Miraculously, here at WHAP all three writers on staff have managed to see all five Oscar films before the big awards show. It’s a first for us, which might explain why we’re so engrossed in this year’s ceremony. Two days ago, Bryan gave us his rankings. Yesterday, Brett gave us his picks. And now Jon posts his list below. In parentheses you’ll find our ranking within our own top five films of 2007, and because not all of the best picture nominees made our personal lists, at the bottom of the page you’ll find the films we feel should have been more recognized.
1. No Country for Old Men (1)
Most critics would agree that the mark of a good movie is that it inspires conversation. The mark of a great movie, then, it that it stuns you silent for a week or so, after which you’ll only discuss it if you dare; such is the effect of No Country for Old Men. I remember seeing this movie for the first time with Bryan and Brett, and we probably spoke a collective syllable on the way back from the theatre. Only months later did Brett emerge with his spot-on analysis of the film’s ending, and by that time No Country had become the frontrunner for Best Picture at the ’08 Oscars. So what did audiences collectively realize between that first viewing and now? That this film is beautiful and brilliant, in all senses of both words. Tommy Lee Jones, giving his top performance in the year that will go down as his best, provides the kind of voice over that only he and a few country singers can pull off. Co-star Javier Bardem makes clear the difference between criminal and villain — and if you’ve seen his happy-go-lucky nature at all these award shows, you’ll understand even more how Anton Chiguhr is a feat of fantastic acting. And the Coen brothers, tackling the same crime-gone-awry theme they took on in Fargo, prove once again that two is always better than one. But anyone can like this film for its cinematography, its direction or its acting. You’ll love it for being a work of art that perfectly imitates life; the Coens develop an incomprehensible world and expose it through an incomprehensible movie.
2. Michael Clayton (2)
This film’s strengths do not lie in Tony Gilroy’s screenwriting — Michael Clayton boasts the kind of script that John Grisham could write in his sleep. Gilroy’s direction, on the other hand, provides brilliant unwritten imagery. Notice how he begins the movie without opening credits, immediately starting a game of cat-and-mouse that enthralls the viewer until its final minute. Or how the taxi cab request in the last scene — “Just drive” — is an admission that Michael Clayton has no idea where an honest man goes. Or even how the film opens trailing a high rise janitor, meant to introduce the symbolic undertone to George Clooney’s big time lawyer. And Clooney, by the way, is fantastic. Him, Tilda Swinton and Tom Wilkinson round out this year’s best ensemble, all three acting out a juxtaposition essential to their film: Wilkinson as the crazy guy who might be the only one who really knows what’s going on; Swinton as the woman atop the globe forced to resort to methods of the underworld; and Clooney as the corporate conscious who realizes that the way he makes a living isn’t worth his closest friend dying. So despite being mundane in theme, Michael Clayton proves the American Beauty rule of filmmaking: it might just be a plastic bag, but it’s still beautiful when it’s dancing.
3. Juno (3)
Juno is every movie studio’s dream. It probably cost $25 to make — the biggest special effect is an entirely unnecessary live-action sketch during the opening credits. The actors are largely unknown, the screenwriter is entirely unknown. And somehow it goes on to make upwards of $125 million. That’s why I think so many people, myself included, love this film: it feels great to be caught up in the buzz. But I’ve still got one big reason that Juno doesn’t top my year-end list: its lack of depth. Yes, the film has heart. It has spot-on performances from pretty much everyone. And I still think the ultrasound scene that Brett mentioned is the scene of the year. But none of that changes the fact that the film doesn’t leave much to talk about outside of how much you loved it. (That said, I loved this movie.)
4. There Will Be Blood (NR)
I never used to understand it when people explained a film as having a great performance but not being a great movie. There Will Be Blood is exactly that — except that it has two great performances. The first is Daniel Day Lewis as Daniel Plainview. Bryan mentioned that the internet is currently abound with claims that Day-Lewis “overacted,” to which I’ll just say this: anything less than what he gave us would have made killing a man with a bowling pin impossible to believe. The second great performance, meanwhile, is Johnny Greenwood as the man who crafted the film’s revolutionary score. But as for the film itself, I’ve seen it twice now and I don’t really consider it a movie. It’s more a patchwork of scenes — brilliant scenes, in fact, including the best direction of the year in the last one — from Daniel Plainview’s life, each one allowing Daniel Day-Lewis to flaunt a different one of his acting bones. I needed a little more substance to convince me that this was a film and not a one-man show.
5. Atonement (NR)
Reverse the logic from There Will Be Blood — great performance, decent movie — and you get the formula for Atonement: great movie, just decent performances. That said, James McAvoy held his own, and the Academy Award-nominated Saoirse Ronan did well enough as the young Briony Tallis. But Kiera Knightley can’t act her way out of a slinky green dress, and no one can act well enough to make the film’s ending convincing.
Jon’s #4 — Away From Her
If screened back-to-back with all five Academy Award nominees, this picture would easily come off as the most real of the bunch. That said, the first time I saw it I was bitter over Julie Christie’s seeming lock-in for Best Leading Actress — I didn’t even think she was onscreen enough to warrant the title of “leading role.” But then I realized director Sarah Polley’s exquisite craft in filmmaking: as Christie’s Fiona becomes more and more vacant in memory, her character becomes less and less prevalent on the screen. That leaves much of the plot in the hands of Gordon Pinsent, who deserves just as much credit for his portrayal of Grant. And the film’s attention to detail is remarkable. In one absolutely heartbreaking scene, for example, Fiona signs a handwritten note with the name “Fona,” showing even the quietest notes of her Alzheimers. It’s moments like that make a movie about forgetfulness so very unforgettable.
Jon’s #5 — Eastern Promises
Viggo Mortensen doesn’t give the best performance in this film, but it’s certainly the year’s bravest. Most of his monochromatic portrayal is reminiscent of Schwarzenegger in Terminator, but Arnold only showed his buttocks in that film. Viggo goes all the way and then some in Eastern Promises. Still, I’m not praising this movie because Viggo Mortensen has balls and shows them. Rather, upon second viewing, I better understood the nuances of the film — like how Viggo constantly straddles a moral line and how swiftly he must move because any single action could be his last. The same second you think he’s gone too far is the exact moment you realize he’s gone just far enough. And while the film may not be wholeheartedly believable — I always question movies where one superhuman is somehow able to rise above an entire mafia — it stays as doggedly true to its Russian theme as Viggo does to his mission. It’s that Eastern touch — the Russian language, the Russian liquor, even the traditional Russian singing — that makes this film one of the year’s most unique.