I have now seen all five nominated films in this category; and have tried my best to catch up with the general releases of 2007, as it was not a big year for moviegoing and I do not know why. In fact I think I haven’t seen so few movies in a year since 2001. Anyway, I’m going to run down the five movies and whether or not I find them up to snuff. I apologize for any minor spoilers (I wouldn’t give away the endings, you philistines!) that might pop up.
Atonement: A solid period piece with all the trimmings. Detailed art direction, stellar costume design (everyone seems to flipping for that green dress). Potent performances of a potentially explosive script. However, for all its merit, I couldn’t help but feel that the story of the film on whole was hollow. For someone as beloved in a household as Robbie Turner was to his employers, it seems unthinkable that they would immediate take Briony’s word for fact, when she was known for dramatics, overimagination and generally obnoxious histrionics. The investigation into the entire rape scenario seems rushed – and um, why do the rapist and victim marry each other? Anyway, they’re inconsequential to the film after the first forty minutes. In fact the ending felt empty and for that I was depressed. Aside from a brilliant cameo turn by Vanessa Redgrave as an aged Briony, the end didn’t satisfy. It was quite a film to absorb, but there wasn’t that much to absorb from it. Though I did learn a few lessons. Number 1: Make sure you put the right letter in your envelope. 2. Never give envelope with wrong letter to precocious, assuming and thoroughly unlikable 13 year old. 3. Don’t rape a teenager when you’re a guest in the family home. 4. Don’t put the wrong letter in the envelope. Oh wait, I covered that? Oops. Anyway, see it if you like, but Howards End or The Remains of the Day this is not. Oscar should have paid James McAvoy‘s stellar performance notice, but not Atonement as a whole.
Juno: This year’s popular quirky little off-beat indie comedy that could. Say, a follow-up of sorts for the fans of Little Miss Sunshine. It’s hard not to like the film. For all its quirks (and is there a plethora; perhaps screenwriter Diablo Cody should collaborate with Wes Andersen and blow our minds), the film is actually quite sweet and occasionally quite funny. The film rests on the shoulders of Ellen Page, as the title character, who at 16 finds herself pregnant and goes about her situation in the most pragmatic and mature manner possible. Dry and sardonic, but not unfeeling, Juno is the kind of character you wish would show up more often. The straight man to all the lunacy around her, especially as she becomes involved in the lives of the couple who wish to adopt from her. What’s fascinating is that with the breadth of characters and setting (not to mention the chemistry) it felt like the pilot for a truly brilliant sitcom, akin to Freaks and Geeks or Arrested Development (Michael Cera and Jason Bateman probably brought out a lot of fans of the latter). One of the overlooked performances, for my money, is J.K. Simmons as Juno’s father, who is heartwarming and hilarious – sort of the Alan Arkin (minus the crass and drugs) of this movie. Allison Janney is a riot as her stepmother; Jennifer Garner effective as the would-be adoptive mother. And Cera is brings his usual awkward as the father of the child.
Michael Clayton: Truth be told, I didn’t think I was going to like this film. Legal person gets caught up in whistleblowing scandal; Life is on the line. The whole rigmarole. Well, do I love to be surprised. Think of it as Erin Brockovich meets Jason Bourne and this movie is the love child of their respective movies. Okay, so that’s somewhat complicated and weird, but you can figure out what I mean. It’s mostly an action thriller that features smarter-than-usual writing and a strong performance from George Clooney. However, he is eclipsed by the brilliant Tom Wilkinson as the top tier attorney who threatens a $3 billion lawsuit when he goes off his meds and the efficient chill of Tilda Swinton‘s smile as corporate legal counsel who will stop at nothing to protect the interests of her corporation that is under fire. Well directed and well paced, it makes for an entertaining couple of hours. However, if we’re going to accept smart popcorn movies into the race for the Academy awards (the Academy’s undying love of George Clooney not withstanding), why not some more serious attention to the incredibly well-loved and well-reviewed Bourne Ultimatum or even the lost gem of last winter, Zodiac, which has a small but rabid fanbase?
No Country for Old Men: The Coen brothers’ adaptation of Cormac McCarthy‘s sparse novel is one of the most bad-ass movies I have seen in a long time. There are three main characters in the story, each interrelated, though none share any screen time. What you have is a dark moral tale of chance and fate; and how the choices either good or bad can impact a person’s life. Strong script, stronger direction and the performances of the three major characters make this an unforgettable film experience. Tommy Lee Jones is the solemn sheriff trying in vain to maintain order in his generally peaceful Texas town all the while coming to the realization that he is powerless to the forces of change and time. Josh Brolin is the blue-collar Llewellyn who stumbles across the remnants of a drug deal gone horribly wrong. Then we come to the quiet ferocity that is Javier Bardem who is giving a performance that is already legendary. You’ll think twice before you call a coin toss, let me tell you… This has been a front-runner for many awards, in spite of the controversy many have felt regarding the ending (which actually folks is subtle genius – if you’ve been left feeling uneasy, it’s worked). The only loss I mourn in translation from novel to screenplay is the further dimensions we are given regarding the Sheriff and his past.
There Will Be Blood: The most epic of this year’s nominated films captures one of the most spellbinding performances I’ve seen in a movie in quite some time. Daniel Day Lewis is Daniel Plainview, an oil man who finds himself at odds with a cryptic faith healer (Paul Dano). Big, bold, operatic and crafted with considerable beauty by writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson (whose Boogie Nights is required viewing) the film is loosely based on the novel Oil! by Upton Sinclair. It tells of a man’s quest for power in the oil industry and the price he pays for it; in certain terms it’s a rather complex character study with images and ambitions that never cease to amaze for the entire 158 minute time. The scenes between Lewis and Dano are among the most volatile; every time they appear onscreen together Lewis gives his usual all and Dano rises to the occasion, making their scenes tense, nerve-wracking and occasionally hilarious. Every time Daniel Day Lewis makes a movie, it becomes an event of sorts and he regularly delivers the goods. I’ve been a huge fan of Sweeney Todd and have been pushing for Johnny Depp to win, but about halfway into this film, I told my friend “I concede, The Oscar is Daniel’s.” Oh and before I forget, the film’s also got a rather fascinating musical score and has sumptuous cinematography.
I’ve been able to narrow it down to No Country and Blood as the two most deserving of the nominees. My personal preference would give it to Blood; but I’ll be damn fine when it goes to No Country.