To: Lynda Obst
Sent: Tuesday, February 19, 2008 12:38 PM
From: David Edelstein
Subject: No Country for Good Cheer
Well, well, well, we do get to talk about the Academy Awards this year. Despite the cancellation of the Golden Globes ceremony (quel agony!), there was no way that Hollywood could have gone without its annual orgy of self-congratulation — the best incentive from a public-relations standpoint to settle the strike. For moviegoers, a year without Oscar is unimaginable. So little in our culture has value on its own terms: Without the opening of the envelope, there is no climax, no catharsis.
Speaking of no climax, no catharsis, the front-runner for Best Picture is No Country for Old Men, a film that critics — this one included — cherished but has left audiences crying out in despair over the nominal hero’s resignation and the endurance of evil, however hobbled. The downbeat nonending is presented not so much as systemic failure, as in HBO’s The Wire, or the power of unbridled capitalism to poison human relations, as in There Will Be Blood. It is simply that God the Creator has left the field. We brood, we contemplate action, but we cultivate our own little gardens It is not, I imagine, the sort of message Academy voters want to speak for them. And isn’t that the point of Best Picture? To choose something that will represent the industry’s best impulses and stir people’s souls?
Yet this is a year in which so much has gone to shit. There is a sense among the enlightened that our way of life is about to change radically, that our economic system will collapse, our suburbs will fall, our environment will exact its revenge. With all the downbeat Iraq movies DOA at the box office (what a lesson was there!), No Country might be the best way for Academy voters to signal that it’s not show business as usual.
Unless unless No Country and There Will Be Blood split the nihilist-horror vote and little old edgy feel-good smash hit Juno sneaks in. As one of the few critics to dislike Juno, I would be devastated — but weirder things have happened in these silly awards. Or is the Juno backlash too strong? Or is there, as my New York colleagues have suggested, a backlash against the backlash?
It’s a testament to how weak Atonement is that an absolute natural for Best Picture has no chance. It’s a difficult narrative, but in the novel, in the hands of Ian McEwan, it has an emotional wallop. The film, on the other hand, is at arm's length — reflected in the fact that its director, Joe Wright, wasn’t nominated. My guess is that Atonement will win the prize for Best Score because the composer, Dario Marianelli, weaves typewriter clacks into otherwise romantic music — the kind of gimmick that gets you noticed. It could also win for Best Cinematography for that impressive but ridiculous extended battlefield shot that stops the narrative cold. (What’s your guess on the Cinematography front? Robert Elswit’s work in Blood has mythic beauty and horror — but so does Roger Deakins’s in No Country, and Deakins is overdue. Or could Janusz Kaminski sneak in for the Schnabelific imagery in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly?)
For the record, my favorite movie of the year was Diving Bell, followed closely by There Will Be Blood. Neither will win much, with the obvious exception of Daniel Day-Lewis, who bestrides the Academy like a colossus. I loved Frank Langella in the indie drama Starting Out in the Evening and think that if he’d been nominated — forcing voters to see the film — he’d have had a dark-horse shot. Now Day-Lewis will drink the others’ milkshake.
Is Javier Bardem a lock as well? It would seem so. Complaints that he’s the lead are absurd — he’s not, although Casey Affleck unquestionably is the lead in The Assassination of Jessie James by the Coward Robert Ford. (I don’t think Affleck has a chance — the film is so painfully self-conscious that I doubt most Academy voters made it to the end of their DVD screeners.) Hal Holbrook? Never discount the fogey vote. But again, it’s a matter of making it to the end of the screener. Am I too cynical? No, I am not cynical enough.
Julie Christie is luminous in Away From Her and has won many of the critics’ prizes. But what if she and Marion Cotillard split the fogey vote and the scarily self-possessed Ellen Page walks off with the award? Any chance? Christie is high-strung on the awards and party circuit — no Ruby Dee. Laura Linney is too good and natural (you can’t see the acting), and Blanchett’s nomination for the catastrophic Elizabeth sequel is a joke — more a sign of voters’ loathing for Helena Bonham-Carter’s singing than anything else.
Blanchett in I’m Not There reminded me of Chuck Barris, but her Katharine Hepburn impersonation won her an Academy Award and maybe her Dylan one will, too. Is she the favorite? I thought Amy Ryan also overacted like mad, but she’s such a lovely presence (her work in The Wire was terrific) that I’m pulling for her. The Atonement girl is a long shot, and who can spell her name? And Ruby Dee? For one scene? Could happen, I guess. Sentimental favorite long and honorable career despite the odds Ossie beaming down from heaven
Are the Coens a Best Director lock? It would seem so. They have managed to make difficult movies without selling out or sucking up or becoming players. (I said hello to them at the recent New York Film Critics ceremony, and Ethan could barely conceal his contempt I didn’t take it too personally. I think they’re good guys who only give a shit about critics and awards insofar as it will ensure that no one bothers them.) They will probably win the adapted-screenwriting prize, although that would be a way of sending Paul Thomas Anderson home with something I’ve resigned myself to the person–who–calls–herself–Diablo Cody’s inevitable win, although if Tamara Jenkins somehow beats her out, you’ll hear me whooping way out in L.A.
Ratatouille is a lock for the feature-animation prize, cementing Brad Bird's reputation as both our leading mainstream animator and our most influential Ayn Randian. Art direction and costumes belong to Sweeney Todd, but as these prizes tend to go to more conventional period pieces, I wouldn't be surprised if Atonement wins in at least one of those categories. I’ve seen only two of the foreign-language films, and the award is shamed by the absence of the Romanian 4 Weeks, 3 Months, 2 Days — so I have no opinion. In the documentary category, I’d hate to have to vote between No End in Sight and Taxi to the Dark Side, smart and disciplined films that do a stellar job demolishing the U.S. strategy in Iraq on both a macro and micro level. If they split the vote, Michael Moore could win for his excellent Sicko. Hollywood might relish the chance to see him say, “I told you so.” By the same token, perhaps the prizes for No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood will be seen as the final verdict on the reign of King George the Venal.
The above, of course, has nothing to do with artistic merit and is purely political punditry. (Let's hope we're less clueless than the actual political pundits this year.) I know you’re shooting a Ricky Gervais movie in Boston, Lynda, but trust you have a finger to the West Coast winds.
Now — can Obama take Wisconsin?