The Last King of Scotland rules as the best movie—but this year it's the women who reign supreme.
Forest Whitaker's ferocious performance as Ugandan despot Idi Amin dominates Scotland, winner of our coveted Best Movie for Grownups award. But for the first time a quintet of top actresses vied for the Best Actress 50 and Over trophy in five riveting leading roles, a clear sign that Hollywood is softening in its longtime relegation of 50-plus actresses to supporting parts.
It's all part of a steadily evolving attitude shift, one that Hollywood is just beginning to take note of, says Susan Seidelman, writer-director of this year's nominated Boynton Beach Club: “There are a lot of people over 40 or 50 who would go to the movies, but they want to see a movie that reflects their experience as an older person. That's a tough sell for your average Hollywood movie executive, a fetus in a suit.”
Best Movie for Grownups from 2006
The Last King of Scotland, directed by Kevin Macdonald
As the 1970s Ugandan strongman Idi Amin, Forest Whitaker smiles a thousand-watt grin, reaches out with teddy bear arms—then goes all grizzly on us. Even though we know the hellish depths to which Amin is going to drag his country, as an audience we are buying whatever Whitaker is selling. With his wide, childlike eyes, his blazing grin framed by lips as red as blood, he radiates the charisma of Satan himself—a commodity all too available in all too many corners of the modern world.
The story is told through the eyes of a young Scottish doctor (James McAvoy), who arrives with no particular passion for Uganda or its people. Looking for adventure, he gets it—and how—when he happens upon Amin after a motorcade accident. He treats Amin's injured hand and finds himself serving as the newly minted dictator's personal physician.
The easy route would have been for director Macdonald to show the stacked bodies, the burning villages, the reputed episodes of Amin’s cannibalism. By the time the tyrant's brutality is finally, graphically portrayed near the end of the film—and those scenes aren’t for the faint of heart—Macdonald has allowed Amin’s unique blend of evil, madness, and genius to blossom, a lovely flower morphing into a Venus flytrap.
Runners-up: Aurora Borealis Hands down, this intimate portrait of a devoted older couple is the most life-affirming movie featuring a suicidal Parkinson's patient you'll ever see…Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima Amid the carnage in these two movies, director Clint Eastwood (Winner, Best Director 50 and Over) discovers the shared humanity of World War II foes…The Illusionist Steeped in early 20th-century atmosphere, this magical mystery about a performer (the haunting Edward Norton), his lifelong love (a radiant Jessica Biel), and the cop investigating her murder (a bemused Paul Giamatti) unfolds with the deliberate patience of a confounding card trick…Little Miss Sunshine Also the funniest movie of the year (see Best Comedy)…The Queen Powered by Helen Mirren's performance (see below), there's something terrifically authentic about this slice-of-royal-life glimpse at what happens behind closed throne-room doors.
Best Actress 50 and Over
Helen Mirren, The Queen
As the United Kingdom's Queen Elizabeth II, Helen Mirren takes on the toughest of acting assignments: revealing the emotions of the outwardly emotionless, the passions of the passionately reserved. When we meet her in the days surrounding the 1997 death of Princess Diana, the queen faces increasing pressure to publicly share in the nation's outpouring of emotion. But there's one problem: members of the royal family display their emotions as readily as they hang their laundry out the windows of Buckingham Palace. It takes a good deal of coaching from touchy-feely prime minister Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) simply to get the sovereign to address the nation.
We've pretty much grown to expect Queen Elizabeth to be played as one cold kipper, but Mirren has much more in mind. Still among moviedom's most beautiful actresses, she brings an elegant sense of remove to Elizabeth. A downward cast of the eyes, a slight softening of that stiff upper lip, and she opens a window, ever so slightly, on the very private passions that drive her: for propriety and for a thousand years of precedent. Sheen's Blair seems at first blush the true statesman here, but it's Mirren's Elizabeth, infuriatingly remote, who understands the devil's deal that royalty must live by: politicians give you a shoulder to cry on, but the potentate is not your pal.
Earlier last year Mirren—featured in this issue's cover story—starred in an HBO movie about the first Queen Elizabeth, a surprisingly sexy foil for Jeremy Irons's Earl of Leicester. Which just goes to show that while England has had two Queen Elizabeths, there's only one Helen Mirren.
Runners-up: In The Devil Wears Prada, Meryl Streep at first seems to be playing her role as a hard-boiled fashion editor for laughs—then she begins peeling back the layers of sorrow and desperation that define the character…Likewise, in For Your Consideration, Catherine O'Hara's portrayal of a veteran bit actress facing the possibility of an Oscar nomination starts out achingly funny but turns poignant as her character struggles between confronting reality and succumbing to baseless optimism…Maggie Smith brings unexpected warmth to her role as a murderer-turned-housekeeper in Keeping Mum…And Judi Dench delivers shivers as a needy, cold-blooded stalker in Notes on a Scandal.
Beyond our nominees there were even more first-rate star turns in the past year, including Julie Walters as a quirky retired actress in Driving Lessons, and Brenda Vaccaro, Sally Kellerman, and Dyan Cannon as a sexy 60-plus triumvirate in Boynton Beach Club.
Best Actor 50 and Over
Donald Sutherland, Aurora Borealis
Ronald Shorter is trapped. He was once a hard-working hardware salesman, a guy who gave orders and got results. Now he's a prisoner of Parkinson's, a fading shadow shuffling from room to room in his apartment, reporting back to his long-suffering wife about the results of his latest venture into the bathroom. It would be easy to simply pity Ronald, but in the haunting Aurora Borealis, Donald Sutherland plays him with such smoldering fire that even as he slowly disappears into himself, Ronald remains defiant, compassionate, and surprisingly triumphant.
Sutherland came very close to passing up the part of Ronald—a man who becomes determined to commit suicide. “I was very, very profoundly depressed for a bunch of reasons,” Sutherland says. “Ronald, this character, invaded my person. My father had Parkinson's, my mother died with dementia, and I was pretty familiar with the depression that accompanies people who feel that termination of their life is the most generous thing they can do for the person they love.” Yet the film had an unexpected effect. Says Sutherland: “Almost as soon as I started to work on the picture, my depression disappeared, and I haven't been depressed since. So Ronald cured me.”
Runners-up: Gabriel Byrne, Wah-Wah: As a divorced dad living in Africa with a deeply troubled son, Byrne is a man cast adrift at home and in the world…Samuel L. Jackson, Freedomland: Beneath rumpled clothes and an ill-fitting hat, Jackson brings new life to one of the movies' most durable characters, the world-weary cop…Peter O'Toole, Venus: The “ick” factor could be high in this tale of an aging thespian smitten with a twentysomething cutie, but O'Toole's charm renders him bulletproof…Jack Nicholson, The Departed: Few things are scarier than casual brutality. When Nicholson's gangster pulls a ring off a severed hand and gives it to his lackey while saying, “Send it to his wife,” we want to run for the exits.
Best Director 50 and Over
Clint Eastwood, Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima
We don't usually honor anyone for two films in the same year, but the sheer audacity of Clint Eastwood's vision for his bookend movies about the World War II battle for Iwo Jima—one from the American side, one from the Japanese—is simply too monumental to ignore. Flags of Our Fathers is ingeniously gritty and complex, yet Eastwood's crowning achievement is Letters From Iwo Jima. Filmed in Japanese with English subtitles, the movie burrows into the rocky tunnels that honeycomb Iwo. Harrowing as the battle scenes are, the film shifts to heartbreaking as the Japanese soldiers reminisce about life back home and finally come to realize they have been abandoned by their commanders. These films stand as not only Clint Eastwood's greatest directorial accomplishment but also two of the most nuanced and striking war movies ever.
Runners-up: Stephen Frears, The Queen: It could have been played as a burlesque or with mock solemnity. But Frears gets his sneak peek at Britain’s royal family just right…Peter Greengrass, United 93: With mind-blowing restraint, Greengrass navigates the torrent of emotion and pain from 9/11 to create the bravest movie of the year…Bill Condon, Dreamgirls: He takes a 1980s musical set in the 1960s and infuses it with new life…Martin Scorsese, The Departed: Still in pursuit of his first Academy Award, Scorsese pours his lifeblood into this cops-and-crooks story—and sheds a few gallons of other people's, too.
Best Screenwriter 50 and Over
William Broyles Jr. and Paul Haggis, Flags of Our Fathers
It took two of the screen's most accomplished writers to wrangle this complex vision of Iwo Jima, depicting both the bloody battle for a rock in the middle of the Pacific and the struggle back home to sustain Americans' support for the war effort. Their account reminds us that a nation’s greatest battle can be with its own sense of resolve.
Runners-up: Susan Seidelman, David Cramer, and Florence Seidelman, Boynton Beach Club: With their boldly written romantic comedy about love and sex among the 60-plus, they show, in Susan Seidelman's words, “older people getting to be funny and sexy and sad and silly and moving—all those things that Meg Ryan got to be in When Harry Met Sally”…Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy, For Your Consideration: Their cast improvised the lines, but the writers constructed the skeleton of this story, a fable about the persistence of dreams…Richard Russo, Keeping Mum: Serial killers don’t often make for great comedy, but Russo is a master of that unique British brand of dark humor…Shawn Slovo, Catch a Fire: The daughter of anti-apartheid activists, she brings blunt authenticity to this tale of South African terrorism.
Best Comedy for Grownups
Little Miss Sunshine, directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris
“Everybody!” shouts this movies desperate dad, Greg Kinnear, to his family after they've been pulled over by a cop. “Just pretend to be normal!”
It's a tall order—this is one oddball crew. But the wonderful thing about the wildly dysfunctional family in Little Miss Sunshine is how their quirks, conflicts, and unexpected camaraderie seem to echo the weird chemistry that uniquely defines every family. It’s funny, tragic, jaw- dropping, and sometimes difficult to watch. Just like life.
Runners-up: Failure to Launch Even if your grown kid was Matthew McConaughey, you'd want him to move out someday, right?…For Your Consideration Hollywood is an easy target for satire; adding humanity to the mix is harder…Keeping Mum Bodies buried in the backyard have never been more amusing, nor a village full of eccentrics more endearing… Thank You for Smoking Christopher Buckley's subversively funny book about a tobacco lobbyist makes a perfectly subversive movie.
Best Foreign-Language Film
The Lives of Others (Germany)
As an East German officer (Ulrich Mühe) spies on a playwright, he is drawn into the life, love, and hidden passions of his target. Writer-director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck questions whether any of us are capable of minding our own business.
Runners-up: Le Petit Lieutenant (France): It's a cops-and-killers film noir, plus the target audience actually knows what noir means. The French have long trusted featured roles to 50-plus actresses, and here the great star Nathalie Baye turns in an arresting performance (sorry!) as a police commandant…The Syrian Bride (Israel): The simple story of a young woman from the Golan Heights who plans to marry a Syrian runs deep with currents of politics and family crisis…Volver (Spain): Pedro Almodóvar's magical ghost story brings a deceased mother back to advise and comfort her daughters…Water (India): Maddening and inspiring, a woman's battle against a system that marginalizes widows echoes the rise of modern India.
51 Birch Street, directed by Doug Block
As the director's parents speak to the camera about their 54-year marriage, we ask, “Why am I watching this?” Then we're told Block's mother has died. Then his father marries his secretary from 40 years ago. Then Block finds his mom's secret diaries. And then things really get interesting. The question is, how much do you really want to know about your parents?
Runners-up: 49 Up Michael Apted's every-seven-years look at a group of British men and women finds them all facing middle age…An Inconvenient Truth The biggest thaw of all turns out to be in Al Gore, who's disarmingly charming in this global warming lecture film…Mr. Conservative: Goldwater on Goldwater The one-time presidential candidate’s granddaughter, C.C. Goldwater, gives us a fresh and surprisingly personal look at a man who changed the face of American politics…Wordplay Crossword puzzles are exciting. Really.
Terry Bradshaw, Failure to Launch
“I am not a movie star!” Terry Bradshaw insists. Maybe not, but the Hall of Fame quarterback and FOX NFL Sunday host comes awfully close in this, his first major film role (we won't count his two cameos as himself in a couple of Burt Reynolds's old Cannonball Run movies). He's riotously exasperated as a dad with a stay-at-home son (Matthew McConaughey)—but the real eyeopener is the tenderness of his performance with the wonderful Kathy Bates as his wife. A couple more roles like this and Bradshaw may have to take back his protest.
Best Intergenerational Movie
Akeelah and the Bee, written and directed by Doug Atchison
Some of us were a little skeptical about a movie produced by Starbucks. But if at times Akeelah and the Bee seems to be a big, sweet Venti Caramel Macchiato of a film, it's also a compelling portrait of generations pulling together to help an 11-year-old girl go from ghetto to greatness in a national spelling bee. Plucky Akeelah (Keke Palmer) finds a hero in a gleefully grumpy neighborhood professor (Laurence Fishburne) who bears a personal burden of his own.
Runners-up: Aurora Borealis Depression, dementia, and suicide are the solemn themes of this story about a young man's last-ditch effort to relate to his grandfather…Brooklyn Lobster The Giorgio family (headed by Danny Aiello and Jane Curtin) struggle to save the seafood shop that's been part of their identity for more than 65 years…Little Miss Sunshine It puts the fun back into dysfunctional family…Quinceañera Rejected by their families, a pregnant Latino teenager and her gay cousin find shelter in the home of their great-granduncle. (Warning: Our runners-up all have well-earned R ratings for sexual and language content.)
Best Grownup Love Story
Blythe Danner and Tom Wilkinson, The Last Kiss
You might have skipped this one; the trailers focused totally on the onscreen romance of young stars Zach Braff and Jacinda Barrett, ignoring the rich relationship of Danner and Wilkinson as Barrett's character's parents, whose marriage seems to be in deep trouble—she's been having an affair. Be advised: this is a mature-themed film that treats temptation honestly—so when their daughter's boyfriend stumbles into infidelity, too, each parent has a heart-to-heart with one of the twenty-somethings, conferring deep, lived wisdom about long-term love and loyalty that only real grownups can have earned.
Runners-up: Louise Fletcher and Donald Sutherland, Aurora Borealis She's given her life to care for her ailing husband; he'd do anything to give her a life of her own…Sally Kellerman and Len Cariou, Boynton Beach Club He's endearingly nervous and she's yearning for affection in this touching version of love at 60-plus…Kristin Scott Thomas and Rowan Atkinson, Keeping Mum The preacher has forgotten to minister to his wife, and she's looking for love with a golf pro. It takes a murderous mom and the Song of Solomon to reunite them… Naomi Watts and Edward Norton, The Painted Veil They're a little young, but their sad drift apart and unexpected rediscovery of each other trace the arc of many a grownup love story.
Best Movie Time Capsule
Hollywoodland, production design by Leslie McDonald
Take any frame of the richly textured Hollywoodland and you are immersed in the clothes, cars, and atmosphere of the 1950s. But at its heart Hollywoodland, the story of the mysterious death of TV Superman star George Reeves, reverberates with that 1950s sense of a nation holding its breath before its next great leap into the future—and the first hint that the optimism may be tinged with disappointment and unexpected tragedy.
Runners-up: Bobby Sideburns and protest songs abound, but it’s the hopes and anxieties of the characters that capture the essence of America on the night RFK was shot…Flags of Our Fathers All but lost to popular history, the national fatigue that threatened U.S. involvement in World War II dominates the home-front half of Clint Eastwood's epic…Glory Road Imagine, if you can, a world where African Americans were a rarity in college hoops…The Queen The decade since Di's death melts away.
Best Movie for Grownups Who Refuse to Grow Up
Lassie, directed by Charles Sturridge
Who'd have expected the best family film of the summer would also be one of the best films of the year? In a season of overwritten superheroes and gimmicky thrills, Lassie charmed and delighted, thanks not only to one well-trained pooch but also to an inspired cast, including the aristocratic-but-rascally Peter O’Toole and the wonderfully understated Peter Dinklage (The Station Agent). With its epic scope and intimate character studies, Lassie saved us all from a deep, dark well of summer mediocrity. Now we know how Timmy felt.
Runners-up: Charlotte’s Web Engaging, funny, and sad, it's exquisitely faithful to E.B. White's book. As Charlotte's voice, Julia Roberts spins a web of warm reassurance…Nacho Libre Jack Black’s wrestling padre is joyously adolescent and contagiously optimistic…Nanny McPhee As a gnarly nanny, Emma Thompson proves that if you wait long enough, inner beauty will always show itself…Night at the Museum Frantic, funny, and a great motivator to get kids interested in visiting a real museum. Mickey Rooney, of all people, is a hoot as a pugnacious night watchman.