Saturday, February 24, 2007

Most Picture 2007

Here's a prediction rather than an opinion, with no disrespect meant for any of the Best Picture nominees battling out an unusually up-in-the-air Oscar race climaxing tomorrow night. With the caveat that I have yet to see The Queen, they're all good pictures with nothing to be ashamed of. If I had to pick the one I enjoyed the most and am most likely to watch again, it would be The Departed, but that doesn't necessarily a Best Picture make.

Since Best Picture is at heart a production award, it goes by a slightly different ultimate criteria than your personal film scholar might utilize. A year ago when I started this blog, originally in an attempt to explain how Crash beat Brokeback Mountain, I wrote about my pet theory of Most Picture:
That means the movie with the strongest combination of striking visual imagery AND powerful emotion. A movie like Lawrence of Arabia has epic grandeur (visual) and a tragic personal story of how history shapes the man as much as man shapes history (gut emotion).

In a year without a visually overwhelming movie that also pulls out the emotional stops, a smaller movie can win, provided it delivers big emotions. The classic example is Marty, a small-person character piece adapted from a television play that won Best Picture against a slew of lesser, although generally bigger movies -- check if you must. It happened last year with Million Dollar Baby, where the smaller movie beat The Aviator, which didn't provide, perhaps, the right kind of emotion to win.

What's Most Picture 2007?

Having just come back from seeing Babel tonight, on the very eve of the fabled awards day, I think it will be hard to best for Most Picture. Unless Academy voters just didn't see it or it lost too much impact on DVD screener, it has the largest canvas of all the nominees and puts the audience through the ringer. While some more critical viewers have told me they were put off by certain character decisions, finding them contrived or even arbitrary, I'd bet that there's enough real world shooting in the movie to overwhelm those doubts.

Unless when I see it I find The Queen has the hugest canvas or the deepest emotional punch, I don't think it's a winner except by freakily split vote. Letters from Iwo Jima was born a true classic, but the canvas is limited (to excellent effect) and too emotionally Japanese (again, to the film's benefit as a work of art) to be Most Picture.

Little Miss Sunshine is the white horse, which is to say that in a field of dark movies, it hits some dark moment but comes out all smiles. Sadly, I saw a screener rather than having the theatrical experience, so I have no idea if being in a room full of other people bursting out with uncontrollable laughter during the climax would make me consider it Most Picture from the emotional angle. It just seems to me that no matter the size of the "winning is America" theme, Babel's combo of spectacle and affecting drama is the most common form of Most Picture winner. That said, there's a sense that the Academy sometimes chooses a filmmaker or genre that has been growing for awhile and is in its greening period (think Shakespeare in Love as the ultimate Miramax prestige film) and LMS is maybe the most respectable movie in the Sundance-celebrated canon. An important industry movement who's time is due.

Skewing more male, and maybe for that reason alone at a disadvantage over that lil' Miss, The Departed is a serious contender on the Most Great Actors, Most Exciting Hollywood Cinematic Experience, and (aside from the truly awesome final pullback shot in Babel) Most Great Shooting among the bunch. It's a movie-movie with everyone on it clearly showing up ready to put in their best work. There's an argument to be made that its themes of identity and commitment, and in their extreme forms their extreme costs, are somewhat universal. And while it's a little late to be the greening of '70's style filmmaking, it does represent the old masters (Scorsese, Nicholson, Sheen, cinematographer Ballhaus) giving their trial-by-masterpiece blessing to arguably the best of a new generation -- DiCaprio, Damon, Wahlberg, maybe even Farmiga.

But I think those may be intellectual arguments. For all their bad decisions, just on the face of it the characters and interweaving stories of Babel have a timely global heft, with the butterfly here ruining some poor sucker's life over there, bigtime. It's also the greening of the Three Amigos, a mini-movement of three of the most talented filmmakers of their generation, Babel director Innaritu, Children of Men director Cuaron, and Pan's Labyrinth director del Toro. These three committed buddies and refugees from their native Mexico deserve some sort of crown for their stunning tripartite achievement this year.

There's a second potential greening as well, that of the multi-character story that flips effortlessly backwards and forwards in time. Crash has a much more linear timeline, albeit similar in the butterfly effect genre, but with movies now more regularly jumping back on forth in order to make the story more impactful, as in The Prestige and others sneaking into the mainstream, there's an case to be made that Babel represents the greening of that style storytelling as well.

Lastly, while they are first among an ensemble, two of our biggest contemporary movie stars anchor the picture, with Brad Pitt and previous Oscar winner (The Aviator) Cate Blanchett going for the grit and still looking spectacular on the big screen. In a sense their involvement is an extension of that Sundance spirit as well, big Hollywood stars going the down-and-dirty for the right reasons, including ideology and working with admired directors.

So that's my argument and that's my bet. Through the lens of Most Picture, all the arguments why the others (particularly the two other top contenders) might win are rather one dimensional. Most Loved and Most Pleasurable.

We'll see which one gets the Most Votes so tantalizingly soon.

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