The biggest surprise found in the list of winners of the 2006 National Board of Review awards was the choice of Clint Eastwood's View from the Other Side, the Japanese-language World War II drama Letters from Iwo Jima, as the best film of the year.
This marked only the third time that the NBR's best film award has gone to a non-English-language production. The last time that happened was in 1949, when they picked Vittorio De Sica's Italian-made neo-realist drama The Bicycle Thief. The year before, another Italian film took the award, Roberto Rossellini's Paisan.
Based on Japanese Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi's book Picture Letters from Commander in Chief (adapted for the screen by Iris Yamashita), and starring Ken Watanabe, Letters from Iwo Jima tells the story of the battle of Iwo Jima from the Japanese side. The film, an accompanying piece to Eastwood's critically acclaimed Flags of Our Fathers (one of the NBR's top-ten films), was to have been released in February 2007 so as to ride the wave of publicity following the expected myriad Academy Award nominations for Flags.
However, that film's relatively paltry US$34 million at the U.S. and Canada box office (Flags of Our Fathers cost approximately $55 million) have dimmed the chances for the war drama to sweep the Oscars. As a result, the U.S. distributor of both films, DreamWorks (which also co-financed them with Warner Bros.), decided to release Letters from Iwo Jima (which cost a considerably more modest US$20 million) on Dec. 21 so as to remind Academy voters of Eastwood's unusual accomplishment. (Letters from Iwo Jima will open in Japan on Saturday, Dec. 9.)
On to other NBR winners...
As expected, the best foreign language film was Pedro Almodóvar's funny and touching melodramatic comedy Volver, starring Penélope Cruz and Lola Dueñas (above) as two sisters whose mother, played by Almodóvar veteran Carmen Maura, seems to have returned from the dead to make amends for past misdeeds.
This past Saturday, Dec. 2, Volver won 4 trophies at the European Film Awards ceremony in Warsaw, including best actress for Cruz and best director for Almodóvar.
Other expected NBR winners were best actor Forest Whitaker (above), for his portrayal of deranged Uganda leader Idi Amin Dada in The Last King of Scotland; best actress Helen Mirren (right), for incarnating another real-life character, British Queen Elizabeth II in Stephen Frears' popular drama The Queen; and best documentary An Inconvenient Truth by Davis Guggenheim, in which The Man Who Would Be President (of the United States), Al Gore, reminds his fellow planet-mates that while wars go on raging and bands go on playing, the Earth is withering away.
There were no major surprises among the other winning names and film titles, though both the supporting performers and screenplay winners could be considered minor upsets: Djimon Hounsou was chosen best supporting actor for Blood Diamond, and Catherine O'Hara was the best supporting actress for For Your Consideration.
Ron Nyswaner's adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham's The Painted Veil won the best adapted screenplay award (the film has also been shortlisted in the best screenplay category for the Independent Spirit Awards), while Zach Helm's Stranger Than Fiction was chosen best original screenplay.
Additionally, veteran actor Eli Wallach, who will turn 91 tomorrow, Dec. 7, will receive the Career Achievement Award, while Jonathan Demme will be handed the Billy Wilder Award for Excellence in Directing.
Curiously, only one film, the inanely violent The Departed, received more than one award: best director for Martin Scorsese, and best acting by an ensemble, which includes Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon (above), Jack Nicholson, Mark Wahlberg, and Vera Farmiga.
Even more curious was the absence of Bill Condon's much-touted Dreamgirls from the NBR's list of top ten films. (Dreamgirls received only one award, Jennifer Hudson's tie -- with Babel's Rinko Kikuchi -- for breakthrough performance - female.)
But the curious-est thing about the NBR's 2006 list of award winners was the presence of Oliver Stone's World Trade Center as the co-winner -- with Deepa Mehta's infinitely more deserving Water -- of the NBR Freedom of Expression award.
The Indian-Canadian Mehta suffered enormous pressure -- including death threats -- while making Water (above), a depiction of the plight of India's young widows in a rigidly patriarchal society that has offended radical Hindus. In fact, Mehta had to stop production in that country following riots that destroyed the film's sets. (Filming of Water, which won three Genies, the Canadian Academy Awards, was later resumed in Sri Lanka. Water is Canada's entry for this year's best foreign language film Academy Award.)
Now, the worst thing that happened to Oliver Stone and his sentimentalized version of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York City was to have American right-wingers praise his patriotism. Hardly a good enough reason for a Freedom of Expression Award.
The National Board of Review (NBR) is a nonprofit organization consisting of film scholars, historians, educators, and students. The NBR members have been listing their choices for the year's best films since the early 1920s.
Full list of winners of the 2006 National Board of Review awards.