2007 is not the first year in which I've seen all of the best picture Oscar nominees, but it is the first year in which I've seen all five nominees in the movie theater, before the ceremony, and because I was genuinely interested and eager to see them (as opposed to picking up the least objectionable DVD available at Blockbusters on a dull weeknight, AKA the only conceivable reason to watch Seabiscuit). This is a surprisingly strong list of films, or maybe not so surprising given the overall quality of the films produced last year. 2007's award films started trickling into Israeli movie theaters around January, and in the last two months I've seen more films than in the six or maybe even ten months previous, and there are still films (Once, Sweeney Todd, The Darjeeling Limited) I haven't gotten around to. Though I'm not in love with all of the nominees--several are, in fact, deeply flawed--this is the first time in a while that I've cared about the Oscars.
Of the five nominees, the one whose popularity and critical reception most surprise me is Michael Clayton. It's a film made up of very, very good parts: George Clooney is his usual excellent self as the title character, a near-soulless fixer for a completely soulless law firm, but Tom Wilkinson is incandescent as the firm's star litigator who, after six years of stalling and gnawing away at a class action lawsuit alleging that his clients, a pesticide manufacturer, killed and poisoned hundreds of people, goes spectacularly insane, forcing Clayton to choose between the firm and his friend. (Tilda Swinton, as the pesticide firm's in-house lawyer, does her best with what she's given, but unfortunately her character is basically a hysterical female.) The dialogue is sharp and the direction is effective, both expertly conveying the oppressiveness of the environment Clayton operates in, in which only power matters, and in which that power inevitably corrupts those who possess it.
Unfortunately, that obvious and familiar statement is pretty much all the film amounts to. For a film that bills itself and clearly thinks of itself as a thriller, there are surprisingly few twists and revelations in the plot. The story is laid out before us so straightforwardly and anticlimactically that it seems almost inappropriate to call it that--this is simply a sequence of events. Similarly, Michael's moral awakening isn't the result of a journey, or at least not one that takes place over the course of the film. As this article (which also suggests that the film is an indictment of the realities of corporate law firms) points out, he's known for years what kind of people he works for, and what they're capable of, so why is he suddenly spurred to act? The film offers a sort of answer, but I find it unpersuasive. Though I enjoyed watching it, I'm still at a loss to say what Michael Clayton was about, or even what it was.
I fully expected to despise Atonement, an adaptation of one of my favorite novels from the same director who was so tragically mistaken about the identity of the author of Pride and Prejudice a few years ago, and starring that abomination's not-particularly-talented lead. To my surprise, it's an extremely enjoyable and well-made melodrama, though not much more than that. As an adaptation, Atonement is faithful almost to a fault, so conscientious about replicating the atmosphere of McEwan's novel that the instances in which it completely misses the novel's point go almost unnoticed. The film shines when it focuses on Briony, the character whose careless actions spin out of her control and into tragedy--Saoirse Ronan is astonishing as young Briony, an intense little girl with more brains and imagination than is really good for her; Romola Garai is very good playing Briony as a guilt-stricken young woman; and Vanessa Redgrave is, well, Vanessa Redgrave, and possibly the only actress who could have carried off the embarrassingly obvious manner in which the film's twist is revealed. Unfortunately, Joe Wright seems to have once again missed the point of the story he's telling, which, in his mind, are Robbie and Cecilia, the lovers whom Briony's actions tear apart.
On top of the comparisons to Pride and Prejudice, Atonement's reviewers have frequently trotted out The English Patient, but though the comparison is apt (mainly because, like Atonement, The English Patient is a sumptuous romantic melodrama based on a novel that is so much more than that), Atonement makes more sense when considered in conjunction with Titanic, another film which seeks to make a point through the tragic tearing apart of young lovers, and instead becomes the story of that tragedy, with the point all but forgotten. The film's final scene is a betrayal of everything McEwan's novel, and even the two reasonably intelligent hours preceding it, were trying to accomplish. Instead of a smart, thought provoking film about the power and powerlessness of fiction, Atonement is a run of the mill tragic love story--affecting enough while you're watching it, and beautifully put together, but, once examined with any amount of scrutiny, clearly a manipulative and obvious piece of work (which is why the most successful aspect of the film is its soundtrack, as music is allowed to be manipulative and obvious in ways that fiction isn't). Atonement isn't a horrible way to spend two hours, but for a truly meaningful experience you'd be better off with the book.
Juno is very nearly Atonement's polar opposite. I walked away from it thinking that I'd just seen a sweet, enjoyably quirky film whose popularity had far outstripped its merits, but the more I think about and the more I discuss it with others, the more substantial and interesting it seems. I still think the Oscar nominations are a little more than the film deserves--though Ellen Page, who is the heart and soul of the piece, certainly deserves the recognition she's received--but the amount of discussion the film generates speaks, I think, to its quality. There's the obvious question of whether the dialogue in the film is unrealistically clever, and I tend to think that it is, as certain instances of it ('swear to blog?' to name but one example) very nearly jettisoned me out of the film, but more interesting to me are the different perspectives different viewers have on the film's characters.
With very little fuss, Juno humanizes all of its characters, creating three dimensional people where another film would have delivered comedic clichés--Juno's working class parents; her airheaded best friend; the uptight yuppie wife and her manchild husband who want to adopt Juno's baby; the confused and slightly nerdy father of her child. All of them are interesting and lovable, striving to deal with a difficult situation as best they can. Which, ultimately, is what the film is about--not pregnancy, but any difficulty that emerges, as a result of your stupidity, or the mistakes of your loved ones, or just bad luck, to screw up your carefully planned life. I called Juno sweet, which is a sometimes a way of calling a film insubstantial, but a more accurate term would be kindhearted.
Which leaves me with the two best films on the ballot, and the two that I have the least to say about because I haven't yet untangled my thoughts about them. There seem to be a lot of commonalities between No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood. Both are quintessentially American stories which unfold in a bleak, dry landscape that is almost a character in its own right, and in a language that seems like a relic from another era. There Will Be Blood, however, is an opera (right down to the bombastic soundtrack), a turn-of-the-last-century Faust about a man who sells his soul not to the devil, whom he has rejected just as completely as he rejects God or the very idea of divinity, but to his lust for wealth and power.
The character of Daniel Plainview, as written by Paul Thomas Anderson and portrayed by Daniel Day Lewis, is making me reevaluate every on-screen bad guy and psychopath I've ever seen, all the way back to Charles Foster Kane, on whom it seems very likely to me that he was modeled. There have been complaints that Day Lewis's performance goes over the top, but to my mind it is understated, because he never hammers in the fundamental truth of Plainview's existence--that he is a hollow man, consumed by hatred and ambition. Plainview has learned to sham humanity so well that he fools most everyone he meets, including the audience, up until the moment they cross him and he lashes out. Then he fools them again because they, and we, can't imagine that that sort of evil can exist and not announce itself in every word it speaks, and keep mistaking him for a human being. The claims against the film's plotting--that it drags in its second half, and that the antagonistic relationship between Plainview and the equally mad preacher Eli Sunday is built up to a frenzy early on and then dropped until the film's very ending--are justified, but to my mind There Will Be Blood is worth watching simply for Day Lewis and Plainview.
Which is why I think the Oscar should go to No Country for Old Men, which manages to do so much more than deliver a single searing performance. It's a film that does so much so well, and seemingly with so little effort, that I can hardly begin to praise it. The characters and their personalities, the larger-than-life villain Anton Chigurh, the hair-raising thriller plot, and its transformation into something sadder and more philosophical in the film's final 20 minutes--these things are all established with a deceptive ease that carried me away completely. If There Will Be Blood is an opera, No Country for Old Men is a tragedy on a more human scale, and yet no less grand and no less thrilling than Anderson's film. It's also exceptionally well put together--it wasn't until someone pointed it out to me that I realized the film had no soundtrack, because I found the experience of watching it so immersive. I wouldn't be heartbroken if any of the films on this year's Oscar ballot walked away with the trophy, because they all do at least some things exceptionally well, but No Country for Old Men is the only one on the list that succeeds in practically every respect.