Forecasting reign

A critical look at the five films likely to enter the Oscar ring.

'Smaller is better" might have been the slogan for last year's Oscar race, when a quintet of sober, introspective offerings vied for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' top prize. Twelve months ago, the playing field was devoid of a movie-for-movies'-sake extravaganza. Today? Hello, "Dreamgirls."

But the Broadway smash-turned-cinematic songfest isn't the only event film of the year; offerings from helming superstars Martin Scorsese and Clint Eastwood arrive as milestones in their own right. The Paramount/DreamWorks musical is, however, the only movie to feature an end-credits sequence that plays like a live-action trade ad, submitting talent and topline crew for the viewer's consideration.

Shameless, perhaps, but "Dreamgirls," which revels in every showbiz cliche, aims not to avoid artifice but to put on a really big show. Writer-director Bill Condon doesn't draw much in the way of layered performances from his eager cast, but if you buy into the high glamour and the playacting, an exuberant mix of arch and earnest, you're probably just waiting for the next big ersatz Motown production number anyway.

Reigning supreme among those numbers is the showstopper by
Jennifer Hudson that already has entered the realm of legend. Just about everyone in this starry cast gets to belt out one from the Henry Krieger/Tom Eyen songbook, but "Dreamgirls" will be remembered as the film that put Fox's "American Idol" castoff Hudson on the cinematic map. It should come as no surprise to millions of "Idol" worshippers that she's an electric presence or that her rendition of "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" shakes the rafters and inspires movie-audience ovations. And it will be no shock that pop star Beyonce Knowles, in her first major screen role, looks and sings like -- well, a dream.

But it's Eddie Murphy who's the revelation. As James "Thunder" Early -- whose James Brown moves and offstage despair speak most directly, and movingly, of the saga's tug of war between black artists and a white industry -- his scorching performance is far more interesting than anything in the story's central career-arc narrative. Condon, who scripted 2002's "Chicago" and whose 2004 film "Kinsey" and 1998 picture "Gods and Monsters" offered terrifically nuanced biographical portraits, doesn't deny the social context of "Dreamgirls." But mainly, this film, like its source material, wants to strut its pop/R&B stuff. And with pipes like that on tap, along with period sets, costumes and makeup to die for, who can blame it?

Even more different from a girl-group musical than South Boston is from Motor City, Warner Bros. Pictures' "The Departed" is no less brimming with exhilaration. The wildly entertaining cops-and-mobsters drama marks Scorsese's return to the mean streets that have inspired his best-known work, though here, the setting is Southie rather than Little Italy. "Departed" boasts a perfectly cast ensemble of actors who clearly relish every juicy morsel of dialogue in William Monahan's crackling script.

Based on the 2004 Hong Kong crime thriller "Infernal Affairs," the film is an operatic dance of doubles, nimbly choreographed and paced. As state cops working undercover from opposite sides of the legal equation, Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon offer intensely controlled and fascinating work. Playing the psychiatrist (what else?) who becomes involved with both men, Vera Farmiga holds her own amid the testosterone smorgasbord. Jack Nicholson, Mark Wahlberg, Alec Baldwin, Ray Winstone, Martin Sheen and even the briefly seen Kevin Corrigan are all aces in the strongest ensemble of supporting male actors to hit the screen in some time.

In the saints-and-sinners Irish Catholic milieu, where language is as cherished a weapon as a knife or gun, nearly everyone gets to deliver gems of Monahan's gritty haiku. Some of the most memorable lines go to Baldwin, especially in an aria of vulgar wisdom on the symbolic power of a wedding ring. If "Departed" doesn't mine every psychological opportunity its rich premise presents, it navigates the genre plot's internecine twists and turns with bracing energy. It might be pulp fiction, but it's sinewy and lean like the best of its breed. In their vastly different ways, "Departed" and "Dreamgirls" are films that announce their arrival with real joy.

Arriving as a cinematic event of another sort is Eastwood's two-film exploration of a crucial World War II battle: Paramount/DreamWorks' "Flags of Our Fathers" and Warners' "Letters From Iwo Jima." Critics, if not audiences, have rallied around "Flags." But "Letters," which Warners abruptly threw into the 2006 mix only weeks after setting a February 2007 release date, deservedly has drawn more ardent praise.

The Japanese-language "Letters" (which is not eligible in the foreign-language Oscar category) topped the National Board of Review's awards and received the best picture nod from the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. It might, however, be a tougher sell to the Academy than its more overt companion piece. More stripped-down and concentrated than the period-hopping "Flags," the story of the Japanese experience of the battle of Iwo Jima is stylistically assured and more suited to Eastwood's minimalist ethos. The elegiac film, in which cinematographer Tom Stern's desaturated palette plays a key role, benefits greatly from focusing on a visual- rather than dialogue-driven story.

However spare the dialogue, though, the film insists on using it to explain its themes. It might be futile to expect nuance from Paul Haggis (2004's "Million Dollar Baby," 2005's "Crash"), who scripted "Letters" with Iris Yamashita. And while Eastwood might be reaching for something akin to the genre revisionism of 1992's "Unforgiven," what he achieves is not revisionism but a shift in perspective. Looking at war from the "enemy's" side is no small shift, true -- and getting the second film made is no small measure of Eastwood's Hollywood clout. But for all its questioning of military culture, "Letters" is essentially a conventional war film, one that romanticizes its doomed heroes, with Ken Watanabe and Kazunari Ninomiya delivering poignant performances in the lead roles.

Addressing notions of heroism and the marketing machinery of wartime propaganda, "Flags" takes a far heavier-handed approach -- it, too, is scripted by Haggis, working this time with William Broyles Jr. An unwieldy concoction of three time periods, the film indulges in voice-over sermonizing to tell the audience what already is evident, if not always deeply felt, in Stern's striking visuals. The story of how Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal's "Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima" became an iconic -- and exploited -- image is a powerful piece of history, and producer Steven Spielberg's interest in the best-seller by James Bradley is no surprise. But the film couldn't be more simplistic and obvious; as Film Threat's Pete Vonder Haar puts it, "War is hell, heroism is subjective, and seemingly insignificant events are exploited for the benefit of the power elite. Who knew?"

Exploring historical events to far better effect is Miramax's "The Queen," director Stephen Frears' quietly complex and thoroughly engaging portrait of a moment of cultural convulsion in the U.K. The astute script by Peter Morgan imagines the maneuverings between Downing Street and the House of Windsor after the August 1997 car-crash death of Princess Diana. Such provocative polarities as monarchy vs. republicanism, tradition vs. reform and, not least, discretion and reticence vs. public confession and the cult of celebrity unfold seamlessly in the scenario, which avoids the obvious at every turn.

There's probably no easier target than the royal family, but performances in "Queen" eschew caricature for something far more elusive and compelling. Leading the pitch-perfect cast is Helen Mirren, whose stoic but increasingly baffled sovereign can't quite grasp how a family matter takes on the proportions of a leading international news story. Transcending impersonation and digging deep, Mirren illuminates Elizabeth II with breathtaking subtlety. As her opposite number -- and key ally -- Michael Sheen achieves his own fine balance playing the savvy but pliable Tony Blair, the newly elected prime minister who guides Brittania's figurehead from the brink of obsolescence.

Supporting turns by James Cromwell, Sylvia Syms, Alex Jennings, Helen McCrory and Roger Allam are key to the film's equilibrium between poignancy and comedy, as is the smart blend of 35mm (for scenes of the royals) and Super 16 (for the Blairs).

Another film that imagines the particulars of recent history, Paul Greengrass' brilliantly restrained "United 93" from Universal is one of the year's finest features but an unlikely contender for the Academy's top prize, if only because of an apparent reluctance by voters to see a docudrama about the events of Sept. 11, 2001. And though worthy, ThinkFilm's "Half Nelson," showcasing Ryan Gosling's electrifying performance as a troubled New York teacher and marking Shareeka Epps' impressive debut as his wise-beyond-her-years student, is too small to make the Oscar grade. Perhaps the most sublime film to unspool in U.S. theaters in 2006 is not even eligible for the Oscar: noir master Jean-Pierre Melville's extraordinary 1969 drama about the French Resistance, "L'Armee des ombres" (Army of Shadows), which took its long-overdue stateside bow thanks to Rialto Pictures.

But there might be some wild cards yet in the Academy's hand. Although Oscar rarely smiles on comedies, Fox Searchlight's critically lauded summer hit "Little Miss Sunshine" could find itself in the main race, a la 2004's "Sideways." A trio of feature first-timers -- writer Michael Arndt and helmers Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton -- have pulled off the increasingly rare feat of a sustained comedy peopled by believable characters. Not sharp-toothed enough to be satire, this ground-view look at the American dream, fueled by outstanding ensemble chemistry, clicked with audiences and critics alike because it earns its emotional payoff.

Although it treads the familiar waters of the dysfunctional-family road trip, "Sunshine" -- a pricey Sundance Film Festival pickup -- doesn't (entirely) substitute quirkiness for character and rises above its shtick in surprising ways. Perhaps most surprising is that funnymen Greg Kinnear and Steve Carell, exuding panicked middle-aged self-awareness, create the most heartbreaking characters in the ragtag clan, with young Abigail Breslin delivering an especially wise and lovely performance. Amid all the event-movie contenders and Hollywood veterans, the minivan-that-could might just wind up at the Kodak Theatre.
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