Emily and I went to see Michael Clayton last night, which means that for the first time ever we've seen all five movies nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award. Either our taste is getting worse, or the academy is getting smarter. Or, you know, neither, and this was just an odd year.
Anyway, oddly enough, this year all five movies nominated for Academy Awards are really, really good-- Michael Clayton is probably the weakest of the bunch, and it's still a tense, well-crafted two hours of film. There's not a Titanic or American Beauty in the bunch. What's more, each of these five movies tends to embody some type of critique of contemporary American values. Consider:
The story of a pregnant teenage girl whose family rallies to her support without sanctimonious pronouncements or judgement, and how she makes her own decision about what to do with her own body and her own fetus/baby. Some have complained that her rejection of abortion as a choice seems cavalier, irresponsible, and anti-feminist. While I can understand that point-of-view, I disagree-- I think the scene where she decided not to get the abortion was a psychologically-realistic scene about a young girl who was confused and terrified, trying to do the right thing but too scared to make a real decision. When she finally does make her decision, it's still unconventional (I think conservative viewers would most likely prefer to see her marry her boyfriend, raise the kid, and throw all of her ambition out the window), but it's also empowering, with a strong, pro-woman message at its core.
George Clooney plays a lawyer who winds up embroiled in a corporation's conspiracy to deny its responsibility when one of their products is found to cause cancer. The "bad guys" in this movie are the corporate executives who allow profits to come before human lives, and this motivation becomes even more apparent, more desperate, and-- unfortunately-- more heavy-handed and obvious as the film goes on and the corporation's human face for the film, Tilda Swinton, acts to protect the company's interests.
Websites and messageboards devoted to films frequently have discussions about recent movies concerned with soldiers and war-- Redacted, Lions for Lambs, etc.-- and inevitably someone-- usually a conservative-- will point to these films' poor box office performance as proof that "Americans don't want to watch movies that make war look bad." While there might be some truth to this sentiment, I think it's more likely that Americans just don't want to see bad movies, period. A film that wears its political heart on its sleeve-- that's not a documentary-- is bound to alienate with its didacticism. If the agenda overwhelms the narrative, then the audience feels insulted.
To prove that, consider Atonement-- a well-crafted, suspenseful, tragic story about love, lies, heartbreak, and war. The first half of the movie sets up a status quo that becomes shattered by one child's angry lie; the second-half shows the consequences of that lie while also showing the brutality of war. I can't imagine how anyone could walk out of that movie and think that war-- any war-- is a good idea.
There Will Be Blood
A lot of people really hate Paul Thomas Anderson; I like him. Those who criticize him claim that his films are self-indulgent, and it can be hard to defend him against that-- did Magnolia really need to be a three hour long Aimee Mann music video featuring additional singing from Tom Cruise, Julianne Moore, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, et al? Well... I think so. But I understand those who found it tedious and just too damn precious.
With There Will Be Blood, though, Anderson has finally found subject matter that I think everyone will agree merits the epic scope he likes his movies to have. Not only does this movie present a fascinating time in American history in all of its danger and brutality, but Anderson also draws some eerie parallels between these turn-of-the-century characters and their contemporary counterparts. Daniel Day Lewis's Daniel Plainview is the type of capitalist who brings his business into a community with lots of promises for the townsfolk-- Roads! Jobs! Progress! He even talks a good game about family. He's like a human Wal-Mart (which is the retail equivalent of a plague of locusts, if you weren't aware). Naturally, he forms a brief alliance with Paul Dano's young preacher Eli Sunday-- but you never get the impression that they have much in common beyond a desire for power and influence; eventually-- and it doesn't take long-- their mutual loathing rises to the surface. It's like looking at the Republican Party in 2008-- once upon a time, Rudy Giuliani and Mike Huckabee could put aside their differences for the sake of their similar agendas, but eventually there's going to be a split. And, in the case of this film, blood.
The movie was also just beautiful to look at, with lots of long shots of the undeveloped landscape. And Daniel Day Lewis deserves the Academy Award for best actor, if you ask me-- even though I think they're going to wind up giving the Oscar to either Johnny Depp or George Clooney, since neither has won a Best Actor Academy Award before and Lewis has-- in recent years, it seems like the Awards are given to people based not on the merits of the work currently under review, but rather on how many times that person has been passed over before (thus, Scorsese wins for the The Departed, Sean Penn wins for Mystic River, etc.). But trust me-- Daniel Day Lewis was phenomenal in this movie.
No Country for Old Men
I've written about this movie extensively before, and I haven't changed my opinion at all. It's the Coen Brothers at their most intelligent and, perhaps not coinicidentally, their most critical and Marxist. The movie's as beautiful as There Will Be Blood, but it's more tense, better acted overall, and more nuanced in its critique of our culture and values. It's not only the best movie of 2007-- it's the best movie of the 21st century so far. I'm almost certain. I can't think of anything better at the moment, anyway. So No Country for Old Men is going to win (because it's certainly the Coen Brothers' "turn"), but it also deserves to win.
Other Oscar predictions? Okay-- Johnny Depp for Best Actor, Julie Christie for Best Actress, Cate Blanchette for Best Supporting Actress, Javier Bardem for Best Supporting Actor (it sucks for Tom Wilkinson to be up against Bardem-- any other year, Wilkinson would have deserved it for his portrayal of a manic-depressive lawyer who develops a conscience in Michael Clayton), Coen Brothers for Best Director, No Country for Best Adapted Screenplay, and Juno for Best Original Screenplay.