Playing favorite

Industry insiders reveal their choices for the best films of the year.

After weeks in which there appeared to be a dearth of candidates in the best picture competition, finally we have a race. Three films have emerged as dominant contenders for the upcoming Academy Awards: Warner Bros. Pictures' "The Departed," Paramount/DreamWorks' "Dreamgirls" and Miramax's "The Queen." A second Paramount/DreamWorks release, "Flags of Our Fathers," also has garnered strong support, especially from fans of director Clint Eastwood, though insiders fear some of that support might be siphoned off as a result of Warners' decision to release the film's companion piece, "Letters From Iwo Jima," on Dec. 20. And then there's MGM/The Weinstein Co.'s "Bobby," Fox Searchlight's "Little Miss Sunshine," Universal's "United 93" and "Volver" from Sony Pictures Classics.

Each of these films has its core group of fans -- and so does the most intriguing of all the potential nominees: Sacha Baron Cohen's "Borat." Fox's outrageous comedy has proved not only a boxoffice sleeper but a critical favorite, legal woes aside. While most insiders doubt this will translate into a nomination, a canvas of industry veterans showed surprising support for the film, which might well get a boost if it receives a Golden Globe nomination for best comedy/musical, as many expect.

"Having been involved in the comedy world as a representative for years, I know how difficult it is to make a film that is consistently funny," Paradigm agent Norman Aladjem says. "People (don't) give enough credit to how difficult it is to make a good comedy."

Producer Chris Bender (2005's "A History of Violence") also praises "Borat" as one of the two films that have most impressed him this year. The other is "Queen." "When you are dealing with present-day figures, you've got be very careful that (the film) does not come across as parodying or mimicking them," Bender says. "So, to turn the story into something so relatable -- about the old guard, and the new guard, and different generations and the responsibilities that each of them had -- was phenomenal."

Equally praised is Martin Scorsese's "Departed," which has come as a pleasant surprise for Warners. The movie was not originally perceived as an awards contender -- until critics began hailing the film as Scorsese's return to form and the boxoffice for the film surpassed the $100 million mark. The studio now has the best kind of problem on its hands: juggling two Leonardo DiCaprio features (the other being director Edward Zwick's "Blood Diamond") and several actors likely to compete in the supporting category, including Matt Damon and Jack Nicholson.

"I loved its clever plotting -- all the twists and turns and the way the story kept moving forward," says screenwriter Stuart Beattie (2004's "Collateral"). "And you loved all of those characters. There is not one small character that doesn't get their moment. Normally in a script, at the most you'd have the two leads popping off the page, but here I felt that every single character was popping."

Another rather different gem, New Line's drama "Little Children," has garnered support, particularly for star Kate Winslet. "It has very dark subject matter, but it is elegantly executed," First Look Pictures president Ruth Vitale says. "It is a movie about people who make choices that may not necessarily be the best for anyone around them, but they live with those choices."

Equally impressive, Vitale says, is writer-director Paul Greengrass' Sept. 11 docudrama "United 93," which Universal released in April. "'United 93' is an absolutely riveting piece of filmmaking showing both sides of the issues," she says. "There is a moment in that movie when (the passengers) finally realize they are going down, and he cuts between each of these passengers praying to their various gods and then cuts to the terrorists praying to theirs. There is an irony that is so unspoken in that scene: Everyone is praying to their god for a different outcome."

Another political drama, SPC's "The Lives of Others," appeals to writer Nicholas Kazan (1990's "Reversal of Fortune"). The German film, which chronicles the tale of a Stasi agent who starts to question his work, has been mentioned as a possible crossover from the foreign-language field into the best picture category. "It is so rich and so real," he says. "Your feelings about the characters are constantly changing.

I am a sucker for people coming to political consciousness, doing something that is initially against their instinct and in violation of their character."