Well it’s Oscar season again, the annual soirée of Hollywood shakers and movers all dying to take the stage for their extended acceptance speeches, and all the glory and recognition that comes with that little gold statue. Normally I avoid most major award shows. The Grammys have never really interested me since I’m convinced it’s more of a popularity contest than an actual polling for the best of the best in the music industry. The Emmys always seem to ignore the shows that truly matter (The Wire anyone?) instead honoring the ones that ten years from now will be forgotten (Ugly Betty perhaps). The Golden Globes are like Oscar/Emmys light and then there is the slew of ridiculous MTV awards, which hold no real merit but are rather arenas for mass celebrity whoring. When it comes to the Academy Awards I can’t help but closely follow the annual road to the red carpet. What can I say I’m a sucker for the Oscar race.
When it’s all said and done the Academy Awards aren’t that much different from the other popularity contest award ceremonies listed above. There is plenty of celebrity attention grabbing during the pre-shows and escapades down the flash bulb red carpet. Picking the winners and nominees has always involved a certain level of illogical politics. Individuals are often honored decades too late (take last year with Scorsese), certain masters are shamelessly overlooked year after year often doomed for the end of their career achievement award, and for some reason certain films can sweep the awards (remember how well received Titanic was? Try watching it today).
Still there is something about the Oscars that for me always keeps me coming back for more and this year is certainly no exception. In my opinion 2007 was one of the finest years for film this side of the millennium not so much because of the films themselves but because of the raw performances that carried them.
Major contenders like No Country For Old Men and There Will Be Blood were undoubtedly very strong films, respectively, but each had flaws that, at least for me, keep them from becoming masterpieces. Still the stand-alone performances that were spawned from these films were some of the finest I’ve seen in recent years, which makes this a year of actors rather than filmmakers.
Veteran master of the craft Daniel Day-Lewis locked down his nomination and probable win when he took on the role of oil man/power monger Daniel Plainview, an impressive performance that epitomizes truly awe-inspiring acting. With all due respects to the other contenders in the Best Acting Category–the wise Tommy Lee Jones, the bizarre but gifted Johnny Depp, the devoted to the role Viggo Mortensen and the popular favorite George Clooney–Day-Lewis’ commanding tour de force may be the finest showcase of true acting chops seen in a long time.
Powerful performances filled both supporting acting categories this year. On the actor side Javier Bardem seems to be the locked down nominee for his haunting take on Cormac McCarthy’s walking monster, Anton Chigurh in No Country, still one shouldn’t overlook the other stellar noms including my personal favorite, Casey Affleck in the shamelessly overlooked, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, seriously one of best films most people missed this year.
Or how about Philip Seymour Hoffman for Charlie Wilson’s War who, like reserve wines and soft cheeses, seems to be getting better and better with age. Then there was the great Hal Holbrook who turned in one hell of a riveting performance in Into the Wild opposite the snubbed Emile Hirsch.
On the supporting actress side Amy Ryan’s frightening take on the hard-lived Boston mother and druggie in the surprisingly good Gone Baby Gone would be my pick but all signs seem to be pointing towards Ruby Dee for her brief role in the fairly mediocre American Gangster. Here’s where politics get involved with Oscars. Dee is a veteran actress (and a damn good one) who has never won but honoring her for a bit role (seriously she’s on screen maybe 4 minutes total) in Gangster over someone like Tilda Swinton as the conniving businesswoman in Michael Clayton, Cate Blanchett (the new Meryl Streep) as Bob Dylan, or the young newcomer Saoirse Ronan in Atonement would be disappointing.
I’ve often thought that there should be a third acting category reserved solely for cameo and bit roles that, despite their limited time onscreen, end up becoming scene-stealers. For example, No Country featured a cast of greats but one of the finest performances in my mind came at the end when Tommy Lee Jones’ old sheriff pays a visit to his wheelchair stricken uncle/ex-lawman Ellis played wonderfully by the relatively unknown Anton Corbin. Or how about Swedish great Max Von Sydow’s small but crucial tear jerker performance in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, a film that like many others was snubbed from the Best Foreign Film category, another political flaw in the Academy’s selection of nominees.
There were a number of stellar films to come from overseas that for some reason or another were disqualified from contention in the Best Foreign Language Film category. Besides Butterfly, which did garner a Best Directing nod for artist Julian Schnabel, other foreign tongue masterpieces were ignored. Among them Spain’s The Orphanage or Romania’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days, which took home the top prize at Cannes earlier this year (SIDENOTE: this film is truly a masterpiece and is only now getting a limited theatrical release but can be viewed on IFC OnDemand). How the Academy decides what qualifies and what doesn’t in this category will always baffle me, and it’s a shame because countless classics have been overlooked due to this hitch in the system.
As for as the final coveted Best Picture category it seems to be down between No Country and this year’s Little Miss Sunshine, Juno. I’ve always judged the best picture films on the merits of which movies I will revisit ten or twenty years down the road. Juno was a nice movie with a great screenplay (scribe Diablo Cody is a shoe-in for Best Original Screenplay) but was it truly the finest film this year? Jesse James was on par with No Country but nobody saw it. Despite critics who say Sean Penn strayed too far from the book, Into the Wild was one of the best films I’ve seen in a long time and will surely be revisited in the future. Eastern Promises was also a masterpiece for the bizarre Canadian director David Cronenberg but alas it too was snubbed from most major categories despite being just as violent as many others nominated.
With Jon Stewart returning as host and a slew of great actors set to take the stage, not to mention the possibility of another Michael Moore “shame on you” acceptance speech slam at our current administration if he wins Best Documentary for Sicko, next Sunday’s ceremony should make for one interesting night celebrating film in 2007.