Grove crowns 'Queen' Top Ten king


Top Ten: As we say goodbye to 2006, it's a good time to celebrate those films that were rewarding enough to keep moviegoers over the age of 16 from wanting to ask for their two hours back.

Unlike past years when coming up with 10 titles was truly challenging, putting this year's list together was easier and there wasn't quite enough room to include everything I liked. The films that made the list are those I not only enjoyed the most but wouldn't hesitate to recommend to someone who was going to have to pay for tickets and who I knew I'd see again after they spent their money on my say-so. In the list that follows, I've included some point of view thoughts from the people behind these films, mostly from columns I did with them here.

(1) Miramax Films' "The Queen" was the year's best movie. I felt that way when I first saw it in the fall and I still do now at year-end. I've recommended it to people and felt perfectly safe promising to pay for their tickets if they didn't love it, too. Thus far, I haven't had to hand over a single dollar.

"Queen" has everything going for it -- outstanding direction by Stephen Frears, Peter Morgan's marvelous screenplay and memorable lead (Helen Mirren) and supporting performances (Michael Sheen as Tony Blair). It looked to me like an awards contender from the get-go and it's already been honored by some key critics groups as well as with four very well deserved Golden Globe nominations (best picture-drama, director, screenplay and actress-drama). "Queen" is as safe a bet as there is this year to be a major contender in prime Oscar race categories.

"It's been great to see the way in which people have reacted to the film, yourself included," Miramax president Daniel Battsek told me. "It's been interesting to watch people both react incredibly to a really extraordinary performance from Helen Mirren, but also recognize that the film is really an insightful and moving -- and, in fact, there's some humor to it, as well -- portrait of an extraordinary moment and an extraordinary group of people. It's a real drama and there's a real sort of feature film time scale to it because there is something of a ticking clock going on there. I lived through that time so I realized how extraordinary it was and it's just great the way it's been brought so dramatically to the screen. I think the thing that struck me is what a wonderful job Stephen has done in making it so cinematic and so vibrant...

"I think what you get with a really great actress is that ability to have that extraordinary range, whether it is something like 'Calendar Girls' (which Mirren starred in and Battsek got Disney to green light while heading Disney's Buena Vista International operations in London) or, as you say, to be playing two Elizabeths spanning many a century (Mirren won an Emmy for playing Elizabeth I) and a whole entirely different environment is really extraordinary. I remember just from the first moment of seeing some rough dailies of Helen from the production that she just completely captured that entire look and personality and speech and everything about that character, which is really an extraordinary achievement."

Michael Sheen, the film's other principal star, plays British prime minister Tony Blair in an Oscar worthy supporting actor performance. When I asked Sheen how he managed to bring Blair to life on the screen so convincingly well, he recalled how he first tackled the role in the British television movie "The Deal." I hadn't seen that film when we spoke, but I've seen it since and would strongly recommend it to anyone who'd like to sharpen their understanding of the Blair character that Sheen portrays so well in "Queen."

"About four years ago now I did a TV film called 'The Deal,' which was also written by Peter Morgan and directed by Stephen Frears, in which I played Tony Blair," Sheen told me. "That was the very young Blair before he was the leader of the Labour Party and certainly long before he became Prime Minister. A lot of my research was done then for that. So coming to play him again in 'The Queen' I had the opportunity to play the character four or five years on from when I played him before. I watched a lot of television video footage of him from around the time of the film and just read more about him and listened to his speeches and things like that and just sort of got my head back into being Prime Minister again..."

(2) 20th Century Fox's "The Devil Wears Prada" reminded me of how entertaining movies once were and how not so long ago we didn't think a film had to do more than just be entertaining. At the same time that it was smart and fun to watch, however, "Prada" also managed to say something important about what really matters in life. Produced by Wendy Finerman ("Forrest Gump," "Stepmom") and directed by David Frankel ("Sex and the City," "Entourage"), its screenplay by Aline Brosh McKenna is based on Lauren Weisberger's best-selling novel.

Meryl Streep's memorable performance as "Prada's" acid-tongued Runway Magazine editor has already been honored with a Globe nomination for best actress-musical or comedy and it's a safe bet Streep will also receive a best actress Oscar nod. "Prada's" also a Globe nominee for best picture-musical or comedy and for Emily Blunt's stand-out supporting actress performance as Streep's top assistant. After seeing "Prada" a second time, I've got to put in a word for Stanley Tucci's Oscar worthy supporting actor performance as Streep's design director at Runway.

"We had read it as a book proposal," Finerman told me. "It was a hundred pages. It was a proposal that Lauren had actually written in writing class and then somebody sent it to an agent. They sent it out and it just sold in a minute. Basically the first hundred pages just dealt with the setup of this young very eager girl looking for her first job in New York and having dreams and ambitions and ending up working for one of the most challenging people in the town. And that's really where the book stopped. It was set obviously in the world of fashion and we all knew what it was and we all knew the background of the book (stemming from Weisberger's own experiences working at Vogue as an assistant to legendary editor Anna Wintour). We had to wait five or six months to get the other half of the book. We had no idea what happened with the story. But the setup was so great."

Another key reason "Prada" works so well is Frankel's directing. "I've been a fan of David Frankel's work for 10 years and forever," Finerman said, "and I always wanted to work with him. David read the scripts that we had that we had bought from many different writers. We had different versions. Some were good. Some were not so good. Some were encouraging. He came aboard and really saw great visions for the movie. We hired Aline Brosh McKenna, who really took great direction from David and wrote the smartest version of the movie I think we could have found."

Focusing on Streep's casting, Frankel told me: "Once we had Meryl, it really elevated the whole project and gave it the exact tone of intelligence and wit and depth that we all dreamed of...She wanted to play with great depth and with vulnerability and compassion a character who she thought was kind of a monster."

(3) Fox Searchlight Pictures' "The History Boys" was the year's most intelligent movie. At a time when Hollywood routinely dumbs films down to give them broader appeal, here's a movie that dared to include an extended visual comedy sequence performed entirely in French without subtitles! It did it, however, in such a way that you still understood perfectly well what was going on even if your French was a bit rusty.

Directed by Nicholas Hytner, who directed the original play at London's National Theatre and also staged it in New York, and adapted to the screen by Alan Bennett, who wrote the play, "History" stars the same ensemble cast of 12 actors who made it work so well on stage (especially including Richard Griffiths and Frances de la Tour, who won Tony Awards for their performances).

"I'm not a natural thinker through the camera," Hytner told me. "That's something that I have to work very hard at. What I do feel is that with both 'The History Boys' and 'The Madness of King George' a huge proportion of what I hope I bring to it gets done in the rehearsal room, gets done over the course of the (theatrical) run, gets done with the actors, gets done in conversations with the writer, gets done over the process of forging the material into theatrical shape. There's a downside of that which is that obviously after (doing it onstage) you never get to escape it. But those are the kind of films I enjoy...

"We started to feel that we could (adapt the play to the screen) fairly early on in the life of the play when it emerged that the thing that was really engaging audiences were the 12 characters -- and, indeed, the 12 actors -- that the play's concerned with. It felt that there was a film -- certainly not a spectacular film, but maybe an interesting and intimate film that could be made with those 12 actors. We never wanted to do it (and) we never would have done it without those 12 actors...I'm sure there was another film that could have been made of this material. And it might very well have been a better film, but it wasn't the one we wanted to do. And so we made it for 2 million pounds, which meant that we were able to make it exactly the way we wanted to make it."

(4) Paramount Vantage's "Babel" was a powerful tragic drama whose three intertwined stories about people in terrible trouble in different parts of the world conveyed some important universal truths about the similarities between people everywhere, whatever their culture or language may be.

Directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, "Babel" was produced by Inarritu, Jon Kilik and Steve Golin. Its original screenplay was written by Guillermo Arriaga. The film features an international ensemble led by Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett and Gael Garcia Bernal.

"'Babel' is the final film of my trilogy, which was preceded by 'Amores Perros' and '21 Grams,'" Inarritu has explained. "They comprise a triptych of stories that explore locally, and on a global level, the profound and complex relations between parents and children. The idea of making 'Babel' came to me out of a certain need that can stem only from exile and the awareness of being an immigrant. When one comes from the Third World, it is difficult to live in a First World country. Nevertheless, one's vision is broadened and takes on a new perspective. Without that experience, I would never have had the urge to purge myself and conceive this idea. Now it is more common for me to ask myself, 'Where am I going?' rather than, 'Where do I come from?'...

"In a considerable part of the planet, borders and airports have become a carnival of distrust and degradation, where freedom is exchanged for security, X-rays are the weapon and otherness the crime. In spite of this, by filming 'Babel' I confirmed that real borderlines are within ourselves and more than a physical space, barriers are in the world of ideas. I realized that what makes us happy as human beings could differ greatly, but what makes us miserable and vulnerable beyond our culture, race, language or financial standing is the same for all. I discovered that the great human tragedy boils down to the inability to love or be loved and the incapacity to touch with or be touched by this sentiment, which is what gives meaning to the life and death of every human being. Accordingly, 'Babel' was transformed into a picture about what joins us, not what separates us."

(5) Sony Pictures Classics' "Volver" was a great reminder that not all wonderful movies are in English. Written and directed by Spain's Pedro Almodovar, it was produced by Agustin Almodovar. "Volver," a Golden Globe nominee for best foreign language film, stars Penelope Cruz, who received a much deserved best actress-drama Globe nom.

"Volver" reminded me of how entertaining and enjoyable it was years ago to watch foreign language films and how little it really means to have to read their subtitles. If enough Academy members feel the same way, "Volver" could surface in some other key races besides best foreign language film.

"What makes us think this film is really worthy of (Oscar) consideration is that in the last 10 years you've seen 'Il Postino' nominated for best picture and 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon' and 'Life Is Beautiful,'" Michael Barker, SPC co-president (with Tom Bernard), told me. "It really shows that the Academy will pay attention to a foreign language film in the best picture category. And that's one of the reasons we are encouraging Academy members to see 'Volver' and feel that it's worthy of consideration within that group of pictures.

"What's interesting is that Penelope Cruz is obviously being talked about in so many circles because she gives such a major performance. And the picture's being talked about, of course, for Pedro Almodovar for best director and best screenplay for a lot of reasons including the fact that for 'Talk to Her' he was nominated for best director and best screenplay and won the best screenplay award, which I believe was the first time in something like 36 years that a foreign film had won best screenplay."

(6) New Line Cinema's "Little Children" made "Desperate Housewives" look tame. This tough, grim, gripping drama showed us the unforgettably dark side of suburban life. Directed by Todd Field, it's screenplay by Field & Tom Perrotta is based on the novel by Perrotta. It was produced by Albert Berger & Ron Yerxa and Field and executive produced by Patrick Palmer, Toby Emmerich and Kent Alterman. Starring are Kate Winslet, Jennifer Connelly, Patrick Wilson, Jackie Earle Haley and Noah Emmerich.

With Globe nominations for best picture-drama, best screenplay and best actress (Winslet), "Children" could be on track for similar Academy consideration. Talking to Field about the movie, he told me how he cast Winslet, who fits her unfaithful wife-mother role of Sarah Pierce like a glove: "I happened to go see Michel Gondry's film 'Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind' right after Tom and I completed the script. I knew that Jim Carrey was in it. I didn't know much else. I also knew of Kate Winslet, but based on the fact that we work on movies for months at a time for whatever reason I'd never seen her in a film...

"There's a scene at the very beginning (of 'Eternal Sunshine') where Carrey is on some kind of public transportation and this woman gets up and she sits next to him and he seems frightened of her and then she just decks him. That was such a confusing moment and so scary. I jumped in my seat when that happened. Of course, that whole movie's really built around that moment because you don't know what to expect in that film the way Michel and (screenwriter) Charlie Kaufman play with time because they're ahead of you. But for the rest of the movie I was leaning forward in my seat saying, 'Okay, that's an American actress. She's really, really interesting. She's got so much going on.' And, 'Who is that? Who is that? I've never seen her before.'

"It wasn't until the very end when the credits came up and it said 'Kate Winslet' and I thought, 'Oh, my God? That's Kate Winslet?' So I walked out of that film and I thought, 'Well, Sarah Pierce is a very complicated creature and she is navigating so many things emotionally and she's at a point in her life when we meet her where she's very confused about herself. But her behavior goes from being incredibly confident -- almost arrogant, you could say -- when we meet her to being almost ridiculous and foolish in terms of where she allows herself to go and then ultimately being able to discover who she is. It was a difficult character because on the page there was the danger that if someone didn't bring something very specific to that character it could have been very two-dimensional. It had to be somebody who could navigate that, but also be able to make her alive in a very specific way."

(7) Warner Independent Pictures' "The Painted Veil" was a beautifully told story that brought to mind the sweeping epic romantic dramas in exotic settings that Academy members have applauded in past years.

Shot in Mainland China, "Veil" is based on the classic W. Somerset Maugham 1920s set novella. Directed by John Curran, whose "We Don't Live Here Anymore" was a Grand Jury Prize nominee at Sundance in '04, it was adapted to the screen by Ron Nyswaner, an Oscar, Globes, BAFTA and Writers Guild of America nominee for "Philadelphia" in 1994. The Warner Independent Pictures, Bob Yari Productions and Mark Gordon Company presentation stars Naomi Watts, Edward Norton, Live Schreiber, Toby Jones and Diana Rigg. Produced by Sara Colleton, Jean-Francois Fonlupt and Yari and by Norton and Watts, it was executive produced by Gordon, Curran, Antonia Barnard and Nyswaner.

Typically, when writers adapt a book to the screen they find themselves trying to turn hundreds of pages of manuscript into a 120 page screenplay. "Well, 'The Painted Veil' is a novella so it's very spare," Nyswaner told me, "so I didn't have that problem so much. But, still, of course, even with a novella you can't put every scene in it or the movie would be several hours long. I find that what you have to do is boil a book down to its essence and really through development, and through working, if you're lucky, with intelligent colleagues like I have really figure out what are the one or two things that this book is about and make a movie about those one or two things. You simply have to give up detours and side trips that a novelist can take. You just can't take them in a movie. There's no such thing as something that doesn't really matter in a movie. You know, every moment matters in a movie. It has to be part of the same narrative..."

In the 10 years that Nyswaner worked on the project, he said, "I've written 25 drafts, I guess. So it's taken a significant part of my life. It would be hard to put it into months and years. There's several years worth of work in this script. And as people came and went through it -- whether they would be producing partners or actors or directors -- I did drafts for them. And much of that stuff then had to be abandoned when somebody new came along. It wasn't really a process of honing, it was trying something and then trying something else."

(8) Fox Searchlight Pictures' "Little Miss Sunshine" was the best dark comedy I've seen in a long time. Directed by Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris, the Fox Searchlight Pictures presentation in association with Big Beach stars an ensemble cast that includes Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette, Steve Carell and Paul Dano with Abigail Breslin and Alan Arkin. Written by Michael Arndt it was produced by Marc Turtletaub, David T. Friendly, Peter Saraf, Albert Berger & Ron Yerxa and was executive produced by Jeb Brody and Michael Beugg.

Looking at "Sunshine's" long road to the screen, Dayton told me: "We got the script a long time ago and fell in love with it. Ironically, we felt like more than any piece of material that we've ever received, this was ready to shoot. And then it took five years to actually get made. It was one of those films that I think people worried about the tone. On paper you don't really know how it's going to be treated. It wasn't until we really assembled our cast and had independent financing that we could really make the film that we thought of originally."

"I think ensemble films aren't really the most popular kind of film these days," Faris added. "Most films kind of have a star at the helm and they're high concept. I think in the same way that it's hard to describe this movie even now if somebody hasn't seen it, it was very hard to describe what we were going to go out and do when it was just in the script stage and we didn't have a cast. I think that's partly why it took a long time. But I think we benefited actually from some of the time that it took. We really spent a lot of time exploring it and really getting to know it and kind of making it our own..."

(9) Fox Searchlight Pictures' "Notes On A Scandal" was a great character driven drama with the type of memorable performances that have resonated in the past with the Academy's actors branch. Directed by Richard Eyre ("Stage Beauty," "Iris") and written by Patrick Marber ("Closer") based on the book by Zoe Heller, it was produced by Scott Rudin and Robert Fox and executive produced by Redmond Morris. Starring are Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett.

Globes voters have already given well deserved honors to Dench (best actress-drama), Blanchett (best supporting actress) and Marber (best screenplay). "Scandal" has Oscar potential in those categories as well as for best original score in view of the early buzz for its composer Philip Glass ("The Hours").

Eyre talked to me in Friday's column about making "Scandal," which opens today, so there's no need to excerpt his comments here today. Academy members who haven't as yet seen "Scandal" owe it to themselves to do so before they fill out their nominations ballots.

(10) Paramount Vantage's "An Inconvenient Truth" got and held my attention by delivering the year's most important message -- Al Gore's warning about where global warming is taking our planet and what we'd better start doing to try to reverse the problem. Directed by Davis Guggenheim, "Truth" was produced by Laurie David, Lawrence Bender and Scott Z. Burns.

Talking to Bender about the movie's road to the screen, he told me he'd first seen Gore's presentation in L.A. a year ago: "Everyone who comes out of that feels like, 'What can I do? I need to do something about this...' It's very, very powerful. As Al Gore says, we have all the technologies we need today to solve this issue. All we need is the political will and political will is a renewable resource. So he leaves you with hope. Of course, I came out of the presentation saying, 'You know what? This is a movie. We should make a movie about this. Al Gore's giving this presentation to thousands of people, but tens of millions of people need to see it...'

Approaching Gore was, Bender recalled, "quite nerve wracking. We sat around for hours and days figuring out what to pitch him and how to pitch him. We'd gotten a room at a hotel (in San Francisco) and he walked in and away we went. He was very excited about the idea (and) was, I think, touched and enthusiastic and thought it was a great idea. I didn't know what to expect because he was almost our President. I found him to be immediately engaging and passionate and emotional. We all know he's brilliant. But what I found that was just extraordinary and I felt was a good sign for a movie was all these other qualities -- emotional, grounded, in touch with feelings, funny. He was able to make fun of himself. I thought all of that was important because if you're going to make a movie around this person that's a very important part of it."

Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel