January 26, 2008

Handicapping the Oscars: Acting

Posted in Movies at 11:34 pm by Calico Jack

And the nominees are:

BEST ACTOR:

George Clooney in Michael Clayton
Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood
Johnny Depp in Sweeney Todd
Tommy Lee Jones in In the Valley of Elah
Viggo Mortensen in Eastern Promises

Having just seen There Will Be Blood last night, I must say that this is Daniel Day-Lewis’s Oscar to win. He is the best part of a good but somewhat underwhelming film, and his teetering-on-madness performance is riveting in every scene. George Clooney suffers from the same problem he always has, in that he never seems to come across as playing anything but a version of…George Clooney. Sometimes the script manages to wrangle in his natural charisma, such as in the Ocean’s trilogy, but Michael Clayton didn’t deserve a Best Actor recognition. Johnny Depp and Viggo Mortensen were both quite good in their respective films, and would probably be a decent contender in any other year; but there simply isn’t any way they’re going to compete against Day-Lewis. My pick for dark horse, however, is Tommy Lee Jones’ mournful, haunting portrayal of an Army father searching for clues to his son’s disappearance. In the Valley of Elah is unnecessarily didactic, but I hold Jones’s acting in the highest regard.

BEST ACTRESS:

Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth: The Golden Age
Julie Christie in Away from Her
Marion Cotillard in La Vie en Rose
Laura Linney in The Savages
Ellen Page in Juno

My pick for Best Actress is based mostly on the goodwill that Ellen Page seems to have engendered amongst even the most hardened and cynical of critics, who acknowledge that she sparkles in this titular role, regardless of whatever problems there may be with the rest of the film. But there are several other noteworthy performances here, including Marion Cotillard as French singer Edith Piaf and Julie Christie as an elderly woman facing the onset of Alzheimer’s. I haven’t seen The Savages, so I can’t comment on Laura Linney’s performance, but I will suggest she is owed an Oscar for Lifetime Achievement. Cate Blanchett is her own worst enemy in also being nominated for a supporting actress role for I’m Not There. Ellen Page, however, has all of the momentum, and this is one of Juno‘s strongest categories.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR:

Casey Affleck in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men
Philip Seymour Hoffman in Charlie Wilson’s War
Hal Holbrook in Into the Wild
Tom Wilkinson in Michael Clayton

My projections here are based mostly on wishful thinking, rather than a grim acceptance of what will happen on Oscar night. Don’t get me wrong — I absolutely adore No Country for Old Men, one of the finest films I’ve seen in many years; and Javier Bardem’s characterization of ruthless killer Anton Chigurh is a wonderful piece of acting. Yet for this award, my heart belongs to Casey Affleck’s performance in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. His is a utterly complete, startling immersion into a character unlike anything else depicted this past year. I’ll be shocked if he wins, but sometimes you have to cheer for the underdog. And any of the other three actors winning would be an enormous upset. I simply don’t see that happening.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS:

Cate Blanchett in I’m Not There
Ruby Dee in American Gangster
Saoirse Ronan in Atonement
Amy Ryan in Gone Baby Gone
Tilda Swinton in Michael Clayton

Of the four categories here, this one is the most difficult to predict. Every single one of these performances is tremendous, and I have a feeling this award could swing any different way without it being considered unjust or an upset. I do think Ruby Dee, Amy Ryan, and Cate Blanchett have a slight edge over Saoirse Ronan and Cate Blanchett, the former because it’s Vanessa Redgrave’s soliloquy which seems to leave Atonement‘s most indelible impression, and the latter because, well, she’s split her own vote. My tentative pick is Amy Ryan’s searing performance as a Boston mother looking for her kidnapped daughter; it’s full of the kinds of things Academy Award voters look for in an acting role. However, she faces stiff competition from Ruby Dee, who might get the nod based on lifetime achievment (she’s long overdue for something); and Tilda Swinton stands a decent chance of scooping up Michael Clayton‘s only acting award. I think the momentum lies with Amy Ryan, even after Blanchett grabbed the Golden Globe earlier this month. But I’m quite prepared to be wrong on this one.

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January 23, 2008

Handicapping the Oscars: Best Picture

Posted in Movies at 3:32 am by Calico Jack

It’s that time of the year again; this morning the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced their nominees for the February 24th awards show. And as an aside, do most people realize just how ridiculously complicated the nominee-picking process actually is? I always assumed it was based on a simple formula that prioritized someone’s first choice over their fourth or fifth. And it does — except that’s only the first step in a very involved procedure. For more, check out Entertainment Weekly‘s PopWatch blog. One would think there could be a simpler way…

Anyway, now is the chance for every film critic to rub his or her hands in glee and prognosticate the Academy Awards winners. My personal track record has been decent but not great over the past five years or so that I’ve been doing this seriously, but I’d like to think that I’m getting better each awards season. This year, however, gives us some categories that are nearly impossible to predict, and I suspect that we’ll see a few surprises come Oscar time. The list of nominees follows, with my prediction in bold (if I feel comfortable making one).

BEST PICTURE:

Atonement
Juno
Michael Clayton
No Country for Old Men
There Will Be Blood

This one is quite tricky, and I’m certain that an excellent case could be made for any of the five to receive the top award. The only way that Atonement will win, however, is if enough voters split their ballots between No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood, leaving the British period piece as the winner by default. It fits neatly into the “epic, romantic, sometimes-war-related drama” category that the Academy seems to embrace (see: The English Patient, Braveheart, Gladiator, Shakespeare in Love, Return of the King, Titanic, etc.) But I really don’t think it has a good chance of getting the award on its own merits, since almost nobody (myself included) thinks that it truly deserves to be called the best picture of the year (Golden Globe winner notwithstanding).

Juno has captured the heart of America over the past month, and if this show were left up to the public it would be the hands-down favorite. But there has been a growing critical backlash against the film in recent weeks, partly because Fox Searchlight overhyped it instead of letting box office receipts grow based solely on word of mouth. It’s also accused of having the most unrealistic dialogue of the year, if you believe the hyperbole. Yet Juno‘s biggest problem is that the Academy has been historically biased against comedies, and I’m not sure that will change this year.

Michael Clayton gained a huge amount of momentum over the holiday season, even though it flew under the radar of most people when it was released back in October. In my opinion, it’s one of the more overrated films of the year; I found nothing special about its hackneyed story of a conflicted corporate lawyer. But I will admit that it is well-made, and it has the prestige credentials to please the more conservative members of the Academy. And with its best director, actor, supporting actor, and supporting actress nominations, I’m going to pick it for a possible dark horse upset.

This leaves us with the two giants of the field: No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood. I hope to (finally!) see the latter this weekend, which would leave me in a slightly better spot for making predictions. However, I know that quite a few critics seem to regard There Will Be Blood as straining for greatness but not quite reaching the goal, and its explosive performance by Daniel Day Lewis might help his Best Actor chances but actually hurt the film’s Best Picture chances. The Academy is, if nothing else, a staunchly conservative organization that has never truly embraced the immoderate, and There Will Be Blood might just be a little bit too bizarre to wholeheartedly recommend.

This leaves me with my money on No Country for Old Men, a film that I’ve hailed as the best of the year. It has the key supporting nominations — director, adapted screenplay, editing, cinematography — that often help a film’s chances for receiving the Best Picture award, and its nearly universal acclaim can’t hurt either. Even those who dislike the film recognize its technical brilliance and flawless filmmaking, which is about as good as one can get from a negative review. No Country for Old Men has been endlessly discussed, dissected, and debated over the past several months, and critics are still finding new ways to approach the film — something that can’t be said for any of the other nominees. It has everything the Academy is looking for in a Best Picture: powerful, layered performances, technical mastery (this will get overlooked by many, but the sound design is absolutely stunning), a thought-provoking final act, and the immaculate attention to detail, tone, and scope that the Cohen brothers have at the zenith of their career. No Country for Old Men is one of the finest films of the decade, and it should be celebrated on Oscar night as 2007’s masterpiece.

Now, I just realize that I listed a bunch of reasons why it should win, not why it will win. But I’m going with my gut on this one; I can’t help feeling this strongly about its chances. The only thing that could provide an upset is if it somehow gets conflated with There Will Be Blood; if voters are undecided between the two front-runners then neither might gain enough votes to take the top spot. Keep in mind that the entire Academy is eligible to vote for the Best Picture nominee, and it’s a well-known “fact” that quite a few people who vote in a category never see all of the nominees. There is a possibility of voters being undecided between the two front-runners and splitting the vote; then it becomes a free-for-all. I’ll be watching the buzz over the next month to see which of these five films will gain or lose momentum. But I’m crossing my fingers that the existentialist No Country for Old Men gets the recognition it deserves.

January 20, 2008

Noteworthy Films of 2007

Posted in Movies at 2:47 am by Calico Jack

In my earlier post I mentioned that there were quite a few films that didn’t quite make my top 10 list, but which deserved recognition in their own right. They are presented here in alphabetical order, with a few comments after each:

“The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” — This is a quiet, reflective masterpiece about the mental deterioration of our nation’s most famous villain. Its cinematography is gorgeous and its plot exquisitely paced, and it missed my top 10 list by the thinnest of margins. It is quite probable that this film will actually grow stronger as the years pass and may eventually be remembered as one of 2007’s best movies.

“Away From Her” — Julie Christie deserves a Best Actress nomination for her portrayal of a woman compelled to deal with the knowledge that Alzheimer’s is gradually stripping away her life, most poignantly her relationship with her longtime husband and soulmate. Their love for each other is the center of this moving, heartbreaking film, even as they lose nearly everything that held them together for so many years.

“Breach” — One of 2007’s most underrated films was this true-life story of Robert Hansen, an FBI agent who sold his nation’s secrets to the Soviet Union for decades. Chris Cooper is fascinating as a psychologically indecipherable agent and traitor, certain that he is smarter than everyone else but too proud to realize the trap being laid for him. Even knowing the eventual outcome does little to remove any suspense from this tightly crafted thriller.

“God Grew Tired of Us” — This inspiring documentary about several Lost Boys of Sudan focuses less on the deplorable situations in Africa from which these young men escaped and more on the struggles that they faced after being relocated to America. As they strive to adjust to a place where electricity and plumbing are common and closely-knit communities are nonexistent, the three young men also desperately try to retain their culture that they left behind. Their dreams, anxieties and frustrations are eloquently expressed in a film that ultimately shows how the power of hope can transform lives.

“Grindhouse” — This double feature doesn’t work nearly as well on DVD as one might think; splitting apart and expanding Tarantino’s car-chase “Death Proof” and Rodriguez’s zombie thriller “Planet Terror” only highlights each film’s weaknesses. But the original three-hour experience in a darkened movie theater is one of the most enjoyable of the year.

“Gwoemul” (The Host) — I really hope that this Korean monster film is eventually recognized for what it is: a smart, partly-satirical, always-entertaining thrill ride about a dysfunctional family forced to pull together after one of their own is kidnapped by a rampaging monster. There is more genuine emotion and human conflict here than any ten monster films put together, and the first ten minutes of this film show one of the best monster-on-the-loose scenes of all time.

“Hot Fuzz” — Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright top their beloved 2004 rom-zom-com (romantic zombie comedy) “Shaun of the Dead” with their hilarious British sendup of buddy cop movies. This film works as both a satire and a worthy addition to the genre; it has explosions, guns, an inept small-town police force, a renegade swan, sea mines, and a host of other plot elements that combine into one extremely funny, thrilling homage to action movie clichés.

“La Doublure” (The Valet) — The French make light farcical comedies better than anyone else, a perfect example of which is this deftly plotted and utterly charming film about a valet who is paid to pretend he’s dating a supermodel in order that the model’s billionaire boyfriend keep his infidelity secret from his wife. As befitting a film drawing many of its inspirations from classic 1960s sex comedies, the various plots thicken with remarkable alacrity as nearly every character masquerades as something he or she is not.

“Lars and the Real Girl” — Ryan Gosling is one of the better actors in cinema today, and his skills are put to excellent use in this admittedly odd film about an painfully shy, insecure young man who comes out of his shell only after ordering a life-size doll off of the internet and imbuing it with a full-fledged personality as his supposed girlfriend Bianca. Her sudden appearance frightens and confuses Lars’s friends and neighbors, especially his brother and sister-in-law with whom she shares a house; but they eventually decide to play along with Lars’s delusions in order that he might break out of his self-imposed shell. This is a deceptively complex film whose quirkiness and oddball comedy never quite eclipse the underlying sense of tragedy and loss as Lars must deal with his past to face his future.

“Paris, Je T’Aime” — Twenty-two highly acclaimed directors from around the world each contributed to this wonderful collection of short films celebrating the city of Paris. Each of the eighteen selections is set in a different one of Paris’s many districts, giving a wildly diverse look at the culture, neighborhoods, and lives of the city’s residents. Not all of the shorts are as good as one might hope, especially with such prestigious names attached to them; but there are at least five or six gems in this montage (and a double handful of other good ones as well) that more than make up for the few that fizzle. This collection is full of romance and love, sadness and melancholy, hope and laughter — and above all else, life.

“3:10 to Yuma” — This remake of the 1957 Glenn Ford classic is a welcome return to the classic Western, where men lived by codes of honor and the lawless West still held challenges for those struggling to make a living in those harsh conditions. Christian Bale is marvelous as a financially desperate rancher paid to transport a notorious killer to a train bound for the Yuma prison, and Russell Crowe brings a particular kind of intensity to his role as the black-hatted outlaw with his own peculiar sense of honor. Those two performances elevate this film beyond the pedestrian and help to resurrect the genre that many had written off as nearly extinct. Between “3:10 to Yuma,” “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” and “No Country for Old Men,” it has been an amazing year for Westerns.

“28 Weeks Later” — The best horror film of the year is also a sequel to Danny Boyle’s groundbreaking 2002 film “28 Days Later,” managing to keep all of the dystopian terror of the original while adding a fair amount of political content by pointedly critiquing nation-building. That, however, is mere icing on a very bloody, very scary cake that never lessens its frantic, brutal pace to allow room for breathing. And it also does what only the best horror films are capable of: utterly embodying bleak hopelessness and despair.

“Waitress” — This bittersweet comedy-drama by the late Adrienne Kelly stars Keri Russell as a waitress and renowned pie-maker in a roadside diner trying to save enough money to enter a pie contest, thereby enabling her to leave her lout of a husband. But Jenna must also deal with two problems: her newly discovered pregnancy and a handsome young doctor seemingly more interested in her than in her pies. The decisions Jenna is forced to make, and the alternately hilarious and poignant ways in which she deals with her frustrations, make this film one of the most heartwarming of the year.

“Zwartboek” (Black Book) — Paul Verhoeven has directed the most complicated and involving film of his career with this tale of the Dutch Resistance during World War II. Carice Van Houten is astonishingly vibrant as Rachel, a young woman forced to go undercover with the Nazi regime after her entire family is brutally murdered. Although it bears some of the trademarks of a Verhoeven film with its rather unsubtle emphasis on sex and violence, this film sheds most of its potential luridness by focusing on Rachel’s enormous internal struggle as she tries to balance her commitment to the resistance with her growing affection for a German officer. This is a lushly beautiful, compelling, and ultimately thought-provoking tribute to those who walked the thin line between heroism and treason.

Films I didn’t get a chance to catch in theaters in 2007: “There Will Be Blood,” “Death at a Funeral,” “Persepolis,” “I’m Not There,” “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” “Romance and Cigarettes,” “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead,” “Starting Out in the Evening,” “Margot at the Wedding,” “The Savages” and “American Gangster.”

Those will have to wait for a wider theatrical expansion or a DVD release, unfortunately.