From the archives: 2007 Oscar Roundup

I’ve been slowly catching up with American movies — thank the pirates and Rapidshare — and here are some of my impressions about some of this year’s Oscar nominees.

*** Juno
The first 30 minutes of this brisk comedy/drama annoyed me with its inane slang and forced delivery, but once the plot was set up and got moving along, I was charmed. Lead actor Ellen Page is fine, although the kid that plays the impregnator impressed me more with his subtlety, and even his femininity. But really, Best Actress and Best Picture? WTF? I just don’t see it.

*** There Will be Blood
Daniel Day Lewis as Daniel Plainview outacts everybody in this largely unpleasant character study, and that’s not really such a good thing. Especially in the movie’s penultimate scene, where his hambone style and very real chops outshine that of Paul Dano, who thinly plays Eli Sunday, the ambitious and duplicitous fundamentalist preacher. Although the movie fulfills its title’s prophecy in this scene, it played mostly as camp for me, partially due to the overacting, but also because director and screenwriter Paul Thomas Anderson really doesn’t set it up all that well. If I was supposed to feel the movie hurtling towards this murder, I guess I missed it. It held no real power.

For me, the movie was most successful in evoking period and place, particularly via the masterful cinematography by Robert Elswit, whose camera moved through and across brutal backdrops much larger than the human actors. The landscapes spoke far more clearly the themes of this movie than the script did, for which I was tempted to add another half-star.

*** No Country for Old Men
The least misanthropic Coen Brothers’ movie I’ve seen, it’s also, for me, the easiest one to watch. Exquisitely shot scene after exquisitely shot scene glides into the next, and I was carried along mostly by that skill. The first time through, I was so mesmerized by the film’s rhythm and look & feel, that didn’t really think much about how simplistic a characterization Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh really is. Ironically, the Coens bank on our giving Chigurh the status of powerful metaphor – for tricksy death, for the incapacitation of aging – and therefore of our not thinking too much about what else the character might signify, or about his believability, or why, indeed, that violence and killing should be the best way to bring these themes out. I bought it on the first viewing. During my second viewing of this film, however, I surprised myself by laughing, out loud, during many of Chigurh’s scenes. They felt almost camp, particularly the bug-eyed expression on his face as he kills his first police victim with handcuffs. Tommy Lee Jones’ character, Sheriff Ed, gives us permission to laugh at one point, but I don’t think what I felt was what he was getting at.

One reason I don’t think Bardem deserves an Oscar for his weird, one-note performance is because I don’t think such a blatant and obvious “character” like Chigurh deserves recognition. Whatever you might think of it/him, surely most would admit that it’s/he’s merely a device, and not much else. When the script finally indicates that he’s human and not a ghost, by making him a victim of life’s inexorable randomness and violence, of which he was the taken-for-granted embodiment for the bulk of the film, I suppose that’s the Coens’ partial recanting: Don’t take us seriously, we’re really not that fatalistic. But it was too little, too late for me, and besides, I know the Coens too well. They always manage to piss me off somehow.

**** The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
Luminous and imaginatively shot, this study of how a paralyzed stroke victim learns how to re-communicate with his friends and family and eventually writes a book about it, manages to inspire without manipulating the audience or condescending to the character by allowing him to wallow in self-pity. In fact, one consistently memorable thing about him is his ability to laugh at himself. Of all the films nominated for Best Picture this year, this one was the most satisfying to me.

**** Away From Her
I wouldn’t even have to see the other nominated performances to give my vote to Julie Christie, whose personal grace and self-possession sublimely inform her character’s, a beautiful woman who develops Alzheimer’s and must be institutionalized by her co-dependent and reluctant husband. Director Sarah Polley’s only misstep is a trite overuse of flashbacks, but otherwise there isn’t a false note to be found in this sad and wise movie.

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