Quipping time

The industry speaks out about the films most deserving of Oscar's praise.

When it comes to choosing the best films of the year, the critics have made their favorites known in the heated awards season leading up to the Oscars. But what do the actual members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and industry insiders think? The Hollywood Reporter recently asked filmmakers, talent and executives which projects and performances they're throwing their weight behind and what they hope to see honored. The results were, as always, splintered, but the general consensus is that this year, it's the independents that deserve to bring home the gold.

Not surprisingly, Fox Searchlight's "Little Miss Sunshine" is at the top of many lists. "It may not be a sexy choice, but I came up in the business with the filmmakers, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, and I always knew they had a great film in them," says director McG, who helmed Warner Bros. Pictures' recent release "We Are Marshall." "It's just an incredible film with great performances. How can a picture be about so much and also about so little? It's amazing."

Frank Marshall, producer of Universal's "Bourne" franchise and director of Buena Vista's "Eight Below," agrees. "I think the best picture is 'Little Miss Sunshine,' for the acting, direction and the story," he says. "And it shows, again, that you don't need $100 million to make a great movie."

Quality also trumps budget issues for Chazz Palminteri, who stars in First Look Pictures' "A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints." He raves about Ryan Gosling's performance in ThinkFilm's "Half Nelson." "Look at this movie, which was made for what, $750,000? What more could you ask for?" he asks. "It's a real and honest script with no sentimentality at all. Ryan Gosling was great; it's wonderfully directed by Ryan Fleck and wonderfully written by Fleck and Anna Boden.

"It's just a great story," he continues. "I asked Woody Allen once why he doesn't do a lot of close-ups, and he said, 'Because it's all in the story.' If the story's great, it will hold the audience, and this movie does."

Producer Mike De Luca also says he was blown away by "Half Nelson" and Gosling's performance, calling it "a sublime wonder." Additionally, he sites Miramax's "The Queen" and Warner Bros. Pictures' "The Departed" as best pictures, along with "Sunshine" which, he says, "deserves picture, screenplay and directing nominations"; however, he continues, "If I ran the Academy, (Universal's) 'United 93' would sweep all except the acting nods." Of the Paul Greengrass-directed film, De Luca says, "It's truly the only stunning and groundbreaking film released this year."

First Look president Ruth Vitale cites the Universal film as one of her top picks, as well. "Greengrass had the guts and perseverance to make a film that's not easy on any level -- not politically or emotionally," she says. "But he made it personal, not political, and he created a microcosm on one plane that showed how each person is affected by impending disaster. I'm very happy about it being shouted out on the critics' lists because Paul deserves it."

But every holiday season needs a little levity, which is why Vitale's other favorite movie of the year is Warners' "Happy Feet." "I know it's totally schizophrenic," she says with a laugh. "But when I walked out of it, I thought, 'That's exactly how you should feel when you walk out of a movie.' When Mumble comes out his egg tap dancing, I defy the grinchiest of grinches not to smile."

Jeff Daniels, who stars in Warner Independent Pictures' "Infamous," also applauds the humor in this year's releases. When asked what movie he'd like to see win best picture, he says, "It'll never happen, but (Fox's) 'Borat.' It's the best, painfully true comedy since (1964's) 'Dr. Strangelove.'"

"Sunshine" actor Paul Dano also loved "Borat," but he ranks Paramount's "Jackass Number Two" at the top of his comedy list. "I watched it while I was filming (the upcoming Warners' release) 'Where the Wild Things Are,'" he says. "Maybe because the wild things are a little immature -- that's where I was in my head -- but I really loved it." Dano's favorite drama of the year is "Half Nelson."

Several foreign films also made the top grade. "Marshall" producer Basil Iwanyk was impressed by Guillermo del Toro's "Pan's Labyrinth," released stateside by Picturehouse. "It was so dark and original and intense," he says. "It broke every rule of studio filmmaking. The people who should survive die, and the people who should die survive. It was incredibly exhilarating."

Christof Neracher, producer of the Swiss Oscar entry "Vitus," is behind the German entry "The Lives of Others," distributed by Sony Pictures Classics. "The main character changes from a bad guy to a good guy as the film progresses, and it's so beautiful," he says. Roger Michell, director of Miramax's "Venus," seconds his opinion, saying, "'The Lives of Others' feels almost like a flawless film to me, and it's a first-time feature-film debut by the director (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck). It's a wonderful, wonderful film, and I think it deserves recognition."

Elif Dagdeviren Guven, executive producer of the official Turkish entry "Ice Cream, I Scream," heralds director Rachid Bouchareb's Franco-Algerian entry "Days of Glory," but her English-language pick of the year is "Queen," directed by Stephen Frears. "It's very objective, neither wanting to promote nor kill the queen," she says. "And Helen Mirren was the queen." Agrees Chris Noonan, director of MGM/The Weinstein Co.'s "Miss Potter," "I thought it was very funny, very engaging and quite thought provoking on the government of Britain."

Real-life subjects also get praise with this year's documentaries. Karen Moncrieff, writer-director of First Look's "The Dead Girl," says her favorite movie was Amy Berg's "Deliver Us From Evil," a Lionsgate release about Father Oliver O'Grady, a priest and pedophile. "I found it entirely compelling and upsetting and infuriating, and the work itself was gorgeous," she says. "I couldn't stop thinking about it for days afterwards." Moncrieff also praises Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's "Babel," released by Paramount Vantage. "I'm inspired by the pure scope of what he attempts and that the world he presents has so many lines and colors to it," she says. "He's interested, as I am, in the people who are normally relegated to the fringes. And the performance of the Spanish-speaking nanny, Adriana Barraza, was absolutely heartbreaking."

Producer Mark Gill also is backing "Babel." "Conventional Hollywood wisdom is it's a bit too cold and too arch," he says. "But I was really moved by it. It's both a parable and a prescription for what's wrong with the world today, and the artistry and acting are extraordinary. It's everything a movie should be. It's got a brain, it's got a heart, and it's incredibly cinematic."

Manager J.C. Spink of Benderspink applauds New Line's "Little Children" and its director, Todd Field, calling the film "thought provoking and entertaining at the same time." He also is supporting Warners' "The Departed" across the board, adding, "I'm worried the commerciality of it will hurt the nominations, as it deserves so many."

Finally, ThinkFilm president Mark Urman picks his favorites: Yari Film Group's "The Illusionist," starring Edward Norton, and Fox Searchlight's "Notes on a Scandal," directed by Richard Eyre and co-starring Cate Blanchett and Judi Dench ("Notes" also is the favorite of Fox's "The Devil Wears Prada" actress Emily Blunt, who calls it "incredibly powerful"). Says Urman: "I loved 'The Illusionist.' It just really worked for me. And when I saw 'Notes on a Scandal,' I had the best time. It's so much fun -- it's beautifully acted, it's beautifully shot. There are aspects that are melodramatic in a '40s way -- Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland could have been in it -- and, at the same time, it's utterly contemporary," he says. "Plus, you've never seen Judi Dench like this." Should his point be missed, Urman continues: "You. Have. Never. Seen. Judi. Dench. Like. This."