Action, comedy and musical contenders suggest wide range of kudos options

Seen any good movies lately? At this time of year — when awards are at stake and word of mouth can help make or break a film — it becomes a loaded question. A movie can’t just be judged as entertainment but is weighed for its significance. Is it Oscar-worthy? Is there an edifying message that can be gleaned? Does it hold a mirror up to society?

“I think there’s a tendency to criticize movies for what they don’t do, as if they could do everything,” says film scholar and Turner Classic Movies host Molly Haskell. “It’s like people won’t accept limitations. That’s something new, because in the old days you had limitations imposed by the Production Code or society itself, so everything was more restrained and restricted. But now they can show and do everything, so filmmakers are kind of lost in a welter of possibilities.”

So far, the movies of 2006 largely aren’t conforming to the general Academy template for what might be considered the “best,” which has everybody scratching their heads. Oh sure, there are large-scale historical epics like “Flags of Our Fathers” and splashy extravaganzas like “Dreamgirls,” but the beauty of 2006 is, as Haskell intimates, the startlingly wide range of options.

Moviegoers are responding in kind. So far, box office is 5% ahead of the same frame a year ago and 25% ahead of the January-November period in 2000. As usual, reviews aren’t always a barometer of success. “The Da Vinci Code” and “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” were savaged by the critics, yet generated leviathan numbers.

But what of those diversions that received positive notices and proved popular?

A movie like “The Departed,” for example, had critics searching for new adjectives to praise Martin Scorsese’s crime thriller. As the pundits who make it their business to fathom Academy tastes will point out, genre movies are not always embraced by Oscar voters, at least for the big prizes.

Ironically, Scorsese — the mother of all Oscar bridesmaids — has made himself more intriguing to the cognoscenti by not engaging in the Oscar circus. The end result is perhaps his best shot at a directing laurel since 1990’s “GoodFellas.”

The feel-good factor

In another case of a filmmaker not adhering to preconceived notions, Oliver Stone sidestepped all politics and muckraking in his 9/11 movie, “World Trade Center,” creating a work, as David Ansen of Newsweek put it, that “at its simplest level is a rescue movie,” or, “a story of survival and selflessness.”

The film is also a reminder of a time when the country, if not the democratic world, was more united than divided — just as “The Queen” reimagines a time when Brits banded together to grieve the death of Princess Diana (and Tony Blair, then untarnished, emerged as a populist hero).

In effect, “WTC” and “The Queen” are feel-good movies and “The Departed” a rollicking entertainment. History has shown that some of the Academy’s most decorated films aren’t always dark, heavy, tragic, challenging or reflective of the current zeitgeist. For every “Million Dollar Baby,” “Schindler’s List” and “Midnight Cowboy” that took Oscar’s top prize, there’s a “Chicago,” “The Sting” and “Around the World in 80 Days.”

Besides, in Academy speak, genre isn’t always a bad word (although musicals seemed to have gotten a pass in this regard). “Annie Hall” and “Shakespeare in Love” were romantic comedies, “Unforgiven” a Western, “The Silence of the Lambs” a psychological thriller, “The French Connection” a gritty actioner — best picture winners all.

And if “Dog Day Afternoon,” a bank heist movie with psychological overtones, could garner a best picture nomination, why not “Inside Man,” as nuanced a film about New Yorkers in all their melting-pot glory as anything released since Sidney Lumet’s heyday?

With the country in the midst of the most divisive war since Vietnam, comedy has proved a dependable elixir. Hence well-reviewed releases such as “The Devil Wears Prada,” “Little Miss Sunshine” and the most politically incorrect satire since 2004’s “Team America,” “Borat” — which grossed $26.5 million on little more than 800 screens in its opening weekend — have thrived.

Granted, “Borat” — which offers something to offend everybody — might be too taboo for the Academy’s tastes outside the writing categories, but “Prada” could certainly be viewed as in the mold of 1988’s “Working Girl,” which garnered six Oscar nominations, including those for picture and director.

Screening overload

One of the year’s biggest challenges for Academy voters, as always, is the amount of material to sift through in the last three months of the year — 140 films scheduled for release between early October and the end of December, to be precise. The volume can have a numbing effect, and the act of being transported can be compromised by a sense of duty.

Of the current crop, Oscar-winning filmmakers abound: Stone, Clint Eastwood (“Flags”), Bill Condon (“Dreamgirls”), Anthony Minghella (“Breaking and Entering”), Pedro Almodovar (“Volver”), Steven Soderbergh (“The Good German”) and wild-card entrant Mel Gibson (“Apocalypto”).

There’s also the cadre of new-breed helmers to be considered, including Todd Field (“Little Children”), Paul Greengrass (“United 93″), Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (“Babel”), Christopher Nolan (“The Prestige”), Marc Forster (“Stranger Than Fiction”) and the London stage maestro, Richard Eyre (“Notes on a Scandal”).

But perhaps most impressive is the plethora of first-time narrative feature directors who’ve exhibited an assured hand, like Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (“Little Miss Sunshine”), Kevin Macdonald (“The Last King of Scotland”), Ryan Fleck (“Half Nelson”), David Frankel (“The Devil Wears Prada”) and Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (German Oscar entry “The Lives of Others”).

What remains — and there’s plenty — depends on what one can squeeze in.

What’s screening tonight?

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