Oscar Reflection | Best Picture & Best Director from the 78th Academy Awards

Written by Alexander Reams

Crash: 46/100

Brokeback Mountain: 76/100

Venice Film Festival, September 2, 2005. Ang Lee brought a new film to the Lido, entitled Brokeback Mountain, starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Heath Ledger, Anne Hathaway, Michelle Williams, and Randy Quaid. Premiering to universal praise, and winning the festival’s top prize, the Golden Lion. This kicked off the Oscar campaign, but also the memes. After the hype from festivals hit the internet, the film became known as the “gay cowboy movie”.

A year prior, Paul Haggis premiered his latest film at the 2004 Toronto International Film Festival, Crash. The film received mostly positive reviews but was not considered an Oscar frontrunner sans the screenplay. The film would mostly go unnoticed until the summer? Yes, Crash was a summer release. Quite surprising given that most Oscar-fare doesn’t begin to roll out until mid-September/ October.

Then Oscar nomination day came, and Brokeback Mountain won the day with 8 nominations, with Crash following close behind with 6, both receiving nominations in the Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Supporting Actor categories, with Crash also receiving a Best Original Screenplay nom. Whereas Brokeback Mountain received a Best Adapted Screenplay nom. 

None of these nominations were really a surprise, especially after Lionsgate took advantage of home media distribution and used that as a major push for Crash. While these other films were slowly rolling out into theatres, Crash was already available to be purchased and seen at home, saving a trip to the theatre for moviegoers. Whereas Brokeback, along with their competition; Capote, Munich, and Good Night, and Good Luck (in both Best Picture and Best Director categories) were all being released in theatres around the same time. 

When you look at where race relations were in America at the time of the release of Crash, one can’t be surprised that the mostly white Academy would want to nominate the film that explored race relations (in the most white-person way possible) for as many awards as possible to make themselves feel good. The film itself is an Altman-ripoff ensemble film, exploring the lives of its incredibly stacked cast. A cast that includes (deep breathe folks),  Sandra Bullock, Don Cheadle, Matt Dillion, Michael Peña, Jennifer Esposito, Brendan Fraser, Nona Gaye, Terrence Howard, Ludacris, and Thandiwe Newton. Almost everyone here is serviceable, sans Don Cheadle, Matt Dillion, and Brendan Fraser. These 3 men were somehow able to take the very surface-level script by Haggis and Robert Moresco and add depth and reality to their pipe dream aspirations of solving race problems in America. 

When I looked at what inspired Haggis to birth this film, he was carjacked, and what is one of the inciting incidents? Brendan Fraser and Sandra Bullock are carjacked, except here it is by 2 black men, something the film never lets you forget. This leads to Bullock rationalizing her predetermined prejudices not to be racism because of this incident. Haggis uses the subtlety of a sledgehammer to tell you that even though the white people were carjacked, they deserved it, instead of analyzing the crime through both sides of the story, again, the subtlety of a sledgehammer.

On the flip side, a quiet, moving, decades-spanning romance film sounds right up The Academy’s alley. Until you find out the romance is between- two men. This was during the height of the rumored anti-gay movement within the AMPAS. Considering the New Queer Cinema movement had been exploding within independent films for the past 12ish years, one could assume that The Academy would move with the times and that one could be laughed at greatly for that. These folks have always been at least 20 years behind the times, these are the same people that waited 82 years to award Best Director to a woman (Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker). 

I digress, The Academy was destined to hate this film, even if this checks all of their so-called “boxes”. Even the plot of this film is something to hate, two men fall in love while taking care and driving cattle through the American west over a span of 20 years. Future Scorsese regular Rodrigo Prieto was the DP (Director of Photography) and shot it on gorgeous 35mm film See how much there is to hate? How boring it sounds? No wonder The Academy went against it, even though it won the BAFTA, Critics Choice, Golden Globe, and the PGA award for Best Picture. All precedents that (most) eventual Best Picture winners not only contend but win before winning the big one. 

Upon finally seeing both of these films 15 years after their wins at the Academy Awards in 2006, the hype had died down and I could temper expectations and after seeing both films neither one is deserving of the biggest award in the film industry. Both are tales that squander their potential. Crash could have been a film that actually analyzed the racial problems in America. Thoughtfully presenting ideas that audiences already know, but in a way that only film can present them. Brokeback could have been an intriguing romance that would break hearts all around and instead disappointed me by the lack of care I had for every character. 

Unfortunately the Best Picture and Best Director race that year was not as stacked as it could have been. In a dream year, Christopher Nolan (Batman Begins), Shane Black (Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang), and Terrence Malick (The New World) would have all been nominated in the Best Director category. With films like King Kong and V for Vendetta eking into the Best Picture category. However, this was before the time that the Academy would nominate a film about a giant ape and a film based on a…. comic book? The thought hadn’t even begun to enter the Academy’s mind that a comic book film could be “worthy” of a nomination in their prestigious little club. With the nominations we were given I would give Best Picture and Best Director to Munich (and director Steven Speilberg). However, with the Academy giving Best Picture to Crash we will forever have some of the Internet’s finest jokes and memes at their expense.

Crash Trailer

Crash is currently available to rent and purchase on most major VOD platforms.

Brokeback Mountain Trailer

Brokeback Mountain is currently available to rent and purchase on most major VOD platforms.

You can connect with Alexander on his social media profiles: Instagram, Letterboxd, and Twitter. Or see more of his work on his website.

MCU Retrospective: Iron Man

Written by Anna Harrison

In these retrospectives, Anna will be looking back on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, providing context around the films, criticizing them, pointing out their groundwork for the future, and telling everyone her favorite scene, because her opinion is always correct and therefore her favorite scene should be everyone’s favorite scene. We start at the very beginning (of release order, that is). 

Update, July 15, 2021: Upon reflection, and upon watching Captain America: The First Avenger, I had amended my initial score of 80 to become a 75/100; I still had my nostalgia-tinted glasses on when rating this. Iron Man holds up well, but not overly so.

80/100

“I am inevitable.”

These words, spoken by Thanos in Avengers: Endgame, seem as if they could easily be applied to the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a whole; from our viewpoint now, where Marvel has saturated nearly every corner of our lives, it can be easy to think that the MCU was a given, and that its rise was just waiting to happen, but that would be disingenuous. With Iron Man, Marvel Studios pulled off a miracle, and they kept doing so until they finally climbed to the top of the media landscape—and then they did it again with Endgame, creating a (largely) satisfying end to a 22-film saga that somehow managed to balance its ridiculous multitude of characters. Of course, your mileage may vary on how much good you think these miracles do, and how good they actually are, but inevitable? Hardly.

And it all started with 2008’s Iron Man.

Having slowly clawed its way back after filing for bankruptcy in 1996, Marvel was still on unsteady ground in the aughts, and had sold off many of its biggest characters to other film studios: Spider-Man belonged to Sony, the X-Men and Fantastic Four to 20th Century Fox. Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man movies and the X-Men trilogy performed like gangbusters, but Marvel Studios itself made little from these films, the bulk of the profits instead going to Sony or Fox.

Their solution? Take out a $525 million loan from Merrill Lynch and hire an independent director best known for the cult hit Swingers to make a largely-improvised movie around a C-list superhero played by an actor widely regarded as damaged goods. It hardly seems foolproof, and indeed, it wasn’t.

Yet against the odds, Iron Man worked, and it worked well, laying the blueprint for future MCU entries with its blend of action, humor, and heart (though Mamma Mia ended up outgrossing it that year). Much of its success rested upon the shoulders of Robert Downey Jr., who came roaring back to stardom with a pitch-perfect performance as Tony Stark, who would become the linchpin for the budding MCU. Tony would go on to undergo one of the most dynamic character arcs in the MCU, and it all starts here.

The first third of the movie could almost function as a standalone: Tony Stark, drinking and flirting his way through life, gets captured in Afghanistan after showing the US Army Stark Industry’s latest weapon design. Tony learns that his weapons have been being used for nefarious purposes by the terrorist group that captured him, dubbed the Ten Rings. (No one has ever accused Marvel of too much nuance.) The Ten Rings asks that Tony make a new weapon for them; Tony and fellow captive Yinsen (Shaun Toub) pretend to do so while secretly making a suit that will allow them to escape. From there, and after Yinsen’s inevitable death, Tony sets out to make things right and disarm his business, our perfect post-9/11 superhero out to single-handedly stop the War on Terror. (Iron Man is about the closest Marvel ever gets to critiquing the military-industrial complex, but we’ll table the discussion about Marvel’s relationship to the military for later.)

It is hard to overstate how much Downey owns Tony Stark. Here is a superhero who can’t shoot webs, who doesn’t have adamantium claws, who isn’t a nigh-undefeatable alien; hell, he doesn’t even have a six pack. He is just a man in a can, skating by on his wits (and his money, of course), by turns charming and infuriating, his every action streaked by a sense of desperation that pushes him to nearly a suicidal obsession with righting his wrongs and protecting those he initially failed. It’s a lot to juggle, but Downey does it with such ease that it’s hard to believe the studio was against his casting at first.

Director and fellow co-star Jon Favreau surrounds Downey with a talented cast of players, most notably Jeff Bridges as Obadaih Stane and Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts. While much has been said over Marvel’s forgettable villains, Bridges makes Obadaih by turns genial and menacing, leaving an impression despite the rather unremarkable third act that largely devolves into men in metal suits punching each other. But Obadaih is still fun, chomping on his cigar and yelling at this subordinates; he doesn’t want to eliminate half the population or rule over the entire galaxy, he is just a greedy corporate crony willing to gloss over human loss for a bit of money and power, and his existence serves to remind Tony of what he can never become. (Again, this is about the closest Marvel ever gets to critiquing corporate greed and capitalism run amok. But it’s fun to watch.)

Much has also been said over Marvel’s forgettable romances, though there are a few exceptions, Tony and Pepper being foremost among them. This is due in large part to Favreau’s willingness to wait a couple films before throwing them together, and also because of Gwyneth Paltrow and Robert Downey Jr.’s great chemistry. Even if you don’t buy into Goop, it’s hard to deny the charm she displays in the film. Pepper herself, of course, is a great character, and she will become increasingly important in these films.

Terrence Howard is there too, obviously, though the character of Rhodey has become Don Cheadle’s so much so that the original Rhodey feels like a placeholder (the rumor goes that Howard left over a pay dispute, having gotten more money than Robert Downey Jr. for the first Iron Man and getting upset when that trend was reversed for Iron Man 2). Still, though Howard may believe that 1×1=2, he makes a good foil to Downey, his Rhodey a bit less responsible than Cheadle’s and a bit friendlier.

Iron Man, in retrospect, does not stand out as the most daring or inventive Marvel film, though that’s easy to say when comparing it against the 20+ films that have come out since. (It does, however, have the MCU’s steamiest scene: some dry humping that lasts about thirty seconds. It seems that Paramount was a more forgiving distributor than Disney would become in 2009.) But let’s not forget that while critics might complain about the now-staid nature of the MCU, it was founded on several enormous gambles, not the least of which includes Samuel L. Jackson’s cameo as Nick Fury: with the words “I’m here to talk to you about the Avenger Initiative,” the cinematic door suddenly burst wide open in a way it never had before. This was not just going to be a standalone movie, or part of a trilogy centered around one character; as Fury puts it, “You’ve become part of a bigger universe. You just don’t know it yet.”

Ah, but that’s for another day. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Groundwork: Marvel has no big master plan; rather, they plant seeds wherever they can in the hopes that some of them might one day germinate. None of these were planned from day one, lest the whole ship sink, but the seeds germinated nonetheless:

  • The Avenger Initiative, obviously, leads to the formation of the Avengers later down the line.
  • Clark Gregg’s Agent Coulson and the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division become more and more important, most especially in Captain America: The Winter Soldier (and, of course, the TV show Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., neglected by Marvel at large but eking out its own bizarre, fun existence).
  • Rhodey says, “Next time, baby” while looking at an Iron Man suit. In Iron Man 2, he becomes Iron Patriot. Wow. Crazy!
  • The Ten Rings will appear in the upcoming Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, which will no doubt retrofit Tony’s backstory a little bit.
  • Yinsen mentions meeting Tony at a party several years ago, though Tony—drunk at the time of the party—cannot recollect this. In Iron Man 3, Yinsen and Tony will appear via flashback at this aforementioned party.
  • The guy to whom Obadaih yells, “Tony Stark was able to build this in a cave with a box of scraps!” pops up in Spider-Man: Far From Home
  • Who could have guessed that this voiceover gig for Paul Bettany as the artificial intelligence J.A.R.V.I.S. would eventually result in his own TV show with Elizabeth Olsen?

Anna’s Favorite Scene: Pepper switching out Tony’s arc reactors. Funny and then sweet (“I don’t have anyone but you”). I can’t help it, I’m a schmuck.

MCU Ranking: 1. Iron Man

Iron Man Trailer

Iron Man is currently available to rent and purchase on most digital storefronts, and is streamable on Disney+.

Sources: Slate, Digital Spy, my own unholy amount of Marvel knowledge

You can follow more of Anna’s work on LetterboxdTwitterInstagram, and her website.