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Friday, February 22, 2008

Film: Oscars are Spoiled For Choice -- as are the Soundies!

This year's Oscar picks are the toughest I can remember in a number of categories. Still, blogging is all about making the tough choices -- that is when it's not about carpal tunnel syndrome. The following are my picks in several major categories. I would toss my hat into the increasingly crowded prognostication ring but really, does anyone know, outside of a few categories that seem to be a lock? So once again, thses are my faves out of the noms but not who I think will neccessarily win. Thus I call these my "Soundies":

"Persepolis" - (Sony Pictures Classics) Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud
"Ratatouille" - (Pixar; Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Distribution) Brad Bird
"Surf’s Up" - (Sony Pictures Releasing) Ash Brannon and Chris Buck

This is a tough one, mainly because of Persepolis and Ratatouille. I agree with the sentiment that Ratatouille could have been a best picture contender, it's certainly a better film than Aladdin, but then so is Persepolis. Persepolis has more timely political and personal themes, dealing as it does with the Islamic revolution in Iran and the effect it has on one woman growing up. Ratatouille also had strong resonance though, dealing as it does with creativity and in remarkably similar ways to Persepolis, issues of identity and gentrification. In the end, I'm giving my Soundie to Brad Bird's Ratatouille based on the stunning animation and the scope of the themes the film covers. Once again he proves that big budget animation doesn't have to mean tired pop-cultural references and lame singing and dancing interludes. Surf's Up simply isn't in the same league as the other two films, despite not being bad at all.

Paul Thomas Anderson - "There Will Be Blood"
Ethan & Joel Coen - "No Country for Old Men"
Christopher Hampton - "Atonement"
Ronald Harwood - "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly"
Sarah Polley - "Away from Her"

Another tough set of choices, each of these have something to recommend them. Atonement is hamstrung in most categories by being the most conventional pick, though Away From Her is also fairly straightforward. Sarah Polley, who is better known as an actress, both wrote and directed Away From Her and this is a chance to reward her for pulling off a tough hat trick. In the end though, I have to give it up for the Coen brothers, simply for the audacity to end their film the way they do and to confound every expectation set up by No Country For Old Men.

Brad Bird - "Ratatouille"
Diablo Cody - "Juno"
Tony Gilroy - "Michael Clayton"
Tamara Jenkins - "The Savages"
Nancy Oliver - "Lars and the Real Girl"

The Oscar word is that first timer Diablo Cody is a lock to win this, if only to see what outfit she'll wear. To be fair Juno is an excellent screenplay with a whole host of memorable lines. Bird's Ratatouille is expertly constructed as both entertainment and thoughtful meditation, able to charm an 8 year old or an 80 year old, no mean feat. Then there is Tony Gilroy's Michael Clayton, a film the veteran screenwriter was able to use as his directing debut and which expertly subverts the thriller genre. I'm a fan of Tamara Jenkins and the personal nature of her storytelling and I enjoyed Lars and the Real Girl though I don't know if it's central high concept is quite enough to warrant inclusion here. In another tough one, I'm giving the Soundie to Gilroy for his delicatly balanced Clayton.

Paul Thomas Anderson - "There Will Be Blood"
Ethan Coen & Joel Coen - "No Country For Old Men"
Tony Gilroy - "Michael Clayton"
Jason Reitman - "Juno"
Julian Schnabel - "The Diving Bell And The Butterfly"

Gnahhh! How to choose between these?! Schnabel is stylish and makes some clever choices but the lack of a best picture nod is a tipoff that this isn't quite there. Juno is very well made and young Reitman does an admirable job balancing the tricky tone of the material. Clayton is a remarkable debut, filled with smart set-ups and shots and sequences like Clooney's Graduate-esque taxi ride. Blood is an expertly shot and conceived epic that still finds time for claustrophobic mania. This brings us once again to the Coens, who manipulate sound (or it's absence), light (or it's absence) and the audience with an uncommon skill. The Soundie goes to No Country .

Casey Affleck in "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" (Warner Bros.)Javier Bardem in "No Country for Old Men" (Miramax and Paramount Vantage)
Hal Holbrook in "Into the Wild" (Paramount Vantage and River Road Entertainment)
Philip Seymour Hoffman in "Charlie Wilson’s War" (Universal)
Tom Wilkinson in "Michael Clayton" (Warner Bros.)

Casey Affleck has had a very good year, both in the western with a title nearly as long as its bloated running time and in big brother's directorial debut Gone Baby Gone. Philip Seymour Hoffman won for Capote in a performance I found to be just short of dreadful yet he too has had a very good year in both The Savages and War. Hal Holbrook is touching in Into The Wild, and it could be the very last time voters get to mark him off. Tom Wilkinson is extraordinary in a film full of great performances, walking the fine line between lucidity insanity fueled mysticism. Then we come to the favorite, Bardem. Sometimes the favorite is anointed for a reason and Bradem utterly transforms his charming handsome self into a dead-eyed, bowlcut killer. His performance is likely to become iconic.

Cate Blanchett in "I’m Not There" (The Weinstein Company)
Ruby Dee in "American Gangster" (Universal)
Saoirse Ronan in "Atonement" (Focus Features)
Amy Ryan in "Gone Baby Gone" (Miramax)
Tilda Swinton in "Michael Clayton" (Warner Bros.)

I've always thought kids should get their own category for acting. Every year some tyke like Haley Joel Osment gets nominated and gets one step closer to peaking too damn early. So Saoirse Ronan is out. Blanchett is making a career out of impersonations of famous people -- look out Rich Little! That being said her Dylan is pretty damn great. Ruby Dee is wonderful, but she's in that movie for maybe 5 minutes? Amy Ryan is always dynamite in my book -- you want layers? She's got 'em, plus she's worked her butt off in the industry and according to The Onion's AV Guide dropping off her laundry is the only sign of "making it" she's noticed. This brings us to Tilda Swinton's gimlet-eyed clammy skinned performance in Michael Clayton, in its own way the counterpart of Javier Bardem's bad guy in No Country. Except where Jardem is playing an elemental force of nature, Swinton is all-too human. Swinton gets the Soundie.

Cate Blanchett in "Elizabeth: The Golden Age" (Universal)
Julie Christie in "Away from Her" (Lionsgate)
Marion Cotillard in "La Vie en Rose" (Picturehouse)
Laura Linney in "The Savages" (Fox Searchlight)
Ellen Page in "Juno" (Fox Searchlight)

The relative thinness of this category suggests that Hollywood really does have a dearth of good roles for woman. It's also notable that two of the big Best Picture noms have very small roles for women. Cate Blanchett is always a treat but this film was bad and she has been and will be better in better films. Laura Linney is terrific and funny and messed up in the sibling tragedy of The Savages. Marion Cotillard does a remarkable job of transforming herself into Edith Piaf in La Vie En Rose. Julie Christie is always a welcome presence onscreen, and carries Sarah Polley's Away From Her with a tough performance. Which leave this year's ingenue, Ellen Page, who will have a hard time topping her acerbic yet vulnerable performnce in Juno, which gets the Soundie.

George Clooney in "Michael Clayton" (Warner Bros.)
Daniel Day-Lewis in "There Will Be Blood" (Paramount Vantage and Miramax)
Johnny Depp in "Sweeney Todd The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" (DreamWorks and Warner Bros.,Distributed by DreamWorks/Paramount)
Tommy Lee Jones in "In the Valley of Elah" (Warner Independent)
Viggo Mortensen in "Eastern Promises" (Focus Features)

Mortensen did the accent route in Cronenberg's Eastern Promises, not to mention the whole nude fight scene approach. It's a brave performance. Tommy Lee Jones also had a strong year but his nomination comes for the wrong film, as touching as he is in Elah. Depp sings, he dances, he sports his bride of Frankenstein hair -- it's another fine turn for the ex- 21 Jump Street-er. Clooney gives a sensitive and tricky performnce in Clayton, his scene with the horses was one of the best of the year. Which brings us to Daniel Day-Lewis. Some people found him a bit hammy in Blood but this physically challenging, bravura role shows why the man commands the screen. He's magnificent and magnetic, garnering himself a Soundie.

"Atonement" (Focus Features)A Working Title ProductionTim Bevan, Eric Fellner and Paul Webster, Producers
"Juno" (Fox Searchlight)A Dancing Elk Pictures, LLC ProductionLianne Halfon, Mason Novick and Russell Smith, Producers
"Michael Clayton" (Warner Bros.)A Clayton Productions, LLC ProductionSydney Pollack, Jennifer Fox and Kerry Orent, Producers
"No Country for Old Men" (Miramax and Paramount Vantage)A Scott Rudin/Mike Zoss ProductionScott Rudin, Ethan Coen and Joel Coen, Producers
"There Will Be Blood" (Paramount Vantage and Miramax)A JoAnne Sellar/Ghoulardi Film Company ProductionJoAnne Sellar, Paul Thomas Anderson and Daniel Lupi, Producers

Atonement is the kind of film that used to be prime Oscar-bait years ago. The truth is that among the more innovative films in the category this year it comes up short. Juno is a wonderful film, funny and sweet, but it lacks the impact of some of the heavier films in this category. Any of the remaining three would be great choices but I have to give the Soundie to Blood with it's brutal dissection of greed.

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