February 20, 2008

Is it Legal to Bet on the Oscars?

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It’s ironic — or maybe just coincidental — that I have seen far more movies as The Sun’s film editor emeritus than I did when I was film editor. Whether ironic or coincidental, it mainly means that I’ve been able to see all of this year’s best picture nominees and, considering that the Oscar ballots were sent in yesterday, I figure that now is as good a time as any to take a look at the five contenders and relay my professional opinion about their chances this Sunday.
Atonement’s camera-work and cast are top shelf, but its faithfulness to the novel brings a detachment that prevents the viewer from total immersion into the lives of these characters. The film has one of the best examples of an impressive, though unaffecting moment: the tracking shot through the wreckage of Dunkirk is magnificent and it is almost a certainty that it will be dissected and appreciated by film students for years. However, it puts Robbie and his fellow soldiers at a distance, subverting the emotional resonance of the picture. Like many films, Atonement is admirable, but somehow not very affecting.
Though I marvel at the skill of those involved in its creation, the final product doesn’t move me.
By way of contrast, a movie that moved but did not shock and amaze me was Juno, another Oscar contender. When a friend asked me to describe the movie, I told her that it’s about a 16-year-old girl who gets pregnant and then gives the baby up for adoption. She was shocked at the plot and more surprised when I told her it was a comedy, and a funny comedy at that. In making a funny, moving film about such an unhappy topic, Jason Reitman and Co. pull of a neat trick that is easy to miss because of the lightness of touch that they use to perform this sleight of hand. Ellen Page especially shines, affectionately realizing a compelling, pretentious wiseacre who has no idea how far out of her depth she is. Michael Cera lends his inhuman comic timing to the effort, and Jason Bateman, Allison Janney and J.K Simmons are all typically stellar. While Juno doesn’t appear to have a chance against some of the other powerhouse contenders, it could well pull a surprise upset like Crash or Little Miss Sunshine, making it my official Tiny Film To Watch For (trademark pending).
(Odds: 1:4)
While it’s a long shot for the statue, Michael Clayton may be my favorite film of the year. A ’70s throwback that investigates corruption in the highest reaches of business and law, it features George Clooney as a quiet wrecking ball and clean up crew, bedraggled and furious at the world. Tony Gilroy’s first shot as director echoes flicks like The Parallax View in the subtle social conscience on display. The manner in which the film’s control of pacing creates a near palpable tension is impressive and Clayton’s final act of conscience is sure to stay with you (and, in a year without Daniel Day-Lewis, probably would’ve won Clooney a best actor statue).
(Odds: 1:7)
The conscience of No Country For Old Men, by way of contrast, is personified with a quiet dignity and grace by Tommy Lee Jones as Ed Tom Bell, a local Texas sheriff caught up in a maelstrom of violence and greed. The film itself shows a few similarities to a much earlier Coen brothers film, Blood Simple, in its near-fetishization of gunplay. The cast is remarkable; along with a top notch cameo from Woody Harrelson, Javier Bardem delivers a credible and delightfully sociopathic turn and Josh Brolin nails the brooding, taciturn intensity of Llewelyn Moss. Still, despite all it has going for it (a great cast, two incredible directors working in tandem) to my mind No Country buries its lede — the theme (or what I believe to be its theme) only pushes its way to the fore at the film’s end, with a dazzling sort-of soliloquy by Bell.
(Odds 2:5)
But while all these films deserve the recognition they are receiving, the likely winner of the Oscar is There Will Be Blood, Paul Thomas Anderson’s story of the relentless rise of oil man Daniel Plainview, played with a caged malevolence by Daniel Day-Lewis. Blood’s classic approach to style and plot bring an epic dimension to the film and make it a work that will be watched for years to come. And exempting one weak moment in the third act, it’s a near perfect piece of art. And the violent conclusion that bring the film to a jarring close is both impressive and affecting.
(Odds 1:2)
As you can tell by the odds I’ve given, I have a hunch that Sunday night is going to be a shoot out between There Will Be Blood and No Country For Old Men. If I was a betting man — which I am — I’d put money on Blood, though not too much because, as noted by Oscar expert / my housemate Corey Millard, No Country has won many of the guild and critic awards that lead up to the big show and these events are often, though not always, the best indicator for the Oscar winner. Another scenario has the two heavyweights splitting the Oscar vote, leaving the little-twee-movie-that-could (Juno) to slip through and take the prize. Or maybe the Academy will just vote for Clooney and Michael Clayton. Who knows? The important thing is to remember that if you win any money betting on There Will Be Blood, I get five percent of any winnings (that’s standard). And don’t think I won’t know.