Sunday, September 10, 2006


Many critics, insiders and casual Oscar watchers have lamented last year’s lack of great films, or at least films that scream for awards attention. It was an understandable sentiment; while there were highly significant and well crafted offerings (it could be argued that the Best Picture nominees of the 78th Academy Awards were the most deserving lot in a long while), those were mainly released in the last few months of 2005. Eventual Best Picture winner Crash was of course an exception, having been released early in the year.

How is this cinema year shaping up? The early consensus seems to be that 2006 is going to be a significantly better year for international film, with more than a few pictures having already gained significant attention at Cannes (most notably Alejandro González Iñárritu’s cross-cultural Babel and Pedro Almodóvar’s female-powered family drama Volver) and several others (among them Stephen Frears’s Helen Mirren-starrer The Queen and Kevin Macdonald's The Last King of Scotland, vehicle for a Forest Whitaker revelation) building momentum toward nomination time. Add to the mix standard Oscar fare (Clint Eastwood’s twin-bill Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima, Bill Condon’s much-hyped musical Dreamgirls), complex head-trips (Michel Gondry’s The Science of Sleep, Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain), and visual effects-dependent Holiday escapist fare (Stefen Fangmeier's Eragon, Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth), and we have an extremely exciting, eclectic mix of films up for the industry’s biggest honours.


The actors’ and actresses’ performances during the year are generally as anticipated as the pictures themselves, and few and far between are Best Picture nominees without at least one acting nomination, so it is no surprise that a lot of the early buzz this year has centred on performances ranging from intriguing to potentially powerful and star-making.

Recent festival talk from Venice and Toronto has revolved around two very different yet also thematically similar roles. In The Queen, two-time Oscar nominee Helen Mirren portrays Britains Queen Elizabeth II, going beyond mere impersonation to give another strong dramatic turn characteristic of the dame. Playing the Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland is Forest Whitaker, likely looking at his first nomination for an incendiary, bigger-than-life performance.

Annette Bening, nominated thrice and beaten twice by Hilary Swank, is heavily considered a near-lock for a lead actress nomination and perhaps even a win. She plays a mother with bipolar disorder in Running with Scissors, an adaptation that could also land supporting cast-mates Brian Cox and Jill Clayburgh nods. Bening’s is definitely a baity role, and unless Swank gets nominated for The Black Dahlia (highly unlikely, at least for this category), it could finally win her the statuette.

That is, if thirteen-time nominee and long-time winless Meryl Streep does not pull off a win from a highly probable fourteenth nod for The Devil Wears Prada. If Diane Lane can get into the final five despite the early release date of Unfaithful, then Streep definitely can, with what many consider to be her best, or at the very least her juiciest work in recent years.

Another dame, perennial nominee Judi Dench, can get into the fold of lead actresses for her role in Notes on a Scandal. But is she the lead or is it Cate Blanchett? Blanchett, however, can afford to give up that slot; she is also up for performances in The Good German, Babel and the Australian film Little Fish.

Among the ensembles, one would be hard pressed to find a larger, stronger one than that of Dreamgirls, easily the most Oscar-buzzed of all this year’s imminent releases. Any one of the main players, from R&B superstar Beyoncé to Oscar-winner Jamie Foxx, could potentially get a nod. But early screenings suggest that comedy icon Eddie Murphy and American Idol darling Jennifer Hudson, both having never been nominated, are the most likely to get nods and are in fact essential shoo-ins.

Diverse, but not diverse enough?

In the 77th Academy Awards, there were a record-setting five black performers nominated for acting awards, with one of them, Jamie Foxx, winning the Best Actor plum for Ray. If this prognosticator and several others would be proven correct, that record will be broken in the 79th. Aside from Whitaker, Murphy and Hudson, previous nominee Will Smith is also in the running for the tearjerker The Pursuit of Happyness. Derek Luke and Bonnie Mbuli may get into the Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress categories, respectively, for their strong roles in Phillip Noyce’s Catch a Fire.

But what about foreign-language performances? Penélope Cruz and Carmen Maura are fresh off a Cannes victory (a joint Best Actress award) for Volver, thus giving one or both of them some fighting chance to represent the Hispanics. Gael Garcia Bernal could possibly get noticed for his supporting work in the ensemble drama Babel, or, if The Science of Sleep is as well received as Gondry’s previous work (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), for his leading turn in that film.

Last year, at least three actors from the principal cast of Memoirs of a Geisha were buzzed as potential nominees. That was before the film came out and was generally spurned by critics. If the Japanese trailer is any indication, and if the Academy still loves him as much as they have in recent years, then Clint Eastwood is unlikely to fail in such a spectacular way with his Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima. His last two films (Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby) landed multiple acting nominations, so Eastwood definitely has a deft hand at handling his actors. If not one of the main actors from Flags, such as Ryan Philippe, then perhaps previous nominee Ken Watanabe can get a nod for Letters. Gong Li, a revered star of international cinema and almost a nominee last year for Memoirs, has a long shot at a lead nomination for Zhang Yimou’s upcoming epic Curse of the Golden Flower.

Themes of the films

Biopics dominated the film year 2004, with three of the five Best Picture nominees being films made about real-life characters. In 2005, politically and socially relevant pictures took top honours.

Some of the films this year seem to be in the same mould as some of the players in last year’s Academy Awards. Babel, a film about cultural barriers, can be this year’s Crash, with a strong social angle, significant critical favour this early, and a powerful cast that includes Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett and Gael Garcia Bernal. Emilio Estevez’s Bobby, which revolves around the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, is currently gaining a lot of steam in the race toward Oscar. It looks like the Good Night, and Good Luck of 2006. Catch a Fire can be an echo of Munich. In fact, even Truman Capote is back for another round with Infamous.

But it would not be entirely fair and accurate to see these critically acclaimed new movies as mere reiterations of last year’s crop of winners. Looking at the list of the strongest contenders to the top prize, one cannot help but notice a more diverse line-up than those of the last two years. Unlike Babel, Bobby and Catch a Fire, which are all only possible nominees at this point, the musical Dreamgirls is an essential lock, if very early reviews and buzz are to be trusted. Pundits are not so confident about the chances of Flags, much less Letters, which are epic retellings of the Battle at Iwo Jima, but Eastwood has clout among voters that cannot be denied. The Good Shepherd, directed by Robert De Niro, investigates the CIA, while Steven Soderbergh’s The Good German is a war-time romance/thriller. Assuming that distribution issues will be resolved sometime soon, a period piece about Francis Goya, Milos Forman’s Goya’s Ghosts, can get into the top five.


In the 76th Academy Awards, Johnny Depp was nominated for his memorable turn as Captain Jack Sparrow in the box-office hit Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. Prior to that, the revolutionary film The Matrix won all the awards for which it was nominated. Blockbusters, often loud, visual effects-driven mega-productions, have for a long time dominated the technical awards, particularly sound editing and visual effects. This film year is no different, and we could easily expect multiple technical nods for Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, which is only the third picture in history to reach the $1 billion mark in sales. The less-than-stellar Superman Returns can get noticed for sound and effects. Eragon, a potential box-office draw, can also garner nominations for its crew.

The summer box-office had a lot of room for an animated blockbuster. Cars was a huge success by any standard and so is in the lead for the Best Animated Feature award. Like other animated behemoths before it, the attention can spill over to technical categories like sound editing.


Milos Forman, Francis Ford Coppola and Brian De Palma used to be big names in film, but they have not had significant directorial contributions to cinema for some time now. This year, Forman has Goya’s Ghosts, Coppola has Youth Without Youth, and De Palma has The Black Dahlia. De Palma’s noir-ish suspense film can get mostly technical nods, particularly for its cinematography and costume design. Acting nominations could be in the offing for both Ghosts (Javier Bardem, Stellan Skarsgard, Natalie Portman) and Youth (Tim Roth, Bruno Ganz), but both have uncertain releases as late in the year as this time.

A more successful comeback story this year could be Emilio Estevez’s. Audiences have not seen him in movies lately, but Bobby, which he directs and acts in, could be one of the biggest players in this year’s awards derby. He managed to bring together a phenomenally huge cast that includes, among others, Demi Moore, Lindsay Lohan, Sharon Stone, William H. Macy and Christian Slater, and early reviews are favourable. Estevez could be sharing the actor-turned-director slot with Robert De Niro.

Among the actors, only Jill Clayburgh is a significant returnee to awards consideration, unless you consider Robert Downey Jr.’s multiple projects this year (A Scanner Darkly, Zodiac and Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus) a comeback of sorts. For his important, scene-stealing return to being an in-demand actor, Downey has the strongest—perhaps the only—chance for a second nomination with Fur.

Terrorism and 9/11

Much as the satire American Dreamz touches on terrorism, that is not the film on the subject that has been getting Oscar buzz. Paul Greengrass’s United 93 is a powerful film with unknown actors, and it is still one of the year’s most critically praised releases thus far. World Trade Center, directed by Oliver Stone, was almost insignificant in the box-office, and does not hold as much clout among critics as United 93, but it boasts of a stronger cast and a later release date. Among the actors, Maria Bello and Maggie Gyllenhaal have the most realistic chances.

In general, audiences seem to be emotionally ready to see a film or two about the tragic events of 9/11. But is the Academy prepared to honour such work? Given the number and strength of potential contenders for the top prizes, all less risqué, it is going to be an uphill climb for either film.

Another exciting race

The sheer diversity of movies and performances would have any true cinephile itching to rush to the cineplexes. How much more excited could Oscar insiders and enthusiasts be? Christopher Guest’s satire of the awards buzz, For Your Consideration (itself up for consideration this year), looks into the world of campaigning leading up to the awards season. Undoubtedly, the film will capture the exuberance of the whole process of selecting cinema’s best. No matter what and who get nominated at the end, being able to watch all these films and pick your own winners are treasures all to themselves. It is just icing on the cake when the name of your favourite is called out come the night of nights of Hollywood glory, the Oscars.

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