Here's what EW movie critics Owen Gleiberman and Lisa Schwarzbaum had to say about ''Crash,'' ''Brokeback Mountain,'' and others

Oscars 2006: EW’s reviews of the nominees

”Spectacularly gripping and unsettling.” ”Amazingly tough, at times unexpectedly funny.” ”Rapt, absorbing, and thrillingly perceptive.” What could have inspired such glowing descriptions? This year’s Best Picture Oscar nominees, of course (that’d be Munich, Crash, and Capote, respectively).

If you’ve yet to see the movies that generated the major nominations in this year’s Academy Awards race, hightail it to a theater ASAP — or at least before March 5, when the 78th annual ceremony airs live from Los Angeles’ Kodak Theatre (8 p.m. ET on ABC). Until then, read Entertainment Weekly’s reviews of the honored films and performances to find out why each deserved a spot on the ballot.

Image credit: BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN: Kimberley French THE SEARCHERS Ledger and Gyllenhaal find a forbidden love in the majestic Mountain

Brokeback Mountain is that rare thing, a big Hollywood weeper with a beautiful ache at its center. It’s a modern-age Western that turns into a quietly revolutionary love story. In 1963, Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal), a couple of dirt-poor ranch hands, take a job guarding a flock of sheep on Brokeback Mountain, a pristine jutting vista nestled in the lush Wyoming wilderness. Ennis, a crusty, taciturn loner with a scowl that might have been carved into his pale face, and Jack, an amateur rodeo rider who has held on to his optimistic boyishness, are youthful anachronisms, relics of the fading days of the Great Plains culture. But they’re still cowboys to the core; they’ve fallen into this life because it feeds something in them.

To keep the coyotes away, Jack is assigned to sleep near the flock, but mostly the two men have hours, days, and weeks on their hands. They jump on horses to guide the sheep across meadows and rivers; they sit around a campfire, heating canned beans and swapping stories and a bottle of whiskey. Then, one night, when it’s too cold for either one of them to sleep outside, they do something that the old movie cowboys never did: They wrap their bodies in a rough embrace and, without a hint of seduction, they have sex, an act that’s as shocking to them as it is to us.

Because it feels right, they do it again as the days go by. Yet what is it, exactly, they’re feeling, this urgent seizure of loneliness and affection and desire? Ennis and Jack, who’ve been raised in a world where to be ”queer” is not to be a man (and is therefore unthinkable), can’t grasp the feeling that’s come over them because they literally don’t have the words for it. In their very innocence, they are, in an odd way, a bit like the ancient Greeks, who saw homosexuality as an exalted expression of male friendship. Ennis and Jack call each other ”friend,” and they mean it, but their bond evolves into a delicate, suspended romance, and Brokeback Mountain becomes their Eden, the craggy cowboy paradise from which they are destined to fall.

Adapted from Annie Proulx’s brilliant 1997 short story, Brokeback Mountain was directed by Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) from a script by the venerable Western novelist and screenwriter Larry McMurtry (Lonesome Dove) and Diana Ossana, and together they have coaxed Proulx’s anecdotal, through-the-years narrative into a wistful epic of longing and loss. Lee stages the picture with an enraptured tranquillity that lets each emotion shine through. At times, it’s a bit too tranquil, especially in the episodic second half, but when Brokeback Mountain takes off, it soars.

Ennis and Jack drift into their separate lives, each caught in a fractured marriage with children, but they reunite over the years, going on fishing trips where no fishing gets done, sharing, however fleetingly, the connection they can barely speak of. They’re products — victims — of a closeted culture, yet secrecy and repression work on them in a special way. They’re men who have fallen in love without quite realizing that’s what’s happened to them, and the glory of Brokeback Mountain is that in tracing their fates, treating their passion as something unprecedented — a force so powerful it can scarcely be named — the movie makes love seem as ineffable as it really is.

Jack, a shade more comfortable with his nature, talks of getting a ranch together, but Ennis will have none of it: Stung by childhood memories of a rancher who lived with a man and got bashed for it, he fears — he knows — that exposure could kill them. In the classic Westerns, the cowboys were often men of few words, but Heath Ledger speaks in tones so low and gruff and raspy his words just about scrape ground, and he doesn’t string a whole lot of those words together. Ennis’ inexpressiveness is truly …inexpressive, yet ironically eloquent for that very reason, as tiny glimmers of soul escape his rigid facade. Ennis says nothing he doesn’t mean; he’s incapable of guile, yet he erupts in tantrums — the anger of a man who can’t be what he is and doesn’t realize the quandary is eating him alive. Ledger, with beady eyes and pursed lips, gives a performance of extraordinary, gnarled tenderness. Gyllenhaal is touching in a different way, his puppy eyes widening with hope, then turning inward and forlorn.

As the movie goes on, Ennis, penniless and alone, becomes a shard of a man, nurturing a lost dream. Brokeback Mountain has a luscious doomed tenor that, at times, makes it feel like Edith Wharton with Stetsons. It’s far from being a message movie, yet if you tear up in the magnificent final scene, with its haunting slow waltz of comfort and regret, it’s worth noting what, exactly, you’re reacting to: a love that has been made to knuckle under to society’s design. In an age when the fight over gay marriage still rages, Brokeback Mountain, the tale of two men who are scarcely even allowed to imagine being together, asks, through the very purity with which it touches us: When it comes to love, what sort of world do we really want?

2006 Oscar Nominations: Best Picture; Best Actor (Heath Ledger); Best Supporting Actor (Jake Gyllenhaal); Best Supporting Actress (Michelle Williams); Best Director (Ang Lee); Best Adapted Screenplay (Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana); Best Cinematography; Best Original Score (Gustavo Santaolalla)

Image credit: Capote: Attila Dory NEXT YEAR ON CBS, ‘CSI: KANSAS’ True crime’s birth makes for witty, excellent drama

In the bleak early winter of 1959, Truman Capote (Philip Seymour Hoffman), seated in a Kansas farmhouse, gazes sadly through his horn-rims, explaining to the woman he’s interviewing why people have always underestimated him. They see ”the way I am, the way I talk,” he says; often, they see little else. Capote, the Southern-bred literary star, boozer, and gossip queen, has journeyed to Holcomb, Kan., to do a story for The New Yorker about the murder of the Clutters, a modest farm family slaughtered in their home, without apparent motive, one horrible random night. He senses that the crime, its gruesomeness bursting the facade of ”normal” America, has the makings of a drama as potent as any fiction. He is about to spend six tormented years of obsession tearing his soul apart to write the revolutionary true-crime masterpiece In Cold Blood.

In Capote, the rapt, absorbing, and thrillingly perceptive biographical drama written by Dan Futterman and directed by Bennett Miller, we can see why folks underestimate Capote. Disarming expectations is the key to his method. As a personality, he exudes the fey mock exhaustion of a blasé munchkin, and that makes him easy to dismiss. His voice is a whine that turns into a moan that crests with a sigh topped with a baby’s gurgle. He sounds like Carol Channing on quaaludes. Hoffman, in his sublime, must-see feat of a performance, plays that famous foppish lilt like a hypnotist’s instrument, getting you to forget, in 30 seconds, that you’re seeing an impersonation. He makes Capote a mesmerizing raconteur who gets people to trust him by nudging his fragility and genius into the center of every encounter.

Capote, assisted by his friend Harper Lee (Catherine Keener), knows how to use his celebrity to gain access to a community’s secrets. He makes an ally out of Alvin Dewey (Chris Cooper), the stern Kansas Bureau of Investigation official, and once the killers, Dick Hickock (Mark Pellegrino) and Perry Smith (Clifton Collins Jr.), have been captured, tried, convicted, and given the death sentence, he bribes the prison warden to gain access to Perry, who will become the key figure in his story: his portrait of America’s hidden, violent heart.

The bond between Capote and the moody, sensitive Perry is the core of Capote. Visiting Perry behind bars, the author becomes his confidant, confessor, psychiatrist, and friend; he even takes on the role, in spirit, of doting lover. His identification with Perry is an honest one: He grew up as such an outsider himself that he looks at this killer and sees a kindred soul. Yet Capote’s ruthlessness is there in the way he exploits the friendship in the guise of perpetuating it. He arranges for lawyers to win a stay of execution, all because he needs to get the goods from Perry, only to abandon the case when it becomes convenient for the killers to die. His ”method” works, yet it eats away at him, allowing him to create a seminal book and destroy himself in the process. Hoffman makes Capote’s dissolution a theatrical miracle of devastation. In his final scene with Perry, he’s so conflicted that he does something I’ve never seen on screen: He cries, honestly, and lies at the same time.

Capote has one nagging flaw. Clifton Collins Jr. plays Perry (strikingly) as a kind of sociopathic James Dean, yet he never quite musters the rage of a killer; he lacks the twitches of self-loathing that Perry had in the book, and in Robert Blake’s portrayal in the 1967 film adaptation of In Cold Blood. That said, Capote honors its subject by doing just what Truman Capote did. It teases, fascinates, and haunts.

2006 Oscar Nominations: Best Picture; Best Actor (Philip Seymour Hoffman); Best Supporting Actress (Catherine Keener); Best Director (Bennett Miller); Best Adapted Screenplay (Dan Futterman)

Image credit: CRASH: Lorey Sebastian COLLISION COURSE Newton and Dillon in racial profile

The stunning, must-see drama Crash is proof that words have not lost the ability to shock in our anesthetized society. I can’t remember the last time I have felt so galvanized, disturbed, and moved by full sentences, unadorned by gratuitous profanity, flying out of the mouths of screen characters as ordinary as you or me or the guy idling at the next traffic light on an average day in Los Angeles at Christmastime. Crash is about the collision of cars, the machinery on which L.A. is built. But it’s also about the collision of races, cultures, and classes — another kind of L.A. experience. White folks, black folks, Hispanics, and Asians — nobody gets by in this amazingly tough, at times unexpectedly funny, and always humane movie without getting dented. An assured directorial debut by Million Dollar Baby screenwriter Paul Haggis, who also produced, conceived the story, and wrote the script with Bobby Moresco, Crash suggests, convincingly, that violent contact — in word or on wheels — is the only way left to reach out and touch somebody.

The pileup begins almost immediately when two young black men (Larenz Tate and rapper?turned?fine actor Chris ”Ludacris” Bridges), walking in an upscale white enclave and talking about the perception of young black men in upscale white enclaves, efficiently carjack a Lincoln Navigator that happens to belong to the L.A. district attorney (Brendan Fraser) and his rich-bitch wife (Sandra Bullock). Bam!, that’s four people linked and unmasked, in all their ugliest prejudices and most shameful fears, by the fate of one SUV — a luxe safari truck that at first has nothing, and yet eventually everything, to do with the fate of another Navigator, owned by a rich black TV director (Terrence Howard) and his wife (Thandie Newton) and stopped for inspection by a racist white cop (Matt Dillon) and his partner (Ryan Phillippe).

How could so many lives smash into one another so quickly? How, for that matter, does the family of a Hispanic locksmith wind up linked, in danger and redemption, with that of a burgled Iranian shopkeeper? What do these strangers have to do with a black police detective (Don Cheadle) and his Latina partner and lover (Jennifer Esposito), who are investigating a homicide? Role for role, the acting is superb, and the cinematography is strong, with a stylistic emphasis on blur and confusion interrupted by knife-carved incidents of prejudice and consequence (aurally stitched by Mark Isham’s anxious electronic score). As Haggis’ taut vignettes reveal Crash‘s bigger traffic pattern and the words rain down, there’s little to do but grip tight and prepare for major impact.

2006 Oscar Nominations: Best Picture; Best Supporting Actor (Matt Dillon); Best Director (Paul Haggis); Best Original Screenplay (Paul Haggis and Bobby Moresco); Best Film Editing; Best Original Song (”In the Deep”)

Image credit: Good Night and Good Luck: Melinda Sue Gordon KNIGHTLY NEWS Clooney celebrates Murrow’s crusdade

In Good Night, and Good Luck, Edward R. Murrow (David Strathairn), elegant and severe, the dour straight shooter of postwar broadcast news, prepares to go on air for his nightly report on CBS by lighting up a cigarette. I figured he was calming his nerves, enjoying a smoke as a preshow ritual. But no. The camera blinks on, the broadcast begins, and Murrow is not only still smoking, he’s doing it flamboyantly — his forearm planted on the desk, his hand cocked in the manner of an aristocratic silent-movie star, the entire report punctuated by the no-nonsense virility of his quick, blustery drags. Since Good Night, and Good Luck has been directed, by George Clooney, and written, by Clooney and Grant Heslov, as an unabashed salute to Murrow — his courage and gravitas, his devotion to reporting the truth in the face of corruption and power — it’s a shock, at least for those who didn’t grow up with him, to see this theatrical display of on-air indulgence. Murrow may have been a firebrand, but he was every inch a showman, too.

Set in 1953, the year Murrow dared to expose and fight the bullying clampdown tactics of Sen. Joseph McCarthy, Good Night, and Good Luck is a curio: an energized sliver of history, smart, sharp, and lively, staged with enjoyable panache, yet so tidy and hermetic and limited in scope that it’s like a one-hour PBS documentary stretched into dramatic form. The film has been shot in silky black and white, a look that evokes the burnished out-of-the-shadows romanticism of Citizen Kane and film noir as much as the buttoned-down world of ’50s TV. Strathairn, his hair greased back, the furrows in his face lit like statuesque crags, does a pitch-perfect imitation of Murrow’s granite scowl and dry-voiced, almost caustic urgency, and Clooney shoots him from dramatic low angles, turning the broadcasts into charged nightly sermons. Good Night, and Good Luck exudes a reverence for what it sees as the faded glory days of TV news, yet it’s also more than a tad wistful for the era of Murrow’s cigarette — for his self-conscious, hard-boiled style of truth-telling. The movie salutes Murrow’s integrity by turning integrity into nostalgia.

In his second outing as a director, Clooney expertly evokes the revved, split-second drama of the early days of live TV, when even the most serious news report could be ”edited” together at the moment it was being shown. He has fun, too, with that homogenized ’50s frivolousness, as when Murrow does a hilarious interview with Liberace. It’s no wonder that the tough newsman, along with his producer, Fred Friendly (played by Clooney as a genial ace politician), is eager to make waves. Drawn to the case of a man tossed out of the Navy for his shaky ”communist” affiliations, Murrow begins to report on McCarthy, his just-the-facts-ma’am approach shading into righteous advocacy. The film turns into a black-and-white showdown of good and evil. McCarthy is seen flinging mud at witnesses in extended vintage news clips, which are woven into the action, as if no mere actor could have done justice to the senator’s sleazy shamelessness. It’s a technique at once effective and self-canceling: We get so caught up in the brutal reality of McCarthy that the movie itself comes to seem, at times, like mere decoration. After all, why not show clips of Murrow, too? You almost could, considering the film never tries to dig beneath his flinty facade. The Murrow who fights McCarthy and stands up to CBS chairman William S. Paley, played with worldly gruff force by Frank Langella, is the only Murrow we see.

There’s a reason that Good Night, and Good Luck, as nimble and craftsmanly as it is, feels thin. The movie’s passion, and in a sense its true subject, remains off screen: It’s there in Clooney’s presumption that the audience will see Murrow taking on McCarthy and make an analogy to the present day, asking itself why no one in our corporatized media culture has dared to take a comparable fearless stand against the Bush administration. But the analogy is facile at best. George Bush, whatever you may think of his policies, isn’t Joe McCarthy, and it’s not as if his most fervent detractors in the press have been silenced. To suggest that the spirit of Edward R. Murrow has been crushed out of journalism is to turn nostalgia for the age of stern father-figure newsmen into the stuff of conspiracy theory.

Good Night, and Good Luck has a small-scale time-capsule fascination, yet its hermeticism is really a form of moral caution — a way of keeping the issues neat, the liberal idealism untainted. ”Look!” the movie says. ”TV news once had room for heroes!” Well, yes, but I’d have been more inspired if the film didn’t have such unquestioned reverence for the age when freedom in media hinged on one saintly man, saving the people from on high.

2006 Oscar Nominations: Best Picture; Best Actor (David Strathairn); Best Director (George Clooney); Best Original Screenplay (George Clooney and Grant Heslov); Best Art Direction; Best Cinematography

Image credit: Munich: Karen Ballard THE KILLER ELITE Vengeance is mined in Spielberg’s taut, dazzling historical thriller

The thriller is a gloriously amoral form. We might be watching a heist artist, a cop, or an ice-blooded sniper — what counts, before anything, is the deftness of the action, the ruthless pleasure of pulse-pounding risk and reward. Munich, Steven Spielberg’s spectacularly gripping and unsettling new movie, is a grave and haunted film, yet its power lies in its willingness to be a work of brutal excitement. It’s a movie about killing that invites the audience to share the terror and the rush, the adrenaline of vengeance, only to leave us sliding into the horror on the other side.

Munich begins with an event that shook the world, and that arguably remade it: the taking of 11 Israeli athletes as hostages by Palestinian terrorists during the 1972 Olympic Games, and the murder of all 11 within 24 hours. Spielberg re-creates this cataclysm as a dread-ridden collage of TV broadcasts being watched by viewers around the globe. The famous, eerie shot of a ski-masked terrorist leaning over a balcony is made all the eerier when Spielberg stages it from within the hostage quarters, in perfect simultaneity with the hazy vintage TV footage.

In Munich, however, the Olympic massacre gets relatively little screen time. Inside the walls of Israeli power, the prime minister, Golda Meir (Lynn Cohen), gives terse approval to a new eye-for-an-eye ethos: For the sake of Israel’s strength and survival, she says, the men who planned the Munich terror must be hunted down and killed.

Spielberg, working from a script by the playwright Tony Kushner and Eric Roth, follows a team of five assassins whose mission of vengeance, organized by the dour, pragmatic Ephraim (played with a jaunty misanthropic jolt by Geoffrey Rush), is to be kept secret even within the Israeli intelligence agency, the Mossad. Since that mission has remained secret ever since, the movie, by necessity, fuses fact and speculation. The team leader, Avner (Eric Bana), is tall, strapping, and ironically gentle. The son of an Israeli war hero, he’s a tender husband who’s about to have a baby he will scarcely see for the next two years, yet despite his cherubic poker face, he has the hint of a bruiser about him. His comrades, mostly European Jews, are a quirkier lot. They include a hotheaded South African getaway driver named Steve (Daniel Craig); an antiques aficionado, Hans (Hanns Zischler), with a flair for forging documents; Carl (Ciarán Hinds), a jovial and punctilious cleanup man who, with his fedora and tortoiseshell glasses, has the air of an insurance salesman out of a ’50s film noir; and Robert (Mathieu Kassovitz), a nervous young Belgian toy maker?turned?bomb maker who can never seem to get his explosives quite right.

Kushner has written these roles with a marvelous wry, hostile spunk. There’s a glimmer of fractious comedy in this team of not-too-macho Jewish hitmen, who quibble, with Talmudic precision, about the ethics of what they’re doing. Does a bodyguard with a gun count as a civilian? (They can’t kill him if he does.) At moments, the film plays like a cross between The French Connection and some ’70s crime-series pilot — The Matzoh Squad. Yet Munich, through the unromantic oddity of its assassins, does something all too rare: It immerses us in a suspense that’s logistical and, at the same time, anxiously humane. These agents have little high technology to hide behind, and their schemes, most of which hinge on plastic-explosive bombs detonated by remote switch, play out without the usual glib overkill. We can’t predict what’s going to happen any more than they can. In the Paris apartment of a terrorist-scholar, the phone is stuffed with explosives, but when his young daughter enters the flat, the scramble to abort the mission has a Hitchcockian intensity.

Spielberg shoots Munich without showy virtuosity, yet his camera seems to be everywhere at once, and John Williams’ score is like a telltale heartbeat. The result is a thriller that seeps into your central nervous system. With each assassination, things go awry in a different way. A too-potent bomb blows up an entire hotel floor, almost killing Avner, and the no-civilian rule begins to get left in shards. As acts of global terrorism escalate, a malaise sets in: Righteous as they are, what, exactly, are these assassins for Israel accomplishing? Are they even killing the right men? In the role of Louis, the French information dealer from whom Avner buys the names of his targets (at hundreds of thousands of dollars a pop), Mathieu Amalric, with brusque manners and a crocodile grin, incarnates the sleaze of ”neutrality.” The very sight of him signifies the gray zone that Avner has entered.

Eric Bana, with wavy hair and a puckered grin that makes him look like Jim Carrey’s Andy Kaufman, exudes a decency that is undercut by ripples of anguish. Yet as Avner’s willingness to kill for Israel shades into paranoid futility, there’s one sequence that sputters: Spielberg cuts between Avner’s tormented sexual union with his wife and a flashback to the murder of the athletes. It’s ham-handed and philosophically garbled — returning us to the spark plug of vengeance that Avner has moved beyond. That, however, is the only misstep in a movie that has the vision to dramatize a startling reality: that political murder, even when it’s justified, consumes the soul — and justice along with it.

2006 Oscar Nominations: Best Picture; Best Director (Steven Spielberg); Best Adapted Screenplay (Tony Kushner and Eric Roth); Best Film Editing; Best Original Score (John Williams)

Image credit: Hustle & Flow: Alan Spearman LEAD US NOT INTO TEMPTATION, BUT DELIVER US FROM THE STREETS Get drunk on the crunk in this funky hip-hop masterpiece

Certain movies, like 8 Mile, Rocky, or Saturday Night Fever, walk an entrancing line between realism and pop mythology. They’re tales, at heart, of Hollywood uplift — of struggle and triumph, of an underdog’s stubborn dream — yet scene for scene, moment to moment, they are made with so much grit and spirit and verve, such a deep-dish flavor of the streets, that their inspiration is rooted in something authentic and rare. Hustle & Flow, Craig Brewer’s drama about a small-time Memphis pimp who pours his life into cutting a homemade crunk tape, is that kind of movie. From the moment we see DJay (Terrence Howard) seated behind the wheel of his ratty parked Chevy, rambling out a seductive monologue about the distinction between ”man” (a mere dog, he says) and ”mankind,” we’re drawn to the exotic inside portrait of a flyweight urban hustler who knows how to cast a spell.

When DJay speaks, in the smokiest of smoky drawls, the words come out slowly, sliding into each other, the cadences fused in a lyrical back-porch whisper — a barely perceptible form of intimidation. He sounds, at times, like an old Southern man telling a story, and though DJay isn’t old, exactly, the years are beginning to add up for him. Pushing 40, he’s a veteran of the streets, one who’s grown weary and a bit numb hawking his girls out of cars, using his casual gift for words to keep them in line. Terrence Howard, in the single most powerful performance I’ve seen this year, inhabits this character with a casual mastery that makes him a world unto himself; we’re in touch with his ambition and sadness, his rage and longing, as if they were our own. DJay’s hair is conked with old-school ’60s-style curlers, and his flesh peddler’s face is handsome yet puffy, as if he’d been presenting it to the world as a mask for so long that he’d forgotten what’s under there. He may be an exploiter, yet he is not, by nature, a cruel man: Howard plays him with the hidden, bone-deep anxiety of someone who has spent his life coasting on outlaw instinct.

The movie, which is sharply paced and terrifically shot, sketches in DJay’s relationships with his working girls, furious Shug (Taraji P. Henson) and sexy, ignorant Nola, played by Taryn Manning like a deer in cornrows. DJay, by contrast, is a dog running out of tricks, so when he bumps into Key (Anthony Anderson), a sound engineer he knew back in his school days, and gets the idea to put some rhymes to paper, it’s not just a movieish lark. He’s out to save what’s left of himself.

The home-studio recording sequences in Hustle & Flow are funky, rowdy, and indelible. Brewer gives us the pleasure of watching characters create music from the ground up, beat by beat, take by take. DJay and Key, trapped in his bourgeois marriage, and Shelby (DJ Qualls), a gawky white church musician who’s a wizard with a beatbox, are all out to escape the drudgery of their anonymous lives; that’s what makes the sessions cathartic. As DJay works up a demo mixtape to give to Skinny Black (Ludacris), a hometown rapper?turned?platinum-selling star, some may accuse Hustle & Flow of softening a pimp’s brutality, yet the movie, in an odd way, is never more honest about the violent and tawdry degradation of DJay’s life than when we hear him chant his ripped-from-the-gut lyrics (”Whoop that trick — get ’em!”). Those words imprint themselves on the audience. So does Hustle & Flow.

2006 Oscar Nominations: Best Actor (Terrence Howard); Best Original Song (”It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp”)

JOHNNY BE GOOD Phoenix channels the Man in Black in the mythic Southern romance

For a long time, the Hollywood biopic was a corny, synthetic, quasi-reputable genre. Recently, though, warts-and-all movies like Ray and Kinsey and Capote, which have had the daring to show how their subjects’ human failings were integral to their greatness, have raised the bar for biopics — for their authenticity and dramatic power. Walk the Line, starring Joaquin Phoenix as country-music legend Johnny Cash and Reese Witherspoon as his muse, singing partner, and stubborn romantic foil June Carter, is a big, juicy, enjoyable wide-canvas biography with a handful of indelible moments, but it’s just compelling enough to make you wish that it had attained the level of artistry of those other films.

That said, I can’t stop thinking about scenes like the one in which Cash, as a young singer in Memphis in the mid-’50s, enters the storefront that houses Sun Records and performs a gospel standard for Sam Phillips (played with sly feelers by Dallas Roberts), who dismisses the number as treacle. He then asks Cash: If you had an accident, were dying on the road, and had to sing one song to express how you felt about life, what would it be? With nothing to lose, Cash launches into ”Folsom Prison Blues,” and suddenly we hear the famous gravity — the ominous lyrics and weirdly overdeliberate bass voice that sounds like it’s trying to negotiate its way out of hell. As the band trickles in, Cash’s thrilling rockabilly freight train leaves the station.

Phoenix, who did all his own singing, sounds just enough like Cash to make us hear the beauty of his husky reticence, and though he’s hardly the singer’s physical double — Cash had his trademark crags and furrows even when he was starting out — we can see how nature equipped him to play the Man in Black. His hair is black, his eyebrows are black, and, more than that, his eyes are black — deep coal wells of hidden sorrow. Walk the Line, directed by James Mangold (Cop Land) from a script he co-wrote with Gill Dennis, lays out Cash’s demons in a vigorous if standard fashion. Growing up on a farm in Arkansas, young J.R. endures a stern father (Robert Patrick) who makes him feel responsible for his brother’s death. Overseas, in the Air Force, he develops an identification with criminals, and Phoenix cultivates a haunted stare that masks a heart of vulnerability. Later, touring with Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis (Cash may be showcased as country, but it’s a revelation to see how much of a vintage early rocker he really was), Cash, holding his guitar up high as if it were a shield, and then staring the audience down, expiates his sins through music. He could be a preacher whose sermons have gone electric.

As a portrait of Johnny Cash the gravel-voiced country-rock innovator, who projected a private hellfire onto even his jauntiest anthems, Walk the Line is zesty and satisfying. But when it turns to the tale of how Cash, trapped in a miserable marriage, spent year after year courting, seducing, loving, yet never quite winning June Carter, the movie is on shakier ground. On the road, Cash enjoys groupies and pops amphetamines, an addiction that will land him in trouble with the law. Yet he’s really a gentle soul who yearns to be loved. He and Carter begin to make eyes at each other the moment they meet backstage, and when Carter’s first marriage ends, there appears to be little in the way of their getting together. But Carter, the scion of a famously traditional Christian singing family, feels guilty about her divorce, and Cash, after coercing her into performing a duet she wrote with her ex-husband, makes the mistake of giving her an onstage peck on the cheek. Horrors!

It’s a downhill spiral from there. Walk the Line could turn out to be a monster chick flick, because its design is almost mythic: Saintly girl has to wait for country-rock bad boy to purge his demons and settle down. But while Witherspoon, a fine singer herself, makes Carter immensely likable, a fountain of warmth and cheer, given how sweetly she meshes with Phoe-nix her romantic reticence isn’t really filled in. June’s refusal to countenance Johnny’s drug use may be a fair obstacle, but the main reason he’s doing drugs is that she keeps spurning him; he’s numbing the pain of his devotion. June is made to seem like a high school virgin protecting her honor, and when we see her composing the lyrics to ”Ring of Fire,” it doesn’t compute: As written, this perky, straight-and-narrow woman is the last person on earth who would fall, through love, ”into a burning ring of fire.”

At the famous Folsom Prison concert, Cash performs ”Cocaine Blues,” and Phoenix’s eyes go wild with the pleasure of finally living up to his wrong-side-of-the-law image. Off stage, June beams at him. But do her eyes shine because of his generosity in saluting the humanity of these prisoners, or because of how deep his need is to feel like he’s one of them? In Walk the Line, it’s the former. In a greater movie, it would have been both.

2006 Oscar Nominations: Best Actor (Joaquin Phoenix); Best Actress (Reese Witherspoon); Best Costumes; Best Film Editing; Best Sound Mixing

Image credit: Mrs. Henderson Presents CARE FOR A SPOT OF TEA & A? A nudie picture, starring Oscar veterans, that fails to titillate

It took the blokes of The Full Monty the entire movie to doff their duds, but Mrs. Henderson Presents gets right down to the business of naughty bits. In London on the eve of World War II, Laura Henderson (Judi Dench), a widow of wealth and connection, purchases an abandoned theater in the West End. She hires a resident showman, the crusty Dutch Jewish impresario Vivian Van Damm (Bob Hoskins), and together they devise a scheme to pack in the patrons: They’ll stage impish theatricals with a sprinkling of topless chorus girls. Surprisingly, there is little local opposition; even the fusty Lord Chamberlain (Christopher Guest) agrees to allow the nudity, provided the girls in question remain motionless on stage. This makes for a friendly romp, and also a dull one: There is dialogue that begs the audience to go tee-hee (”We must have British nipples!” declares Van Damm), but there is no drama, unless you count the wallflower romance of Hoskins and Dench, doing the Britcom shtick that’s becomes her version of autopilot.

2006 Oscar Nominations: Best Actress (Judi Dench); Best Costumes

Image credit: NORTH COUNTRY: Richard Foreman CHAUVINIST DIG Theron mines the heart of the sexual harassment in the earnest Country

In the freedom-fighting movie culture of the 1970s, populist muckrakers like Norma Rae, The China Syndrome, and All the President’s Men drew us into the everyday urgency of injustice. They ignited passions because they connected to the zeitgeist, and audiences felt the relevance of those films in their guts, hearts, and bones. I’m not sure if they’ll feel that same kick of relevance during North Country, a grimly earnest sexual harassment rabble-rouser that begins in 1989, even though the landmark case it’s based on is rooted in events that started in the mid-’70s. The film’s spirit of outrage is genuine, but also more than a bit secondhand.

At the beginning, Josey Aimes (Charlize Theron), rangy and sharp-boned, with a semi-shag haircut that hangs like a half-lowered curtain over her serious, pretty features, grabs her kids and flees her abusive husband, returning to her hometown in the wintry desolation of northern Minnesota. It’s a stern, devout community, where high school hockey is a religion and people speak in a charmingly eccentric pidgin-ethnic twang, and where everyone, more or less, works at the same place: the local iron mines, a hellhole of smelting danger. Unskilled, and in dire need of cash, Josey, encouraged by her old friend, a union rep named Glory Dodge (Frances McDormand, doing a variation on her chipper moonstruck den-mother act from Fargo), goes to work at the mines. She’s prepared to face the grueling conditions: the acrid smells, the splatters of iron ore. What she isn’t as ready for is her male co-workers, who see the women miners — at this point, a tiny minority — as feminist interlopers who have no right to be taking their jobs. The men’s fury is couched in their belief that hard labor wasn’t meant to be women’s work. Even Josey’s father (Richard Jenkins), a lifelong miner, views her as an invader.

North Country packs a solid familiar punch. An orientation supervisor addresses the women miners with smug derision, and a sex toy gets planted in one of their lunch boxes. One of Josey’s bosses, a former high school flame (Jeremy Renner), assumes he can treat her as his personal concubine; he makes lecherous comments, then a slobby pass, then worse. Directing her first Hollywood feature, Niki Caro, the New Zealand filmmaker who debuted with the righteous if gauzy girl-power fairy tale Whale Rider, stages all of this with grimly sinister matter-of-fact skill, like something out of a prison film in which the new inmates are ritually hazed and abused. At one point, the women find obscene messages smeared onto the walls with excrement. When Josey meets with the president of the mining company to protest this pattern of abuse, the meeting is a sham — a cover-up spiked with threats. Trapped by a conspiracy of male rage, Josey, teaming up with a courtly lawyer (Woody Harrelson), strikes back against the mine by initiating the first class-action sexual harassment suit in U.S. history.

Compared to, say, Erin Brockovich, North Country takes more than its share of factual liberties. The transposing of eras results in a kind of sociological fuzziness, and Josey herself is a composite character, complete with a lurid backstory of victimization. I wouldn’t mind the fictionalization, though, if the film had made her a more vivid personality. Theron plays Josey with an honorable slow-burn weariness, as if fed up with the effect she has on men, but it’s a performance of workaday nobility, one that’s a shade too anonymous to be exciting.

The limitation of North Country isn’t that it overhypes the evil that men do. It’s that the film, as sincere and watchable as it is, never succeeds in portraying Josey and her struggle as more than a hermetic tale of injustice. At key points, we see images of Anita Hill’s testimony at the Clarence Thomas hearings. That watershed event helps to inspire Josey’s crusade, but the audience may well have less of a clear-cut reaction to those clips. In a weird way, North Country is the right movie at the wrong time. It mythologizes the struggle of women to do the most dangerous, rough-and-tumble jobs imaginable just at the moment when a counterrevolution is taking place, as more and more women reconsider whether to sacrifice the workplace in favor of home. Caro touches on the ambivalence of the other female miners toward Josey, but North Country might have been richer, tougher, more honestly liberal if it had revealed a few more shades of gray among the men — perhaps daring to show, for instance, that at least a few of those fighting to keep women out of the mines could have had chivalrous motives, a belief system rooted in the urge to protect. Nothing, though, ever gets in the way of the movie’s advertisement for valor.

2006 Oscar Nominations: Best Actress (Charlize Theron); Best Supporting Actress (Frances McDormand)

Image credit: Pride and Predjudice: Alex Bailey MY GIRLS WANT TO PARTY ALL THE TIME A sumptuous, sterling addition to the Jane Austen canon

Though often dismissed as chick flicks with manners, middlebrow literary costume dramas of the Merchant Ivory school brought a slate of virtues to the cinematic landscape. At a time when action flicks were taking over, they celebrated the pleasures of rounded storytelling, and even their proverbial theme — the tug-of-war between love and money — was tougher than it looked: At their best (A Room With a View, Persuasion), these films anatomized romance, that dance of the spiritual and the worldly, as few other movies have. Nevertheless, the genre, in recent years, has faded, a casualty of shifting tastes, and that makes it reasonable to ask: What could the dozenth adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice, with lush photography and Keira Knightley, bring to the party?

Quite a bit, it turns out, and it all starts with the party. In the English countryside, Elizabeth Bennet (Knightley), sharp and headstrong, with a perky dimple of skepticism, is invited, along with her four giggly, eager-to-be-married sisters, to a ball at Netherfield Park, a magnificent stone mansion that sprawls like a castle. We’ve all seen a jillion of these scenes: the heaving bosoms, the group dances so stylized they’re like an 18th-century version of speed dating, the glimmers of scandal whenever someone gets too…forward. All of that is here, yet the director, Joe Wright, a veteran of British television, makes the past feel as swirling and alive as the present.

As the eldest Bennet sister, the lovely but shy Jane (Rosamund Pike), makes a play for Mr. Bingley (Simon Woods), who is throwing the party, Elizabeth, known as Lizzie, sizes up a tall, handsome, and forbiddingly curt figure named Darcy (Matthew Macfadyen), while the younger Bennet siblings make goo-goo eyes at any man in uniform. The women prowl from room to room, seeking adventure around every corner, and the camera, in glorious long takes, follows them. Stately on the surface, the ball unfolds with the crowded eroticized mischief we associate with a great modern soiree. It sets the tone for a movie in which the search for love all but pulses with the excitement of uncertainty.

Those eager to see how Matthew Macfadyen’s Darcy stacks up against Colin Firth’s can seek out a DVD of the 1995 BBC version, but I can tell you that Macfadyen is sensational, with a noble profile just this side of surly and a plummy voice of such sullen quietude that you see how Lizzie might take it as dismissive. The plot, of course, gives our heroine ample reason to mistake Darcy for a cad (he scotches Bingley’s romance with her sister), yet Macfadyen plays Darcy’s ”pride” as a cover for his buried ambivalence about love: never bitten, but still shy. Darcy and Lizzie’s war of misunderstanding, which keeps dousing their budding affection, is never predictable or coy, and that’s because Keira Knightley, in a witty, vibrant, altogether superb performance, plays Lizzie’s sparky, questing nature as a matter of the deepest personal sacrifice. She’s not a feminist but a confused, ardent girl charting her destiny without a map. The acting in Pride & Prejudice tingles with nuance and presence. Brenda Blethyn makes Mrs. Bennet’s obsession with marrying off her daughters faintly hysterical but never just funny, Donald Sutherland, as the craggy Mr. Bennet, glows with sadness and joy, and rascally Jena Malone plays Lydia as England’s original teenybopper. It’s a heady pleasure to share their company.

2006 Oscar Nominations: Best Actress (Keira Knightley); Best Art Direction; Best Costumes; Best Original Score (Dario Marianelli)

Image credit: Transamerica: Rafael Winer STRANGEST ‘AMAZING RACE’ TEAM. EVER He’s desperate, all right, to become a full-fledged woman

For artistry and degree of technical difficulty, this judge awards Felicity Huffman a 10 for her performance in Transamerica. But as with so many elaborate Olympic sports, this judge asks for clarification: What is the point of the exercise?

You see, in Transamerica, the lithe, quick-witted actress, best known these days for her Emmy-winning membership in the Desperate Housewives sorority, plays a pre-op transsexual whose birth name was Stanley and who now calls herself Bree. That’s to say, Huffman is a woman playing a man in the process of transforming into a woman — a prim, conservative tranny, in fact, with a preference for boxy, church-lady suits. (She appears to share a tragic fashion gene with Tom Wilkinson in Normal.) When Bree is unnerved, she flutters like a girly Southern belle; when she speaks, she further softens her husky alto voice with refined enunciation. Yet Huffman teases out a hint of her character’s past maleness in the way the ladylike Bree composes herself — a captivating flight of technique, built from equal parts empathy and skilled control.

Bree lives in Los Angeles, where she’s well on her way to final gender-reassignment surgery when she receives a call from someone in New York claiming to be Stanley’s son, Toby (WB junior hottie Kevin Zegers, looking nicely hottie-dissolute). The teen runaway, a street hustler currently in jail on a related charge, is looking for his father — and, incidentally, needs to post bail. Toby’s late mother, Bree is shocked to learn, was a brief girlfriend from Stanley’s male college days.

An undeniably audacious feature debut from writer-director Duncan Tucker with various film festival awards to its credit, Transamerica plays heavily on the multiple implications of the title. Without admitting her real relationship to Toby, and at her psychiatrist’s insistence, she flies to New York and bails the kid out. (Toby assumes she’s a missionary who saves lost street youth.) She thinks she’ll drop him off at his stepfather’s place in Kentucky before returning to L.A. for surgery (tran’s America); he thinks he’ll travel with her to L.A. (trans-America) to find the father he doesn’t know is sitting next to him.

Terrible, soap opera things happen when the duo gets to Toby’s stepfather’s place. Likewise, the deck is stacked heavily toward pathos when the odd couple arrives on the doorstep of Fionnula Flanagan and Burt Young as the cartoony, disapproving old parents Stanley/Bree thought he/she’d never see again.

So much agony! So many secrets! Such crazy hoo-hahing from Flanagan and Young! Courage is surely required by anyone embarking on a sex-changing journey to personal fulfillment. But the unintended effect of all the melodramatic complications in Transamerica is, oddly, to distract attention from an understanding of exactly what that courage really costs.

2006 Oscar Nominations: Best Actress (Felicity Huffman); Best Original Song (”Travelin’ Thru”)

Image credit: Cinderella Man: George Kraychyk LORD OF THE RING Crowe (with Giamatti) emerges victorious in Cinderella Man, Ron Howard’s scrappy boxing fable

How exceptional a film actor is Russell Crowe? So exceptional that in Cinderella Man, he makes a good boxing movie feel at times like a great, big picture. Playing James J. Braddock, a real-life decent, downtrodden New Jersey underdog whose unlikely triumph as the heavyweight boxing champ of the world during the depths of America’s Great Depression was spun as a victory for all decent, downtrodden Americans everywhere who hungered for a second chance, Crowe does something — I can’t figure out what — that morphs the very shape of his head. He’s done this before, changing physical and emotional contours to play a whistle-blower, a mathematician, a ship’s captain, a Maximus, all of them men’s men fighting for personal integrity in a man’s world. But each time the intensity of the transformation feels complete, and unexpected; there’s not another actor working in the movies today with Crowe’s kind of gravitational pull to authenticity, to unactorliness.

And so in Cinderella Man he’s a whole new size all over again, this time scaled to the proportions of a family man, adored by and adoring his wife, Mae (Renée Zellweger), and their three kids. In the beginning, Braddock is a lucky bruiser with a happy grin who wins in the ring, with support from his loyal, chipper trainer-manager, Joe Gould (Paul Giamatti in yet another knockout perf — that’s three in a row), and enjoys a comfortable home thanks to the talent of his gloved fists. Then he’s a loser whose luck turns miserably bad, then a Depression-era casualty reduced to rock-bottom poverty — no money for food or electricity, nothing but love for heat, a despairing citizen on the dole. And then, luck turns again: Gould scrapes up one more unlikely fight, and Braddock wins. (Giamatti and Crowe get on like gangbusters, two powerhouses sparring.) Then he wins another, and another, leading to a climactic showdown at Madison Square Garden — the Kentucky Derby, let’s say, if the underdog were that other Depression-era American underanimal, Seabiscuit — against the cocksure, high-living, literally lethal heavyweight champ Max Baer (Craig Bierko, in a career-expanding, triumphant performance).

And in each round of Ron Howard’s classically told saga (from a script by Akiva Goldsman and Cliff Hollingsworth), right up through the pummeling 15-round Baer-vs.-Braddock bout that decides the title, Crowe adjusts his molecular size with athletic ease: He’s substantial, he’s fading, he’s a wreck of a man (cap in hand, literally), he’s a guy who picks himself up and gets back on his feet, at no time telegraphing that being on his feet is where he’ll stay.

I make much of Crowe’s dramatic integrity because without it, what is being touted as Howard’s ”grittiest” picture would lose a fair measure of its grit — the downside of a project that wants to be not just about the blood-and-bone brutality and primal excitement of boxing, where men offer one another their bruisable bodies as collateral, but also about big themes, including hardship, Yankee resolve, American decency, and the spiritual uplift provided by a close-knit family. And Cinderella Man‘s impeccably designed, authentic-enough-looking scenes of just how dire living conditions really were for millions (subtext: Could it happen again?) would dissipate into fussy diversions without Crowe’s participation.

As it is, a fact-based reenactment of the moment Braddock repays the nice lady at the government handout office with earnings from his comeback fights is made right primarily by Crowe’s clean, nonpolitical conviction of gesture. On the other hand, left to their own imaginings, the filmmakers feel compelled to invent a gauzy fictional anti-Braddock, a fellow dockworker and down-and-outer named Mike (In America‘s Paddy Considine) whose own fall, in contrast to his buddy’s, is unbroken: Mike drinks too much, fights with his wife, and gets too caught up in political activism for his own good, taking to the squalid, end-of-hope shanties dubbed Hooverville in New York’s Central Park as his last stand. The attention to Hooverville (a thing worth seeing for young ‘uns, shot with hushed outrage and awe by cinematographer Salvatore Totino, who also worked on The Missing) is, at least, educational.

In the end, when all the metaphors for character and spirit and American history fall away, a boxing movie, whether Raging Bull, Rocky, or Million Dollar Baby, is about boxing, and the elemental physical intimacy inside the ropes. And here, Howard comes alive with a directness and excitement that matches what Crowe has been up to all along. The fight that decides the championship is long, painful, and dirty, with punches that sting us as much as they stagger Braddock. Endurance is what counts. Despite a few flashbacks to remember what the common guy is fighting for, it’s all about the body blows. And the best man wins.

2006 Oscar Nominations: Best Supporting Actor (Paul Giamatti); Best Film Editing; Best Makeup

Image credit: A History of Violence: Takashi Seida ANGER MANAGER Mortensen plumbs the savage depths of a family man

Anyone who has seen the attention-grabbing trailer for A History of Violence, with its emphasis on images of Viggo Mortensen packing heat, might conclude that the tagline is ”Aragorn: No More Mister Nice Guy.” If fantasies of the king of Middle-earth kicking butt is what it takes to bring the curious to David Cronenberg’s brilliant movie — without a doubt one of the very best of the year — then I’m all for misdirection. But you deserve to know that the tease echoed in the picture’s blunt title — the B-movie come-on that here’s an action picture about bloody vengeance in a small town — is a perverse simplification of everything that makes the movie great. In my ideal coming attraction, we’d see little more than scenes of utmost dailiness: Mortensen as family man Tom Stall, passionately in love with his wife, Edie (Maria Bello), happy with his kids, content in the friendly business of running a neighborhood diner in Millbrook, Ind., and blessed with average, taken-for-granted American freedom and prosperity at its most Rockwellian. That’s it, that’s the setup, with maybe the merest hint that Tom becomes an unwilling local hero when he defends his place of business against vicious would-be robbers who threaten his fellow citizens. For visual spice, a few glimpses of Mortensen and Bello engaged in conjugal bliss would suffice.

Come for the calm, stay for the storm, because the movie is about the opposite of revenge. It’s about the violence that surpasseth all understanding — a cataclysm of awful (and sometimes funny and sometimes horrifying) consequence that unfolds with insidious intimacy and a Cronenbergian delight in the animal squish and shock of torn bodies. Tom’s newfound media exposure (”It’s the best thing anyone could have done to them,” he naively blurts to a TV reporter about his brush with the diner bad guys) brings him to the attention of menacing out-of-towners who cruise into Millbrook in a big black car, none more menacing than the silky, scar-faced thug who calls himself Fogarty (Ed Harris) and claims to know Tom as a killer named Joey. ”They don’t like this guy they think you are,” Edie says, trying to make sense of the absurd alternate reality that begins to consume the entire Stall household. Who is this average Joe?

Whether violence begets violence, whether perception is reality, whether a destructive animal instinct for combat really is lodged in the peaceful heart of every man — these are the themes that entertain Cronenberg, the Canadian original who made Dead Ringers and The Fly. (Also up for discussion: Whether the gunshot blast that shatters the small-town peace is a particularly American scenario.) But in his most deceptively ”mainstream” of entertainments, the filmmaker is enthralled, too, by the simple mechanics — the visceral fun — of making movies. There’s not a scene wasted in the 97-minute unspooling, not a detour that doesn’t tell, surprise, horrify, delight. (At times our laughter is as shocking a response as our excitement, and there’s plenty of cause for it when William Hurt makes a galloping cameo appearance.) There’s not a slack measure of music, either, in Howard Shore’s resonant score, which plays off the plainspoken aural simplicity associated with Aaron Copland to convey the melody of people who feel caged by dread, even though they’re surrounded by prairie bigness.

A History of Violence began as a graphic novel, written by John Wagner and Vince Locke, and the well-built screenplay by Josh Olson reflects the black-and-white speed of the original medium. But much of the movie’s richness comes from the way the filmmaker takes detours along the road to the Stall family catastrophe, finding expressions of psychic entropy even in the way the Stalls sit at the breakfast table. A world of change — a fall from innocence — is enacted in two contrasting sex scenes between husband and wife, while some of the best, most powerful moments are those that occur between Tom and his teenage son, Jack (Ashton Holmes, making a terrific feature-film debut), a baffled kid undergoing his own crash course in adult ethics.

A History of Violence is fundamentally a history of men at the throats of other men; Edie is the sole woman in this American tragedy, and although the character is given dignity and autonomy (Bello imparts information about Edie with physical precision, never standing next to Mortensen the same way twice), it’s a testosterone jungle out there. That it’s also a Garden of Eden gone poisonous — to hell — is something no coming attraction can convey.

2006 Oscar Nominations: Best Supporting Actor (William Hurt); Best Adapted Screenplay (Josh Olson)

Image credit: Syriana: Glen Wilson OILY WARNING A tangled fossil-fuel thriller puts the politics front and center

Syriana has a lot of big, important things to say about big, important things, and it says them with a sense of urgency. This dense, talky, proudly complicated adult drama of geopolitical intrigue weighs in on the amoral realities of covert CIA operations, Middle Eastern politics, global oil business, and U.S. government antitrust investigations — the whole military-industrial ball of wax. Indeed, the point of Syriana appears to be that the whole lousy, corrupt, oil-producing and -consuming world is a ball of wax, ready to melt.

The movie tells interrelated stories in knotted loops of simultaneity and jagged shards of documentary-style realism, with conspiracy on its mind and the piecemeal structure of Traffic as its screenwriting template, in good part because Stephen Gaghan, who wrote the Oscar-winning Traffic script for Steven Soderbergh, here writes and directs, too. It’s as earnestly, politically left-leaning as Jarhead is coyly apolitical; it’s also the kind of movie that requires a viewer to work actively for comprehension, and to chalk up any lack of same to his or her own deficiency in the face of something so evidently smart.

But while I’m all for political dramas that take stands rather than feign neutrality, what Syriana forgets to provide is the one thing that makes any movie, however difficult, easy to love: emotional empathy. Like the title itself — think-tank talk for a hypothetical reshaping of the Middle East — this is a working paper of ideas driven by hypothesis, rather than a compelling drama driven by compassion.

And while those with an eye for vast left-wing conspiracies are welcome to believe that Gaghan planned all along to make a movie shaped like a big-picture that fails to take into account small-picture human needs, I am not one of those conspiracy junkies; I think the absence of soul is just the filmmaker’s big gaffe.

Consider George Clooney as Bob Barnes, a veteran CIA man who serves as one of the character tentpoles of Gaghan’s construction. Bob’s got the thickened gut of a middle-aged company spook slowed down by years of routine (even if the routine involves assassination), and Clooney, who grew his own morose gut and beard for the part, is nothing if not generous in his habitation of such a shady yet loyal, freewheeling yet lonely man. (The actor’s commitment to politically engaged movies, in this as well as Good Night, and Good Luck, is one of the most effective uses of his well-earned stardom.)

But for all we see of Bob, we know nothing at all about the guy, except that having been arbitrarily double-crossed by a field contact during the course of a mission, he now finds himself just as arbitrarily made a scapegoat by his own CIA handlers, who want to distance themselves from such a liability. We watch Matt Damon, as an open-faced go-getter of an energy analyst, negotiate business with a Middle Eastern prince (Alexander Siddig), and Jeffrey Wright, as a Washington attorney, work on a merger between two American oil companies, and there’s no reason given for the double-dealing, power plays, and American capitalist thuggery that shape the landscape. (What little humanity this trio of clueless, overmatched American men retains is conferred by fleeting interaction with kin; in the case of Wright’s ambitious lawyer, his private burden is an embarrassing drinking bum of a father. And he handles the old man with much the same distraction shown by Michael Douglas as a drug czar with an addicted daughter in Traffic.)

The same schematic shorthand goes, by the way, for the Middle Easterners involved, who are less fallible men tripped up by the modern (and specifically American) world than walking position statements: corrupt Gulf-country prince backed by American oilmen versus his reform-minded brother, or long-suffering migrant Pakistani oil worker versus his angry son recruited by nuclear-weapon-toting extremists.

Syriana makes a point of circling the globe, with scenes shot in Geneva, Dubai, London, etc. — it’s a picture that displays datelines as a show of geopolitical bustle. And the speeches of even the most passing players are honed to draw blood — Chris Cooper as a scheming oilman, Christopher Plummer as the head of a powerful law firm, Amanda Peet in a slicing performance as Damon’s distressed wife. But what do those speeches say? They say, We’re talking about big, important things, so pay attention — and then make it a challenge to do so.

2006 Oscar Nominations: Best Supporting Actor (George Clooney); Best Original Screenplay (Stephen Gaghan)

Image credit: The Constant Gardener: Jaap Buitendijk GLOBAL WARNING Fiennes (left) nobly battles a growing drug conspiracy in Gardener

Ralph Fiennes’ pale, wounded gaze and tight smile often lead him to play men who are pained, unsettled — he won a Tony award for his performance as Hamlet, Prince of Agita, and even his Nazi in Schindler’s List had Issues. But it’s not just his physiognomy that marks him. Fiennes’ distracted, inward-turning manner projects an ambivalence about the whole business of acting, or at least of stardom, and that itchiness conveys itself to his audience, making us more apt to speak of his work with admiration and respect than with love.

Justin Quayle, the amateur plant-fancier who takes the title in The Constant Gardener, is another hooded Fiennes fellow, a man more at ease with greenhouse cuttings than with the cocktail chatter that goes along with the post of a midlevel career diplomat stationed in Kenya. But such is the clarity and passionate intelligence of Fernando Meirelles’ adaptation of John le Carré’s urgent 2001 novel, about deadly pharmaceutical arrogance in Africa, that Fiennes blooms in his most empathetic, extroverted, and lovable work in years.

As in any le Carré creation, the players in this one are morally inconstant people who keep secrets and betray those closest to them. When, at the beginning of the saga, Justin’s wife, Tessa (Rachel Weisz), is reported gruesomely murdered on an isolated stretch of country (she had been accompanied by a local doctor working to contain tuberculosis and AIDS, and the black-and-white pair had been rumored to be lovers), Justin himself really doesn’t know what Tessa did with her days as a human rights ”activist.” All he knows is that he adored her for her fire and for her commitment to fight, while he, a le Carré chap, after all, equivocated. (Weisz makes it easy to believe Tessa’s fearlessness; she’s as mobile, open-faced, and sexually alive as Fiennes is shuttered, and the two make a potent couple, even if the casting closes the generation gap that figures in the book.)

Tessa’s death opens The Constant Gardener. Why she died (with damning information about multinational drug malfeasance in her possession) propels the plot, as Justin awakens from his complacency to understand the posthumous truth about her real work, and, poignantly, about their own marriage. Meirelles, meanwhile, brightens the author’s wide, dark field with rich color, adding his own distinctive cinematic feel for the desperation, as well as the vibrancy, of the global underclass. Maturing the grabby style of hip-hoppy energy and visual fillips he brought to City of God (where he featured Rio de Janeiro as something between a circle of hell and a really cool setting for a music video), the Oscar-nominated Brazilian filmmaker shoots the landscape of Kenya, slums and magnificent wild territory, children and birds, with a new flow.

There’s less superfluous ”art” now, more concentration of purpose from frequent collaborator César Charlone’s voluptuous cinematography. Now the shots don’t waste time saying, Look at me; instead they urge, Look, look at what is really happening to millions of Africans as disease ruthlessly spreads, fertilized by a toxic mixture of corporate and governmental dither and greed. Working from an unobtrusive screenplay by British TV scripter Jeffrey Caine, Meirelles makes his points convincingly, teasing out the secrets of weak and bullying men (among the limpest of whom are Justin’s unreliable friend and diplomatic colleague, played by Danny Huston, and their frighteningly Perfect British Boss, played with high gloss by Bill Nighy), but never squanders attention away from the tragedy of epidemic disease and corruption. (Playing the opposite of limp, the ever-excellent Gerard McSorley from Bloody Sunday embodies a paragon of corporate thuggishness who’s never more terrifying than when he’s on the golf course.)

There is, I realize, always the chance that such a serious, it’s-good-for-you description makes The Constant Gardener sound like a lemonade glass of medicine. It’s not. The movie is smart, serious, and adult about something that matters, but not at the expense of a kind of awful, sensual revelry as le Carré’s capacious plot hurtles to its big finish. In flashback scenes of Justin and Tessa’s life together, the chemistry between Fiennes and Weisz (previously paired in the tortured István Szabó film Sunshine) feels playfully sexy, which is not something I’d usually ascribe to Fiennes’ default stance of proud hurt. Borne on lilting snatches of African song, The Constant Gardener gives a damn while giving good ”entertainment.” P.S.: ”By comparison with the reality,” le Carré explains in notes on the film, ”my story was as tame as a holiday postcard.”

2006 Oscar Nominations: Best Supporting Actress (Rachel Weisz); Best Adapted Screenplay (Jeffrey Caine); Best Film Editing; Best Original Score (Alberto Iglesias)

Image credit: Junebug: Robert Kirk DRIVE SAFE Finally, a dysfunctional family reunion worth visiting

There’s a moment in Phil Morrison’s marvelous Junebug that is so pure and moving, in such an unexpected way, that it’s as if the world were opening up before you. Madeleine (Embeth Davidtz), a Chicago art gallery owner who is tall and angular, with a posh transatlantic accent, has arrived in North Carolina with her new husband, George (Alessandro Nivola). The two are staying with his family, who could modestly be described as truly, madly, deeply Southern. We’re primed for a ripely funny culture clash, and the movie doesn’t disappoint, as Madeleine, with her Euro double kisses, does her best to mingle with the unvarnished members of George’s moody, polite, yet barely welcoming middle-class clan.

For a while, George himself, a sexy Southern boy-turned-urban professional (he looks like a financier, though it isn’t specified what he does), appears nearly as alien to his family’s taciturn, Formica-and-wood-paneling style as his glamorous wife is. Then they attend a church supper, and George, reuniting with old friends, stands up to lead a hymn. As he sings about Jesus calling him home, his voice is suffused with reverence, and Madeleine stares at her husband in shock, as if seeing him for the very first time. In a sense, she is.

There have, by now, been so many strenuously cute indie comedies about ”quirky” dysfunctional families and what it takes to overcome them that as you watch Junebug, you may find yourself caught entrancingly off guard by the conflicting shades of love, suspicion, tradition, and mystery that infuse this tale of lost innocence, deep roots, and what it means to come from the world of the South.

Morrison, in his debut feature, views George’s family with serene comic grace: the gruff father (Scott Wilson), a putterer who speaks in affectless monosyllables; the mother (Celia Weston), a plump chain-smoker whose contempt keeps pricking the surface of her ”hospitality”; and the brother (Benjamin McKenzie), a surly screwup stunted with rage.

Madeleine, so wary yet eager to please, is our catalyst for getting to know these folks, and she forges her most surprising bond with the brother’s pregnant wife, Ashley, a gloriously arrested chatterbox — she’s like Scarlett O’Hara with ADD — played by Amy Adams in a performance as deep as it is delightful. She’s the film’s heart and also its flaky, wonderstruck soul.

2006 Oscar Nomination: Best Supporting Actress (Amy Adams)

LIT ‘MATCH’ Johansson and Rhys Meyers play with fire

In recent years, Woody Allen’s movies have grown encrusted with mannerism, set less inside the real world than in the twee Upper East Side of his mind. Now he has rediscovered himself, and reality, too. To call Match Point Allen’s comeback would be an understatement: It’s the most vital return to form for any director since Robert Altman made The Player. The film’s tone — knowing, sexy, controlled, not at all jokey — has something to do with the London setting, and also with the fact that the lead actor, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, hasn’t been asked to mimic Woody’s fumbling Brooklyn tics from 30 years ago or the anxiety beneath them. Match Point isn’t a tale of ”neurosis.” It’s a serious and lusciously entertaining adultery drama driven by a lust that turns into authentic compulsion.

You know Allen has found a way back to common experience, that he’s remembered what it looks and feels like, the moment Chris Wilton (Rhys Meyers), a good-but-not-good-enough Irish tennis star, recently retired from the championship circuit, takes a job as a club pro and rents a tattered flat in London. He can’t believe how high the rent is, and the broker, with his pushy East End accent, only adds insult to economic injury. Immediately, Match Point hooks us with the silken ambition of its hero, a young climber with style and wit and enough brains to keep a hood over his appetites. When he befriends Tom Hewett (Matthew Goode), a rich kid who leads a charmed life, and starts to date his sister, the lovely, conventional Chloe (Emily Mortimer), it’s a mutual courtship: the ”innocent” outsider submitting to the hospitality of his hosts, when it’s really he who’s doing the seducing, flattering them by playing the part of the perfect guest.

Rhys Meyers, with rock-star lips and eyebrows serious enough to rival Montgomery Clift’s, has a flushed sensuality that can look, by turns, debonair or depressed. We glimpse the hunger beneath his mask, even when it turns to silent, simmering jealousy. At the Hewetts’ estate, Chris walks into a Ping-Pong game, and there he meets Nola (Scarlett Johansson), an aspiring actress who is American, troubled, and gorgeous in a come-hither way that suggests a cross between Veronica Lake and Jenna Jameson. She is, in a word, irresistible; she is also Tom’s fiancée.

Johansson gives her a faintly husky voice, a looking-for-trouble carnality that’s all the more potent for emerging from a vaguely unsettled nature. Yet even as Nola, who drinks and flirts too much, occupies the role of fatal-attraction bad girl, she can’t really be pigeonholed that way; a quality of decency, of buried romantic longing, shines through her promiscuous allure. She and Chris are both outsiders in a world of privilege. He puts the moves on her — he literally has no choice about it. Yet his instincts keep him on the fast track to marry Chloe and take a job at one of her dad’s finance firms. For this poor Irish kid, that’s a compulsion too — the lust for upward mobility. The movie depends on our recognizing what Chris, tragically, only half does: that his desire for Nola is the real thing, passion — true love embedded in the urgency of hormones.

Match Point isn’t labored, like Crimes and Misdemeanors, and there isn’t a false note in it — not a snob wisecrack out of place, not a character who sags into stereotype. Allen doesn’t fall into the trap of mocking these high-life Brits, with their horses and hunts and round-the-clock drinks; they may be complacent, but they have sharp eyes and good hearts. They’re honest in their enjoyment of wealth. The apartment that Chloe’s father (Brian Cox), in his controlling benevolence, purchases for Chris and Chloe is so gorgeous it’s a joke — a window-walled duplex overlooking the Thames — only Allen isn’t using the real estate as a backdrop. He’s made a film that embraces the addictive taste of money.

At the Hewett compound, Chris tries to keep Nola at bay on his cell phone, and we register, with a shudder, what a fearless, instinctive liar he is. He wants comfort and his romantic-erotic candy. It’s a doomed quest, but such is the primal magic of movies that we’re in his shoes, taking every squirmy step along with him. I can’t think of another film that has caught the devious anxiety (or turn-on) of adultery with such close-up honesty. Rhys Meyers makes Chris a sympathetic slime, giving him a dozen shades of yearning, sweat, and deceit. When he takes drastic action, we’re divided between pure horror at what he does and a desire to see him get away with it. Match Point, a meditation on crime and luck, has the design — the formal elegance — of a thriller, yet it has been made with a sublime eye for why people do what they do that marks it as Allen’s finest movie since Manhattan.

2006 Oscar Nomination: Best Original Screenplay (Woody Allen)

Image credit: The Squid and the Whale: James Hamilton ‘WHALE’ WATCHING A parental power struggle, through the eyes of a kid

The Squid and the Whale may require explanation as a title — it refers to a famous permanent exhibit at New York’s American Museum of Natural History depicting warring sea creatures, the monstrous scale of which can singe a kid’s memory for life — but the metaphor is clear. In Noah Baumbach’s caustically funny, awfully sad, pitilessly autobiographical coming-of-age story, the narcissistic parents, Bernard (Jeff Daniels) and Joan (Laura Linney), who ensnare their two sons in the bitterness of a dissolving marriage loom large and intractable as monsters themselves.

They are also specimens of New York City intelligentsia circa 1986, rarefied types who live in a Brooklyn brownstone, compete as writers (Joan’s career is on the up, Bernard’s isn’t), and take their sons to tennis lessons, which only adds to the saltiness the filmmaker sprinkles on his own wounds. Locating himself in the older-brother character (played by Roger Dodger‘s excellent Jesse Eisenberg) who, in his teenage unhappiness, mimics his father’s pomposity and blames his unfaithful mother, Baumbach lets no one off the hook, least of all himself.

The movie doesn’t so much go someplace dramatically as hang suspended, like the museum exhibit itself, and the abrupt nonconclusion is jarring. (The coda: And then I became a filmmaker.) But in hovering, The Squid and the Whale becomes its own realistic display of family entropy, as cautionary as it is educational.

2006 Oscar Nomination: Best Original Screenplay (Noah Baumbach)