January 5, 2007

Riding the Dark Horse

Don't forget about these worthy alternatives that Oscar hype threatens to leaves behind

By Lewis Beale

For your consideration (seriously): Ray Winstone in John Hillcoat's stunning Australian western, The Proposition (Photo: First Look Pictures)

Doesn't Oscar Season 2006 strike you as the Tinseltown equivalent of the famous Casablanca order to round up the usual suspects? How many times have we been told that Marty might finally win his Best Director statuette, that Dreamgirls' Jennifer Hudson is a showstopping Best Supporting Actress contendah or that Volver could be nominated in multiple categories? If you've gotten tired of seeing the names Helen Mirren and Forest Whitaker over the past month or so, well, so have I. Worthy actors, for sure, and most likely Oscar shoe-ins, but the ubiquity of their mentions on Oscar prognostication lists has me feeling like one of those fuming cartoon characters, with steam coming out of my ears.

It's the herd mentality with a vengeance, something we see all too much of from the entertainment press during this season of hype. Isn't anyone thinking outside the box? Where are the dreamers? The iconoclasts? The out-and-out wackos? Count me among the latter few, I suppose, because when it comes to Oscar worthies, the following should be getting a lot more attention than they have so far.


Ray Winstone, The Proposition: I honestly did not know who this guy was until I saw him almost seven years ago in Sexy Beast, and I've loved him ever since. He's great at everything he does, from the Bard to Cold Mountain, and in 2006 he earned his biggest praise as Jack Nicholson's very scary right-hand man in The Departed. But he's even better as a British lawman in director John Hillcoat's Outback oater The Proposition. Winstone's Captain Stanley is a dynamic study in contrasts; not only a tough-as-nails peace officer dealing with a horrendous gang of murderers and rapists in colonial Australia, but also a cultured man trying to keep the horror of his work away from his genteel wife (played by Emily Watson). He's just great to watch. It's a finely tuned piece of work that authentically captures a driven, complex man. Get on the bandwagon -- I'm driving.


Phyllis Somerville, Little Children: As the mother of the sex offender portrayed by Jackie Earle Haley, this veteran TV actress crafts a heartbreaking portrait of unconditional love. Ferociously protective, she can only see the good in her baby -- even when he's giving into his worst impulses. "You did a bad thing," she says of her son's crime, "but you're not a bad person." It's a shattering moment, one hard to forget and certainly a lot more impressive than Jennifer Hudson's overrated, watch-me-I'm-Patti-LaBelle blowout in Dreamgirls. I haven't seen a better supporting performance all year, and don't cop out on this one by saying she's only in a handful of scenes. Both Beatrice Straight (Network) and Judi Dench (Shakespeare in Love) have won supporting Oscars for less screen time.


Daniel Craig, Casino Royale: Why not? The latest Bond extravaganza is the best-acted in the entire series, and Craig is stunning as a rough trade assassin; his character arc from brute to lover and back to brute again is utterly compelling, as is his effortless charisma. I even got the impression that Casino Royale had more dialogue than any previous Bond film because the producers knew Craig was a great actor and could carry it all off. "So what," the big-time prognosticators say. "Oscar never gives acting nods to action movie stars." Whatever -- ignore the conventional wisdom hyping Whitaker, Peter O'Toole and the like and rally around 007 instead.


Ashley Judd, Come Early Morning: Remember when Ms. Judd (right) could actually act? In those Jurassic days before she threw her career away on second-rate murder mysteries co-starring Morgan Freeman? She's back at last in actress-turned-director Joey Lauren Adams' fine little indie, playing a messed-up thirtysomething who has serious daddy and boyfriend issues. Judd delivers a performance of amazing subtlety, creating an utterly believable character who, despite her intimacy issues, still engages our sympathy. It's easily one of the finest female acting jobs of the year, but no one seems to be paying attention: Judd couldn't even nab a nomination for an Independent Spirit Award. Ignore that slight later this month, Hollywood, and put her on your Oscar list.


John Hillcoat, The Proposition: I'm riding this pony until it drops dead! A mesmerizing piece of 19th century savagery -- think Sam Peckinpah goes Down Under -- this barely seen but well-reviewed film was as good as anything that came out in 2006. Hillcoat directs this tale of an outlaw forced by circumstance (and Winstone's driven Captain Stanley) to hunt down his own brother in an epic style, juxtaposing the familiarity of a classic Western and the exotic appeal of a story that features non-American accents and Aboriginal weirdness. It's also a classic work about betrayal, but unlike Martin Scorsese's Oscar front-runner The Departed, which deals with similar themes, The Proposition is stripped to its bare essence; there are no mugging Jack Nicholson types, no attempts to be "colorful," just old-fashioned storytelling. Hillcoat (along with cinematographer Benoit Delhomme) also does a great job of fusing an almost lush visual style with the kind of indelible violence that makes who wholeheartedly believe everything you're seeing onscreen. So if you're looking for a place to find an alternative Best Picture nomination, you could do worse than turning your attention to Oz.

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Comments (6)

What a great list! I did not see Ashley Judd, but you called both the supporting actress category and the lack of love for The Proposition one of the best fims I have ever seen.

Well, I started out agreeing with most of what you said, but your Hudson remarks were way off base. You sound like an old queen who's just bitter because he LOVES Jennifer Holiday and every drag queen who impersonates her.
Hudson was brilliant. Audiences all over the country are standing on their feet for her performance. Sorry to tell you, but the one thing a famous director once told me-"an audience can't always tell when you are being truthful, but they ALWAYS know when your lying."
But then again, I suppose you know EVERYTHING, and the movie going public (you know them, they are the ones that make movie-making possible.) knows absolutely NOTHING, right?
I'm so sorry if I'm wrong-I realize I can't be the brilliant film critic that you are.
I hope hudson wins and you cry when it happens.

How about Gael Garcia Bernal? and The Science of Sleep? This is the most imaginative movie last year. If finding neverland can earn multiple Oscar nominations, this one definitely should.

Hudson is so bad I was embarrased for her, and myself. Voice poor, too loud, and her personality self-centered and egotistical.

Thank you for finally saying what no one else will say about Hudson--overrated--and more generally about the herd mentality in the Oscar race. There are so many utterly ignored films/performaces that seem better than what's being touted. It's telling that these front runners--DREAMGIRLS, THE DEPARTED, BABEL--were the front runners before anyone had even seen them! Never mind that PRARIE HOME COMPANION is better than DREAMGIRLS, that THE GOOD SHEPHERD is better than THE DEPARTED, that CHILDREN OF MEN is better than BABEL. Get on the bandwagon and start singing....

The problem with Hudson's performance is that it is woefully uneven. Her first peformance sure, but nuance isn't something she gets. In her defense though, Condon sets her up for failure. With all his slappy, slop editing, he hacks up character arcs like no other working director, and absolutely betrays his actors in the process. Too much montage, never enough connection. So we end up with Hudson screaming her lungs out in a vacuum. And the glassy-eyed audience goes "I guess she can sing," and applauds, because that's what they think they should do when performers work so hard and alone.

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