Here are the five nominees as I would have ranked them:
1. Brokeback Mountain
2. Good Night and Good Luck
The first three on this list--Brokeback, Good Night..., and Munich--are films of comparable caliber, so those numerical ratings are fairly arbitrary based on my own personal preference. In order to create a context to explain why I prefer the other two, I will have to take a moment to discuss Munich.
Having seen all five nominated films, I was able to appreciate more fully what an excellent film Munich is. And it is excellent; with a director like Spielberg and a screenwriter like Kushner, how could it be anything else? (Though I'm not convinced Eric Bana was the best choice to play the lead.) The thing that makes this a great film is that it provides no answers but rather raises questions: is counterterrorism an effective and justifiable response to terrorist acts? How should a nation respond to terrorism? Is state-sponsored assassination of terrorists preferable to an all-out war in which civilians might be hurt? The film offers no resolution to these questions; how can it when we still struggle with these questions today? How could they provide a nice, neat little happy ending when the conflict depicted in the film is still raging on even as I type these words? Let me be perfectly clear: I am not for a moment suggesting that the film could have been improved by a false resolution, a Hollywood ending. As it it, the film is emotionally excruciating, but it is honest, and a false ending would have damaged not only the integrity of the film but that of the filmmakers.
That being said, my personal attitude when it comes to movies is rather Aristotelian. I expect to experience some kind of catharsis, some kind of emotional uplift. Neither Brokeback nor Good Night... could be said to have happy Hollywood endings, yet each provides some uplift in the form of a human triumph that grows out of loss. Ennis Del Mar loses the person who means the most to him, yet because of that pain he is able to come to terms with who he is (although I suppose that's debatable) and learns to stop alienating himself from the people he loves. Edward R. Murrow engages in a fight against Senator Joseph McCarthy and helps to defeat him, yet he suffers personal and professional losses as well. The fact that these personal victories come at such a high price makes them more authentic and more valuable, and therein lies the catharsis. Munich offered no such catharsis. There is no triumph for the characters, no redemption, and that again is because Spielberg is trying to raise questions rather than provide answers. Are these good men? Did they do right? Does it make a difference that they were just following orders, serving their country? Do the ends justify the means, and are the ends themselves justifiable? Spielberg could not let these characters have a triumph without absolving them of their guilt for their actions, which would have run counter to his rhetorical purpose. Bottom line: Munich is a very well-made and effective treatise on the worst of humanity, but I don't need to pay $8 to see the worst of humanity; I can turn on the news and see the worst of humanity for free.
I found Capote, like Munich, to be a treatise on the worst in humanity, only less successfully executed. The only triumph in the film was also a defeat, which cancelled out any possible catharsis. The film did not challenge or move me in any way; like Capote himself, I just wished for it to be over. Perhaps my reaction would have been different if I'd had any prior knowledge of or emotional investment in the subject matter, but I did not. To my knowledge, I have never read anything by Truman Capote and before hearing about this film all I really knew about him was that he was the inspiration for the little neighbor boy in To Kill a Mockingbird.
The theme of Capote is that his relentless pursuit of the factual story he would write and title In Cold Blood ultimately destroyed him, that his greatest accomplishment was also his downfall. That's all well and good, but having no prior knowledge of or emotional investment in Capote's life or work, I had no reason to care what happened to him, and the film did not provide one. There seemed to be no arc to Capote's character, no gradual growth, no transitional phase. One minute he's going around saying, "Oh I'm so brilliant and I'm going to write the best and most ground-breaking book ever and it's going to be such a boon to humanity!" then the next minute he's saying, "Oh, the book is torture, it's taking so much out of me; I just want it to be over but I have to see it through to the bitter end!" There was no trajectory, no transition...just arrogance--boom--despair. And because Capote was insufferably arrogant to begin with and spent the whole movie going around seducing, manipulating, and deceiving absolutely everyone involved in any way with the murder (except, obviously, the victims themselves, although I'm sure if there were a way to get their side of the story Capote as depicted in the movie would have gone to any lengths to accomplish this feat), it was difficult to feel anything for him once he has his breakdown other than, "you're getting what you deserve" (let me be clear that I'm referring only to Capote the character; toward Capote the man I remain largely indifferent). This is not, I think, a failing of Philip Seymour Hoffman's performance (which has earned him every conceivable acting award and has even been praised by "Brokeback Mountain" author Annie Proulx, in an otherwise bitter diatribe about the Oscars, as a "brilliant portrayal"), but rather a failing of the screenwriter. I think the film tries to rely too much on subtext, but doesn't provide quite enough actual text. There should have been a little--a little--just a tiny bit--more actual text that indicated that Capote was starting to feel the weight of his endeavor bearing down on him, the enormity of the consequences of his actions, just so that the development would seem more of a gradual change than an on/off toggle. That being said, a lack of text is certainly a preferable fault to have than an overabundance of text, and that is the reason that Capote remains a better film, in my opinion, than Crash.
Before I get into the many, many faults that plague Crash, I would like to point out some good points about the film (it won't take long, I'm afraid). First, the themes that writer/director Paul Haggis is trying to develop--the interconnectivity of strangers' lives and the impact that racism still has on contemporary society--are good themes that certainly have the potential to be well-developed in a feature-length film. The structure--a series of vignettes rather than a single, unified plot following one or two main characters--is interesting, and has worked before in other films, and might have have been an effective vehicle for developing the above-mentioned themes. Undoubtedly the saving grace of this film is the tremendously talented cast, obviously acting their poor little hearts out, trying desperately to find some substance in the midst of all this fluff.
The structure of the piece (the loosely connected series of vignettes) all but precludes the possibility of a strong plotline. This is not an inherent weakness, but if your film is not going to be driven by plot it absolutely has to be driven forward by strong character development, and that is where the wheels really fall off this thing. Writer/director Paul Haggis simply introduces too many characters for any of them to be sufficiently developed in the two-hour time frame. So he and writing partner Bobby Moresco attempt to take a shortcut to character development by having almost every character act at two different behavioral extremes. Unfortunately, this does not result in a well-rounded character; it results in a shallow character who appears to suffer from some kind of psychological disorder. (And having so many characters also presents the possibility that some characters are going to be left out and only get to act out at one extreme; thus Haggis leaves us with the impression that Asians are abnormally bitchy people who traffic in human beings.) Without meaningful character development, the characters' motivations are all but unfathomable. For example, Ryan Phillipe plays a cop, a "good" cop, a young and inexperienced cop, who all throughout the movie has stuck up for citizens being victimized by his jaded and racist colleagues. Yet at the end of the movie he picks up a black hitchhiker and, due to a tragic misunderstanding, shoots and kills him. Doubtlessly the rhetorical purpose of this scene is to make the audience say, "*GASP* Horror! I thought this was a good character, but it turns out he has racist tendencies after all!" My reaction, however, was, "Wait a minute...What is a cop doing picking up hitchhikers in the first place? Isn't that illegal?"
Actor/producer Don Cheadle says on the DVD behind-the-scenes featurette that this movie is about the things that people think about one another but do not say aloud. But there is the rub: in Crash, people DO say those things out loud. Very loud. At length. Over and over. In fact, they rarely say anything else. And it doesn't make sense.
Racism, like all other forms of bigotry, stems from fear, fear of what Marxists and Freudians call "the Other". Once, and not so very long ago, people diffused this fear by lashing out at "the Other," through hateful words and hateful deeds. After a grueling struggle, the civil rights movement brought about legislation that made it a serious crime to commit violence or otherwise discriminate against someone because of race, color or creed (among other things). But this did not put a stop to racism; you cannot legislate people's feelings. The underlying fear was still there, and remains there to this day, but now it is compounded by the fear of being perceived as racist or, to put it more simply, the fear of getting in trouble. (And I am increasingly convinced that it is less simple human decency that prevents people from doing wrong than it is the fear of getting caught at it and punished for it). But none of the characters in Crash seem to suffer from this fear, or any fear at all. They're obviously very angry, but they rarely show signs of being fearful, so when Sandra Bullock's character says, "I am angry all the time and I don't know why," my response is "Neither do we!" If Sandra Bullock's character is really so afraid that the locksmith (played by Michael Pena in one of the film's stronger performances--not that that's saying much) is going to sell their keys to his gangster "homies," why is she standing ten feet away from him and screaming about it to her husband? Surely a more authentic action would be to take her husband upstairs, shut the door and speak in hushed tones because, on the off-chance that it has not yet occurred to the locksmith to sell your keys to his gangster homies, you certainly wouldn't want to suggest the idea to him. And then later, if the locksmith's daughter is so afraid of guns and bullets, why does she stand at the window for 2 to 3 minutes nonchalantly watching some man point a gun in her father's face before she runs out to protect him with her impenetrable cloak?
What Haggis and Moresco have done is rob their actors of almost all subtext, thereby rendering the characters and the conflicts between them all but meaningless, and the poor actors have nothing to do but scream at each other and flail about searching desperately for some deeper purpose, while the many conflicts in the film, like millstones, grind away at one another but don't go anywhere.
I'm not saying that, in reality, people never use racial epithets or speak ill of other races, but they are decidedly less likely to do so right to the face of someone of that race or within earshot of such a person, not necessarily out of respect but, as I said before, out of fear of getting in trouble. Nor am I suggesting that racially motivated violence, be it physical or verbal, has ceased to be, but it is more likely to take place in a state of such extreme anger and frustration (or intoxication) that the parties involved can forget their fear of being perceived as racist and getting in trouble for it. If Crash would let the conflict build among the characters and then let loose with the violence, it might be a stronger film, but characters discuss race and call each other names as often--and sometimes nearly as calmly--as other people might discuss the weather. An example of this would be Matt Dillon's character, the counterpart to Ryan Phillipe's "good" cop and probably the most well-developed character in the whole movie (not that that's saying much). When critics set out to demonstrate the ridiculously absurd, over-the-top quality of Haggis and Moresco's writing, they invariably mention the scene in which Matt Dillon is on the phone with an official of his father's HMO, trying to get his father better health care. In a fit of anger he asks the official her name, and when she says it is Shaniqua Johnson he replies, "Shaniqua. Big fucking surprise that is." To me, however, this is actually one of the few scenes in the movie that ring somewhat true. As part of my job I hear how rude people can be--and are--to one another on the phone, and I can understand how Matt Dillon might blurt out such a thing in a moment of frustration. But subsequently he goes to see Shaniqua Johnson the next day, with his hat in his hands and his tail between his legs, and apologizes for his inappropriate and hurtful comment...and then, when his meeting with Shaniqua Johnson still isn't going his way, he makes reference to his perception that she is an incompetent affirmative-action hire YET AGAIN, this time in cold blood. The guy's like the kid in the Far Side cartoon trying to get inside the School for the Gifted by relentlessly pushing on the door clearly marked "PULL". The first time the guy made that insinuation she hung up on him (which I find somewhat unrealistic, but can excuse as artistic license); he obviously realized that it was inappropriate--or at least that it made her angry and less likely to help him--because the first thing he did upon being ushered into her office was apologize for saying it, so why is he bringing it up again? What makes him think it's going to work this time?
The two Shaniqua Johnson sequences illustrate probably the most unfortunate flaw of the movie: the many bad scenes detract from the power of the few good scenes. Every once in a while there is a scene that seems realistic, a scene in which the actors are permitted to find some deeper meaning behind the words. The first Shaniqua Johnson sequence is pretty good, and even the second one could have been improved by omitting the lines about the many "more-qualified white men who should have gotten your job" (just have Officer Ryan launch into the "My father doesn't deserve to suffer like this..." speech and let us wonder why he's bringing it up). The whole plotline of the Persian Muslim family being persecuted as potential terrorists is no more than slightly exaggerated. Probably the best scene in the whole movie (again, not that that's saying much) also features Matt Dillon's "bad" cop character, Officer Ryan. In this scene he and Phillipe have pulled over a couple (played by Terence Howard and Thandie Newton) for a moving violation, and ends up molesting the wife in the process of searching her for weapons. What makes this scene so powerful is that what is actually going on in the scene, a cop taking advantage of his authority to victimize this woman while her husband stands helplessly by, is on a completely different and deeper level than the text of the scene, which is mostly perfunctory cop talk. When he finally lets them go with a warning and they get back in their car, Terence Howard reaches out a comforting hand to his wife, who shies away from his caress. The meaning of these gestures is perfectly, poignantly clear; you don't need text to let the audience know what's going on, and the text would probably make it less powerful. It's a great scene, and very well acted. There are a few scenes like this in the movie, but there are so many more bad, contrived, clichéd, or just plain incomprehensible scenes that they detract from the good ones, making even them feel false and foolish by association.
It's interesting that the characters in Crash show no sign of the fear of being perceived as racist, since the filmmakers--knowingly or unknowingly--manipulate this fear in viewers. This manipulation is, I feel certain, the main (if not only) reason for the film's success. One reviewer on Yahoo stated something to the effect of, "For the first half of this movie I thought I hated it, then I realized it was showing me the truth and I didn't want to see it..." What I think she was really saying, perhaps subconsciously, is that she was responding negatively to the movie's many, many flaws, and then the fear rose up in her and she felt guilty for not liking a movie about the destructive nature of racism. Since the film is so shallow, it's easy to see how its argument could be construed as a false dilemma: "This movie says racism is bad. If you don't like it, you must be racist." (Though, to be fair, I don't think that was necessarily the filmmakers' intent.)
What it all boils down to is this: Brokeback Mountain, Good Night and Good Luck, and Munich are all great films because they are relevant discussions of culturally significant issues. Capote earns its relevance because In Cold Blood is a culturally significant book. Crash is an abysmal film not because racism is not a culturally signficant issue--it is, and probably always will be, unfortunately--but because its discussion of that issue is completely irrelevant. Crash tries to be a treatise on the worst of humanity, but doesn't even manage that, because "treatise" implies something that is scholarly, or at least competently executed. The film is almost entirely superficial, and those scenes that do attempt to go deeper are cheapened by association with the rest of the film. Not only was it not the best film of 2005, of those I have seen it was undoubtedly the worst. (Actually, to make matters worse it was actually first released in 2004, but because of some bizarre technicality wasn't eligible for the Oscars until the following year.)
I hope I have provided enough evidence to show that my dislike of Crash is based on its poor quality, and not childish petulance over its having beaten Brokeback Mountain in the Oscar race. Yes, I feel personal affection for Brokeback Mountain, yes, I do struggle to be objective about it, and yes, my first reaction to its loss to Crash could probably be described as childish petulance, although in my defense the loss would have been much easier to bear if the whole evening hadn't been spent with Hollywood saying loud, "Hey hey, look at us, we're liberal and we're proud!" Yet even if there had been no Brokeback Mountain I would still think that Crash was the worst film of 2005, because it was, and it has nothing to do with politics or agendas or anything like that; it's a question of cultural relevance, yes, but even more so it's a question of artistry. To compare Crash to any of the other films of 2005 that I have seen would be like comparing a Rembrandt (or an Escher, or even a Hirschfeld) to a four-year-old's crayon drawing (no offense to any uniquely talented four-year-old's out there). Anyway, following the awards I read the aforementioned diatribe by Annie Proulx, which, not really knowing anything about Crash at that time, struck me as disingenous. Sour grapes. Poor sportsmanship. And I was embarrassed for her, and a little ashamed of myself that I had sounded something like her. Because, as upset as I was about it and as assured as I was of Brokeback's superiority, I had been working under the assumption that if Crash could not only be nominated but win, it really couldn't be THAT bad, could it? To be nominated in the first place, it would have to have some quality to it, wouldn't it, to be considered worthy of the award? Then, having read some more specific criticisms of Crash (by critics such as Kenneth Turan and Erik Lundegaard, who wrote two excellent analyses of the film, one before the Oscars and one after), I began to suspect that oh, yes it could be that bad. And now, having seen it, I know that it is. It is that bad. It's actually even worse. Annie Proulx could probably still be accused of being a bad sport, but it was not disingenuous of her at all to refer to the film as "Trash". It is "Trash" indeed.
Which is a shame, because it could have been better. I actually feel really sorry for Paul Haggis, who seems such a sweet, soft-spoken man, and speaks so earnestly about his terrible little film. I feel bad for him, because there is some real potential in Crash. (Since 3 out of the 5 nominees this year took place within a particular historical context, I wonder if Crash might not have been--slightly--improved by being set within such a context, perhaps the aftermath of the Rodney King beating if he was so determined to examine racism in L.A.) I feel bad that he's not getting any constructive criticism to help him improve because eventually, if he keeps working at the level he's working at now, people are going to realize, "Hey, this sucks!" and he's going to be so confused and bewildered as to why suddenly everything he touches turns to crap instead of gold. I just wonder, as the movie's tagline says...Do you know who you are, Paul Haggis? Do you really? I won't be so arrogant as to say you have no idea, but I suspect that you're not what other people think you are.
But then, perhaps it's just me. The film has been praised by people such as Steven Spielberg*, Roger Ebert, and my friend Greg, people who are admittedly far more knowledgable about movies than I am and whose opinions I respect. Its cast includes actors whom I respect and admire, such as Don Cheadle, Sandra Bullock, and Brendan Fraser. It has also been praised by Oprah Winfrey**, a champion against racism. I've never been to L.A., maybe it's different there; maybe people there don't have filters between their brains and their mouths the way other people do. Maybe they do blurt out every stray thought that crosses their minds, even the potentially volatile ones. Apart from the Best Picture Oscar (which, after all, includes all aspects of filmmaking, including the technical aspects I don't understand), Haggis and Moresco also won the one for Best Original Screenplay, and won some other writing awards--including an award for Best Original Screenplay from the Writer's Guild of America, which really should know better--and were nominated for more. This is upsetting to me, not only because I think these organizations are handing out awards to people who don't deserve them, but because it does make me less sure of myself. Maybe I'm the one who thinks she knows who she is (a magna cum laude graduate with a bachelor's degree in English pursuing a Master's degree in Literature) but who really has no idea what good writing is. But if Crash is good writing, I think I'd rather not know. I think I'll just stay chained to the wall of my cave and read my Plato, thank you.
*I wish to point out that I'm referencing a Newsweek interview with the directors of the five nominated films, and the most specific praise Spielberg has for Haggis in that interview is for his casting, which I have already cited as one of the film's strongest aspects (not that that's...well you know).
**Incidentally, I was afraid of seeing Winfrey's adaptation of Toni Morrison's Beloved when it was released in 1999 because of the very fear I mentioned above, the fear of being racist or being perceived as racist. I was afraid I wouldn't like it and not liking it would mean I was racist (but for some reason, the idea that being afraid to see it might also mean I was racist never occurred to me). I've since largely gotten over that fear, but I've yet to see Beloved because, (a) as mentioned above, I don't particularly care for heavy fare in movies, plus (b) it's no longer very prominent in my consciousness, so I dont think about it when I go to rent movies.