Of course the Academy got it wrong! The true two best pictures

OscarCall it “The Snub Heard ‘Round the World.”

One has to wonder whether the Academy of Arts and Sciences was playing it safe in crowning Crash best picture instead of the heavily favored Brokeback Mountain, which had won the owner from the Golden Globes and just about every respected film critics’ organization. Did conservative members, unable to accept a homosexual love story (The Hours, which had a bunch of gays and lesbians, lost out to Chicago back in 2003), go with the race relations flick? I’ve already read the excuse that West Coast Academy members were more affected by Crash because it took place in L.A., but I’m not buying it. I think the Academy wussed out.

But this year was tough as, for a change, all the nominees for best picture were excellent films (well, four were excellent and one was good). Also, four of the five films highly are social-conscious works that take on issues pertinent to these troubled times. The Academy chose substance over fluff. And I don’t mean to discount Crash, because it is a powerful and thought-provoking film; I’d go as far to say that it’s one of the best ensemble dramas I’ve seen in the last five years. But out of the five nominees, it was actually my number three pick.

Up until the moments before I heard the news, I hadn’t made up my mind between Munich and Brokeback Mountain. When I did choose, I went with the critics: Brokeback is an astounding film, rich with narrative, imagery, and subtle symbolism that is all too lacking in American films.

(Warning: All kinds of spoilers ahead.)

Possibly the most powerful scene in Brokeback Mountain, and I think the scene that tipped me in its favor, is when Ennis (Heath Ledger) calls his secret gay lover’s (Jake Gyllenhaal as Jack) home after learning he is deceased. In a disaffected tone, Anne Hathaway as Jack’s wife Lureen (whom Ennis has never spoken to) informs Ennis that Jack died when a tire exploded in his face; images of Jack being beaten to death are cross-cut with Ennis’ horrified reaction and Lureen’s expressionless face.

This brilliant scene might be why Ang Lee won the best directing award (because for the most part I found his direction very functionary): are those images reality (was Jack murdered for being a homosexual?) or Ennis’s paranoid delusions? Hathaway’s monotone, unemotional delivery suggest that, just like Ennis’ wife Alma (Michelle Williams, Lureen has put two and two together and realized those boys ain’t been fishin’. But, and Hathaway deserves credit for this as well, Lee has drawn her character as businesslike from her first scene and shows her become distant and colder throughout the years. Jack’s end is completely up in the air.

Jack and Ennis’s love is true (the “I wish I knew how to quit you” line is beautiful in context) but their divergent paths outside the relationship are the focus of Brokeback. When they first separate, going opposite ways on an empty highway, Jack drives off, a tear coming to his eye as he watches Ennis walk off in the rear-view mirror; Ennis stumbles to the side of the road and has a fit of dry heaves.

Jack manages to have a successful life, marrying the daughter of a farm equipment dealer and taking over the business, sneaking off every few months for a “fishing trip” with Ennis and dreaming of one day moving with his lover to a ranch where they can be together all the time. Ennis, however, is haunted by a deep shame of his love for Jack, and proceeds to alienate himself from his wife, his family, and society in general, working only as a low-wage ranch hand. These characters become metaphors for two (of many) views of homosexuals in America: the don’t ask, don’t tell existence, accepting homosexuality but keeping blind to it while wishing for universal acceptance; versus flat-out denial, alienation, and hatred, even if its self hatred.

In the end, Ennis doesn’t follow Jack’s wishes to spread his ashes over Brokeback Mountain, the home of his happiest memory: the summer when he fell in love with Ennis, and they were alone and open to enjoy their love without society’s harsh glare. Instead, Ennis takes Jack’s memory into the closet with him – he’ll never be able to escape the shadows, not that he’d have the courage to try.

Munich’s biggest problem might be its forgettable lead, Eric Bana. Oh, his character Avner, the leader of a group of Israeli assassins sent to hunt down the plotters of the slaughter of Israeli athletes at the ’72 Olympics, is interesting and develops a great deal throughout the film, but Bana is ridiculously bland, just as he was in Black Hawk Down and Hulk. It doesn’t help that Bana is bumping shoulders with such seasoned actors and heavy presences as Geoffrey Rush, Ciaran Hinds, and Daniel Craig (the next James Bond), who make Bana look like he got lost on the way to a soap opera set.

Then again, director Steven Spielberg might be on to something – by having such a hollow center, the audience itself is injected into the debate. Avner as a character doesn’t really have any strong opinions about the vengeful mission he’s carrying out or he’s trying to repress them. Carl (Hinds) even says at one point, “I remember types like you in the army, never questioning your orders.” To that extent, Avner is unbiased, like Spielberg wants his audience to be. It’s the other members of his team that frame the debate, questioning the orders they’ve received (and wondering who gave them and why), and contemplating whether they’re actually making any progress.

Munich is not an antiwar/pacifist film – at no part does Spielberg come out from behind the camera (figuratively) and say “Violence is BAD!” He doesn’t condemn the Israelis for their response to Munich (or the Palestinians for the attack); he presents a thrilling story with far more than two sides. Like Aeschylus’s Agamemnon, Munich is a study in cyclical nature of violence – the Israeli assassins start getting picked off themselves. But the key to the film is the last scene, in which Avner and his former boss Ephraim (Rush) have a final argument about the value of the attempt to avenge Munich – they go their separate ways without coming to any resolution. Unfortunately, Spielberg frames the twin towers in the background, not having enough faith that his audience will realize that the debate goes on to this day.

What really sets Munich and Brokeback apart from the other best picture nominees is how they handle the issues they take on – each one presents a portrait that represents a question, but neither has an answer. They encourage their audiences to form their own opinions, and what more can we ask for from a piece of art?

The only reason I picked Brokeback over Munich is that while Munich is very blunt about its issues, I didn’t pick up on the depth Brokeback until at least a week after I had seen it. The film would not get out of my head, and I still want to watch it again because I’m sure there’s more I missed. Of all the fantastic films nominated for best picture this year, none were quite as densely layered as Brokeback – it doesn’t matter that it’s a film about homosexuality because first and foremost it’s an incredible film. And if the Academy shied away from it because of its content, shame on them.