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David Thomson on the Oscar Best-Film Candidates: Worthy, but Not Great

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Posted on Feb 28, 2006
David Thomson
Lucy Gray

Film historian and critic David Thomson.

By Sheerly Avni

This is one of the most politically driven years in the history of the Oscars: Instead of biopics or sweeping disaster canvases, the Academy has selected five best film nominees—“Munich,” “Good Night, and Good Luck,” “Capote,”  “Brokeback Mountain” and “Crash”—that have small budgets, small earnings and strong political messages. (Even “Capote” has become politicized in the press because its lead character is gay.)  And this is not even to speak of films with nominations outside the Best Picture category such as “Paradise Now,”  “Syriana,” “Transamerica” and “Sophie Scholl.”  2006 is Hollywood’s issues year, for better or for worse.

This Monday, on the eve of the 78th annual Academy Awards, renowned film critic David Thomson spoke with Sheerly Avni about this year’s nominees and what they may indicate about the future of film.

Sheerly Avni: What did you think of this year’s Oscar contenders?

David Thomson: I liked quite a lot of them. I think they’re quite good examples of small independent pictures carefully made. It’s a fairly good group, I think. I just don’t think any of them is what I would call a knockout big-experience picture. They’re thoughtful. And I like that, I mean, please, don’t think I’m against it. And they all have an interesting, valuable, useful point to make. But I don’t think they are going to be remembered in 50 years’ time.

Do you also see concern that these films have not been blockbusters?  For example, a film like “Brokeback Mountain,” which has not done huge business, particularly in the red states?

Very few of the movies up for nomination this year have cost very much, and very few of them have done the kind of business that Best Pictures are expected to do. In many respects those are good things. It’s a sign of progress, but it’s a kind of progress in which movies become smaller and smaller.


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“Brokeback Mountain” has had a good audience so far, for an independent film, but it’s still a limited audience. If it wins—and I do think it will win—there will be people who will see it who would not have otherwise done so. They’ll sigh and say “OK, OK, I’ll go.”  But it’s a film which cuts quite radically against the grain of popular American taste and, as you say, there are a whole lot of places where the movie has not been playing at all.

So you think “Brokeback Mountain” is a winner?

I suspect it will do very well in the Oscars. Enough people have convinced themselves that it’s a breakthrough attitude, though really it’s just a breakthrough in movie attitudes. The real life of people in this country will continue to be what it is, which is often difficult. It’s like saying that “Crash” would ease away the racial crisis in America. I think it’s useful for films to address these issues, but I don’t believe that film can solve them.

And did you like “Crash”?

I quite liked it, but I think it’s been overrated. I found it a little pretentious and I found the coincidences too much. It’s a kind of movie that Robert Altman and Paul Thomas Anderson have made far better. I thought it was heavy-handed and somewhat self-righteous. So no, I wasn’t a fan.

What is the relationship between these particular films being nominated and the current political climate?

If “Good Night, and Good Luck” can congratulate itself, which it sort of does, I think, about being an indirect oblique political statement about the world we live in, the world now, I think that is also a sign of a sort of helplessness—a cowardice still in dealing with situations.

I suspect that you and I and most of your readers would agree that we are nearly six years into an administration that could end our history, let alone be regarded as the worst in our history ... and that the degrees of corruption in it, and degrees of alteration of reality, which I think is more important, are really ghastly.

If there’s a political consciousness that made that film, why isn’t there a film about what we’re going through now, that might really have offended and made trouble? And after six years they’ve had time to respond, and I think it’s still the case that the liberal faction in Hollywood are much better at going to parties and raising money than actually making challenging films. The personality of the Bush administration should have been the subject of some great satire, or something, by now. And it’s not really happened. So we hire Jon Stewart for the event, he’ll make a couple of anti-Bush jokes, and everyone will feel smart and superior for that—but we’re dealing with movies!

Two days after 9/11 I had the idea of a film of our so-called intelligent service. I mean, you could call it “These Are Our Intelligence Guys Who Are Simply So Stupid That They Do Not Know the First Thing About Looking After Us.” There’s ample evidence that has come out already which might furnish a background for a film like that. No one has taken it on though; no one has dared do it.

In your [Los Angeles Times] article, you wrote that this year’s nominees are “worthy, interesting, respectable,” but you went on to say, “Movies need to be wild, sensational, visceral, overwhelming.” What films have been made recently that were wild, visceral, overwhelming?

I thought that “Million Dollar Baby” had some of that quality last year….  There have been other films in modern times that did. It’s harder now. Film has moved away from being the real mass medium that it used to be. There were other films, I think that “Star Wars” and the first “Raiders” had it….  I think that Oliver Stone’s “Platoon” had it. So yes, there are some films from modern times. I think that David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet” had it, “The Exorcist” had it. These were films that just ... took people over, you know?

What about more recently? In 2001, for example the Academy had to choose between “Gladiator,” “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “Traffic.”

Yes, this is very telling. “Gladiator” was a big picture. It had the confidence to say “I’m going to go to Ancient Rome, I know nothing about Ancient Rome and I could care less. I’m going to go and make a story that can move people now.” That’s the bigness of movie that I fear may be slipping away. “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Tiger” in a very different way had a real magic to it. And perhaps this year is just about that, this one year.

And is this the fault of the Academy?

The Academy trails along dutifully behind the industry. It’s not the responsibility of the Academy. I’m fond of the Academy: It does a lot of work that doesn’t get much notice, which is to honor and preserve film history. The weird thing about the Academy is that it is terribly vulnerable to the success of this one evening, because its income almost entirely comes from the show. What I feel is that the grip of the show is a bit less than what it used to be, and I’d hate to see that happen because of the other things that they do.

So you think that the grip of the show has slipped along with the grip of movies?

Well, one of the things we have to face is that not everyone goes to the movies anymore. And there’s a whole mass of reasons.

Let’s talk about those reasons.

Over a longish period of time the picture business has made it clear that they are aiming at an audience that is essentially 14-24 years old and male, because they find that to be the last reliable audience. Once upon a time those people felt that they were catered to, that there were plenty of films for everyone. You now have a feeling of this particular demographic edging out others, and you have the older generation in particular feeling that they are not comfortable with that young audience. They’re not comfortable with theaters that are half empty ... which happens often.

Also—and this is something that is not talked about—sound is not good these days, the projection is not good, and you have to pay a lot of money. When I say old, I mean people 40 or older. People think, “I’d rather not see this latest horror film with eye-gouging and so forth…. I’d rather sit at home and get a good DVD and see if it’s as good as I remember.”

So the balance of what people are watching is shifting in the process. People who once went out now stay home. I have a hunch that this could become a landslide. We have far too many theaters for the size of the audiences, and we’re going to have a lot more people staying at home.

For a young couple with a child, it’s so much easier to stay at home than get a baby sitter, go to the theater, and risk seeing a film that you’re going to be disappointed by.

And I think that more and more people over the past 20 years have been increasingly disappointed by what the movies have to offer.  Therefore, more reason to look at something they feel they can trust, an older film. And these older films stand up very well. There would not be the massive interest in DVDs ... if those films didn’t still play well.

Also, with a DVD, especially on a small one, the experience is much more like reading a novel. You pause, you skip parts you don’t like, you re-watch scenes you do ... you begin to think in chapters.

Exactly, you are in a situation where you are much more in control, and if you see a scene that intrigues you, you can see it again. It’s much closer to the experience of reading. In many ways, that’s good.  But it’s not like the experience of seeing a movie like “Jaws,” in which you find yourself completely overwhelmed. And once upon a time that’s what going to the movies meant.  I don’t mean to say that every week you got a feeling as profound or as big as that, but it did happen.

So seeing movies has become a private rather than a public experience.

Movies now are no longer a big shared event. One of the reasons the older movies still resonate so much now historically is because seeing them was a shared experience.

So now, would you agree that what’s replaced that is episodic television, waiting for what happens next week? So the water cooler makes television a shared experience?

Certainly, and in the case of a show like, for example, “The Sopranos,” it becomes part of the cultural currency. And people recommend DVDs to each other. But there’s not that same shared experience that goes back to the Golden Age of American film.

What do you consider the best film of the year?

The best film I saw last year, certainly in terms of films which would merit Academy Award nomination, would be “A History of Violence.” For me that would be the best film of the year. But I’m happy enough with [the idea of]  Philip Seymour Hoffman’s winning. Reese Witherspoon’s competition is not intense, she’s paid her dues ... and it’s a very tragic performance.

This year’s crop of films is very, very serious. Is there a sense of fun which is disappearing? Fun and comedy?

Yes—comedies and people associated with comedy have not done well. Preston Sturges never got nominated as a director. And in hindsight, you think “what are they doing?” 

If you look back at the history of American film, one thing that stands out is the Academy’s inability to appreciate what comedy means to people.

I cannot say strongly enough: Movies discovered that people all over the world can laugh at the same film. That is prodigious.

Look for more coverage of Oscar’s Political Year tomorrow:  The Tragedy of Comedy— a very different take on the Oscars from a director who was proud not to have been nominated for an Academy Award.


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By Jerry, April 18, 2006 at 5:55 pm Link to this comment
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I am a bit stunned at Thomson’s downplaying of the greatness and importance of Lee’s Brokeback Mountain.  To say that the film has only drawn a “limited audience” when it is currently the number one selling DVD on (not to mention one with a higher user rating) seems premature.  The fact is the film did spectacular box-office for a low-budget work that nobody expected to reach much beyond the art-house circut. 

It’s Lee’s best work to date, the most focused and the most affecting.  And like Spielberg’s finest film Saving Private Ryan it lost to a good but inferior film come Oscar night.  Having referenced Mr. Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary of Film countless times, I know that he was one of the few of us who loved the unjustly maligned Ride With the Devil.  Like that film, Brokeback grows even richer on subsequent viewings…a sign of a truly great work.

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By K Larabee, March 8, 2006 at 3:28 am Link to this comment
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“Brokeback Mountain” is not and never was a “gay” film. “Brokeback Mountain” is a *slash* film, and there’s a difference.

Slash, which is generally a subgenre of fan fiction (and usually written by straight, often married women), is characterized by straight men in a single homosexual relationship who - although they exhibit gay behaviors - do not have ‘gay sensibilities’, do not have previous gay relationships before this “One True Pairing,” and who do not go on to other gay relationships.

Google ‘slash’ and you’ll find plenty of it - Kirk/Spock of “Star Trek,” Jack/Daniel of “Stargate SG-1,” Nick/LaCroix of “Forever Knight” to name a few.

Even Ang Lee and Heath Ledger have said they don’t see it as gay, so clearly they understand slash even if they don’t know the label.
To call it anything else but slash is either oversimplifying or deliberately mischaracterizing what is obvious to long-time slash readers and writers everywhere.

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By Rob P, March 4, 2006 at 1:12 pm Link to this comment
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For many gay men, Brokeback Mountain was an emotionally powerful, even visceral, and haunting film.  David Thomason bemoans the lack of “visceral” films like those in the past that “just ... took people over” and he does not include Brokeback or any current films in that category. He mentions Blue Velvet and Millon Dollar Baby as two films with that quality.  I don’t understand why. I thought about “Baby” for about 2 minutes after it was over, mainly to wonder why it won Best Picture.  Hilary Swank was great, but I would pick her “Boys Don’t Cry” as the more memorable film. “Velvet” was interesting, but in a somewhat contrived way with intentionally bizarre over-acting by Dennis Hopper.  His “Easy Rider” would be my pick for a film that took many of us over at the time.  For me, Mr. Thomason’s opinions as a film critic are “worthy, but not great”.

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By Simon, March 3, 2006 at 8:23 pm Link to this comment
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” ... the liberal faction in Hollywood are much better at going to parties and raising money than actually making challenging films.”

I suppose you think it’s an easy thing, going to parties.  I reckon you have little regard for the art of choosing a cravat, or selecting the right product to convincingly position the remains of one’s hair at a rakish angle.  I surmise that, for you, selecting an hors d’oeuvre or chatting amicably about the narrative superstructure of “Lost” (when in fact the last several episodes are stacked up like cordwood on your TiVo, positively taunting you) is a simple matter.  But for some of us, it is our life’s work—and we are too focused on it to waste our effort on such fripperies as “making challenging films.”  Good DAY, sir.

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By denise, March 3, 2006 at 7:03 pm Link to this comment
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“Crash”. . . Overrated? Heavy handed? I think not. Being a native angelina and having witnessed and the way the members of our “multicultural city” far too often treat each other, I’d say that this movie hit the nail on the head and was a “sho you right” moment for anyone who claims to understand how movies can extract feelings of being “completely overwhelmed.” But perhaps Mr. Thomson lives in an L.A. that I don’t know.

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By jayed, March 3, 2006 at 6:07 pm Link to this comment
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It’s overlooked, but it knocked my socks off and that’s Felicity Huffman’s performance in TRANSAMERICA. 

There are two reasons why I don’t go to movies much—they are too damn expensive AND PEOPLE KEEP TALKING THROUGHOUT THE FILM!!  Audience members seem to have difficulty remembering they’re in shared space.  OR they don’t care.  Anyway to pay so much money and then spend half the time shooshing people just makes me crabby about the whole experience.

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By Bob Clawson, March 1, 2006 at 11:23 pm Link to this comment
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I think Brokeback Mountain is more than a tragic love story.  It’s political as well because in many parts of this country, particulary cowboy country,  being gay is verbotten.  Consider the fate of Matthew Shephard, a horrible death that occured “out west” just a few years ago.

After what Ennis’s father showed him when Ennis was a youngster, the queer in the ditch, Ennis knows that he’s up against a culture.  He HAS to remain in the closet in order to survive in his society.  That’s political.  Jack get beaten to death because he’s gay.  THAT’S political.

I think the film has other layers besides, and that it’s extraordinarly well-written and crafted.  Certainly one of the better films of this decade.


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By Robert Goodman, March 1, 2006 at 11:01 am Link to this comment
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I agree with almost everything Mr. Thompson has to say though “A History of Violence” I thought was a completely flawed story that was more of a Cronenberg resume pitch for an upcoming Hollywood action adventure picture than a good film. And what he is seeking is clearly present in Darwin’s Nightmare.

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By Andrea, March 1, 2006 at 9:53 am Link to this comment
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I don’t think I’ve ever read opinions about film that are so incredibly out of step with reality.

Firstly, to say that none of the mentioned films are groundbreaking enough is ridiculous. When was the last time you saw a major motion picture with a transgender character in the lead? And nevermind Brokeback, who ever heralds the work of gay writers or artists at all, much less immortalizes them the way Capote did? The political film that Thomsom so desperately wants to see will likely be made by Michael Moore, or someone else of his background. And yes - it will take ten years to make because of the ungodly roadblocks that are in place in terms of telling the truth in this country.

As for films that will be remembered in 50 years, is Thomson REALLY suggesting that Gladiator and Million Dollar Baby will be among them? Please. The reality about film today is that none of it will be remembered in 50 years. People have the memory of a gnat now and it is unlikely that that is going to magically reverse itself in the future. That is because we are awash in too much constant entertainment.

And - as an almost 40 year old female who lives in Los Angeles - I’ll be happy to tell you why people don’t go to see movies anymore - they’re just too damn expensive. Between the high cost of housing, medical insurance and energy, people just can’t afford to blow the $30 it costs to buy the ticket, parking, and the incidental box of outrageously expensive popcorn. Even thirty-somethings with good jobs are no longer comfortable. We struggle to keep up with rising costs not met by our minimal three-percent cost of living increases.

Movies have priced themselves out of the market, much like music did to itself last decade and now the industry will suffer the consequences.

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By GuitarsandMore, March 1, 2006 at 9:25 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

“North Country” and “Hotel Rwanda” are both far more important films than Broke Back Mountain.  These two films are examples of the motion picture industry at it’s very best.  Films can be used to document and communicate important historical events and provide entertainment at the same time.

“North Country” is about women’s rights in the workplace.  This is the story of a groundbreaking Class Action Lawsuit that paved the way for new women’s rights laws.  If you watch this movie you will be moved to tears more than once I predict.

“Hotel Rwanda” is an amazing story of how one individual, a hotel manager, by using his own wits, manages to stay alive and keep 800 hotel guests alive at a time when everyone around him is being murdered in the worst case of genocide in modern memory.  This true story is well worth seeing and far more important than Broke Back.

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By GuitarsandMore, March 1, 2006 at 9:04 am Link to this comment
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“Crash” reminds me a little bit of the old Billy Joel song “ The Stranger”.  You think you know who you are then all of a sudden the stranger comes out.  The characters in “Crash” are multi dimensional just like in real life.  Nobody in real life is all good or all bad.  Many of the characters are shown being the hero and later sometimes even the same day a mistake in judgment or a mistake in communication and they become the villain.

“Crash” also shows how the stereo type and the profile is the enemy of real communication.

This is a bigger film than you think.

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By Lev Raphael, March 1, 2006 at 5:33 am Link to this comment
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I thought the graf leading in to the interview really flawed in several ways.

—Munich cost $70,000,000, so how is that a small film with a small budget?

—Given that Brokeback Mountain cost $14,000,000 and has made about $127,000,000 worldwide (before the Oscars), how is that “small earnings”?

—As for political statements?  Brokeback is a tragic love story; Capote is a story about the depths a writer will sink to for an amazing story; Crash is an ensemble piece about urban tension.  I didn’t see any of these three films as having political messages or even being message films.

Finally, I’m not sure what your interviewee thinks is visceral, but I was rivetted by Capote, Good Night and Good Luck and Crash.  I thought all three were beautifully acted, written and filmed.

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By nathalie rachlin, February 28, 2006 at 11:55 pm Link to this comment
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Commenting on this year’s crop of nominated films, David Thomson deplores the absence of movies that are “wild, sensational, visceral, overwhelming,” and sees this years’ movies as only obliquely political.
While this may be true for fiction films, it is absolutely not true for documentary films. Two of the nominated docs, Street Fight and Darwin’s Nightmare,  and two docs that were not nomminated but should have been, Favela Rising, and Sir! No Sir! are indeed “wild, sensational, visceral, overwhelming” and politically hard-hitting. It might be that documentary films today are the best cinematic response our culture has found to counter the generalized mendacity we have been living under for the last 5 years.

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By don gerstman, February 28, 2006 at 6:35 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

first of all, let me talk about the best foreign movie of the year from Italy that wasn’t even nominated. It is called “The Best of Youth.” It was made as a mini series on Italian T.V. It is six hours long, but if you see it, the time will just fly by.  Probably as a movie, it is the best of the best. As for the best english language best film, I pick “Munich.” It had more depth,intrigue, and questioning, than most movies ask of us.

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