Monday, February 18, 2008

Oscar Breakdown: Best Picture


Seeing as I've said about as much as I can about all of the five films nominated here, this 'oscar breakdown' post will be a little more succinct. The idea of the '5 Best Films of the Year' is a bit dubious. It varies from one person to the next what makes a great film. More than anything, 2007 has shown the ludicrous idea of one movie being the 'Best Picture' of the year. With the vast amount of great films in varying genres, surprisingly I actually have no problem with any of the five nominated films this year. There's always that one little mistake in the five, whether it be the result of a giant hype machine (Chocolat!?!?!?!?!), or something that is totally beyond explanation (Field of Dreams!?!?!?!?!?!), there's always that one. But this year, I awoke, saw the five films nominated, and to be honest, there was an almost a disappointment. After all, one of the main hobbies of a film snob like me is to complain about these kinds of things, and there was nothing to complain about. Then, as time passed by, I sat back and appreciated the Academy for getting it right.


Hyped as the romantic epic (the Titanic you could say) of the decade, instead, Atonement was a beautifully scaled picture, about a small girl's mistake, and the disastrous effects it has on a young couple in love. Filled with beautiful, long tracking shots, iconic costumes, and heartbreaking images, Atonement is definitely the prettiest film of 2007. It's use of differing cinematography and a combination and quick and slow editing bring the story to life. It also stars two of the biggest young stars (Keira Knightley and James McAvoy) as the doomed lovers, but the star of the film is stolen by the character of Briony (played by all three: Soairse Ronan, Romola Garai, and Vanessa Redgrave). The plot itself, can be described by Briony herself, in a line from the film: "It's about a young girl, who sees something which she doesn't understand, but she thinks she does." Briony's lifelong mission to atone for her sin is what drives the movie through it's beautiful landscapes, and her appearance late in the film, at a time when life has well passed her by, brings even more twists to the story.


In the past month or so, the "Juno backlash" has been coming hard and often. Complaints range from the pretentiousness of the dialogue, or the preposterous idea that nobody so young and in such a taboo situation would treat it with such casual wit. It is true that the film uses pregnancy more as a plot device than a focus, but that is because the actual focus is on Juno (Ellen Page) herself, not her unborn child. I'm sure there were moments of morning sickness and strange cravings in Juno's pregnancy, but the film's tight 91 minutes decides to turn it's eye on other things. Truly, I cannot sing enough praise for the work of the cast in this film, to take all the hurdling words and transform them into the most heartwarming film of the year. There is nothing Hallmark in the movie, like some have claimed, and if this film does seem pretentious, it is only because it is so much smarter than any other teen film to come out recently. It doesn't try to say "Teenagers like to have sex, and sometimes they get pregnant." Instead, the movie shows the mistakes we make, and how they can lead to life-altering realizations (clue: it's not only Juno).


I had a feeling for a while that this film would get snubbed at the Oscar nomination table, if only because it is so hard to appreciate a solid genre piece. Clayton is a legal thriller, and it does not attempt to trick you with plot twists or romantic sub-plots. Instead, it goes for the jugular, displaying corruption at it's basest level. The film succeeds where films like Syriana just leave the audience baffled, because this movie understands that a film that is this complex doesn't need to be that confusing. Of coarse, a grade A cast, and surprisingly superb work from debut director Tony Gilroy ultimately help. Clooney, already a Hollywood icon, and the most loved actor in Hollywood gives the performance of his career as the morally-misguided, emotionally-exhausted Michael Clayton. When you have a supporting cast the likes of Tilda Swinton, Tom Wilkinson, and Sydney Pollock and all of them giving wonderfully steady performances, it does nothing but further display the greatness of Clooney himself. From Gilroy's own script, Clayton is slick, tense, and overall, satisfying.


I've tried very hard to find a flaw in No Country, and to this day, I have yet to find one. That said, I know a lot of people who can, and there complaints usually have to do with the slow pace, the long passages of silence, and most particularly, the last act. But as far as I see it, none of those things are flaws, but instead, they further endear the picture to the level of a masterpiece. Created by those zany Coen Brothers, the film's meticulous attention to deal and cut-throat dialogue only add to the already tension-filled story about a welder (Josh Brolin), and his attempt to run off with $2 million in drug money, while a stungun wielding madman (Javier Bardem) is close on his tail. Many of those detracted by the film have passed it over as "serial killer movie", but no other serial killer movie that I've ever seen addresses the ideals of greed and fate so well. Twelve years removed from Fargo, it seemed rather unlikely that the Coens could ever make a film as astutely made, and with such beautifully nuanced performances. Luckily for us, we were wrong.


Somewhere deep inside the heart of Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), there is a sharp, jagged-edged love that rarely shows itself. We see it a couple of times, when he is with his adopted son, H.W., and once with a man of whom Daniel thinks is his brother. That's about all you get, though. For the rest of picture, Daniel paces around with his wide-brimmed hat, and does absolutely anything he can to get the riches he cherishes so badly. There Will Be Blood, another "magnum opus" from the mind of Paul Thomas Anderson, broke into the race late. It was released after Christmas, and with strong word of mouth and the inclusion of the seldom-working Day-Lewis, the film has quietly become the highest grossing picture in Anderson's career (just over $30 million). By sweeping some late critics awards in addition to Day-Lewis' dominance in the Best Actor campaign, the film grew, and is a popular pick for a dark horse winner. I loved this movie, whole-heartedly, and see Paul Thomas Anderson as the easily the best filmmaker of his generation (even if that generation includes Tarantino). Tackling universal themes of greed, religiosity, and family, the film promises blood, and we get it.

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