Written by: Tony Lazlo, CC2K Staff Writer
Every year since I became a hardcore movie fan (about 1989), I've vowed to watch all of the Oscar best picture nominees. I managed to pull it off the year Titanic won, and I came pretty close this year, only missing Atonement. With that in mind, I'd like to take a look at the four best picture nominees I've seen. I'm not handicapping the race, though I will offer a prediction on the winner.
The general consensus on this movie is that it's an impressive, if workmanlike, debut for writer-director Tony Gilroy, who performed some kind of unholy alchemical ceremony to transform Robert Ludlum's hammy, overwrought Bourne novels into one of the best trilogies of the decade. I hope he didn't have to sell his soul to do it.
In any event, his freshmen directing effort is all about selling souls – and trying to get them back from the pawn shop. CC2K staff writer Lance Carmichael rightly pointed out that the villains in Clayton are disappointingly one-dimensional, but even though the bad guys in Clayton have all the nuance of Snidely Whiplash, the movie's three moral pivots – Clooney, Tom Wilkinson and Tilda Swinton – explore every square-foot of the demilitarized zone between right and wrong, and I found it deeply satisfying to watch George Clooney's portrayal of one guy's dogged determination to redeem himself.
My main complaint with the movie is its lackluster second act. Gilroy kick-starts his story with an insanely good speech about greed and malfeasance (delivered by Tom Wilkinson), and he follows his stellar opening with a series of fresh scenes – Clooney trying to figure out why his GPS is going haywire; Clooney meeting with a frantic hit-and-run client; Clooney stopping his car to stare longingly at a horse – right before his car explodes and we drop back in time to launch the circular narrative.
The only time the movie matches the freshness of the first reel is when Tom Wilkinson's character gets murdered, and let's raise a toast to the clinical, unsettling, music-free austerity of this scene.
Will this movie win? I doubt it. There are two more infamous contenders for the prize that offer buckets of nuance where this movie has none. But before we discuss those two movies, let's talk about the nominee whose outside shot at the trophy shrivels my loins.
Diablo Cody's freshman screenwriting effort opens with one of the worst scenes of the decade. Many of this movie's most ardent supporters (or apologists) concede that.
But once Cody cleared out her notebook full of cutesy-poo one-liners, she wound up writing a pretty damn solid movie. Let's review some of this movie's strengths:
• Great female characters. Ellen Page, Jennifer Garner and Allison Janney all got great roles to play. Janney delivers an Oscar-clip-worthy speech when she chews out a mouthy ultrasound operator, and Garner gets to subvert her superwoman Alias persona within the pale, shaky guise of a barren, wannabe matron.
• Great male characters. Kudos to Cody for writing a cad as compelling as Jason Bateman's while having the courage to let his character leave the story without a farewell feint toward redemption. And the strong male characters don't stop there. We also get J.K. Simmons' wry father and Michael Cera's hapless boyfriend, which brings me to …
• A great Michael Cera performance. I for one was worried that Cera wouldn't be able to shed the stutter-y, stammer-y mannerisms he perfected on Arrested Development, and I was relieved to see that he's just as interesting an onscreen presence without them. His scene in the school hallway where he says Juno "would be the meanest wife ever" still lingers with me.
Sounds like a pretty great movie, right? Well, think again. Next to No Country For Old Men and There Will Be Blood, this one is fucking navel lint, and I shudder to think of the onslaught of precocious, chatty, self-consciously hip screenplays that would beset Hollywood if the Academy split the Best Picture vote and let this one walk off with the statuette. Don't get me wrong – Juno's $100-million-plus gross has assured us of that onslaught, but a Juno Best Picture win would get a lot more of those movies made, and my ticker couldn't take it, homeslice – though I don't think it'll happen.
There Will Be Blood
The last of the nominees I saw, Paul Thomas Anderson's intimate, Kubrickian epic still makes me chuckle at its audacity. Let's break down its audacious elements:
• That opening 20 minutes. Thank Crom that someone still has the balls to spend 20 minutes of silence to establish character, scene and tone.
• The sprawling scope. We just don't get enough movies that follow characters from youth to old age. Keep 'em coming.
• Daniel Day-Lewis' performance. Upon reflection, there's a lot to dislike about Day-Lewis' volcanic turn as an misanthropic oil magnate, but I enjoyed the hell out of it. I mean, how can you not love a performance that sits at the center of this Venn diagram?
And yet somehow he pulled it off, which brings me to …
• That ending. I hadn't seen such batshit insanity onscreen since Laurence Olivier's Othello. Skip ahead to about the 6:30 mark in the following clip to see what I mean:
Man, couldn't you just imagine Olivier screaming that nonsense about milkshakes and drainage?
But as a guy who follows the debate between religion and skepticism closely, I was intrigued to see a movie that so openly pitted religion and irreligion against each other. Unfortunately, the dialogue between the two camps never rose above unctuous pandering on the religious side and arrogant insults on the irreligious side – and please notice how I call it the "irreligious" and not the rational or skeptical side. The last mainstream movie I can think of that intelligently tackled the conflict between faith and reason was Contact. (Fuck you, The Exorcism of Emily Rose.)
But I don't think this one will win, either.
No Country For Old Men
Moving on. Critics around the country have heaped praise on this masterpiece, so I'll dare to defend this movie's one perceived misstep: its dissonant ending.
I'll be blunt: Two friends of mine – one a closer friend than the other – died over the past two months for no damn reason. Neither was engaging in any risky behavior, unless you consider being my age and living a normal life risky. Fate simply snuffed them both out, and their friends were left wandering around memorial services wearing black and wishing they could hit the rewind button.
Cormac McCarthy's Anton Chigurgh (Javier Bardem, masterful) killed innocents with the same blank glee that the superstitious center of my brain projects onto the deaths of my two friends. Tommy Lee Jones' scene with his wheelchair-bound old friend perfectly captured my own futile desire to hit the rewind button.
Can you see what I'm getting at? It's too easy to argue that McCarthy's ending accurately portrayed the reality that the bad guys get away. He accurately portrayed a hell of a lot more than that. I'm a young man, but damn I feel older after the last two months. Cormac McCarthy showed me that I have years of that futile feeling to look forward to. Even though that knowledge sucks, McCarthy also showed me that I'm not alone.
That's Best Picture material if I've ever seen it.
Author: Tony Lazlo, CC2K Staff Writer
Robert J. Peterson is a writer and web developer living in Los Angeles. A Tennessee native, he graduated from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. He’s written for newspapers and websites all over the country, including the Marin Independent Journal, the Telluride Daily Planet, CC2KOnline.com, Offscreen, and Geekscape.net. He co-hosts the podcasts Make It So and Hiram’s Lodge. He’s appeared as a pop-culture guru on the web talk shows Comics on Comics, The Fanbase Press Week In Review, Collider Heroes, ScreenJunkies TV Fights, and Fandom Planet. He’s the founder of California Coldblood Books.