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Wait! Oscar game back on! Best picture = cloudy picture

February 1, 2007 | 10:24 am

There hasn't been this much Oscar suspense surrounding best picture since . . . well, last year. But at this point in the derby 12 months ago, many Oscarologists thought the top race was already finished since "Brokeback Mountain" appeared to be so far out in front after sweeping most precursor awards. Now we can see what a mess the race is — tea leaves scattered all over the derby track.

If "The Departed" wins at the Directors Guild of America this weekend as expected, it may appear to be out front. Over the past 20 years, the movie that won this guild prize went on to win best picture 15 times. Please note: I'm not talking about the DGA-winning director claiming the director's award at the Oscars next. Yes, the two usually line up, but that overlap can get a bit screwy and I'm too lazy to do the math.


"The Departed" has a lot of other things going for it — things that usually matter in the selection of a best pic: it's packed with an A-List cast (and what A-Listers! Leo! Jack! Matt!) and has topped $100 million at the box office. But it's not about anything. It has no Message or Great Meaning. That's usually an important, even key, element ("Crash" = expose of racism; "Schindler's List" = expose of anti-Semitism). But not always essential. Some pure entertainments like "The Sting" and "Chicago" have triumphed.

So let's look to the Golden Globes for guidance instead.

The Globes dispense separate kudos for drama and comedy/musical pictures, which makes comparisons to the Oscars difficult, but in the past 62 years, the Academy Awards have validated one of the Globe's top pics 42 times. So that means odds are pretty good that "Dreamgirls" will win the best-pic Oscar . . . oops, I mean "Babel," if you just gauge prophesy by percentages. "Babel" just won best drama picture and it has the Message and Great Meaning, especially pertinent worldwide right now (expose of hysteria over terrorism), but it doesn't have huge box office success. Does that matter? As of this week, Entertainment Weekly and Time magazine say it doesn't. Both predict it will claim the big golden boy, though I have a hunch they'll change their minds after Marty Scorsese wins DGA this weekend.

"Letters from Iwo Jima" can't be written off. As we've learned again and again, Clint Eastwood pix should never be discounted. Three have been nommed for best pic in the past and two have won ("Unforgiven," "Million Dollar Baby"). One of those ("M$B"), ambushed the Oscar race two years ago, getting a sudden, late-breaking release at the end of the year just like "Iwo Jima." And it has a political pertinence to today, too — like "Babel," it has an Iraq thing going on, though more subliminal. "Iwo Jima" forces us to look back at a war we won and reconsider ourselves as the bad guys. It was declared to be 2006's best picture from the L.A. Film Critics Association. Granted, only 7 times in 31 years has LAFCA's choice repeated at the Oscars, but it successfully launched underdogs like "Rocky" and Eastwood's "Unforgiven." However, "Iwo Jima" showcases no big western stars and hasn't proven itself at the box office yet.

What about "The Queen"? Robert Osborne, author of the official Oscar book and official host of the academy's red carpet, thinks it can win, but it has few other boosters.

Lastly, there's "Little Miss Sunshine" — what looks like a fascinating possibility for upset spoiler. It's the one burst of emotional sunshine in an otherwise dreary lineup of contenders. Many people just don't love it, they love it. Recently, it won best picture from the Producers Guild of America, which has a pretty good track record forecasting the top Oscar; 11 of its 17 past choices have repeated. Last Sunday it won the ensemble award at the Screen Actors Guild. Although only 5 of the past 11 SAG champs went on to win the Oscar, 3 of those did so in the past 4 years. Twice ("Shakespeare in Love," "Crash") its choice signaled upsets to come on Oscar night. But it doesn't have a nomination for best director and only one film in modern times has managed to pull off a top Oscar victory without that ("Driving Miss Daisy"). It's also not nommed for film editing. Often that's a telling tea leaf. No film since 1932 has won best picture without having either nomination.

So . . . the Oscar winner for best picture will be . . . ? Whatcha think? Click the "Comments" link below and tell us!

(Photos: Miramax, Warner Bros., Paramount Vantage, Fox Searchlight)