Thursday, March 13, 2008
2007 Film Roundup, Part 1: The Oscars and the Year in Review
2007 was a yet another bad year for good blockbusters, but it was a fine year for film overall. And with some notable exceptions, much of that fine work was honored with at least a nomination, if not a win, at the Oscars.
I've seen a few pans, but I thought Jon Stewart was very sharp as the host (he went over extremely well at the Oscar party I attended). He only told two lame jokes by my count. Some of his best quips mixed his usual political mien with the movie biz, as with: "Democrats do have an historic race going. Hillary Clinton versus Barack Obama. Normally, when you see a black man or a woman president an asteroid is about to hit the Statue of Liberty." The writing team apparently had only eleven days to work, much shorter than normal, but the rigors of topical humor for daily TV tends to hone quickness of both wit and production. As it was, the ceremony moved along more briskly and ended sooner than many other years. Furthermore, Stewart was funny throughout the ceremony, and not just his opening set. Oscar presenter chatter is often godawful, but I was pleasantly surprised by the banter between Steve Carrell and Anne Hathaway, and between Seth Rogen and Jonah Hill. And while there were more montages than usual (added to hedge against the writers' strike), the brief "past winners" segments worked well to add some energy rather than grinding things to a torpor. (It was also a wild year for Oscar pools, with a few locks, several upsets and many crapshoots.)
Europe had a strong showing with two Brits, a Spaniard and a French woman winning the acting awards, not to mention wins for Italy and France in other artistic categories and a win for Austria for Best Foreign Language Picture. Daniel Day-Lewis and Javier Bardem won as predicted, while in the toss-up Best Supporting Actress category Tilda Swinton rewarded the audience with an entertainingly bizarre acceptance speech. I missed La Vie en Rose, alas, although I've seen Marion Cotillard be excellent in a few other films. I've heard it's a great performance in a decent film. Regardless, it's nice to see someone that excited to win. (And I'll admit it, I find the gushing French actress thing charming. Hell, she was tearing up when Didier Lavergne and Jan Archibald won for Best Makeup for La Vie en Rose). George Clooney earns style points for praising Day-Lewis, picking him over himself in his published Oscar pool picks and talking about how Day-Lewis raises the bar for everybody else. Yes, he certainly does.
A record number of women were nominated in the two screenplay categories, a neat development, and Diablo Cody's win for Juno was as close to a lock as you'd get. However, seeing all the films nominated for acting awards continues to be the toughest to accomplish for the Best Actress category. As usual, finding films with great female leads is much easier in more indie fare.
I'd have given Best Picture to There Will Be Blood, but I can't be too upset about seeing the Coens win. In my book, Atonement was the weakest entry in the Best Picture category, and even it had its merits. It's a bit amusing that Juno trounced the other nominees at the box office (There Will Be Blood could have benefited from more preview screenings to get the word out before those "Best of 2007" year-end critics' lists). Meanwhile, it's interesting that two of the top contenders, There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men, can both be viewed as westerns, albeit unconventional for the genre. Add 3:10 to Yuma, a more standard entry, to that list.
I'd have given the editing and cinematography awards to The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (maybe even directing), although I can't fault Robert Elswit winning for his superb work on There Will Be Blood, and his speech classily thanked the production design team, the rest of the crew and Paul Thomas Anderson. I am disappointed that The Bourne Ultimatum won in editing and both sound categories for three reasons. One, while that style of editing has its place, and can be very effective if used selectively, I don't want to see it encouraged as a default style. Two, "sound mixing" versus "sound editing" is not well understood, even if they are increasing blurring together in actual practice. But basically, "sound editing" is the cool sound effects while the mixing is the overall use of sound — unless the Academy's decided to define them differently. It often makes sense to give "sound editing" to an action, horror, or sci-fi film, but less so for "sound mixing." Three, it's a cliché to give editing and both sound awards to an action film of some sort. Again, for sound editing, that's appropriate, but more subtle and lyrical work tends to get shunted, in this case No Country for Old Men, Diving Bell… and a few others.
Still, the biggest travesty to my mind was that the Romanian film Four Months, Three Weeks, Two Days wasn't nominated for Best Foreign Language Film, and didn't even make the pre-nomination short list. The Counterfeiters, the winning film, is quite good, but just not in the same league. (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly was also better, but France nominated Persepolis instead, and Diving Bell… has an American director and some British funding, which may have complicated matters.)
The studios and the wider public have discovered Amy Adams (see Junebug if you haven't), which is good news, especially since she has a few new films coming out (Ann Hornaday has a good review of Mrs. Pettigrew Lives for a Day). While Adams gave a peppy performance at the Oscars, she was sadly hampered by the lack of dancing vermin that "Happy Working Song" really requires. Okay, I understand the Academy's reluctant to sport singing and dancing cockroaches, but in a year when Ratatouille wins Best Animated Feature, surely some cavorting rats could be managed? While the lyrics are fairly witty, no one's going to catch them at the Oscars, and without the dancing vermin, rather than being a send-up of cloying, Alan Mencken-Disney treacle, the song comes off as simply… cloying, Alan Mencken-Disney treacle.
And what was up with three songs from Enchanted, anyway? Where was the nomination for "Superwhat?" Not enough lyrics? Was the same true for Honeydripper? Surely there were some other, better options?
Speaking of which, the highlight of the Oscars for me was the win for Best Original Song for Once, a lovely validation for one of the best films of the year. Glen Hansard was clearly nervous, endearingly so, as he performed "Falling Slowly" on his battered guitar with Markéta Irglová. His enthusiastic acceptance speech ("T'anks!") was moving, especially since Once was indeed shot in about three weeks for under one hundred grand and they planned just to sell some DVDs at their concerts. Meanwhile, one of the all-time Oscar highlights for me was allowing Markéta Irglová back out to say a few words. Indie artists everywhere are grateful.
This leads me to renew my habitual suggestions for the Oscars. Acceptance speeches are only given 45 seconds, although they're more lenient with the big winners. In cases where they are multiple winners, there should either be a designated speaker as at the Emmys, or they should give at least 20 seconds to each person. The speeches aren't what make the show drag, and I always feel awful when someone gets shut out, because especially for the techies, below-the-line crew, documentarians and animators, it's one of the few times their work is really celebrated, certainly that publicly. Also, the Oscars should officially promote the entries for all three shorts categories, perhaps hosting them on their site or linking them, and promoting online voting to pique viewer interest. Finally, for foreign language films, a wild card option for major award winners should added to prevent films such as Four Months… from being shut out. (Ann Hornaday has a great piece on efforts to reform the process here.)
As I've written elsewhere, it's fair to deride the Oscar ceremony itself, and certainly the coverage of it, as fluff. But the work itself is not, certainly not this year. While Best Documentary Feature is almost always a substantial category, this year there was stiff competition between the film about the Bush administration's astounding incompetence in Iraq, the health care crisis in America, and our country's shameful policy of torture. Meanwhile, those who realize film can be both art and entertainment had some great viewing choices in 2007.
Pickings were lean as usual during the summer, though. Normally there's at least one decent blockbuster, but this year — with the possible exception of The Simpsons Movie, but that's sorta its own category — there really wasn't. Overall, it was the summer of lackluster third installments: Spider-Man 3, Shrek 3, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World End, and Ocean's Thirteen. I didn't see Shrek, but the other entries seemed to suffer badly from what screenwriter Jack Epps calls the "More Ninjas!" syndrome. Basically, the filmmakers try to cram in a bunch of crap, or add a bunch of spectacle, rather than calming down, simplifying and really considering what the heart and spine of the story are. One can have spectacle and story, of course, but there's a reason why we remember the climaxes of Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark while, if you're lucky, the big CG-finales of 1999's End of Days and The Haunting have mercifully slipped from memory.
On that note about good storytelling, and how being truly cinematic is not that same thing at all as providing "spectacle," this past year witnessed the passing of two great masters of cinema, Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni. I have an appreciation of Bergman here. The medium is all the richer for their contributions.
With all that said, on to the films themselves, broken into rough tiers but in no particular order beyond that. I'm using my usual standard regarding plot discussions: a) if you'd know it watching the trailer, it's not a spoiler, b) I try to avoid spoilers, and c) I try to give a spoiler warning where appropriate. Apologies if I forget any warnings. I'm also including my usual set of links to interviews and such. I trust most people can find trailers, cast lists and purchasing info on their own!