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Oscar-nominated films might depress you

The Baltimore Sun

For the Oscars, 2006 was the year of the naysayers.

Hollywood has donned a hair shirt - well, maybe a hair shirt with a tasteful turtleneck. It's as much a fashion statement as an artistic statement, a way to look responsible and important, but the message is clear: No matter what they say in Washington, the state of the union, and the state of the world, are not strong.

With films such as Babel and Children of Men figuring heavily in the awards list, Tinseltown's tastemakers are responding to a weird social unrest that's different from the volatility of the Vietnam era or the seismic shifts of the Depression and World War II epochs.

The movies that cornered most of the academy's respect this year bring out the despair of our global village. At a time when engaged audiences are more worried about millennial problems such as global warming than their next meal, some of our best filmmakers are offering a generalized malaise that fits their fans' woeful mood.

They aren't creating best-picture winners that energize an audience the way Mutiny on the Bounty did in the 1930s or From Here to Eternity or On the Waterfront did in the 1950s, and they don't foster a paradigm shift of attitudes toward society the way The Godfather did in the 1970s. They seem designed to leave you high-minded and depressed.

There are no hotter directors in Hollywood, the academy or the world right now than the Mexican filmmakers Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and Alfonso Cuaron. But what have they given us this past year?

Inarritu, in Babel, puts together a mosaic of alienation in many lands, and gets nominated in the most categories, seven, including best picture and director.

Cuaron, in Children of Men, packs every hot-button issue from the Iraq war to immigration into a dank dystopia in which humankind no longer can produce children - and the academy rewards it with three nominations in major categories (cinematography, editing, adapted screenplay).

Their friend and peer Guillermo del Toro towers above them with Pan's Labyrinth, because he does something the others fail to do: He leaves you with a sense of possibility that goes beyond social profiles or politics.

Sure, Pan's Labyrinth is a dark fable for adults about a young girl creating or discovering a secret fairy-tale world while she witnesses Generalissimo Francisco Franco's brutal crackdown on rebels after the Spanish Civil War. But it seduces audiences and critics alike with its testament to the power of art and the imagination - and it garnered six nominations, not just for special awards like foreign film and makeup but also for del Toro's original script and other major categories, such as score and cinematography.

As Cuaron and Inarritu have done in the past, del Toro has followed in the great tradition of international moviemakers, linking his social conscience to his appetite for wonder and grandeur.

During previous times of change and tumult, Hollywood responded with extravagant escapism, not just muckraking and social melodrama. Franklin D. Roosevelt's ascendancy saw the rise of "small-d" democratic hits such as Frank Capra's It Happened One Night, which in its combination of breezy flirtatious comedy and knockabout road movie presented an ideal - yet not idealized - image of egalitarian America.

During World War II, Casablanca provided a sterling example of movie magic meeting reality with its genius melding of romance and moral conscience. When Bogart told Bergman that "the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world" it was actually the height of romance - we knew what it cost him to say that, and we also knew that it was right.

What will audiences treasure decades hence from the characters in Babel or Children of Men? In these movies, the people are figures in a landscape: They fade into the director's canvases.

Dreamgirls has been derided as glittery Oscar-bait, but it creates a social tapestry of a race-conflicted, money-driven America and presents personalities with enough gumption to pop out of the tapestry - especially Eddie Murphy's James "Thunder" Early and Jennifer Hudson's Effie. Its modest showing in the Oscar race (nominated in six categories, but not best picture, writer or director) means it was simply too entertaining to fit the academy's mood.

This was a year when America came into its own again as a comedy center: Indeed, for its awards, the Writers Guild of America came up with such an unexpected choice as the Will Ferrell comedy Stranger Than Fiction (written by Zach Helm) for a nomination. But at the Oscars, it's basically up to the ensemble, writer and producers of the delightful Little Miss Sunshine, and the writers of Borat, to wave the comedy flag at Los Angeles' Kodak Theatre. Poor Pedro Almodovar: He finally makes a really good comedy again, in Volver, and all he wins is more attention for best actress nominee Penelope Cruz.

Certainly Letters From Iwo Jima better fit the academy's tenor this time - told from the perspective of the slaughtered Japanese on that World War II battle site, it won four nominations, including best picture and best director for academy favorite Clint Eastwood. His Flags of Our Fathers, a look at the American victory on Iwo Jima, focused on the exploitation of fighting men by the U.S. propaganda machine, and won an additional two nominations.

The cynical, pseudo-witty Notes on a Scandal, the least of a string of classy British imports, received four nods as a reward for using the tale of a teacher-student affair to depict human relations as negotiable transactions. And the self-consciously literate Little Children received three for reducing Tom Perrotta's warm, complex satiric novel to a conventionally withering view of suburbia.

My favorites among the dominant movies, Pan's Labyrinth included, streaked tough-minded critiques of society with possibilities for beauty, transcendence and triumphs of virtue or talent.

Paul Greengrass earned a best director nomination for United 93, also up for best editing. Amid the spurious controversy over whether it arrived when it was still too early to dramatize the events of Sept. 11, 2001, the movie proved that a gifted artist needs no justification to ply his art except his own taste, brains and talent.

Stephen Frears' sublimely witty The Queen, nominated for six awards including picture, actress (Helen Mirren), director and screenplay, took an episode of mass hysteria in Britain - the anger over the royal family's reluctance to show grief and respect for Princess Diana - and turned it into a profound statement on responsibility and freedom in public life.

Davis Guggenheim's An Inconvenient Truth, up for best documentary, intertwined Al Gore's brilliantly accessible, cautionary lecture about climate change with a moving portrait of Gore as a recovering politician with a real personal stake in policy.

Even Borat knotted a heartening look at Yankee hospitality into a shriveling view of hidden American prejudices.

Martin Scorsese's superb Boston-mob entertainment The Departed provided an indelible portrait of a city in which all the traditional structures of church and state have broken down - and catalyzed an explosion of gutter humor and hard-grained acting and moviemaking pyrotechnics. No matter how bleak its view of urban humanity, it left you feeling more alive going out than you did going in.

Could the tremendous energy and virtuosity of Scorsese's work on The Departed make this his academy year at last? The movie has earned five nominations, including movie, director, screenplay and supporting actor (Mark Wahlberg). But it's hard to tell. You can never bet against Eastwood, who defeated Scorsese's luxuriant and adventurous period piece The Aviator with the message-ridden and lachrymose Million Dollar Baby - and Letters From Iwo Jima vs. The Departed looks like the same kind of matchup.

Actually, the omens don't bode well for any film that leaves you with something more than an ache in the pit of the stomach.

Let's just rename the 79th Academy Awards "the Angst Capades."

michael.sragow@baltsun.com

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