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Monday, January 23, 2017

10 Years Later... the 79th Academy Award Nominees

It's that time once again. This year's Oscar nominees will be announced tomorrow, but ten years ago today the nominees for the 79th Academy Awards were announced. Let's take a look back on what AMPAS deemed "the best" from 2006, focusing primarily on the categories of Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Supporting Actress, and Supporting Actor.

Best Picture
The Departed (winner)
Letters from Iwo Jima
Little Miss Sunshine
The Queen

AMPAS started recognizing Martin Scorsese's work early and consistently (The Departed was his 20th feature film, of which 13 had received at least one Oscar nomination and this was his 6th film to be nominated as Best Picture), yet somehow managed to avoid actually awarding him for 30-ish years. Superficially The Departed seems less "Oscar-y" than his previous two Best Picture nominees (Gangs of New York and The Aviator), but it's hard to argue against this gritty crime drama where cops masquerade as criminals and criminals as cops. Also nominated were Babel, a multi-thread, globe spanning drama; Letters from Iwo Jima, a rare American-made war film that tells its story from the point of view of the enemy combatants; Little Miss Sunshine, a comedy that would show up in the Cinema Dictionary under the term "Sundance Movie" if such a tome existed; and The Queen, the biographical story of tradition coming into conflict with public opinion in the wake of Princess Diana's death. Not nominated are a few of the year's best films, including the increasingly prophetic Children of Men, the searing United 93, and the brilliant fable Pan's Labyrinth, as well as some great films that are peculiar enough that AMPAS would never go near them, including Brand Upon the Brain! and Perfume: The Story of a Murderer.

I Would Nominate: Children of Men, The Departed, Pan's Labyrinth, United 93, Volver

Also Worth Considering: Brand Upon the Brain!, The Lives of Others, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, This Is England, Water

Best Director
Martin Scorsese (winner)
Clint Eastwood, Letters from Iwo Jima
Stephen Frears, The Queen
Paul Greengrass, United 93
Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Babel

Best Director went 4 for 5 with the Best Picture nominees in what would be one of the final occasions where the Oscars would see a "lone Director" nominee, an occurrence which is now pretty much impossible due to the expanded Best Picture list. The lone director that year was Paul Greengrass, whose United 93 is a masterful film but so intimately told that it is deeply difficult to watch. I had a hard time watching it in 2016, so I can only imagine how challenging it was to watch in 2006, so few years removed from 9/11. In that respect I can understand how the film itself wasn't embraced, but I'm glad that Greengrass' stellar work could at least be recognized. The rest of the field included Martin Scorsese, finally winning the Best Director Oscar that had been coming to him for three decades, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu for navigating the multiple stories of Babel, Stephen Frears for taking a story that could have been little more than tabloid-inspired sensationalism and turning it into serious drama, and Clint Eastwood for one-half of his ambitious dual telling of the Battle of Iwo Jima. Not nominated was Alfonso Cuaron for his great work on Children of Men, Guillermo del Torro for the ambitious and distinctive Pan's Labyrinth, or Guy Maddin, to my mind one of the few genuine contemporary geniuses working in cinema, for Brand Upon the Brain!.

I Would Nominate: Alfonso Cuaron, Children of Men; Paul Greengrass, United 93; Guy Maddin, Brand Upon the Brain!; Martin Scorsese, The Departed; Guillermo del Torro, Pan's Labyrinth

Also Worth Considering: Pedro Almodovar, Volver; Robert Altman, A Prairie Home Companion; Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, The Lives of Others; Shane Meadows, This Is England; Deepa Mehta, Water; Christopher Nolan, The Prestige; Tom Tykwer, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer; Zhang Yimou, Curse of the Golden Flower

Best Actor
Forest Whitaker, The Last King of Scotland (winner)
Leonardo DiCaprio, Blood Diamond
Ryan Gosling, Half Nelson
Peter O'Toole, Venus
Will Smith, The Pursuit of Happyness

I have to confess, I've never gotten around to seeing Blood Diamond, Venus, or The Pursuit of Happyness, so I'm at a disadvantage when it comes to assessing this slate of nominees and whether or not this is the best possible field of choices. Peter O'Toole, certainly, would have been the sentimental choice, earning his 8th nomination at the age of 74, but given how consistently excellent O'Toole was throughout his career I have no doubt that this was a great performance. At first glance DiCaprio's nomination would seem like it's actually a nomination for The Departed that voters felt they couldn't justify because of how thoroughly that film was an ensemble, but I couldn't really say. Smith earned his nomination for the biographical drama in which he played a homeless man trying to care for his son, while Ryan Gosling earned his only Oscar nomination to date (which may well change tomorrow) playing a drug addicted school teacher in a small indie drama that I still can't believe managed to earn a high enough profile for him to get nominated (even though he was very much deserving). The winner, ultimately, was Forest Whitaker for his performance as former Ugandan President/all around crazy person Idi Amin, a win that seemed anointed as of its first screening, but that sense of inevitability doesn't diminish the power of the performance. It's hard to argue against the choice of Whitaker, who gave the crowning performance of his already accomplished career in The Last King of Scotland. Since I've never seen three of the nominated performances, I would sub them out for Clive Owen's great work in Children of Men, Ben Wishaw's unsettling performance as vampiric blank slate in Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, and exchange one DiCaprio performance for the other.

I Would Nominate: Leonardo DiCaprio, The Departed; Ryan Gosling, Half Nelson; Clive Owen, Children of Men; Forest Whitaker, The Last King of Scotland; Ben Wishaw, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer

Also Worth Considering: Matt Damon, The Departed; James McAvoy, The Last King of Scotland; Edward Norton, The Painted Veil; Thomas Turgoose, This Is England; Denzel Washington, Inside Man; Ken Watanabe, Letters from Iwo Jima

Best Actress
Helen Mirren, The Queen (winner)
Penelope Cruz, Volver
Judi Dench, Notes on a Scandal
Meryl Streep, The Devil Wears Prada
Kate Winslet, Little Children

My familiarity with the slate of Best Actress nominees for this year is better, though I've never gotten around to seeing Notes on a Scandal, either, and can only assume that, Judi Dench being the masterful performer that she is, her depiction of of a teacher who discovers a colleague's affair with a student and tries to manipulate the information to her advantage is excellent. The other nominees were Penelope Cruz with her revelatory performance in Volver, just the 16th non-English language performance to be nominated in the Best Actress category, Kate Winslet for her complex portrayal of a stay at home mother who dreams of escaping into a new life in Little Children, Meryl Streep for taking what could have amounted to little more than a caricature of Anna Wintour and turning that character into something surprisingly human in The Devil Wears Prada, and Helen Mirren for her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II in The Queen. Like Whitaker, Mirren's win seemed preordained before the film was even released and, like Whitaker, the power of the performance is undeniable. There's something inherently unknowable about royalty in that, despite how many tabloid stories might appear dissecting their private lives or how many films and television series devote themselves to "behind the scenes" looks at their lives, the kind of privilege they know is very exclusive and particular to them and therefore entirely unrelatable to the rest of the population. Despite that barrier, Mirren manages to deliver a very human depiction of QEII that, if it doesn't bring her down to Earth per say, at least brings her somewhat closer. Not nominated were Seema Biswas as devout woman struggling to reconcile her faith to her circumstances in Water, Naomi Watts giving yet another great but unlauded performance in The Painted Veil, Catherine O'Hara in the Oscar campaign skewering For Your Consideration, Laura Dern in the low-fi epic Inland Empire, or Shareeka Epps for being the other half of the duet Ryan Gosling performs in Half Nelson.

I Would Nominate: Seema Biswas, Water; Penelope Cruz, Volver; Helen Mirren, The Queen; Naomi Watts, The Painted Veil; Kate Winslet, Little Children

Also Worth Considering: Annette Bening, Running with Scissors; Laura Dern, Inland Empire; Shareeka Epps, Half Nelson; Maggie Gyllenhaal, Sherrybaby; Catherine O'Hara, For Your Consideration; Keke Palmer, Akeelah and the Bee

Best Supporting Actress
Jennifer Hudson, Dreamgirls (winner)
Adrianna Barraza, Babel
Cate Blanchett, Notes on a Scandal
Abigail Breslin, Little Miss Sunshine
Rinko Kikuchi, Babel

It's not particularly fair to Abigail Breslin, but when I think of her performance in Little Miss Sunshine, I can't help but think of the SNL sketch from this period where Drew Barrymore as Abigail Breslin described the performance as "I did a funny dance!" That's not to say that there isn't some nuance to the performance, particularly the parts concerning the character's dawning awareness of how her body is perceived by others and may not fit the "ideal," but all things being equal this is a case of "cute kid is cute." As for the rest of the nominees, I'm on record that I've never seen Notes on a Scandal, so I don't know anything about Cate Blanchett's performance except that Blanchett is pretty much always good. Regarding the two actresses nominated for Babel, Barazza shines as the nanny who finds herself forced into a bad situation and makes a choice that results in the situation getting increasingly worse, and Kikuchi is wonderful as a deaf teenager struggling with the grief of losing her mother in what is, I think, the film's strongest segment. As for the winner, Jennifer Hudson in Dreamgirls, I remember reading an article prior to the film's release that discussed Hudson's character and thinking, "She'll win the Oscar" because the character just seemed so much like the kind of character that AMPAS likes to embrace. I don't mean to take anything away from Hudson's performance, because it is quite wonderful (and any doubt one might have that she's a skilled actress would fall away on watching her subsequent performances, particularly 2013's The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete), but she does have the advantage of a role that is calibrated to speak to the Academy's tastes and allows for real powerhouse moments if the performer in question can rise to the occasion, as Hudson ultimately does. There's not much I would change about this lineup, though I'd drop Breslin for Emily Blunt's breakout performance in The Devil Wears Prada, and not having seen Blanchett's performance, I would make room for Frances McDormand in Friends with Money.

I Would Nominate: Adrianna Barraza, Babel; Emily Blunt, The Devil Wears Prada; Jennifer Hudson, Dreamgirls; Rinko Kikuchi, Babel; Frances McDormand, Friends with Money

Angela Bassett, Akeelah and the Bee; Diane Lane, Hollywoodland; Jodie Foster, Inside Man; Carmen Maura, Volver; Emma Thompson, Stranger than Fiction

Best Supporting Actor
Alan Arkin, Little Miss Sunshine (winner)
Jackie Earle Haley, Little Children
Djimon Hounsou, Blood Diamond
Eddie Murphy, Dreamgirls
Mark Wahlberg, The Departed

Much like Breslin's performance is a matter of "cute kid is cute," Alan Arkin's performance in Little Miss Sunshine more or less comes down to "old man is outrageous." I don't begrudge an actor of his caliber an award he'd deserved for a long time, but I don't think the role represents any particular challenge and even in the hands of an actor as skilled as Arkin, the character doesn't really rise above presumed hilarity of an elderly person cursing, saying explicitly sexual things, and generally behaving badly. Regarding the rest of the field, there's Djimon Hounsou, nominated for his performance as a diamond harvester in Blood Diamond which, if it's anywhere near as good as his performance in 2003's In America (for which he was also nominated as Best Supporting Actor), is very deserving indeed; Jackie Earle Haley, the year's comeback story for his performance as a pedophile struggling to reintegrate into society in Little Children; Mark Wahlberg for his colorful performance as Boston's angriest police officer in The Departed, slipping into a nomination slot that many probably assumed would go to his co-star Jack Nicholson; and Eddie Murphy, who was straight up robbed for his performance as the star who falls into depression and drug addiction in Dreamgirls. Not nominated is Adam Beach, whose portrayal in Flags of Our Fathers of a Marine broken by his experiences in Iwo Jima, used for publicity, and then abandoned by his government, is the best performance across Clint Eastwood's two films, Michael Caine as the stoner living off the grid in Children of Men, Michael Sheen for reprising the role of Tony Blair (which he had previously played in The Deal) in The Queen, or Ben Affleck, who received probably his best ever notices as an actor (including a Best Actor award at the Venice Film Festival) for his performance as the frustrated and resentful George Reeves in Hollywoodland.

I Would Nominate: Adam Beach, Flags of Our Fathers; Michael Caine, Children of Men; Jackie Earle Haley, Little Children; Eddie Murphy, Dreamgirls; Mark Wahlberg, The Departed

Also Worth Considering: Ben Affleck, Hollywoodland; Laurence Fishburne, Akeela and the Bee; Bob Hoskins, Hollywoodland; Jack Nicholson, The Departed; Michael Sheen, The Queen

Elsewhere the Best Animated Feature category struggled for the fourth year in a row to fill out its ranks and as a result featured only 3 nominees: Happy Feet (the winner), Cars, and Monster House. In the Foreign Language Film category Germany's The Lives of Others walked away with the prize, despite fellow nominee Pan's Labyrinth, Mexico's entry, being the seeming favorite as a result of garnering 6 nominations across the board (tying with The Queen for the third most nominations in total). The other nominees were After the Wedding (Denmark), Days of Glory (Algeria), and the India-set Water, which was eligible to be submitted for consideration by Canada due to a rule change to the Foreign Language Film category that allowed countries to submit works filmed in languages that are not indigenous to the nominating country. The Documentary Feature category included eventual winner An Inconvenient Truth, as well as Deliver Us From Evil, Iraq in Fragments, Jesus Camp, and My Country, My Country.

In the crafts and technical categories, Pan's Labyrinth flexed its muscles, earning nominations for Art Direction, Cinematography, Original Score, and Makeup, while Dreamgirls owned the Original Song category with three entries and also earned nods for Costume Design, Art Direction, and Sound Mixing. 2006's dueling magician movies The Illusionist and The Prestige both earned nominations for Cinematography, composer Alexandre Desplat earned his first nomination for Original Score, starting a streak that would see him nominated in every year between 2007 and 2015 with the exception of 2008 and 2012, Zhang Yimou's ornate Curse of the Golden Flower earned a nomination for Costume Design but somehow missed out on Art Direction, and Mel Gibson's Apocalypto earned nominations for Sound Mixing, Sound Editing, and Makeup. In the screenplay categories, each of the Best Picture nominations were nominated, Letters from Iwo Jima, The Queen, Babel, and Little Miss Sunshine in the Original Screenplay category (the fifth nominee was Pan's Labyrinth), and The Departed in the Adapted Screenplay category along with Borat, Children of Men, Little Children, and Notes on a Scandal.

When all was said and done, Dreamgirls led the field with 8 nominations, while Babel led the Best Picture nominees with 7 nominations. Looking at the nominations in total, one encounters the problem that plagues so many nomination slates, which is that the same few films are nominated for everything and thus the nominations express a very narrow view of what is considered "best," and AMPAS' selections for this year demonstrate a general lack of adventurousness. That said, this was a year in which AMPAS embraced a non-English film (Pan's Labyrinth) by giving it 6 nominations, and which featured a list of acting nominees in which 7 of the 20 nominated actors were people of color, making it Oscar's most diverse year in the acting categories.

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