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National Board of Review Makes Some Surprising Choices

And so we're off....the first major national critics association has announced their Top Ten Titles of the year, as well as honoring individual films and performances. In a very unexpected and in some ways alarming choice, the National Board of Review has chosen as Best Picture the Japanese-language film LETTERS OF IWO JIMA, a companion film to the much bigger budgeted FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS, both directed by Clint Eastwood. It is a sign of Eastwood's clout at his home studio Warner Brothers that he was able to convince his studio to produce, at the same time, a version of the Battle of Iwo Jima, from the point of view of the Japanese. Therefore, for those who have not seen it, LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA is entirely in Japanese and features mainly unknown Asian actors, with the exception of Ken Watanabe (THE LAST SAMURAI) as its lead.
Although the American and Japanese point of views to a single event has been explored before, in the 1970s mega-production TORA, TORA, TORA (about the Japanese attack on the US harbor base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii in 1941), that was one film. LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA is a totally different film...a smaller, more arty companion film to its much larger cousin FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS. To choose the arty companion piece to a large mega-budget cousin is pretty unprecedented. And totally opens up the race now for Best Picture Oscars and Golden Globes.
Eastwood has a curious arc of public and critical acceptance. His films, including THE UNFORGIVEN and MILLION DOLLAR BABY, open relatively modestly, never taking the Number One position at the box office. But they stay around....and the interest and curiosity start to take over, so that the films actually expand instead of shrink after a few weeks time. It is, in some gargantuan way, a harkening back to the old days when films opened in just a few theaters, and then allowed for anticipation to grow. If LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA should win the Oscar, it would be the first non-English language film to do so in Academy history.
And the choice for Best Director is also a career-affirming one. Martin Scorsese was given those honors for his international hit THE DEPARTED. The film also won an award as Best Ensemble Cast, about as high-powered as they come these days....Jack Nicholson, Leonard DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Alec Baldwin. Scorsese, who has been up at bat many times before, may clinch the top awards this year, for a film that many agree is a return to form. Pure Scorsese receives the directorial prize.
Royalty reigned in the best thesp categories as Forest Whitaker landed the prize for actor for his perf as Idi Amin in THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND. Helen Mirren nabbed actress kudos for her role as Queen Elizabeth II in Miramax's THE QUEEN (which had its US premiere as the Opening Night Film of the New York Film Festival).
Two other interesting choices in the acting categories were Djimon Hounso of BLOOD DIAMOND and Catherine O'Hara from FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION in the supporting actor and supporting actress categories. These are both hard working actors who deserve recognition for the depth of their talents and appeal on the screen.
Other winners include Ryan Gosling for breakthrough performance by an actor in the superb indie hit HALF NELSON and Jennifer Hudson and Rinko Kikuchi (BABEL) sharing the nod for breakthrough actress.
Pedro Almodovar's femme fest VOLVER won the prize for Best Foreign Language Film. And give another kudo to Al Gore, director Davis Guggenheim and company for their win as Best Documentary for the global warming horror film AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH.
Zach Helm won for original screenplay for his inventive work on STRANGER THAN FICTION, starring Emma Thompson and Will Ferrell. Veteran screenwriter Ron Nyswaner won the writing award for adapted screenplay for his work on THE PAINTED VEIL, a film that has not even opened yet in theaters in the US.
At the National Board of Review awards ceremony, to be held in early January in New York City, several career achievement awards will be given to industry veterans. Being honored are actor Eli Wallach (THE MISFITS), director/producer Jonathan Demme (SILENCE OF THE LAMBS), producer/director Irwin Winkler (RAGING BULL) and industry pioneer Donald Krim.

With the National Board of Review's choices now public, it throws open the races for all other major awards. For this organization that has often made the "safe choices" in the past, it shows a very quirky and independent streak. And also stresses the fact that the races are very wide open for the Golden Globes and the Oscars, with smaller, tougher films having a very strong showing.

NATIONAL BOARD OF REVIEW TOP TEN FILMS OF THE YEAR
LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA
BABEL
BLOOD DIAMOND
THE DEPARTED
THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA
FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS
THE HISTORY BOYS
LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE
NOTES ON A SCANDAL
THE PAINTED VEIL

Sandy Mandelberger
Awards Watch Editor

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Chatelin Bruno
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