79th Academy Award nominations: a disparate group of films

By David Walsh
24 January 2007

The Academy Award nominations announced Tuesday morning confirm a recent trend: a growth in the overall seriousness of international filmmaking, in response to events, combined with significant limitations and confusion.

Three hundred seven feature films were eligible to be nominated for best picture this year by the 5,830 voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The award ceremony will be held February 25 at Hollywood’s Kodak Theatre, and will be hosted by comic Ellen DeGeneres.

Leading the pack, Dreamgirls, loosely based on the history of The Supremes of Motown fame, directed by Bill Conlon (Kinsey), received eight nominations, but none in the prestigious best picture, best actor, best actress, best directing or best screenplay categories.

Babel, directed by Mexican filmmaker Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu and featuring an international cast, gained seven nominations, including best picture, best supporting actress, best directing and best original screenplay. The film attempts to treat pressing problems, including America’s “war on terror” and the plight of immigrants in the US. “In the world of this film, misunderstandings and miscommunications yield human catastrophes—usually exacerbated by those in position of authority,” commented a WSWS reviewer.

Stephen Frears’ The Queen was named in six categories, including best picture, best actress (for Helen Mirren, not a surprise), best directing and best original screenplay. While understated and occasionally timid, Frears’ work takes a relatively cold-eyed look at the British monarchy and political establishment. It demonstrates the impact of an archaic, monstrous political set-up on its representatives. “The Queen’s critical and intelligent attitude toward the institutions of state and their representatives,” wrote the WSWS review, “is welcome. The lack of respect for the authority figures is healthy. However, this operates within certain definite limits. The strength and precision of the performances, and their reverberations, may show us more than the filmmakers can articulate explicitly.”

A film by another Mexican director, Guillermo del Toro, Pan’s Labyrinth, was tapped for six nominations, best foreign language film and best original screenplay among them. Del Toro’s film treats post-Civil War Spain and opposes the brutal reality and mythology of fascism. A recent review on the WSWS commented, “It is a film of great hope and optimism, of defending the imagination under difficult circumstances . . . From the period shown in the film [the mid-1940s], many opponents of Franco were forced to go underground. The film’s determination to defend and even honour their memory, even in small details, is praiseworthy indeed.”

Blood Diamond, directed by Edward Zwick, deals with the pursuit of diamonds and profit in Africa and its impact on human suffering on that continent. We wrote on the WSWS: “Blood Diamond brings important problems to light. It does so, however, with far too much of a conventional touch. While the film’s most intriguing scenes are those that deal with Sierra Leone and its political realities . . . the movie’s weakest segments are those seemingly superimposed for their box office value.” Interestingly, the World Diamond Council (in which De Beers plays a major role) has apparently mounted a multi-million dollar campaign against the film. The diamond firms are especially nervous because the Academy Awards ceremony is an event to which many film stars wear borrowed jewels, many worth millions of dollars.

Martin Scorsese’s The Departed, about the Boston underworld, received five nominations, including best picture, best supporting actor, best directing and best adapted screenplay. This is a genuinely retrograde work, which revels in backwardness and violence, or is paralyzed in the face of them. Our review argued that Scorsese and screenwriter William Monahan “have fashioned something violent, turgid and empty out of the material. Given the trajectory of Scorsese’s career, this is not entirely unexpected. The film is cruder, more caricatured than the already brutal Goodfellas and Casino, and matches the misanthropy of Gangs of New York

Clint Eastwood’s Letters from Iwo Jima, the story of a World War II battle from the Japanese point of view; Notes on a Scandal (from British director Richard Eyre), with Cate Blanchett and Judi Dench; and Little Miss Sunshine, directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris each received four nominations—Letters from Iwo Jima and Little Miss Sunshine for best picture.

About the latter, the WSWS wrote in a review, “Little Miss Sunshine contains a number of comic, and bruising, moments. A suicidal Frank [Steve Carell] is denied further care because the hospital has tapped the maximum of his insurance. A medical system looking after itself responds bureaucratically to the traumatic death of a family member. Young people, isolated and alienated, lacerate themselves trying to make sense of the world and find a secure and rational place in it.”

Forest Whitaker received a best actor nomination for his portrayal of Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland. We wrote, “Whitaker’s remarkable performance aside, the film does little to contribute to an understanding of Amin as a historical or sociological phenomenon. In fact, it tends to add to the general confusion on this score.”

Also in the best actor category, the Academy’s voters nominated Ryan Gosling for Half Nelson, the story of a dedicated Brooklyn teacher with a terrible drug problem. Our reviewer observed, “The performances and the honesty and sincerity of Half Nelson lift it out of the ordinary. Gosling and newcomer [Shareeka] Epps give accomplished performances: subtle, resonant, deep—among the best this year, but in the end this remains a peculiarly unresolved and inconclusive film.”

Children of Men, by a third Mexican filmmaker, Alfonso Cuarón, garnered three nominations, including best adapted screenplay and best cinematography. The film takes on the repression of illegal immigrants and, at least in passing, the horrors perpetrated at Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad It does so, however, in a somewhat diffuse and uncommitted fashion. Responding to a comment by the director about his faith in the younger generation, the WSWS wrote, “It’s good to be hopeful, but it’s even better to be hopeful on the basis of something substantial and fully thought out. The difficulty is that the film’s various elements do not fully cohere. The remarkable fragments remain fragments and thereby lose much of their impact.”

The best documentary nominees include Deliver Us From Evil (directed by Amy Berg), about a Catholic priest guilty of sexual abuse on a vast scale who was protected by the Church hierarchy; An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore’s film about global warming, directed by Davis Guggenheim; James Longley’s examination of the terrible consequences of US intervention, Iraq in Fragments; Jesus Camp (directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady), about Christian fundamentalist indoctrination of children in the US; and My Country, My Country, Laura Poitras’ rather limited film about a Sunni doctor and politician trying to navigate life in war-torn Baghdad.

In a comment on Iraq in Fragments, the WSWS wrote, “Longley’s film establishes the disastrous character of the US encounter with Iraq and the almost universal hatred felt for the American occupiers.” Director Longley told us in an interview, “It’s not only the war in Iraq, but also in Afghanistan and more wars are coming. I am one of those Americans who doesn’t feel that my views or interests are reflected by either of the two major political parties. But instead of sitting back and feeling hopeless I prefer to go out into the world and experience it myself, to see for myself what’s really taking place, so I can form my own opinions based on experience rather than second-hand information.”

Among the nominees for best foreign language film is Water, by Canadian-Indian director Deepa Mehta, about the terrible fate of Hindu widows. Our reviewers remarked, “Water has a number of deeply moving scenes with strong performances by Seema Biswas and Sarala and some striking cinematography and music by Giles Nuttgen and A.R. Rahmans respectively . . . While Mehta’s film effectively dramatises the human cost of these harsh and dehumanising ‘traditions’, it also contains elements of Bollywood conventionalism and melodrama, which are at odds with the movie’s challenging subject matter and tend to take the edge off its dramatic impact.”

So the Academy Award nominations represent a highly disparate group of films, some decent, a few that are very poor and a good many that contain both valuable and confused elements.

Do the films nominated reflect our present reality in any meaningful way? This is a complicated question. Various commentators have pointed to the “ethnically diverse slate of contenders.” Scott Bowles of USA Today notes, “As studios expand their worldview beyond the West—and see the potential for ticket sales overseas—minority actors and racially diverse themes are increasingly finding their way to the big screen.”

The presence of three Mexican filmmakers is notable. Iñarritu told USA Today the film industry has become “more willing to accept globalization and that we’re all connected. People are interested in stories beyond just their world.” Cuarón commented that the industry was simply reflecting its own changing demographics. “Hollywood has always been made up of immigrants,” he said. “We had a German revolution. A French film revolution. It’s just now, the immigrants aren’t all from Europe.”

However, the most profound global realities—including the vast social imbalance, the new colonialism, the criminality of Washington’s drive to dominate the world—and their consequences for wide layers of the population have only made their way into film work to a very limited degree so far. One would not want to overestimate any of this year’s nominees. And, at that, there is a good deal of comment in the media and entertainment world, and some grumbling, about the predominance of ‘somber’ and ‘dark’ films. Bloomberg.com writes that the nominated films “are dominated by serious films.” Paul Dergarabedian, of Media By Numbers, tells Bloomberg, “The films that are being honored are the ones that are really intense. Thematically, this is a pretty dark bunch.”

Unfortunately, the awards ceremony itself generally highlights the worst aspects of the American film world: opulence, self-involvement and social indifferentism. We expect more of the same this year. Will a single figure step forward and address the war in Iraq, the Bush administration or the wholesale attacks on democratic rights? The pressure to conform and toe the line is intense.

We live in difficult, complex times, with great opportunities and great dangers confronting humanity. Filmmaking as a whole has barely begun to scratch the surface.