Thursday, February 7, 2008

Best Picture - Clash of the Titans (and some other guys)

(One of hopefully many Oscar posts. They'll be accompanied with pictures like these: the gold star means I think it'll win and the smiley means it was my favorite!)

2007 has been a pretty splendid year for film. Sure, the first nine months of it were inundated with some of the most heinous horse-shit ever to be shoveled into theaters (with a few precious exceptions like Breach or Zodiac), but this final quarter has proven to be more than generous. It almost seems unfair that with so many fantastic movies, only five could be honored this year.

Whether or not these five are the right selections remains to be determined. I don't get a lot of access to limited releases, being a) poor and b) 45 minutes away from the artier cinemas of Sacramento, but I made it a point to at least see all the Best Picture nominees this year. Having done so, I dwelt briefly on my feelings about them; the first impact they made, how they endured in my psyche and the things that bugged me about them. And while the category may be a little loaded, all the movies in it are pretty damn good.

Let's work our way up the list, starting with the sad old nags doomed for the glue factory and finishing with the thoroughbreds:

5) Michael Clayton

Michael Clayton's one advantage, a scant one at best, is that its screenplay is by far the most literate and accomplished one in the field, adapted or otherwise. Like all of its other nominations, however, it's doomed to lose out simply by dint of bad timing. Though it may have a fighting chance in some of its fields, Best Picture is absolutely a lost cause. To be honest, the nomination really just smells of "let's revive the adult legal drama and honor George Clooney at the same time!", and while I did like the movie a lot, it sticks out pretty sorely in this category (not as badly as Juno, at least).

This movie's presence in the 2007 race strongly recalls The Insider, another dark, like-minded law thriller that scored a handful of nominations but didn't pick up any. This genre simply doesn't resonate emotionally with critics enough to gain any sort of traction; they can appreciate the technical approaches, thus leading to nominations, but come ballot time it fades from memory.

- Does it deserve it?: Sure, in a weaker year. But if they were going to honor a mystery movie, Zodiac - easily a more ambitious, accomplished, polished film - got screwed the pooch. Then again, it would have made this an Oscar race filled with deeply depressing and angry movies, which I think would have unsettled people. Clayton's not exactly sunshine and roses, but at least it's not serial killers.
- What are its chances?: None. It's the fifth wheel on the Oscar wagon. It's good to see that the movie even got the honor, but anyone who thinks it has any sort of chance is kind of fooling themselves.
- What about the other nominations?: Original Screenplay, like I said before, is its best shot, but Juno's racketeering will be difficult to overcome. Tilda Swinton gives an unbelievable performance but it's not baity enough for AMPAS and Cate Blanchett has Supporting Actress on lockdown. Tom Wilkinson will get trounced by big bad Bardem. George Clooney didn't deserve the nod.
- My personal rating: 8/10, 4th favorite

4) Juno

Widely regarded as the tiny indie crowd-pleaser this year, as per Little Miss Sunshine in 2006 and Sideways the year before, Juno got an assload of valuable critical support right out of the gate. In addition, the campaigning effort has been tireless; Fox Searchlight really gets behind their movies in times like this. And finally, it's just a damn good comedy. Endearing, tight and wickedly clever, there's not much the movie can't do. On the surface, it seems like the kind of film that no one can bring themselves to hate.

...Or so you'd think. For whatever reason, Juno's harmless quirk has managed to garner some of the ugliest, most hysterical backlash I've ever seen directed at a movie. People fancy themselves that much smarter than the movie simply because they can point out the fact that it's directed with a stilt to a certain audience and the characters talk with an above-average cleverness. OH WELL HOLY SHIT BURN IT AT THE STAKE. No one complained when Fight Club, THE movie for stroking intelligent yet insecure male egos, came out.

In the parts I venture (aka the Internet), males from 15 to 22 are the most vocal demographic and their disdain for the film is overwhelming simply because it trafficks mainly with women. They were cool with Knocked Up because Katherine Heigl was tertiary to Seth Rogen's dumbassery and the tired, unrewarding Paul Rudd-Leslie Mann subplot. Not to say I didn't like Knocked Up, but I think Juno exposes some of the flaws in it, most notably because it's a half hour shorter and still has more emotional pull. It is sad that a movie as innocent as Juno gets crucified with the intensity that it does - any Oscar gold that might fall its way will be decried. But Best Picture is out of its reach.

- Does it deserve it: It really depends on how you posture this. As the comedy selection of the race, definitely. Hot Fuzz was the funniest movie of the year pound for pound, but it didn't really have the emotional hook that Oscar needs in its comedies. Knocked Up was too long and too difficult to take seriously, and Superbad was inconsistent (though generally pretty damn good). But amongst the other four nominees, it's like the emperor has no clothes.
- What are its chances?: Almost none. The critics could all simultaneously experience mid-life crises and vote for it in a shameless bid to seem cool, but it's AMPAS - they're probably all twenty years past a mid-life crisis anyway.
- What about the other nominations?: Ellen Page is the only potential threat to the Cotillard-Christie brawl, and even then she's still a hell of a long shot. Screenplay probably has this in the bag; Diablo Cody's personal circumstances are too irresistible to pass up. The script is overwritten, but also shows hallmarks of profound talent, so the Academy will probably throw it to her as encouragement. Jason Reitman has no chance for Director and I have to say that his nomination was kind of a travesty.
- My personal rating: 8/10, 5th favorite

3) Atonement

Atonement was the initial golden child of the 2007 race, before most people had even seen it. It was a winning pedigree - an adaptation of a widely-loved Ian McEwan book, directed by uprising period piece auteur Joe Wright, and starring the dazzling combination of Keira Knightley and James McAvoy. People were predicting Oscar-wide sweeps of every category, three nominations in Supporting Actress, shit like that. The film's popularity crested right before the Golden Globes, but that didn't stop it from taking home Best Drama. A lot of people were surprised to see that it still had the power to pull down any Oscar nominations, let alone seven of them.

To be fair to the movie, it is very good, but not a powerhouse. I liked it just a little more than Michael Clayton just in terms of scale - the best way for me to phrase it was that Atonement engaged me a little more. Michael Clayton was fun and involving but detached, and a lot of people thought Atonement was more frigid than a "romance" movie had the right to be, anyway. I think the movie works on a deeper level than basic romance, in light of the turbulent ending and a plot wracked with despair, which is one of the things I most admire about it.

If Atonement does have any chance at all, it's that it contains the largest aggregate of star power, in the forms of Keira Knightley, Vanessa Redgrave and James McAvoy. George Clooney can sell a movie, but Knightley has more crossover appeal (even though she is fatally dull in her work as Cecilia); Redgrave corners the older market; McAvoy covers the drooly fangirls.

- Does it deserve it?: No. There were stronger entries in the "general drama" category this year. Once would have been a fun substitute, but it is far too small for the Academy to even consider honoring. I never saw Into the Wild, and to be honest I didn't much want to, but a lot of people consider it a snub and I wonder how things would have stacked up with it in the race.
- What are its chances?: Slim, but not discountable. Best Picture at the Golden Globes sure didn't hurt it. The Academy pussying out and failing to honor either of the Big Two, on account of being very dark movies, is a distinctly real possibility. Heads will roll if Atonement picks up Picture, more so than Michael Clayton and maybe even Juno. It'd mean that the Academy was willing to honor a drama, but one as proportionately weak as Atonement. It might be worth it just for the spectacle of intellectuals shitting both themselves and all over the Oscars.
- What about its other nominations?: Adapted screenplay is cornered pretty intensely by the Big Two, though it has an outside chance if they want to honor it SOMEHOW. Everyone loves Saoirse Ronan, which I think is because her name is so cool, but she's not going to get the Oscar. Music (with pesky There Will Be Blood out of the way), costumes (the green dress!) and art direction (tracking shot) are probably locks.
My personal rating: 8/10, 3rd favorite

2) There Will Be Blood

For my money, There Will Be Blood is the strongest movie of the year, a truly sensational parable about greed and hatred. I was absolutely hypnotized by the movie, a sentiment that 90% of critics share - it is more divisive than No Country for Old Men, which is ultimately its downfall, but what love it gets from the big men is that much more fierce for it. I really like No Country, but I think it's going to be relegated to a status like that of Fargo: a widely-loved movie that exists in everyone's peripherals, versus a film that is regarded as a true classic.

But the classics don't always get Oscars, and like I said, this movie is just a smidgen more alienating than No Country was. Paul Thomas Anderson got no awards for Magnolia and Boogie Nights in arguably weaker years than this, so what's saying that he's automatically entitled to a few now? Besides his awesome movie, of course. This also picked up more nods than those two combined, so maybe this is his year. Time will tell.

- Does it deserve it?: Absolutely. It's the movie event of the year. I would have been upset if it hadn't been nominated.
- What are its chances?: Strong, but right now it's trying to claw its way to an echelon that No Country for Old Men has securely established for itself. In the long run, it's harder for me to envision AMPAS honoring this before the Coen Brothers, so I'm going with my gut feeling here.
- What about its other nominations?: Daniel Day-Lewis is a lock for Best Actor. Cinematography is likely as well, threatened once again by No Country. Screenplay has a fair shot, moreso than No Country. They might honor Paul Thomas Anderson with Director if he doesn't win Picture, but I think that's the Coen Brothers' game to lose as well.
My personal rating: 10/10, favorite movie of 2007

1) No Country for Old Men

No Country for Old Men is the movie to beat thus far. Loved by nearly every critic and many intelligent film-goers, despite an ending that left several scratching their heads, it is the Coen Brothers's much-lauded return to form. There's very little to properly fault here and the movie's only real weakness is its darkness. The Academy has historically been hesitant to honor movies such as this one, and even if they don't it's unlikely that it'll trickle past There Will Be Blood down to Atonement. More on this later.

- Does it deserve it?: Yes. Even if this was an appeasement nod for the Coen Brothers's dawdling filmography, it's still definitely the right film to give it to.
- What are its chances?: As I've said, it's the most likely of the bunch to pick up the award.
- What about its other nominations?: The sound Oscars are inevitable; this movie uses sound effects and ambience noise to flawless effect. Cinematography is very likely as well, and even if Roger Deakins doesn't get it for this, he probably will for Jesse James. Directing is very likely - again, this is flagbearer Coen material and the Academy will certainly welcome them back somehow. Screenplay is highly likely as well. Finally, Javier Bardem is a distinct threat to win Best Supporting Actor for his truly chilling portrayal of Anton Chigurh.
My personal rating: 9/10, 2nd favorite