Saturday, February 23, 2008

Low Res Oscar Week 2008: The Top Ten (2)

2006: Children of Men
2005: Brokeback Mountain
2004: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
2003: Lord of the Rings: Return of the King
2002: The Hours
2001: Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
2000: Almost Famous
1999: Fight Club
1998: Pleasantville

Best Picture

#5 -- Away From Her (Lionsgate)
With Sarah Polley directing a Canadian film amid some kind of permanent winter setting (they do get a summertime up there, you know) about the not-so-happy subject matter of Alzheimer's, with Atom Egoyan producing, I know I, for one, was expecting something that would remind me of The Sweet Hereafter. Which wouldn't have been a tragedy, given how much I loved Egoyan's 1997 film, but it would have seemed like a first-film crutch for Polley. But aside from the famous Canadian female covering a song made famous by a famous Canadian male over the closing credits (k.d. lang's gorgeous cover of Neil Young's "Helpless," contrasted with Polley herself covering The Tragically Hip in Hereafter), this film stands confidently, heartbreakingly on its own. Polley benefits from a pair of the strongest performances of the year, but she also knows when to back out of the marital drama and look elsewhere to tell their story.

#4 -- Zodiac (Warner Bros.)
It's a common rationale, but I wonder if the fact that this time David Fincher made it look so easy ended up counting against him. Particularly after the effort-laden Panic Room (and certainly Fight Club, a film I worship and adore, was not lacking for the visible hand of the auteur), I wonder if something that appeared so organic felt like a letdown by comparison. That doesn't quite feel like a completely satisfying explanation, but otherwise I'm at a loss as to how this movie wasn't a sensation. Particularly in a year when Michael Clayton redefined the legal thriller, Fincher's procedural-on-meth approach should have made for an easy parallel at year's end. But rather than grouse (uh...further) about the lack of acclaim, I'll just praise Fincher's absolute confidence on display -- there's no visual or storytelling device he leans on, no quirk he fetishizes, just perfect period detail, wire-tight suspense, spellbinding cinematography (by Harris Savides), and a stellar cast.

#3 -- Atonement (Focus Features)
I've defended it, tried to rail against the predictable but no less depressing backlash against it, backed off of it for a while to let it breathe, realized that it was going to be tarred with the "failed period romance" brush no matter what, and finally made peace with the idea that the film I saw told a story far more complex. The slow unraveling of almost the entire film continued long after the credits had rolled, deepening rather than invalidating everything we'd seen. Yes, the epic romance seemed strangely unrealistic and hollow. Yes, the war seemed melodramatically harrowing. Consider the source. James McAvoy, Saoirse Ronan, and Romola Garai give performances packed with meaning and deeply internalized regret, and Kiera Knightley's not half bad with the film's least knowable character. The production design seems to be the one thing everyone can agree on, with Seamus McGarvey's cinematography worth so much more than that ballyhooed tracking shot.

#2 -- Once (Fox Searchlight)
There is nothing in this movie that won't break your heart if you let it. The music, the unexpectedly open characters, the father/son relationship, that ending that sweeps you out the window and onto the street. The "musical" tag on Once never felt quite right to me, but the more I think about's about music, the performances advance the narrative however abstractly, and (most importantly, to me) Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova's performances come alive most vibrantly when they're singing. It makes sense -- they're singers, not actors -- but it also underlines that this is as true a musical as Dreamgirls or Sweeney Todd or The Simpsons Movie (unless that constant chorus of "Spider-Pig" was only in my head). Plus, as ever, the rule is that if a movie makes me cry and I don't feel bad about it afterwards, it's a keeper.

#1 -- No Country For Old Men (Miramax)
I feel like I've said everything I've got to say about this movie, but let's hit those bullet points again: crackerjack tension, dynamite actors, and a story that's got way more to say than what the backlashers-come-lately want to admit. Just a shoot-'em-up B-movie? Hardly. The slow but unstoppable march of time, sweeping out one generation and clearing the way for a new one has been a subject that's enraptured me before. But while both No Country and Angels in America saw this march as violent and unstoppable, Angels ultimately saw the world spinning forward, sweeping itself clean, bringing with it the possibility for change. No Country For Old Men leaves its audience no such assurances. Just Death cutting a swath through lawmen, rugged individualists on-the-make, and deep-pocketed corporate types, bringing a world full of uncertainty and chaos. Plus DOOD, did you see him choke the SHIT out of that one guy?

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