Every which way they all lose for best picture

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Oscar outlook: When Yogi Berra said it's not over 'til it's over and when William Goldman said nobody knows anything they might just as well have been talking about this year's best picture Oscar race.

After months of skirmishing, during which all five nominees have triumphed in a wide range of contests that are considered bellwethers for the Oscars, the moment of truth will finally be here Sunday night. Unlike past years when it was easy to project the likely winner, that's not the case this time around. I don't mean to suggest that previous best picture victories were so easy to predict, but rather that it was easier in the past to go out on a limb because for various reasons it seemed to make sense to do so. There appeared to be some logic for picking who was going to win even though things may have turned out differently. Last year, for instance, after "Brokeback Mountain's" awards season strength it was logical to speculate that it was the frontrunner to win. The fact that it didn't win and the Oscar went instead to "Crash" didn't change the fact that there had been every reason to be bullish about "Brokeback."

This year when you consider the best picture contenders you can spend the day arguing about why each of them should win and you can then spend the evening debating why each of them won't win. With a nod to Clint Eastwood, let's just say that when you get down to it every which way they all lose. So here, for the sake of amusement and weekend party conversations, are some thoughts along those lines for your consideration.

If there's one film that Hollywood handicappers have been touting for best picture it's "Little Miss Sunshine." With its key victories in the Producers Guild of America and Screen Actors Guild awards, this "little film that could" has come to look more and more like it could be the big winner Oscar night. In its favor is the fact that 11 times during the PGA award's 17 year history the PGA and Oscar winners have matched up. But there's no guarantee that we'll see that trend continue. Last year, in fact, wasn't one of those times. "Brokeback" took home the PGA award and certainly looked like it was going to win the Oscar, but it was "Crash" whose name was in the sealed envelope.

If we look back to the awards made for films released from 2000 through 2006 we find that in this six year period there were three times when the best picture Oscar winner and the PGA winner matched up (in 2001 with "Gladiator," in 2003 with "Chicago" and in 2004 with "Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King"). In the same six years there also were three matches between Oscar and SAG ("Chicago," "Rings" and in 2006 with "Crash"). And if you look at how the PGA and SAG correlated over the same period, there also were three matches ("Chicago," "Rings" and "Sunshine"). So roughly speaking, in recent years there's been about a 50% correlation between the PGA winner or the SAG winner also taking home a best picture Oscar.

On the other hand, it's also worth noting that on the two occasions in those six years when the same film won in the PGA and SAG competitions ("Chicago" and "Rings") it went on to win the best picture Oscar both times. This year "Sunshine's" already won the PGA and SAG votes, giving encouragement to those who believe it's heading for a best picture win.

Last year the PGA and SAG votes went different directions with "Brokeback" winning the PGA and "Crash" scoring in the SAG vote as well as the best picture Oscar race. Last year was indeed one of five times that SAG and Oscar matched up on the best picture front during the period of 11 years in which SAG has given best ensemble cast awards. However, when you look hard at the six years in which SAG and Oscar failed to agree, the difference was that in four of those six years SAG members applauded a comedy while Oscar voters celebrated a more serious film.

And that's why "Sunshine" could be in "serious" trouble in this year's Oscar vote. At the end of the day, "Sunshine" is a comedy. It may be a dark comedy, but it's a very funny dark comedy. It's a shame that Academy members don't like to laugh. Well, who knows, maybe they do like to laugh when they're not voting for best picture. But when it comes to handing out an Oscar for the year's best picture in front of a global television audience, Academy members seem to think twice about the kind of film they want to honor.

Typically, it's a serious movie that says something about the human condition or the sorry state of the world in which we live. That's definitely been the story in recent years. "Crash" certainly fit that description as did "Million Dollar Baby" and "Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King." And although "Chicago" was a musical, it was a serious musical about murder and justice and the media. "A Beautiful Mind," of course, was exactly the right sort of serious drama to be voted best picture. And while "Gladiator" was certainly a historical epic, its storyline did deal with serious issues like freedom and slavery.

The comedy problem is one that Academy voters wouldn't have to deal with if they created a best musical or comedy category like the Golden Globes does. That would eliminate in one full swoop the issue of serious versus funny. But considering how slow the Academy is when it comes to making changes, that's not likely to happen anytime soon. As a result, the movie whose name is going to be in that best picture envelope Monday night is probably not going to be a comedy.

Of course, that thinking could also turn out to be wrong. "Sunshine" could somehow manage to overcome the anti-comedy bias that the Academy's demonstrated for many years and that previous acclaimed comedies with serious overtones like "Sideways" failed to get past. But to do that it also would have to fly in the face of some other conventional wisdom about best picture winners. In a nutshell, many insiders believe you need nominations for best directing and best film editing to pull off a best picture win -- and "Sunshine" has neither of these.

On the film editing front, no movie has won best picture since "Ordinary People" in 1981 without having also had a film editing nod. It's hard to say whether this is just mere coincidence or whether there really is a solid connection between these two races, but it certainly would appear that a film is in a better position to win best picture if it has an editing nom. That's the happy position that "Babel" and "The Departed" are in this year, being the only two best picture nominees that also are up for film editing honors.

For years best picture and best directing wins have tended to match up on the premise that it takes great directing to make a great movie. If we go back to 2000 and look at who won the Directors Guild of America's award and who won the best picture Oscar we find that in four of those six years it was the same film. In 2005 the DGA honored Clint Eastwood for "Million Dollar Baby" and the Academy named it best picture while SAG voted for "Sideways" and the PGA applauded "The Aviator." In 2004 all four groups went for "Rings" and in 2003 they all celebrated "Chicago." In 2002 the DGA and the Academy voted for "A Beautiful Mind" while SAG called "Gosford Park" the best and the PGA honored "Moulin Rouge."

This year, of course, "Sunshine" directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris were nominated in the DGA race, but the winner was Martin Scorsese for "The Departed." Newcomers Dayton and Faris weren't nominated by the Academy directors' branch so there's no best directing-best picture combination possible for "Sunshine." Again, that's not to say that a film can't win without a directing nom, but it's certainly more comfortable to be in the race and have one.

Taking all of that into account, all we can really say about "Sunshine" is that it may or may not win best picture -- and that's not going to win you any Oscar pool money! Moreover, that also seems to be the case to varying degrees with the other four nominees. In each case you can point to signs that suggest victory as well as signs that could mean defeat.

"Departed," for instance, has those helpful film editing and directing nominations to its credit. In fact, Martin Scorsese's DGA win is widely expected to be echoed by the Academy directors' branch. Normally, you'd say this would make "Departed" the favorite to win best picture. But the buzz since the DGA honored Scorsese has been that Academy members will do the same but leave it at that. In other words, they'll conclude that what Scorsese really wants is to win best director and if they do that they can feel free to split their vote and give best picture to somebody else. But to whom?

"The Queen" was the film I picked to top my 10 Best List for 2006, but it hasn't resonated as a best picture aside from its recent BAFTA win. Where "The Queen" has, of course, performed amazingly well is in best actress races across the board where Helen Mirren has been honored with wins in key races like the Golden Globe, BAFTA, SAG, the Broadcast Film Critics Assn. and the National Society of Film Critics as well as by numerous film critics groups across the country, including those in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Boston and San Francisco.

Thanks to Mirren's outstanding performance as Elizabeth II, "The Queen" has come to be perceived as a Mirren-driven film. If Academy members applaud Mirren, as Oscar handicappers are anticipating, they could conclude that they've done what they needed to do for "The Queen" and don't have to give it best picture. It is, after all, a small British film about events that may have been covered by media around the world but really had their greatest significance in England. Issues that relate more to America and the American Experience seem to resonate more with Oscar voters as "Crash" showed last year. But, of course, those very same Oscar voters could just as easily decide that "The Queen" is the year's best movie.

Another strong contender, of course, is "Babel," which took home the best picture-drama Golden Globe but hasn't been a major presence in terms of best picture wins elsewhere. Nonetheless, with seven Oscar nominations it has more than any other best picture nominee. Just to complicate things, "Dreamgirls" has eight noms but isn't in the best picture race. Hollywood handicappers tend to favor films with the most nominations because that suggests a broad base of support from Academy branches.

Of course, if you look at what happened last year the theory of multiple noms didn't hold up at all. "Brokeback Mountain" had eight nominations -- winning for best director, original score and adapted screenplay and losing in the races for best picture, cinematography, actor, supporting actor and supporting actress. "Crash" was close behind with seven noms -- winning for best picture, editing and original screenplay and losing in the races for best directing, original song and supporting actor. So it may or may not be helpful to "Babel's" best picture prospects that it leads the best picture nominee pack in terms of total nods.

What could be very much in "Babel's" favor is what's been called its rather bleak outlook on the world in which we live. That's something that insiders point out matches up with the spirit of "Crash" last year, which obviously resonated very well with Academy members. If they're feeling the same way a year later that could tip the scales "Babel's" way.

And last, but certainly not least, there's "Letters From Iwo Jima." You can go crazy trying to figure out its chances of taking home the best picture Oscar. On the face of it, it's a foreign film that wouldn't have gotten into the best picture race at all if it wasn't from Clint Eastwood. Moreover, it tells a World War II story from the standpoint of the Japanese. Many Academy members fought against the Japanese at the time while serving in the U.S. military and how they feel today about voting for a film that reflects the Japanese point of view about that war is anyone's guess. Clearly, there were enough members who weren't harboring grudges to get it nominated, but winning is another matter.

But then there's the Eastwood factor to consider. Oscar voters gave him best picture and director nods in 2004 for "Mystic River," best picture and director victories in 2005 for "Million Dollar Baby," along with a best actor nomination as well as best picture and director noms this time around for "Letters." And back in 1993 Eastwood won Oscars for best picture and director for "Unforgiven," for which he also received a best actor nomination. Academy members clearly love the guy -- and why shouldn't they? He's a great filmmaker and having been born in 1930 he's a contemporary of many Oscar voters.

On top of that, Eastwood works a lot harder than many guys half his age, as we saw this year when prior to "Letters" being delivered in December "Flags of Our Fathers," which he also directed, unfurled in the fall. Although "Flags" generated a huge pre-opening Oscar buzz on the strength of being an Eastwood film, it fizzled quickly with critics and audiences and never made it into the Oscar race. With "Flags" at half-mast it made sense to accelerate the release of "Letters" from January 2007 to December 2006.

Academy members could feel they've done well enough by Eastwood just by giving him a fourth set of twin nods for best picture and directing for "Letters." That would leave them free to give the best picture Oscar to another nominee. Or, suppose they feel that since they're going to give Scorsese the best directing Oscar for "Departed" they don't also have to hand "Departed" the best picture Oscar? With that in mind they could turn to Eastwood once again. "Letters" is the type of serious important film that Academy members seem to like. "Departed" may look like less of a best picture winner to the voters because it's more of a genre film with a gangster storyline that they may not be comfortable calling the year's best movie. Or they may turn around and say it's a great gangster film and worthy of a best picture statuette just as they did in 1973 with "The Godfather" and in 1975 with "The Godfather: Part II."

At this point, we've ruled out all of the nominees. So nobody wins. Or everybody wins. Or maybe there's a tie. That's unlikely, but it's a possibility. Or maybe one of the pictures that can't win does win. But which one? If you put a gun to my head, I'd probably bet on "Babel" because of its bleak outlook on the world, which I think is what resonates with Academy members these days. I'm just not sure how much money I'd put on the line behind that bet.

Filmmaker flashbacks: From Feb. 22, 1989's column: "The ninth American Film Market, which gets underway Thursday, will see Pierre David's Image Organization, which went into business shortly before AFM No. 8, celebrate its second anniversary.

"'The company opened its door Jan. 5, 1987,' recalls David. 'It was an idea I had. When I was running Mutual Films in Canada we had combined quite well the distribution activity and the production activity. When I came here to Los Angeles I focused only on production and after a few years I felt this was a very touch-and-go situation. One year could be good and one year could be bad.'

"David felt he wasn't really using himself to the best of his abilities. His background included marketing and distribution and he wanted to be active in those areas again. 'Instead of doing it on a one-territory basis, which was Canada, I wanted to do it on a worldwide basis,' he explains. 'I knew international distribution because through all the movies I produced -- 'Scanners,' 'Videodrome,' 'Visiting House,' etc. -- I had a chance to work with a lot of foreign sales agents and major companies in the distribution of my product in the foreign market. I was going to every market. I was selling. I was buying. I felt the timing was absolutely right. PSO had just disappeared. I felt there was room for a new very well organized and very well structured foreign sales company...'

"As world film markets go, how does David rank AFM? 'No. 1 is AFM,' he declares. 'It has become the No. 1 market. Very closely behind it is MIFED and quite distant is Cannes. The reason why Cannes is quite distant is that it is a market, but it's also a festival and a get-together and it's also -- unfortunately for a lot of people -- a semi-vacation.

"'The screening facilities at AFM and MIFED are easy. You don't have to walk a lot. At MIFED they're all in the same building. At AFM they're basically in two or three separate theaters. In Cannes you have to run all day long from one place to another. Offices are spread out all over the place in Cannes. You spend a lot of time walking to find people and the walk becomes quite nice because the weather's beautiful and you stop for long lunches.'"

Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel www.updatehollywood.com.
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