If you like your humor dark and slightly pointed, then &#8220Little Miss Sunshine” is for you.

First-time screenwriter Michael Arndt's script hits all the right notes, with a first-rate cast that makes this among the year's very best films.

&#8220Sunshine” tells the story of a dysfunctional family's quest to get the youngest member, Olive (Abigail Breslin), to a beauty pageant in California.

Joining Olive on the trip are her dad, Richard (Greg Kinnear), an aspiring self-help guru; her brother, Dwayne (Paul Dano), who has taken a vow of silence in his quest to get into the Air Force; her mother, Sheryl (Toni Collette); her uncle Frank, (Steve Carrell), a suicidal English professor; and her pageant coach and grandfather (Alan Arkin), who is forced to live with the family after being kicked out of a nursing home due to a drug habit.

&#8220Little Miss Sunshine” could have easily evolved into a safe and predictable little comedy, but to Arndt's credit the story finds laughs in unexpected places - and still manages to have slightly good-natured intentions at heart.

The tone is set with a great extended opening scene at the dinner table and culminates in an event at the pageant - the single funniest scene I can remember in a long time.

The quality script is backed by a superb cast. Kinnear hits all the right notes as the rather unlikable head of the house, while Collette has her moments as the mother.

Arkin is great and Breslin is a discovery as the young Olive, but the two best performances come from Dano and Carrell, who effectively feed off each other, generating some rather funny moments including some surprising character depth. Carrell is so good that he deserves Oscar consideration.

August is generally a slow month for moviegoers, but &#8220Little Miss Sunshine” is an exception to that rule - a shining light that deserves a long and successful theatrical run.

DVD dandy of the week

This week's dandy is &#8220United 93” the re-creation of Sept. 11, 2001 by writer/director Paul Greengrass. It is an exquisite and respectful masterpiece - resonating with power, intensity and raw emotion. It's still 2006's best film and may also be the most emotionally significant film since &#8220Schindler's List.”

&#8220United 93” centers on the events of the plane, intended for the White House, that crashed near Shanksville, Pa., when passengers attempted to stop the terrorist plot.

Greengrass has a background in documentaries, including the 2002 film &#8220Bloody Sunday,” and the director takes the same approach in &#8220United 93” - with astounding results. It's as if Greengrass placed his audience in the control towers, in the military war rooms and on Flight 93.

Greengrass uses straightforward storytelling and doesn't choose sides or try to indoctrinate its political beliefs on the viewers. Even the way Greengrass handles the hijackers is neutral, with no attempt to condemn or defend their actions.

Adding to the realism is the fact the cast includes actual air traffic controllers and military personnel who worked that fateful day. The other roles are filled by a virtually unknown cast, which features a few familiar faces but no one that distracts from the film's subject matter.

I wasn't a fan of Oliver Stone's &#8220World Trade Center,” still in theaters, and &#8220United 93” is part of the reason why. It captures the essence of the tragedy of 9/11 and deserves to be the definitive film on the subject.

&#8220United 93” is rated R for language and some intense sequences of terror and violence and is available on DVD on Tuesday.


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