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The 2006 Oscar Nominees for Best Pitcure

Imagine a baseball season in which five teams are chosen winners without any explanation or statistical back-up. Then imagine one of those five being crowned World Series champion—again without explanation or statistical back-up. Would anyone care? Yet that’s how the Oscars work and we care about the Oscars. Or at least a decreasing percentage of us do.

It would be nice to know, for example, how close “Dreamgirls” came to being nominated. The general assumption is that “Letters from Iwo Jima” snuck in to take its spot, but for all we know “Letters” received more votes than any of the nominees and “Dreamgirls” came in 10th, behind “Children of Men,” “Apocalypto” and “Basic Instinct 2.” Our current assumptions are simply based upon our previous assumptions — which obviously weren’t perfect.

It would also be nice to know how these assumptions start in the first place. Why the buzz for “Dreamgirls”? Because “Chicago” won four years ago? When I finally saw “Dreamgirls” in December, I thought the great energy in the first half dissipated in the second, and the film limped to the finish line. Sure, the movie was fun. But best picture?

Of course I’m thinking the same thing about most of the current nominees. “Babel”? “Little Miss Sunshine”? My friend Jim calls 2006 the year of the three-star movie, and I tend to agree. Consider this: None of the nominees for best picture match up with any of the nominees for best cinematography. That hasn’t happened since 1927. Then consider this: None of the nominees for best picture match up with any of the nominees for best actor. That’s never happened.

No wonder this year’s picture nominees seem a fairly undistinguished lot.

“Babel”

Anyone else getting sick of these multi-story movies? They’re all over the place now (“Traffic”; “Crash”; “Bobby”), but they have a more-is-less feel to them: More characters, less depth. I come away hungry. I come away wanting to watch a real movie.

There’s also the problem of balance. In Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s previous film, “21 Grams,” I was fascinated by Benicio Del Toro’s Jack Jordan (one of the most original and complex and powerful characters of the last 10 years) and couldn’t care less about Sean Penn’s Paul Rivers (a lifeless, disinterested man)—even as their worlds collided. Whenever Benicio wasn’t on screen, my attention wavered.

Same with “Babel.” Once Cate Blanchett is shot, what does that storyline offer? A tempest in a teapot. The bus heads to a nearby village and Brad Pitt fights the other tourists to keep it there. He phones U.S. authorities. He beats his head against walls. The only question we have is: Will she live? Meanwhile, in the Rinko Kikuchi storyline, we have nothing but questions. Who is this girl? Why is she the way she is? No, don’t tell me the story’s going that way. Oh, it isn’t. No, don’t tell me she’s going to do that. Oh, she doesn’t. It keeps surprising. Her character is original and complex and powerful. And just as we’re drawn in...back to Brad Pitt. Yay.

Overall there are three storylines involving four families on three continents, and slowly we learn how they relate: The Mexican woman cares for the American kids whose mother is accidentally shot by the Moroccan boys with a rifle that originally came from the Japanese businessman. As God scatters, so Inarritu connects.

But we still have a problem of balance. There’s a direct, familial connection between Mexico/L.A. and Morocco, while Japan simply hangs around with its tangential “Winchester ’73” echo. And since the true Babel in “Babel” isn’t confounded language but confounded meaning via political assumptions—Muslims are terrorists, Mexicans are illegals—Japan feels even more tangential. It’s the best of the stories but also the most out-of-place.

Here’s a question: Couldn’t any film about international misunderstandings be called “Babel”? It’s a fairly pretentious title for a film that doesn’t cohere. Unfortunately, the Academy has a habit of rewarding pretentious titles for films that don’t cohere. See: “Crash.”

“The Departed”

Listen, while I love Marty, and would certainly vote for him for best director, partially for “The Departed,” but mostly for “Mean Streets,” “Taxi Driver,” “Raging Bull,” and “Goodfellas,” not to mention infusing us with his love of movies in, among other things, the documentary “A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies”; and while I would’ve nominated Leo’s performance here as Billy Costigan for best actor, and while I loved the film’s energy, and smart, fun dialogue (“Who this guy?” “I’m the guy who does his job. You must be the other guy”); and while the cast is—no pun intended—to die for, the film doesn’t quite work all the way through, does it?

I love the idea of a cop undercover with the mob and a mob guy undercover with the cops. But they wind up seeing the same woman? And sleeping with her? That’s some kind of bizarre Hong Kong improbability there.

More maddening are some of the characters’ actions. Frank Costello can’t figure out who the rat is? He was so suspicious of Billy he barely allowed him into the gang in the first place! And when Billy discovers that Colin (Matt Damon) is the mole, why leave the police station? Why not finger him then and there? And why the rooftop meeting? That’s authorial symmetry at work rather than character logic.

Marty, I love ya, but...not best picture.

“Letters from Iwo Jima”

Like Imperial Japan, Clint Eastwood loves a sneak attack.

“Million Dollar Baby” was scheduled to open in spring 2005 but out of nowhere its release date was moved up to December 2004—where it strafed the competition and took Oscars for best picture and director. Similarly, “Letters from Iwo Jima” was scheduled to open in spring 2007 but out of nowhere its release date was moved up to December 2006—where it won critics’ awards and grabbed the Oscar noms for best picture and director that everyone assumed were going to “Dreamgirls.”

It’s easy to see why the Academy flocked to it. Academy membership skews old and “Letters” has an old man’s leisurely pace. Compare Eastwood’s pace, for example, with that of his near-contemporary, Martin Scorsese, in “The Departed.” From the get-go, Marty’s shouting at us, swinging the camera around, playing with time. Clint quietly walks us around the island. Marty gives us rock ’n’ roll and Irish punk; Clint, the tinkling of piano keys. Each filmmaking style is actually reminiscent of how each man talks: Marty, a mile-a-minute; Clint, hardly at all.

The film’s subject probably appeals to the old men of the Academy, too: a “greatest generation” battle more than 60 years old. The heroes are the Americanized Japanese officers—particularly the Harvard-educated Gen. Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe)—while the villains aren’t so much American soldiers as the less-Americanized Japanese officers who counsel a beachhead defense, suicidal attacks, and eventually suicide.

There are plenty of ironic moments—Lt. Ito (Shido Nakamura) tries to kill himself via mine and American tank and survives; Shimizu (Ryo Kase), exiled from the Kempeitai for not shooting a dog, is shot like a dog after he surrenders—but the movie doesn’t feel ironic, just sad. It starts with Saigo (Kazunair Ninomiya) writing to his wife about the trenches he digs and asking the question every soldier must have asked: “Am I digging my own grave?” Near the end, Gen. Kuribayashi tells Saigo, “You are a good soldier,” but Saigo is beyond compliments. “I’m a simple baker,” he responds. Yet he’s also the last man seen fighting on the island, futilely, with the same instrument (a shovel) he held at the beginning.

“Letters” may be historical, but there’s another level at work. It shows us, several years after the U.S. is attacked, some of the last of the attackers holding out in caves. Initially they think of Americans as “savages” and “cowards” but eventually they accede to a more complex reality. I don’t want to reduce Eastwood’s complex work to an al-Qaeda metaphor, but, on this level anyway, the movie couldn’t be more current or necessary. A shame only moviegoers in the U.S. and Japan have had the opportunity to see it so far.

“Little Miss Sunshine”

“Little Miss Sunshine” begins with a family more dysfunctional than our own—each of whom is clinging to a seemingly impossible dream—and, during the course of a cross-country trip, each sees that dream slip away: Richard (Greg Kinear), the obtuse father, realizes he’s the in-joke we’ve known from the start: a failed motivational speaker; Dwayne (Paul Dano), the son, discovers his color-blindness will prevent him becoming a test pilot, rendering his vow of silence even more pointless than it already seemed; Frank (Steve Carrell), the brother-in-law, a gay Proust scholar, improbably runs into his former lover in a gas station in Nowhere, Arizona, making him realize—as if the suicide attempt did not—that that relationship is certainly over; and the heroin-snorting, porn-loving Grandpa (Alan Arkin), who trains his seven-year-old granddaughter, Olive (Abigail Breslin), for the “Little Miss Sunshine” beauty pageant in Redondo Beach, Calif., dies.

But as each person gives up their individual dream, each joins in making the dream of Olive come true. The loss of individual dreams makes the collective dream possible. During the trip, their yellow VW van suffers a broken clutch and has to be pushed by all family members until the third gear is engaged. The family is the broken van; everyone is needed to make it go.

Nice. But the film still feels false.

We know from the start what’s wrong with these people...and it gets corrected. The daffy becomes normal, the dysfunctional functional. What began with an “ewww” ends with an “awww.”

At least it’s funny.

“The Queen”

It’s May 1997, the day of elections, and Queen Elizabeth II (Helen Mirren) asks her portrait artist (Earl Cameron) if he’s voted. He has, but not for Mr. Blair, the Labour Party candidate who promises to modernize government. The laborer is a conservative. The Queen then envies him his vote since she has none, and muses on “the sheer joy of being partial.” The Queen, at least in her musings, is a modernizer. The fact that the artist is black adds poignancy to the scene—even as he reminds her that she can’t vote because it is her government. “Yes,” she says, in classic British understatement. “I suppose that is some consolation.”

The rest of the film, which takes place mostly during the week of Princess Diana’s death, concerns the ways in which it is not her government. The film also continues to play with notions of traditionalism and modernism: How that great modernizer, Tony Blair, actually helped prop up the monarchy by encouraging the Queen to break with tradition. A headline in the British tabloids reads, “Palace Bends Knee to Blair,” but it actually bent its knee to a modern media sensibility that is the antithesis of the stiff upper-lip: Show us your pain. Or more accurately: Show us our pain.

The irony, of course, is that the people who felt such pain at Diana’s death are the same people who devoured news of her life—and thus caused her death. Prince Phillip (James Cromwell) is probably the least sympathetic character in the film, but I agree with him completely when he remarks about Diana’s mourners: “Sleeping in the streets and pulling out their hair for someone they never knew. And they think we're mad!” In essence, he’s asking the same question Hamlet asked of Hecuba: What’s Diana to them, or they to Diana, that they should weep for her? It’s modern celebrity as our new dramatic art. Why read fiction or go to movies when celebrity gossip can give us our catharsis? The play’s not the thing anymore.

The movie itself is a traditionalist—all of its sympathies are for the title character. It’s also queenly in its circumspection. It doesn’t delve deeply into the personal and emotional lives of its characters. Diana was a terror, apparently, but how was she a terror? We don’t find out here. It’s a film that doesn’t take many chances, and one wonders if it would’ve been better if it had. As is, it’s simply an extremely well-made and professional film that engages and entertains and enlightens for two hours. We could use more like it.

What should’ve been nominated

So what would I have nominated?

Definitely “United 93” (replacing “Babel”). As I’ve argued before, it takes what will probably be the biggest event of most of our lives—Sept. 11, 2001—and reduces it to its essence, making it all the more powerful in the process.

“The History Boys,” too. As I’ve said before, it snuck up on me by suggesting a world less stolid and more dynamic than the one I live in. It dramatizes the poignancy and brevity of youth. It also shows what’s missing from our educational system: Not simply the breadth of Hector’s curriculum but the salesmanship of Irwin’s. For 13 to 17 years, our public school system implies that attendance and knowledge is enough: that if you do your work well you get ahead. Bull. You’ve got to sell what you know. People who imply otherwise are salesmen who don’t want the competition.

Just look at the Academy Awards. A salesman’s paradise.

And the winner is...

For the third year in a row, best picture is a tough call. The acting awards feel sewn up—Whitaker, Mirren, Murphy, Hudson—but the various critics and industry awards have been all over the place for picture: Golden Globe to “Babel,” Directors Guild Award (DGA) to “The Departed,” and Producers Guild (PGA) and Screen Actors Guild (SAG) awards to “Little Miss Sunshine.”

It used to be fairly simple to predict best picture. Whichever director won the DGA won the Academy Award for direction; and that person’s picture won best picture. Happened every year between 1973 and 1994, except for three years in the ’80s.

This decade has already seen that many exceptions. In 2000, Ang Lee won the DGA for “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” Soderburgh won the Oscar for “Traffic,” and best picture went to “Gladiator. In 2002, Rob Marshall won the DGA for “Chicago,” which won best picture, but Roman Polanski nabbed the best director Oscar for “The Pianist.” And last year, Ang Lee won the DGA and Oscar for “Brokeback Mountain” but picture went to “Crash.”

This year, most assume that DGA winner Martin Scorsese will finally, finally get his Oscar for best director. Fingers and toes crossed on that. But “The Departed” is probably too violent for Academy tastes. Plus, a remake of a Hong Kong flick has never won best picture, and I doubt Academy members are in the mood to set that precedent.

“Letters from Iwo Jima”? No foreign language film has ever won best picture, and it wasn’t even nominated for most industry awards. Not SAG, not PGA, not DGA. Too bad. It’s my favorite of the bunch.

The main thing “The Queen” has going for it is Helen Mirren’s brilliant performance, which is the only lead acting nomination from a nominated picture. Will it be enough? Probably not. But it’s a film worth seeing.

“Little Miss Sunshine”? Its directors weren’t even nominated, and the last time unnominated direction won best picture was in 1989. It’s also a comedy, and you can count best picture comedies on one hand—even if you spent your life working in a railroad yard. And yet: critical darling, surprise box office success, SAG and PGA. The SAG Awards have only been around since 1996, and its award for ensemble cast has gone to such Oscar non-starters as “The Birdcage,” “The Full Monty” and “Gosford Park.” But the two biggest best picture upsets in recent years were prefigured by SAG’s ensemble cast award: “Shakespeare in Love” and “Crash.” And has any movie won PGA and SAG and not won best picture? We’re only talking three pictures (“American Beauty,” “Chicago,” “Lord of the Rings”), but the answer is no.

Even so, I assume best picture will go to “Babel.” Not because it won the Golden Globe, and not because it dramatizes seemingly weighty issues. It will win because of a little talked-about but fairly accurate predictor of Academy behavior: It’s the movie I least want to win. See: “Crash.”

—Erik Lundegaard is the guy who does his job; the Academy must be the other guy. This piece was originally published on MSNBC.com.