There are few nights more anticlimactic than Oscar night, the night where we ignore the back and forth between Barry Obama and Hillary Clinton and celebrate the anti-democratic, unelected elite. It’s hardly surprising that in a time of recession and general economic malaise that we have decided to come together to share in life’s rich pageant and praise famous men and women. It’s just a shame that Letterman won’t be there. Without question, the best Oscar host of the last 15 years.

But since the Academy of Revisionist History Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will never admit their mistakes, there’s nothing to do except pick the losers of tonight’s festivities.

Best Actor: Viggo Mortenson, Eastern Promises; Tommy Lee Jones, In the Valley of Elah; Johnny Depp, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street; George Clooney, Michael Clayton; and Daniel Day-Lewis, There Will Be Blood.

In this the year of long titles (we haven’t even mentioned No Country for Old Men), the similarly long winded Daniel Day-Lewis is almost sure to win. The only thing that might hold Lewis back is the very real possibility that the Academy believes Day-Lewis to be on such higher level than any other actor that they don’t actually vote for him. I for one agree; he is so good that there should be a general category, “Best Performance by Daniel Day-Lewis,” but until such time, it’s unfair to hold it against him.

Best Actress: Ellen Page, Juno; Laura Linney, The Savages; Marian Cotillard, La Vie en Rose; Julie Christie, Away from Her; and Cate Blanchett, Elizabeth: the Golden Age

This is a really tough category. I think that Ellen Page wins if everything’s coming up Juno–which I don’t see happening. I’d give the award to Blanchett, but I think she’ll win for supporting actress, and no-one has seen any of the other movies. My mind is telling me to pick Christie, but something is telling me to pick Laura Linney. It was something of a surprise nom, but then again, she’s a pro who has been at it for a while now and this may be here year to get recognized.

Best Supporting Actor: Casey Affleck, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford; Javier Bardem, No Country for Old Men; Philip Seymour-Hoffman, Charlie Wilson’s War; Hal Holbrook, Into the Wild; Tom Wilkinson, Michael Clayton.

Bardem. No contest…upset pick: Tom Wilkinson. Affleck may be the next big star, but this just isn’t his year.

Best Supporting Actress: Cate Blanchett, I’m Not There; Ruby Dee, American Gangster; Saoirse Ronan, Atonement; Amy Ryan, Gone Baby Gone; Tilda Swinton, Michael Clayton

As I said a minute ago, I’m going with Blanchett since she’ll be recognized for both roles. That said, Amy Ryan has the best upset chance, followed by Tilda Swinton in the unlikely “Michael Clayton sweep scenario” wherein she, Wilkinson, Clooney, and the movie win.

Best Director: Paul Thomas Anderson, There Will Be Blood; Julian Schnabel, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly; Ivan Reitman, Juno; Joel and Ethan Coen, No Country for Old Men; Tony Gilroy, Michael Clayton

As goes the DGA, so goes the Oscar. This year that means Joel and Ethan Coen. A well deserving pair, if not necessarily for this movie.

And, lastly, Best Picture: Read the rest of this entry »

Catching up with some friends home from abroad, we decided to give “No Country For Old Men” a try. As it has been discussed elsewhere in Yesterday’s Salad, my synopsis will remain brief. The movie was beautifully shot, and accordingly, the portrayal of violence in the film is both sudden and gruesome. That the carnage feels horrible rather than stylized is a distinction that few films can make.

The epicenter of this bloody spectacle is hitman Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), who is unerringly unnerving throughout; apart from his vacant stare and mysterious hair, he punctuates conversations with sudden bursts from his bolt gun or silenced rifle, straight into his interlocutor. However, the grim consistency with which Chigurh dispatches everyone in his path eventually becomes so grating, that you begin half-listening to otherwise innocuous conversations, worrying that any pause might end in gunfire. To the directors’ credit, a scene about a third of the way through this movie plays with our uneasiness to considerable comic effect.

Tommy Lee Jones’ Ed Tom Bell, the local sheriff, couldn’t be farther from Chirgurh, both in terms of characterization and his location throughout the film. While the amoral Chirgurh resembles the Terminator in his vicious hunt, Bell is a fine match in his unrelenting willingness to sit back and see how things turn out, which Bell assures us, will be a bloody, awful mess. Most of this is chalked up to how unbelievably grizzled he is, as in one exchange with his deputy:

Wendell
That's very linear Sheriff.

Bell stares at the fire. 

Bell
Well. Old age flattens a man.

In fact, Bell turns down almost every chance he gets to investigate, saying that he has every expectation that things will be awful, and that they’ll still be awful after some more coffee and pie. Although the movie ends with him reflecting on being a law-man and the interplay of dreams with his past, these elements are never developed to a point at which they provide a satisfying way to interpret the film.

Needing to feel clean once more, we slipped into a theater showing “Juno,” another movie that you’ve probably heard plenty about. As has been noted elsewhere and in this publication, the movie can be too quick with its cleverness, particularly in the opening scene, wherein a drug store clerk abuses newly pregnant teen Juno (Ellen Page) with rhyming mockery:

JUNO  I remain unconvinced.
Rollo pulls the bathroom key out of reach.
ROLLO   This is your third test today, Mama  Bear.
Your eggo is preggo, no doubt about it!
ROLLO
So what's the prognosis, Fertile
Myrtle? Minus or plus?
JUNO
(examining stick) I don't know.
It's not...seasoned yet. Wait. Huh.
Yeah, there's that pink plus sign
again. God, it's unholy.    She shakes the stick desperately in an attempt to skew the
results. Shake. Shake. Nothing.    ROLLO
That ain't no Etch-a-Sketch. This
is one doodle that can't be undid,
homeskillet.

Thankfully, the rest of the film remained clever without the rhyming couplets. While it was precious at points, the characters were well-developed and believable, and Juno’s considerable quirkiness seemed appropriate to her character, seeing as she is just a teenager, rather than an adult in a Wes Anderson film. Without cataloging the rest of the film, in many ways it was the perfect anecdote to “No Country For Old Men” – it was cute, refreshingly linear, and the only unstoppable thing chasing people was Michael Cera in track shorts.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Juno these last two days. Juno is one of the best movies I’ve seen this year, and will probably get an academy award nomination for best picture (more on this in a second), for its celebrity screenwriter, one or more of its leads, and possibly for its director. Slate called the movie “Knocked Up from the girl’s point of view,” which perfectly captures the movie’s plot, and many of its values, in one sentence.

The movie is funny in an overly scripted kind of way, and ultimately endearing. That said, the movie at times feels like an affectation: the dialogue is often too clever, too stabbingly-snarky, and too cute; the soundtrack is excellent, but too loaded, hardly allowing for any sentiment other than ironic detachment; and Michael Cera isn’t really given anything to do other than being Michael Cera. Or, he’s able to express the movie’s inner-truth about its seemingly effortless portrayal of my emotionally lost generation:

Juno: You’re the coolest person I’ve ever met, and you don’t even have to try.

Paulie: Actually, I try really hard.

Michael Cera (like our beloved Ray Liotta) is a type in and of himself, a brand. He’s able to get away from our expectations in longer, more developed roles like Superbad where he shows dramatic growth, but trapped in a smaller role like Paulie, Cera is never allowed to be anything other than Michael Cera as George Michael Bluth. Superbad makes me suspect that Cera can be an excellent actor; I just hope he finds the right role. But in a way, his casting is indicative of Juno‘s effortful-ness. It is trying to make everything endearingly quirky. On his own, Paulie is a sketch of quirk; with Michael Cera, he becomes the real deal.

I didn’t really agree with Michael Hirschorn’s Atlantic piece that we are becoming a culture of quirk, but Juno makes me wonder. He wrote, “Like the proliferation of meta-humor that followed David Letterman and Jerry Seinfeld in the ’90s, quirk is everywhere because quirkiness is so easy to achieve: Just be odd … but endearing.” There is the temptation to make things quirky just for quirkiness’ sake (in the kingdom of quirk, you are a monster), but that doesn’t mean that quirkiness should be completely shunned. The problem is in the affectation. Juno the character is realized in her quirk, and is all the richer for it. The same earnestness does not apply throughout.

(For a sharper worded critique of a similar phenomenon, see ibiteyoureyes’ review of Little Miss Sunshine.) Read the rest of this entry »