Atonement (2007)

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Starring: James McAvoy, Keira Knightley, Saoirse Ronan, Romola Garai, Vanessa Redgrave, Benedict Cumberbatch, Brenda Blethyn

Director: Joe Wright

Summary: A fledgling British writer irrevocably changes the course of several lives when she accuses her older sister’s lover of a crime he did not commit

Other Nominations: Supporting Actress (Ronan), Adapted Screenplay, Original Score*, Art Direction, Cinematography, Costume Design

Atonement has some really amazing aspects to it-mainly the cinematography which is some of the best I’ve seen in a nominee in a while, and the score which while slightly repetitive was still outstanding and Oscar worthy. The cast as a whole is good, with all three versions of Briony Tallis (Ronan, Garai & Redgrave) giving strong performances, especially Ronan who was just 12 years old at the time but perfectly plays that distinctive kind of frustration that comes with the being at the cusp of puberty. As far as the screenplay, it’s interesting how they played with both time (periodically having a scene, then rewinding it a bit and showing the same time from a different character’s perspective), and with reality; in general, I thought the movie was strongest during the first section at the mansion, as after that it kind of loses some of its focus up until the last 20 minutes or so. Still, a solid movie that’s fantastic to look at with a great score and some good performances.

Rating: B

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Juno (2007)

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Starring: Ellen Page, Michael Cera, Jennifer Garner, Jason Bateman, Allison Janney, J.K. Simmons, Olivia Thirlby, Rainn Wilson

Director: Jason Reitman

Summary: Faced with an unplanned pregnancy, an offbeat teenager makes an unusual decision regarding her unborn child

Other Nominations: Director, Actress (Page), Original Screenplay*

I came in with relatively low expectations due to its reputation as a “delightfully quirky” indie movie but came away liking it more than I expected to. The dialog is probably the first thing that jumps out at you because people talk in language no normal human would, and about ⅔ of the time it was fine and ⅓ of the time I hated it; however, it gets somewhat of a pass from me for two reasons: one, you really get the sense that the dialogue and all the weirdness in general really is how the writer, Diablo Cody, acts in real life and this has a personal touch that grounds it enough in reality, and two, Ellen Page was perfectly cast and somehow makes the dialogue work where with another actress it would have bombed. Really, in terms of tone and atmosphere, Juno feels like The Adventures of Pete and Pete, a show I love dearly, on steroids although Juno lacks the heart that show had. As for it “advocating” for teenage pregnancy (versus abortion)…eh, I don’t know. I don’t think it’s really saying that this is the better path, just that it a legitimate one that exists…which is true, but it’s not one that should necessarily be encouraged. I didn’t try to read too much into the politics of the movie because I don’t think that was really the point of the movie.

Juno is oftentimes genuinely funny even if it lays on the quirkiness too thick sometimes and Ellen Page’s performance makes the movie work in the end. It’s pretty good.

Rating: B-

Michael Clayton (2007)

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Starring: George Clooney, Tom Wilkinson, Tilda Swinton, Sydney Pollack, Merritt Weaver, Austin Williams

Director: Tony Gilroy (His First Film)

Summary: A law firm brings in its fixer to remedy the situation after a lawyer has a breakdown while representing a chemical company that he knows is guilty in a class action suit

Other Nominations: Director, Actor (Clooney), Supporting Actor (Wilkinson), Supporting Actress (Swinton)*, Original Screenplay, Original Score

While there’s nothing glaringly wrong with it, Michael Clayton felt uncreative and predictable with the cast being the one real saving grace of the movie. In terms of everybody involved with this horrible company being  guess a bit from my personal experience here: my legal ethics professor in law school was a woman who defended R.J. Reynolds in the tobacco cancer class action cases for 20 years and came off as one of the happier and most well-adjusted professors there. To the layman, this might sound crazy, but there’s nothing contradictory about wholeheartedly but still ethically defending an unethical client; in other words, unlike most every character in the movie, it is quite possible to be in this kind of situation yet still be a perfectly decent person who isn’t having a total breakdown due to their conscience. The story felt both overly dramatic and by the numbers, the latter of which really hurt it being an effective thriller that felt like it had any real tension.

Although other aspects may be lacking, I have to admit the acting is very good. Clooney is consistently reliable as a leading man and conveys the world-weariness of his character well; Wilkinson’s always a welcome presence and here he goes all out playing an unhinged lawyer off his meds who can’t deal with what his life has amounted to; and Swinton (somewhat surprisingly in my estimation) won an Oscar for her performance where she’s great at teetering on the edge, just about to fall off due to her actions but can still present a composed face to others. Unfortunately, good performances aren’t enough to make this anything particularly memorable, as it doesn’t dig beyond the obvious or offer any new insight with its themes and there’s not really anything that keeps you on your toes with the story.

Rating: C

No Country For Old Men (2007)*

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Starring: Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, Kelly Macdonald, Woody Harrelson

Directors: Joel & Ethan Coen

Summary: Violence and mayhem ensue after a hunter stumbles upon a drug deal gone wrong near the Rio Grande

Other Nominations: Director*, Supporting Actor (Bardem)*, Adapted Screenplay*, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, Cinematography, Film Editing

I’m glad I watched this-I saw it in theaters when I was 19 and was unable to appreciate how great this movie is back then, probably because it starts off as more of a slow, atmospheric movie. No Country For Old Men does a remarkable job of expressing a theme, that of aging and how older people can sometimes feel like the world they live in no longer makes sense to them, even if in some ways things are the same as they always have been. This theme is expressed through both some of the direct dialogue involving Tommy Lee Jones, but also through the narrative-while the death of a main character, off-screen, with about 30 minutes left and the totally unsatisfying resolution to another character’s story may be confusing and nonsensical, that’s sort of the point: the universe is often a place that lacks logic, order or justice and often random chance rules.

Beyond just theming, this is a movie that has truly outstanding cinematography (not in a flashy way, but just that every frame is perfectly lit and composed) and is full of great dramatic tension. In terms of acting, Javier Bardem steals the show and gives off the kind of genuine menace and lack of feeling or soul that Charles Laughton had in The Barretts of Wimpole Street and Oliver Reed had in Oliver! No Country For Old Men is one of the best movies of the decade with original themes and an original way of presenting them in a remarkably slick package.

Rating: A

There Will Be Blood

Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Paul Dano, Dillon Freasier (his only acting role), Kevin J. O’Connor, Ciaran Hinds, Russell Harvard

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson

Summary: A story of family, religion, hatred, oil and madness, focusing on a turn-of-the-century prospector in the early days of the business

Other Nominations: Director, Actor (Day-Lewis)*, Adapted Screenplay, Sound Editing, Art Direction, Cinematography*, Film Editing

There Will Be Blood is a story of men using wealth and religion as a way of asserting control and dominance over their fellow man, where ambition is an end unto itself-it is truly the most American of films, one that reminds me in many ways of Citizen Kane and The Godfather Part II. Two things especially stood out to me: the first being Day-Lewis’ performance, where he exudes such an incredible presence from his voice alone and is believable as a man of intense ambition, but who can hide it well when needed, and the score which is extraordinarily unique yet totally fitting, and its lack of a nomination is frankly baffling. It also featured some really outstanding cinematography, although in a year with Atonement and No Country For Old Men, I am slightly surprised it won.

However, I still not sold on it being more than a very good film, that it’s something truly great film. Maybe it’s because of how slow it is in really getting going, maybe it’s because the final scene felt a little…too much? Going back to my first comment on the films it reminded me of, it sort of feels like a movie that wanted to be the Great American Film, yet other films have tread on the same subjects (the ultimate emptiness of naked ambition which leads to isolation and paranoia, family as the primary link to humanity) and done it better. Don’t get me wrong, in many years There Will Be Blood would have been my pick for Best Picture among the nominees, but this year I felt the Academy did get it right between two strong choices.

Rating: B+

2007 Nominees in Review

Other Notable Films from 2007

Into the Wild

The Simpsons Movie

300

Ratatouille

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Away from Her

Hot Fuzz

Eastern Promises

Gone Baby Gone

Persepolis

Evangelion 1.0: You Are (Not) Alone

Transformers

2007 Nominees in Review

No Country For Old Men: A (Won Best Picture)

There Will Be Blood: B+

Atonement: B

Juno: B-

Michael Clayton: C

2007 is generally considered one of the best fields of the last 20 years and I can see why, especially since most people like Michael Clayton a lot more than I did and many consider There Will Be Blood as one of the best movies of the decade. It really was one of the strongest two-horse races in recent memory, but I feel the Academy made the right choice in picking No Country For Old Men, a movie which is a film about as well-executed as you can find. We also got some other pretty good movies rounding out the field, and I’m happy that I liked Juno more than I expected to considering how grating that type of film can be to be sometimes. All in all, a great year for the Oscars.

For 2008: As of now, the final 5-film Best Picture field! We have: at long last, David Fincher’s first Best Picture nominee; the director admitted that he (regrettably) did vote for the co-subject and essentially villain of the film; the movie was specifically released right before California voted on Proposition 8 which was to re-ban gay marriage in the state (it was unfortunately successful); Kate Winslet joked about doing a Holocaust movie in the series Extras so she could finally win an Oscar-rather famously, this is of course exactly what happened here in real life; and this film joined Schindler’s List as the only movies to win Best Picture, Director and Screenplay at the Oscars, Golden Globes and the BAFTAs.

But first, another Best of the Decade list:

Best of the Decade (1998-2007)

Best Nominees

  1. No Country For Old Men (2007)
  2. Sideways (2004)
  3. The Insider (1999)
  4. The Pianist (2002)
  5. Saving Private Ryan (1998)
  6. The Departed (2006)
  7. In the Bedroom (2001)
  8. Brokeback Mountain (2005)
  9. Chicago (2002)
  10. There Will Be Blood (2007)

Ranking the Best Picture Winners

  1. No Country For Old Men (2007)
  2. The Departed (2006)
  3. Chicago (2002)
  4. Million Dollar Baby (2004)
  5. Shakespeare in Love (1998)
  6. Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (2003)
  7. A Beautiful Mind (2001)
  8. American Beauty (1999)
  9. Gladiator (2000)
  10. Crash (2005)

Best Actor/Actress/Director

Actor: Daniel Day-Lewis (Gangs of New York, There Will Be Blood); Runner-Up: Russell Crowe (The Insider, Gladiator, A Beautiful Mind, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World)

Actress: Cate Blanchett (Elizabeth, Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring, Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, The Aviator, Babel); Runner-Up: Helen Mirren (Gosford Park, The Queen)

Director: Steven Spielberg (Saving Private Ryan, Munich); Runner-Up: Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Brokeback Mountain)