Oscar best picture noms

How we got here

When the Producers Guild of America handed its top feature award to “Little Miss Sunshine,” one couldn’t help but sense a sea-change taking place.

Not only had the PGA anointed the producers of a straight-out comedy with its Darryl F. Zanuck laurel for the first time, but this august body, used to honoring studio polish on a lavish scale, broke precedent by lauding a scruffy, independent Sundance acquisition.

If last year’s PGA winner, “Brokeback Mountain,” seemed to lay the groundwork for more open-mindedness among Hollywood’s establishment, then this year’s Oscar nominees for best picture seem to proclaim that all bets are off when it comes to the grand prize.

“Babel” might be the most ambitious art film ever to land in this category. The apotheosis of the partnership between director Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, “Babel” was conceived as a meditation about the disconnect between classes and cultures.

” ‘Babel’ became a moral decision,” Inarritu told Variety about the partnership that made it all happen. “It was a very personal thing for us, one that was risky in terms of business but that we knew we had to make.”

“The Departed,” according to director Martin Scorsese, was made in the tradition of Warner Bros. gangster films like “The Public Enemy” — genre fare not usually associated with the best pic race. And yet this remake of the Hong Kong film “Infernal Affairs” has been piling up acknowledgements from the critics and guilds alike.

“Marty’s driven by the art and creativity of moviemaking, not awards,” says producer Graham King. But we all know there’s more to the story.

“Letters From Iwo Jima” was created almost as an afterthought while Clint Eastwood was making “Flags of Our Fathers.” Eastwood wanted to make a realistic movie about the most famous battle in Marine Corps history, but he broke new ground with “Letters” by telling the story from the other side, and in Japanese.

” ‘Letters’ is a shrine to the 12,000 still buried there,” said Eastwood, “and I didn’t want to romanticize the war at all.” It’s this anti-jingoistic stance that makes “Letters” so timely.

“Little Miss Sunshine” is the “feel-good” picture of the bunch. Its message of empowerment and the resilience of family ties runs across all demographics.

“When (the script of) ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ came to us,” recounted Albert Berger, one of the pic’s five producers, “we thought (directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris) would be perfect. They’re adults, for one, they’ve got kids, understand family, and they have such a humanism and loveliness about them.”

“The Queen” fell in line with a series of pictures released in 2006 about mother figures who show poor judgment in times of crisis (including “Little Children,” “Volver” and “Running With Scissors,” among others). At the center of this film’s accomplishments is Helen Mirren’s repressed yet dignified performance as Queen Elizabeth II.

And while the queen’s behavior, says screenwriter Peter Morgan, seems “cynical, cold, off-putting” and “out of touch,” her dignity appeals to those who yearn for a time when diplomats and celebrities weren’t so fallible and shamelessly public. “I wrote ‘The Queen’ in response to the wildly self-absorbed, narcissistic values that my generation has embraced,” Morgan told Variety. “So it’s partly a love letter to the values of my mother’s stoical generation.”

Oscar pedigree

Although “Babel” boasts the most nominations (seven) of the best picture contenders, it might be the hardest sell to Oscar voters, given its unrelentingly unromantic vision of wayward souls connected by random acts. Nevertheless, the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. gave “Babel” its top dramatic prize, as did the National Board of Review.

“Letters From Iwo Jima” helmer Clint Eastwood has directed two previous best pic winners, and his clout as an industry player is on a level with Steven Spielberg, one of the film’s producers. “Letters” has foreign-language film awards from the HFPA Foreign Press and the Broadcast Film Critics Assn., plus best picture from the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn.

“The Departed” benefits from the direction of eight-time Oscar nominee Martin Scorsese, and the marquee value of three-time winner Jack Nicholson. The film’s moral complexity, crackling dialogue and bravura direction bump it several notches above typical gangster fare. The Broadcast Film Critics and the Boston Society of Film Critics, among others, voted it the year’s best.

“Little Miss Sunshine’s” hardware is considerably lighter than its competitors to date, and its nomination in this category might be testament enough to its considerable charms.

Most of the attention for “The Queen” has been focused on Helen Mirren’s lead performance, but director Stephen Frears and writer Peter Morgan are also nommed. With a total of six noms, it’s no one-woman show.

It also has strong appeal for older auds with media experience — like Academy members.

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