Small movies with big ideas reach for Oscar gold

Publié le par David CASTEL

By Jack Garner
Gannett News Service

Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon star in "Walk the Line." Phoenix has a best actor nomination for his portrayal of Johnny Cash and Reese Witherspoon, who plays singer June Carter Cash, received a best actress Oscar nomination.
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Hollywood has rewarded a lot of first-class escapism at the Oscars over the years, but they've also recognized several thought-provoking movies that have conveyed challenging ideas not unlike those espoused by best picture nominees this year.

Here are a few of those films:

* "On the Waterfront" (1954): Elia Kazan's hard-nosed drama about corruption on the Hoboken docks, with a landmark performance by Marlon Brando.

* "Schindler's List" (1993): Steven Spielberg's wrenching portrait of a Holocaust story of heroism.

* "The Best Years of Our Lives" (1946): William Wyler's affecting look at life in America as soldiers return from World War II, carrying a lot of baggage.

* "Lawrence of Arabia" (1962): David Lean's "thinking-person's epic" about British adventurer T. E. Lawrence and his life among the Arabs. The film becomes increasingly relevant with each year of Middle East turmoil.

* "Gentleman's Agreement "(1947): Elia Kazan's study of anti-Semitism in the American office place.

* "All the King's Men" (1949): A fascinating look at corruption and misplaced idolatry in American politics.

* "In the Heat of the Night" (1967): An exploration of racism in the guise of a gritty, entertaining thriller.

* "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" (1975): A study of the treatment of the mentally ill (on its surface) while providing an allegory about the corruption of power and the misuse of authority.

* "Platoon" (1986): A riveting, heartfelt look at the Vietnam War, from the point of view of the soldiers who fought it.

* "Kramer vs. Kramer" (1979): A poignant look at divorce as it affects the raising of a young child.

* "Saving Private Ryan" (1998): Spielberg again, this time making us all realize the sacrifices made by the Allies as they wrested Europe back from the Nazis.

* "To Kill a Mockingbird" (1962): Another look at racism, this time in the guise of a story of a noble father through the eyes of his young daughter.


What: The 78th Annual Academy Awards

When: 7 p.m. March 5

Where: ABC

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Most of Sunday's (March 5) Academy Awards will almost certainly go to low-budget films. But that doesn't mean they have low aims.

Consider this: According to, the average cost of making a Hollywood movie (according to 2004 statistics) was nearly $64 million. And yet, of the five best-picture nominees this year, only Steven Spielberg surpasses that total with a relatively modest estimated budget of $75 million for "Munich." Front-runner "Brokeback Mountain" cost only $14 million, while "Crash" cost $6.5 million, "Capote," $7 million, and "Good Night, and Good Luck" came in at $7.5 million, according to figures from the Internet Movie Database.

Compare those totals with the estimated budgets for the year's big popcorn flicks -- "King Kong" ($207 million), "War of the Worlds" ($132 million) and "Star Wars, Episode III" ($115 million), according to

Oscar, indeed, will celebrate the small movie. But, hold on, says "Brokeback Mountain" director Ang Lee.

"It's a pleasure to be (in the company of) these so-called small movies. But I think it's the opposite," Lee told reporters after his Golden Globe victory. "The thoughts are very big and these films are very special to me."

That quote puts the tagline on "The 78th Annual Academy Awards": It's the year of small movies with big ideas.

For the first time in many years, every best-picture nominee grapples with a serious political or societal issue or moral dilemma. For "Brokeback Mountain," it's homophobia; for "Crash," it's racism; for "Good Night, and Good Luck," it's freedom of thought and journalistic integrity; for "Capote," it's artistic ambition and integrity, and for "Munich," it's justice, revenge and national and personal morality.

Nominees in other categories include "Syriana" (global corporate greed for Middle East oil), "Transamerica" (transgender acceptance), "Paradise Now" (a Palestinian take on suicide bombings), "The Constant Gardener" (abuse of the Third World by corporate medical conglomerates) and "North Country" (sexism in the blue-collar workplace).

Not one of these nominees was made primarily as popcorn escapism. To get the point, simply compare those titles and purposes with the best picture nominees of recent vintage - "The Aviator," "Finding Neverland," "Sideways," "Million Dollar Baby," "Ray," "The Lord of the Rings," "Master and Commander," "Mystic River," "Seabiscuit," "Lost in Translation," "Gangs of New York," "The Hours," "The Pianist" and "Chicago."

Have filmmakers suddenly gotten gumption? Why the sudden shift to political purposes and moral challenges?

Actually, filmmakers will tell you it's not a sudden shift. The movies appeared in 2005, but several were in the pipeline for up to eight years.

"Though it feels like the culture has caught up this year," Lee recently said in a Newsweek magazine filmmakers' panel, "all of these projects had battles. 'Brokeback Mountain' took eight years to get made." And Spielberg's "Munich" took six.

In various appearances leading up to the Oscars, George Clooney has repeatedly stressed his belief that filmmakers don't lead the public, they reflect it. With three Oscar nominations, and a well-earned reputation as an outspoken liberal, Clooney has become the poster boy for the politically charged films of 2005. He's up for directing and co-writing "Good Night, and Good Luck," and for acting in "Syriana," a film he also produced.

Art has long been a tool to challenge the status quo, and film is no different. Some of the best films have emerged from volatile periods of history -- such as the McCarthy era of the '50s and the Vietnam era of the late '60s and early '70s.

Most of the nominated filmmakers will point to the divisiveness of modern life, the rise of the outspoken and determined religious right, global terrorism and the Iraqi war. Films are emerging from a society in which too many political discussions are mean-spirited, close-minded and firmly rooted in blind adherence to red state or blue state philosophies.

The big question to be answered is whether the politically charged Oscar atmosphere will attract or turn off viewers.

Added to the mix is the famously opinionated first-time Oscar host, Jon Stewart, who at least has the attention and admiration of best-actor favorite, Philip Seymour Hoffman. "I have the utmost faith in his abilities," Hoffman told USA TODAY. "I'm a huge fan. His show is never not insightful and funny."

No doubt, Oscar ratings will be closely watched.

However, politics or no politics, when it's all said and done, Sunday's Oscar show is about the movies. Long after its entertainment value -- or its ire -- has dissipated, we may only remember who won. And that'll probably be "Brokeback Mountain" and director Ang Lee, Hoffman (for "Capote"), Reese Witherspoon (for "Walk the Line"), Paul Giamatti (for "Cinderella Man") and Rachel Weisz (for "The Constant Gardener").

Publié dans Oscars

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