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Frank J. Avella's
November 2007 Film Column

Opposite Photo: Halle Berry and Benicio Del Toro in Things We Lost in the Fire


I’ve always been in love with autumn. The summer heap of crap-alicious movies become just another blurry footnote and the prestige pics begin to be unveiled. The New York Film Festival is the one event that heralds the changing of the cinema guard as we move from the August studio dumping ground to the Oscar hopeful rollouts.

I have seen over forty films in the last four weeks (a record, I believe, even for me) and am happy to report that most of the current and soon-to-be fall releases are, actually, very good. A handful are definitely worthy of award consideration. And, as always, a few are disappointments.

Oscar Time…already?

The self-proclaimed awards-expert bloggers have already begun their Oscar handicapping, which is expected. And can be fun. What galls me is that a chosen few of them insist on dismissing films that most critics have yet to see (including themselves) and they assume others (again that they haven’t seen) will definitely be in contention for the top prizes. This happens year after year where certain prestige flicks (Alexander for Best Picture, anyone?) that have not been screened, end up being ballyhoo’d right up until the moment they fizzle. Then these same journalists remove the film from their lists and never apologize for being so presumptuous in the first place.

I refuse to do that.

My concentration will solely be on films I have seen. My potential Oscar mentions will have everything to do with MY feelings about the films (my gut has allowed for quite the decent track record over the MANY years I have immersed in the Oscar mire!) and will also be based on the buzz I have overheard at screenings and--speaking with/following the work of-- fellow reporters.

And while the box office factor has been bandied about quite a bit lately, I think it’s bullshit. Babel was nominated for Best Picture last year and virtually no one saw it (except, obviously, a few Academy members). And the year previous boasted five best pic nominees with possibly the lowest cumulative box office take ever (Brokeback Mountain, Capote, Crash, Good Night and Good Luck, Munich). In addition, as far as nominations in the other categories go, earned grosses mean little--lest we forget the films Little Children, Venus, Volver, Notes on a Scandal and, yes, Babel, received major nominations last year based mostly on critical acclaim—certainly not on box office.

In any event, what follows is my personal look at the race as it’s shaping up going into the all-important home stretch solely based on films I have seen.

The front-runners:

Emile Hirsch and Sean Penn on the set of Into the Wild

Agreement across the boards has Into the Wild as one of the early favs for Best Picture, Director (Sean Penn) and Actor (Emile Hirsch). This extraordinary work deserves all the accolades it may get. Penn is in line for a directorial nod (historically, the Academy does like to recognize actors turned director) and Emile Hirsch has a shot at a Best Actor slot.

Controversial filmmaker, David Cronenberg, has received a heap of hosannas for his latest film, Eastern Promises. Viggo Mortensen, in the best role of his career so far, was a likely Best Actor nominee—last month, but the race has become quite overwhelmed with great performances. Promises is a towering work but so was A History of Violence back in 2005 and it was reduced to two nominations.

Ethan Hawke and Philip Seymour Hoffman with Sidney Lumet in
Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead

Sidney Lumet, at age 83, has made a film that is on par with some of his best early work. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is an instant classic as far as I’m concerned and it would not surprise me if there were nominations across the boards for Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke (who is just fantastic and deserves to win), Marisa Tomei and, perhaps, even Albert Finney who has, incredibly, never been Oscared

Devil is a lacerating and devastating portrait of a family in nightmare. With elements of Greek tragedy blended with O’Neillian greed and resentment sprinkled with modern sexual frustration and jealousy, this saga is the best film I have seen this year. The script is crisp and clever. The acting, flawless. And it’s the kind of courageous, raw filmmaking one expects from younger helmers. That Lumet is an octogenarian only adds to the triumph.

Lumet received an Honorary Oscar two years ago but has never won the award outright despite making some of the all-time classics: 12 Angry Men; Serpico; Dog Day Afternoon; Network; The Verdict). He could very well prove to be this year’s Martin Scorsese. ThinkFilm, the smallish company that is handling the film, needs to put all their efforts behind this gem.

Brad Pitt in The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford

While The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford has not been as widely praised here as in Europe, Casey Affleck’s performance has--and, to a lesser extent—so has Brad Pitt’s star turn. I think the revisionist western—if you can even call it a western—is brilliant. My dissentiency is also evident in my adoration for Margot at the Wedding, and if there’s any justice it will bring Nicole Kidman another nomination—if enough Oscar voters bother to see it. Jennifer Jason Leigh is, also a possible contender.

Morgan Freeman, Casey Affleck and Michelle Monaghan in
Gone Baby Gone

But back to Casey Affleck for a moment…as well as actor’s directing. Gone Baby Gone is one of the great surprises of 2007, a searing and penetrating film with a killer supporting performance by Amy Ryan as the white trash mother as well as impressive work by Affleck. His conflicted detective forced to make an impossible choice has been one of the great acting surprises of the year. And who knew his brother, Ben, was capable of such solid work behind the camera (and, again, the Acad does love a good actor turned great director story). This year’s awards derby may just be a family affair for the Afflecks.

Cate Blanchett as Bob Dylan in
Todd Haynes' I'm Not There

Abby Cornish, Cate Blanchett and Clive Owen in
Elizabeth: The Golden Age

And while we’re on the subject of potential dual nominations, let’s discuss this year’s Queen: the great Cate. Elizabeth: The Golden Age, while not near as good as the original, will possibly yield another Best Actress nomination for Cate Blanchett as well as a slew of tech nods. Blanchett, also, has a great chance at a supporting nomination since she is the one thing everyone who sees Todd Haynes’ fascinating I’m Not There can agree on. Her Dylan is astonishing. Haynes may prove again to be this years critic’s darling (Far from Heaven walked away with many a critic’s prize in 2002 but failed to get a pic or director nomination), but I doubt that will parlay itself into any major recognition with the Academy.

George Clooney in Michael Clayton

George Clooney keeps making very smart choices (I, for one, appreciated The Good German) and the thrilling thriller Michael Clayton may very well have him in the Best Actor running this year for his powerful work. The fantastic Tom Wilkinson and Tilda Swinton could ride the wave as well.

Josh Brolin in No Country for Old Men

No Country for Old Men provides the Coen brothers with their best shot at Oscar since Fargo. Crix are loving this one (look for many a prize bestowed on the brothers at year’s end). It’s certainly a gutsy film. I wasn’t as blown away as my colleagues, but I was bedazzled by the brilliant Javier Bardem as one of the most memorable screen villains in a long, long time.

Sam Riley in Control

Control explodes newcomer Sam Riley into the stratosphere. His work in the Ian Curtis biopic demands attention and is one of my favorite perfs so far this year. Another electric turn is Benicio Del Toro’s wrenching portrayal of a heroine addict in Things We Lost in the Fire. He is matched by a heartbreaking Halle Berry, who finally proves her Monster’s Ball Oscar was no fluke.

Mathieu Amalric is nothing short of astonishing in Julian Schnabel’s visually arresting, emotionally absorbing The Diving Bell and Butterfly and it certainly feels Academy-friendly, although it is a foreign-language film, which can work against it—that and the 25,000 Best Actor favorites vying for just five spots!

Same holds true for Frank Langella’s somber yet potent performance in the surprise treat, Starting Out in the Evening. In addition, Lauren Ambrose impresses as an aggressive grad student. The film suffers from a disappointing fourth quarter, but rates recognition.

The Orphanage is a riveting thriller with all the excitement of Pan’s Labyrinth. It could, very well, find itself in the running for a few trophies.

Ryan Gosling, Emily Motimer and Paul Schneider in Lars and the Real Girl

The oddest film and, arguably, greatest long shot so far in 2007, is the sublime Lars and the Real Girl. A truly phenomenal work that lovingly probes the psychology of it’s characters, the film’s magic is enhanced by wonderful actors. Emily Mortimer, Paul Schneider and Patricia Clarkson do great work here, and Ryan Gosling, is mesmerizing as the delusional Lars.

American Gangster simply blew me away and gave me major The Departed chills! This is epic storytelling based on truth. It’s grisly, nasty and damn exciting! Ridley Scott has made his best film since Alien, almost thirty years ago and, as far as I’m concerned, it’s Denzel Washington’s career best. The saga opens with Denzel’s fearless Frank setting an enemy on fire and then pumping him full of bullets for good measure. The movie doesn’t let up from there until the amazing denouement. Russell Crowe continues to add more great performances to his already stellar resume with his wholly believable work here. Watch out for this one!

The Kite Runner

Finally, The Kite Runner is an extraordinary film based on an extraordinary book about an extraordinary storyteller. The Marc Forster feature is disturbing (even without the current controversy surrounding it), compelling and uplifting, which makes it a definite Oscar contender. The central performance by Khalid Abdalla (United 93) is key to the movie’s success, that and the plot twists that actually enhance the character’s inner lives once revealed. The Kite Runner is an underdog, but one with a lot of potential to go the long haul.

Once contenders, now long shots

Much anticipated films, upon release, have proven less than stellar. Still some of the following still have a chance to be noticed by the Academy… however, dwindling those chances are becoming…

Julie Taymor’s highly ambitious and enthralling Beatles-inspired entry, Across the Universe may fair best in the sound and music areas despite a star-making performance by Jim Sturgess.

Brian DePalma’s controversial, thought-provoking Iraq film, Redacted,
has great merit, but doesn’t appear to be Academy-fare.

Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited, while it appealed to me, has turned into a curio. Still, a script nod is possible.

Tommy Lee Jones gives a delicate and pained portrayal of a father coming to terms with his son’s death in Paul Haggis’ In The Valley of Elah, which also features great work from Charlize Theron and Susan Sarandon as well as a great supporting turn by newcomer Wes Chatham. Yet the film appears to have lost steam.

Jodie Foster’s sharp turn in the revenge thriller The Brave One seems to have fallen off the radar, but Foster is an Academy darling, so one never knows.

Alison Eastwood’s directorial debut, Rails & Ties, suffers from a cliché’ driven script but does contain a terrifically understated performance by Marcia Gay Harden.

Russell Crowe in 3:10 to Yuma

In any other year, Russell Crowe’s masterful work in 3:10 to Yuma, would be considered a shoo-in. Ditto Ben Foster for showing off his chameleonic talents. The problem is there’s an overflow of good male acting this year.

Remembrance of Things Past

Marion Cotillard in La Vie En Rose

Certain pre-fall performances remain in the running, despite the glut of Fall quality flicks. The most memorable (and Oscar worthy) are: Marion Cotillard’s tour de force as Edith Piaf in La Vie En Rose; Richard Gere’s personal best in The Hoax; Chris Cooper’s complex spy in Breach; Angelina Jolie’s return to real acting in A Mighty Heart; Julie Christie’s amazing portrait of a woman with Alzheimer’s in Away from Her and Christian Bale’s affecting trek through Nam in Rescue Dawn.

Hairspray proved a delight and John Travolta and Michelle Pfeiffer proved they could still dazzle with the best of them.

In addition, Zodiac, Once, Waitress and The Nines are all exceptional films and, in a just world, would merit some kind of consideration.

The Docu-situation

Besides the hilarious John Landis labor of love, Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project, most of this year’s serious documentary contenders are, well, damn serious! (And I’m not even sure the Rickles flick is eligible as it is premiering on HBO in December.)

Three stand out as superior.

Barbet Schroeder’s meditation on terrorist defender Jacques Verges, Terror’s Advocate, is a riveting study of this complicated and controversial man. At once a portrait of the evolution of 20th century terrorism and an enigmatic portrayal of a man whose motivations is curious and defy understanding. Verges began his notoriety defending Algerian heroine Djamila Bouhired, saving her from death and then marrying her. By the end of his career he was defending the infamous Nazi, Klaus Barbie.

Besides the fascinating history lesson, what I found most intriguing is that, although Verges is interviewed many times in the documentary, he seems to shed very little light on why he did what he did. Schroeder allows his actions to speak resoundingly for his lack of explanations.

For the Bible Tells Me So is about homosexuality and religion. It spends a bit of time on biblical interpretation, literalists vs. contextualists. And the rest on how religion influences reaction to homosexuality by interviewing parents, gay children, ministers, priests, rabbis as well as offering up a slew of scary past AND present scenes of hate towards gays.

“There’s nothing wrong with a fifth grade understanding of God…as long as you’re in the fifth grade,” says Reverend Dr. Laurence Keene of Disciple of Christ Church. Daniel Karslake’s documentary is a plea for understanding and a banishment of the hatred, ignorance and stupidity that many religious fundamentalists preach from the pulpit. It shows just how damaging and destructive such ways of thinking can be.

For the Bible, may not offer up anything new to say on the subject of religion and homosexuality but it stands as a powerful reminder of how far we’ve actually come in acceptance in the US. In particular, a brief moment from a CBS special hosted by Mike Wallace from 1967 shows how, just 40 years ago, the public reacted to homosexuality with loathing and disgust.

Producer Don Cheadle of Darfur Now

Theodore Braun’s Darfur Now is an incisive and galvanizing focus on modern day genocide and the people who are attempting to do something to bring the Sudanese regime to justice. That this is going on in our lifetime should be shocking enough (which, I know, sounds naïve), but to watch the denial that always seems to follow horrific crimes against humanity, is shocking.

The docu follows six individuals, all of whom are trying, in some way, to make a difference and shed light on the terrible situation in the Sudan.

One of the subjects, Luis Moreno-Ocampo is the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court in The Hague in the Netherlands. We watch him feverishly pursue the perpetrators, gathering evidence, finally condemning them and demanding their incarceration. The problem is that The Hague appears to be just as ineffectual as the UN when it comes to affecting justice. He can make demands but if the Sudanese government refuses to cooperate (and since the two men are higher ups in said government, why would they), what can be done? It’s genuinely frightening.

Darfur Now asks many questions, but does not offer many answers except to make clear that if one wants to change the world, in some way, one has to start by acting…by doing…something…anything.

The wrap (for now)

Next month will give a clearer picture of where things stand, Oscar-wise, when the rest of the crop is revealed. The yet-to-be seen (by me) films are: Atonement; There Will Be Blood; The Savages; Sweeney Todd; Charlie Wilson’s War; Juno; Enchanted; The Walker; The Bucket List; Southland Tales; and Lions for Lambs --to name just the most prominent bandied about titles.

But, for now, here are the early front-runners:

Best Picture:
Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead
No Country for Old Men
American Gangster

Into the Wild
The Kite Runner
Gone Baby Gone
Michael Clayton

Best Director
Sidney Lumet for Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead
Joel & Ethan Coen for No Country for Old Men

Sean Penn for Into the Wild
Ben Affleck for Gone Baby Gone
Marc Forster for The Kite Runner
David Cronenberg for Eastern Promises
Todd Haynes for I’m Not There
Ridley Scott of American Gangster

Best Supporting Actress

Cate Blanchett in I’m Not There
Amy Ryan in Gone Baby Gone
Marisa Tomei in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead

Michelle Pfeiffer in Hairspray
Emily Mortimer in Lars and the Real Girl
Jennifer Jason Leigh in Margot at the Wedding
Tilda Swinton in Michael Clayton
Kate Winslet in Romance & Cigarettes
Patricia Clarkson in Lars and the Real Girl
Ruby Dee in American Gangster

Best Supporting Actor
Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men
Ethan Hawke in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead
John Travolta in Hairspray

Casey Affleck in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Tom Wilkinson in Michael Clayton
Albert Finney in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead
Hal Holbrook in Into the Wild
Ben Foster in 3:10 to Yuma
Vincent Cassel in Eastern Promises
Max Von Sydow in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
Paul Schneider in Lars and the Real Girl
Mark Ruffalo in Reservation Road or Zodiac

Best Actress
Marion Cotillard in La Vie En Rose

Halle Berry in Things We Lost in the Fire
Julie Christie in Away from Her
Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth: The Golden Age
Nicole Kidman in Margot at the Wedding
Charlize Theron in In The Valley of Elah
Jodie Foster in The Brave One
Angelina Jolie in A Mighty Heart
Marcia Gay Harden in Rails & Ties

Best Actor

George Clooney in Michael Clayton
Denzel Washington in American Ganster

Casey Affleck in Gone Baby Gone
Emile Hirsch in Into the Wild
Benicio Del Toro in Things We Lost in the Fire
Ryan Gosling in Lars and the Real Girl
Mathieu Amalric in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
Viggo Mortensen in Eastern Promises
Philip Seymour Hoffman in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead
Russell Crowe in 3:10 to Yuma
Sam Riley in Control
Brad Pitt in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Tommy Lee Jones in In the Valley of Elah
Josh Brolin in No Country for Old Men
Richard Gere in The Hoax
Chris Cooper in Breach
Christian Bale in Rescue Dawn

Is Best Actor the most crazily crowded field already or what???
And there are a slew of other candidates on the horizon (Daniel Day Lewis, Johnny Depp, Jack Nicholson, and James McAvoy, to name a few.)

How will they choose? Perhaps, it would behoove the Academy to wake up, change rules and allow for ten nominations this year. I am quite serious about this. The notion of only five choices in a year with such great work by actors seems ridiculous and impossible.





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