It’s a fine and delicate process – the distillation of a year’s worth of celluloid fantasies into one night of feting for Hollywood’s finest. Though the winter months bear witness to a teeming throng of award shows jockeying for positions of prestige and importance, culling the absolute best in a film year is the definitive duty of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Fittingly, the Academy Awards ceremony is unlike any other. For months, media outlets scramble to predict who will be nominated for the naked gold statue, while studio bosses ply the art of politicking and big stars schmooze shamelessly to see their names on the ballot.

It’s no wonder given the stakes. Attention from the Academy can mean big business for small films that rely on critical acclaim and strong word-of-mouth to sell themselves. This year’s “Capote,” for example, saw a surge of interest that sent it back into wide release after a surprise best picture nomination rescued it from box-office decay. Careers are made, validated, rescued and occasionally conjured from the ether of anonymous artistry. For an actor or director, the words “Academy Award nominee” can be tantamount to a 20-year contract.

But of all the Oscar races, almost all of which are followed with leering intensity by a nation of entertainment gurus and film freaks, none is more pivotal and all consuming than the contest for best picture. Unlike the other categories which are internally nominated – directors choose nominees for best director, actors for the acting nods and the like – best picture nominees are selected by the entire voting Academy membership. And while other categories highlight the best in selected areas of filmmaking, such as cinematography or sound editing, best picture is the synthesis of all its component categories.

In a sense, the category is misnamed. After all, the best picture winner isn’t always the best film of the year. Nor is it even expected to be. The best picture Oscar is conferred upon a film that the Academy is proud to stand behind, knowing that decades down the line, cinema fans will look back on any best picture as a significant contribution to the art – and more importantly, the history – of cinema. Landmark films like “Titanic” or the concluding chapter in the epic “Lord of the Rings” trilogy might not have been the most artistically accomplished works of their years, but they both took center stage at the end of the night with Oscar’s top prize for the sheer audacity and the enormous cultural resonance they stirred.

This habit of rewarding the most important film of the year, rather than what might technically be the best, has led the Academy to a fairly predictable preference pattern when it comes to the best picture race.

Generally speaking, voters go big.

The Academy loves nothing more than a tightly constructed epic centered around a small-scale emotional core that grips at the heart while empowering the human spirit.

But this year’s nominees for best picture, though they display more emotional honesty and complexity of feeling than any crop in years, were constructed on a decidedly smaller stage. The films all showcase fine performances, exceptional direction and riveting screenplays, but what ultimately sets them apart is the way all five nominees fearlessly confront and embrace the difficulty of their various subject matters.

Tackling violence in the Middle East, “Munich” is director Steven Spielberg’s meditation on the cyclical and self-defeating nature of revenge. Mossad agent Avner (Eric Bana, “Troy”) leads an unofficial mission for the nation of Israel to hunt down and assassinate the architects of the massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. But as soon as the team has taken out one target, two more leaders inevitably rise to take his place. The bloodshed escalates. A different narrative focus might have sold a macro statement about the character of violence with more conviction, but as it stands, “Munich” only works to show how destructive the violence becomes to one man as it tears away the life of our staid, cinema-ready hero.

Though critics liked “Munich” and the Academy loves Spielberg, the film can’t win. The direction is stylish, the dialogue is cleanly written and the subject is socially important, but “Munich” is an interesting story grasping at a point. Coming into awards season hyped as the next “Schindler’s List,” “Munich” soared where it should have flown.

Also glad to be nominated is Bennett Miller’s “Capote.” An eerie and intense dissent into the morally compromised mind of famed author Truman Capote, the film is executed with considerable skill and restraint from the little-known Miller. Yet the film’s dramatic power is entirely vested in Philip Seymour Hoffman, whose miraculous transformation into the brilliant author is startling in its depth and intensity. Unlike “Munich,” “Capote” was never tipped for a nomination and its success at the announcement ceremony was something of an upset. The film won’t win because ultimately, it’s not ambitious enough for Oscar. If “Munich” was overreaching in its quest for universal truth, “Capote” is perfect in its striving for a straight, but small, character study.

The race for best picture therefore falls to three serious contenders: “Crash,” “Good Night, and Good Luck” and “Brokeback Mountain.”

Of these picks, “Crash” is the weakest. Plumbing the various faces of modern racism in Los Angeles, the film is controversial and confrontational. But it’s also preachy, obvious and flawed on a basic narrative level. The film boasts some of the most effective scenes and challenging ideas of the year, but it also displays some of the weakest in overall filmmaking (filming a little girl jumping in front of a bullet as her mother cries out in slow-motion agony is so insipid it’s almost insulting).

Still, “Crash” is a more powerful and resonant film than “Capote” and has far more buzz than “Munich.” The film has been gaining momentum since its nominations, and is the favorite to pick up a best screenplay Oscar. Though “Crash” is hardly the frontrunner, the Academy may decide to make a political point of rewarding a film that tackles a subject as taboo as race relations. Victory for “Crash” would be an upset, but it’s not out of the question.

Another film with an outside chance of a surprise triumph is actor George Clooney’s second directorial effort, “Good Night, and Good Luck.” The film, famously shot in sharp black and white, follows the battle between renowned journalist Edward R. Murrow and Senator Joseph McCarthy.

Stirring, efficient direction and a mesmerizing performance by David Strathairn, mimicking Murrow’s voice and mannerisms with astounding accuracy, made the film an early critic’s favorite. The subjects of censorship and media responsibility resonate, particularly in today’s political climate, but “Good Night” peaked early and lacks a solid emotional core, aiming squarely for the brain with no attempt to ensnare the heart. Put plainly, it’s not a movie for Oscar voters.

They want grand, sweeping landscapes framing quiet heartbreak and devastating loneliness. They want a movie that is quintessentially the best in American film, and that touches the very experience of humanity in a profoundly moving and unaffected manner.

Really, they want “Brokeback Mountain.”

Long pegged, even months before its release, as the “gay cowboy” movie, “Brokeback” is a triumph of filmmaking skill. Every element, from the dialogue to the performances, and particularly director Ang Lee’s graceful, patient storytelling, is so perfectly executed that the film stands as one of the finest examples of American cinema.

“Brokeback Mountain” fits the model of a best picture. “Good Night” has themes that may resonate with the entertainment industry, but it lacks big, obvious emotion. “Crash” is the more obvious candidate if you’re looking for an upset. But in the end, the Academy voters know that “Brokeback” is a great film, one whose artistry will influence the way future movies are made, and perhaps most importantly, it’s a film that Hollywood can proudly call the best picture of 2006.

Oscar Race 2006 Best Picture
Brokeback Mountain
Good Night, and Good Luck

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