Societal breakdown – between countries, between children and authority figures, and between governments and their citizens – characterizes this year’s 10 most Oscar-nominated films.
Some of the films explore more than one angle of the dissolution. Clint Eastwood’s “Letters From Iwo Jima” pictures a group of Japanese soldiers, virtually abandoned by the government of the country they seek to protect, as they battle American forces in the Pacific. In Guillermo del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth,” a young Spanish girl seeks refuge from her step-father – a representative of Franco’s oppressive government. In “The Queen,” Great Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II wrestles with the public’s perception of her in the aftermath of Princess Diana’s death, while trying to reason with her indecisive son, Charles. In Martin Scorcese’s “The Departed,” the surrogate child of a Mob boss insinuates himself into the Boston police force, where he matches wits with another man trying to break free from his own checkered past. Ethnic and racial exploitation fuels an illegal jewel trade in “Blood Diamond.” And in Alejandro Gonzales Innaritu’s “Babel,” a couple seeking to reconnect after the death of a child becomes immersed in a high-stakes international incident linking three countries.
These themes hold through another four Oscar nominee-getters. In “Notes on a Scandal,” Judi Dench exploits the vulnerability of a younger teacher discovered in an indiscreet relationship with a 15-year-old student. In “Little Miss Sunshine,” a father seeks to compensate for perceptions of his own father’s disappointment in him by enlisting three generations of family members in his daughter’s dream to compete in a beauty pageant.
Relieving the seriousness and despair of most of the honorees, “Dreamgirls” celebrates the soul music of the 1960s and 1970s, but even that film can’t sustain its jubilation, fading into a melancholy but truthful tale of singers struggling for relevancy during a time of changing musical tastes. For pure fun, there’s “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest,” a movie so enamored with its own zaniness that it overstays its welcome.
Although the themes of these 10 most nominated Oscar contenders – including all five Best Picture nominees – are cumulatively weighty (as are most year’s major Oscar contenders), all but two of the films conclude with notes of grace and mercy. Although none in the group is appropriate for younger audiences, the field of top nominees is strong, and each bears closer examination.
The biblical title captures the fractured nature of human relationships, but does not self-consciously deal with the vertical, man-to-God aspect of the Genesis story. Nevertheless, “Babel” is an amazing feat. Innaritu’s study in fractured personal and international relationships (set in Morocco, Japan, the United States and Mexico) reveals the devastating consequences of one married couple’s attempt to heal after the death of a child; the unforeseen consequences of a gift that passes into the wrong hands; and the desperation of a deaf teenager in the face of peer pressure and the dawning power of her own sexuality.
Accused by some critics of being a heavy-handed exercise in political posturing, “Babel” is instead a full-orbed exploration of human emotion – not only pain, but reconciliation. An emotional workout – but in the best possible way – “Babel” challenges our assumptions about immigration, gun control, and parental involvement in the lives of children.
In a wide-open Best Picture race, this sprawling, moving film is a leading contender. Its main competition is considered, a little more than a week before the awards broadcast, to be “The Departed” and “Little Miss Sunshine.”
A wakeup call for all of us who have purchased diamonds, “Blood Diamond” reveals a dark side to the gem trade in Africa. Set during the civil war in Sierra Leone, the film shows how strongmen used forced labor to find diamonds in the country – where diamond exports were illegal – and then bribed officials across the border in Liberia, who mixed the “blood diamonds” in with the broader supply of diamond exports.
Leonardo DiCaprio stars as a diamond smuggler who has his consciousness raised over the course of the film, as he struggles with his own motives in helping a former slave (Djimon Hounsou) recover a hidden diamond. Jennifer Connelly stars as a journalist working with DiCaprio to expose the illegal smuggling operation.
Beautifully shot by Eduardo Serra, “Blood Diamond” is visually arresting and features fine performances from its principal actors. But the film grows tedious during the long hunt to discover the hidden gem. Every time the film slows down to focus on character interaction, an explosion or gunfire intrudes, reigniting the chase that gives the film an artificial sense of momentum, when a little more thoughtful reflection would have better served the film.
Brooding, bloody and violent, “The Departed” puts director Martin Scorcese back on the turf on which he made his name with “Mean Streets,” “Taxi Driver,” “Raging Bull” and, later, “Goodfellas.”
The public responded approvingly, making “The Departed” by far the top-grossing film among this year’s Best Picture nominees. The story of two Boston police officers with competing agendas, each trying to root out the other, was powered by Leonardo DiCaprio’s most mature performance to date (ironically, he was nominated for lesser, but still noteworthy work, in “Blood Diamond”), matched by Matt Damon, in one of his best performances. But the film’s strength comes as much from its supporting cast – Jack Nicholson, Martin Sheen, Alec Baldwin, and the Oscar-nominated Mark Wahlberg.
A remake of the Hong Kong thriller, “Infernal Affairs,” “The Departed” runs 50 minutes longer than the original and features more excess all around – more profanity, more bloodletting and more over-the-top acting. But the public soaked up this cold, brutal film. At least one sequel already is in the works.
This highly hyped movie is a respite from most of the other major Oscar contenders in several ways – joyful and exuberant during its first half, and extending across several years, this musical received a leading eight Oscar nominations. But in what came as the year’s biggest Oscar-related shock, “Dreamgirls” was not nominated for Best Picture or Best Director. Three of its nominations come in the Best Song category, while its most noteworthy nods are for Eddie Murphy’s fantastic, energetic performance as soul singer James “Thunder” Early and former “American Idol” also-ran Jennifer Hudson, for her breakout role as Effie White.
“Deamgirls” spans several years as it tracks the career trajectory of an all-girl singing trio and the performer (Early) who helped give them their first break. As the public’s taste in music changes, and as the era of music on the radio gives way to an era of TV performances, the Dreamgirls redefine themselves, at the behest of their craven manager (Jamie Foxx). Their story is one of so many soul performers, who fought discrimination only to see their work widely embraced after the same songs were popularized by white performers.
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.
The “notes” of the title are Barbara’s journal entries about Sheba’s relationship. But the film dwells on the scandal, returning repeatedly to scenes of sexual intimacy between Sheba and the young boy. Between Barbara’s wicked plan and Sheba’s unapologetic rationale for betraying her husband, the film leaves us with no one to admire. An overbearing musical score attempts to ratchet up the suspense, but the battle of wits between Sheba and Barbara, once Barbara’s plan is discovered, needs little supplementation. Both actresses give strong performances in the service of a seedy, unsettling story.
The strongest piece of storytelling among this year’s nominees, “Pan’s Labyrinth” is also arguably the best film of the lot. Too bad, then, that the movie’s several Oscar nominations don’t include Best Picture, Best Director or Best Actress. Had it been nominated in any of those categories, it would be a strong contender for each award.
The story of a troubled young girl’s flight from the harsh reality of Franco’s Spain, “Pan’s Labyrinth” is also a story of belief in things unseen, and it shows how the power of belief can lead to eternal rewards.
Although grimly realistic in showing wartime violence, “Pan’s Labyrinth” captures a childlike sense of wonder and a belief that the weak sometimes can defeat the strong – at great cost. It’s not an overtly Christian film, but the faith parallels are strong and the storytelling superb.
PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MAN'S CHEST
A gigantic hit that was despised by critics as much as it was embraced by the public, this sequel continues the saga of Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) as he bargains for his soul with Davy Jones.
Zany at times, in the vein of the Looney Tunes cartoons, the movie drags on too long and fails to provide closure for those who aren’t interested in seeing the already filmed third installment in the series. But as an impressive spectacle, the film was good enough to nail down four nominations in technical categories.
Immediately following the death of Diana, the “people’s princess,” the British people turned on the Royal Family. Why?
“The Queen” tells the story of Elizabeth, played by Helen Mirren, as she strives to keep the funeral of her son’s (Prince Charles) ex-wife a private family matter. Not realizing that her stoic response does not match the expectations of the people she represents, Elizabeth is slowly persuaded to open the grieving process to the rest of Great Britain and the world.
The voice of reason in “The Queen” comes through Tony Blair, very well played by Michael Sheen, who was overlooked by the Academy. As he gently prods the queen to reconsider her initial decision, he becomes the audience’s mouthpiece, criticizing the queen’s decision in private discussions with his advisors, but not allowing the derision to harden. Instead, Blair senses when compassion for and understanding of the queen are called for. What follows is an emotional crescendo that concludes the film.
These 10 films – representing the most nominated films among this year’s Oscar contenders – remind us of what a strong year 2006 was at the cinema. From the TV-style docudrama “The Queen,” to the multi-national “Babel,” and from the intimate look at the horrors of World War II in “Letter From Iwo Jima” to the joy and pain of “Dreamgirls” and “Little Miss Sunshine,” societies and individuals are grappling with breakdown and, sometimes, finding a way to come together. In a world where communication has never been easier, these films remind us of how far we still have to go.