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Atonement

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Academy Double Dip. | My Trouble with Oscar.

“‘After more than six decades, the Academy is returning to some of its earlier roots, when a wider field competed for the top award of the year,’ said academy President Sid Ganis. ‘The final outcome, of course, will be the same – one Best Picture winner – but the race to the finish line will feature 10, not just five, great movies from 2009.’” Most likely realizing that a nod for The Dark Knight last year would’ve doubled their television ratings, the Academy Awards pads out to ten Best Picture nominees.

Ten, really? I know I pick 20 movies for my review round-up every year, but still: most years it’s hard to come up with five or six worthy nominees, much less ten. It’d be better if they went to a system where “up to” ten movies were chosen, but not necessarily that many if the pickings were slim that year. In any case, maybe Hollywood needed an “Oscar Stimulus Package,” but given that it’s still the same people voting for the winners, I tend to think the Academy will probably continue to get it wrong most years regardless. Just looking at the past decade:

1999: American Beauty wins. Not a particularly poor choice by Academy standards, I guess, but the other nominees include a sop to the box office (The Sixth Sense) and by-the-numbers drek like The Cider House Rules and The Green Mile. (Only other worthy nominee: The Insider.) Meanwhile, many of the best and most groundbreaking films of the year — Three Kings, Being John Malkovich, Fight Club, The Matrix — are all overlooked.

2000: Gladiator. Terrible choice. The worthy nominees are Traffic, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and *possibly* Erin Brockovich. Chocolat makes the cut thanks to the Miramax machine. Left unnominated: Requiem for a Dream, Wonder Boys, O Brother Where Art Thou, and High Fidelity.

2001: A Beautiful Mind. A stunningly bad choice, and easily the worst of the five films nominated. The Oscar should probably have gone to In the Bedroom or Fellowship of the Ring, although Gosford Park and (tho’ I didn’t like it much) Moulin Rouge! are respectable picks. Left off the wheel: Mulholland Drive, Memento, The Royal Tenenbaums, Ghost World, Amelie, and Sexy Beast.

2002: Chicago — I never saw it, but not a particularly good year for film anyway. Gangs of New York, The Two Towers, and The Pianist all make sense as contenders. The Hours (another Miramax film)…not so much. Possible adds: The 25th Hour, Y Tu Mama Tambien, Far from Heaven, About a Boy.

2003: Return of the King runs away with everything, which is deserving but also feels somewhat dutiful after the previous two years. (FotR is easily the best film of the three, imho.) Most of the other nominees are well-chosen — Lost in Translation,
Master and Commander, Mystic River — with the possible exception of Seabiscuit. Other possibles include The Quiet American, Finding Nemo, Dirty Pretty Things, House of Sand and Fog, Monster, City of God, and L’Auberge Espagnole…but it’s probably more likely that extra nods would’ve gone to the heaps of middling Oscar bait that year, like Cold Mountain, The Last Samurai, or 21 Grams.

2004: Million Dollar Baby. A certifiable stinker, and arguably Clint Eastwood’s least-deserving movie of the decade. (Mystic River or Letters from Iwo Jima are closer to caliber.) It beats out The Aviator and Sideways, as well as Finding Neverland (Miramax) and Ray (never saw it). Off the board: Hotel Rwanda, Before Sunset, Garden State, Kinsey, The Assassination of Richard Nixon, Spiderman 2, In Good Company, The Incredibles, and — most egregiously — Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. If I had to guess, Closer and Kill Bill Vol. 2 (Miramax) might’ve snagged undeserving nods in a field of ten.

2005: Crash. Another woeful pick, it won over a respectable field of contenders (Brokeback Mountain, Capote, Good Night, and Good Luck, Munich.) That being said, Syriana and the best film of 2005, The New World, weren’t even nominated. Neither were Layer Cake, Ballets Russes, A History of Violence, The Squid and the Whale, Cache, Match Point, The Constant Gardener, Grizzly Man, Batman Begins, or The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. All these — and many others — were better than Crash.

2006: Scorsese wins a charity Oscar with The Departed, beating out worthwhiles Letters from Iwo Jima (the best choice of the 5) and The Queen, as well as more dubious picks Little Miss Sunshine and Babel. The best film of the year, United 93, isn’t nominated. Nor is Children of Men, The Lives of Others, The Prestige, The Fountain, Pan’s Labyrinth, or Inside Man. It’s reasonable to suspect that additional Oscar nods might’ve gone to the likes of The Last King of Scotland, Little Children, Notes from a Scandal, and The Pursuit of Happyness.

2007: No Country for Old Men — A fine choice. I’d say this year Oscar almost got it right…but the other nominees are still somewhat suspect. Michael Clayton, ok, There Will Be Blood, sure. But Atonement and Juno? I’d rather have seen The Diving Bell & the Butterfly, Zodiac, The Savages, Charlie Wilson’s War, In the Valley of Elah, The Assassination of Jesse James, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, & 2 Days, or my favorite film of the year, I’m Not There, get their due.

2008: Slumdog Millionaire (ugh) beats out Milk, Benjamin Button, Frost/Nixon and The Reader. Of those, Milk and F/N are solid, and ideally would’ve been paired with The Dark Knight, The Wrestler, Let the Right One In, and/or WALL-E. Other possibles include Man on Wire, Snow Angels, Waltz with Bashir, Vicky Christina Barcelona, Iron Man, and The Visitor…although it seems more likely Oscar would’ve gone with Gran Torino, A Christmas Tale, Doubt, Revolutionary Road, or Valkyrie.

So, to review, in only one of the past ten years (2003) did Oscar pick the movie i’d argue was actually the best that year, although even that one feels a bit de rigueur. (Admittedly, they came close in 2007 as well.) In six of those ten years (1999, 2004-2008), my best film of the year wasn’t even nominated. In four of those ten years (’01, ’04, ’05, ’08), a — to my mind, of course — certifiably lousy film won Best Picture. And in three other years — ’99, ’00, and ’06 — an at best middling movie won the top prize. Not exactly what you’d call a record of distinction.

Oscar loves Michael (and Juno).

Writers’ strike or no, the 2008 Oscar contenders were announced this morning. And the nominees are:

Best Picture: Atonement, Juno, Michael Clayton, No Country for Old Men, There Will Be Blood. Juno? Michael Clayton? Man, these are some weird choices (and I’m Not There and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly are notably missing.) Of these, I personally would pick No Country, but I could see Atonement garnering the staid English Patient/Beautiful Mind vote.

Best Actor: George Clooney, Michael Clayton; Daniel Day-Lewis, There Will Be Blood, Johnny Depp, Sweeney Todd, Tommy Lee Jones, In the Valley of Elah, Viggo Mortensen, Eastern Promises. Nice of ’em to give Viggo a nod. I’d give this to Tommy Lee Jones for Elah, but I suspect DDL’s scenery-chewing Daniel Plainview will be hard to beat. He drinks Oscar’s milkshake.

Best Actress: Cate Blanchett, Elizabeth II: The Golden Age, Julie Christie, Away from Her; Marion Cotillard, La Vie En Rose; Laura Linney, The Savages; Ellen Page, Juno. Glad to see The Savages get some run, even if Linney makes more sense in the Supporting Actress category. Still, I haven’t seen Away, but I expect Julie Christie will run away with it.

Best Supporting Actor: Casey Affleck, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Javier Bardem, No Country for Old Men; Hal Holbrook, Into the Wild, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Charlie Wilson’s War, Tom Wilkinson, Michael Clayton. Ok, while Hoffman was Best Supporting Actor of the year (this, Savages, Before the Devil), Tom Wilkinson is still owed for In the Bedroom, and Hal Holbrook is basically this year’s Peter O’Toole, I’m guessing Javier Bardem is a lockity-lock. And why is Casey Affleck here? He’s the main character in that three-hour film.

Best Supporting Actress: Cate Blanchett, I’m Not There; Ruby Dee, American Gangster, Saiorse Ronan, Atonement, Amy Ryan, Gone Baby Gone, Tilda Swinton, Michael Clayton. Again, some strange choices here: Ruby Dee is one of the best things about Gangster, but she’s barely in it. Tilda Swinton is a good actress who I thought was a net negative in Clayton. And Ronan was fine in Atonement, but why not Romola Garai? At any rate, this is a two-woman race between Ryan and Blanchett, and it’s looking like Blanchett is pretty much a lock. (I thought Ryan was superb in Gone, but if more people see I’m Not There because of this win, I’m all for it.)

Best Director: Paul Thomas Anderson, There Will Be Blood, Joel and Ethan Coen, No Country for Old Men; Tony Gilroy, Michael Clayton; Jason Reitman, Juno, Julian Schabel, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. This is tricky. I’d guess whichever of No Country and TWBB doesn’t win best picture will win here. But, since Schabel’s Diving Bell got locked out of most categories, it could win here too. For now, I’ll say Coens.

Best Cinematography: Roger Deakins, The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford; Roger Deakins, No Country for Old Men; Robert Elswit, There Will Be Blood; Janusz Kaminski, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly; Seamus McGarvey, Atonement. Hmm. Normally, I’d say Deakins, but given that he’s nominated twice, his vote will split. So, it’s Elswit for TWBB, I guess.

Best Adapted Screenplay: Atonement, Away from Her, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, No Country for Old Men, There Will Be Blood. Again, a tough one, I’ll go the Coens for No Country.

Best Original Screenplay: Juno, Lars and the Real Girl, Michael Clayton, Ratatouille, The Savages. This is often the “clever” award, given to movies the Academy otherwise didn’t much vibe to. My guess is this year it’s Diablo Cody’s for Juno.

Invisible Spinning Globes.

If they hold an awards ceremony in the middle of the ‘Wood and there’s no around to hear it, does it make a sound? Why, yes, yes, it does. And the Golden Globe winners are

  • Best Drama: Atonement. Uh, no. My top drama would’ve been No Country for Old Men.
  • Best Com/Mus: Sweeney Todd. Didn’t see it. Not even a nod for I’m Not There?
  • Best Foreign: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Solid, and easy choice.
  • Best Actor [Drama]: Daniel Day-Lewis, There Will Be Blood. Hmm, yeah, ok. Better than giving TWBB Best Drama.
  • Best Actor [Com/Mus]: Johnny Depp, Sweeney Todd. Didn’t see it.
  • Best Actress [Drama]: Julie Christie, Away from Her. Didn’t see it either, but Christie is definitely this year’s “Helen Mirren”-style lock for an Oscar.
  • Best Actress [Com/Mus]: Marion Cotillard, La Vie En Rose. Didn’t see it. Since she’s a bit of an unknown, it’s too bad she missed out on giving a speech.
  • Best Supporting Actor: Javier Bardem, No Country for Old Men. Great choice, and no real surprise.
  • Best Supporting Actress: Cate Blanchett, I’m Not There. That works, although Gone Baby Gone‘s Amy Ryan would’ve worked too. At least INT won something.
  • Best Animated Film: Ratatouile. Yeah, ok. Didn’t see Persepolis, and it wasn’t even nominated.
  • Best Screenplay: Joel and Ethan Coen, No Country for Old Men. Usually given to the movie that was “clever” more than “good” — I’m surprised this didn’t go to Juno.
  • Best Score: Dario Marinelli, Atonement. Also a good, easy choice. It was the most memorable score of 2007.
  • Best TV Show: Mad Men. Nice! And it looks like Jon Hamm won Best Actor too.

    So there you have it. In case you missed it, my own best of 2007 list is now buried deep beneath the political coverage.

  • 2007 in Film.

    Happy New Year, everyone. So unlike last year, when I took an extra month on account of my travels in New Zealand, the Best of 2007 Movie list seems ready to go out on schedule, and it’s below. (If you’ve been reading all the reviews around here, I’m betting the top few choices won’t be a surprise. Still, organizing the 5-15 section was more tough than usual this year.) At any rate, 2008 should be a big orbit around the sun in any event, what with grad school winding down and it being time — at last! — to pick a new president. So a very happy new year to you and yours, and let’s hope the movies of the coming year will contain to sustain, amuse, baffle, and delight.

    Top 20 Films of 2007

    [2000/2001/2002/2003/2004/2005/2006]

    1. I’m Not There: “There was a movie I seen one time, I think I sat through it twice.” Admittedly, it was a wonderful confluence of my interests. Nevertheless, Todd Haynes’ postmodern celebration of Bob Dylan, brimming over with wit and vitality and as stirring, resonant, and universal as a well-picked G-C-D-Em progression, was far and away my favorite film experience of the year. It seems to have slipped in a lot of critics’ end-of-year lists (although Salon‘s Stephanie Zacharek also put it up top, and the Sun-Times‘ Jim Emerson has been championing it too), but so be it — You shouldn’t let other people get their kicks for you anyway. A heartfelt, multi-layered, six-sided puzzle about the many faces and voices of Dylan, l found I’m Not There both pleasingly cerebral and emotionally direct, and it’s a film I look forward to returning to in the years to come. Everybody knows he’s not a folk-singer.


    2. No Country for Old Men: It probably won’t do wonders for West Texas tourism. Still, the Coens’ expertly-crafted No Country works as both a visceral exercise in dread and a sobering philosophical rumination on mortality and the nature of evil. (And in his chilling portrayal of Anton Chigurh, Javier Bardem has crafted a movie villain for the ages.) People sometimes refer to Coen movies as “well-made” as a dig, as if the brothers were just soulless clinically-minded technicians. I couldn’t disagree with that assessment more. Still, No Country for Old Men seems so seamless and fully formed, so judicious and economical in its storytelling, that it reminds me of Salieri’s line in Amadeus: “Displace one note and there would be diminishment, displace one phrase and the structure would fall.” A dark journey that throbs with a jagged pulse, No Country for Old Men is very close to the best film of the year, and — along with Miller’s Crossing, Fargo, and The Big Lebowski — yet another masterpiece sprung from the Coens’ elegant and twisted hive-mind. Bring on Burn After Reading.


    3. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly: Through the wonders of cinematic alchemy, Julian Schnabel took the sad real-life account of Vogue editor Jean-Do Bauby’s horrific imprisonment within his own body and made it soar. No other film this year put the “locked-in” experience of taking in a movie as inventively in service of its story (although I kinda wish Atonement had tried.) Special kudos to Mathieu Almaric for conveying so much with so little to work with, and to Max von Sydow for his haunting turn as Bauby’s invalid father. And, lest someone holds “arthouse foreign film” against it, Diving Bell is both much funnier and more uplifting than anyone might expect of a tale about hospital paralysis. Salut.


    [3.] The Lives of Others: The one hold-over from 2006 on the list this year (I was pretty thorough about catching up before posting last January, although I still never did see Inland Empire), The Lives of Others is a timely and compelling parable of art, politics, surveillance, and moral awakening in the final days of the Stasi. In a way, Lives is an East German counterpart to Charlie Wilson’s War, a story about how even small political acts of individual conscience can change the world, even (or perhaps especially) in a decaying Orwellian state. With a memorable central performance by Ulrich Muhe and a languid conclusion that ends on exactly the right note, the resoundingly humanist Lives of Others is a Sonata for a Good Man in Bad Times. We could use more of its ilk.


    4. Knocked Up: Judd Apatow’s sweet, good-natured take on modern love and unwanted pregnancy was probably the most purely satisfying film of the summer. As funny in its pop-culture jawing as it was well-observed in its understanding of relationship politics, Knocked Up also felt — unlike the well-meaning but overstylized Juno, the film it’ll most likely be paired with from now herein — refreshingly real. As I said in my recent review of Walk Hard, an eventual Apatow backlash seems almost inevitable given how many comedies he has on the 2008 slate. Nevertheless, we’ll always have Freaks & Geeks, and we’ll always have Knocked Up.


    5. The Bourne Ultimatum: The third installment of the Bourne franchise was the best blockbuster of the year, and proved that director Paul Greengrass can churn out excellent, heart-pounding fare even when he’s basically repeating himself. Really, given how much of Ultimatum plays exactly like its two predecessors on the page — the car chase, the Company Men, the Eurotrash assassin, Julia Stiles, exotic locales and cellphone hijinx — it’s hard to fathom how good it turned out to be. But Bourne was riveting through and through…You just couldn’t take your eyes off it. I know I’ve said this several times now, but if Zack Snyder screws up Watchmen (and I’d say the odds are 50-50 at this point), the lost opportunity for a Greengrass version will rankle for years.


    6. Zodiac: The best film of the spring. What at first looked to be another stylish David Fincher serial killer flick is instead a moody and haunting police procedural about the search for a seemingly unknowable truth, and the toll it exacts on the men — cops, journalists, citizens — who undertake it for years and even decades. Reveling in the daily investigatory minutiae that also comprise much of The Wire and Law and Order, and arguably boasting the best ensemble cast of the year, Zodiac is a troubling and open-ended inquiry that, until perhaps the final few moments, offers little in the way of satisfying closure for its characters or its audience. Whatever Dirty Harry may suggest to the contrary, the Zodiac remains elusive.


    7. 28 Weeks Later: Sir, we appear to have lost control of the Green Zone…Shall I send in the air support? Zombie flicks have been a choice staple for political allegory since the early days of Romero, but one of the strengths of Juan Carlos Fresnadillo’s merciless 28 Weeks Later — perhaps the best horror sequel since James Cameron’s Aliens — is that it foregoes the 1:1 sermonizing about failed reconstructions and American hubris whenever it gets in the way of the nightmare scenario at hand. (Besides, if you wanted to see explicit muckraking about current events this year, there were options aplenty, from In the Valley of Elah to No End in Sight, although plenty of this year’s politically-minded forays — Rendition, Lions for Lambs — looked rather inert from a distance.) There’s little time for moralizing in the dark, wretched heart of 28 Weeks Later: In fact, the right thing to do is often suicide, or worse. You pretty much have only one viable option: run like hell.


    8. In the Valley of Elah: Paul Haggis’ surprisingly unsentimentalized depiction of the hidden costs of war for the homefront, Elah benefits greatly from Tommy Lee Jones’ slow burn as a military father who’s lost his last son to a horrific murder. In fact, it’s hard not to think of Jones’ inspired performances here and in No Country of a piece. There was something quintessentially America-in-2007 about Jones this year. In every crease and furrow of this grizzled Texan’s visage, we can see the wounds and weariness of recent times, the mask of dignity and good humor beginning to slip in the face of tragic events and colossal stupidity. Jones is masterful in Elah, and while Daniel Day-Lewis seems to be garnering most of the accolades for There Will Be Blood and Philip Seymour Hoffman stunned in three pics this fall (all on the list below), I’d put Jones’ work here as the best of the year.


    9. There Will Be Blood: Ah, the maddening There Will Be Blood. I just reviewed this one yesterday, so it’s doubtful my opinion on it has changed much. But what Anderson’s film reminds me of most at the moment (and not only for the Daniel Day-Lewis connection) is Scorsese’s Gangs of New York, a movie I reviewed at the end of 2002 and then bumped up a few spots a week later when writing the 2002 list, thinking that its flaws would diminish over time. They haven’t — if anything, they’re just as noticeable as ever. So it may well be with TWBB. Even despite its somewhat unseemly pretensions to greatness, the first hour or so of There Will Be Blood, from the Kubrickian opening to the Days in Heaven-ish burning oil rig, is as powerful and memorable as you could ever want in a film. But TWBB loses its way, and the second half is a significantly less interesting enterprise, ultimately culminating in that goofy, illogical bowling alley ending. I’d characterize Blood as a significant step forward for PTA, and there’s something to be said for getting even this close to a masterpiece. But he hasn’t struck black gold yet.


    10. Hot Fuzz: While I personally still prefer Shaun of the Dead, this fish-out-of-water, buddy-cop action spectacle proved the droll British team of Nick Frost, Simon Pegg, and Edgar Wright can’t be considered one-hit-wonders (and that they’re as savvy about certain pop culture tropes as their American colleagues in the Apatow camp.) And, while I didn’t see Elizabeth II: The Golden Age, Hot Fuzz may well include the second-best Cate Blanchett performance of the year.


    11. Gone Baby Gone: First-time director Ben Affleck acquits himself well with this chronicle of missing children and seedy n’er-do-wells in working-class Boston, wisely choosing to stick with a town and a leading man he knows like the back of his hand. His brother Casey holds his own, and crime author Dennis Lehane’s original source material provides some compelling twists-and-turns throughout. And, as the drug-addled, quick-to-dis Townie mom who’s lost her baby, The Wire‘s Amy Ryan gives arguably the Best Supporting Actress performance of the year (although she’ll likely get some run from Blanchett’s Jude Quinn.)


    12. Michael Clayton: Clooney’s impeccable taste in projects continues with this, Tony Gilroy’s meditation on corporate malfeasance and lawyerly ethics (or lack thereof.) The bit with the horses still seems a convenient (and corny) happenstance on which to hang such a major plot point, and I found Tilda Swinton to be overly mannered and distracting for much of the film’s run. But most else about Michael Clayton, from Sidney Pollack’s Master of the Universe to Michael O’Keefe’s snide, unctuous #2 to Tom Wilkinson’s last scene to Clooney not rebounding as well to events as, say, Danny Ocean, rang true. A small film, in its way, but a worthwhile one.


    13. Charlie Wilson’s War: Another one I wrote on in the past 24 hours, so I don’t have much to add. Perhaps the best thing about Mike Nichols and Aaron Sorkin’s adaptation of Crile’s book is that it “gets” politics like few recent Washington thrillers I can think of. Philip Seymour Hoffman shows impeccable comic timing as the gruff Gust Avrakotos, and he works very well with Hanks here, who’s gone from being overexposed a few years ago back to a guy I wouldn’t mind seeing more of, particularly if he continues along the Alec Baldwinish character actor path Wilson sometimes suggests could be his future.


    14. The Savages: I actually thought about putting Tamara Jenkins’ The Savages higher on this list, and few other movie endings this year hit me in the gut quite like this one. But, there are definite problems here, such as the wheezy Gbenga Akinnagbe subplot, which compel me to keep it here in the mid-teens. Still, this comedy about an ornery lion in winter, and the battling cubs who have to come to his aid, is a worthwhile one, and particularly if you’re in the mood for some rather black humor. As Lenny the senescent and slipping paterfamilias, Philip Bosco gives a standout performance, as does Hoffman as the miserable Bertholdt Brecht scholar trapped in deepest, darkest Buffalo.


    15. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead: Now, Before the Devil is a movie I did end up seeing twice, on account of Brooklyn friends who were looking to catch it, and the film didn’t bring much new to the table on that second viewing. Still, Sidney Lumet and Kelly Masterson’s lean family tragedy benefits from several excellent performances — most notably by Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, Marisa Tomei, and Albert Finney, but also in supporting work by Amy Ryan, Michael Shannon, Brian O’Byrne, and Rosemary Harris — as well as a memorable Carter Burwell score. (Also, it’s just a coincidence that the three Hoffman movies ended up in a row like this — Still, it’s a testament to the man’s ability that he seemed unique and fully formed in each. Then again, the only time I can think of that Hoffman was actually bad in a film was Cold Mountain, which was pretty glitched up regardless.)


    16. Sunshine: Along with There Will Be Blood, Danny Boyle and Alex Garland’s exasperating Sunshine is the other film this year that saw an amazing first hour become undone by breathtakingly poor choices on the back end. Unlike the halting, confused slide of TWBB, though, the moment where Sunshine slips the rails is clear-cut and irrefutable: It’s when what had been a heady science fiction tale about a near-impossible mission to the heart of the sun became instead an unwieldy space-slasher flick, i.e. basically an Armageddon variation on Jason X. The wreckage this subplot makes of what had been a superior hard-sci-fi film is more than a little depressing…Still, for that first hour, Sunshine is really something, perhaps the best realistically-portrayed outer space voyage we’ve seen on-screen in years.


    17. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford: Andrew Dominik’s sprawling psychological western about the end of the West and the early days of American celebrity-worship is every bit as ambitious and flawed as PTA’s There Will Be Blood. Still, maybe it’s the often stunning Roger Deakins cinematography, or the lively character actors (Sam Rockwell, Jeremy Renner, Garret Dillahunt) in the margins of the film, or maybe it’s even the terrible omniscient voiceover, which is every bit as distracting as the similarly ham-handed one in Little Children, and so goofy at times it verges on endearing. Whatever it is, I warmed to Jesse James more than I probably should, and for whatever reason I feel more willing to forgive it its considerable problems. If you blinked, you probably missed its theatrical run…but maybe it’ll find new life on DVD, when the 160-min running time won’t seem so off-putting.


    18. I am Legend: When the film focused on Will Smith and his dog fighting blood-sucking and badly rendered CGI Infecteds (whose level of social deevolution changed back and forth solely to accommodate turns in the plot), Francis Lawrence’s I am Legend could seem pedestrian and forgettable. But, when the movie focused on Will Smith and his dog fighting interminable loneliness in an eerily abandoned New York City, which was most of the first two-thirds of the film, I am Legend was a surprisingly melancholy and resonant blockbuster. What can I say? This one hit me where, and how, I live.


    19. Ratatouille: There’s no review of this one up — I actually only saw it on DVD last week. And yet, while Ratatouille is a visual marvel (and Brad Bird and the PIXAR gurus don’t seem to make bad films), I found this nowhere near as inventive or entertaining as their last collaboration, 2004’s The Incredibles. (I’d put this one at about the level of Cars.) Now, this may in part be due to the fact that I have much more interest in comic book conceits than the culinary arts. (I’d even go so far as to say that I find many foodies — particularly those who blather on endlessly about Parisian cuisine — kind of insufferable.) Still, even given my relative lack of interest in the subject matter, Ratatouille bugged me. If “anyone can cook,” as Chef Gustave proclaims, why is no one’s input ever important but the rat? If it’s bad to make money selling pre-cooked (and affordable) food to the teeming masses, as Ian Holm’s character tries to do, why is it any better to do what Remy does? (And why should we care then when he and Gustave Jr. move into a deluxe apartment in the sky? I thought this enterprise wasn’t about making money.) In short, I thought Ratatouille wanted to have it both ways, cloaking a rather elitist, even snobbish story in the trappings of democratic tolerance. And the closing monologue by Peter O’Toole’s Anton Ego, which I thought ostensibly tried to make the movie critic-proof, irked me too. But, all that aside, it does look real purty.


    20. Atonement: There were several contenders for this last spot on this list, including Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, The Simpsons Movie, and Jason Reitman’s Juno. But in the end I went with Joe Wright’s take on Ian McEwan’s novel, partly because people I trust who haven’t read the book beforehand haven’t shared my issues with the film. If nothing else, Atonement looks ravishing, and it features breakout performances by James McAvoy, Romola Garai, and Saiorse Ronan. Still, in a year that saw No Country and Diving Bell, I wish Wright had been less conventional in its approach to the story, and found a way to do the gloomy, misanthropic ending of McEwan’s novel justice.

    Most Disappointing: The Golden Compass, Grindhouse, Spiderman 3, Southland Tales

    Worth a Rental: 3:10 to Yuma, Beowulf, Eastern Promises, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Juno, Live Free or Die Hard, Lust, Caution, Ocean’s 13, The Simpsons Movie, Stardust, Superbad, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story

    Don’t Bother: 300, Across the Universe, American Gangster, The Darjeeling Limited, Interview, The Invasion, Margot at the Wedding, The Mist, Pirates of the Caribbean 3: At World’s End, Transformers, You Kill Me

    Best Actor: Tommy Lee Jones, In the Valley of Elah; Daniel Day-Lewis, There Will Be Blood
    Best Actress: Ellen Page, Juno
    Best Supporting Actor: Javier Bardem, No Country for Old Men
    Best Supporting Actress: Amy Ryan, Gone Baby Gone; Cate Blanchett, I’m Not There

      A Good Year For:
    • Casey Affleck (Assassination of Jesse James, Gone Baby Gone)
    • Judd Apatow (Knocked Up, Superbad, Walk Hard)
    • Josh Brolin (American Gangster, Grindhouse, In the Valley of Elah, No Country)
    • Michael Cera (Superbad, Juno)
    • Garret Dillahunt (No Country for Old Men, Assassination of Jesse James)
    • Full-Frontal Parity (Diving Bell, Eastern Promises, I’m Not There, Walk Hard)
    • Philip Seymour Hoffman (Before the Devil, Charlie Wilson’s War, The Savages)
    • Tommy Lee Jones (In the Valley of Elah, No Country for Old Men)
    • Man’s Best Friend (I am Legend, The Savages)
    • Pregnant Hipsters (Knocked Up, Juno)
    • Seth Rogen (Knocked Up, Superbad)
    • Amy Ryan (Before the Devil, Gone Baby Gone)
    • Texans (No Country for Old Men, Charlie Wilson’s War)
    • The Western (3:10 to Yuma, Assassination of Jesse James, No Country for Old Men, There Will Be Blood)
      A Bad Year For:
    • The Beatles (Across the Universe, Walk Hard)
    • Josh Brolin’s PETA standing (American Gangster, No Country for Old Men)
    • Great Cities (28 Weeks Later, I am Legend)
    • Kidman/Craig Pairings (The Invasion, The Golden Compass)
    • The Male Derriere (Charlie Wilson’s War, Margot at the Wedding)
    • Standard-Issue Music Biopics(I’m Not There, Walk Hard)
    Unseen: Away from Her, Black Book, Black Snake Moan, The Brave One, Breach, Control, Elizabeth II: The Golden Age, Enchanted, Grace is Gone, The Great Debaters, Goya’s Ghosts, The Host, Into the Wild, Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten, The Kingdom, The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, The Kite Runner, Lars and the Real Girl, La Vie En Rose, Lions for Lambs, Love in the Time of Cholera, A Mighty Heart, The Namesake, No End in Sight, Once, The Orphanage, Persepolis, Redacted, Rendition, Rescue Dawn, Reservation Road, Romance and Cigarettes, Shoot ‘Em Up, Sicko, Sweeney Todd, Talk to Me, This is England, We Own the Night, The Wind that Shakes the Barley, Wristcutters: A Love Story, Year of the Dog, Youth Without Youth

    2008: Be Kind, Rewind, Cassandra’s Dream, Cloverfield, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Funny Games, Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Hellboy 2: The Golden Army, In Bruges, The Incredible Hulk, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Iron Man, James Bond 22, Jumper, Leatherheads, My Blueberry Nights, The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, Revolutionary Road, Run, Fat Boy Run, Speed Racer, Star Trek, Valkyrie, Wall-E, Wanted, The X-Files 2…let’s see, am I missing anything…?

    Welcome, 2008. I’ll see y’all on the other side.

    (James and Keira’s) Golden Calves.

    The 2008 Golden Globe nominations are announced, with Joe Wright’s Atonement leading the pack with seven nods. Also nominated for Best Drama: American Gangster, Eastern Promises, The Great Debaters, Michael Clayton, No Country for Old Men, and There Will Be Blood. That last film, and Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance in it, are still the Big X-factors for my own best of 2007 list, so I’ll reserve full judgment for a few weeks yet. I will say that Atonement is nowhere near the best film of the year, and it’s absolutely ridiculous that I’m Not There got passed up for a nod in the Best Comedy/Musical category over drek like Across the Universe and Hairspray (although Cate Blanchett got a nod for Best Supporting Actress, and it’s probably between her and Amy Ryan for Gone Baby Gone.) Also, why Juno over Knocked Up, and where’s Hot Fuzz? As for Best Foreign Film, the choices are The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Lust, Caution, Persepolis, The Kite Runner, and 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days. I haven’t seen the last three, but I’d impressed if they’re better than Schnabel’s Bell. (I actually thought Persepolis was a lock for best animated feature, but it’s not nominated…which is good news for Ratatouille.) At any rate, more thoughts on the candidates and the rest of the categories next year, before the big show.

    For Whom the Corona Clacks.


    When I first saw the trailer for Joe Wright’s version of Ian McEwan’s Atonement, I figured I’d probably give it a pass — It had that staid period piece look to it that screams inert Oscar bait (see also The English Patient), and seemed far too dry and conventional to do justice to Ian McEwan’s powerful, absorbing novel. But, having sat through it several more times, I got Dario Marianelli’s pensive piano-and-typewriter score stuck in my head, and when the reviews came back significantly better than I expected (and, indeed, the film garnered 7 Globe nominations this morning), I figured I’d give it a go. And the verdict…well, it comes out somewhere in-between. Atonement is solid enough entertainment of the Merchant-Ivory sort, and it features break-out performances by The Last King of Scotland‘s James McAvoy (that whooshing sound you hear is all of Ewan MacGregor’s old scripts getting remailed) and newcomer Romola Garai. But, although occasionally you can see director Joe Wright try to stick his head under the water, the movie sadly just skims along the surface of McEwan’s book. And as an adaptation of said book, it must be considered a failure.

    Now, admittedly, there’s a pretty tough degree of difficulty here. I hesitate to think any book is inherently unfilmable — just this month we’ve had two excellent adaptations in No Country for Old Men and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly — but McEwan’s dense tome, with its rich inner worlds, abrupt shifts in time, and philosophical musings on the power and moral dangers of writing and imagination, comes pretty darn close. Regardless, Atonement the film never plumbs the depths that McEwan’s novel does, a fact that unfortunately becomes more and more unmistakable as the movie progresses. By the end, all the crisp British diction and sweeping long-takes can’t disguise the fact that Atonement, however pretty, never captures the book’s mordant pulse.

    To the story: Atonement begins at an edenic English manor on one of the hottest days of 1935, where an ambitious, headstrong 12-year-old girl named Briony Tallis (Saoirse Roman, a find) has just completed her first full-length play, The Trials of Arabella. (Like many aspiring writers, myself included, Ms. Tallis just loves her some descriptive adjectives.) Young Briony is unsuccessfully trying to convince her bored cousins, visiting on account of a hush-hush impending divorce, to take her magnum opus seriously, when she sees something unexpected. Outside her window, Robbie the housekeeper’s son (McAvoy) appears to be ogling Briony’s soaking wet, nearly-naked sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley) with amusement and maybe even something darker…what’s the word? As Briony tries to piece it together, we discover Cecilia and Robbie are Oxford classmates, although (by Cecilia’s design as well as by class distinctions) they travel in rather different circles. Yet, something flickers between them, and Robbie, while mustering up the nerve to express his affection, types out several different drafts of a love note in his nearby cottage…one of which, composed as a bit of a joke, gets right to the point. (It uses the c-word, and alone gives the film an R-rating. Gasp!) Well, you can then guess which version of the letter mistakenly gets delivered, and by Briony no less, who takes it upon herself to examine it first. Her pre-adolescent confusion mounting, Briony is now seriously distressed by Robbie, on whom she once had a barely understood crush. And when further events that hot summer evening eventually take a turn towards tragedy, she — knowing full well now that he’s a sex maniac — mounts a false accusation against him, one that changes irrevocably the lives of Robbie, Cecilia — and Briony — forever.

    Wright’s Atonement does alright by most of this, the first act of McEwan’s book. He cleverly uses the Rashomon device of showing us the same scene several times, and always from Briony’s limited perspective first. But, while Roman seems a gifted and composed actress for her age, the film never really gets across the crucially important fact about Briony: her constant flights of fancy. (It’s not my movie, of course, but I kept thinking what Atonement needed here is something like what Peter Jackson does in Heavenly Creatures, a brief dramatization of her inner fantasy world.) This becomes a constant problem in the film, particularly as it moves on to the fields of Dunkirk and the hospitals of London just before the Blitz — the movie never does a particularly good job of getting into its characters’ heads. As a result, it shows us what happens in the book, but it barely conveys why these events are important or meaningful for our story.

    One of the most egregious example of this is an extremely long shot of the chaos at Dunkirk, rivaling the similar extended takes in Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men last year: Wounded and dog-tired, Robbie and his two soldier mates wander around the beach, seeing all manner of wartime horror and tomfoolery. But, as it lingers on and on, the shot feels more and more like a stunt, completely dissociated from the tale we’ve theoretically been following. I guess it’d probably play great in a WWII epic that’s actually about Dunkirk, but the important action at that moment for our story is happening within Robbie. Perhaps Wright was trying to make a similar point about film with that exasperating stunt-take as McEwan ultimately does about writing…but, if so, I missed it. (There are other, subtler moments where he comes closer, tho’ — I quite liked Nurse Briony’s red curtain (stage) entrance to her conversation with the French soldier.)

    This inherent flaw of Wright’s Atonement — its inability to depict the characters’ interior lives — reaches its nadir in the final moments of the film, when it almost completely botches the final reveal. I won’t give away what happens here, other than to say that, as Matt Zoller Seitz points out, what was a quietly devastating confession to the reader in the book now — because it is voiced in public — instead plays like a tacked-on mea culpa that offers a twist-ending, a saccharine moral, and a few moments of cinema apotheosis, all wrapped up in a Hollywood bow. (Again, not my movie, but having this reveal explained in voiceover over images of the character’s last, lonely days, a la TLJ in No Country, would’ve made a lot more sense.) In a way, Atonement makes exactly the same misstep as Weitz’s Golden Compass: The very last images of the movie are pitched right at the Titanic demographic (and I don’t mean that as a sneer — I loved Titanic.) But they completely sidestep the inherent darkness of McEwan’s ending, and even let the character in question off the hook. Atonement, in McEwan’s world, was never so neat, or easy to come by.

    Oil and Lies.

    “I look at people and I see nothing worth liking. I see the worst in people. I have a competition in me. I want no one else to succeed.” One thing about catching four movies in a row: you get used to the same trailers. And, along with the preview for Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited, two I hadn’t yet seen kept popping up. First, the full trailer for There Will Be Blood, Paul Thomas Anderson’s upcoming adaptation of Upton Sinclair’s Oil!, starring Daniel Day Lewis and Little Miss Sunshine‘s Paul Dano. (I’ve had adverse reaction to P.T.A. films in the past, most notably Magnolia and Punch-Drunk Love, but Day-Lewis is always a draw.) And James McAvoy and Keira Knightley live out the consequences of a child’s lapse in judgment in the trailer for the film version of Ian McEwan’s Atonement, also starring Romola Garai. It looks like my impressions of the book, I’ll give it that.

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