Oscar 2006: Indies and Art Films to Watch

Last year, the Oscar race was dominated by small-budget, independent films, proving that the best work done in American cinema was out of the mainstream. With the exception of Spielberg's “Munich,” all the other Best Picture nominees were risky, more politically overt, and artistically audacious fare, such as “Brokeback Mountain,” “Capote,” “Crash,” and “Good Night, and Good Luck.”

Will the same pattern prevail this year

It may be premature to predict the final contenders, but it's never too early to engage in Oscar talk. Here is a preliminary list of indie, semi-indie, and art films that might grab the critics' attention in the fall season, when they play at festivals like Venice, Telluride, Toronto, Deauville, and the New York Film Festival.

It may not be a coincidence that three of the films in this article center on children, and that they all have darkly humorous overtones, a reflection of the zeitgeist of the post 9/11 era.

Mots of the talent in these pictures, in front and behind the cameras, has been nominated for Oscars before, and some even won.

Babel

For me, the 2006 Oscar race began in Cannes, with the world premiere of Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu's “Babel,” his multi-layered epic linking personal identities and global politics in a thematically intriguing and emotionally compelling way. While specifically grounded in American culture of the post 9/11 era, “Babel” embraces the whole world, touching on a wide array of contemporary issues, including illegal immigration from Mexico, tourism in Third World countries, culture collision between East and West, and the impact of the “gun culture.”

“Babel,” Innaritu's third feature, is his most ambitious and most commercial film to date. The film is not perfect, yet I can't think of another ambitious movie that reflects the zeitgeist in which we live and at the same time is so emotionally gripping. Working on a larger canvas and with bigger budget, the film, co-scripted by collaborator Guillermo Arriaga, completes Innaritu's trilogy that began with the acclaimed Mexican “Amores Perros” and continued with the American-made “21 Grams” in 2003.

Since “Babel” is part of trilogy, comparisons of the other segments are in order. One way to distinguish “Babel” is to say that it's made for audiences rather than critics, unlike his stunning debut, “Amores Perros,” which entranced critics but few viewers saw, despite the fact that it was nominated for the foreign-language Oscar. By labeling “Babel” viewers-friendly, I don't mean to suggest that it's compromising or pandering to the audience, just that emotionally, it's a more accessible work that would appeal culturally diverse audiences.

In goal and scope, “Babel” recalls the international geopolitical thriller “Syriana,” though narratively and stylistically the two works are different. “Syriana” was provocative ideologically, espousing Big Ideas, yet the film was journalistic, dry, and lacking relatable characters to help viewers navigate through its (too) complex labyrinthine maze. “Syriana” was perceived by many as an academic thesis that, with the exception of one of two characters (George Clooney's CIA agent), lacked individuals with flesh and blood.

“Babel” is exactly the opposite. Sacrificing plot for strong characters, the movie may be more conventional, but it's also more intense and involving than “Syriana.” “Babel” is a political melodrama about people and their mundane lives, be in the Moroccan deserts herding sheep, San Diego tending young kids, or Tokyo where a bereft father tries to connect with his deaf-mute daughter.

Structurally, in both “Babel” and “Syriana,” the unifying principle of the story is that of the family, or more specifically, parents in children. Yet, while “Syriana” is about fathers and sons, “Babel” expands the range to include mothers and sons (the American and Mexican segments) and fathers and daughters (the Japanese story), along with fathers and sons (the Moroccan tale).

Both emotionally and ideologically, “Babel” is more touching and compelling than “21 Grams,” which, despite excellent acting from Sean Penn, Naomi Watts, and Benicio Del Torro, was overwrought and suffered from its puzzle-like structure.

A single rifle shot, fired on a whim by two boys in the Moroccan deserts, leads to an international political scandal and personal tragedies of the highest order, involving an American couple (Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett) traveling in Morocco, a sensitive Mexican nanny (Adriana Barraza) who takes care of their young kids and her irresponsible nephew (Gael Garcia Bernal), and a Japanese family of a single father and rebellious daughter in the far and remote Tokyo.

“Babel” tackles core problems of contemporary life in the post 9/11 era: lack of communication and miscommunication. The apt title refers to the biblical notion of people speaking different languages, unable to establish human communication. It's hard to think of another film that demonstrates so vividly and touchingly the thesis of six degree of separation.

Shot in three countries (Mexico, Japan, and Morocco) and in four languages (English is the fourth), “Babel” demonstrates continuity in Innaritu's thematic concerns, namely, the vulnerability of human beings in today's paranoid and terrorists-ridden world as they try to communicate across barriers and borders of language in Third-World countries. Separated by clashing cultures and sprawling distances, each of the four disparate groups is hurtling towards a shared destiny of isolation, grief, and ultimately redemption.

In each film, Innaritu has placed intimate stories about parents and children and generational gaps within larger political contexts. With “Babel,” he explores the inherent contradiction between the popular concept of the world as getting smaller and more intimate due to new tools of communication and the equally strong sense that as humans we still can't express ourselves or communicate with each other.

Oscar Record and Prospects

Innaritu's first Mexican movie was Oscar-nominated, Cate Blanchett is an Oscar winner (“Aviator”), and Brad Pitt Oscar nominee (“12 Monkeys”). With the right handling and savvy marketing, Paramount Vantage/Paramount Classic has a major winner that should reap awards at year's end, including nominations for Best Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Supporting Actors (Brad Pitt and Mexican Adriana Barraza), and technical categories for a supremely mounted movie, lensed by Rodrigo Prieto, designed by Brigitte Broch, and scored by Oscar-winner Gustavo Santaolalla (“Brokeback Mountain”).

Fur

Not exactly a conventional biopicture, the film is billed as an “Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus,” based on her motto that, A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know. The film is inspired by Patricia Bosworth's fascinating book, “Diane Arbus: A Biography.”

Nicole Kidman stars as 1960s photographer Diane Arbus, who tragically took her own life at the zenith of her career. Robert Downey Jr. stars opposite her in a strikingly offbeat role as her mentor and lover in a film written and directed by Steve Shainberg, who made the 2002 charming sexual fable “Secretary.”

“Fur” promises to be one of the most unusual and unorthodox portraits of a modern artist, a kind of hallucinatory exploration of the awakening of a creative genius, by using Arbuss startling, often disturbing photography as a point of departure for an imaginary portrait of her life. Ripe with passion and sexuality, it's the story of a complex and problematic woman- artist in search of herself.

The controversial photographer of outcasts-circus performers, burlesque queens, dwarves and freaks-began her life as the privileged daughter of a wealthy New York Furrier. Married young (too young) to Allan Arbus, a cool, rational man five years her senior, Diane is a woman searching for a more meaningful existence. However, what should feel like a success in 1950s America-good responsible husband and children, and middle-class respectabilityechoes coldly within her.

Things change, when she meets the mysterious, almost inaccessible Lionel (Downey, Jr.), a man who lives in shadows in the apartment above the Arbuses. Under the pretext of photographing him, Diane makes what will be a spiritual journey. Her meeting with Lionel is shocking; he is by all accounts a freak, suffering from a rare disease that covers his entire body with silky brown hair, human fur. Diane is terrified, but her fear arouses her and even intoxicates her, and she finds herself inexplicably drawn to Lionel.

Oscar Record and Prospects

Kidman, who was nominated for “Moulin Rouge” and won the 2002 Best Actress for playing another troubled artist who committed suicide, Virginia Woolf in “The Hours,” may receive her third nomination for this picture.

The brilliant Robert Downey Jr. (Oscar-nominated for Best Actor in 1992 for “Chaplin”) may garner a Supporting Actor nomination for his eccentric role.

Special effects make-up is by three time Oscar-winner Stan Winston (Jurassic Park, Terminator 2, and Aliens).

Little Children

Following the success of the critically acclaimed “In the Bedroom,” nominated for five Oscars, including Best Picture, writer/director Todd Field returns with “Little Children,” a modern-day fable that explores the turbulent emotional landscape beneath the surface of what seems to be a conventional suburban neighborhood.

Juggling marriage and children, sexual desire and infidelity, personal and communal lives, the intertwining characters of “Little Children” take us on a journey that is as emotionally revealing as it is darkly humorous.

“Little Children” promises to add an honorable panel to a growing body of classics about American Suburbanism, such as Ang lee's “The Ice Storm,” Todd Solondz's brilliantly acerbic “Happiness” (1998) and Sam Mendes' 1999 Oscar-winning hit, “American Beauty,” not to speak of Field's own contribution, the 2001 “In the Bedroom.”

Main protagonist is Todd (Patrick Wilson), a handsome house-husband affectionately known to the stay-at-home moms of the neighborhood as The Prom King. Hes every womans sexual fantasy, except his wife Kathy (Jennifer Connelly). The family's breradwinner, Kathy is a documentrain (making a film abiut 9/11), who is more interested in Todd pursing a legal career, having failed not once but twice the bar exams.

Todd's female counterpart is Sarah (Kate Winslet), a once a passionate feminist, stuck in a listless, run-of-the-mill marriage to Richard. Sarah aspired to be an academician, but she never got to writing her dissertation. More importantly, shes the only mom in the neighborhood who has the courage to introduce herself to the mysterious Prom King, using the pretext of a bet with her neighbors that she can get his attention.

From their first meeting, sparks begin to fly between Todd and Sarah. Amid talks at the neighborhood pool and walks in the park with their kids, they begin a heated noirish affair. Todd sees a light in Sarah her husband hasnt noticed for years, and Sarah fills the emotional void that his wife Kathy has created in her pursuit of a more conventional life, defined by materialistic possessions.

Sarahs wayward attentions dont seem to bother her husband, Richard. Hes far too obsessed with an online stripper, Slutty Kay, to even notice. Richard becomes so enamored of this Internet exhibitionist that he lets himself get caught by Sarah in an uncompromising position that would embarrass every man, let alone a married one.

What ralies the charcaters together is the appearances of Ronnie (Jackie Earle Halley), convicted child molestor, who returns to the neighborhood after serving time in prison and now lives with his domineering mother, who still believes her son is an innocent boy.

Oscar Record and Prospects

The film has Oscar pedigree, being directed by Todd Field (“In the Bedroom”), and written by Todd Field and Tom Perrotta, from the best-selling novel by Tom Perrotta, who previously wrote “Election” (made into a terrific satire by Alexander Payne).

Kate Winselt is a three-time Oscar nominee (with bravura work in Titanic, Iris, Finding Neverland, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) Jennifer Connelly won the 2001 Supporting Oscar for “A Beautiful Mind, and Patrick Wilson impressed in “The Phantom of the Opera” and HBO's “Angels in America.”

Jackie Earle Halley, a child actor who had later appeared in “Bad News Bears” and “Breaking Away” may receive a Supporting Actor nomination.

Little Miss Sunshine

The biggest commercial hit of the 2006 Sundance Film Festival, which resulted in a fierce bidding war, and just opened to critical acclaim and huge popular success.

Just when you thought the concept of dysfunctional family has been exhausted in American films, both Hollywood and indies, along comes “Little Miss Sunshine,” an enormously likable, if not great, picture that has the potential to become a breakthrough hit in similar way to last year's Sundance entry, “Hustle & Flow.”

Though idiosyncratic on the surface, “Little Miss Sunshine” is really a genre comedy that combines elements of the dysfunctional family film with those of the road comedy; the van (dys)functions as one of the tale's central characters.

The feature debut of music-video directors (and husband-and-wife team) Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton is a farcical comedy that for the most part is sharply written by Michael Arndt and particularly well-acted.

It's unusual these days to see an American film about an extended family, but one of the innovative aspects of “Little Miss Sunshine” is embracing a three-generational clan, affording each of its six members a fully-developed role, with archs, ups-and-downs, and reconciliation, after both inner and outer struggles.

The film tells the story of the Hoover family over a crowded three-day span, as they journey from their home in Albuquerque New Mexico to the Little Miss Sunshine pageant in Redondo Beach California, to fulfill the deepest wish of seven-year-old Olive, an ordinary-looking little girl with big glasses and equally big dreams.

The comedy's target is that uniquely American notion of winning, the whole philosophy of dividing the human race into winners and losers. In the course of the journey, various definitions of winning are contested, defeated, reevaluated and redefined.

For the weak patriarch, Richard (Greg Kinnear, in top form), “there's no sense in entering a contest if you don't think you're gonna win.” Based on this perverse definition, he mercilessly challenged his daughter Olive, “So you think you can win Little Miss Sunshine” In contrast, for the raunchy Grandpa (a terrific Alan Arkin), “a real loser isn't someone who doesnt win. A real loser is someone so afraid of not winning they don't even try.”

The Hoover family is a typical middle-class suburban clan. Richard wishes to become the next world-famous self-help guru, with a new “Nine Steps” plan to how to win in life. However, he can't get beyond his own insecurities and is also losing his control and masculinity.

Mom Sheryl (Toni Collette) is a divorcee whose main function is to keep her current family together, despite near-impossible odds. When the film begins, Sheryl goes to the hospital to release her brother Frank (a wonderful Steve Carell of “The Office” fame).

A renowned Proust scholar, Frank is recovering from a botched suicide attempt, a cry for attention after a romantic rejection of his handsome graduate student, who opted for Frank's academic competitor, a winner of laurels for his latest book. Like Richard's, Frank's body and soul have been shattered and it's the job of the journey to restore some semblance of self-esteem.

Also in residence is the curmudgeon Grandpa, a raunchy, sex-obsessive man, who says exactly what's on his mind, regardless of the company. Grandpa is forced to live with his son Richard, after being kicked out of a nursing home due to drug habit (in the first scene, he's snorting cocaine).

What precipitates the family into “action” is a “bomb” of news, when Olive is asked, at the worst time in their life, to participate in the Little Miss Sunshine contest in Redondo Beach. Despite great odds, the family agrees to take Olive to perform in the competitive girls' talent show and beauty pageant. The Hoovers perceive Olive's trip as their salvation, akin to seeking the Holy Grail.

Despite some weaknesses, for a first effort, the film is remarkable in its natural dialogue and unpredictability of most of its situations and obstacles. “Little Miss Sunshine” represents an honorable addition to the genre of dysfunctional family comedies in general and beauty pageants in particular.

Oscar Record and Prospects

The Academy is notorious for its disregard for comedy, but the high-caliber talent includes three Oscar-nominated actors (Alan Arkin, Toni Collette, and Greg Kinnear).

That said, I think it's Steve Carrell, one of the hottest comedians around, as the gay suicidal uncle who stands the best chance to garner a Supporting Actor nomination.

Read next week Part II about The Hoax, Hollywoodland, Notes on a Scandal, and The Painted Veil