Thursday, February 21, 2008

The Oscars that were: The 2006 Oscars, Plus a Review of Little Miss Sunshine

The 2006 Oscars honored a small independent film (dark horse Best Picture nominee LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE), punished too-early Oscar buzz (DREAMGIRLS received the most nominations of any film, but was shut out of the Best Picture race), and gave Martin Scorsese his belated Oscar for Best Director (for THE DEPARTED).

The film that was getting the most attention was LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE. This movie opened the door for a low budget character-driven, under-two-hours-in-length film to compete in the Best Picture derby (again). Although it didn’t take home the top prize, just the notion that it might was enough to keep Oscar-watchers excited by the final envelope. And, after all, the film did manage to win two of its other three nominations (Original Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor [Alan Arkin’s surprise win]). JUNO’s 2007 nomination for Best Picture is easily attributable to LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE’s trailblazing.

DREAMGIRLS offered a legacy of nervous Oscar campaigners in the fall of ’07, worried about a DREAMGIRLS backfire. But if anything, the movie with early buzz was ATONEMENT, which did not suffer the same fate, reaping plenty of Oscar nominations, including a Best Picture nod. DREAMGIRLS did not seem to have any real excitement surrounding it at the 2006 Oscars, a combination of its no-Best-Picture-nomination stigma and the fact that Jennifer Hudson was such a shoo-in to win for Best Supporting Actress that it offered no suspense. Additionally, Eddie Murphy’s loss for Best Supporting Actor ratcheted-up DREAMGIRLS also-ran status.

Meryl Streep landed a record fourteenth acting nomination for THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA, and if not for Helen Mirren, would have easily taken home her third Academy Award. VENUS brought Peter O’Toole his eighth nomination, which only served to make him the sole all-time Best Actor loser, separating him from Richard Burton’s losing streak (with seven nominations). When Peter O’Toole initially refused his Honorary Oscar, saying he was still in the running for a competitive one, he may have had a point. Surely this honorary win hurt his chances just a little bit this year. On the other side of the age barrier, Kate Winslet became the youngest person (at age 31) to reap a fifth acting nomination.

2006’s Oscars will also be remembered for the films of the Mexican trio of directors (“the three Amigos”): Alfonso Cuaron (CHILDREN OF MEN), Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (BABEL), and particularly Guillermo del Toro (whose PAN’S LABRYINTH took home three Awards [although oddly didn’t win foreign language film]). And a footnote would be Al Gore’s prominence on the show as well as AN INCONVIENT TRUTH’s win for not only Best Documentary, but for Best Song.

THE CEREMONY was hosted by Ellen DeGeneres, who seemed more excited about getting the job, than really hitting it out of the ballpark (although she got in a few laughs there seemed to be too many “borrowed” bits from her previous hosting gigs). The show was entertaining on the whole, however, with a fun recurring bit in which interpretive dancers “acted out” symbols of nominated films in silhouette. Of course, there were the usual out-of-left-field clip packages to drag the show out. The best speech of the evening could have been Alan Arkin’s— but by reading it off a sheet of paper, its impact was totally lost. Best Actor Forrest Whittaker also read from a sheet of paper, however, he recited it in such a way as to pull it off the page (and since he’d been stumbling through his speeches all through awards season— it was good he wrote it down this time). Who knows what he really meant though by thanking God for giving him “this moment in this lifetime that I will hopefully carry to the end of my lifetime into the next lifetime.” I guess Martin Scorsese’s career win and gracious speech would have to rate as the best speech and moment of the evening.

LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE is one of those little-films-that-could that keeps you rooting for it along the way, with a finale that doesn’t let you down.

The movie is about a dysfunctional family who tries to hold things together as they travel several hundred miles to Redondo Beach, California for seven-year-old Olive’s chance to compete in the “Little Miss Sunshine” beauty pageant. Abigail Breslin’s Olive hoping up-and-down and screaming when she hears the news that she’s in the competition is just one of those classic moments in movies— and since it starts the film rolling, a fortuitous one for the filmmakers.

The main thrust of the story and the central characterization never falters: we want Olive to compete and win-or-lose to take something away from being a part of this mixed-up family— who may be better for her than what the outside world has to offer. Screenwritery characterization (Frank is a suicidal Proust scholar/ Richard is a screwed-up motivational speaker who has an impending book deal/ Grandpa Edwin is an bigot with “Nazi bullets in him”) set up a built-in weakness to the piece as a whole. It’s made worse by having each of the subplots tidy themselves up in obvious and/or convenient ways. Only Frank’s story is left dangling, thankfully unresolved. Although I wouldn’t begrudge the film’s Oscar win for Best Original Screenplay, it does seem to have won for being brilliant in part.

The ensemble give solid individual performances, but more importantly the actors work well with each other. The conflict between Greg Kinnear’s “Richard” and Steve Carrell’s “Frank” (“Sarcasm is the refuge of losers.”) works particularly well. It’s nice that although the film is mostly a black comedy, it does have its share of laugh-out-loud moments, such as when the not-speaking Dwayne writes in his notepad that he hates everyone and Frank asks, “What about your family?” to which Dwayne underlines the “everyone.” The dialogue is very sharp throughout (Toni Collette’s Sheryl talks about Grandpa Edwin: “The intervention was a fiasco: he was like a two year-old.”).

Conceit with the VW bus’ “trouble” is smart and works very well within the plot, since because of it, like it or not, it forces the whole family to work together. Their arrival at the pageant is a great set piece with the various car troubles: very funny (although a mild repetition of it doesn’t come off as well when they depart— it’s just a expedient “out”).

Alan Arkin won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor and the deal may have been sealed when Grandpa Edwin tells Olive that she’s the most beautiful girl in the world. Although “grumpy old man” may not have been much of a stretch for Arkin, he does offer a certain pro’s eye to the cast: an effortlessness that deserved praise.

Dwayne (Paul Dano)’s freak-out toward the end rescues the film from possible isn’t-life-quirky oblivion and leads to that oh-so-perfect final pageant sequence. When the family comes together to protect Olive and then to support her, we see a critical glimmer of hope.

Little Miss Sunshine (2006): Funny black comedy with an irresistible central character whose journey to happiness is found without any traditional success.

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