Oscar Preview

The writers strike is officially over and it looks like we’re going to get a full-blown Academy Awards program. Here are my thoughts, and picks, on the Oscars.

BEST PICTURE

In a relatively strong year for movies, the five pictures selected weren’t all that surprising:

“No Country For Old Men”– An incredibly complex and suspenseful examination into the depths of inherent human evil, greed and helplessness. The Coen brothers really got back to doing what they’re best at with this film, but I’m not sure they’ve ever made anything quite this powerful before. So many themes run rampant in this amazing adaptation. Between the incredible cinematography, classic suspense scenes and the creation of the most terrifying villain since Hannibal Lecter, this was the best film that I saw this year and the likely winner. The scene in the gas station is as bizarrely terrifying as anything I have ever seen, and executed perfectly. I’ve had more than a couple nightmares where Anton Chigurh has made an appearance. Listen to the film carefully- there is no music whatsoever.

“There Will Be Blood”- A driving, relentless film that follows the life of a self-made millionaire oil tycoon whose hatred for humanity grows proportionately with his wealth. Paul Thomas Anderson enters new territory here and pulls off another epic film that benefits largely from Daniel Day-Lewis and his portrayal of a dispicable oil man consumed with a universal hate for the world that defies reason. The story builds into an unthinkable conclusion that is nothing short of madness. This is the sleeper pick for the win behind its stellar performances and difficult but powerful subject matter. The title doesn’t suck either, nor does the luminous soundtrack from Johnny Greenwood of Radiohead, one of the most brilliant musicians currently alive.

“Juno”- What a fantastic story the success of this adorable little indie film has been. As you watch (and re-watch) it, pay attention to the characters and how all of them are lovable to the bone; none of them seem to have negative qualities and all are so well-meaning. This utopia might border on nauseating under normal conditions, but Diablo Cody’s sharp script and Ellen Page’s flawless performance keep the film interesting and enjoyable against a plotline that could have easily delivered heartlessness. Even the scene at the abortion clinic proves this, as the young protester seems legitimately concerned with Juno’s difficult decision rather than preaching at her. This isn’t a pro-life film, but it doesn’t poke fun at pro-lifers either; all the characters have their own redeeming qualties. The movie doesn’t exactly reach the depth of some of the other nominees and it would be a big surprise to see it given the award, but I can’t remember leaving a movie in such a good mood. It deserves to be here.

“Atonement”- The twisting storyline of a young girl’s terribly unfortunate misunderstanding and its subsequent destruction of the lives of all involved is powerful to be sure. The incredibe tracking shot on the Dunkirk beach holds the film together during a war sequence that might otherwise tear its already shaky continuity apart, and deserves recognition as a serious achievement. The “story-within-a-story” revelation leaves a lot open to interpretation in this shockingly depressing tale. My attitude after leaving this film was pretty much the exact opposite of how I felt after “Juno.” It seemed to have early momentum to be the favorite here, but with Keira Knightley and James McAvoy missing out on Oscar nods and the completely inexplainable snub of director Joe Wright, I can’t like its chances.

“Michael Clayton”- Probably the most surprising of the nominees, this high-octane law flick benefits most from killer performances and innovative directing. The script is easy enough to follow, as a multi-billion dollar law-suit begins to turn against a high-profile law firm due to one its top lawyers’ sudden change of conscience (possibly brought on by bipolar tendencies, or perhaps simply a sudden realization), and a “fixer” is sent in to clean up the mess, only to engage in his own self re-evaluation. With a fairly complex script and a crowd-pleasing (albeit a bit of a sell-out) ending, this film delivers one of the better law stories in recent years. The “more-complex-than-Grisham-but-not-as exciting” plotline isn’t mainstream accessible, but the performances by Clooney, Swinton and Wilkinson are.

Overall, there were so many great movies that something had to be left out. I’d like to have seen “The Great Debaters”, “The Kite Runner” or “Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead” sneak in here, but it’s a pretty solid five nonetheless.

The Pick: No Country For Old Men

BEST ACTOR

This appears to be over already, as Daniel-Day Lewis, who is famous for completely owning difficult roles, was complex and amazing in his portrayal of a hateful, self-made oil millionaire in “There Will Be Blood.” It would certainly be a surprise if he didn’t get the Oscar. If there is to be a surprise here, it would most likely come from either George Clooney for his pensive portrayal of the title character in “Michael Clayton” or to Viggo Mortenson for his quiet, mysterious role as a driver for the Russian mafia in “Eastern Promises”, not to mention an unforgettable fight scene completely nude. I haven’t had a chance to see “In The Valley of Elah” or “Sweeney Todd”, but I’d have a tough time putting Johnny Depp or Tommy Lee Jones above the aforementioned three. Actually, the former probably deserved a nod for “No Country For Old Men”, but the real snubs here went to previous winners Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe, who should have been nominated at least once each for their work in “American Gangster”, “The Great Debaters” and “3:10 To Yuma.”

The Pick: Daniel Day Lewis, There Will Be Blood.

BEST ACTRESS

This category doesn’t seem to possess the normal star power that would usually provide a punch. Instead, the Academy dug pretty deep into this year’s films and chose a unique five nominees, leaving out Keira Knightley for her role in “Atonement” as well as Angelina Jolie for her highly acclaimed performance in “A Mighty Heart.” These were surprises for sure, but the award should go to Julie Christie without a doubt for her portrayal of a woman, not quite elderly, who quickly begins a steady decline after being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in “Away From Her.” This heartbreaking film benefits from her ability to convey her confusion regarding her surroundings merely with her eyes and her tone of voice in a career performance. The French film “La Vie En Rose” drew a nomination for Marion Coitillard, who seems to be somewhat of a sleeper in this category for her portrayal of singer Edith Piaf. And then there’s Ellen Page, who captured the hearts of audiences everywhere in “Juno.” Her ability to handle Diablo Cody’s sharply modern dialogue effortlessly earned her a well-deserved spot here, although I’d be shocked to see her actually win. I haven’t seen “The Savages”, although I don’t doubt that Laura Linney’s performance was deserving because it almost always is. The most surprising nominee here has to be Academy darling Cate Blanchett for her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth for the umpteenth time in a film that wasn’t well received critically or publicly. Jolie or Knightley probably deserved that spot, especially since Blanchett received a Supporting Actress nod as well.

The Pick: Julie Christie, Away From Her

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

I’m not sure which category is more “over already”, this one or the Best Actor award. If Javier Bardem doesn’t win here for the unthinkably evil yet extremely principled character he created in “No Country For Old Men”, then there is something extremely wrong going on. From the monotone dialogue to the cow-stunner weaponry, murderous rampages, blank stares, cars exploding merely to create distractions and overall screen presence, no one else this year held a candle to Bardem’s performance. If this one isn’t as “over already” as the Best Actor race, it’s only because the competition is full of performances that in any other year might easily have one. Tom Wilkinson, for one, was amazing in “Michael Clayton” in his portrayal of a bipolar lawyer who causes huge problems for his firm after he loses it at a deposition after a sudden change of heart regarding, well…everything. Philip Seymour Hoffman, who is probably the best pure character actor of my lifetime, was hilarious yet incredibly believable in “Charlie Wilson’s War.” In fact, Hoffman was probably even better in the scarcely viewed but gripping “Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead”, a film that will be sticking with me for awhile. I’m still waiting to see Hal Holbrook in the critically acclaimed “Into The Wild” as well as Casey Affleck, who had quite a year, in “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.” Affleck plays the coward, I’m told.

The Pick: Javier Bardem, No Country For Old Men

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Always an exciting and uncertain category, this race appears to be the only one of the main awards that could easily go any of five ways. To me, Tilda Swinton had the best performance in “Michael Clayton” as an ice-cold, career-driven attorney who will stop at nothing to get what she wants, but doesn’t feel good about that. However, Cate Blanchett played Bob Dylan in “I’m Not There.” That’s right, she played Dylan! Saorise Ronan was nearly perfect in “Atonement”, creating an impossibly and immediately unlikeable character in the young Briony. It can’t be easy to make such a young character seem so unforgivable, but Ronan pulled it off with beauty. Ruby Dee received somewhat of a surprising nomination for her role in “American Gangster” as the mother of a druglord who slowly realizes what her son has gotten himself into. Being somewhat of a surprise, and amazingly the lone nomination for a film that three months ago was at the top of most people’s Best Picture contender lists, I’d be shocked to see her win, but in this category crazier things have happened. I haven’t seen Amy Ryan in “Gone Baby Gone.”

The Pick: Tilda Swinton, Michael Clayton

BEST DIRECTOR

The Coen brothers literally created a piece of art with “No Country For Old Men.” Between the long, early shots of the western landscape to their patented work with creating suspense out of what the eye can’t see, this film may go down as their greatest achievement, and they have to be the favorite to get the Oscar here. Still, Paul Thomas Anderson looms large. “There Will Be Blood” was not an easy movie to make on any level, and Anderson used a variety of daring shots to substantiate its overwhelmingly massive tone. I personally really enjoyed the shots in “Michael Clayton”, as Tony Gilroy used tight, up-close angles on all of his actors, which really allowed for facial expression to dictate the story’s tone, and also helped immensely with flow. The circular shot that follows Clooney around as he stares into the eyes of three horses standing peacefully but forebodingly on the side of the road just before his car blows up is purely awesome. I haven’t seen “The Diving Bell and The Butterfly” and I thought that the success of “Juno” as a film should be attributed less to a directorial accomplishment but on second look, I suppose Jason Reitman did quite a job with what he had to work with. The real shame here is that the year’s most spellbinding scene, the amazing ten-minute tracking shot on Dunkirk Beach in “Atonement” (the timing alone is unthinkable, not to mention the backdrop of defeat, despair and disorientation intertwined with unrepenting beauty behind) didn’t earn Joe Wright a nomination. He was robbed.

The Pick: Joel and Ethan Coen, No Country For Old Men

BRIEF PICKS OVER THE OTHER CATEGORIES:

Orginal Screenplay: Juno

Adapted Screenplay: No Country For Old Men

Cinematography: No Country For Old Men

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