How we got here

When the Oscar nominations were announced, many pundits hailed 2005 as the year of the small film. But there have been other years when offbeat movies dominated the picture category.

The Acad served up a crop of nonconformist noms in 1976, with three indies (“Barry Lyndon,” “Dog Day Afternoon” and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”), a film that broke most of the established rules of narrative cinema (“Nashville”) and one bonafide blockbuster (“Jaws”). Then there was 1997, hailed as “the year of the independents,” with “The English Patient,” “Fargo,” “Secrets & Lies” and “Shine” in the mix.

This year, “Brokeback Mountain,” a gay love story in that most macho of genres, the Western, appears to be the frontrunner. Co-producer/co-writer Diana Ossana says she was “haunted” by Annie Proulx’s short story. “I couldn’t forget it,” she says.

Ossana’s sentiment points to an element working in its favor: The Acad loves the visceral tug of a tragic love story, whether it be “The English Patient” or “Titanic.” Add to that its underlying message of tolerance and a vote in favor becomes a matter of political pride.

Once considered an Oscar dark horse, “Crash” has emerged as 2005′s Cinderella story. The film, a dissection of race and class in Los Angeles, is the kind of personal statement the filmmaking community embraces, and its social consciousness is merely icing on the cake. Some critics decried what they considered the film’s all-too-schematic polemics, but the Acad’s largest voting block, its actors, appear to have fallen squarely behind it

Lionsgate has done a superb job keeping “Crash” alive, making sure voters got plenty of screenings and screeners. Pic boasts cast wins from the Screen Actors Guild and the Broadcast Film Critics Assn. and screenplay laurels from the Writers Guild of America and BFCA.

“Capote” has been hailed as a showcase for Philip Seymour Hoffman’s uncanny portrayal of writer Truman Capote. But many have overlooked how cohesive a film it is overall. It’s one of the few movies to convincingly probe an artist’s psyche and reveal what motivates and drives him — albeit an artist for whom fame and fortune were as important as writerly validation.

“Good Night, and Good Luck,” in celebrating the integrity of CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow in his quest to pull down Sen. Joseph McCarthy during the ’50s red scare, has been seen as a comment on the current Washington press corps’ reluctance to ask hard questions. Producer Grant Heslov and hyphenate George Clooney, though, set out to make a film lamenting the unfulfilled promise of television as a medium for the public good, another a timely message.

And Clooney, who combines Cary Grant’s glamour and Warren Beatty’s political savvy, has become the poster boy for movie stars with something to say.

If “Brokeback” benefits from its underlying message of tolerance, “Munich,” too, has hit upon the current Middle Eastern conflict and the prevailing issue of terrorism and its repercussions as a way of generating debate. What has hampered the pic’s reception is the notion that Steven Spielberg none too easily straddles the fence between Israeli interests and sympathy toward Palestine — a no-win situation if there ever was one.

Oscar Pedigree

“Brokeback Mountain” rides into Oscar night with a Golden Globe and top awards from crix orgs and three major guilds: producers, directors and writers. Helmer Ang Lee has been nominated twice prior, as producer and director of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.”

Paul Haggis, the Oscar-nommed writer of last year’s best pic “Million Dollar Baby,” is a triple threat as writer-producer-director of “Crash,” which has the SAG ensemble cast kudo.

“Capote” buzz centers on Philip Seymour Hoffman in the title role. But no less an industry Brahmin than Robert Towne recently proclaimed that “Capote” was his choice for best picture. The National Society of Film Critics agreed.

“Good Night, and Good Luck,” although mostly lauded for Robert Elswit’s fine black-and-white cinematography, did win top honors from the National Board of Review.

“Munich” touts the most impressive Oscar pedigree, with Steven Spielberg having nine prior noms and three statuettes, not counting his Irving Thalberg Award. As late as December, the secrecy surrounding the project threatened to derail its awards chances. But it benefits from generally favorable reviews and an industry that tends to kiss Spielberg’s ring whenever he makes anything other than a popcorn movie. It pays to be king.

If you want more…

… on Munich 1972: See “One Day in September” on DVD. Kevin Macdonald’s gripping doc combines news footage with interviews, including a rare talk with the last surviving Munich terrorist. Those who prefer dramatizations can try 1976 telepic “21 Hours at Munich,” starring William Holden and Franco Nero, also on DVD. Pic’s writers include “Spartacus” novelist Howard Fast.

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