Here we are on the verge of the Oscars again—the 80th set of Academy Awards, in fact—and everyone seems to be all a-dither over the prospect that Jason Reitman’s Juno might wind up copping the little genitally challenged naked gent for Best Picture. The reasoning goes like this: the Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men and Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood will cancel each other out, leaving Juno the winner by default.
While this neatly overlooks the existence of Joe Wright’s Atonement and Tony Gilroy’s Michael Clayton, there is perhaps some sense in it. After all, Atonement is in the unusual position of being up for Best Picture, but Wright didn’t snag a nomination for Best Director. That’s not generally a good sign. (And it raises the eyebrows of an old school auteurist like myself, who has trouble accepting the idea that Best Picture and Best Director can reasonably be separated.)
As for Michael Clayton, it’s simply the dark horse in the race—and, for all its merits, I’d say rightly so. It’s solid entertainment that further establishes George Clooney as the movie star of our time. It has stand-out performances from Tilda Swinton and Tom Wilkinson, but it also has its share of flaws—many of which are masked by its brilliantly precise dialogue.
Personally, I have no problem with the idea of Juno winning. It doesn’t bother me in the least—and not just because I don’t take the Oscars all that seriously (even though I don’t), nor is it the fact that none of the nominated titles would be my choice for Best Picture of 2007. If anyone cares to look back over my reviews for nominated films, they’ll find that Juno is the only one I gave the full five-star rating. Of course, it could be argued that it was easier for a relatively small movie like Juno to achieve its aims when up against such ambitious undertakings as There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men—and that’s true. But isn’t that a bit like saying a mural is automatically better than a three-by-four foot painting just because it’s bigger?
At the same time, it’s hard to escape the feeling that a lot of the anti-Juno furor is grounded in the fact that it’s the single hopeful film in the lot. Everything else is grounded in despair and hopelessness one way or another. The notion that “art” has to be “nasty medicine” is always with us.
If I had to go with one of the other titles, chances are I’d plop for There Will Be Blood. I know a lot of people heartily dislike the film, and I have no problem understanding that. It’s not a pleasant movie by any definition. I don’t myself find it depressing, though I do find it shattering—which is possibly worse than depressing for some folks. Nonetheless, in terms of intent and uniqueness of vision, Anderson’s film is a daunting work. It’s the work a filmmaker with a distinctly personal voice—and it’s a work that both connects to and expands on themes and concerns expressed in his earlier films. There Will Be Blood isn’t as successful as bleak entertainment as No Country for Old Men, but it has a sense of growth that’s lacking in the Coens’ work. Where Anderson is reaching for something more, the Coens seem to me to be treading much the same ground they’ve been over before.
The real problem for me with this year’s choices is that I’m not going to be all that upset regardless of which movie wins. There aren’t any silly or embarassing choices here. The nominees are blessedly free of preachy foolishness like Crash or overwrought melodrama like Million Dollar Baby—two appallingly overrated movies that not only received nominations, but actually won the award. You have to go back to 1952 and Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth to find anything quite as inexplicable as those choices. Each of the nominated films has genuine merit. What shakes out as the winner on Sunday night is almost immaterial—at least by comparison.
If you want something to really worry about, scan down the whole list of nominations—you know all those awards that you really don’t care about, but have to sit through in order to make it to Best Director and Best Picture? Scan way down—past costumes, past art direction—and you’ll find a ticking time-bomb of potential embarassment of untold proportions. See it? Yes, it’s the Best Achievement in Makeup category. There are three nominees—La Vie en Rose, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End and—Max Factor, save us—Norbit.
So the choices come down to old-age makeup on Marion Cotillard, tentacles on Bill Nighy’s head or Eddie Murphy in fat suit drag and/or Chinese makeup. Yeah, it’s a minor award, but that consideration does nothing to dispell the grim prospect of one day encountering the phrase “the Academy Award winning Norbit.” That ought to put the idea of Juno as Best Picture in perspective for everyone.
All will be revealed by late Sunday (or early Monday) and I’ll weigh in on the results in next week’s paper as usual. In the meantime, if anyone would care to make predictions, be my guest.