Film Studies: And the award for the best (and last) blockbuster goes to...

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The Independent Culture

All over the Western world, groups are gathering - the various guilds that represent movie-making, and the unlikely associations that have been formed to boost the importance of those who report on films - and there is new language in their announcements: this film, or that one, only cost so very little - $13m for Brokeback Mountain; $7m for Good Night, and Good Luck; and just $1.5m for The Squid and the Whale. In one area at least, therefore, America is making economies, and congratulating itself for doing so.

Of course, self-congratulation is really the point, and awards are breeding now as rapidly as film festivals. Still, this point is worth making: that, more or less, the scale and gravity of the so-called "independent" film (the one made outside the banking system and the cheerful attitudes of Hollywood) has become the mainstream movie. The huge fabrication, the collective indulgence of so many undeserving people with huge pay-days - that is the kind of production that now seems under threat.

There is one possible bull in this tidy china-shop - no, the metaphor is not well-judged. But I am writing this survey on the morning of Wednesday 14 December. Yesterday, the Foreign Press Association announced their nominations for the Golden Globes, and Brokeback Mountain took the most: seven. This is the movie, by Ang Lee, about cowboys who fall in love in Wyoming.

It has already won critics' awards from Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco, and it is the film of the moment: ideally brave, modest, sensitive and different. I'm not mad about it, but I'm ready to defend it on all those accounts.

I'm glad it was made. But this moment is the morning of 14 December. In 24 hours, we may have experienced an invasion that alters everything. Turn the page of the paper from the Golden Globes story and you find an image of a girl and a monkey big enough to be her cottage, with the word that King Kong "Starts Today at Theatres Everywhere".

King Kong cost over $200m (which is ridiculous), but the film is as proud of its testosterone as Kong is of his massive strength. I think it quite possible that Kong will surpass the present box-office record held by Titanic. It deserves to go that high, for it is flat-out brilliant in nearly every detail except being half an hour too long. Not that there are many sequences the fans will want to sacrifice. And while we expected the onslaught of money and computer effects, the best thing about this King Kong is the way Peter Jackson has re-invented and enriched the love story. This is not a review, and I'm going into no detail, but King Kong is what the movies are meant to be. Brokeback Mountain is something else. That something else may be the future, and it is worthy, honorable and sensible. But it may mean the old-fashioned movie is over.

Anyway, the thrust of this article is to predict the Oscar nominations in the four acting categories, and that is why I want to start by saying that Naomi Watts should get a nod playing the girl in Kong's hand - Ann Darrow she is called, but many of us regard her as "Fay Wray". You can say that the actress in Kong has little to do but look frantic, scream in many different ways and try to keep her clothes on. But, in this film, she has to fall in love, too, and the success is breathtaking.

Challenging Ms Watts, I foresee Reese Witherspoon as June Carter Cash in Walk the Line, Keira Knightley in Pride and Prejudice, Felicity Huffman in Transamerica and maybe Laura Linney in The Squid and the Whale.

Linney is a perpetual nominee if seldom a winner. Knightley is there because I think everyone knows she's going to get an Oscar one day. Huffman is there because her performance (as a man seeking a sex-change operation) is superb, thoughtful and tender in ways that mask the real slenderness of the film. Reese Witherspoon could easily win because she is just a few years ahead of Ms Knightley, and because she is the fount of feeling in her very enjoyable film. It's Witherspoon or Watts.

In the best supporting actress category, I find it very hard to pick a winner from Catherine Keener (as Harper Lee) in Capote; Maria Balio as the wife in A History of Violence; Gong Li as a kind of Joan Crawford figure in the wretched Memoirs of a Geisha; Judi Dench in Pride and Prejudice; and Scarlett Johansson in Woody Allen's Match Point. Keener is deserving and popular and very good. Johansson is somehow the centre of her film. One of them gets it.

Under supporting actor, I can easily see nominations going to Ed Harris and William Hurt for A History of Violence, Frank Langella and David Strathairn in Good Night, and Good Luck, and Paul Giamatti as the trainer in Cinderella Man. Despite every effort at re-release, Ron Howard's boxing picture never found an audience, so Giamatti may have to wait. Langella is a star-turn as CBS boss William Paley; and David Strathairn may be thrust into the category of lead actor for his Edward R Murrow. That would be a pity - everyone is in support in the Murrow film. That leaves Hurt and Harris, and I have to say that Ed Harris has been so close so often before I think he wins this time.

Best actor remains. Ever since Capote opened, it was plain that Philip Seymour Hoffman's scintillating impersonation would get a nod - and now we know how well the film has done. Heath Ledger is a revelation in Brokeback Mountain (and he has the very different Casanova lurking in voters' minds, too). I would propose Eric Bana as the leader of the vengeful group in Steven Spielberg's extraordinary Munich - which is bound to be very controversial.

The most human work I saw all year was Jeff Daniels in The Squid and the Whale. And you can't really omit Joaquin Phoenix and his Johnny Cash in Walk the Line. The Winner? Hoffman, I think. If he does win, it will be fascinating to see what this ideal supporting actor does with his opportunity.

So, Best Picture. I think the nominations will be Brokeback Mountain, Capote, Good Night, and Good Luck, Munich and King Kong. And if Munich makes too much trouble for itself, why not Match Point? In the end, though, it will be Brokeback or Kong, and the winner will be an indication of what Hollywood now regards as its future.

d.thomson@independent.co.uk

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