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Her majesty: Mirren and entourage in The Queen.

Notes on a Spectacle

War, crime, royalty, infidelity, pageantry, international strife—the Oscar nominees have it all, but not all of them will win Oscars

 

Best Picture

They’re at it again. In 2005, Clint Eastwood and Martin Scorsese went head-to-head in this category, for Million Dollar Baby and The Aviator, respectively. Eastwood won. Now they’re back, Eastwood with Letters From Iwo Jima, and Scorsese with The Departed. It’s a close call because these two great directors couldn’t be more different in style: Scorsese’s is excitingly seamy and unflinchingly brutal, Eastwood’s is restrained to such a degree that his direction is barely noticeable—a supreme compliment. And one that the instantly recognizable (style-wise) Scorsese should pay attention to: His last few films have been consistently marred by excess luridness. Another point: Both directors had terrific material to work with. But Scorsese’s film is noticeably a remake, of the sensational Hong Kong corruption thriller Infernal Affairs, while Eastwood incubated and personalized an original script, continuing his progress as a superlative anti-violence filmmaker. Eastwood also had the audacity to tell the story—of the doomed Japanese defense of Iwo Jima—from the perspective of the enemy. In their own language. That takes guts, and at a time when the only guts most directors will show are the ones dripping onscreen. So yeah, Eastwood deserves to win. Letters’ only competition comes from The Queen, in which an excellent script, assured direction, and a trenchant story (on the heavy price of privilege, among other things) were crowned by Helen Mirren’s multifaceted performance in the title role. As for the buzz-heavy Babel: It’s wrenching complexities, endurance-test acting, and dazzling cinematography signify almost nothing, except don’t forget your passport.

—Ann Morrow

Crazy grandpa: Arkin in Little Miss Sunshine.

Best Director

Since the nominees are only one movie apart between Best Picture and Best Director, it’s worth stating that the criteria for picture can be thought of as a balancing act, while direction should be a tour-de-force. Again, Eastwood wins, though his force is so subdued it’s easy to overlook. But it’s in there, in the straightforward enactments of the battles for Iwo Jima, in the finely calibrated ensemble acting, and most importantly, in his empathetic yet objective presentation of the Japanese effort to stave off an invasion of the homeland.

The rundown on the rest: No criticism whatsoever for The Queen’s Stephen Frears; he simply had an easier job of it than Eastwood, due to the script’s inherent drama (Diana dies, mob nearly rules), and the fact that the film’s success is practically a collaboration between director and star (Helen Mirren as flinty QE2). Docudramatist Paul Greengrass’ barely fictionalized take on the real-life events of United 93, a real-time portrayal of the fourth 9/11 hijacking, is thoroughly admirable. But he made missteps. The action isn’t as clear as it could’ve been, and he was a little too stringent about avoiding sensationalism; the film is slightly lacking in emotional involvement (the one aspect that the TV version, Flight 93, did better).

Babel, a cautionary tale of crossed borders and too-clever-by-half plotting, serves mostly as a showcase for the considerable talents of director Alejandro González Iñárritu. But flashy technique and a knack for pushing a scenario to its limits of believability does not a great movie make. Give this film Best Editing and be done with it.

And one last swipe at Scorsese, even though The Departed was one of the most riveting movies of the year. His indulgence of his lead performers’ most over-the-top impulses is getting to be a hallmark, and it’s not an advantageous one. Nicholson’s con-con brio performance as a maniacal gangster is a total blast; it also upends the gritty realism of the surrounding performances. Maybe Scorsese should direct an opera just to get it out of his system.

—Ann Morrow

Scene stealer: Hudson in Dreamgirls.

Best Actress

One of the many annoying aspects of the voting behavior of the members of the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences is the habit of nominating the same people, year after year. So it was nice to see Penélope Cruz recognized for her surprisingly touching work in Pedro Almodovar’s emotionally delicate Volver. Determined and brave and smart, Cruz created a multileveled character, interesting as mother, daughter and survivor. In any other year, Cruz would win in a walk. (Especially since she wore padding on her posterior; the Academy loves prosthetics.)

Unfortunately for Cruz, however, this is the year Helen Mirren turned Queen Elizabeth II—in The Queen—into a human being. Elizabeth is one of the best-known, and yet unknowable, women in the world; Mirren turned her into a thinking, feeling person of great stature. She also made Liz just a little bit sexy, which was freaky—in a good way. Mirren will win, and deservedly so.

The other three nominees speak to my initial point. Between them, Meryl Streep, Kate Winslet and Judi Dench have a gazillion Oscar nominations; if the Academy could, they would nominate them every damn year. Of the three, Streep really earned it this year. Her grand dame/grand dragon fashion-mag editor in The Devil Wears Prada is what made the film both entertaining and a huge, worldwide success. Kate Winslet was wonderful as a neurotic, dissatisfied housewife in the wickedly funny Little Children, but she’s lost Oscars in the past for more interesting performances (in better roles). As for Dame Judi Dench, whose presence makes (almost) any film automatic Oscar bait, I have no comment—on advice of my therapist. The year she gets a nomination for playing “M”, I’ll be OK with her.

—Shawn Stone

Best Actor

This could be a year in which Hollywood pats itself on the back for its progressive views with respect to race, age and independent films. At least, that’s what it would appear based on the list of nominations, especially for those in the categories of lead actor and supporting actor and actress. Then again, the voters of the Academy tend, demographically speaking, to veer toward the old and traditional, and the order of the day, historically speaking, has been to reward those with longevity, popularity and/or terminal illnesses.

Is anybody really banking on Leonardo DiCaprio bringing home Oscar gold this year? Don’t get me wrong—I think the actor did some great work this year. I am also thankful that he’s figured out that playing edgy, morally ambiguous characters is a better fit for him; he’s wonderful in Blood Diamond. Presumably, the best is yet to come from DiCaprio. Same could be said for both Will Smith and Ryan Gosling; Gosling turned in a masterful performance as a drug-addicted teacher in Half Nelson. (No more snarky jokes about The Notebook, if you please.)

So it comes down to Peter O’Toole and Forest Whitaker. Peter O’Toole is, IMHO, a celluloid god who cemented his relationship to his audience from the first moments of Lawrence of Arabia. Like Gary Cooper before him, this is a guy who was made for cinema, and the fact that he’s old and craggy doesn’t detract from his star power and genuine ability. That said, his role in Venus, as an aging lothario intent on, er, molding a young chick into something more ladylike, is downright creepy.

My money is on Forest Whitaker, for his chilling and yet compelling depiction of Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland. The actor is able to evoke an uneasy understanding of the very nature of power and corruption. His performance almost makes one lose sight of the fact that the movie lacks texture. Without a doubt, he deserves to win this year’s Best Actor Oscar.

—Laura Leon

King of the castle: Whitaker in The Last King of Scotland.

Best Supporting Actress

This category is packed with peculiar nominee choices. Take the two actresses cited for Babel, for instance. Adriana Barraza, as an illegal-alien maid whose life is turned upside down by a tragic incident thousands of miles away, and Rinko Kikuchi, as a troubled deaf-mute teenager lost in Japan’s garish urban dizziness, are the most compelling, and realized, characters in the film. Which, by the standards of Babel’s ridiculously schematic screenplay, means they manage to be two-dimensional. I guess they deserve something for making something from nothing.

Cate Blanchett could just as well have been nominated for Best Actress as Best Supporting Actress for her turn as an emotionally confused teacher in Notes on a Scandal; nominations based on marketing decisions are another annoying Oscar tradition. Little Abigail Breslin was cute as the would-be beauty queen in the overpraised Little Miss Sunshine, but hers wasn’t even the most interesting performance by a kid actor this year—not by a long shot.

Which leaves us with American Idol reject Jennifer Hudson, nominated for her film-stealing performance in the generally dismal Dreamgirls. (Has another major musical of the last 30 years had a worse score?) Hudson is stunning in her big scene, singing “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” and her performance is more convincing than anything else in the picture—Eddie Murphy excepted, of course. Hudson deserves to win.

—Shawn Stone

Best Supporting Actor

The slate of nominees for this year’s Best Supporting Actor award covers the spectrum when it comes to age, background, history. It’s hard to believe that Alan Arkin was nominated for the first time back in 1966, for his debut movie The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming. He’s definitely got the age factor going for him, and there’s a good chance that he will win for his role as the cantankerous grandfather in Little Miss Sunshine. This is the category, after all, where the academy is most likely to give a tip of its hat to an old-timer (George Burns, anybody?). However, Arkin is up against some pretty impressive competition, most notably Eddie Murphy, whose knock-your-socks-off turn in Dreamgirls was one of that movie’s few redeeming moments. Who was it who said that the best actors are the greatest comedians—or was it the other way around? Regardless, Murphy gives the performance of his life, and sings and dances to boot, so it’s safe to assume that this perennial nice guy will win big on Oscar night.

And what about the other contenders? Mark Wahlberg was spot-on as a hard-driving detective with the memory of an elephant in The Departed, but his work was overshadowed somewhat by a whole stable of good performances, including Matt Damon’s unrecognized turn as Boston’s biggest rat. Djimon Hounsou’s performance in Blood Diamond is strong and compelling, but becomes a casualty of the film’s love story, making this another in a string of “noble savage” roles the poor guy’s had. Of the remainder, only Jackie Earle Hailey’s performance as a paroled sex offender in Little Children has the meat and power to make a stab at stealing the gold from Murphy or Arkin. In another year, possibly, but not this one.

—Laura Leon


Kiss My Oscar

An Oscar party shouldn’t really be that different from a Super Bowl party—just bring a ton of
attitude

There’s a segment of the population which reliably, each year, celebrates the Academy Awards with a dinner party. If you’ve never attended one, it’s not hard to imagine: First, think of the last Super Bowl party you attended. OK, got it? Now, swap out the beer and substitute wine. But be prepared: You took the beer for granted that day. If you wanted a beer, you said, simply, “Can you grab me another beer?” You will not be allowed such a casual relationship with your beverage at the Oscar party. You will be expected to talk about your wine—or, among the butch-er cinemaphiles, the occasional microbrew—in tones as doting and proud as you’d use for your special-needs child who’d just won the spelling bee.

Now, picture the platters of hot and cold food. Subtract everything you ordered by name from the Grub Bucket and leave only the garnish. Now drizzle the garnish with Balsamic vinegar. Next to this place a befuddling variety of crusty bread, and remove all evidence of intentionally and decidedly melted cheese; replace with oozing, room-temperature cheese. To the untrained, this cheese will appear to have been abandoned; to initiates, it is known as brie.

Picture the attendees. Substitute for your jersey-wearing friends two of your college professors and all of their TAs, one barista, one unnervingly handsome Italian guy, one woman whose posture implies a barre, and one overweight and voluble guy with inexplicable and anachronistic facial hair (giant muttonchops, probably, but maybe one of those Amish mustache-less beards or a particularly demonic Van Dyke).

This is what you’ve got to work with.

Now despite the fact that the Academy Awards are industry awards, laypeople still respond to them as if they contain critical value. So, be prepared: Your partymates are going to strive to sound as if they’ve spent the last decade deconstructing the entire run of Cahiers du Cinema. So, don’t freak if you’re not familiar with terms like mise en scene or oeuvre, and don’t panic if you don’t know a dissolve from a jump cut. For that matter, don’t worry if you don’t know Cahiers du Cinema. We’re just trying to intimidate you.

So, here’s how you right the balance: One thing that is sorely lacking from this scenario, one thing that you can bring from your Super Bowl experience to restore equilibrium, is the glorious tradition of trash talk.

When they say that it’s about time Forest Whitaker gets his long-overdue award—“I remember his brief turn in The Color of Money,” they’ll say. “Even then, you had to admire his intuitive occupation of a role”—claim to admire his method: “I love the way he got his eye to cross for his portrayal of Idi Amin—and for his portrayal of Ghost Dog, and of Big Harold and . . .” Or just claim to have preferred him in Vision Quest, as Balldozer. Every time Whitaker’s name comes up, yell, “Balldozer!”

When they speculate about Eddie Murphy’s chances for Best Supporting Actor being damaged by his roles in fat suits, speculate about his chances being ruined by his roles as a john for transvestite hookers.

When they comment on Penelope Cruz’s performance in Volver, nod in agreement, then say, “Yes, she deserves the award. It’s long overdue. Did you see her as Tom Cruise’s girlfriend? Even then you had to admire her intuitive occupation of a role.”

When they debate the merits of the nominees for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress, growl with arousal every time Helen Mirren is mentioned. Do the same every time Abigail Breslin is mentioned. Just go with what feels right—or really, really wrong.

With just a little bit of pregame research—15 minutes on IMDb.com should do it—you’ll have as much information as you need to take ’em down. Now, get out there and give 110 percent. You’re gonna bring the game to them, lord willing. Oh, and hey, while you’re up, can you grab me another glass of the cabernet?

—John Rodat

QUICK HITS

Holding a Little Sister Down

Conspicuously absent from the list of nominees for Best Supporting Actress is Half Nelson’s Shareeka Epps. As the teenage student of Ryan Gosling’s character, Epps is simply, quietly phenomenal. As opposed to Little Miss Sunshine’s Abigail Breslin’s squealing, suburban fragility, Epps portrays a stone-faced urban optimism, beautiful in its modesty and unlikelihood. It’s the best performance by a young actor, not only this year, but in many.

—J.R.

Come Again?

Children of Men is deservedly nominated for two awards, one in cinematography and one in film editing. It will almost certainly win at least one—and should. But another category should be invented for this critically lauded flick: Best Christian Propagandist Parable. Nevermind Mel Gibson; Alfonso Cuaron hammers the point home relentlessly as any savior-flogging centurion, yet without any of that nasty anti-Semitic aftertaste. If the academy doesn’t thank this guy, the afterlife surely will.

—J.R.

Requiem for a Director

What happened to Darren Aronofsky? Wasn’t he promising once? Granted, The Fountain is considerably more confounding than is the Academy’s usual fare, but still, it was a great-looking movie. Aronofsky and his team eschewed computer effects and, instead, work with magnified microscopic images for an aesthetic at once hallucinatory and organic. It was both arresting and innovative. Yet, no nod for visual effects or art direction? Something? Where’s the love?

—J.R.

Better Than Babel

As you could guess from my picks for the Oscar chart, I liked Pan’s Labyrinth. A lot. While it did get six Oscar nominations, it was robbed in the major categories (Best Picture, Best Director). This terrifying adult fairy tale spoke to our sense of a world gone insane better than Babel; made violence more horrifying than The Departed did; captured the cruelty of war on par with Letters From Iwo Jima; and featured a lead character more regal than The Queen. (Forget about Little Miss Sunshine—as soon as possible.)

—Shawn Stone

The Debated

Metroland film critics separate the kings and queens from the little children, and predict who will bask in Oscar’s sunshine

 

Best Picture

Leon

Will Win: The Departed

Should Win: Letters From Iwo Jima

Overlooked: United 93

Overrated: The Queen

 

Morrow

Will Win: Babel

Should Win: Letters From Iwo Jima

Overlooked: The Good Shepherd

Overrated: Babel

 

Stone

Will Win: The Departed

Should Win: Letters From Iwo Jima

Overlooked: Pan’s Labyrinth

Overrated: Little Miss Sunshine

 

Best director

Leon

Will Win: Martin Scorsese, The Departed

Should Win: Clint Eastwood, Letters From Iwo Jima

Overlooked: Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Ferris, Little Miss Sunshine

Overrated: Stephen Frears, The Queen

 

Morrow

Will Win: Clint Eastwood, Letters From Iwo Jima

Should Win: Clint Eastwood, Letters From Iwo Jima

Overlooked: Christopher Nolan, The Prestige

Overrated: Alejandro González Iñárritu, Babel

 

Stone

Will Win: Martin Scorsese, The Departed

Should Win: Clint Eastwood, Letters From Iwo Jima

Overlooked: Guillermo Del Toro, Pan’s Labyrinth

Overrated: Martin Scorsese, The Departed

 

Best actor

Leon

Will Win: Forest Whitaker, The Last King of Scotland

Should Win: Forest Whitaker, The Last King of Scotland

Overlooked: Matt Damon, The Good Shepherd

Overrated: Peter O’Toole, Venus

 

Morrow

Will Win: Forest Whitaker, The Last King of Scotland

Should Win: Forest Whitaker, The Last King of Scotland

Overlooked: Matt Damon, The Departed

Overrated: none

 

Stone

Will Win: Forest Whitaker, The Last King of Scotland

Should Win: Ryan Gosling, Half Nelson

Overlooked: Ken Watanabe, Letters From Iwo Jima

Overrated: none

 

Best supporting actor

Leon

Will Win: Eddie Murphy, Dreamgirls

Should Win: Eddie Murphy, Dreamgirls

Overlooked: Adam Beach, Flags of Our Fathers

Overrated: Djimon Hounsou, Blood Diamond

 

Morrow

Will Win: Eddie Murphy, Dreamgirls

Should Win: Eddie Murphy, Dreamgirls

Overlooked: Michael Sheen, The Queen

Overrated: Mark Wahlberg, The Departed

 

Stone

Will Win: Eddie Murphy, Dreamgirls

Should Win: Eddie Murphy, Dreamgirls

Overlooked: Adam Beach, Flags of Our Fathers

Overrated: none

 

Best supporting actress

Leon

Will Win: Jennifer Hudson, Dreamgirls

Should Win: Abigail Breslin, Little Miss Sunshine

Overlooked: Maggie Gyllenhaal, World Trade Center

Overrated: Rinko Kikuchi, Babel

 

Morrow

Will Win: Jennifer Hudson, Dreamgirls

Should Win: Abigail Breslin, Little Miss Sunshine

Overlooked: Maggie Gyllenhaal, World Trade Center

Overrated: Rinko Kikuchi, Babel

 

Stone

Will Win: Jennifer Hudson, Dreamgirls

Should Win: Jennifer Hudson, Dreamgirls

Overlooked: Emily Blunt, The Devil Wears Prada

Overrated: Abigail Breslin, Little Miss Sunshine


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