Nothing here deserves to be characterized as morbid. Indeed, quite the opposite.
In a year when the Academy Award nominations are more diverse and international than ever before, it's anyone's guess who will win best picture. "Dreamgirls" garnered more nominations than any other movie, but was passed over for both picture and director.
But there are four categories that can be predicted with certainty -- best actress: Helen Mirren; supporting actress: Jennifer Hudson; best actor: Forest Whitaker, and supporting actor: Eddie Murphy. They have won almost every award, including the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and the Golden Globes. If any one of them doesn't snag the Oscar at the Feb. 25 ceremony, it will be an upset.
The world of the Academy Awards seems universally convinced that Forest Whitaker will take home an Oscar for "The Last King of Scotland." It would be well deserved, not only because Whitaker has a solid body of good acting behind him over the years, but because Oscar voters love it when actors remove themselves from the typecasting game and play a totally original character. Idi Amin, the Ugandan dictator in "The Last King of Scotland," is such a character. Whitaker's performance somehow combines Amin's blend of cruelty and jovial good fellowship in the portrait of an extroverted madman.
Whitaker will win the Oscar, although there are strong contenders, including Will Smith in an affecting role as a homeless dad determined to raise his son in "The Pursuit of Happyness"; Ryan Gosling as a crack-smoking but well-meaning junior high school teacher in "Half Nelson," and Leonardo DiCaprio as a mercenary Rhodesian diamond smuggler in "Blood Diamond."
Oh, and I left for last the sentimental favorite: Peter O'Toole in "Venus." What a one-of-a-kind performance from this actor, whose work always finds a new place to start from. Playing an aging, decrepit, broken-down actor relegated to mostly corpse roles, his character stumbles into an unlikely love affair with a troubled young woman, and finds it is too much a test for his frayed libido. In generous close-ups and sad, weary monologues, he shares with her what he knows about life, which he has apparently found mostly in barrooms and Shakespeare. O'Toole is such an interesting actor, who seems to know so much more than he tells, or dares to tell. He got an honorary Oscar in 2003, but has never won a "real" one.
Still, it is Whitaker's performance that will bring home the Oscar gold. I have especially great affection for O'Toole's work here, so I'll split my ballet, with affection on both sides.
Prediction: Forest Whitaker Preference: Peter O'Toole
The classic path to a Hollywood comeback is for a fading major star to find a great supporting role and work it for all it's worth. I predict that formula will win an Oscar for Eddie Murphy. Not many years after standing atop the box-office charts, Murphy became the victim of too many ego-generated projects and the enterprises of cronies.
Now, in Bill Condon's "Dreamgirls," Murphy forces Hollywood to take another long look at him. Bursting with what seems like fresh new talent, he plays James "Thunder" Early, a Motown star as a combination of James Brown and Jackie Wilson. Early gives a soul trio (think the Supremes) its start in show biz while fighting to preserve his own career. He's slick, extroverted, brimming with an inner joy (even in the sad scenes) because both he and his character know how good they are.
It would be an upset if anyone else wins this category. Yes, all four are worthy nominees -- (the most fun comes from veteran actor Alan Arkin as the earthy, foul-mouthed grandfather of a dysfunctional family in "Little Miss Sunshine"). Mark Wahlberg is compulsively watchable as a motormouth cop in the Scorsese film "The Departed." Jackie Earle Haley ventures far from earlier roles to play a pedophile in "Little Children" -- one of the least likable characters in recent movies. And Djimon Hounsou's portrayal of a proud, small-town fisherman in "Blood Diamond" is genuinely moving as he fights to regain his son from the reaches of a corrupt regime.
But Eddie Murphy wins the category, deserves to, and will be back in starring roles unless he continues to choose unfunny comedies done just for the money.
Prediction: Eddie Murphy Preference: Eddie Murphy
In movies where a famous character is being portrayed, there is always the dramatic "reveal" moment when we see ... why, that's Warren Beatty! This moment will inspire reams of disposable prose about how much the performer playing the famous character does or does not resemble its real-life counterpart. Sometimes they do, and sometimes they don't, and most of the time it makes no difference to the success of the film.
"The Queen" (2006) is a movie in which Helen Mirren, a British actress of limitless skills, often seen as a very ordinary person, plays the Queen of England. The "reveal" is boldly stunning -- not a coy glance over a shoulder, but a straight-on head shot. She levels a steady gaze at the camera. It contains a vast self-confidence that she truly and deeply takes very seriously her role and responsibilities. It is the best performance by any actress this year and deserves the Academy Award. It embodies all of the ways in which she tells us who this queen is, and why she is so stubborn about holding the line against a state funeral for Princess Diana.
There are four other notable nominated performances by actresses this year. Penelope Cruz embodied joy and fancy as a high-spirited woman who inherits the ghost of her own mother in "Volver." Judi Dench always great, doesn't disappoint as the ruthless and sly schoolmistress who discovers a new colleague is having an affair with a young boy -- and uses that information to advance her own erotic ambitions -- in "Notes on a Scandal." Meryl Streep was superb as a fashion editor of great ego and heartless ambition, whose career depends on cutthroat rivalry in "The Devil Wears Prada." And Kate Winslet gives an erotic performance as one of a group of suburbanites whose lives are played out in the playgrounds and bedrooms of their less than satisfied existences in "Little Children."
All good movies, powerfully acted. One of the strongest actress categories in years. All deserving of the Oscar. But I will not soon forget Mirren's sober conviction that she and no one else is the Queen of England, and don't you forget it!
Prediction: Helen Mirren Preference: Helen Mirren
It's not often that a movie audience breaks into spontaneous applause, but you're likely to hear it after Jennifer Hudson's solo in "Dreamgirls," and there's no doubt the audience is sincere. Jamie Foxx plays a music impresario loosely based on Berry Gordy Jr., explaining to Hudson's character, Effie White, why they are breaking up personally and professionally. Effie sees this not as a matter of business but of the heart. "And I'm telling you ... I'm not going!" she sings, in a broadside of talent and feeling and emotion. That moment isn't the only reason she'll win as best supporting actress, but it's a good one.
Hudson's story is the kind beloved by movie audiences -- how she was voted off "American Idol" and now seems on the brink of an Oscar. And it's the kind of performance movies like this need to anchor its show-biz familiarities.
Also nominated: Cate Blanchett, ethereal in her role of a teacher having an affair with her young student; Abigail Breslin as a smart, irrepressible offspring of a dysfunctional family in "Little Miss Sunshine" (she has her emotional hooks into everybody); Rinko Kikuchi, as a deaf grieving teenager in "Babel" whose life becomes a target in her world, and Adriana Barraza as the Mexican maid who becomes the victim of a border guard while returning from her son's wedding in "Babel." These latter two characters symbolize the way no one in "Babel" really seems to communicate.
Hudson's character doesn't communicate very well with the others in her rags-to-riches story of three girls who become overnight singing stars in the 1960s. Maybe that's because she speaks with honesty and openness, and doesn't understand their lingo of ambition and career shortcuts. Not since Barbra Streisand's show-stopper "Don't Rain on My Parade" in "Funny Girl" has an actress brought a movie to a sudden, shuddering halt of emotion and applause. But Hudson does, showing the kind of talent she must have been born with.
Prediction: Jennifer Hudson Preference: Jennifer Hudson
I've seen four of the five foreign film nominations this year and they are so gloriously diverse, hold such promise for the future that you could do worse than starting your Oscar viewing here.
I'm predicting that Mexico's submission, Guillermo del Toro's brilliant "Pan's Labyrinth" will win this category -- not least because it is probably the most widely seen. The political fable of a young girl drifting between emotional times at home and a scary forest wonderland amidst the backdrop of Spanish fascism and war, it crosses the visual fancies of comic books, video games and graphic novels, combining them in a work stirred up from the depths of his soul.
Consider also the other nominees, including Algeria's "Days of Glory" by Rachid Bouchareb. It involves young North Africans, mostly Algerians, who are required to leave home and family and fight for their French "homeland." After the war, their sacrifice is completely forgotten. Consider, too, Canada's submission, Deepa Mehta's "Water," the heartbreaking story of young brides, already widows, who are expected to live the remainder of their lives in solitude and involuntary labor. And also nominated from Germany is "The Lives of Others" by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. Using long-secret files of the Stasi, the East German secret police, it shows lives being methodically destroyed by a sadistic bureaucracy.
All four of the films I've seen (I have not seen "After the Wedding" from Denmark) are serious, focused, take their mission seriously. Any of them would be a worthy nominee. To choose one is not to choose against the others. But "Pan's Labyrinth" is fresh and innovative, and was rumored to be in the running for a best picture nomination. It is the one to beat.
Prediction: "Pan's Labyrinth" Preference: "Pan's Labyrinth"
A dark, scary, visually inventive sleeper named "Monster House" came out of nowhere to become an artistic success. But it has no chance to win the Oscar ahead of "Cars," a bright and cheery story with a little something profound lurking around the edges. This Disney/Pixar production is smart in the way that its 1951 Hudson Hornet manages to look simultaneously like itself and Paul Newman. And I suspect the academy voters will agree with the picture's nostalgic look at the simplicity of the "good old days."
Neither will "Monster House" win over another real sleeper, the unexpected "Happy Feet," which audiences loved for its heart and sentiment, not to mention its music and dancing penguins. Nevertheless, I don't predict these little penguins will waddle right up to the Oscar like "March of the Penguins" last year. I predict that the more mellow "Cars" will take home the gold. But I wish more people had seen "Monster House," the story of a group of children mesmerized by a seemingly intelligent haunted house.
Prediction: "Cars" Preference: "Monster House"
Screenplays are the mysterious engines that lurk beneath a movie, often much edited, sometimes rewritten beyond recognition. But the general rule is, if it ain't on the page, it ain't on the screen. I haven't read one of the actual screenplays of any of the nominees, but how many Oscar voters will have? Nonetheless, that doesn't prevent me from predicting that Guillermo Arriaga's work for "Babel" will win this category. It will win in part because it generated the best movie, and in part because its great complexity and ingenuity takes on a dread fascination.
Of the other nominees, isn't it a shame that the Academy Awards make no distinction between drama and comedy? Michael Arndt's work on "Little Miss Sunshine" uses inspired casting and Arndt's rapid-fire dialogue to create a comic gem. It's a story of a dysfunctional family driving cross-country to enter its beloved daughter in a beauty pageant. It has a lot of heart and soul, and is very funny. It deserves to compete in a separate category.
Peter Morgan's "The Queen" not so much creates but evokes a convincing Queen Elizabeth. Guillermo del Toro's "Pan's Labyrinth" is one of the most original fantasies since Grimm's Fairy Tales. Iris Yamashita's "Letters from Iwo Jima" hauntingly humanizes the Japanese soldiers fighting in one of the bloodiest battles of World War II and shows the chilling realism of that war.
But the academy will honor "Babel," not only because of its complex achievement, but also because of the thought and care that went into it.
Prediction: "Babel" Preference: "Babel"
I reviewed Martin Scorsese's first film in 1968, something I never tire of reminding patient readers. In the review, I predicted, essentially, that he would stand astride the film world in, oh, say, 10 years. And so he did. But where is the recognition? Where is the Oscar after 39 years?
America's greatest director has been passed over time and again for the Academy Award. This time, with his popular "The Departed," I have a feeling he will finally win his golden trophy. It is only a feeling, an instinct, but let's see if I'm right. The movie returns to Scorsese's favorite subject, gangsters in America, and once again stars some of the most colorful of American actors, led by Jack Nicholson. And in its story of double identities, it is surprisingly entertaining.
I admired all the other nominees, not least Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's "Babel." The mercurial young director moves far outside genre to portray a world where terrorism criss-crosses with crime and ordinary lives. I also admired Stephen Frears' "The Queen," with Helen Mirren's haunting portrait of Queen Elizabeth; Paul Greengrass' uncanny realism in "United 93 (which deserved the comparisons with a documentary), and Clint Eastwood's visionary, incredibly ambitious war drama, "Letters from Iwo Jima," which considered the bloody struggle from the Japanese point of view.
But Eastwood has won twice in recent years, the others are less familiar to Oscar voters, and Scorsese's time has come around at last. And, to cement this, he recently won the Director's Guild Award.
Prediction: Martin Scorsese Preference: For reasons of tact, I prefer not to reveal my preference.
Five films more different in style, subject and form would be hard to imagine, but here they are, the nominees for best picture. The daring, original "Babel" is thought to be the frontrunner, and I think deserves to be, but each of these movies is excellent in its own way. Rumor has it that "Little Miss Sunshine" is poised to be an upset winner, and in fact it won an ensemble SAG Award.
Martin Scorsese has made better films than "The Departed," but then he has never made a bad film. The prospect of a great young director, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, winning his first Oscar is matched by the possibility that Scorsese will win a much-delayed one. With the loss of Robert Altman, is any active director more senior and better than Clint Eastwood? And what a pure, stark war movie he has made in "Letters from Iwo Jima." His conception is so original -- two movies (the other is "Flags of Our Fathers"), one in English, one in Japanese. Both considering the same battle, both detached, low-key, lacking in action cliches.
No movie is harder to make, in a technical sense, than a comedy. But what a priceless one Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris have made in "Little Miss Sunshine." It has this combination of the transgressive and the risk-taking of this particular American genre, with Alan Arkin leading the parade as a vulgar but family-loving grandpa.
And what an achievement from Stephen Frears in "The Queen," where Helen Mirren bares everything in an original closeup that asserts she "is" the Queen, not an imitator, but an embodiment.
And yet Oscar voters often prefer serious, big-themed subjects of the kind seen in "Babel," a powerful group of international stories in which the secret human connections only gradually unfold. But the big upset could be "Little Miss Sunshine" because it touched something deep in the American psyche, and had people identifying with this odd family who pulls together when it matters the most.
Prediction: "Babel" Preference: "Babel"
I have only once in my almost 40 years as a film critic written these words: "You owe it to yourself to see this film." That was the power of Al Gore's movie about global warming, "An Inconvenient Truth." My review was divorced from politics or political leanings. It reflected the truth as I understood it, that global warming is real, and is partly caused by human activity. That view has just been ratified in a recent meeting of scientists. But aside from the content, the movie is well done cinematically.
The other nominees: "Deliver Us From Evil," "Iraq in Fragments," "Jesus Camp" and "My Country, My Country."
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One of the most important and dazzlingly original works by Coppola comes to Criterion Blu-ray.