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Josh Brolin, actor
Could be nominated for: “No Country for Old Men” (Miramax)
The Reel Story: It’s not fair to chalk up Josh Brolin’s sudden career surge to the actor being a late bloomer; he’s been delivering solid performances for years in films like 1996’s “Flirting with Disaster” and 2006’s “The Dead Girl.” But there is something decidedly different about 2007 for the actor, who has the good fortune to appear in not one but three fall prestige pictures. He’s currently onscreen in Paul Haggis’ Warner Independent Pictures drama “In the Valley of Elah” and Ridley Scott’s Universal release “American Gangster,” but it’s his role as Llewellyn Moss — the hunter who stumbles upon $2 million in drug money — that might earn Brolin his first shot at an Oscar nomination, and his pick of roles in the future. In Joel and Ethan Coen’s bloody, brutal saga, Moss is by no means a hero — he is almost as single-minded and ruthless as the cold-blooded killer that pursues him, played by Javier Bardem. Yet Brolin’s everyman appeal forces the audience to relate to him and his dilemma. Even during long stretches without dialogue, Brolin keeps us riveted and rooting for Moss. As an ordinary man in an extraordinary situation, Brolin is uncommonly good.
Diablo Cody, screenwriter
Could Be Nominated for: “Juno” (Fox Searchlight)
The Reel Story: In the press notes for “Juno,” the Toronto International Film Festival hit starring Ellen Page as a brilliant Minnesota teen facing an unplanned pregnancy, screenwriter Diablo Cody’s bio states she penned the script “while working as a phone sex operator/insurance adjuster in Minneapolis. She did not attend Harvard.” It’s specifically the kind of dry, frank statement one would expect from Cody, whose smart and distinctive script comes to life in the hands of director Jason Reitman. Of course, Cody already was an online icon — thanks to her blog, the Pussy Ranch, which detailed her career in stripping and peep shows — and had penned the memoir “Candy Girl: A Year in the Life of an Unlikely Stripper” when Benderspink’s Mason Novick approached her about writing her first screenplay. And though she had never planned to write films, she admits that working on “Juno” never felt like work, in part because Juno, the character, was such an extension of herself. Which must make Cody one of the most complicated and engaging women in town.
Nancy Oliver, screenwriter
Could Be Nominated for: “Lars and the Real Girl” (MGM)
The Reel Story: The tale of a socially stunted man who orders a sex doll off the Internet might not sound like Oscar fare, but Nancy Oliver didn’t have a one-joke setup in mind when she penned the script for “Lars and the Real Girl.” The former “Six Feet Under” scribe was looking to write “a contemporary fairy tale, a story of transformation and resurrection.” Thanks to an endearing turn by Ryan Gosling as Lars and Oliver’s sensitive script, the film succeeds as one of the sweetest and most surprising of the year. It’s a fresh, witty take on the boy-meets-girl story, with Lars’ small-town friends and neighbors reacting with the expected shock, then unexpected generosity, to the situation. Although the film is more drama than wacky comedy, Oliver certainly recognizes the absurdity of the situation. However, she notes, “Absurdity is about opposites; it’s funny and sad, sweet and sharp, tender and anguished, it’s the sanity of the insane.” All of those elements are perfectly captured in “Lars,” with a script that celebrates and never condescends to its offbeat characters.
Amy Ryan, actress
Could Be Nominated for: “Gone Baby Gone” (Miramax)
The Reel Story: Of all the roles to cast in his feature directorial debut, “Gone Baby Gone,” Ben Affleck was most concerned with the role of neglectful mother Helene McCready. It’s the kidnapping of Helene’s daughter that sets into motion the series of events that propels the film, and Helene is the tragic axis at the center of the narrative. Still, Affleck knew he didn’t want a famous actress for the role. When he met Amy Ryan, though, he knew he’d found Helene. Recalls Affleck, “When I saw her, I said, ‘This actress is fucking great, and I know now this part will be good.'” Playing suffering is nothing new for Ryan: she’s appeared as a cop in over her head on HBO’s acclaimed drama “The Wire” and headlined last year’s West Coast premiere of David Lindsay-Abaire’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Rabbit Hole” as a mother who loses her son in a car accident. And although Ryan herself describes Helene as “a skank,” credit her raw, fearless performance for creating a sympathetic character with some very jagged edges.
Joe Wright, director
Could Be Nominated for: “Atonement” (Focus Features)
The Reel Story: Joe Wright clearly isn’t one to back away from a challenge. When the London-born director made his feature debut in 2005, he chose to tackle a beloved piece of literature, Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice.” Although many argued there was no need for a new version after the seminal 1995 BBC miniseries, Wright was undaunted. He even went so far as to cast an American (Jena Malone) and a Canadian (Donald Sutherland) as members of the veddy British Bennett family. That gamble paid off with glowing reviews and an Oscar nod for his leading lady, Keira Knightley. Now Wright has re-teamed with the actress to tackle an even more imposing work, Ian McEwan’s best-seller “Atonement.” A dense, complicated novel, the story spans several decades in examining the long-reaching effects of one horrible mistake. Wright plays with time and perception throughout the movie in unexpected ways. Then there are the performances he elicits from his cast. As the 13-year-old sister to Knightley’s character, Wright had the good fortune to cast the impeccable Saoirse Ronan. In later years, she is matched by two great actresses, Romola Garai and Vanessa Redgrave. And as the doomed lovers, Knightley and James McAvoy have never been more compelling.
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