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Dreamgirls and Robert Altman, the “Alternative Oscars” from 2006 by Ben Zuk

In anticipation of the 2006 flashback podcast, Ben Zuk has written in ruminating on that year. Zuk says that he often makes “alternative Oscars” lists and decided to share his from 2006:

I’ve nominated ten films from 2006 in order to reflect the academy’s recent transition to this number of nominees, but I have also ranked my choices in this category for anyone who might be curious what would’ve been top 5 versus top 10.

Babel is a film I feel the need to defend despite it’s popularity amongst people my age. It’s a film that boldly embraces the emotions of it’s characters situations as opposed to trying to intellectually rationalizing every one of it’s points. It’s a collage of global conflict that has only grown in appreciation for me. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu attaches himself to his subjects in a way that many find corny, but I just see it as emotionally engaging and truthful.

The Lives of Others is a film where nothing is wasted. When I saw it for the second time I noticed how the man working in the mailroom at the end is the same character as the one who was chastised and fired in the lunchroom scene earlier in the film. It takes a certain amount of brilliance to pull this off and director (Florian Henckel von Donnersmark) pulled it off despite what the lukewarm reception of The Tourist would have you believe. Deceased actor Ulrich Muhe deserves much credit too for his emotionally restrained and eternally lonely performance as the weaselly East German agent Wiesler.

This was also the year that both Oliver Stone and Paul Greengrass forced us to confront the emotions of the 9/11 tragedy. While I have tremendous affection for Stone’s film, it should come as no surprise that United 93 is the film that has stood the test of time. During the last twenty minutes I remember feeling as though I was on that plane, and as naive and stupid as it sounds, feeling like I was in their shoes made the events of 9/11 feel more real for me.

This was also the year of the vastly over-campaigned, vastly underrated Dreamgirls. I have an interesting story to share about seeing this film. It was around October and I was just exiting from a movie theater having seen something that must have been horribly forgettable. I saw some stanchions formed with a sign reading “Dreamgirls- 7:30 screening” on them. I couldn’t believe it. This was the must see film of the holiday season and it was only October. I was so close yet so far away. I wondered around the theater for an hour or so and finally had built up enough courage. I walked up to the credentials table, not 30 minutes before the screening was due to start. I asked the woman manning the table, “Do you think I could get in to see this movie?” To my great astonishment she actually said yes and minutes later I was sitting there about to see this highly anticipated film months before it was to be released. I don’t know who was at this screening (I imagine they were members of the press). I remember that when Jennifer Hudson’s big moment (do I really need to point out what it is?) came that I and 2 or 3 others applauded out loud. We were quickly told to hush from the other members at the screening, but how can you not vocally recognize such a fearless moment? No, Jennifer Hudson was not Helen Hayes, first lady of the American theater, but for 5 1/2 minutes she made a unequivocal connection with audiences. I remember the opposition argument at the time being that Jhud would or could never have the long lasting career that her other nominees in the best supporting actress category would likely have. Well 8 years have passed and even Abigail Breslin has struggled to top the success of Little Miss Sunshine.

This was also the year we said a heartfelt goodbye to the great Robert Altman. No one could’ve known that A Prairie Home Companion would’ve been his last. Yet with it’s storyline of a dying radio show, a mysterious angel of death, it would appear that Altman intentionally ended his long, great career with a level of poignancy unmatched by any of the great 70’s hollywood filmmakers. The academy in it’s great wisdom chose to recognize this with a total of zero nominations for the film. I remember being so sad about Altman’s passing that I confided to a fellow film student about it. He said “Well his death makes room for the rest of us.” Does anything describe the twisted mentality of today’s artists better than this exchange?

Children of Men is a film that I admittedly have never gotten a chance to revisit in all these years. If I had I would undoubtedly have even more esteem for it. From what I remember it was filmed and presented unlike any film I had ever seen and the cinematography was criminally passed over by the academy. No one who had seen both Pan’s Labyrinth and this film could possibly argue that the photography in the latter was not more accomplished and thus the better choice for that year’s oscar.

The BP winner The Departed should’ve been a slam dunk from its October premier on. Despite its somewhat unexpected success, the film lost many of the major precursor awards leading up to the oscars and winded up with only 5 nominations (the lowest for a BP winner since Annie Hall). It missed out on nominations for Lead Actor Dicaprio and Supporting Actor Jack Nicholson. How could anyone think Dicaprio gave a better performance in Blood Diamond than here? Not to mention the nominations it could’ve receive for sound mixing or cinematography. It’s easy to forget just how close the 2006 oscar race seemed.

There are so many other films to remember from 2006. The strangely un-cinematic, yet thoroughly engaging and well acted The Queen or the thoroughly entertaining and fast paced Notes on a Scandal, featuring Judi Dench’s bravest, most out there performance possibly of her whole career. The strange, ironic third person narration of Little Children helmed by the very un-prolific Todd Field (God I wish he would make more films) or the hysterical improvisation techniques of the uber talented Sacha Baron Cohen in Borat. Or Alexander Desplat’s hypnotic score from The Painted Veil, a film which doesn’t tell the story of love at first sight, but rather a love that grows from people who thought they hated one another (This is another film that was completely overlooked by the academy, unfortunately.) Not too mention Little Miss Sunshine, The Devil Wears Prada, An Inconvenient Truth and Letters From Iwo Jima.

Most of all I just felt this was a year where every time you turned around there was a great film that challenged and provoked the notions of what could be commercially successful entertainment. Even the most surface level commercial filmmaking had an edge to it that would be non-existent today.