Monday, February 27, 2006

Two Out of Five

Every now and then I make it a point to catch all five films nominated by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for Best Picture of the Year. I managed to watch all of the films nominated for the 1991, 1998 and 2003 Best Picture Oscar.

This year, I've thus far only managed to catch two of the 2005 nominees: Brokeback Mountain and Munich, excellent movies both.

Munich, which deals with the aftermath of the 1972 massacre of 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics, is Steven Spielberg's dissertation on the politics of counterterrorism.

It stars Eric Bana as Avner Kaufman, an Israeli tasked by his government to head an underground team of assassins that is to exact Israel's revenge on the plotters of the Munich massacre. Bana is ably supported by a diverse cast of actors, ranging from Amelie's Mathieu Kassovitz to the next James Bond, Daniel Craig, to everyone's favorite character actor, Oscar winner Geoffrey Rush.

The movie chronicles, in almost uncomfortable closeup, the psychological and spiritual journey, and eventual ordeal, that the Israeli team of assassins undergoes as they take out one target after another, encountering harrowing snafus in more than one instance. It's about the senselessness of violence, which, incidentally, is featured quite gratuitously, although it is entirely germane to the story.

With this film, Spielberg reinforces the notion that he does his best work when he isn't saddled with Hollywood heavy hitters and their corresponding egos (the lone exception, in my opinion, being "Minority Report.") The films he made with pre-packaged stars (as opposed to the actor who became a star through his films, Harrison Ford), such as Hook and War of the Worlds fell short in terms of storytelling, mostly because a number of these stars seemed, with every line, to be screaming "hey, look at me, look at me! I'm in a Spielberg movie!"

The actors assembled for this film are not guilty of any such posturing. It is, more than anything else, their performances that drive home Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner's not-so-subtle point that violence only begets violence, and that as vile as the Munich massacre and all the other subsequent acts of terror committed by the PLO were, acts of pure and simple vengeance aren't really any better, especially since they do nothing to solve the real problem. The film doesn't offer its own solutions to the problem, but it does call upon the viewers to think a little harder about what the appropriate response to terrorism should be, instead of just trying to grind its perpetrators into the dirt.

Like Munich, Brokeback Mountain is a film with an agenda. It portrays a gay couple in the American West who, because they cannot live out in the open, steal several moments together over the course of two decades, with their relationship eventually ending in tragedy.

Much has been said about the fact that this movie has become a cultural phenomenon, even though it hasn't really set the box office on fire. All I have to say is, that whatever attention it's getting, it deserves.

The funny thing about it is that my stance on homosexual relationships hasn't really changed. I've always been a fence-sitter on the subject, and I don't see myself campaigning for gay rights just because I was moved by this movie. But for me, Ang Lee's greatest triumph here is that he has crafted a love story substituting a gay couple for a straight one, and pulled it off. It's heartbreaking in the way that few love stories over the last several years have been.

Heath Ledger's Ennis Del Mar is the movie's beating heart. Despite admirable performances by his co-stars, including standout acting by Michelle Williams his miserable wife Alma, this film would not take off without Heath. With minimal dialogue, he conveys to the audience just how much he loves Jake Gyllenhaal's Jack Twist, and how much it tears him up inside that he can't be with him in the way he would like.

Yes, on a macro-level, the movie says that "if only Ennis and Jack were allowed to freely share their love, then all this tragedy could have been avoided," but the truth is that such a sweeping argument is undercut by a lot of incidents in the story, most of them involving Jack's promiscuity. The film's real virtue is its very intimate, personal love story that just happens to be between two men.

These two movies don't exactly purport to change the world, but they do provide a great deal of food for thought. People who say the film industry is in a state of decline should definitely go out and see these films (and rent Sideways, for good measure).