Darkness and Dysfunction Rule the Oscars (R)
by Phil Boatwright

Throughout last year, the mavens of moviedom gave us a glut of crude comedies, comic-book action threequels, and special effects that overrode story and plausibility.  But as if to repent of a year’s worth of mediocrity and senselessness, in the waning months studios released the works of filmmakers who attempted to examine the soul of man.  With few exceptions, however, the films that grabbed the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences were those that addressed themes of dysfunctional conscience and the darker nature of mankind.  Those deemed worthy of a Best Picture nod were rated R (Juno, being the exception). Click the linked film name for the Preview review.

BEST PICTURE Nominees

With There Will Be Blood, writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson seems determined to reflect the sourest notes of human behavior.  There are two main characters.  The filmmaker does his best to spotlight one of them as a snake-oil hypocrite Christian, without including even the slightest portrait of someone else living a life of religious devotion.  This leaves the audience with the assumption that those who follow Christ are either phonies or morons.  The other lead character hates mankind with a passion that would make Scrooge cringe.  What the film doesn’t give is any clear-cut moral.  Dysfunction is not just spotlighted, it is given prominence over every other aspect of the human condition.

DVD alternative:  Giant.  Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson and James Dean (his last film) give exceptional performances in this sprawling version of Edna Ferber’s novel about life on a big Texas spread.  Unlike There Will Be Blood, which shows evil without repentance, Giant exposes bigotry and prejudice, with the lead character becoming a better man by film’s end.

No Country For Old Men.  A good old country boy finds a bunch of mob money.  Unfortunately, a hit man has been dispatched to get back the loot.   In the news the other day I heard that a young woman answered an ad to baby-sit.  When she arrived, a 19-year-old man shot her to death.  He didn’t want to molest her or rob her.  He just wanted to kill somebody.  They walk among us, these soulless zombies.  That describes the villain in this film.  He’s dead inside.  So, despite the fact that the technical and artistic merits blend together, making it one of the most mesmerizing, armchair-gripping films of the year, one feels as if he’s just spent two hours with the devil.

Though Atonement is a morality tale, reminding us how a jump to the wrong conclusion can lead to tragedy, it also beats you over the head with its despair, as if that component was enough to make for two hours of movie-watching.  Dark, depressing, and immoderate, Atonement feels more like a time of penance than a rich movie-going experience.

At least Michael Clayton and Juno contained some semblance of right being better than wrong.  Michael Clayton fascinated with its insightful, nonlinear script.  Alas, my appreciation was dampened by the film’s often abusive language.  The script was peppered with obscenity and profanity.  What a shame, because I thoroughly enjoyed the other elements of this film.  The lead is drifting, finding no solace in his work or life, then suddenly finds himself head on with a dilemma whereby he can find a sort of redemption.

In Juno, a smart teen becomes pregnant after her first sexual encounter and decides to have the baby, giving it up to an adoptive “perfect” couple.  Starting out with the same cynical attitude we’ve seen in a jillion teen angst movies, intermingled with lots of biting humor, the film soon reveals a perceptive look at today’s high school crowd, with the lead rather blasé about her world until grownup situations take charge of her emotions.  As soon as Juno discovers she’s pregnant, her first notion is to have an abortion (tells you where the society is at, doesn’t it?), but without the filmmakers attempting a flagrant pro-life statement, the sanctity of unborn life quickly becomes apparent.

What didn’t get nominated?

The Documentary category (Sicko, No End in Side, Taxi to the Dark Side, Operation Wartime, War Dance) left out one of the most enlightening films of the year:  In the Shadow of the Moon.  Now, I’m sure it wasn’t snubbed because there’s a Christian witness contained.  Or even that it puts Americans in a good light.  I think it’s just too positive.  The film shows what we can become – not just what we are.  That was not the fair-haired theme this year.

 Other Nominees in the Major Categories

 BEST ACTOR

George Clooney, Michael Clayton
Daniel Day Lewis, There Will Be Blood
Johnny Depp, Sweeney Todd
Tommy Lee Jones, The Valley of Elah
Viggo Mortensen, Eastern Promises

BEST ACTRESS

Cate Blanchett, Elizabeth, the Golden Age
Julie Christie, Away From Her
Marion Cotillard, La Vie En Rose
Laura Linney, The Savages
Ellen Page, Juno

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

Casey Affleck, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Bob Ford
Javier Bardem, No Country For Old Men
Philip Seymour Hoffman, Charlie Wilson’s War
Hal Holbrook, Into the Wild
Tom Wilkinson, Michael Clayton

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Cate Blanchett, I’m Not There
Ruby Dee, American Gangster
Saoirse Ronan, Atonement
Amy Ryan, Gone Baby Gone
Tilda Swenton, Michael Clayton

BEST DIRECTOR

Julian Schnabel, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
Jason Reitman, Juno
Tony Gilroy, Michael Clayton
Keith and Ethan Coen, No Country For Old Men
Paul Thomas Anderson, There Will Be Blood

The 80th Annual Academy Awards airs February 24th beginning at 5:00 PM (PT) on ABC.  Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart hosts.