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Grim Oscar Pickings -- With a Little Ray of Sunshine

Death becomes Oscar.

Certainly, gloomy stories featuring the dearly departed are nothing new at the Academy Awards.

Think back over the past few years: "Crash" — death by carjacking karma; "Million Dollar Baby" — death by stool; "Gladiator" — death by sword; "American Beauty" — death by homophobia; "Titanic" — death by ship; "The English Patient" — death by plane. You can see where this is going.

All five best-picture nominees — "Babel," "The Departed," "Letters from Iwo Jima," "Little Miss Sunshine" and "The Queen" — involve prominent deaths and life-or-death situations. Heck, "The Departed" addresses the trend right in its title. Even the cheerily "Little Miss Sunshine" can't escape a body count.

Whew, those fictitious mortuaries must be filling up.

This year's crop includes solid, and in many cases sweeping, dramas and one plucky comedy with deadly results.

"Babel" — A series of seemingly random events cascades into harrowing ordeals with geopolitical ramifications. Audiences came for Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett but stayed for the heartbreaking Rinko Kikuchi and Adriana Barraza, both nominated in the category of best supporting actress.

"The Departed" — Martin Scorsese revisits familiar ground is this taut, bloody mob and cop corruption tale. Easily could have been subtitled "Just Shoot Me in the Head."

"Letters from Iwo Jima" — A vast and unflinching look at the human cost of war and the insanity of sticking with a losing cause. An unexpected glimpse at World War II through the eyes of the Japanese, the drama is ambitious and ponderous in scope.

"Little Miss Sunshine" — Proof that an old Volkswagen bus is always good for a laugh, this dark family comedy is sweet and funny. Its killer cast has enough edge to keep things interesting.

"The Queen" — The British royal family's response, or lack thereof, to Princess Diana's death comes under the microscope. Helen Mirren's flawless performance is receiving all the accolades, but this razor-smart and unexpectedly moving film delivers a complete and rich picture of the monarchy at the crossroads and a moment in time.

With the high-profile shutout of "Dreamgirls" in the best-picture category, it's up to "Little Miss Sunshine" to hold up the feel-good flag. The plucky independent picture has a strong dark-horse vibe going into the final stretch.

Whichever picture wins, it should thank the dearly departed.

Bee entertainment writer Marijke Rowland can be reached at 578-2284 or mrowland@modbee.com. She will blog during the Oscar telecast starting at 5 p.m. Sunday at The Hive, thehive.modbee.com/sceneit.

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