Armchair Cinema – 2006

Best Picture

The Departed (Directed by Martin Scorsese)
The Nominees: Babel, Letters From Iwo Jima, Little Miss Sunshine, The Queen

United 93 (Directed by Paul Greengrass)
The Nominees: Babel (Alejandro González Iñárritu), An Inconvenient Truth (Davis Guggenhiem), Marie Antoinette (Sofia Coppola), Miami Vice (Michael Mann), The Queen (Stephen Frears)


The only thing certain about the Best Picture race of 2006 was that nothing was certain. This was a year in which there was no overriding favorite, no lock, no single film strung with the Best Picture benchmarks. This was one of those years in which no one could agree on the best film of the year and that made for a more interesting Oscar race because even Babel, which was considered the frontrunner, seemed dubious.

I would not have complained if the Oscar had gone to Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel, a multi-layered portrait of four families on different three continents who are connected only by bad luck, bad communcation and the careless use of a second-hand rifle. The story could have been a gimmick, showing how that rifle changes the lives of the film’s many characters, but it instead becomes a well-rounded character study, allowing us to spend time with people who are unusual and who’s lifetime of damage and regret is changed by a singular event.

In a semi-surprise, however, the academy overlooked it in favor of the long-overdue award for Martin Scorsese. After wandering in historical pastures with Gangs of New York and then The Aviator, Scorsese returned to his Mean Streets roots with a roller-coaster of a crime drama called The Departed, based on the 2002 Chinese hit Infernal Affairs. It revolves around a cat-and-mouse game involving the Massachusetts Police and the Irish Mob with Leonardo DiCaprio as a cop who goes undercover and Matt Damon as a mob stoolie working for the police. These two don’t know this fact and that makes the drama work.

While I always admire Scorsese’s filmmaking, I can’t say that The Departed was his best film. The movie is gripping but its a unfocused as it spirals around a line-up of characters that we don’t really get to know and lands at a conclusion that doesn’t leave much for the viewer. The final shot however drew my applause – I’ll leave it for you to discover.

Scorsese’s first Oscar made The 79th Annual Academy Awards very special, but imagine the tone of the evening if the academy had given more attention to my choice for Best Picture, Paul Greengrass’ United 93. Certainly, no film of 2006 was more discussed, more debated or more conflicting. Certainly none was more difficult to experience.This is, of course, the story of United 93’s ill-fated journey on the morning of September 11, 2001 and Greengrass tells it in two parts: one in the air with the passengers and the hostages and the other on the ground among air traffic control and the military. Greengrass had the right idea to tell this story in a matter-of-fact way, focusing only on the events of that day as they happened. There is no commentary here, no comments on the war, no comments on who was responsible. The movie simply focuses on the hours and the minutes that lead from the time the terrorist prepared for their journey until the moment that the plane hit the ground. He casts no recognizable actors, he wants us to feel as though we are watching it as it happens.

Set up as a timeline of events, the movie begins with the terrorists preparing for their fateful mission. They are not seen plotting but praying and saying goodbye to one another (we imagine that the planning had been locked in place for a very long time). We follow them to the airport and a chilling series of checkpoints which they pass through without a problem. Greengrass avoids dramatic tension, the very fact that they got through is tense enough. We also see several passengers boarding the plane, we don’t know any of these actors, and that anonymity gives the film a documentary feel. For the first hour we spend time with the people at air traffic control. An eerie familiarity washes over the scene as ordinary people arrive for work, exchange pleasentries and recieve their assignments for the day – it is a signpost to how, for a brief time, the day seemed so ordinary.

Then something happens, an operator recieves a jumbled message from a cockpit but hears a foreign voice on the recorder behind the pilot. While trying to dechipher the voice, a United Airlines Flight 175 veers off-course and seems unresponsive, then Flight 11, then Flight 77. We are never on board those planes, their actions are dramatized on the radar screen. We already know where they are going and the tension in the control room is heightened because we are fully aware of what is about to happen. Our only glimpse of those planes are in the footage that we all saw, the way we saw it. The people in the control room and the military in Newark respond the same way we did, it’s like living it all over again.

Meanwhile, Flight 93 sits on the ground waiting to get airborne. As the problems begin to build with other planes, this plane takes off and it still takes some time before the terrorists take control. Greengrass is patient, not rushing things, we see the relaxed passengers doing ordinary things as the soon-to-be highjackers sit anxiously trying to decide on the right moment to strike. When they do, the movie then shifts and spends the rest of it’s time dealing with the horrifying situation. We don’t know the terrorists, they are never introduced. We don’t know the passengers either. No one is introduced, we see these events in third person and only hear conversations in whispers. The only communication between the passengers with the outside world during the highjacking is through airphone communications as they talk to loved ones and one another.

They talk about where the highjackers could be taking them but soon, through their phone conversations, the passengers learn about the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and determine that this is not a hostage situation. They decide on a plan to overtake the terrorists using whatever they have onboard as a weapon. During the scary final moments, the passengers retake the cockpit and try to regain control of the plane.

What is tricky in telling this story is that Greengrass has to use whatever means are available to him. We only know what happened aboard Flight 93 from phone conversations and the fight recorder. The rest he has to piece together but he doesn’t go for cheap heroics, he never pumps up the suspense. He simply tells the story as is, as most of us heard about it. What he has offered is a filmed record of the events. We may never fully be able to deal with the events of September 11th (everything involved in trying to memorialize it’s memory have been controversial) but I think Greengrass is on the right track. His film tells a story of the worst day in our country’s history, boldly, honestly and with dignity.

Best Actor

Forrest Whittaker (The Last King of Scotland)
The Nominees:Leonardo DiCaprio (Blood Diamond), Ryan Gosling (Half Nelson), Peter O’Toole (Venus), Will Smith (The Pursuit of Happyness)

Peter O’Toole (Venus)
My Nominees: Daniel Craig (Casino Royale), Leonardo DiCaprio (Blood Diamond), Aaron Eckhart (Thank You For Smoking), Will Ferrell (Stranger Than Fiction), Ryan Gosling (Half Nelson), Robin Williams (The Night Listener)


I first noticed Forrest Whitaker when he played the jovial Edward Garlic in Barry Levinson’s Good Morning Vietnam and I have followed his distinguised career ever since. He is one of those rare actors who is always dependable and can look down his list of credit and find that he has nothing to be ashmed of. In 2006, he finally reached his peak playing the nutty Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in Kevin McDonald’s The Last King of Scotland.

The movie is told through the prism of a Scottish doctor (James McAvoy) whom the dictator has treats like a brother and who begins to slowly understand the terror and butchery that are going on in Uganda under Amin’s orders. The key to the film is all in how McDonald frames Whitaker in certain shots. There are moments when he fills the screen shoulder to shoulder cutting off the doctor’s escape routes. There is a fearful, solidness to his gaze that make him seem unbalanced. It really is a focused performance.

Yet, I wish the movie had spent more time getting to know Amin (at least, as much as we can) and less time on this weak-willed doctor who seems to take forever to discover atrocities – we figure them out long before he does. Whittaker’s performance is terrific but it sometimes feels pushed aside. Those issues aside, it was nice to see Forrest Whitaker finally get some credit for his work.

If Forrest Whitaker had to wait years to get some attention from the academy, my choice has been waiting three times longer. Peter O’Toole’s film career began in 1960 with a small role in Walt Disney’s Kidnapped, and since then, he has become one of the best actors of his generation. He is loved, beloved, respected, honored but in his half-century on the silver screen he has never recieved an Oscar. Eight times he has sat on the sidelines and, even though he was given an honorary award in 2003, it isn’t likely that he is ever going to get a competitive Oscar.

It would have been nice to see him rewarded for his beautiful sunset performance in Roger Mitchell’s Venus. Here he plays Maurice, an actor who was famous once, but now in his mid-seventies, spends his days in the company of his best mate Ian, drinking, cursing, going through life’s motions. They are lifelong friends, so close that Maurice comes by some days and cuts his friend’s toenails. Thier connection and their approach to one another is so close that it reminded me of an old married couple. Briefly, as the film opened, I assume that they might be a gay couple but they aren’t and as the story settles on them I realized that after the many years in each other’s company they have become accustomed to finish one another’s sentences. In a way, it is a kind of marriage.

Their careers in the theater once thrived but they never made it out of the middle. Now in their seventies Maurice still works on occasion but it is mostly playing corpses or the dying grandfather on a soap opera. Outside of that, most of the days for Maurice and Ian are spent at their favorite cafe discussing ailments and how much coverage they will get in the paper when the finally kick off.

The chief difference between Maurice and Ian is that Ian is fussy, frustrated and easily agitated while Maurice is still stuck on the curiosities that feathered him in his youth. That difference becomes abudantly clear at the arrival of Jessie (Jodie Whittaker), Ian’s grandniece who has moved into his house. She’s not exactly the Post-Higgens Eliza Doolittle. She is vulger, rude, and inhales her food like a rutting pig. Her speaking voice might illicit a lilting joy were it not marinated in a cockney slur (I admit I had to use the “subtitles” feature of my DVD to understand her). Ian is shocked by her lack of social grace but something about her catches Maurice’s eye.

There is a bit of a rascal that still lies inside of Maurice, and despite the fact that he is now impotent, the curiosity is still there. Maurice is an old man but there is a spark in him, not of a dirty old man but of a man who refuses to grow old. He spots something in Jessie that excites him.

What we make of their relationship is a semi-Pygmalion in which Maurice understands that even though Jessie is crude and thoughtless, he can inspire some manner of refinement in her. She is a beautiful creature in his eyes, and while he can’t experience the full pleasure of her company, he can at least walk up to that line. This is not a retread of My Fair Lady. The movie grounds itself in a hard reality and by the end, although this girl hasn’t completely changed, she has a better appreciation for her value.

O’Toole has long been an actor who’s best moments, for me, are the quiet ones. There’s a dream-like quality in his eyes as he looks out of this rapidly aging body and tries to experience as much of life as he can while knowing full-well that his time is growing short. The key to Maurice comes in a quietly beautiful moment when he takes Jessie to see The Rokby Venus by the Spanish artist Diego Velázquez. Gazing lovingly at the beautiful painting he tells Jessie that “For most men, a woman’s body is the most beautiful thing they will ever see.” It becomes clear in his approach to her, he looks at her, smells her and suggests that she pose nude for an art class.

What rises from his awakening is regret at what has been lost. That comes in a visit to his ex-wife Valerie and we learn that he was a cheating cad who left her and their child. We learn that he was something of a ladies man and I think it is a brilliant device for the movie to show O’Toole in his younger years. “He’s gorgeous”, Ian remarks and we understand what has come before. In Maurice’s early years we understand that he found the pleasure of a woman’s company quite easily and now that pleasure has worn away with time.

Best Actress

Helen Mirran (The Queen)
The Nominees: Penelope Cruz (Volver), Judi Dench (Notes on a Scandal), Meryl Streep (The Devil Wears Prada), Kate Winslet (Little Children)

Helen Mirren (The Queen)
My Nominees: Ivana Baquero (Pan’s Labyrith), Penelope Cruz (Volver), Kirsten Dunst (Marie Antoinette), Maggie Gyllenhaal (Sherrybaby), Gretchen Mol (The Notorious Bettie Page), Ellen Page (Hard Candy), Meryl Streep (The Devil Wears Prada), Robin Wright Penn (Sorry, Haters)


Helen Mirren was one of six Best Actress winners in the decade to portray a real life person and stacked up against portrayals Erin Brockovich, Virginia Woolf, Aileen Wournous, June Carter Cash and Edith Piaf, she was by far the best. Director Stephen Frears was so confident that he had chosen the right actress to play the title role in The Queen that he underlines it with boldness right at the beginning of the movie. We see Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II having her portrait painted and after some small talk with the artist, she turns regally to the camera to regard us and the title next to her comes up and boldly proclaims “THE QUEEN”. This is a message to us that this is a performance of such refined perfection that we aren’t going to spend the next two hours watching Helen Mirren, we are going to watch Queen Elizabeth.

It’s not just the physical appearence, it’s not just the voice or the make-up, it’s a full embodiment. She understands how the queen walks, talks and responds verbally but more importantly how quietly and with dignity she responds to almost everything. The story takes place in late 1997 during the week that proceeded the death of her ex-daughter-in-law, Princess Diana between the car accident that killed her and her funeral. The public outpouring of grief was met with a seemily hardhearted silence by the royal family who seemed to refuse to even acknowledge her death. They made no statements, they refused her a royal funeral and would not fly the British flag at half staff. The non-response from Buckingham Palace was seen by the public as an anachronistic royalty out of step with the public’s grief. The queen’s popularity plummets and her name becomes mud in the tabloids.

But Frears is smart enough to examine both sides of this issue. Through Helen Mirren we understand why the Queen refused to portray a public display of grief. Diana had been estranged from the family, she was divorced from Charles and therefore she had no responsibilities to Diana. The flag was not a state flag, it belonged to the queen and was only flown when the queen was in residence.

The center of the film is Mirren herself who portrays the queen as a woman devoted to duty, born of a generation in which the British were taught to spell duty with a capitol “D”. And yet she seems out of touch, either by circumstance or by choice. Mirren projects a thin layer of contempt for Diana even as she reluctantly agrees in the end to make the queen’s now-famous public address. She projects no public or private show of emotion and from the outward standpoint it sends the wrong message – that the aristocracy is out of touch with the emotional turmoil that it’s subjects were experiencing.

The movie suggests that this is a reality that the Queen is quietly beginning to realize. In one silent, but touching moment, Queen Elizabeth, out for a drive in the country breaks an axle on her car crossing the river and sits waiting for assistance and a tear runs down her cheek. This is the most telling moment because it takes place outside the palace, away from private and public subjects where a small bit of sorrowful realization reaches the surface perhaps for the first time. This is the strength of Helen Mirren’s performance, she makes few grand gestures and the larger strokes of her inward emotions all take place in her eyes. Its not just the clothes, the stance, the wigs or the make-up, it’s the ability to give us a portrait of a woman with a stoney resolve and the dediction to her duties. She may not have felt much for her flighty ex-daughter-in-law but she seemed to feel with all her being that she was born for duty to king and country and Mirren’s triumph is her ability to project a woman who slowly beings to realize that perhaps the world has passed her by.

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