Thursday, December 07, 2006

The Good, the Bad, and the NBR

The National Board of Review, once upon a time the closest thing to a ratings board for Hollywood movies, is now a diaphanous and fairly dubious group who nonetheless bestow the first major awards in the pre-Oscar qualifying heats. Every year, we awards trackers lend further and false credibility to their choices by continuing to predict, await, scrutinize, and discuss their choices. Yes, it's a silly ritual with no valid defenses—auguring only for the future silliness of the Golden Globes and the Oscars, and not always very accurately—but no, we can't help it, and yes, we frigging love it. So, winners and responses:

Best Film: Letters from Iwo Jima This movie may well be wonderful, and God knows there isn't a strong case to be made for many of its competitors among already-released movies. Eastwood's Mystic River also won here, and Million Dollar Baby was a big hit with this group in 2004. Still, Eastwood's recent run of awards success (making him seem like old hat), his increasingly divisive status among audiences and Oscar-hawks, and the lack of an existing fan-base for Letters until it opens on December 20 are likely to make this an unpopular NBR win.

Honor Roll of Runners-Up: Babel, Blood Diamond, The Departed, The Devil Wears Prada, Flags of Our Fathers, The History Boys, Little Miss Sunshine, Notes on a Scandal and The Painted Veil I'm surprised by the rousing favor shown to Edward Zwick's Blood Diamond, especially because the NBR was equally kind three years ago to Zwick's The Last Samurai (Best Director and runner-up for Best Picture). Samurai's reviews were middling and Diamond's have been awful, so something's not right with this affinity. Most of the rest of this list is predictable, though I'm sorry to see the mediocrity of Flags get bestowed with a medal of honor, and however much fun their performances are, it's hard for me to imagine endorsing The Devil Wears Prada or Notes on a Scandal as films. Still, in a bum year, it's hard to be too critical.

Top Independent Films: Akeelah and the Bee, Bobby, Catch a Fire, Copying Beethoven, A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, Half Nelson, The Illusionist, Lonesome Jim, Sherrybaby , 10 Items or Less and Thank You for Smoking Invariably a strange and qualitatively variable list, from the exceptional (Half Nelson) to the successful (Akeelah and the Bee, A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, Sherrybaby) to the dolorous and overrated (Bobby, Catch a Fire, The Illusionist, Thank You for Smoking). I walked to the theater twice to become the only person on my block who saw Copying Beethoven, and both times I turned around, unable to commit. Now I'll never know. 10 Items or Less is currently playing downtown, but I am telling you, I'm not going. There's just no way. There's noooo way.

Best Director: Martin Scorsese, The Departed Hopefully the beginning of a good roll for Marty. I actually have a hard time seeing anyone but him winning Best Director. The Departed's three biggest threats for Best Picture are probably Dreamgirls, Letters from Iwo Jima, and The Queen, and I think Scorsese is certain to trump Condon, Eastwood, or Frears even if their movies win.

Best Actress: Helen Mirren, The Queen Neither the film nor the performance struck me as digging very deep or accomplishing very much. An Oscar for Mirren seems pretty inevitable; I'm hoping that it isn't, but if not her, who?

Best Actor: Forest Whitaker, The Last King of Scotland One of my favorite NBR picks, especially since this group seems tailor-made for the Peter O'Toole and Will Smith camps. Whitaker was sensational in Scotland, but the buzz was flagging due to the picture's middling performance. This prize ought to keep him near the head of the pack.

Best Supporting Actress: Catherine O'Hara, For Your Consideration Not a supporting performance, really, but a very funny and proficient one, especially given her saggy vehicle. Is this how she'll stay categorized throughout the season?

Best Supporting Actor: Djimon Hounsou, Blood Diamond I've been calling Hounsou a contender for months. Oddly, now that he's actually won something and people are calling it a surprise, I feel less sure than ever that he'll be an Oscar nominee. The NBR doesn't have a great track record in the Supporting races. And, as stated above, they're such an easy lay for Zwick movies that this citation feels a little automatic. Still, it's a wide-open race, and any awards recognition can help (especially if you're a past nominee). Then again, after 2001, when the Berry and Washington wins sparked this absurd furor of "OH MY GOD, ALL THE WINNERS ARE BLACK!!!" I can only imagine how the media will hyperventilate about TWO actors playing African men being awards contenders in the same year... a "trend," surely?

Best Foreign Language Film: Volver Not the most exciting or creative pick, but it's a very agreeable movie, and there hasn't been much auspicious competition this year.

Best Documentary Feature: An Inconvenient Truth Not the most exciting or creative pick, but it's a topical and informative movie, and there hasn't been much auspicious competition this year.

Best Animated Feature: Cars Not the most exciting or creative pick, but it's a very profitable movie, and there hasn't.... hey wait, AGAIN? (I hope one of the other groups goes for A Scanner Darkly, which at least pushes the bounds of animation a little more.)

Best Ensemble Cast: The Departed My second trip through this movie today only confirmed that it deserves every Ensemble Cast award in sight. Damon, DiCaprio, Wahlberg, Farmiga, Sheen, Baldwin, Winstone, Anderson, O'Hara, Rolston, Dale... all of them sensational. And even though Jack begs too much for attention and affection, he fit the piece better on second look than he did on the first.

Best Original Screenplay: Stranger Than Fiction One of two unforgivable citations. An unfunny, unromantic "romantic comedy" that can't even make sense of its own devices (is Harold real or not?) or keep track of a tiny ensemble (who is Queen Latifah playing?) or live up to its basic conceptions (shouldn't Karen's novel sound better than things I ordered from Arrow Book Club in fifth grade?) is the NBR's pick for the best-written movie of the year. Stranger than fiction, indeed, and also more outrageous.

Best Adapted Screenplay: The Painted Veil Brought to you by Ron Nyswaner, the man who brought you Tom Hanks' exegesis on opera in Philadelphia. But, I haven't seen The Painted Veil, so maybe this honor is deserved. (What, I don't sound convinced?)

Breakthrough Performance (Female) – Tie: Jennifer Hudson, Dreamgirls and Rinko Kikuchi, Babel I found Kikuchi serviceable but a little opaque, and if her character weren't deaf, I wonder if she'd be receiving all this praise. As for Hudson... I really want Dreamgirls to knock me over when it comes. Really, I do. But I keep being underwhelmed by the appetizers: I don't like the trailer, I don't love "Listen," and Hudson's take on "And I Am Telling You, I'm Not Going" sounds over-rehearsed and bizarrely phrased, like someone trying awfully hard not to recycle an earlier and still-definitive rendition. Maybe watching her perform it will help. Serve me these words on a saucer if I'm wrong. But the hype on Hudson is starting to feel like homework: "You're gonna love me!" indeed.

Breakthrough Performance (Male): Ryan Gosling, Half Nelson Will any of the other critics' groups have the gumption to cede Best Actor to him? Hilary Swank started here for Boys Don't Cry and rode her momentum all the way to Oscar. No one since has so fully deserved to repeat that trajectory as Gosling does.

Best Directorial Debut: Jason Reitman, Thank You for Smoking The other unforgivable award, not just because Smoking is so smug and empty, but because the direction is the worst part: indulging some actors while neglecting others, and supervising one of the ugliest-looking comedies in some time. Still, the movie made money, so here's a trophy. From the people who gave the same prize to Garden State, against which most of the same complaints could be lodged, so go figure.

Freedom of Expression Award: Water and World Trade Center For so handsomely beautifying and simplifying complex cultural problems

Get Outta Our Face Award: Apocalypto, Borat, Fast Food Nation, The Good German, The Good Shepherd, Hollywoodland, Little Children, The Pursuit of Happyness, United 93, and Venus Little Children especially seems like the NBR's cuppa, and In the Bedroom was a big hit with them, so Todd Field can't be happy. (But then, judging from his movies, is he ever?) People will say Dreamgirls lost out big here, too, which is pretty true, but the Hudson nod isn't negligible, and bear in mind that the NBR "snubbed" the Lord of the Rings trilogy also. Boy did that gesture keep Peter Jackson away from the Oscars.

(Images © 2006 Warner Bros.; © 2006 Lions Gates Films/Starbucks Entertainment; © 2006 Fox Searchlight Pictures; © 2006 Sony Pictures Classics; and © 2006 ThinkFilm)

2 Comments:

tim r said...

I'm glad we agree on Whitaker. I'd support Dench in Notes on a Scandal any day over Mirren, wouldn't you? It's Judi's only truly surprising bit of acting this decade. They're head to head over here.

5:16 AM, December 07, 2006  
Kamikaze Camel said...

The Directorial Debut award is especially strange considering Little Miss Sunshine was in their top 10, but it's director's lost out to Reitman.

9:15 AM, December 07, 2006  

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