Oscar 2006: First Look at the Frontrunners

May 12, 2006Readers have been asking for my opinion of potential contenders for the 2006 Oscars. It's too early to start Oscar talk when the summer season has just begun. Even so, here is my list, based on trends of the past, chronicled in my book “All About Oscar: The History and Politics of the Academy Awards.”

We know the five finalists will represent a mixture of genres, like historical epics, serious dramas, and even musicals. However, it's often more fruitful to look at the talent (writer, director, and stars) in front and behind the camera. Oscar voters like to reward previous winners, perhaps in order to show that their judgment was valid the first time around. For their part, Oscar nominees and winners are just as anxious to prove that their first nominations and awards were not a fluke. As a member of the Oscar elite you get the best screenplays in Hollywood.

Films to Watch (in alphabetical order)

All the King's Men

Sony/Columbia, Political Drama, September

A remake of 1949 Oscar winner, this political drama concerns the rise and fall of a populist Southern Governor, loosely based on Lousiana's Huey P. Long.

The film stars Sean Penn, in the role that won Broderick Crawford an Oscar, Jude Law, Kate Winslet, and Patricia Clarkson, all Oscar winners or nominees. This is the third directorial effort of Steven Zaillian, who's still better known as the Oscar-winning writer of “Schindler's List.” Contradictory rumors run in town as to why the movie was pushed back from last December, and if it's truly an Oscar-caliber film, why is it released in September and not in November or December

The Departed

Warner, Crime Drama, Winter season

It might be a clich to say that this may be Scorsese's year at the Oscars since he has been nominatedand lostfive times before. Thematically, this crime drama, a loose remake of “Infernal Affairs,” is right up Scorsese's alley. Few movies this year can match the high-caliber cast, headed by Jack Nicholson, Leonardo Di Caprio, Matt Damon, and Martin Sheen (among others).

Dreamgirls

DreamWorks, Musical, December 22

Twenty-five years after bringing Broadway audiences to their feet, the Tony Award-winning musical “DreamWorks” comes to the screen with a dream cast: Jamie Foxx (Oscar-winner for “Ray”), Beyonce Knowles (“Austin Powers in Goldmember”), Danny Glover (the “Lethal Weapon” movie series), Jennifer Hudson (“American Idol”), Anika Noni Rose, and Eddie Murphy.

Set in the late 1960s and early 1970s, “Dreamgirls” follows the rise of a trio of women not unlike The Supremes. Effie (Hudson), Deena (Knowles), and Lorrell (Rose) form a promising girl group called The Dreamettes. At a talent competition, they are discovered by an ambitious manager, Chris Taylor J. (Foxx), who offers them the opportunity of a lifetime, to become the back-up singer for headliner James “Thunder” Early (Murphy). The spotlight, however, begins to narrow in on Deena, finally pushing the less attractive Effie out altogether. Though the Dreams become a crossover phenomenon, they soon realize that the cost of fame and fortune may be higher than they ever imagines.

“Dreamworks” is directed by Bill Condon, who adapted the screenplay from Tom Eyen's original book. It's the first musical for Condon, who won an Original Screenplay Oscar for “Gods and Monsters” (about James Whale), which he also directed. Condon received another Oscar nomination for his Adapted Screenplay for the musical “Chicago.” Last year, Condon directed the acclaimed biopicture, “Kinsey,” with Liam Neeson and Laura Linney.

Flags of Our Fathers

Paramount/DreamWorks, War Drama, No release date yet

Directed by Clint Eastwood, the two-times Oscar-winner (“Unforgiven,” “Million Dollar Baby”) “Flags of Our Fathers” is about the noted battle of Iwo Jima. Co-produced by Spielberg (“Saving Private Ryan”) and Eastwood, it should be a strong picture. One of WWII's most crucial and bloodiest battles was for the Island of Iwo Jima, culminating with what became the most iconic images in American history: Five Marines and a Navy corpsman raising the American flag on Mount Suribachi.

In 1949, Alan Dwan directed “Sands of Iwo Jima,” which made John Wayne a box-office star and earned him his first Oscar nomination. “Flags of Our Fathers” is based on the best-selling book by James Bradley with Ron Powers, which chronicles the battle of Iwo Jima and the fates o of the flag-raisers and some of their brothers in Easy Company. Bradley's father, John “Doc” Bradley, was one of the soldiers photographed raising the flag, though James never knew the full extent of his father's experiences until after the latter's death in 1994.

The inspiring photo, which captured that moment, became a symbol of victory to a nation that has grown weary of war. It also made instant heroes of the six American soldiers at the base of the flag, some of whom would die soon after, never knowing that they had been immortalized. But the surviving flags raisers had no interest in being held up as symbols and did not consider themselves heroes; they wanted only to stay on the front with their brothers in arms who were fighting and dying without fanfare or glory.

The film's ensemble cast includes Ryan Phillipe (“Crash”), Jesse Bradford (“Happy Endings”), Adam Beach (“Windtalkers”), Paul Walker (“Into the Blue”), Jamie Bell (Billy Elliott”), Barry Pepper (“Saving Private Ryan”), and John Benjamin Hickey (“Flightplan”). The screenplay was written by Paul Haggis (“Crash”), who previously wrote the Oscar-nominated “Million Dollar Baby.”

The Good German

Warner, Drama, No release date yet

An American journalist (played by George Clooney) becomes entangled in murder while searching for his former lover in Berlin. The film is directed by Oscar-winner Steven Soderbergh (“Traffic”) and co-stars Cate Blanchette, the 2004 Supporting Actress winner for “Aviator.”

The Good Shepherd

Universal, Drama, December 22

Scripted by Eric Roth (“Forrest Gump”) and directed by Robert De Niro, who also acts, this drama stars Matt Damon as CIA operative Edward Wilson, and it also has Angelina Jolie. Roth, De Niro, Damon, and Jolie are all Oscar winners.

Little Children

New Line, Drama, November 22

The second feature from Todd Field, whose 2001 drama, “In the Bedroom, “was nominated for five Oscars, including Best Picture. Hopefully, this anatomy of life in a modern suburb will offer new insights about suburbanism than those in Sam Mendes' “American Beauty,” which swept the 1999 Oscars. The top-notch cast is headed by Oscar winner Jennifer Connelly (“Beautiful Mind”) and Oscar nominee Kate Winslet.

Stranger Than Fiction

Sony/Columbia, Serio-comedy, November 10

A comedy as top contender in the Oscar race, you may ask. Yes, a comedy, but one directed by Marc Forster (“Finding Neverland,” “Monster's Ball”) and starring Will Ferrell, Emma Thompson, and Dustin Hoffman. Ferrell plays Harold Crick, an IRS agent whose world is turned upside-down when he begins to hear his life being chronicled by a narrator that only he can hear. The narrator Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson) is a nearly forgotten author of tragic novels, who's struggling to complete her latest and what she believes is also her best book. Kay is unaware that her protagonist is alive and uncontrollably guided by her worlds.

Fiction and reality collide when the bewildered Harold hears the narrator say that events set in motion will lead to his imminent death. Desperate to escape his fate, Harold seeks help from eccentric English professor Dr. Jules Hilbert (Hoffman) and finds unexpected comfort in a burgeoning romance with defiant audit subject Ana Pascal (Maggie Gyllenhaal). At the same time, Kay's impatient publishers have unleashed stern assistant Penny Escher (Queen Latifah) to help the author finish her book–and finish off Harold Crick.

Judging by the subject matter, which bears resemblance to “The Truman Show,” and caliber of talent in front and behind the cameras, “Stranger Than Fiction” promises to be an event movie.