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by Scott Holleran
February 24, 2008
|Javier Bardem in No Country For Old Men|
Burbank, California—As usual, last year's crop of critical favorites are generally dark, cynical or pretentious and, also as usual, the annual Academy Award nominations missed some of 2007's best pictures.
Oscar's Best Picture nominations include the anti-moneymaking creed There Will Be Blood, which ends in the campiest meltdown since Mommie Dearest, the terribly self-important No Country for Old Men, which posits that nothing really matters, the inscrutable Michael Clayton and the bloated British soap opera, Atonement.
Then, there's the overrated hit Juno. The title's pregnant teenager starts droning about her mundane life in a monotone that never lets up and it's obvious an artificially happy ending is pre-conceived. In the dreary nine-month meantime, deficient parents miraculously dispense sage advice and everyone speaks in clipped, cynical semi-sentences, like characters from Closer, Thank You for Smoking or The West Wing. Gnarly Juno eventually behaves like a decent person in an unrealistic and unremarkable transformation that is treated as if it's earned, only it isn't. Unless you get a kick out of watching a crude, nihilistic adolescent girl act like a crude, nihilistic adolescent boy, Juno is also not exactly a comedy.
Certain '07 movies were overcooked in multiculturalism. Asian-themed The Kite Runner ultimately felt less ascendant than what had been promised in the long development. Asian-themed The Namesake conferred multiple contradictions. Both wound up less involving than their cultural contrasts might suggest.
Other movies were similarly pinned to their premises, in spite of powerful performances or dramatic source material. 3:10 to Yuma, a remake of a mediocre original, felt like a less-than-mediocre remake. La Vie en Rose felt like being encased in one of Edith Piaf's tortured songs for two hours. Spanish horror pic The Orphanage felt like a Catholic funeral mass. That said, it was nice to see Christian Bale in a Western (his co-star, Russell Crowe, was better in the underrated The Quick and the Dead) and Marion Cotillard was outstanding as Piaf. The Orphanage's dynamic Belen Rueda ought to have as great a career as her The Sea Inside co-star Javier Bardem.
That brings to mind Mr. Bardem's stone-faced performance as a hit man in No Country for Old Men. Like that other nihilistically iconic picture, Pulp Fiction, this Coen brothers release uses the hit man as its moral center—a blank slate meant to convey their notion that nothing matters, evil is omnipotent and we are doomed. On their own terms, it works. The movie is totally absurd, with Texas deputies saying things like, "that's very linear, sheriff." But No Country for Old Men is calculated, economical and as deep as an episode of Cannon though it is definitely less linear.
Like No Country for Old Men, There Will Be Blood trails off in conclusion. Instead of geriatric Tommy Lee Jones babbling in a downward spiral, Blood gives us Daniel Day-Lewis, focused as ever and quite effective, though talking Texan with an accent from another universe and playing up the histrionics at his highest pitch since he screamed "I'll never leave you!" in The Last of the Mohicans. The bizarre, anti-capitalist Blood, based on an Upton Sinclair novel, might have worked better had it eased up on demonizing the Day-Lewis oil baron and actually dramatized drilling for oil, an exciting, fascinating prospect that's barely shown. When it is—when something goes wrong, of course—it rocks the house.
|Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood|
With an air raid soundtrack that recalls the Forbidden Zone music of the original Planet of the Apes and the temple siren of The Time Machine, There Will Be Blood purports to show how money (in exchange for oil) corrupts man and turns him into a monster. But it's fueled by the Day-Lewis performance, not by the script. The other Best Picture nominations—Atonement and Michael Clayton, already reviewed—are equally as forgettable as last year's Best Pic winner (The Departed).
There were some welcome returns in 2007: Bruce Willis, back as John McClane to head off infrastructural meltdown in Live Free or Die Hard—Jodie Foster returning to a realistic role as a radio host trying to right the world's wrongs in the urban thriller The Brave One—and her co-star from that movie, rising actor Terrence Howard, in another intense role; tapping the shame of being pre-judged and recasting it as a virtue for himself and for young Philadelphians in the swimmers' story, Pride.
Motion pictures really worth the price of admission were once again rare. Putting the lives of two men on the front lines—where so many young Americans are fighting and dying—the thoughtful Lions for Lambs boldly brought the subject of this nation's long war back to a human scale. Telling a story through a trio of two's, it positions a pragmatic politician with an obediently pragmatic media person opposite an aging college professor and one skeptical student in a contest for the soul of a country.
Robert Benton's Feast of Love, which, like Lions for Lambs, failed at the box office, blended realism with idealism and came out on top, no matter the numbers. With provocative characters and multiple stories that interlock with a degree of plausibility, the uplifting Feast of Love serves a slice of goodness. Also substantial and life-affirming, in a season of smarmy cartoon characters, singing chipmunks and the annual parade of bleeders: the charming Lars and the Real Girl, poignant The Bucket List and the enjoyable Ratatouille.
|Greg Kinnear in Feast of Love|
Darker-themed pictures can be good and there were a few decent ones: the optimistic, wry Death at a Funeral, the vicious mob thriller Eastern Promises, an old-fashioned nail-biter in Disturbia, the perceptive cartoon satire about life in post-Islamic Revolutionary Iran, Persepolis, and an ironic take on New York intellectuals, The Hoax. Bright spots continue to emerge in Hollywood's most underrated genre, the romantic comedy, and this includes three of last year's best: the frivolous, nostalgic and entertaining Music and Lyrics, the subtly delightful and utterly benevolent Dan in Real Life, and the thoroughly enjoyable P.S. I Love You.
Hugh Grant, Drew Barrymore, Steve Carrell, Juliette Binoche, Hilary Swank and Gerard Butler each deserve credit for polishing these gems in another deadly year of slobbering monsters and malcontents. They really do, as it is harder to pull off a smile and a song in a comedy laced with conflict and drama than it is to appear dour and depraved in blood pornos about next to nothing, which Hollywood currently and abundantly favors. But happy movies have their place and these are well made. Put the peppy Hairspray on that list too.
The year's most outstanding achievement in pictures is the German movie written and directed by first-time director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck: The Lives of Others. This jaw-dropping journey—already revered several times last year by this writer—remains a piercingly realistic and meaningful motion picture. During a year of spreading state power over private lives, the story of three individuals—an actress, a writer and a thug—irrevocably changed in a nation under the grip of government control represents moviemaking at its best.
• 1/19/07 - Scott Holleran: 2006 Retrospective
• 1/23/05 - 2004 Commentary
• 2007 Movie Review Index
• Scott Holleran Column Index