Monday, March 26, 2012

Best Picture of 2006

Here we are again, only a mere three and a half months since the last verdict... Sarcasm aside, I will obviously need to pick up the pace a bit. At this rate, it will take another 20 years to finish this project. Not ideal. Nonetheless, we're all having fun, right?

The nominees for Best Picture of 2006 are:
  • Babel
  • The Departed
  • Letters from Iwo Jima
  • Little Miss Sunshine
  • The Queen
The five contenders for 2006 are quite an impressive bunch. All five are engaging and thought-provoking, and any of them could appropriately be named my favourite. But a five-way tie is not what this verdict is about, so...

Little Miss Sunshine is quirky and lovable, and while its climax is deeply moving, it doesn't quite match the consistent intensity of the other films. Call it the comedy curse, but such is the tendency of those who give out accolades, even insignificant ones like mine. I will remove The Queen from the running also, for similar reasons. It's not a comedy, obviously, but its simplicity, while enhancing the film's enjoyment, is overshadowed by more complex stories from the other nominees.

Babel, The Departed and Letters from Iwo Jima are all deeply absorbing and include many heart-stopping moments. Choosing a favourite from this trio is no easy task. So, through no failing of the other two, I will declare The Departed as my pick of the 2006 Best Picture competition, another match the Academy's decision.

Best Picture of 2006
Academy's choice:

The Departed

Matt's choice:

The Departed

Your choice:

Make your own selection by voting in the poll above. Next up, we move to the 1950s for yet another diverse selection of cinematic classics.

And the nominees for Best Picture of 1959 are:
  • Anatomy of a Murder
  • Ben-Hur
  • The Diary of Anne Frank
  • The Nun's Story
  • Room at the Top
If you'd like to follow along with me, check out these titles at Amazon.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

2006 - Little Miss Sunshine

As we finally wind down the current year of review, don't forget to cast your vote for the next one. Just use the poll sitting on the right hand side of your screen.

The final nominee to ponder from 2006's Best Picture competition is...

Little Miss Sunshine
Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris
Michael Arndt
Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette, Steve Carell, Paul Dano, Abigail Breslin, Alan Arkin
Academy Awards:
4 nominations
2 wins, including Best Supporting Actor (Arkin) and Best Original Screenplay

The dysfunctional Hoover family is certainly unique. Dad Richard (Kinnear) is a less than successful motivational speaker with a disdain for losers. His long-suffering wife Sheryl (Collette) tries to keep the family together as best she can. When their naive daughter Olive (Breslin) is unexpectedly selected to participate in the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant in Redondo Beach, California, the family packs into their yellow and white Kombi van to make the journey. Reluctantly joining them are eldest son Dwayne (Dano) who has taken a vow of silence until he gets his pilot's license, and Sheryl's depressed brother Frank (Carell), a Proust scholar now on suicide watch. For the talent portion of the beauty contest, Olive is learning a dance routine taught to her by her Grandpa (Arkin), the crude senior member of the family who has taken up heroin in his old age because, well, why not?

Little Miss Sunshine is about as charming and quirky as independent cinema gets. The characters are subtly outrageous, finding themselves in funny and awkward situations scene after scene. From the relentlessly uncooperative vehicle to stealing a dead body from a hospital, some of the circumstances may stretch the verisimilitude beyond silly, but the sense of charm remains nonetheless. And it wouldn't be a quirky indie film without its fair share of poignancy. Michael Arndt's Oscar-winning screenplay satirically explores America's arguably unhealthy attitude towards winning and competition, and there is perhaps no greater example of this than the child beauty pageant.

There is awkwardness in Richard's obsession with losers (his 9-step motivational program is entitled Refuse to Lose), especially when he imparts his unsustainable goal of always winning to his young daughter. But the rest of the family is always waiting in the wings to encourage Olive again and remind her that giving it your best is more important and, besides, she's still a kid. While these poignant moments occasionally drift into sentimentality, albeit only slightly, directors Dayton and Faris are careful to keep it to a minimum. Perfection is found, however, in the climactic scene when Olive's family joins her up on stage for her dance routine. Both silly and heartwarming, it is one of those rarities that elicits simultaneous laughter and tears.

As is so often the case in this project (undoubtedly influenced by my choice of career), I find myself praising the cast, who all deliver brilliant performances. Paul Dano brings a touching edge to brooding teenage angst. 10-year-old Abigail Breslin is obliviously cheerful, earning herself a Supporting Actress Oscar nomination. And of course Alan Arkin's natural portrayal of a brutally honest man, too old to care about what people think of him any more, is a pure delight, winning him a well-deserved Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

2006 - Letters from Iwo Jima

And the Oscars have come and gone for another year. There were a couple of minor surprises - Meryl Streep winning again for the first time in almost 30 years, and the editing team of Angus Wall and Aussie Kirk Baxter scoring back-to-back wins in Film Editing. It was also nice to see Billy Crystal again. He's like a comfortable blanket. It just feels like the Oscars when he hosts. My predictions were not too embarrassing. I correctly pegged 16 winners, one better than last year, so I'll take it.

For a chuckle, take a look at the menu for my annual Oscars party.

The next nominee from the Best Picture competition of 2006 is...

Letters from Iwo Jima
Clint Eastwood
Iris Yamashita and Paul Haggis
(based on the book Picture Letters from the Commander in Chief by Tadamichi Kuribayashi, edited by Tsuyuko Yoshida)
Ken Watanabe, Kazunari Ninomiya, Tsuyoshi Ihara, Ryo Kase, Shido Nakamura, Hiroshi Watanabe, Takumi Bando, Yuki, Matsuzaki
Academy Awards:
4 nominations
1 win, for Best Sound Editing

The fierce Battle of Iwo Jima is told from a Japanese perspective, the story giving focus to two particular men, representing different extremes of military personnel. General Kuribayashi (Watanabe) is the commander, newly assigned to defend the island, and acutely aware of the near impossibility of that task against the might of the US military. His job is made all the more difficult as his subordinates begin acting ... well, insubordinately. At the other end of the spectrum is Private Saigo (Ninomiya), a reluctant conscript with a determination to survive in the face of a less than pleasant superior officer.

The story is based partly on letters written by the real General Kuribayashi and, as the title indicates, they are used as one of the main thematic devices. Characters often inexplicably find the time to sit down and write their inner most thoughts (audible to us through voice over) to their loved ones waiting at home. Oddly, that particular element of the film doesn't really resonate, seeming like an old-fashioned cliche in an otherwise excellent film.

Letters from Iwo Jima features some amazing battle scenes, and lots of them. The superb cinematography and Oscar-winning sound make for gripping viewing. Not to mention the insanely graphic visual effects that allow the camera to remain focused on a soldier as he intentionally blows himself up with a hand grenade. Combined with the emotional intensity of the situation, portrayed in riveting conversations about strategy, honour and the glory of the homeland, the result is a highly engaging entry into the war genre.

Speaking of glory, the film questions the skewed concept of honour that lingered in Japanese culture. Rather than working together to defeat the enemy, many soldiers selfishly concentrate on their own failures, preferring to die completing a mission than suffer the perceived shame of retreating, even if the retreat would enable them to assist in a potentially more useful way. I mean, it seems rather obvious that you're a lot less helpful to your army after you've committed suicide, yet for many of these men, suicide is the only honourable option under the circumstances. And suicide by their own grenades, no less. Perhaps they took the phrase, "no guts, no glory" a little too literally.

It's always somewhat difficult to understand nuance in a language that you don't speak, so there is undoubtedly something in this film that non-Japanese speakers like myself will miss. Nonetheless, Ken Watanabe's performance as the commander in chief is clearly excellent, even if you have to read his lines yourself. Not known outside his home country, Japanese boy band member Kazunari Ninomiya also delivers a superbly amiable performance as the green but smart Saigo. And for the trivia buffs, if I'm not mistaken, Letters from Iwo Jima is the only American film to win the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film.