I just looked over today's list... and it seems pretty sorry to me.
I admit that I speak only partially from experience, having seen only Little Miss Sunshine and The Departed amongst the Best Picture nominees. I know enough about Babel and The Queen to know that seeing them is a formality; no surprises worth investigating there. Letters from Iwo Jima is the only entry on which I am entirely neutral.
But it doesn't take direct expertise to know, even after taking into account that Oscar-nominated films are rarely an accurate reflection of the year in film, that none of these films are crucial. None. You have a grindhouse remake (The Departed), two cookie-cutter indies (Babel and LMS), a cookie-cutter British entry (The Queen), and a wildcard from a perennial Oscar champ (Letters). None of the five are exceptionally anything, except perhaps Babel, which I can safely say, based on Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's debut, Amores Perros, is exceptionally excruciating and exceptionally pointless. (More below.) How did we end up celebrating so many non-essential films?
Look at last year's nominations. Crash and Brokeback Mountain were probably the two most "controversial" films of the year. They plugged themselves into the zeitgeist in one way or another. Were they the best films? Not in my book; Munich was the best nominated film by a wide margin, and Walk the Line was better than Munich. But they are important, and they represented their year of release. That's way more than we can say for this crop.
One by one:
Little Miss Sunshine
I like LMS a lot. Funny, acerbic, insightful, down-to-earth... the tone of the movie is pretty much perfect. But it wasn't a phenomenon, wasn't a hugely popular movie, and isn't a perfect film by any stretch. The six family members are little more than archetypes, despite being realized so well by the actors. The story is either obvious or non-existent, and the conclusion is obvious from the moment they set foot in the bus. The only real surprise is the manner in which they learn their lesson in their moment of truth. That's awfully lacking in an Oscar sense, regardless of how iconic the yellow bus is. I applaud the sentiment behind its nomination much more than the nomination itself.
Great movie. Brilliant in conception and execution. It's absolutely the smartest cops-and-gangsters movie in a long time, probably since GoodFellas. It's certainly the best Boston movie in quite a while, light years beyond Mystic River in terms of faithfulness; the adaptation of the Hong Kong original to Boston's grimy underbelly by William Monahan was flawless. And it's Martin Scorcese's cleanest/clearest work since GoodFellas. But the conclusion, and the general indifference shown in its execution (so to speak) by all but one of its participants, exposes the story's roots: it's just a Hong Kong shoot-em-up.
I will not see this film. I hate the conceit and the concept. I appreciated Amores Perros once, and do not need to see it, or anything like it, ever again. We, as a filmgoing nation, must stop rewarding Inarritu for continuing to remake his Mexican mess with A-list Hollywood hams. Once, it's a cute gimmick. But three times?!? (21 Grams followed the same recipe.) Is it too hard to focus on one person for an entire movie? Or maybe come up with a story worth telling in its entirety, rather than hedging your bets and half-assing it by interweaving storylines with contrived, gimmicky, implausible coincidences?
Non-linear story structure isn't necessarily more brilliant than linear. Quentin Tarantino found that out the hard way... turns out he's not such a genius when he has a linear structure to play off of (portions of Kill Bill and Jackie Brown are told in flashback, but the straight-ahead parts are duuuuuuull by QT standards). In short, it's a parlor trick. But while Tarantino used it to entertain, Inarritu uses it as a method for torture.
And that's why I've got better things to do with my time than watch Babel.
In the spirit of Scary Movie, Epic Movie, Date Movie, Not Another Teen Movie and so forth, may I suggest British Movie, a compendium of every mediocre British drawing-room film that gets released right around awards season. Starring Dame Judi Dench in multiple roles.
I bet The Queen is a perfectly good movie. And Helen Mirren is a goddess. But shouldn't such a genuinely British premise be left to the British? What the hell are we doing co-opting that for our own awards? What do I care about Princess Diana? I'm not saying it's not a good movie, but who says that America has to go out of its way to reserve a slot for whatever stuffy upper-class drama strikes some executive's fancy every November? And are we really obligated to reward a bunch of Shakespeareans for slumming it in a Lady Di movie? Screw that. Where's Pan's Labyrinth? That shit was way better than this could ever be.
Letters from Iwo Jima
No idea. But Clint Eastwood's movies are always worthwhile. I'll see this one.
Beyond that, the unexpected surge of attention for Pan's Labyrinth (six nominations, most minor) was a nice surprise. Given a proper release, earlier in the season, it would have knocked out one of the above five. It's head and shoulders above any of them. Instead, it will be a textbook case of "give the actual best movie a screenplay Oscar and get 'em out of here," seen previously with Almost Famous and Lost in Translation.
Best Actor looks packed. Personally, I wouldn't be offended by any result. I'd go with either Will Smith, who was phenomenal in The Pursuit of Happyness, or Forest Whitaker, whose work no longer needs to be validated by actually seeing it. He should've won for Bird, and he should've got something for Ghost Dog. Then again, he brought us Waiting to Exhale. So maybe not.
Anyway, I have work to do. (By "work," I mean "managing to see Little Children and Children of Men, so I can say they were better than all the nominated films.")