As always, the winner is marked with a (*).
Communication. That's the theme that Alejandro Gonzalez-Inarritu tackles in this globally-reaching film, following four interconnected stories in which language presents itself as both essential and burdensome. Overall, it's a great film, thoughtful and ultimately hopeful about the human condition and our ability to understand each other. In a film like this, of course, some stories come off better than others (interestingly enough, the Brad Pitt-Cate Blanchett segment as American tourists in Morocco is the weakest). But the ones that do work, such as Rinko Kikuchi's deaf Japanese teenager, are powerful. It's not the year's best film, but it's certainly one of the better ones.
Scorsese returns to crime thrillers with this gritty remake of a Taiwanese film, and the results were certainly thrilling. Though it's set in Boston, just up the road from his beloved New York, Scorsese crafted a twisty tale of crooked cops and undercover agents, all of which have some sort of tie to a notorious neighborhood gangster, played with zest by Jack Nicholson. The cast is aces, and Leonardo DiCaprio, who's become Scorsese's new muse, gives a particularly great performance. However, the third act gets a little bogged down in tying up the various loose ends, and compared to previous Scorsese films it seems a little second-rate (especially considering his previous film, The Aviator). Still, it's a fantastic film.
Letters from Iwo Jima
Leave it to The Man with No Name to make a quiet, contemplative war film that dives deep into the ideas of how war changes men. This film is an unusual one, both as a Best Picture nominee and as a Clint Eastwood-directed film, with it's almost-completely Japanese dialogue. What was originally meant to be a companion piece to the more baity Flags of Our Fathers became the better for the two films, as it's here that the war is presented more lyrically and powerfully. What we're presented with is men who are defending their home, many of whom were forced to join the military and would rather be anywhere but Iwo Jima. As the battle becomes more and more impossible, they find the difficult choices even harder to make. It's a wonderful film, the best of this category.
Little Miss Sunshine
Little Miss Sunshine spawned countless numbers of imitators after its release, prompting an indie-family-roadtrip deluge. Unfortunately, that's cast a negative light back onto the film, a light that it doesn't completely deserve. Sure, there are parts that feel too precocious, and not everyone's character arc comes to a satisfying end. But there are plenty of laughs, particularly from Alan Arkin's profane grandfather and Greg Kinnear's success-driving patriarch. The cast all-around is fantastic, especially the perpetually-underrated Toni Collette. And just try not to crack a smile at the riotous third act, complete with a wildly-inappropriate dance number. It's not a perfect film, but it's incredibly charming.
The Queen is the kind of film that seems especially designed to win Oscars. That's not meant to be a knock against the film, though; it's an interesting piece about the conflict between the royal family and the British population on how the death of Diana should be handled. Set in the immediate aftermath of her death, the film mainly focuses on Queen Elizabeth II (Helen Mirren), who upholds the protocol that the monarchy has upheld for centuries, and prime minister Tony Blair (Michael Sheen), a reform-minded voice of the people who sees exception necessary. Mirren, of course, completely owns the film with her incredible performance; however, even she can't change the fact that at many times it feels like a glorified TV movie, more at home on HBO than movie theaters. It's a good movie, but not a great one.
My ballot for Best Picture of 2006:
1. Letters from Iwo Jima
2. The Departed
4. Little Miss Sunshine
5. The Queen