Law’s, not Sean Penn’s, which reveals a flaw both in the movie’s storytelling and advertising). No individual element of the movie was fatally wrong, but nothing about it seemed right either. In truth, it served as a warning about how cachet cinema can often look too good on paper. The movie was unrepentant Oscar bait, but wound up getting dreadful reviews instead. Arriving at the end of this pre-awards season, it served as a great cautionary tale.

Looking back on the past nine months plus of movies is enough to make you even more eager for the impending Oscar season—as if you weren’t already. If there’s anything to be learned from a review of the year so far, it’s that 2006 will either go down as a terrible movie year or a tremendously back-loaded one. So far the films have largely ranged from bad to boring, and while the debates and hype over Scorsese, Eastwood, et. al., will inevitably get exaggerated, this year the Oscar-season madness is almost sensible. It’s the only hope Hollywood has for redeeming itself in 2006.