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Oscar hopefuls circle the globe

Let's make this clear from the start: Pan's Labyrinth is not one for the kiddies. Even with that inviting title, even with fairy tale trappings full of faunas and faux-Tinkerbells, even with memories of the family-friendly Jim Henson-David Bowie concoction Labyrinth, Mexican writer-director Guillermo del Toro's R-rated adventure is packed with disturbing images, political subtext and gory interludes. In short, when was the last time a fantasy flick brought to mind Schindler's List?

It's as if del Toro had uncovered the darker aspects of Lewis Carroll's Alice In Wonderland adventures, the dormant elements ignored by Disney and television (though not by Jan Svankmajer in his disturbing 1988 gem, Alice), and found a home for them in his own fractured fairy tale. But that's not even half the story, as the film spends most of its running time in the real world, insuring that its idealistic young protagonist is rarely allowed to relax, no matter where she ventures. But we're getting ahead of ourselves.

Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) is a young girl of about 11, which means she's at an age when childhood imagination can be at its ripest. Drawn to fairy tales, she finds her inner life at odds with her harsh reality -- namely, that she's a fatherless child in 1944 Spain, and her sympathetic though weak-willed mother Carmen (Ariadna Gil) has taken as her new husband an officer in Franco's army. Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez) is a terrifying entity, a Fascist who tortures prisoners with the same attention to detail that a philatelist pores over rare stamps. Stationed at a remote farm in rural Spain, where he and his men are attempting to flush out -- and wipe out -- the resistance fighters lurking in the woods, Vidal orders the pregnant Carmen and Ofelia to join him at this dreary outpost.

Ofelia immediately bonds with the captain's housekeeper (Maribel Verdu) -- who may or may not be a spy for the rebels -- but beyond that, there's not much for a child to do at military headquarters other than to steer clear of her unfeeling stepfather and wander around the grounds instead. But while investigating her surroundings, Ofelia stumbles upon a hidden world -- a magical place where a faun (Doug Jones) relates a fantastic tale involving Ofelia's lineage and then sends her off on a series of hazardous quests. Yet for all the dangers that loom before her in this supernatural realm, they seem no more risky than the conflicts unfolding in the world above her.

The question at the heart of Pan's Labyrinth -- and one which it steadfastly refuses to answer -- is whether the fantasy world is a physical reality (albeit one able to be seen only by a child, in the best storybook tradition) or whether it exists exclusively in Ofelia's imagination. It's perhaps a fair query -- and astute viewers will certainly enjoy perusing the screen for clues -- yet ultimately it doesn't matter one way or the other. To young Ofelia, it is real, and this kid is mature enough to understand that the fantasy realm isn't always a peaceful retreat from the horrors of the everyday world but rather a manifestation of the fears and pains that define one's daily existence. This is signaled by one of the great monsters in recent cinema: The Pale Man (also played by Jones), a cannibalistic freak whose eyes can be found in the palms of his hands and whose preferred snack is the flesh of children. The Pale Man is a terrifying creation, yet is he really any more frightening than Captain Vidal, who at one point kills a man by repeatedly smashing a bottle against his nose?

Guillermo del Toro had been one of the more promising fantasists working in film: Hellboy was too laborious for my liking, but Mimic was punchy pulp fiction, Blade 2 was that rare sequel that surpassed the original, and his Spanish-language spook story The Devil's Backbone was memorably eerie. But Pan's Labyrinth represents a quantum leap forward: One of the best films of 2006, it's too important to be marginalized as a genre flick.

Like Pan's Labyrinth, Letters From Iwo Jima ranks as one of the finest achievements of this past year. That's not entirely surprising, considering that its director is Clint Eastwood, who over time has transformed from a superstar in front of the camera to a mastermind behind it. No, the surprising part is that Eastwood has cannily salvaged his chances this award season, by hedging his bets and releasing this picture earlier than originally planned.

As dedicated moviegoers will recall, Eastwood already helmed one film in 2006: Flags of Our Fathers, a look at the stories behind the American soldiers who hoisted Old Glory on the Pacific island of Iwo Jima during the World War II battle. Flags largely met with respectable but restrained reviews (including one from CL), and once it appeared to be DOA heading into award season, Eastwood and Warner Bros. elected to move Letters up from February 2007 and place it in limited release in order to qualify for the Oscars. Initially smacking of misplaced egotism, the move proved sound: Letters From Iwo Jima is far superior to Flags of Our Fathers, and coming out the gate it managed to snag Best Picture accolades from both the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the National Board of Review.

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