Golden Globes Countdown

No film benefited more from last week’s Golden Globe nominations than “Babel,” and no film needed it more.

The critics’ groups so far have split their awards among “The Departed,” “The Queen,” “Letters From Iwo Jima” and “United 93,” giving short shrift to Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s multilingual mosaic — not surprising, perhaps, for a film some reviewers have hailed as a masterpiece and others have dismissed as a pretentious folly.

But clearly, members of the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. were sufficiently impressed with “Babel’s” filmmaking, ambitious themes and starry but not too starry international cast to hand the film a leading seven nominations (call it this year’s Globe-trotting epic), including one for motion picture, drama.

As expected, “Babel” is joined in that race by Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed” and Stephen Frears’ “The Queen,” two ecstatically reviewed B.O. hits that have to be con-sidered among the season’s healthiest specimens.

But with other strong contenders like “Dreamgirls” and “Little Miss Sunshine” up for musical or comedy, and “Letters” relegated to foreign-language film, those two remaining Globe spots (or even three remaining spots, since Globe categories are flexible) were something of a mystery prior to the announcement: Would the HFPA go for Clint Eastwood’s “Flags of Our Fathers” (which, from a handicapper’s standpoint, is starting to look like “Letters’ ” slower, less attractive cousin)? Or perhaps Paul Greengrass’ uncompromising, utterly unglamorous 9/11 re-creation “United 93″?

Hardly. Instead, voters opted for the more optimistic visions of “Bobby,” Emilio Estevez’s earnest ensembler, and Todd Field’s barbed domestic drama “Little Children.”

With only one and two other Globe nominations, respectively, “Bobby” and “Little Children” should probably pat each other on the back for making it to the party, pull up a chair at a white-cloth table and watch the others duke it out. And despite (or perhaps because of) its broad support in multiple categories and likely wins for actress and screenplay, “The Queen” is shaping up to be this year’s prestigious, small-scale also-ran.

In other words, expect a slugfest for best picture, drama, between the nomination heavyweight — “Babel,” serious with a capital “S” — and “The Departed,” a bloody good time that has momentum and pedigree, not to mention the benefit of being the hip choice. If there’s one thing Globe voters love, it’s hip.

It’s been a truism of the Globes and the Oscars that the most-nominated film usually wins best picture — a stat that gives “Babel” a very slight edge. But rules are meant to be broken: In 2003, “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” proved unstoppable despite having only four Globe noms to “Cold Mountain’s” eight.

Whichever film wins, don’t necessarily count on Oscar to honor the HFPA’s choice. As demonstrated last year with “Brokeback Mountain,” even a front-runner can crash and burn.

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