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Best Picture

How we got here

Remember when … 1989
The picture race had plenty of ingredients Oscar loved — including a win for an underdog.
Oliver Stone delivered another stunning pic about Vietnam vets, “Born of the Fourth of July,” with Tom Cruise in the lead. “Dead Poets Society” touted a serious perf from a popular actor, Robin Williams.
“Field of Dreams” had struck a national chord with its charming catchphrase of “If you build it, they will come.” Jim Sheridan debuted with “My Left Foot,” the true story of an artist who painted with one appendage.
But quiet, unassuming drama “Driving Miss Daisy,” powered to best pic, winning four trophies out of nine noms.

It was the year of the biopic and Oscar definitely took notice, giving three of its five film noms to the form.

“The Aviator” director Martin Scorsese has claimed a stake in biopics ever since his scorching 1980 portrait of prizefighter Jake LaMotta, “Raging Bull.” The homework for “Aviator” turned screenwriter John Logan’s office into a crazy mosaic of every aspect of Hughes’ life.

But while this work is crucial to a book biographer, “it can get a dramatist in trouble if you stay in it too long. You have to internalize the research, find some key metaphors for the whole life that can translate in movie terms,” says Logan.

This is what producer Richard Gladstein says happened in the making of “Finding Neverland.” The film is adapted by David McGee from Allan Knee’s play “The Man Who Was Peter Pan,” exploring how British playwright J.M. Barrie came to create “Peter Pan” out of the stuff of raw human experience.

“Once you have the first draft of the script,” says Gladstein, “you’re less concerned with the architecture and you put the source material and research aside. You deal at that point with what works for the script, and not get hung up on fine points of history or biographical precision. This is a movie, foremost, not a book.”

For Taylor Hackford, who served as director, story writer and producer on “Ray,” there was never any question that a huge chunk of Ray Charles’ career had to be told, “because we had to lay out two things — first, a mystery: Where did this voice come from? Second, a ghost story: How did he go blind, and how did his childhood traumas affect his adult life? You have to deal with these,” says Hackford.

Looking at his fellow biopic filmmakers this season, Hackford says that “you can suggest a big life by telling small portions, because there are moments, like in ‘Motorcycle Diaries,’ that presage the whole life. It’s just that Ray Charles didn’t have one of those lives.”

“The Motorcycle Diaries” was one of many films that entered the hunt for best pic early, but ultimately came up short. It was one of three high-profile non-English films — the others being “A Very Long Engagement” and “Bad Education” — that because of various Oscar rules didn’t qualify in the foreign-lingo category.

Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11” also was touted for the pic race, but it was Moore’s choice not to submit it for documentary feature rather than the rules. For good or bad, Moore’s film was joined at the hip — at least in the media — with “The Passion of the Christ.” The films ended up with huge B.O. grosses and became political emblems of battle that drained both films’ Oscar appeal by the Nov. 2 general election.

Another B.O. smash that had a shot in the pic race was “The Incredibles,” but the film never developed enough momentum to break out of the animated feature category.

Fox Searchlight’s “Sideways” became a suprisingly strong contender on the amazing reception it found after its October release — a feat that such well-received pics as Toronto Film Festival favorite “Hotel Rwanda,” “Vera Drake” and biopic “Kinsey” were unable to replicate. Critics seemed unable to pile enough superlatives on “Sideways” and the film all but swept the best-of-the-year lists issued by the New York, Los Angeles and Chicago critics, among others.

The film further surprised by leading the pack with seven Golden Globe nominations, and won best picture in the comedy/

musical category. One of the big shocks of the Oscar noms was Paul Giamatti not making the cut for actor.

That leaves the year-end surprise “Million Dollar Baby.” The film seemed to come out of nowhere, with almost no advance buzz, to capitalize on its simplicity, honesty and a plot twist that awed the media into not revealing it.

“I’m a firm believer that once (a movie’s) finished, once I like it, that’s what we all intended to put out there,” says helmer and star Clint Eastwood. “I don’t know whether people will embrace it or not. If they like it, I hope they’re drawn by the same thing: the heart of it, the dreams of it.”

While “Baby” landed a solid blow, the momentum seems to be favoring “Aviator,” which took home the Golden Globe for dramatic picture.

Oscar pedigree

“The Aviator” enters the best picture race with a leading 11 nominations, a number that worked out extremely well last year for “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.” This film has all the ingredients the Academy usually likes in a best picture winner: period setting, tormented protagonist, a lush look and a well-respected director and cast.

The most likely spoiler is “Million Dollar Baby.” In an imitation of its plot, this late-year entry from Clint Eastwood is an underdog that delivers. That other pics about prizefighters, such as “Rocky” and “On the Waterfront,” have won in the past bodes well.

The wildcard is “Sideways.” While Oscar has rarely rewarded comedies, the universal outpouring of love for this film was truly remarkable. Uncertainty comes in the form of an overload of praise that has generated signs of a backlash. Critics and possibly Oscar voters are now wondering if the film is good enough to deserve the top prize.

“Finding Neverland” faces an uphill battle. While it’s not impossible for this kind of quieter, more restrained drama to win — it worked for the likes of “Driving Miss Daisy” — it’s unlikely that the charismatic performances will lift this over the top, especially with Marc Forster not among the directing nominees.

Earning plenty of acclaim for actor Jamie Foxx, the conventional structure of “Ray” made its inclusion in the race a bit of a surprise. Musical biopics have rarely won, with the possible exception of “Amadeus,” which had the added benefit of being a period piece. “Ray” has a chance to take home the top prize if passions for “The Aviator,” “Million Dollar Baby” and “Sideways” split the vote enough for an underdog to finish first.

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