The Academy is in a political mood this year. The front-runner for the Best Picture Oscar is Brokeback Mountain, the so-called ‘gay cowboy’ movie; however, some pundits have speculated that the trophy might go to Crash, a contrived and wildly overrated ensemble piece about racism in Los Angeles, when the awards are handed out.
Meanwhile, the Academy has also given its seal of approval to the left-leaning period pieces Munich and Good Night, and Good Luck.
The former is Steven Spielberg’s epic depiction of an Israeli counter-terrorist hit squad in the 1970s, while the latter is George Clooney’s intimate look at the TV reporters who stood up to McCarthyism in the 1950s.
Capote, the fifth nominee, would seem to carry the least political baggage. The film tells the true story of how Truman Capote lost his soul, as it were, by using and essentially betraying real people when researching one of his most famous books.
However, the film is quite open about Capote’s homosexuality, and if Philip Seymour Hoffman’s excellent interpretation of the character wins Best Actor, then that, too, could be a cultural milestone of sorts.
Which takes us back to Brokeback Mountain, which is not quite the pro-gay love story that many people have tried to make it out to be.
For one thing, Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger), the two sheep herders who maintain their relationship for decades behind their families’ backs, are hardly ideal role models.
Jack is immature, unfaithful to all his partners and full of dreams that others easily dismiss as unrealistic or impossible.
Meanwhile, the taciturn and violence-prone Ennis seems more interested in the relationship than the sex, per se, and it is possible to think that he might have had a fairly ‘normal’ life if Jack had not come on to him that night in the tent.
In some ways, their sexuality is implicitly tied to their adolescent desire to stay buddies and avoid growing up, and it is certainly tied to their reckless treatment of their families. The film particularly underscores how Ennis’ wife Alma (Michelle Williams) is traumatized when she discovers her husband’s affair and cannot find a way to get him to talk about it.
Note also how the first sexual encounter between the two men takes place when Ennis is too drunk to go up the mountain and watch the sheep.
The next morning, the first thing he finds is a sheep that has been killed by a predator. Is it a symbol of the persecution Ennis fears? Or is it the first innocent victim of his irresponsible giving in to his passions?
If Brokeback Mountain were pro-gay propaganda, it wouldn’t allow us to ask these sorts of questions. But it does, and that is why it is a genuine work of art, and worth seeing.
For what it’s worth, here are my own favorites from the past year, culled from films that were given a regular theatrical release in Vancouver in 2005:
- Dear Frankie (UK). A single mother hires a total stranger to pretend to be the absent father to whom her deaf son has been writing letters all his life. What could easily have been a contrived, manipulative melodrama turns out to be a remarkably delicate study in character, mood and tone. These characters really grow on you.
- Hotel Rwanda (USA/UK/Italy/South Africa). Don Cheadle gives the performance of a lifetime as a hotel manager who saved more than a thousand Hutu and Tutsi lives.
- Millions (UK/USA). A wonderful, enchanting story about a child’s faith, his desire to be like the saints, and his efforts to be generous. And it’s from the director of Trainspotting!
- Murderball (USA). Quadriplegics with attitude kick major butt – and, yes, find empowerment – in this documentary about a sport played in wheelchairs.
- Batman Begins (USA). At last, a movie that ‘gets’ the Dark Knight! And it tackles questions of personal responsibility and social justice along the way, too.
- Grizzly Man (USA). A funny but basically tragic look at the life of Timothy Treadwell, a naïve activist who was eaten by one of the bears he tried to befriend.
- Born into Brothels (India/USA). A filmmaker visits Calcutta’s red-light district and uses the power of art to help the children of prostitutes to rise above their circumstances.
- Paradise Now (France/Germany/Netherlands/Israel). A subtly horrific but also knowingly irreverent look at two Palestinian would-be suicide bombers.
- A History of Violence (USA). I’m still not quite sure what to make of this deconstruction of popular film genres, but it did provoke some of the better discussions I’ve had recently.
- Corpse Bride (UK/USA). Burton’s latest ghoulish whimsy is a surprisingly mature riff on the nature of marriage, and a nice illustration of the biblical principle that we should love the one we are married to, rather than that we should follow our fickle feelings.
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Speaking of lists, the Pacific Cinematheque will show ‘Canada’s Top Ten,’ a series of last year’s best Canadian films – as determined by the Toronto film festival.
Top of the list for BCCN readers may be La Neuvaine, a Quebecois film about a grocery clerk who goes on a pilgrimage to pray for his dying grandmother, and an agnostic doctor who is on the verge of suicide when a chance encounter with the clerk gets in the way.
Through their relationship, director Bernard Émond sensitively explores the question of suffering: whether any of it is ‘wasted,’ how these things ought to be seen in the light of Christ’s own suffering on the cross, and whether life can ultimately come from death.