Best Picture Movie Marathon, Part 20
I’ve embarked on an EPIC challenge to watch every movie ever nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award. To do so, I’ve put all the years from 1929 to 2020 into a bucket and I’m pulling out years one by one to determine what movies to watch.
PART 20: 2007
Little Miss Sunshine
Letters from Iwo Jima
The Departed (winner)
Little Miss Sunshine: Just a few seconds into Little Miss Sunshine, you know this is a movie about dreams…and illusions.
As a beauty pageant reflects in the thick glasses of a pudgy little girl, her sweet face trying to imitate the surprised reaction she sees on TV, we can’t help but think back on that innocent time in our own childhoods, when our deepest dreams and desires were but a moment away.
A couple days later, as her family approaches the Ramada Inn where she hopes to win the Little Miss Sunshine pageant, they can’t seem to find the exit that will get them there, though the building is close enough to touch. It’s a powerful moment that speaks to the elusive nature of those ‘American Dreams’ we all chase, the roads we follow, and the ones we don’t.
An emotional and satirical “road trip movie”, Little Miss Sunshine is nothing if not an anti-establishment, counter-cultural comedy, starring the mascot of nonconformity: a 1971 T2 Volkswagen Bus. Though it’s not clad with peace signs and flower power stickers, it sports enough personality to give it top billing in this delightful gem of a movie.
The Hoover family is made up quite the cast of characters. Olive (Abigail Breslin) is a bright-eyed, optimistic 7-year-old who dreams of becoming beauty pageant royalty. Her father, Richard (Greg Kinnear), is an aspiring – yet grossly unsuccessful – motivational speaker, and her mother, Sheryl (Toni Collette), is on her last nerve holding her family together.
Olive’s grandpa, Edwin (Alan Arkin), takes up residence on the Hoover couch, having been kicked out of his retirement home for snorting heroin. He’s also Olive’s dance coach, spending hours fine-tuning her talent routine for the pageant circuit. Olive’s step-brother, Dwayne (Paul Dano) is 9 months into a vow of silence – only to be broken when he achieves his dream of getting into the Air Force academy – and Uncle Frank (Steve Carell) is under the care of his sister Sheryl after attempting suicide. Like I said, quite the cast of characters.
During a delightfully awkward dinner scene, Olive receives word that she’s been chosen to compete in the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant, which is just days away…and an 800-mile drive west from their home in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Short on cash, and unable to leave anyone behind, the entire family piles into the family’s antique VW bus and hits the open road. And not unlike the Joad’s, the Beverly Hillbillies and the millions of others following the illusion of ‘The American Dream’, the Hoover’s set course for California – the land of sunshine, eternal promise, and opportunity.
In my many years of watching movies, I honestly can’t think of one better cast than Little Miss Sunshine. These actors, all at the top of their game, seem to effortlessly grasp how pain is often the source of the most satisfying – and relatable – comedy and how unspoken reactions are often funnier than the punchlines we see coming miles away.
But what makes this movie so sweet and so emotional is how it treats these characters when they fail…because they fail a lot. When Frank finally admits to himself that his 9-step “Refuse to Lose” program might actually be a bomb, his father Edwin – who gets on his nerves constantly with his obsession with sex and dirty talk – comes through with words of moral support and love. When Dwayne faces a personal crisis towards the end of the movie, Olive simply puts her arm around his shoulder. And when Olive finally showcases her famous dance routine (which makes a glorious mockery of pageants in general), her family beams with admiration.
When it comes right down to it, they may be nuts, embarrassing or down-right cray-cray, but family is often more than enough to carry us through even our darkest times.
Arguably one of the best indie films ever made, Little Miss Sunshine was an overwhelming success, earning $100.5 million and winning two Academy Awards: Best Original Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor (Arkin). Abigail Breslin was also nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her performance, but lost to Jennifer Hudson for Dreamgirls. Kind of ironic, don’t ya think?!
One of the most heartbreaking scenes in Little Miss Sunshine happens towards the end of the film, when Olive looks around the pageant she has always dreamed of winning and realizes she is “different” from her fellow contestants. Where they are thin and tan, she is pale and pudgy. Her K-Mart bathing suit can’t compare with their sparkly, sequin-covered costumes. In an instant, I recognized myself in her, suddenly uber aware of the fact that everything about my physical appearance goes against the society standard. But unlike the pageants this film mocks, Little Miss Sunshine reminds us that, despite everything, we’re okay just the way we are – pot bellies and all.
The Queen: I was 13 when Princess Diana died. I wasn’t quite old enough or wise enough to know who she was, but I remember being incredibly moved by the outpouring of love for “The People’s Princess.”
Almost every TV channel in America was cast upon Buckingham Palace, as an ocean of flowers, cards, and mementos for Diana ebbed and flowed down the streets of London. Mourners sobbed openly at the gates, holding candles for a woman who lived so much of her life in the public eye. Yet something felt…off.
Where was the Royal Family? With a nation in mourning, many were quick to observe that Queen Elizabeth II had yet to make an appearance, let alone a statement, about Diana’s death. In fact, it would take about 5 days after Diana died for the Queen to even say anything publicly about her passing. Many supporters of the Queen chocked it up to wanting private time with her family, but – like any great British drama – there’s much more under the surface than that.
Set in the week following Diana’s death, The Queen documents the life of Queen Elizabeth II (Helen Mirren) and the rest of the immediate Royal Family following the August 1997 car accident that claimed the life of Princess Diana. As an overwhelming outpouring of grief thunders across the country, the Queen finds herself under harsh criticism for not speaking publicly about the death of this woman who, not so secretly, was never welcomed with open arms by the Royal bloodline.
In an effort to save face, recently appointed Prime Minister Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) urges the Queen to reconsider her traditional views. Knowing the British people not only expect, but need, her outreach, he must figure out how to bring this pinnacle of tradition and duty into the 21st century.
Told in quiet scenes of proper behavior and guarded speech, The Queen is a story of opposing passions. Elizabeth, who is grounded in duty and honor, must find a way to maintain her sense of responsibility to the crown while finding it in herself to show empathy for this woman she frankly didn’t care for. Blair, who knows the public wants and needs the support of the Queen, must convince her that publicly mourning Diana is the right move in avoiding a large PR scandal.
Of course, that’s not to say that the Queen is portrayed as any type of villain…in fact, I think the opposite is true. Bound by history, Queen Elizabeth is simply trapped by the situation she’s in. In her heart of hearts, the Queen is so convinced that she’s doing the right thing for her subjects, even though she’s so out of touch with what their needs and desires even are. And while she’s eventually amendable to Blair’s suggestions, her clear distain for Diana clouds her judgement.
There’s also a certain charm to Her Majesty, particularly in those moments where she’s not a Queen, but a wife or a grandmother. Her dynamic with Philip (James Cromwell) shows a loving relationship that has withstood the test of time and there are several moments throughout the movie where you really want to believe she is putting her grandchildren at the forefront of her decision-making process. It’s certainly a credit to Helen Mirren’s performance that the Queen never becomes a crude caricature but instead is a woman torn between two very different worlds. After all, as Tony Blair points out, it’s a job she never chose…yet it’s one she does with great respect, honor and goodwill.
The Queen was nominated for 6 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay. It would only win one – a Best Actress award for Mirren. The Queen herself was so taken with Mirren’s performance that she even invited her over for tea!
In the scenes following Diana’s death, Queen Elizabeth is shown 500 miles from London, in the bedroom of her Balmoral home in Scotland. As she watches old TV footage of Diana’s past interviews, the Queen neither snorts nor sighs – she simply stares. Yet it’s uncanny how many emotions present themselves on her face: distaste, horror, pity, regret and maybe, just maybe, envy. Like any royal monarch, Queen Elizabeth II puts duty before self, and the fact that Diana could have allowed herself to be so open, so heartbreakingly human, is an utter mystery to the Queen.
Yet, by the end of the movie, the Queen must open herself up for the world to see if she’s to maintain the respect of her people. And in her well-worn eyes, you can’t help but see how scared this larger-than-life figure is to expose herself on such an intimate level. And that’s what this film makes abundantly clear: like the woman she tried so hard to separate herself from, the Queen is all too human.
Babel: The Biblical story of ‘The Tower of Babel’ begins in a time when “the whole earth had one language and the same words”. Humanity was able to communicate flawlessly and agreed to build a tower tall enough to reach God and the heavens. Angered at humanity’s hubris, God separates humanity into different tribes and forces them all to speak unique languages, thereby causing a breakdown in communication and understanding.
Today we call this globalization, and it’s no doubt been the catalyst of conflict, violence and suffering among the human race. In Alejandro González Iñárritu’s film, Babel, four families (one in the US, one in Mexico, one in Morocco and one in Japan) are forever changed, and forever linked, by one seemingly innocuous act.
The film begins in Morocco, where Susan (Cate Blanchett) and Richard (Brad Pitt) are trying to rekindle their love life after dealing with the loss of their baby (seriously, they couldn’t have gone to, like, HAWAII or something?!). While on a tour bus, Susan is shot by what the passengers can only assume are terrorists. With no hospital for hundreds of miles, the bus must divert to the nearest village, where Richard desperately tries to secure medical attention for his dying wife.
Meanwhile, up in the mountains of Morocco, the two young boys who accidently shot Susan (Mohamed Akhzam and Boubker Ait El Caid) while practicing their aim with their new hunting rifle are on the run. When their father finds out what they’ve done, the family must decide whether to stay in their home or run and hide from the Moroccan police.
We then journey to the United States, where two young kids named Debbie and Mike (Elle Fanning and Nathan Gamble) are being cared for by their Mexican nanny, Amelia (Adriana Barraza). Amelia has been trying desperately to find someone else to watch the kids so she can attend her son’s wedding in Mexico, but her efforts are in vain.
Fresh out of options, Amelia packs up her young charges and takes them with her. The wedding is a joyous time and the kids have a blast, but when Amelia’s nephew Santiago (Gael Garcia Bernal) insists he can drive them back home after having one too many tequilas, things don’t go so well once they reach the border.
Finally, we end up in Japan, where deaf-mute teenager, Chieko (Kikuchi Rinko) is high on hormones – literally throwing herself at any available man who crosses her path. Still mourning the suicide of her mother, Chieko struggles with how to express herself, especially with a father who seems so far removed.
Similar to movies like Pulp Fiction, Babel is told in fragments and it’s up to us to put the pieces together. There is a common thread here, which I will not spoil, but it’s near impossible not to get caught up in each one of these storylines, particularly Chieko’s.
In one of the most riveting scenes, we follow Chieko – who has just taken ecstasy with her friends – into a pulsing Tokyo nightclub. Being deaf, Chieko can’t hear the music, but she’s overwhelmed with visual stimulation. Iñárritu brings us into that world by flipping from the “audience” perspective – where we can hear Earth, Wind and Fire’s “September” blaring form the speakers – to Chieko’s perspective, where we just see flashing lights and people dancing in cold, utter silence. It’s disorienting and exhilarating…and I easily could have spent an entire movie learning more about Chieko and her friends.
Now, I’m not gonna lie to ya…this movie’s a total bummer. I was suuuuper depressed after watching this film, but I think that’s kind of the intention. Most of the characters in this movie not only struggle with language barriers, but with the ability to even express their own basic wishes and desires. Susan and Richard seem to be on the brink of divorce, Amelia struggles with accepting the things she must do and say as an illegal immigrant and Chieko, who cannot speak at all, is as desperate as anyone to make expressive human contact. By the end, I felt such sympathy for each and every one of these characters that I couldn’t bear the thought of anything bad happening to any of them.
Babel was nominated for a slew of awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and two Best Supporting Actress nominations for Baraza and Kikuchi; however, it would only win one Oscar for Best Original Score.
In a movie about the breakdown of communication, you might expect some mumbo-jumbo “WE ARE THE WORLD” kumbaya moment at the end, but that does not exist. Instead the cultures collide like planetary stars, portraying a world soaked in sadness and despair.
Letters from Iwo Jima: Over the course of five weeks in February and March of 1945, an invasion of 100,000 Americans fought 22,000 Japanese infantrymen on the island of Iwo Jima. Only 1,083 Japanese survived the brutal onslaught, while 6,821 Americans lost their lives and more than 20,000 were wounded.
Only about 5 miles from one end to the other, Iwo Jima was a barren, sulfuric spec in the Pacific Ocean, the last battleground before America would reach Japan. In Letters from Iwo Jima, director Clint Eastwood tells the story of this battle from the Japanese perspective. Shot as a companion piece to Flags of Our Fathers, which tells the American side of the same battle, Eastwood gives equal – if not better – spotlight to the American enemy.
Shot almost entirely in Japanese, Letters shows us that nothing is as clear-cut as it seems. The situation of war is never as black-and-white as any propaganda would have you believe – and indeed in this charcoal-colored film, it becomes painfully clear that both sides were in a place they didn’t want to be, fighting for a cause they didn’t really understand.
With little to no support from the mainland, Iwo Jima’s defenders were vastly outnumbered by the American military, not to mention scantly provisioned. Soldiers were openly told by their commanding officers that they would most definitely die on this unhospitable island – and assured them that it was an honor to do so. The Japanese army didn’t expect the island to stand more than five days, but under the command of Lt. General Kuribayashi (Ken Wantanabe), who spent time learning how the Americans thought and strategized, they held out for more than a month.
They succeed in survival by building a labyrinth of tunnels in the high grounds of the island, allowing the army to burrow and live underground. We spend most of our time down here with Private First Class Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya), a young baker who longs to return home to his pregnant wife. In a flashback, we hear his neighbors say what an honor it is to be chosen to die for your country, and indeed, several Japanese soldiers feel the same. We see this later in the film, when a group of soldiers decide to kill themselves rather than take a chance and fight to the death. From their perspective, there’s great honor in dying this way – but I can certainly see how this would be culture shock for most American audiences. As one reviewer said, “One can’t help recalling the words attributed to Gen. George S. Patton in 1994: ‘Now I want you to remember that no bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. You won it by making the other poor, dumb bastard die for his country.'”
As is the case with most foreign war films, the moments of terror and horror are balanced with moments of kindness and dignity. Mass suicides, pointless murder and mercy killings are balanced ever so slightly with acts of true bravery and scenes of American and Japanese soldiers bonding over meeting famous movie stars.
In one particularly moving scene, Lt. Colonel Takeichi Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara), who ordered his medics to treat a mortally wounded American GI with what remained of their morphine, translates a letter from the dead man’s mother: “Come home safe; do the right thing because it’s right.”
“My mother said the same thing to me,” one soldier says to Siago.
In war, there are good guys and bad guys on both sides, and no matter what piece of ground you’re occupying, chances are there’s a big part of you that would much rather pack up, ship off and head home rather than actually die for your country. For the Japanese and American soldiers who met on the now hollowed ground of Iwo Jima, death was imminent. The sad part is, they all knew it. While Letters from Iwo Jima enhances our understanding of what it means to live and die, it also is a lesson in heroism, letting us ponder the difference between dying for your country and fighting for it.
The Departed: This movie has two of my favorite things: Jack Nicholson and Leonardo DiCaprio. It also has one of my least favorite things: Mark Wahlberg. Ah well, you can’t win ‘em all.
Directed by Martin Scorsese, The Departed is the story of two men trying to live public lives that are the radical opposite of their own inner realities. In this rat’s nest of a situation, it can be extremely difficult to tell the good guys from the bad ones – but, as Nicholson’s character Frank Costello says, “When you’re facing a loaded gun, what’s the difference?”
Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) is the boss of South Boston’s Irish Mafia. Abiding by the “get them in young to brainwash them” mentality, Costello recruits a young boy named Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) to join his crew. Frank becomes the father Colin never had, encouraging and financing his way through the police academy so Frank can have a spy inside the local police department.
Meanwhile, Captain Oliver Queenan (Martin Sheen) and Sgt. Sean Dignam (ugh...Mark Wahlberg) hand-pick a promising police cadet named Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) to infiltrate Costello’s gang. After some organized prison time, Billy is thrown to the wolves, where he ultimately succeeds in gaining access to Frank.
So as gangster Colin rises in the police force, officer Billy rises in the mob. Unaware of each other’s involvement, Colin and Billy leak information to their respective commanders (Colin to Frank, Billy to Queenan). Both moles know there are leaks, but neither is aware of the truth about the other’s position.
As is the case with most Scorsese movies, the stakes are high here. The story’s tension, which is heavy, is obviously dependent on human nature. After several years of infiltration, both men come to identify with, and desire the approval of, the men they are deceiving. Billy needs to be a convincing gangster and must be prepared to commit the crimes he’s been sworn to stop. Colin has to be prepared to bust the bad guys, even when it’s the man who raised him. Step out of line and things start to look fishy…get caught in the trap, and you can pay with your life.
It’s strange that Nicholson and Scorsese haven’t worked together until The Departed, as they seem like such a natural fit. Though Costello isn’t a big departure for ol’ Jackie – he’s demented, flamboyant, and showcases that creepy uncle charm – he plays him with such confidence that you wonder how it took so long for Nicholson to play a mob boss. Few actors can add more color and character to a bad guy than Nicholson, and while he doesn’t cover this character with Joker makeup, his calm, cool and collected demeanor is just as frightening as it is magnetic.
On the flipside, DiCaprio and Damon counterbalance each other perfectly, two sides of the same coin, enemies defined by the same dilemma. They’ve both “departed” from normal existence into lives of deception and secret identity.
Both actors bring their A-game here, Damon showcasing a man who acts more like a cop than anyone in the movie, yet is a total phony…and DiCaprio plays it cool on the outside, but his inner core is on the brink of cracking. They’re also opposites in their own personal lives – Damon’s Colin is guarded and closed off, DiCaprio’s Billy is emotional and tortured. When they both fall for the same woman (unbeknownst to the other, of course), Billy is a lover, Colin can’t get it up.
Yet both of these men are loners…linked to the seedy underbelly of Boston by blood ties. They both commit at least one act of betrayal, but it’s not always clear who they’re really betraying. In this murky world of moles and rats, loyalty and family are everything…but what’s never really clear is what constitutes both.
Besides winning the Oscar for Best Picture, The Departed also won Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Film Editing. It would mark Scorsese’s only Oscar win for Best Director, though he’s been nominated several times for the award.
It’s no secret that Scorsese is greatly fascinated by gangsters. A product of New York and heavily influenced by what he saw growing up in Little Italy, Scorsese has made a slew of films about mob culture. And maybe in doing this, in bringing to light insights into their nature, he’s become a bit of an informant himself – shedding light on a world that still remains hidden to most of us, a world filled with violence, corruption, deceit and, of course, wise guys.
Phew, these movies packed quite the emotional punch! Little Miss Sunshine is one of those films I can quote from beginning to end because I’ve seen it so many freaking times. It’s such a warm, good-hearted movie about loving yourself no matter what, and though flawed, the characters in the film are some of the most relatable I’ve ever seen.
The Queen is my hidden gem this year. Admittedly I wasn’t SUPER excited to watch this one, but I ended up loving it. So rarely do you see a film where the main character isn’t necessarily ‘the good guy’, and I think The Queen did a great job of showcasing a woman who struggled with balancing duty and desire.
If The Departed wasn’t gonna win, my vote would probably be for Babel. This story was incredibly human in that it showed how we might act if we were put in similar situations. Sure, we’d like to think we’d be the bigger person, but if your loved one was in danger, if you knew you were the only one who could save your children, what would you risk? This movie was incredibly emotional and, honestly, the thread that wove all these stories together was probably the weakest part of this film. This could have easily been a movie about humanity in general and would have been just as strong.
Letters from Iwo Jima was unlike the array of patriotic propaganda that I’ve seen from Clint Eastwood. I worried this movie would spend too much time glorifying the American fight, but it didn’t. Telling the story in Japanese was a brilliant touch, and casting Japanese actors made this film a wonderful tribute to those who lost their lives in this bloody World War II battle.
That brings us to The Departed, this year’s Best Picture winner. This film was like the perfect equation for Best Picture: great directing + great acting + beautiful actors (minus Mark Wahlberg hahaha). But Best Picture?? I don’t know. It was good, don’t get me wrong, but I don’t think I’d put it up there with Cuckoo’s Nest, Braveheart, or Parasite. Certainly in this lineup, this was the clear winner, but probably lower on the overall Best Picture winner list for me.
From infiltrating a little local pageant to the entire Boston mafia, these movies showed flawed, but relatable, characters who stopped at nothing to save face, honor, family and dignity, no matter the cost. In life there are winners and there are losers…heroes and villains…but sometimes the lines aren’t as clear-cut as we might like. Sometimes the lines blur and even the most noble among us are capable of the most disgraceful things.
Onto the next pull!