In an awards season of diminished luster, Tuesday’s Academy Award nominations offered hope for movie lovers.
The best picture category is filled with winners, aptly reflecting an especially accomplished year for cinema. The extraordinary “There Will Be Blood” and “No Country for Old Men,” both of which collected eight nominations, will vie against the exceptional “Atonement” and “Michael Clayton,” nominated in seven categories apiece.
If the fifth best picture nominee, “Juno,” doesn’t seem to measure up to the others (or to the superior “Into the Wild” or “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” neither of which made the best picture list), one can hardly blame Oscar voters for appreciating the same pregnant, hyper-verbal 16-year-old girl whom America already has chosen as its new sweetheart. Or for selecting, in a best picture race dominated by brooding themes, at least one picture with a happy ending.
The breakout box-office hit among Oscar contenders, “Juno” picked up four nominations, including a surprise nomination for director Jason Reitman. The academy also showed a welcome independent streak in the lead actor and actress ranks, recognizing Tommy Lee Jones’ heartbreaking performance as the father of a missing Iraq war veteran in the little-seen “In the Valley of Elah” and Laura Linney’s fearless work as the neurotic daughter of a dying man in “The Savages.”
The best actor category might be one for the ages, seeming to come down, already, to George Clooney’s subtle portrayal of an ethically challenged law-firm “fixer” in “Michael Clayton” and Daniel-Day Lewis’ immersive yet highly theatrical work as a dark-hearted oilman in “There Will Be Blood.”
Since it’s nearly impossible to choose between these apples-and-oranges roles, I’m hoping for a tie (it happens sometimes - remember Katharine Hepburn and Barbra Streisand in 1968). But Jones would be a great choice as well, as would Johnny Depp, homicidal but surprisingly tuneful in “Sweeney Todd,” or Viggo Mortensen, who brings a humane streak to his Russian mobster in “Eastern Promises.”
The omission from the nominations of Emile Hirsch’s wonderful performance in “Into the Wild” is a true disappointment, as is Sean Penn’s shutout from the director race. “Into the Wild” was one of the few 2007 awards contenders able to forge a true emotional connection to movie audiences. At least Hal Holbrook was nominated for his heartrending supporting performance as an older man who befriends Hirsch’s wandering character.
A nominations year dominated by “No Country,” a film that follows three determined men in the aftermath of a drug deal gone wrong, and “Blood,” a nearly estrogen-free historical epic, doesn’t leave a lot of room for female performances. Yet the best actress category, like the best picture and actor races, is remarkably free of padding.
Cate Blanchett’s reprise of her role as Queen Elizabeth I in “Elizabeth: The Golden Age” scored her a lead actress nomination to accompany her supporting nomination for “I’m Not There.”
In the lead category, she’s up against Linney and Julie Christie, already the favorite for her poignant turn as an Alzheimer’s patient in “Away From Her.” Also making the list were Marion Cotillard, the embodiment of singer Edith Piaf in “La Vie en Rose,” and Ellen Page, the 20-year-old Canadian actress who is simply terrific as the too-big-for-her-maternity-britches title character in “Juno.”
Still, it’s hard not to wish Oscar voters had gone out on a limb and recognized Amy Adams’ delightful portrayal of a displaced fairy-tale princess in “Enchanted.” The movie probably seemed too lightweight for Oscar. But hey, if you’re going to nominate Page, Adams isn’t too much of a stretch.
Keira Knightley, who seemed to have a good shot at a nomination for her performance as a woman separated from her lover by a lie and then war in “Atonement,” didn’t make the list. But hers was always a glorified supporting role, anyway.
Angelina Jolie, once considered a shoo-in for a nomination for her performance as Mariane Pearl, wife of slain journalist Daniel Pearl, in “A Mighty Heart,” also was shut out.
Perhaps Oscar voters were reluctant to sit through a film whose sad ending they already knew.
Jolie’s absence diminishes the star wattage of a nominee roster composed of critical rather than popular favorites. Then again, star wattage might not matter.
Though the academy has vowed that the Feb. 24 Oscars ceremony at Hollywood’s Kodak Theatre will go on regardless of industry labor issues, the ongoing writers strike could mean a show sans guild writers and actors who refuse to cross picket lines. Though unlikely to match the embarrassment of the Golden Globes “show,” an Academy Awards without movie stars is too depressing to contemplate.
Here’s hoping the show goes on, pomp intact, if only for the pleasure of seeing supporting actress nominee Ruby Dee, 83, in the same room as well as in the same category as Saoirse Ronan, who is 70 years Dee’s junior.
As a drug kingpin’s mother and the voice of reason in “American Gangster,” Dee outshines Denzel Washington at times - not an easy task. Ronan, scary-good as a girl with a crush and an agenda, gives the most memorable performance in “Atonement.”
For fans of great acting, the supporting-actress field is bliss, period. Blanchett is far more likely to win here than in the lead actress category, and she deserves to win just for making the ambitious but irritating “I’m Not There” bearable for about half an hour.
Her main competition is Broadway veteran Amy Ryan, nominated for her fearless portrayal of a missing girl’s reckless mother in “Gone Baby Gone.” Her performance offered one of the few “who is that?” moments of 2007 - those times when you sit up and take notice of a previously little-known performer.
Tilda Swinton is great in everything, and she continues to be great as a nervous, conniving corporate lawyer in “Michael Clayton.” Ditto Tom Wilkinson as a brilliant, mentally unbalanced litigator in the same film.
But in the supporting actor category, I only have eyes for Philip Seymour Hoffman’s rogue CIA agent in “Charlie Wilson’s War” and Javier Bardem’s coldblooded killer in “No Country for Old Men.”
Unlike supporting performances that serve as flavoring, Hoffman and Bardem truly make an impact on their respective films. Hoffman’s impeccable comic timing makes “Charlie Wilson” worth seeing, and Bardem’s utter lack of humor and unstinting stare help lift “No Country” from great to phenomenal.
It all comes down to the number of great moments in a single film, and “No Country for Old Men” simply contains more of them than “There Will Be Blood.” For this reason, Joel and Ethan Coen have to be the favorites in a directing category boiling down, essentially, to them and “Blood” director Paul Thomas Anderson.
But the best individual scene of 2007 occurred not in these violence-soaked films but in a PG-rated animated movie about a rodent with culinary aspirations. The scene involves a cranky food critic being instantly transported back in time after sampling one of the rat’s offerings.
I’m guessing this particular scene is the reason “Ratatouille” scored five nominations. More than any other scene in a 2007 film, it represents what Oscar should always be about: pure movie magic.