There are no silver or bronze medal winners in the Academy Awards, only the first place Oscar, but it's interesting to speculate how the five nominees for Best Picture would finish if this contest were a footrace. Unlike a real race, some of these movies had a head start, which in the Oscar race, is usually a disadvantage. The race is not as tight as in some years, and we have to remember that an Oscar is occasionally won by the person whose turn it is to win, not the artist who delivers the finest performance.
With that in mind, let's check the finishers in reverse order. In fifth place is The Departed, directed by Martin Scorsese, and starring Matt Damon, Leonardo DiCaprio, Jack Nicholson, and Mark Wahlberg (nominated for best supporting actor). The Departed is a violent story of police and criminals shooting it out in South Boston. It's a film is populated with police officers, detectives and undercover cops, usually considered brave and fearless, but in this movie, these strong men are visibly frightened by the simple ringing of a cell phone. Although mostly well-written and acted, The Departed degenerates into a predictable cop-out of an ending which admittedly does live up to the movie's name. There are a few redeeming characteristics in The Departed: Those who are fans of Nicholson's unique personification of evil will be amply rewarded. His performance is vintage Nicholson. The Departed reminds us that good and evil are sometimes separated by a thin line, and the characters in this movie seem to cross back and forth across that line until we're not sure who's on which side. But soon we don't care and are thankful to see The Departed come to its wearisome, bloody conclusion.
Little Miss Sunshine's nomination for best picture is a pleasant surprise. Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, this unpredictable story of a dysfunctional family traveling cross-country in a VW van to enter the 8-year-old Olive (Abigail Breslin) in a beauty contest is considered a comedy, but there's a strong undercurrent of sadness throughout the film. The lines and actions are funny, but there are some tragic moments. There are fine performances, especially Breslin, nominated for best supporting actress, and Alan Arkin, nominated for Best Supporting Actor. Perhaps Arkin will get the long overdue Oscar he deserved to get for his performance in 1968's The Heart is a Lonely Hunter as a deaf mute. Little Miss Sunshine shows us that a defective family might be better than no family at all, and the movie is an underdog that could win big.
The Queen, directed by Stephen Frears, is a nearly flawless account of the British royal family after the death of Princess Diana. Helen Mirren plays Queen Elizabeth with skillful subtlety and is the favorite for the best actress Oscar. However, the formal stuffiness of British aristocracy makes it difficult for the audience to get excited. Maybe it's the statement about Diana "being as annoying dead as she was alive," or their emotionless response to her death, but the viewer becomes more and more irritated with the royals as the movie progresses. It's difficult to separate the film from the family, and because of that, The Queen may be too good for its own good.
Director Clint Eastwood's Letters from Iwo Jima tells the story of the World War II conflict on the island of Iwo Jima from the Japanese perspective. It's a companion movie to the earlier release Flags of our Fathers, but stands by itself. Letters from Iwo Jima has an unusual, ashy appearance as if the film couldn't decide if it wanted to be in color or black and white. It's viewed as if looking through a window into the past, which is an especially effective way of communicating the grim memory of a war story more than half a century old, but still too close for comfort.
In first place, just a stride ahead of Letters from Iwo Jima, is Mexican director Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu's Babel, an ambitious, complex saga, starring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, that slips with ease from one country and language to another. Babel is an original and intriguing story demonstrating the interconnectedness of all human life. The acting performances are magnificent with best supporting actress nominations for Adriana Barraza as Amelia, a Mexican nanny and Rinko Kikuchi as Chieko, a preoccupied, deaf, Japanese teenager. Barraza should get the Oscar if she can sprint past Jennifer Hudson's stupendous rookie performance in Dreamgirls. Perhaps the biggest injustice this year is the missing best supporting actor nomination for Pitt. Babel is a timeless masterpiece and the one to see if you're only going to see one movie this Oscar season.