Worthy opponents

How is the Academy able to fairly compare such divergent nominees?

Humphrey Bogart once suggested that since it's impossible and maybe even a little nutty for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to compare comic performances and dramatic performances during Oscar season, the best actor race should be decided by making every nominee get onstage and perform Hamlet's soliloquy. That makes sense in a way: Let actors do the same job and compare the results. Ditto directors, cinematographers, costumers and so on.

There's only one problem: How do we pick best picture?

Every year around this time, someone rightly points out how hard it is to stack showy performances against subtle ones or garish fantasy film makeup against period film makeup. But the real tricky choice always has been between the movies themselves -- especially when one's trying to make people laugh, and one's trying to make them cry. In those cases, what's really being judged by the Oscars? How well each one did its job, or which job is more worthy?

In David Mamet's new book "Bambi vs. Godzilla," Mamet argues that audience testing is the bane of Hollywood because test audiences don't say what they like but "what someone like me would proclaim to like." The same is often true of the Oscars, where Academy members seem to vote not for their actual favorite movie of the year but their favorite movie among a preselected group of socially acceptable nominees.

No one in the Academy has time to see every eligible movie, and even though some branches -- like the cinematography branch -- consider movies that others don't, there's still a kind of threshold of Academy-worthiness that the nominees have to cross. Gokhan Tiryaki's lensing of the Turkish film "Climates" for U.S. distributor Zeitgeist Films is absolutely stunning, but not even that film's most devout fans were waking up early on the morning the Oscar nominations were announced with their fingers crossed.

No, the actual Academy pool is much shallower, determined by whatever the major studios are pushing, combined with whatever industry-savvy critics and bloggers have preanointed. And like Mamet says, there's a lot of "what someone like me would proclaim to like" in those final choices. Some people were shocked that Paramount/DreamWorks' "Dreamgirls" wasn't among the five best picture nominees, mainly because it had been considered a lock for a mention long before anyone actually saw it.

Even when the mixed reviews came rolling in, those in the know figured it would survive the cull just on sheer momentum -- sort of like the way Notre Dame stays in the college football top 10 every year despite suffering some early losses. According to general fiat, Notre Dame is a "top 10 caliber" team, and "Dreamgirls" is exactly what the Academy likes: an ambitious entertainment offering with a simple message and a lot of surface flash.
But that's not an entirely fair criticism of the Academy. Whatever its respective flaws, no one would argue that Warner Bros. Pictures' "The Departed" and "Letters From Iwo Jima" or Paramount Vantage's "Babel" are "safe" films, per se. On the other hand, none of those were surprising choices, either. The truth is that while the Academy often gets knocked for favoring middlebrow fare such as 2001's "A Beautiful Mind" and 2005's "Crash," the membership frequently finds room in the final five for some off-the-wall enduring classics. 1998's "The Thin Red Line," anyone? 2001's "Gosford Park"? 2003's "Lost in Translation"?

Maybe ultimately, the Academy isn't comparing the best picture candidates against one another but rather to nominees past. Every year, there seems to be slots reserved for some combination of the respectable blockbuster (1999's "The Sixth Sense," 2003's "Seabiscuit," etc.), the prestige biopic (2004's "Ray," 2005's "Capote"), the likable indie (1996's "Fargo," 2004's "Sideways"), the tough-but-fair political film (1994's "Quiz Show," 2005's "Good Night, and Good Luck"), the revisionist genre piece (1997's "L.A. Confidential," 2000's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon") and the tasteful history play (2002's "The Pianist," 2004's "The Aviator").

If you've made a movie that fits neatly into one of those categories, congratulations! You're on the Academy's radar.

And now that you're on that radar, how should the Academy size your film up, in comparison with its rivals? Following is how 2006's final five rate in terms of their voter appeal and their place in best picture history.

Babel (Paramount Vantage)

What It Is: Collaborators Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and Guillermo Arriaga (2001's "Amores Perros," 2003's "21 Grams") reteam for another multicharacter, nonchronological study of contemporary alienation and souls in crisis -- this one focusing on the problems caused by mankind's inability to communicate. Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett anchor the cast, but the awards-season attention thus far has gone to Rinko Kikuchi, who portrays a deaf Japanese teenager looking for sexual and emotional fulfillment, and Adriana Barraza, who portrays a beloved maid and nanny that gets into trouble when she takes her charges across the border for a Mexican wedding.

The Former Nominees It Most Resembles: The most obvious immediate comparison is last year's winner "Crash" because of all the cross-cut story lines and simmering racial tension. But "Crash" itself is part of a meganarrative tradition that dates back at least as far as Robert Altman's 1976 nominee "Nashville" and has continued through later nominees such as 1994's "Pulp Fiction" and 2000's "Traffic." Regarding style, Inarritu's emphasis on gritty immediacy and images over words has more in common with Steven Soderbergh and Michael Mann than Paul Haggis.

Will Be Picked by Those Looking for: Thematic weight and stylistic  bravura. Of the four other nominees, only "Letters" can match it for the former and only "Departed" for the latter. And neither of those films has both. "Babel" also might win votes from those who wish they could honor one or both of Inarritu's two "amigos," Guillermo del Toro and Alfonso Cuaron. Collectively, the Mexican filmmakers showed more drive and imagination in 2006 than their American counterparts.

The Departed (Warner Bros. Pictures)

What It Is: Director Martin Scorsese and screenwriter William Monahan recast 2002's Hong Kong action classic "Infernal Affairs" as a bracing, tragic action epic, set in class-and-race-conscious Boston. A cast of new and old Hollywood champs -- including Alec Baldwin, Matt Damon, Leonardo DiCaprio, Jack Nicholson, Martin Sheen and best supporting actor nominee Mark Wahlberg -- stare each other down and mess with each other's heads in a twisty plot that has cops and criminals going undercover. Fortified with can't-miss material, Scorsese directs "Departed" like he has nothing to lose, manipulating time, music and performance to create a rhythmic symphony of violence and foolish male pride.

The Former Nominees It Most Resembles: 2003's "Mystic River" and "L.A. Confidential" come to mind. But the closest analog to "Departed" on the Oscar best picture nominee rolls is another winner, from another era: 1971's "The French Connection."

Will Be Picked by Those Looking for: The return of the 1970s "new Hollywood." The debate still rages as to whether "Departed" stands up to Scorsese classics such as 1973's "Mean Streets" and 1990's "GoodFellas," but there's no denying that it fulfills the original mission of "film school brats" such as Scorsese, Brian De Palma, William Friedkin and Steven Spielberg: to take on classic Hollywood genres and infuse them with a personal style and modern energy.

Letters From Iwo Jima (Warner Bros. Pictures)

What It Is: Clint Eastwood's companion piece to Paramount/DreamWorks' post-World War II-letdown meditation "Flags of Our Fathers" examines the collective psyche of the Japanese as they come to realize their failings in the face of the American war machine. Hushed and contemplative where "Flags" is busy and demonstrative, "Letters" considers the harsh practicalities and bitter ironies of armed conflict.

The Former Nominees It Most Resembles: Appropriately enough, "Letters" is most like its producer Spielberg's 1998 drama "Saving Private Ryan" and 2005's politically charged "Munich," both of which take a hard look at the toll war takes on the men who wage it. The Academy also could look back at films such as 1970's "Patton" and "Thin Red Line," which sought to turn war movie cliches into pop art.

Will Be Picked by Those Looking for: Yet another excuse to reward Eastwood for being the most consistently classy and productive actor-turned-director of his generation. Also, since "Letters" is the closest thing to an anti-war film in this year's slate, the political firebrands of the Academy might see a vote for this movie as a vote against the Bush Administration's Iraq policy.

Little Miss Sunshine (Fox Searchlight)

What It Is: The epitome of a breakout hit, this 2006 Sundance Film Festival sensation from Fox Searchlight follows a dysfunctional family on their road trip to a beauty pageant where the gawky youngest daughter (played by best supporting actress nominee Abigail Breslin) teaches her clan that they're all bound together in outsiderdom. Deadpan comic in style, "Sunshine" synthesizes the best and the worst of the indie film movement.

The Former Nominees It Most Resembles: With its road trip premise and lumpy protagonists, "Sunshine" is a lot like "Sideways," but the vivid colors, "beauty in the mundane" philosophizing and middle-class suburban milieu also resembles 1999's Oscar-winning best picture "American Beauty" in a big way.

Will Be Picked by Those Looking for: Validation. The Academy is populated by people who fled middle-class suburbia because they felt just like the people in "Sunshine." The movie tells them both that it's OK to be a misfit, and that the place they left behind is still fundamentally rotten.

The Queen (Miramax)

What It Is: Essentially a TV movie writ large, director Stephen Frears and screenwriter Peter Morgan's examination of Queen Elizabeth II's response to Princess Diana's death in 1997 makes recent history come to life in unexpected ways. If nothing else, it humanizes the reactions of the elusive royal family as personified by its head, played by best actress nominee (and runaway front-runner) Helen Mirren.

The Former Nominees It Most Resembles: Mostly quirky "little" films such as 1983's "The Dresser," 1987's "Hope and Glory" and "Good Night." It's a movie propped up by brilliant performances and a compelling premise, and though movies like that rarely win the best picture prize, they frequently make the final five.

Will Be Picked by Those Looking for: Something else. In a field without a standout candidate, Academy voters might be inclined to think small, and those who aren't impressed by the slight "Sunshine" might feel most comfortable ticking the box next to "Queen," a solid entertainment offering with the poignancy of nostalgia, a whisper of relevance and a relatively restrained Oscar campaign courtesy of Miramax. Ultimately, how it compares to its competition might boil down to this: No one's sick of hearing about "Queen" yet.