Is 'Sunshine' the movie to beat for best picture?

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If the upcoming Oscar race actually were a race, Queen Elizabeth II would be haughtily sprinting neck and neck with the bickering internationals of ‘‘Babel’’ while the Boston mobsters of ‘‘The Departed’’ took running potshots at the Japanese soldiers of ‘‘Letters From Iwo Jima.’’ And then, seemingly out of nowhere, a dented yellow VW mini-bus would break through the front line, its broken horn bleating in triumph.

One year after it stormed the Sundance Film Festival and six months after it conquered the nation’s art houses, ‘‘Little Miss Sunshine’’ is starting to look like the film to beat for best picture. ...

This is not how the script was supposed to read. The top Oscar doesn’t go to a comedy but to an important, weighty film, the sort Hollywood likes to hold up as its annual contribution to Culture. ‘‘Sunshine’’ is the scruffy upstart that, at best, gets tossed a best original screenplay bone. After winning the Golden Laurel from the Producers Guild on Jan. 20, though, and then, on Sunday night, taking the Screen Actors Guild award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture, ‘‘Sunshine’’ now has a momentum other best picture nominees don’t.

Consider that actors make up a quarter of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and consider that last year’s SAG award went to ‘‘Crash,’’ a movie no one expected to win best picture. ‘‘Sunshine’’ has similarities to that film that may represent a sea change in how — and when, and where — the Academy perceives ‘‘quality’’ fare. In short, the established post-Thanksgiving ‘‘serious season’’ of awards-worthy releases may have to be rethought.

‘‘It follows the pattern of ‘Crash,’" Emanuel Levy, the author of All About Oscar, explained. ‘‘‘Sunshine’ won the ensemble award, it was released earlier in the year, and it has become available on DVD. I think the marketing campaign was superb all along, plus the fact that the producers mailed DVDs to everyone.’’

Still, can a movie both this dark and this silly make it all the way? David Poland, editor of the industry website Movie City News, has doubts.

‘‘‘Little Miss Sunshine’ is a straight-out comedy, which Oscar hasn’t deigned to award in 29 years, since ‘Annie Hall,’’’ he said. ‘‘It’s also a film without a director’s nomination, and that film wins best picture about once every 25 years on average.’’

On the other hand, it’s the lone upbeat experience in a field of best picture brooders, and it may benefit from the distinction. Certainly the failure of ‘‘Dreamgirls’’ to get a best picture nomination leaves ‘‘Sunshine’’ without feel-good competition. ("Dreamgirls’’ won when the two movies went head-to-head at the Golden Globes.)

The conventional wisdom holds that ‘‘Departed’’ will win Scorsese his directing Oscar but is too bloody and genre-bound for the top award, that ‘‘The Queen’’ isn’t quite cinematic enough for anything except a win for Helen Mirren and possibly writer Peter Morgan, and that ‘‘Letters from Iwo Jima’’ is too, well, foreign.

That leaves ‘‘Babel’’ as the only other serious contender for best picture, and ‘‘Babel’’ may be too much this year’s ‘‘Crash’’ for a repeat to be in the cards.

If ‘‘Sunshine’’ makes it all the way, expect a lot of chatter about the triumph of the warmblooded little Sundance indie over the slower-moving dinosaurs of Hollywood prestige. That obscures the fact that this never was much of an indie to start with — not with names like Steve Carell and Greg Kinnear in the cast and a story line bolted onto a well-tested road-movie template. Audiences and Academy members have responded to the film not because it’s different — it’s not — but simply because it’s extremely entertaining.

And topically so. Said Levy, ‘‘The message is the thing. If you vote for ‘The Departed,’ you’re voting for a gangster movie. If you vote for ‘Little Miss Sunshine,’ you’re voting for some real issues pertaining to the American dream. It’s an ensemble — that’s a plus — and it’s a three-generation story. I can’t think of any other film in competition that’s doing all of the above. Plus it’s very well acted.’’

In other words, a best picture Oscar for ‘‘Little Miss Sunshine’’ wouldn’t celebrate what the independent alternative is. Instead, it would stake a claim for what the Hollywood mainstream should be.

The Boston Globe

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This page contains a single entry by Thomas Conner published on January 31, 2007 3:25 PM.

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