Thursday morning the nominations for the 2009 Academy Awards Ceremony will be announced. Normally the press release sends shock waves down the spines of anyone even remotely interested in the industry, however, after a fairly mediocre year of film (one in which the best films were rarely seen or put in the spotlight) it’s hard to say how big the Oscars will be this year. Unlike last year in which there were a number of sure fire wins (Daniel Day Lewis) and some extremely tight races for top prizes (Best Picture, Best Actress) this year’s lineup of possible contenders seems kind of uninspiring.
Sure this will undoubtedly be the year of Heath Ledger’s posthumous prize for The Dark Knight (hopefully the film’s sole prize of the night) and Mickey Rourke is ripe for a roaring comeback but other than that what is there to look forward to. Kate Winslet is one of the finest actors working today and has been nominated and passed over many times in the past. Will this be her year? Will she carry the burden of being nominated in two different categories (Julianne Moore was hindered by this curse in 2003 for a leading role in Far From Heaven, and a supporting turn in The Hours. She lost both)?
Wall-E was one of the most fascinating and prevalent films of the year (besides being a visual triumph of filmmaking, but does it have enough to clench a Best Picture nod? Will there be any love for some of the year’s top indies (many of which were the best films of the year, period) such as Rachel Getting Married, I’ve Loved You So Long, Happy Go Lucky, In Bruges, to name a few?
Overall this was a year of standout performances with very few solid films as a whole. Will strong, thought invoking character performances (Melissa Leo, Frozen River) best Oscar bait, star studded mediocrities (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) only time will tell.
The following is my list of the top contenders at this year’s Oscars if I were picking the nominees. NOTE: Having not seen a handful of films, including Steven Soderbergh’s Che and Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy this list is subject to change.
Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler
Sean Penn, Milk
Brendan Gleeson, In Bruges
Richard Jenkins, The Visitor
Frank Langella, Frost/Nixon
DARK HORSE NOD: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Synecdoche New York
DESERVING OF MORE RECOGNITION: Chiewetel Ejiofor, Redbelt
Still Haven’t Seen: Benicio Del Toro, Ché
Kristin Scott Thomas, I’ve Loved You So Long
Melissa Leo, Frozen River
Anne Hathaway, Rachel Getting Married
Kate Winslet, Revolutionary Road
Sally Hawkins, Happy Go Lucky
DARK HORSE NOD: Kate Beckinsale, Snow Angels
DESERVING OF MORE RECOGNITION: Anamaria Marinca, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, Emily Mortimer, Transsiberian
Still Haven’t Seen: Michelle Williams, Wendy and Lucy
Eddie Marsan, Happy Go Lucky
Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight
Michael Shannon, Revolutionary Road
Philip Seymour Hoffman, Doubt
Robert Downey Jr, Tropic Thunder
DARK HORSE NOD: Bill Irwin, Rachel Getting Married
DESERVING OF MORE RECOGNITION: Ralph Fiennes, In Bruges, John Malkovich, Changeling, Nick Nolte, Tropic Thunder, Jeff Bridges, Iron Man
Kate Winslet, The Reader
Marisa Tomei, The Wrestler
Rosemarie DeWitt, Rachel Getting Married
Francis McDormand, Burn After Reading
Penelope Cruz, Vicky Cristina Barcelona
DARK HORSE NOD: Samantha Morton, Synecdoche New York
DESERVING OF MORE RECOGNITION: Debra Winger, Rachel Getting Married
Rachel Getting Married
DARK HORSE NOD: TIE Synecdoche, New York OR The Wrestler
DESERVING OF MORE RECOGNITION: 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days (snubbed from last year), Let the Right One In
Jonathan Demme, Rachel Getting Married
Gus Van Sant, Milk
Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire
Ron Howard, Frost/Nixon
Charlie Kaufman, Synecdoche, New York
DARK HORSE NOD: Darren Aronofsky, The Wrestler
DESERVING OF MORE RECOGNITION: Tarsem, The Fall, Werner Herzog, Encounters at the End of the World
Charlie Kaufman, Synecdoche, New York
Dustin Lance Black, Milk
Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Woody Allen
Jenny Lumet, Rachel Getting Married
Philippe Claudel, I’ve Loved You So Long
DARK HORSE NOD: Andrew Stanton & Jim Reardon, Wall-E OR Martin McDonagh, In Bruges
DESERVING OF MORE RECOGNITION: Cristian Mungiu, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days, Joel and Ethan Coen, Burn After Reading
Simon Beaufoy, Slumdog Millionaire
Peter Morgan, Frost/Nixon
Justin Haythe, Revolutionary Road
Eric Roth, Curious Case of Benjamin Button
John Patrick Shanley, Doubt
DARK HORSE NOD: David Hare, The Reader
DESERVING OR MORE RECOGNITION: John Ajvide Lindqvist, Let the Right One In
BEST DOCUMENTARY QUAGMIRE
Three surefire nominees for Best Documentary will most certainly be Man on Wire, Encounters at the End of the World, and Standard Operating Procedure. All three are radically different and brilliant in their own regards and this creates undoubtedly the toughest category race at this year’s Academy Awards. Man on Wire has been one of the highest rated films of the year and is the epiotome of what a quality documentary should be–gripping story, unusual subject, and flawless execution. Encounters is Werner Herzog at his finest, a fascinating look at man’s desire to explore their physical world, even to its extremes. Standard Operating Procedure is Errol Morris at his most intense and though provoking. Morris asks the question, is it possible to put a human face on acts of pure evil? Mark my words, the Best Documentary category will be the most gripping race to follow.
Daunting may be the most appropriate word to describe Jonathan Demme’s most recent film, Rachel Getting Married. The film is a painfully honest look at the modern marriage, the struggles with addiction–in regards to substance abuse and the addiction to resentment–the pitfalls of life in suburbia, and above all the binds of family. It is also one of the finest films of the year.
The Dark Knight fever is beginning to die down. Arguably the most anticipated and biggest film of 2008 has made its splash and now the question is, what’s next? Is there another upcoming film this year that will be as well regarded as The Dark Knight? Will Heath Ledger get those posthumous awards everyone is buzzing about? While financially the newest Batman flick will undoubtedly be the victor of ‘08 there are some intriguing films left for this year, especially before Christmas when the slew of Oscar bait films are unloaded. Here are ten fall films to look forward to.
You’ve seen the scores of slick posters plastered around the city. You’ve watched and re-watched the three carefully crafted trailers and now, after almost of a year of nail biting and a piercing level of curiosity, the wait is over. This Friday audiences around the world finally get to head to the megaplex for the highly anticipated continuation in the revived Batman saga, The Dark Knight. There is really not much to say about this film that hasn’t already been said. The film is sure to be the hit of the summer and there is already posthumous Oscar buzz for the late Heath Ledger’s portrayal of The Joker.
Last Sunday the 80th annual Academy Awards was broadcast to some of the lowest viewer ratings in recent years. The winners seemed predictable, save a handful of smaller technical categories. The gala’s emcee (the usually witty Jon Stewart) had his moments but overall brought more yawns than laughs and above all the festivities just seemed to be more of the same with very few memorable moments.
A lot of factors may have played into the Oscar’s fairly mediocre outcome. Two months ago people were unsure if there would even be a ceremony after this year’s writers strike debacle halted previous award shows such as the Golden Globes. The high caliber of performances and films released in 2007 should have made the race all the more interesting but unfortunately so much had been written and hyped about the nominees that most major categories had been unanimously called by those covering the industry (exception might be made for the Best Supporting Actress win by Tilda Swinton, who herself seemed to be a bit jarred when her name was called).
Still the one thing that was most striking about the fairly uneventful evening was how much of a presence and force there was from International talents. If there was one particular sign of the times to take from the Oscars it was that now more than global cinema is beginning to best Hollywood, and rightfully so.
In the acting arena two Brits, a Spaniard and a Parisian took the four major prizes. Many of the technical awards went to those whose foreign tongues kept their acceptance speeches short and endearingly awkward. Even both music categories were swept by those from overseas–Dario Marianelli’s moving score for “Atonement” and the Irish/Czech duo from the little movie that could, “Once.”
Now to be fair the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has always had somewhat of a global eye when it comes to gathering the nominees but more often than not there is a limit to its scope. Take for example the Best Foreign Language Film category, which this year had baffling results thanks to shameless disregard for a number of masterpieces. Now while I have yet to see this year’s victor, the Austrian Holocaust piece, The Counterfeiters, it’s hard to imagine it being a more powerful piece of cinema than Romania’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days.
Here was a film coming out of what is now being called Romania’s own New Wave of filmmaking, that not only tackled the controversial issue of abortion but more impressively portrayed the way of life during a dark time for one of Europe’s most overlooked and forgotten countries. Set in the final years of Communist dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu’s reign, the film is not only a scathing look at the Romania’s former ban on birth control and abortion (a decree that caused a wave of underground, dangerous illegal abortions and subsequently a rise in overpopulated orphanages that plagued the country many years after the fall of communism) but also a portrait of how everyday life was under this regime.
Still despite picking up the top prize at Cannes earlier this year, along with countless other important film festival awards it was ignored by the Academy.
In past years I can think of a number of examples of foreign language films that were not only better than most films being released in Hollywood but were for the most part overlooked all together. Take last year’s Oscar gala. While the Academy finally bestowed some love for Martin Scorsese, they picked one of his more mediocre films. In fact of last year’s Best Picture nominees–The Departed, Little Miss Sunshine, Letters from Iwo Jima, The Queen, and Babel–none of the films were truly as masterful, in my humble opinion, as some of the international fodder that came out.
Take The Lives of Others for example, which took the Best Foreign Language Film statue last year. This film (truly one of the best of last year) combined themes of the sly conspiracy political thrillers from the 1970s with a historical portrait of the paranoid and restricted life in East Berlin under the GDRs regime. The film was so well received that it is even garnering an American remake to be helmed by either Sidney Pollack or Anthony Minghella (it should be noted that The Departed was itself a pseudo-remake of a far superior thriller, Infernal Affairs, from Hong Kong).
Then there was Water, Deepa Mehta sobering end to her element trilogy that focused on India’s British colonial period in the 1930s and the commonplace of women being married off young and the questionable treatment of widows. The film was not so much a scathing look at India’s cultural roots but rather a portrait of what life was like in this part of the world, again a common theme among foreign films that truly sets them apart from the mainstream.
In past years there have been rare moments where international pictures blew the competition away or was able to leak into the bigger prizes usually reserved for Hollywood films. Take Bernardo Bertolucci’s biopic of the last monarch of China, The Last Emperor sweeping the awards in 1988 (technically not a foreign language film, but most definitely not something mainstream Hollywood would put out). Everyone remembers Roberto Benigni taking Best Actor and Foreign Film for Life Is Beautiful. Or how about Spain’s Pedro Almodóvar snatching up the well-deserved Best Screenplay prize and a Directing nom for his film Talk To Her, which was not only snubbed from contention in the Best Foreign Language film category but was one of the year’s best and remains to this day one of the finest films to be released in the new millennium.
This year was a great one for film, no question about it but what is most interesting and promising about the Oscar outcome is that perhaps Hollywood is beginning to open its eyes to an entire world of filmmaking. Every year hundreds of great films slip by the publics eye or are completely ignored because they are subtitled. What’s fascinating about many of these films is that they are often capsules of times not familiar to us, and worlds that are radically different to what we know. While Hollywood still has a ways to go until they truly honor the finest films from a global standpoint, 2007 was proof that perhaps they’re making strides in the right direction.
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.
Forest Whitaker (“Platoon,” “Bird”) has come along way since his cameo as the hard-hitting all-American high school football star in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.” “The Last King of Scotland” marks the magnificent character actors’ 40th feature film and his performance is not only prime Oscar fare but one of the best of his career. This being said, the film itself, while being incredibly suspenseful and interesting, at times feels like nothing more than a vehicle for Whitaker to shine in his flawless portrayal of the former Ugandan dictator, Idi Amin.
Whitaker is no stranger to playing the role of scene-stealer. Throughout his career he has nailed some of the most noteworthy roles in brilliant films such as Jim Jarmusch’s “Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai” and Neil Jordan’s “The Crying Game,” to the more mediocre fare like “Phone Booth” or 1995s creature feature, “Species.” Whether the material is thick or thin, Whitaker somehow always manages to mold his multi-faceted roles into intriguing standout characters.
In “Scotland” Whitaker devours his role as Uganda’s former dictator and worldly monster down to the finest of details. Besides mastering the thick Central African accent, Whitaker fully embodies the almost bipolar aspects of Amin. When he is first introduced Amin is jovial and inspiring to both the naïve protagonist on screen, Nicholas Garrigan (McAvoy), but also to the audience despite our predisposed knowledge of the horror’s to come. As the film progresses and things fall apart, we see the darker side of Amin erupt on screen. This kind of stellar acting feat is what made us sympathize with past venomous celluloid characters such as Adolph Hitler in 2004s “The Downfall’s” or to an extent the fictional Dr. Hannibal Lector–through raw humanism and benevolence even the most horrific of characters can draw us in and toy with our emotions.
“Scotland” is based off a number of different personal accounts and stories about Amin’s brutal term as President of Uganda during the 70s. The young Garrigan is a brash, recently appointed Scottish doctor who decides he’s not cut out for the simple and trite medical practice of his father’s. Through a literally random choice he decides to move to Uganda and try something exotic and, according to him, “fun.” Not too long after he begins his aid work he is befriended by the recently appointed Amin, again through an act of shear randomness.
Amin, admiring the young doctor’s fearless and uncorrupted nature and impartiality to British/Ugandan politics, decides to hire Garrigan on as his own personal physician, a job that he accepts almost entirely on the latent prospect of a more glamorous and possibly exciting future. Garrigan has no real knowledge of the history of Uganda or Amin and as he moves closer and closer into Amin’s personal circle of trust and the chaos that surrounds him we watch his naïve nature slowly peel away.
McAvoy nails his performance as Garrigan but fails to truly leave us with any lasting impression of his portrayal. When it’s all said and done, one can’t help but wonder if some other young Scottish actor could have equaled or bested Garrigan. Ultimately McAvoy serves as nothing more than an aid/fuel for Whitaker’s immaculate adaptation of Amin.
“The Last King of Scotland” is worth seeing, if anything because of Whitaker’s performance. The film is an honest and sobering look into the tortured soul of one of history’s many depraved dictators. Similarly to 2004s “Hotel Rwanda,” which featured a stellar performance by Don Cheadle but was ultimately a fairly forgettable film, “Scotland” is an interesting look at one of history’s bleaker chapters but fails to present any awe-inspiring messages. The film may not leave as lasting impression on you as say other eye opening films like, “The Downfall” or this year’s highly overlooked Indian film, “Water,” however, come Oscar season one can only hope that Whitaker’s performance gets the nod he deserves.