Best Picture Movie Marathon, Part 42
Part 42: 2008
No Country for Old Men (winner)
There Will Be Blood
Atonement (hidden gem)
Every year there seems to be a “little movie that could” – a word-of-mouth film that seems small and unassuming at first, but eventually takes Hollywood by storm. Popular films in this category certainly include Little Miss Sunshine, Lady Bird, Brooklyn, Whiplash and, more recently, The Sound of Metal. But queen of them all is a snarky, sarcastic, dramady about a loveable “cautionary whale” named Juno.
Hyper-articulate and tapped to the brim with ironic insults, Juno MacGuff (Elliot Page) has cultivated the perfect insulation to protect her from the pain and awfulness of being a teenager. Her weapon is her words and her armor is 1970’s rock band tee shirts.
After a somewhat offhand carnal encounter with her best friend, Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera), Juno finds herself unexpectedly pregnant. Her girlfriend Leah (Olivia Thirlby) suggests it may be a false alarm. “It’s probably just a food baby,” she says. “did you have a big lunch?” But three pregnancy tests confirm the fetal reality.
Convinced her only option is abortion, Juno makes her way to Women Now to “…procure a hasty abortion.” But a funny thing happens on the way to the clinic and Juno makes the decision to keep her baby.
In a delightful scene that establishes just how original this film is going to be, Juno confesses to her parents Bren (Allison Janney) and Mac (J.K. Simmons) that she’s indeed with child. Hoping she was expelled or into hard drugs instead, her parents – while disappointed – are not disapproving. She tells them that she’s already scoured the “Desperately Seeking Spawn” section of the Penny Saver magazine and found the perfect couple to adopt her baby. “Someone is going to get a blessing out of this garbage dump of a situation,” Bren says.
Enter Vanessa (Jennifer Garner) and Mark (Jason Bateman), a prim and proper couple in a cookie cutter house. They both seem overjoyed to give Juno’s baby a new home; but as Juno gets to know them better, things aren’t quite as they seem on the outside.
The beauty of Juno, and Elliot Page’s performance, is the true understanding of comedy. Many actors and performers agree that comedy is harder than drama – but harder still is learning the skills of timing, pacing and having the ability to stop just short of going too far. Page is wonderful at this and his relatable and hilarious interpretation help give Juno a strong, beating heart.
Though it didn’t win Best Picture, Juno was the highest-grossing nominee of the five films nominated in 2008. It was Fox Searchlight’s first film to surpass $100 million at the box office had a worldwide gross of $231,411,584. That’s almost 209 million orange TicTac boxes.
At the end of the film, Juno tells Paulie that she loves how he can be cool without really trying. In one of the movie’s best lines, he replies, “I try really hard, actually.” Like Paulie, Juno appears effortlessly cool. It’s a movie about teen pregnancy that’s not anti-abortion, but rather pro-adulthood. It’s a film of rare wisdom, one that knows that the secret to lasting happiness is often simply taking what you have and making the best of it.
No Country for Old Men
Based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy, No Country for Old Men is a thriller that focuses on the darker parts of human nature. It’s a meditation of sorts on chance and destiny, on growing old and dying young. It’s a story in which wrongs are done and there is precious little anyone can do to make them right again. The great fear of this film is not solely Anton Chigurh (nor his truly atrocious hair cut), but the realization that so much of our lives – of the world at large – is beyond our control.
No Country for Old Men begins with a voiceover. “I was sheriff of this county when I was 25 years old,” says Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), thinking back on friendlier days, when some lawmen didn’t even carry guns. “The crime we see now, it’s hard even to take its measure,” he continues. “I don’t want to push my chips in and go out and meet something I don’t understand.”
We meet such a something moments later, when Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), a dead-eyed drifter, is arrested and taken into police custody. His stay isn’t long. After strangling the arresting officer, Chigurh escapes in a police cruiser. Moments later he pulls over a pedestrian, then calmly uses a cattle gun to punch a quarter-sized hole in his head before stealing his car. This is clearly not someone with whom you want to push your chips in.
The story then moves to Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), who stumbles upon a collection of bullet-ridden trucks and bodies while out hunting antelope. A few steps from the crime scene, he finds something much more interesting: a briefcase containing 2 million dollars. Moss takes it and casts his dice against the fates.
It doesn’t take long for Moss to realize that there’s someone, or multiple someones, on his tail. Hired to find the exact briefcase in Moss’s possession, Chigurh is a ruthless hunter who always seems to be one step ahead of his prey. Also on the hunt is a dandyish cowboy named Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson). Sheriff Bell hopes to track down Moss too, if only to rescue him from the fate that will certainly befall him if Chigurh catches him first.
The most prominent theme of this film is fate and each of the main characters chooses to interpret it differently. Chigurh uses the cover of a fateful coin toss to determine the fate of his potential victims. Moss is under the impression that it was fate that led him to the money, but he makes flawed choices once it comes down to outrunning a contracted, psychopathic killer. Sheriff Bell, who’s the most morally sound of them all, comes to the sad realization that he can only deal with the world as it is, not how it was or how he wants it to be. The choices he makes are his own, but the world in which he operates is out of his control. His actions aren’t preventative, they’re reactionary. He can’t help but think fate is finally giving him the sign he needs to hang up his cowboy hat once and for all.
Like McCarthy’s novel, the tone of No Country for Old Men is apocalyptic. It gestures ahead, to a world where the line between good and bad isn’t so black and white. Sheriff Bell doesn’t understand this country, where such evil could exist, but his uncle informs him America has always been like this, cruel and harsh. It’s a place designed to feed on the weak and the old, a place unfamiliar, cold and calculating. It’s indeed no country for old men, particularly those who still can't believe that crime and violence can be committed just for fun, without any premeditation. It’s a chilly, heartless perception of what America is…or is becoming.
There Will Be Blood
The title is a prophecy, a warning, a vengeful supernatural announcement. Blood certainly plays a part in There Will Be Blood, but it’s not the only liquid pulsating through this thriller.
Oil. In early 1800’s America, it was gushing from the ground as if slashed from an artery. It was the lubricant of commercial capitalism and triumph, the driving force of our military conflicts. It made cowboys into millionaires overnight…that is, if you were willing to pay the price.
There Will Be Blood opens with a pair of conflicting vignettes. A solitary gold miner falls down a stony well and breaks his leg. Somehow he musters up the will to climb back up to the surface, where he drags himself across the arid landscape for help.
In another hole, this one for oil, a man stands waist-deep in black crude before a jerry-rigged derrick splits and falls, killing him instantly.
Neither scene has any dialogue, but they work to set There Will Be Blood up as a parable of American capitalism. One man lives, one man dies. One emerges from the Earth, one sinks into it. One winner, one loser.
The winner in this case is an entrepreneur named Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis). Following the death of one of his workers, Daniel takes the dead man’s infant son as his own. This “adoption” is both compassionate and calculating, as we learn when the story jumps forward nine years, to 1911. Daniel’s son, H.W. (Dillon Freasier) is a young partner in his oil business, a fact that Daniel uses in his “family man” pitch with residents of oil-rich towns.
When Daniel gets a tip from a young man named Paul Sunday (Paul Dano) about untapped oil in Little Boston, California, Daniel quickly finds himself in competition for the town’s acceptance with Paul’s twin brother, Eli (also Paul Dano).
Eli is a charismatic preacher who finds comfort in faith rather than wealth. He is a spitting, shrieking preacher who bullies belief from his congregation to some success. Daniel, however, is unimpressed.
What they both fail to realize is that these two forces of religion and capitalism are really one in the same. Both sell their schemes with promises to better those who follow them…then both ultimately betray those who choose to believe what they say.
Though Daniel is living in a material world, he’s not a material girl. His clothes are raggedy and he sleeps in a makeshift tent on the Sunday property. There Will Be Blood is less interested in the material wealth that comes with Daniel’s profession (at least at first) and more focused on what lies behind, or rather, beneath it. This movie is all about what churns under the surface, the vital, subterranean fluids that only occasionally explode into view. Money is certainly important to Daniel, but not as important as winning. In this ego battle between faith and fortune, it all comes down to having all the cards (or, rather bowling pins?) in your hand.
The title is a prophecy and, as promised, There Will Be Blood delivers. In this film, blood takes on many forms: blood that is spilled, blood that anoints, blood that binds. Even as Daniel taps the blood of the earth, Eli calls upon the blood of the Lamb for salvation. Like the oil that becomes much of a character itself, there’s so much that bubbles right under the surface of this story, as well far below it, buried in a chasm. In There Will Be Blood, director Paul Thomas Anderson has dug deep…and has struck black gold.
Atonement is the story of a single, tragic error; an error on the part of someone who is almost, but not quite, too young to know what she is doing…or what she is seeing. It’s an error that radically alters the destiny of three people, forever intertwined in a lie that alters their lives forever.
The three principals in this tragedy include Cecilia Turner (Keira Knightley), Robbie (James McAvoy) and Briony (Saoirse Ronan). Cecilia is a young, beautiful woman of high prestige, the kind who can find joy in sitting around her pool all day as World War II rages in her backyard.
Robbie (James McAvoy) is the son of the Turner’s groundskeeper. Though he is classes below Cecilia, the two have an intimate friendship that is on the brink of turning into love.
The final player is Cecilia’s 13-year-old sister, Briony, who harbors a secret crush on Robbie. It’s her overactive imagination that is to be the ruin, and then the disputed salvation, of them all.
The meat of the story begins in the summer of 1935, when Briony witnesses a strange scene from her bedroom window. Robbie and Cecilia appear to be in a heated conversation by the fountain. Suddenly, Cecilia takes off most of her clothes, dives under the water, and disappears for a few moments as Robbie stands there motionless. Whatever can it mean?
Always inquisitive, Briony finds herself stumbling into more drama that she doesn’t understand – a pornographic love note, a passionate embrace in the family library. Embolden, and perhaps jealous of her big sister, Briony convinces herself that Robbie is a crazed sex maniac. The wheels are set in motion.
Meanwhile, the war rages on. Some years later, Robbie is in northern France – awaiting the ships at Dunkirk. Cecilia and Briony, who have fallen out of touch, are both nurses, looking after the wounded. Now 18, Briony (played now by Romala Garai, sporting the same haircut she had at 13) is trying to atone for what she realizes was a tragic error. She’s secretly hoping her work as a nurse will help her achieve penance for her lie; but her main goal is to try to find and reunite with Cecilia in order to ask her forgiveness.
The film cuts back and forth between the battles in France and the bombing of London. Cecilia and Robbie write letters back and forth, but find it hard to make time for each other amidst the turmoil of war.
The film concludes much later, with Briony in old age (now played by Vanessa Redgrave, sporting the same haircut she had at 13, lol). As a famous writer, she’s finally able to confront the terrible truths about herself and what she did. But, in an autobiographical novel, is Briony finally able to find the atonement she needs?
If you’ve read the novel or have seen the film, you know what happens next. If not, I envy the experience you’re about to have. Atonement begins on joyous gossamer wings, then settles into an abyss of tragedy and loss. It’s a beautiful, tragic story that feels like it belongs on a shelf with Pride and Prejudice and Wuthering Heights. Though told from the perspective of a little girl, Atonement treats us like grownups. There are some things children will just never understand – but there are also things – war, death, love – that continue to mystify us into adulthood.
By definition, Michael Clayton is technically a thriller, but it’s hard to see it in the genre as we know today. It’s an old-fashioned story that asks questions about ethics in corporate America. It begs the question of what to do when those who enforce the law play fast and loose with the idea of what’s right and wrong.
Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson) is the top litigator for the firm of Kenner, Back and Ledeen. He’s been working on a case against the agrichemical giant, U/North, for years. They’ve been sued for 10 billion dollars in a class-action suit for creating a poisonous weed product that has killed more than 400 people.
Medicated for reasons that remain mostly unknown to us, Arthur suddenly decides to go off his meds, causing him to have a mental breakdown during a deposition. This clearly presents a problem. After all, Kenner, Back and Ledeen can’t have a nutcase heading their firm.
Enter Michael Clayton (George Clooney). Clayton doesn’t try cases, but cleans them up. Known as a “fixer”, Clayton specializes in dealing with the firm’s dirty problems that a regular trial lawyer might get his fingers burned on. And, in a law firm, adjusting the truth certainly has a price for anyone with a conscience.
Physically Clayton looks like a typical disheveled lawyer. His tie is never straight. He always looks haggard and tired. His personal life is in shambles and he’s a recovering gambler who has endured his share of heavy losses. But, despite all that, Clayton helps get Arthur up and running again, bailing him out of jail, getting him back on his meds, etc. But problems arise that loom larger than what Clayton thought possible.
On U/North’s side of the table sits another “fixer”, Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton), who discovers that Arthur is in possession of some information that implicates U/North in this lawsuit. The main difference here is that Karen operates without the conscience that causes Michael to utterly hate his job. So who will win? And at what cost?
Michael Clayton is about characters who live in the gray area between morality and immorality, where everyone has a different idea of what is right and wrong. As it is in real life, these characters aren’t really good or bad, they’re just the end-products of the choices they make.
As our main character, George Clooney does a great job of guiding viewers through this story while trying to figure it out himself. He’s smart, but he doesn’t have all the answers – and letting his guard down, even for a moment, can spell disaster for him.
But the cleverest trick Michael Clayton plays is how it’s organized. The film begins with the end, then uses flashbacks to take us back to the start of the story. This allows us to understand Clayton and how he operates. He works in the shadows, he knows a guy who knows a guy…who may know another guy. He doesn’t sugarcoat, nor does he offer delusions of grandeur. He sees himself as a janitor, not a miracle worker.
A legal thriller shouldn’t be realistic. It’s supposed to make you terrified of the system designed to protect you – if only to show you how pliable it is. There is some of that in Michael Clayton, but the heart of the film is really about finding your moral center when the decisions you make on a daily basis aren’t easy ones. It’s about how far a person will go for what is important to them, whether that’s the relationships they have or the job title they want.
Though the pacing drags a bit and it’s not nearly as exciting as some of today’s ‘thrillers’, Michael Clayton still offers an engaging story about how sometimes it’s right to do the wrong thing.
Wins: Best Original Screenplay
Other Nominations: Best Actress (Elliot Page); Best Director (Jason Reitman); Best Picture
No Country for Old Men
Wins: Best Supporting Actor (Javier Bardem); Best Director (Joel and Ethan Coen); Best Adapted Screenplay; Best Picture
Other Nominations: Best Cinematography; Best Film Editing; Best Sound Editing; Best Sound Mixing
There Will Be Blood
Wins: Best Actor (Daniel Day-Lewis); Best Cinematography
Other Nominations: Best Art Direction; Best Director (Paul Thomas Anderson); Best Film Editing; Best Sound Editing; Best Adapted Screenplay; Best Picture
Wins: Best Musical Score
Other Nominations: Best Supporting Actress (Saoirse Ronan); Best Art Direction; Best Cinematography; Best Costume Design; Best Adapted Screenplay; Best Picture
Wins: Best Supporting Actress (Tilda Swinton)
Other Nominations: Best Supporting Actor (Tom Wilkinson); Best Director (Tony Gilroy); Best Musical Score; Best Original Screenplay; Best Picture