Friday, January 25, 2008

Oscar nominations, and a final word on Heath Ledger

Although there are several reasons why the Oscar nominations this year are not being greeted with the enthusiasm/derision as they usually are – the writer’s strike, the awards fatigue that always sets in, the fact there are few, if any, “audience-friendly” films among the major nominees, and, of course, the tragedy of Heath Ledger’s death – it’s still the Oscars, and, for me anyway, it’s still fun to put in my two cents, so here we go:


Tommy Lee Jones: Let me preface by saying that I didn’t like In the Valley of Elah at all; whatever you think of the spate of Iraq-themed movies of the past few months (and to come), I think Elah was one of the more facile examples of that genre. However, Jones gave an honest performance in the movie, particularly because he wasn’t afraid to make the character unlikable.

Laura Linney: One of the knocks against the Oscar acting nominees is they traditionally involve some kind of gimmick. Whatever you think of the Best Actress nominees this year (and I’ll be debating the merits of one of them below), four of them undeniably have a gimmick aspect to them: Cate Blanchett was playing an historical figure, Julie Christie must deal with Alzheimer’s, Marion Cotillard was playing a drug addict and had to have a heavy makeup job to resemble her character, and Ellen Page was dealing with pregnancy. Linney’s character had no such afflictions – sure, her father was suffering dementia, but she was the caretaker, not the one suffering. And she did nothing obvious in her performance. She just played this character in an unsentimental way, again not making her likable, but making her believable and true. It’s not the type of acting that usually gets recognized, and for most of this awards season, she hasn’t been, so it’s nice to see Linney getting recognized here.

Philip Seymour Hoffman: I would have understood if Hoffman was ignored by the Oscars simply because the voters this year couldn’t choose which of his excellent performances deserved to be there. Was it his outwardly confident but inwardly sad and raging payroll manager whose robbery plan goes horribly wrong in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead? Or was it his concerned but self-involved literature professor forced to take care of his dad in The Savages? Personally, I think the voters got it right in choosing his performance as Gust Avrakotos, the CIA agent who helped Charlie Wilson run his war. From his first moment on screen (where he gets the classic line “Excuse me, what the fuck!”), he owns this movie.

Hal Holbrook: Yes, it’s a sentimental nod to a respected actor who’s never been nominated before. Yes, his character in Into the Wild can be seen as a cliché. But Holbrook never played his role as a cliché, and that’s what matters.

Amy Ryan: I’ve been a fan of Ryan’s ever since I saw her on TV’s The Wire, and I was afraid she’d be overshadowed by her more high-profile co-stars. She takes the stock role of the junkie mom and adds anger and vulnerability to the role.

Tilda Swinton: There have been plenty of corporate villains in films, but none like the one Swinton played in Michael Clayton. She may appear to be unruffled, but she’s really unsure of herself. And the decisions she makes in the film come less out of any cold-bloodedness on her part then on her need to please her boss. While Swinton at times struggles with her accent, that’s the only false step in an otherwise note-perfect performance.

Tamara Jenkins and Sarah Polley: Quite frankly, I was hoping one of these talented women would be nominated for Best Director, since they both did terrific jobs on that score. But I’m glad they both got a screenplay nod for taking different stylistic approaches to a similar theme – how we confront aging in this country, or more to the point, how we don’t confront it.

“Falling Slowly” – Shoot ‘Em Up, my least favorite movie of the year, could have been nominated for an Oscar, for all I cared, as long as the most transcendent song of the year got nominated. I was going to kick in my TV set if it didn’t.

No End in Sight: Once again, this was a fine year for documentaries, but this one was the best on all levels, technically and thematically. Without grandstanding, it made a clear case as to what’s happened to Iraq, and us, since we invaded them.

There Will be Blood: It goes without saying how I’m thrilled my favorite movie of the year garnered eight nominations, including Best Picture, Actor, Director, and Adapted Screenplay.


Atonement: It would be uncharitable for me to suggest this was nominated for Best Picture because it was a sop to those who only like tasteful literary adaptations, because I’ve liked many of the tasteful literary adaptations that have shown up in that category (The English Patient, for one, was my favorite movie of the year it won Best Picture). This film, however, had too much clanging symbolism (sometimes literally, like the typewriter keys) and show-off scenes (the war section, particularly that tracking shot) to be effective as a movie, let alone as an adaptation.

Cate Blanchett, Elizabeth: The Golden Age: I think Cate Blanchett is the best actress to come to Hollywood in the last 10 years or so, and she fully deserved her nomination for playing Bob Dylan in I’m Not There. Her work in this movie is another story. Granted, it’s not entirely her fault; the movie itself is awful, and dragged other talented performers down in its wake besides her (Clive Owen, Geoffrey Rush, and Samantha Morton, to name a few). But she was melodramatic and unconvincing where she had been anything but in the first movie.

Casey Affleck: This year, we saw Affleck give a terrific performance that shows he can finally escape out of his brother’s shadow. I’m talking, of course, about his work in Gone Baby Gone. In the Jesse James movie, on the other hand, I know I’m in the minority on this, but I found him mannered and repetitive.

Dario Marianelli: Again, one of the main reasons why I didn’t like Atonement was that pounding typewriter, which was in perfect complement to the thudding score that hit us over the head with the theme of the film.

That’s who I think shouldn’t have been nominated. In part two, here’s who I think was unjustly ignored:

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead: Granted, it had a small studio behind it, who couldn’t make sure Academy members actually saw the thing. But this was one of the great comeback stories of the year: 83 year old Sidney Lumet comes back after over a decade of either bad (Guilty as Sin) or worthy but flawed (Night Falls on Manhattan) films to make a dazzler that stands up with his best films (Prince of the City, Serpico), and both he and the film get ignored. At the least, he and writer Kelly Masterson should have been nominated.

Into the Wild: The speculation seems to be the poor showing this film had among the nominees was because of some kind of backlash against Sean Penn. I don’t know if that’s true, but if it is, it’s too bad. This was his most mature work as a writer/director, and his screenplay, at the least, should have been nominated. And granted, the Best Actor category is always a tough category to break into, and none of the nominees gave bad performances. But Emile Hirsch broke out of his usual teen roles to give a gutsy and compelling performance (which he lost weight for). Also, Catherine Keener provided a great balance to the movie with her sympathetic portrayal of a hippie who reaches out to Hirsch, and I wish she had been nominated for Best Supporting Actress.

Zodiac: It’s being said now David Fincher’s film about the infamous serial killer got shut out of the Oscars because (1) it was released too early in the year, and (2) it had to compete with too many other dark-themed movies this year. That’s probably true, and too bad, because at the very least, Jim Vanderbilt should have been recognized for his script, Robert Downey Jr. for his work as the crime reporter who becomes spiritually broken while covering the case, and Harris Savides for his breathtaking cinematography.

Angelina Jolie: I’m sorry, but whatever you think of Jolie in real life, I think she disappeared into the role of Marianne Pearl in A Mighty Heart. There were no histrionics, no “Oscar-bait” scenes (a meaningless term anyway), just an honest portrayal of one woman trying, and failing, to rescue her husband.

Josh Brolin: Next to Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney, Brolin had the best year, performance wise, even if I didn’t always like the movies he did. At the very least, he should have garnered a Supporting Actor nomination for either his work in No Country for Old Men (or Best Actor, depending on what you think of his role), or his portrayal of the corrupt cop in American Gangster (which was the best performance in that overrated movie).

Leslie Mann: Whether you think Knocked Up was a funny and pointed film telling guys in their 20’s and 30’s to wake up and get over themselves or a wish fulfillment fantasy ignoring the reality of relationships and abortion, you can’t deny Mann lent this movie an edge in her portrayal of one half of a couple that has seen better days. Few scenes in movies were as compelling as the one where she gets turned away from a nightclub, and I think her work merited a Supporting Actress nomination.

Shélan O’Keefe: This was a terrific year for child actors, from Dillon Freasier in There Will Be Blood, to Edward Sanders in Sweeney Todd, and even Saoirse Ronan in Atonement, whose performance I did like. But none of them matched O’Keefe in playing a child who, through circumstance as well as temperament, becomes wiser, and sadder, beyond their years.

Jonny Greenwood and Eddie Vedder: Every time the Music Branch of the Academy takes a step forward (letting two rap songs win Best Song this decade, for instance), they take a step back, and disqualifying both Greenwood’s score for There Will Be Blood, which added to that picture’s dread, and Vedder’s songs for Into the Wild, which evoked Chris McCandless’ rebellious spirit, qualifies as a major step back.

4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days: Along with the Music Branch and the Documentary Branch, the Foreign Film Branch is the one that usually sits on its brains for a living. Last year, all but one of the nominees (Water) was at the very least a good and challenging movie. Granted, I haven’t seen any of this years nominees yet, but I find it a little hard to believe any of them could be better than Cristian Mingiu’s harrowing tale of trying to get an abortion in communist Romania.

I was going to make a blog entry devoted to Heath Ledger, but there’s a lot said already. I will not speculate in any way on his death, or what may have led to it. I will add my voice to those who say a potentially fine career was sadly cut short. Whatever you thought of 10 Things I Hate About You, he actually underplayed his role as the bad boy, making him all the more charming and watchable. And he proved he was willing to jump towards more challenging roles in The Patriot, despite being saddled with a silly romance plot in that movie. He seemed adrift in the next few years after that in his starring roles (A Knight’s Tale), only able to get a chance to show his stuff in supporting roles in films like Monster’s Ball and Lords of Dogtown (where again, he was able to underplay to nice comic effect). Of course, he broke through in a big way in Brokeback Mountain as someone who repressed feelings he didn’t quite understand as if his life depended on it. Finally, while Cate Blanchett has deservedly gotten most of the praise for I’m Not There, next to her, Ledger is the best thing about it, capturing Bob Dylan’s moody charisma. He will be missed.


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