When compared to the following year, which featured many showdowns between No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood, the 2006 slate of Oscar nominees seems pretty weak. Taking a closer look, however, there were a few interesting films that weren’t in the spotlight but did receive some love from the Academy. Though Babel [7 nominations], Blood Diamond [5 nominations], Little Miss Sunshine [4 nominations] and, to a lesser degree, The Departed [5 nominations, 4 wins] are films that received a lot of Oscar love that haven’t aged so well, we can’t forget that Children of Men, Pan’s Labyrinth, Notes on a Scandal, and Little Children all received at least 3 nominations. While The Departed only had the fifth most number of nominations, it ended the night as the biggest winner, taking Best Picture and Best Director, the highly publicized first win for Martin Scorsese.

Aside from the categories The Departed received nominations for, Helen Mirren won Best Actress against very strong competition [you know that because she beat Meryl], Forest Whitaker won Best Actor for a powerful supporting performance, and Jennifer Hudson broke out. Happy Feet won best animated feature over Cars and Monster House in perhaps the weakest set of animated nominees ever. In the night’s biggest upset, The Lives of Others [a very good film] won the foreign language award over Pan’s Labyrinth even though the latter received 6 nominations, which is almost unheard of for a foreign language film. Finally, a powerpoint presentation [An Inconvenient Truth] won Best Documentary—talk about a film that hasn’t aged well...

For the purposes of this exercise, I will only be looking at the films that received nominations in their respective categories—it is simply too big a task to consider every film released that year when deciding what should have won. So, while I may have nominated Pan’s Labyrinth, Little Children, and Children of Men for Best Picture, for example, those are the breaks. When you then consider Casino Royale, The Science of Sleep, The Host, Old Joy, Tell No One, etc. etc. etc., it is too easy to fall down the rabbit hole.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role
The Nominees:
Alan Arkin [Little Miss Sunshine]
Jackie Earle Haley [Little Children]
Djimon Hounsou [Blood Diamond]
Eddie Murphy [Dreamgirls]
Mark Wahlberg [The Departed]

Winner: Alan Arkin
Who Should Have Won: Eddie Murphy

As is usually the case, there were a number of interesting stories going into the Best Supporting Actor category. The eventual winner, Alan Arkin, had history on his side as a veteran and well-respected actor who had never been the recipient of the golden statue. Two other nominees were making big returns to cinema, with former child star Jackie Earle Haley all grown up [and super creepy] and former comedy superstar Eddie Murphy in his most high profile role [Shrek series aside] in many years. Going into the ceremony, many thought Murphy was the favorite—when Arkin won, this left them wondering what effect Murphy’s notoriously bad Norbit had on voters.

Upon rewatching Little Miss Sunshine, I was surprised how little Alan Arkin is in the film. He is undoubtedly very funny, but I don’t know if the film really gives him enough to do to warrant this ultimate recognition. In a film full of so many talented actors, Mark Wahlberg was the lone acting nomination for The Departed [DiCaprio received a Best Actor nomination this year, but for Blood Diamond]. Like Arkin, Wahlberg isn’t much of the film’s focus, but is given a lot of colorful material to play with. Hounsou is probably the best thing in a pretty bleak film and is the emotional center of Blood Diamond. Jackie Earle Haley is probably the trendy pick here, and he is incredibly raw as the worst of the community’s sexual deviants in Little Children. When he’s on screen, it is hard to take your eyes off of him, no matter how far he sinks into depravity. To me, however, his place within the film is a bit odd—he doesn’t totally fit with the differently strange tone around him.

Ultimately, these are five fine performances, but nothing jumps out ahead of the pack. I’ll take the presumed favorite Eddie Murphy as superstar performer James ‘Thunder’ Early, an amalgamation of James Brown, Rick James and other popular icons. Murphy gets to do a little bit of everything and he does it all well: he gets both comedic and dramatic moments, but it is his singing and dancing performance that stands out. The actor’s musical career has become something of a touchstone for ridicule [it is so very 80s], but he does more than enough to show his many talents in Dreamgirls. Strangely, the film sort of glosses over the character’s ultimate breakdown, leaving an opportunity for a true Oscar winning moment out—even without, he’s the pick.

Best Editing
The Nominees:
Blood Diamond
Children of Men
The Departed
United 93

Winner: The Departed
What Should Have Won: The Departed

First of all, pardon me for not saying much about Blood Diamond. Frankly, I don’t think there is a lot to say in terms of the film’s editing. It is a big and long film, so I guess that is why it got the recognition. In sharp contrast, United 93 is a small and sleek film that, despite the Hollywood plot, is very unlike most Hollywood blockbusters. The film’s editing definitely goes a long way to blend the documentary style with its fictionalized events. That said, this style make it difficult to stand against the much sleeker nominees.

The most interesting question in the editing category comes with Children of Men: where should praise for the films masterful long takes go? Is it more about the cinematography or the editing or a near split? Children of Men and Emmanuel Lubezki were nominated for the cinematography prize, but lost to equally beautiful Pan’s Labyrinth. Personally, I lean more toward cinematography with less emphasis on the editing, though it is certainly worthy of the recognition.

Babel isn’t a film I enjoy. Iñárritu’s relationship with misery has become well documented and Babel pushes hard—this wouldn’t be a problem if you were left with anything other than misery at any point during the film. However, the film’s editing is the highlight, with the three stories weaved together in a unique and interesting way. Narratively, the ties are often ridiculous, but there is a quality to the action of the cuts from one story to another is bold—they aren’t exactly match cuts, but they seem to glide between the scenes.

Thelma Schoonmaker, the veteran editor of The Departed, does a fantastic job of reining in an otherwise giant, brooding film. Much of the reason I find The Departed entertaining is how it moves. It might not be as flashy as Children of Men’s decisions of when not to cut or Babel’s intercuts, but making a 150 minute film with dozens of characters and subplots so fleet and quick is an amazing achievement. As a technical aspect of film, great editing often shows itself by making a long film short, completely engaging its viewer. That may be The Departed’s best attribute.

Best Adapted Screenplay
The Nominees:
Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan
Children of Men
The Departed
Little Children
Notes on a Scandal

Winner: The Departed
What Should Have Won: Little Children

The nominations of Borat and Children of Men are the most surprising here. While the most memorable scenes from Borat are unscripted, the opening sequence where the main character introduces us to his homeland is a highlight. For Children of Men, the strength of the screenplay is its sci-fi concept. Otherwise, the screenplay is overshadowed by the fantastic direction, cinematography and editing. The Departed, which won the Oscar, carries a dense screenplay which juggles a complex narrative and dozens of characters fairly well, not to mention all the surprisingly quotable lines of dialogue. Like Children of Men, I wouldn’t call the script the strength of the production, but it certainly works.

For me, the race comes down to two films for a difficult decision: Notes on a Scandal and Little Children. For what seems like an actor’s film [both Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett were nominated for their stunning performances], Notes on a Scandal is exceptionally written. A taut thriller, the film constantly goes right up to the edge, full of emotional twists and turns. As a script, Notes on a Scandal may rely too heavily on voice-over, but it is so carefully crafted, like poetry. Barbara’s words are perfectly spoken by Dench. Lines like “By the time I took my seat in the Gods, the opera was well into its final act” or “Here come the local pubescent proles. The future plumbers, shop assistants, and doubtless the odd terrorist too” are said with glee and contempt.

Little Children, too, relies on voice-over, here spoken by the alluring tones of Will Lyman—I would object, but it’s so hypnotizing. Through this narration, the film wallows in the perverse, sometimes criminal, dark desires of a community. It is excruciatingly tragic and disturbing, a pseudo-fairytale of broken people. But what makes a great screenplay and a great film is that it is actually funny, too. Then just as you’re laughing, it enters into another level of deranged. The film almost seems to trick you with its comedy and then punishes you for thinking it is funny. Even ten years later, I’m not sure there is another film quite like Little Children.

Best Director
The Nominees:
Clint Eastwood [Letters from Iwo Jima]
Stephen Frears [The Queen]
Paul Greengrass [United 93]
Alejandro G. Iñárritu [Babel]
Martin Scorsese [The Departed]

Winner: Martin Scorsese
Who Should Have Won: Martin Scorsese

Though The Departed went on to win Best Picture, Scorsese’s win was the most publicized and historically important. Is it anywhere near his best work? Definitely not. Did he get an unfair push to the win because he had been passed over the five times he was previously nominated? Perhaps, but in a strange group of competitors, I don’t think it is unwarranted.

I’ve always had the idea of Stephen Frears as a middlebrow filmmaker who makes films that are often better than expected [his most recent Florence Foster Jenkins is a prime example]. With The Queen, he does a remarkable job creating a historical record of the days following the death of Princess Diana. His inclusion of real news footage give voices to true reactions of the tragedy lifts the film above a simple, even a strong, royal biopic. As has been a theme throughout these picks, Babel and Letters from Iwo Jima can be most easily dismissed, though Eastwood’s film is a peculiar outlier in his career.

Scorsese’s closest competition is Greengrass, who makes the most interesting film of the bunch. United 93 blends fact and fiction while exploring one story of 9/11. By using real security and air control personnel through the first half of the film, Greengrass builds an incredible amount of realism before transitioning onto the plane, where less specific detail can be known. Even if you don’t know who Ben Sliney is [and if you do, bravo] and that he’s playing himself, his position in the film feeds this through subtly. Greengrass’s handheld documentary style has been praised in the big action spy thrillers he’s most known for and it obviously translates here, as well, perhaps even moreso.

Best Picture
The Nominees:
The Departed
Letters from Iwo Jima
Little Miss Sunshine
The Queen

Winner: The Departed
What Should Have Won: The Departed

Like with the Best Director category, The Departed benefits from mostly underwhelming competition—even more so without United 93, which was definitely deserving of a nomination and could have been my pick here if it had. Babel has serious problems with its tone and too-complicated narrative setup and Letters from Iwo Jima is unremarkable in comparison. In my mind, that leaves The Departed up against “Sundance-film-that-could” Little Miss Sunshine and the underrated, but modest The Queen.

In hindsight, Little Miss Sunshine sticks out in the most cynical of ways as it is held up as the quintessential Sundance film with all its negative trappings. Ever since, Oscar pundits and film fans look to see which “Little Miss Sunshine” film will sneak its way into the nominations. I revisited Little Miss Sunshine expecting to be negative, but I couldn’t helped to be charmed by the film—there are definitely thematic issues [I could have pretty much done without Paul Dano’s character, particularly his big dramatic reveal] and it wouldn’t be among my personal Best Picture options, but I do like it.

Of the recent British royal films, Stephen Frears’s The Queen is the best. Anchored by Helen Mirren’s Oscar winning performance, the film steers away from stodginess for an entertaining and insightful behind-the-scenes examination of the days following Princess Diana’s untimely death. Mirren humanizes Queen Elizabeth II in an extraordinary way—she’s a much deeper personality that we see in the public eye. The Queen seamlessly combines news footage, real captured reaction, and the dramatic scenes to create moments of documentary and an overall realism that helps capture this historical event and the aftermath. Though Diana is only represented by archived interviews, there likely won’t be another film made about her that captures her life as well.

There is no doubt, The Departed feels most like a Best Picture even without the usual Oscar bait formula. I’ve already praised the film’s editing and complied with Martin Scorsese as Best Director, and despite going elsewhere for the screenwriting prize, the script is properly complex and entertaining. Another strength of The Departed that goes a long way is the large and popular cast. It may have only received one acting nomination [hamstrung with only one supporting female, for sure], but the DiCaprio and Damon are both really good in their co-lead roles. Honestly, if you’re talking nomination snubs, DiCaprio has to be mentioned—nominated for Blood Diamond, the Academy picked the wrong performance. With its combination of pedigree and effectiveness, The Departed is still the easy call for Best Picture.