Dark horses stake out home stretch

Bird, Gondry, Salles among underdog directors

As if upping the ante on how far he can challenge his audience and delve into taboo-laden territory, Pedro Almodovar delivers his most serious, sobering work to date with “Bad Education.” It’s the kind of movie in which a hot-button issue — sexual abuse within the Catholic church — is not delivered with the usual pedantry associated with message-oriented films. Almodovar has always been known as a high stylist, and his work here — alternately noirish and melodramatic — has been described by top-tier critics as “voluptuous,””deliriously inventive” and “breathtakingly complex.” The words “darkest” and “most pessimistic” have also been conjured by the same critics, making “Bad Education” not the easiest pill to swallow. But then the Academy has never discriminated against directors for delving into such terrain — witness recent Oscar noms for Polanski (“The Pianist”), Lynch (“Mulholland Drive”) and Stephen Daldry (“The Hours”). Past prizes at Cannes, the BAFTAs, Cesars and Goyas aside, Almodovar’s stature as one of the world’s most respected filmmakers was solidified by his screenplay Oscar for 2002’s “Talk to Her” (for which he also received a directing nom).

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Writer-director Brad Bird might be new to the game, but his sophomore feature, “The Incredibles,” points to a mature voice and a visual style defined as both witty and groundbreaking. The fact that “Incredibles” is animated hasn’t prevented it from receiving some of the most rhapsodic reviews of the year. Certainly the midlife-crisis ennui that plagues Bob and Helen Parr, the retired superheroes who form the center of this film, makes “The Incredibles” as relevant to adults as it is to kids. And its domestic B.O. — $233 million since its Nov. 5 release — certainly indicates a crossover appeal that bodes well for a movie with aspirations beyond the animated feature arena. But the fact remains that the director of an animated feature has never received an Academy Award nomination, perhaps because Oscar voters find it difficult to wrap their minds around how an animated feature is “directed.”

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Michel Gondry’s “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” is another film that received high praise from critics, and has landed in such company as the American Film Institute’s annual top 10 films, as well as, if unofficially, the L.A. Film Critics’ top vote-getters. But while Gondry — known mostly for his musicvideos — has taken a quantum leap from his feature debut as a director (2001’s “Human Nature”) and is partially responsible for the film’s inventive storyline, many attribute the film’s strengths to screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (“Being John Malkovich,” “Adaptation”), who’s as known for his idiosyncratic art as any filmmaker whose name appears above the title.

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Although already known for the surreal, overripe visual style he brought to such films as “Delicatessen” and “Alien: Resurrection,” Jean-Pierre Jeunet didn’t hit his international stride until 2002’s “Amelie” — which received five Oscar nominations — charmed audiences and critics with its combination of humor, whimsy and wide-eyed wonder. The French filmmaker brings those same qualities to “A Very Long Engagement” (along with star Audrey Tautou) but the backdrop of WWI trench warfare casts the movie in a decidedly darker hue. And it’s this mix of darkness and light, which some critics deemed disconcertingly disparate and others found audaciously daring, that accounts for the film’s mixed critical reception. One thing is certain, Warner Independent Pictures is going all out in print, broadcast and radio ads to promote its picture, and Jeunet could very well benefit from this multi-front offensive.

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“The Motorcycle Diaries'” Walter Salles is no stranger to the awards circuit. His “Central Station” received two Oscar noms, and followup “Behind the Sun” was well received at the Venice Film Fest and by BAFTA and the Hollywood Foreign Press. “Diaries,” too, was lauded at Sundance and Cannes, and has resonated among critics who reveled in its restorative, mesmerizing effect on viewers. However, the film — about a young, pre-revolutionary Che Guevara who embarks on a 5,000-mile trek across South America that’s as much soul search as it is picaresque adventure — has been accused by some of idealizing its subject. And the notion of dramatizing the political awakening of the poster boy for armed struggle is as ripe for attack as any biopic. But what Salles has going for him is lead actor Gael Garcia Bernal, the enigmatic beauty of his landscapes and a movie that speaks with quiet poetry rather than political platitudes.

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