Dynamite during its early going, and appropriately melancholy as the fortunes of its principal players sink, “Dreamgirls” nevertheless is too much. The good will it generates early on dissipates significantly by the film’s dreary end, but Murphy’s electrifying turn and Hudson’s strong screen presence make the movie worthwhile, if not Best Picture worthy.

LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA
Clint Eastwood
’s second 2006 film about the Battle of Iwo Jima is told, this time, from the perspective of the Japanese forces (whereas Eastwood’s earlier “Flags of Our Fathers” told of the same battle from the viewpoint of American soldiers reflecting on the battle, and on the motives of the U.S. government in publicizing the men’s bravery).

Here, we meet a general (Ken Watanabe) who has little animosity toward America, but who tries to preserve his men’s dignity in the face of a doomed mission. With no air or naval support for the Japanese forces, the soldiers await the arrival of the Americans, digging tunnels in which they hide and write letters to home.

The film doesn’t revel in anti-Americanism, reserving its harshest critique for the Japanese government, which instilled a death-with-dignity mentality among its men that encouraged suicide as a noble, honorable decision in the face of certain death. Most disturbing was the men’s religious-like devotion to their country and emperor – something that might have been brought out more fully in this otherwise outstanding piece of work.

LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE
One of the best comedies of the last several years, “Little Miss Sunshine” features wonderful ensemble acting from Steve Carell, Paul Dano, Abigail Breslin, Alan Arkin, Toni Collette and Greg Kinnear. Breslin and Arkin are both nominated for their supporting roles.

This story of a young girl’s dream – to compete in the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant – serves as the plot device to show us the simmering resentments of three generations living under one roof. The gruff grandfather, who complains about yet another KFC family dinner; the frazzled mother, trying to feed her brood while her husband pursues a flagging career as a motivational speaker; the suicidal uncle, recovering from a failed homosexual relationship; the teenage son, who silently resents his father’s platitudes; and the young Olive, whose quest to be crowned Little Miss Sunshine becomes the focal point for a family road trip (launched to the majestic strains of Christian singer/songwriter Sufjan Stevens’ “Chicago”).

The first 20 minutes of “Sunshine,” during which each character is introduced, may be the most amusing stretch of any film from 2006. Painfully funny, they set up a touching portrait of a fractured family clinging to individual hopes – financial gain, flight-school admission and stable relationships – that can’t be properly addressed until the individuals come together in a common cause. It’s a microcosm of the communication breakdown writ large in “Babel,” but the emphasis here is on joy, healing and common causes.

Although the film goes further than it needs to in discussions of sex, its depiction of drug use and its snapshot of the excesses of beauty pageants for minors, the picture of family coming together through these trials makes for one of the most genuinely felt comedies in ages.

NOTES ON A SCANDAL
New art teacher Sheba (Cate Blanchette) catches the attention of a much older teacher, Barbara (Judi Dench) – a lesbian who exploits a weakness to make the younger woman dependent on her for her livelihood and reputation. The cause of the emotional blackmail is Sheba’s troubling decision to enter into an adulterous affair with a teenage student.