For the first time in a long time, there appears to be some genuine suspense at the Academy Awards.

“Little Miss Sunshine,” a dysfunctional family road-trip comedy, “The Departed,” a Boston-based crime drama, and “Babel,” a sprawling meditation on international communication breakdown, all seem poised to potentially take the big prize this Sunday at the 79th annual Academy Awards ceremony. These three very viable candidates all present Academy voters with a distinct choice as to the kind of film they want 2006 to be remembered by.

There’s little point in trying to decipher who will end up winning; an entire blogosphere subset has arisen over the past few years to provide this often entertaining service. However, I think there is something intriguing about how “Babel,” “The Departed,” and “Little Miss Sunshine” ended up becoming the three films the Academy will supposedly be choosing from (or, for that matter, why the other two very fine nominees, “Letters from Iwo Jima” and “The Queen,” have been dismissed from the running). Each of these three films presents a distinctly different view of the modern world. Two of them seem to fit surprisingly well together as companion pieces reflecting actual current moods, while the third stands isolated in its failed ambition.
“Little Miss Sunshine,” which follows a southwestern family’s impromptu road trip so their youngest daughter can compete in an LA children’s beauty pageant, has been viewed by many as the Academy’s “small” choice, continuing a recent trend to nominate one film whose scope, prestige, and (usually) budget is significantly smaller than the other four. If “Sunshine” can be pegged as small, though, that doesn’t mean it earns that other backhanded compliment bestowed upon it by many pundits: “quirky.” Is there a more casually dismissive adjective in all film criticism, a better indication that the film you are about to see is superfluous and charmingly meaningless?

“Little Miss Sunshine” certainly entertains. It’s one of the most purely enjoyable films of the year. But it also puts forth a legitimate (if not exactly subtle) satirical critique of American consumerism and its obsession with coming out on top, and couples it with a cast of eccentric but fully formed characters who earn our respect and love. Directors Jonathon Dayton and Valerie Faris give us a vision of the modern American family as wildly flawed, inclusive, and a more vital force than the fanatical pursuit of individual glory seen in the garish child beauty pageant that ends the film.

Familial love and loyalty find their blistering antitheses in Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed,” a full-throttle tale of death and betrayal. Cops posing as gangsters, gangsters masquerading as cops, and Jack Nicholson acting as mad-king of this morally-emaciated kingdom. “The Departed” sucks the audience so thoroughly into its rollicking world of double-crosses and shredded identities that its easy to ignore what a horrific place it really is. Like “Little Miss Sunshine,” the sheer pleasure the film gives it audience is undeniable; there’s a reason it’s the most financially successful film Scorsese has ever directed. However, it’s equally worth noting the feverish intelligence with which Scorsese imbues every frantically fascinating frame.

Taken together, the films constitute a point/counterpoint of the current American psyche. One film finds escape and redemption on the open American highway, in a broken-down yellow mini-bus as gloriously imperfect as the people within it; the other stews and rages within the deathly confines of a city rotting from within. “Sunshine’s” characters find new layers within themselves that transcend easy idiosyncrasies. “The Departed’s” characters are ultimately consumed by the corrosive lies and deceptions that come to control their lives and define their destinies. These films speak to the vacillating optimist/nihilist viewpoint so prevalent within the country, the national push-pull between hope for the future and despair for the present.

Because these points come wrapped in the deceptively simplistic guise of genre, many pundits have claimed that, should “Little Miss Sunshine” or “The Departed” win, it will represent an escapist impulse on behalf of the Academy, a collective desire to forget the world and sink into the confines of familiar cinematic technique. Why think of serious topics when we can watch Steve Carrell comically grimace or Jack Nicholson melt down with patented Jack-tastic bravado?

If you want to talk about sinking into the familiar, look no further than the designated “important” nominee: “Babel.” Alejandro González Iñárritu’s multi-narrative look at the inability of communication between nations and between people strains for greatness with the impatience of an overachieving tenth-grader who just discovered their parents’ dog-eared copy of Marx. However, this impulse is undercut by the intellectual shallowness of the script, which puts forth the bold thesis that people are separated by cultural and linguistic differences and need to, you know, connect. With its four interconnected storylines, “Babel” continues the recent trend of stretching big issues over as many characters as possible. There’s a reason its sometimes been dubbed the international “Crash.” That is not a compliment.

Iñárritu attempts to compensate by pounding the audiences’ emotional buttons, with everything from dying children to the Job-like trials of a virtuous Hispanic maid traveling to her son’s wedding (will somebody either retire this patronizing character-type or make her the center of a fascinating character study?). As Harry Chotiner so succinctly put it on The New Republic’s wonderful Oscar blog, “the film confuses sadness with tragedy.” Viewers may leave “Babel” emotionally battered, but this does not mean its pretenses toward insight into international relations remain anything more than fortune-cookie platitudes.

Forgive me if I get so breathy over what many consider a glorified night of industry back-patting. On some level, it is. However, whoever ends up holding the Best Picture statuette on Sunday will also be representative of a common cinematic mood that, to some extent, reflects the temperature of the 2006 film going public. Here’s hoping the winner in this three-way race to the podium proves worthy of such a distinction.

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