High-profile film critics weigh in on awards season


If the opinions of the nation's critics are anything to go by, Daniel Day-Lewis can pretty much pick up his best actor Oscar right now.

The leading critics were almost unanimous in citing the English actor for his performance as an implacable oilman in Paul Thomas Anderson's "There Will Be Blood" (Paramount Vantage), one of a number of movies that came up repeatedly as a favorite.

Almost as popular was Julie Christie in Lionsgate's "Away From Her," indicating that two English performers lead the acting pack this awards season.

This year, the critics were surprisingly uniform in the films they praised, especially the Coen brothers' "No Country for Old Men" (Miramax) and the comedy "Juno" (Fox Searchlight). Several also pointed to two foreign-language films as particularly impressive: Julian Schnabel's "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" (Miramax) and Cristian Mungiu's "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days" (IFC Films). (At the Oscars, the latter will contend for best foreign-language picture, while the former is eligible in the best picture category.)

Unlike previous years, when the critics lamented bitterly the dearth of high-quality movies, this time around, by and large, they praised the offerings in theaters. At the same time, they criticized the studio specialty divisions for top-loading so many good movies into such a narrow time frame at the end of the year.

"The discouraging trend I find is that good smaller movies come along, and it's a Herculean effort to get people to go out and see them," says Leonard Maltin of "Entertainment Tonight." "When a 'Spider-Man 3' (Sony) opens, everybody feels they want to be in the loop, even if they don't particularly care about the films. They rush out to see them right away. But there is no imperative for them to see a film like 'Waitress' (Fox Searchlight) or 'The Lookout' (Miramax) or 'Starting Out in the Evening' (Roadside Attractions). And that's a real shame."

Few critics saw any particular themes repeating themselves across a wide spectrum of pictures, though the Christian Science Monitor's Peter Rainer noted that violence -- a regular element in mainstream movies -- seemed even more visible this year.

"There's a lot more of an atavistic strain running through the pictures -- warrior-epic films like '300' (Warner Bros.) and 'Beowulf' (Paramount), but also movies like (Universal's 'The Bourne Ultimatum'), where it seems like the use of force has become an end in itself and fits in with the whole culture," he notes.

The fact that one violent subject -- the war in Iraq -- proved to be such a poor lure for audiences in the several films that addressed it head-on did not seem to trouble most critics, many of whom say this was a reflection of the middling quality of the movies themselves.

"I am surprised at how ineptly Hollywood has covered our experience with Iraq," says the Washington Post's Desson Thomson. "The documentary filmmakers have covered it well, perhaps ad nauseam, but in fiction it has been surprisingly lackluster."

Thomson says one of the most memorable "films" of the year, for him, was the video footage of Saddam Hussein's execution, "just because of its cultural explosiveness." With few other strong Iraq War movies to support, at press time he was considering including it among his top 10.

What follows is the leading critics' picks for their very top choices in the major categories.

"Entertainment Tonight"

DIRECTOR: Julian Schnabel ("The Diving Bell and the Butterfly")
ACTOR: Daniel Day-Lewis ("There Will Be Blood")
ACTRESS: Marion Cotillard (Picturehouse's "La Vie en Rose")
SUPPORTING ACTOR: Andy Griffith ("Waitress")
SUPPORTING ACTRESS: A tie: Amy Ryan (Miramax's "Gone Baby Gone") and Cate Blanchett (the Weinstein Co.'s "I'm Not There")
ADAPTED SCREENPLAY: Ronald Harwood ("The Diving Bell and the Butterfly")

"Juno" is fresh, original, surprising, satisfying. It is a wonderful script, perfectly realized by Jason Reitman and perfectly cast, too. I liked the Coen brothers' film ("No Country for Old Men") and Paul Thomas Anderson's film ("There Will Be Blood") very much; but when I sit and reflect, the movie that gave me the most pleasure this year was "Juno." In "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," Julian Schnabel took the unlikeliest possible subject matter for a movie, but it was brilliantly realized, without a touch of sentimentality. How does someone even begin to approach that story in cinematic terms? He and (screenwriter) Ronald Harwood did it magnificently. Daniel Day-Lewis is one of those actors who disappears into his character thoroughly and convincingly -- and, in this case, it is a character who does not reveal himself right away, which makes the characterization all the more layered. Marion Cotillard gives one of those transformative performances where the actress is consumed by the character, and here that was all the harder because there are so many stages of that character's life. Andy Griffith has always been a good actor. Fifty years ago, he did a great job for Elia Kazan (in 1957's "A Face in the Crowd"), and here he gets to play another character who isn't necessarily what he seems. It is a rich and entertaining performance. Amy Ryan seems absolutely and horrifyingly real. She is not a cardboard villain at all; she is just a poor excuse for a human being.  As for Cate Blanchett, what can you say when your jaw is on the floor every time you watch a performance? You forget it's a woman playing a man -- and not just a man but a famous man at that.

Rolling Stone

PICTURE: "No Country for Old Men"
DIRECTOR: Sidney Lumet (ThinkFilm's "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead")
ACTOR: Johnny Depp (DreamWorks/Paramount's "Sweeney Todd")
ACTRESS: Julie Christie ("Away From Her")
SUPPORTING ACTOR: Javier Bardem ("No Country for Old Men")
SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Cate Blanchett ("I'm Not There")
ADAPTED SCREENPLAY: Joel and Ethan Coen ("No Country for Old Men")

Literary adaptation is a tough thing to do, especially when the book is good. "No Country for Old Men" is not the best of Cormac McCarthy, but the Coen brothers formed a sort of blood connection with it. It works in every way, including the purportedly horrendous ending, which explains the whole title. Javier Bardem's villain is one for the ages -- a dehumanized villain who can scare you and make you laugh. He is the other, the alien, the one we can't talk to. We begin to look for a humanity in him that ultimately we can't find. This will be Sidney Lumet's 50th anniversary as a (movie) director -- his first film was "12 Angry Men" in 1957; and he shows that at 83, he can move at a vigorous pace in a movie that's a cross between a suspense thriller and (1962's) "Long Day's Journey Into Night." He has the energy that I would associate with some renegade young filmmakers. If you listened to Johnny Depp sing on the ("Sweeney Todd") CD, you wouldn't be very impressed, but onscreen that was the smartest move Tim Burton made: to cast an actor who has a soulfulness in his eyes that shows there was a human being before he became the demon barber of Fleet Street. He seems to be always a beat behind the action -- but that's because he has been so traumatized by what has happened in his life. We all have parents who age and are sick -- and Julie Christie got that (in "Away From Her"). Her performance stays with us because we have memories of (the younger) Julie Christie -- of that beauty, of the life she led; and as she is losing it, we are holding onto our memories of her. What Cate Blanchett did went way beyond impersonation (in "I'm Not There"): She found something at the core of what Bob Dylan was about -- his confusion, his way of not dealing with fame and striking out at the audience. I looked at that performance and thought, "This is astonishing!" It's very difficult for someone who sees movies all the time to find an original voice. But Diablo Cody ("Juno") has that. What makes this so satisfying is that every character becomes three-dimensional in a movie that could have been just a glib comedy.

"Ebert & Roeper"

PICTURE: "Michael Clayton"
DIRECTOR: Joel and Ethan Coen ("No Country for Old Men")
ACTOR: A tie: Daniel Day-Lewis ("There Will Be Blood"), Johnny Depp ("Sweeney Todd") and George Clooney (Warner Bros.' "Michael Clayton")
ACTRESS: Laura Linney (Fox Searchlight's "The Savages")
SUPPORTING ACTOR: Tom Wilkinson ("Michael Clayton")
SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Amy Ryan ("Gone Baby Gone")
ADAPTED SCREENPLAY: James Vanderbilt (Paramount's "Zodiac")

I'd love to see "Michael Clayton" win, and I think it has a real shot. This was a classic example of an old-fashioned, plot-driven, big-idea movie. The script was tight and complex, and the performances were uniformly excellent. The Coen brothers ("No Country for Old Men") did such a masterful job with various styles within the film -- the small, powerful moments with Tommy Lee Jones and Josh Brolin, the dialogue-free action sequences and the open-sky wide shots. The pacing and the style -- just perfect. As much as I admire Daniel Day-Lewis, I thought his work in "There Will Be Blood" was the acting equivalent of a two-hour drum solo. Amazing talent, but it drew a lot of attention to itself. I wouldn't mind seeing Johnny Depp winning a "career Oscar" for "Sweeney Todd." I also liked Clooney's work in "Michael Clayton." I thought the two best (lead actress) performances came from Angelina Jolie in "A Mighty Heart" (Paramount Vantage) and Laura Linney in "The Savages." I'd love to see Linney win. She's perhaps the finest actress of her generation. As usual, (the supporting actor category) is perhaps the most crowded. Tom Wilkinson is the conscience and the heart of "Michael Clayton." It's a big, funny, heartbreaking, tragic performance, and it deserves to win.Amy Ryan was so good in "Gone Baby Gone" that it was as if we'd never seen her before, even though she's been doing fine work for quite a while. It's a fierce and authentic performance. Diablo Cody has made such a mark with "Juno." Yes, the screenplay is a bit precious and self-consciously hip at times, and yes, sometimes every character sounds a bit like Juno (or Diablo). It's also the most quotable screenplay of the year, by far. A few of the one-liners from "Juno" are sure to enter the pop culture mainstream. The most impressive adaptation of the year is ("Zodiac"). James Vanderbilt took an overwhelming amount of information and distilled it into a near-perfect police procedural and a chilling "monster movie."

Los Angeles Times

PICTURE: "Michael Clayton"
DIRECTOR: A tie: Ang Lee (Focus Features' "Lust, Caution") and Paul Thomas Anderson ("There Will Be Blood")
ACTOR: Daniel Day-Lewis ("There Will Be Blood")
ACTRESS: Julie Christie ("Away From Her")
SUPPORTING ACTOR: Tommy Lee Jones ("No Country for Old Men")
SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Emily Mortimer (MGM's "Lars and the Real Girl")
ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY: A tie: John Carney (Fox Searchlight's "Once") and Nancy Oliver ("Lars and the Real Girl")
ADAPTED SCREENPLAY: James Schamus & Hui-Ling Wang ("Lust, Caution")

"Michael Clayton" is the best of classic Hollywood cinema. It is beautifully written, impeccably acted and directed with great energy and insight. It is basically a genre film, but a genre film raised to the level of art -- and that's the kind of thing that Hollywood should be doing all the time but almost never does. Both Ang Lee and Paul Thomas Anderson are filmmakers down to the tips of their fingers. Their sensibilities are quite different, even though both their films are epics: Anderson's feels much more bravura, and Ang Lee's feels much more interior. But there is a mastery in both of every aspect of filmmaking. Daniel Day-Lewis has a way of going really deep inside roles that is just overwhelming. He becomes the people he acts to such an extent that it's almost terrifying. Julie Christie takes a difficult role and makes it very simple. It reminds me of something Ruth Gordon said when she won an Oscar (in her 70s for 1968's "Rosemary's Baby"): She said, "This is very encouraging." And I want to encourage Julie Christie to act more! Emily Mortimer is an enormously undervalued and underappreciated actress. She brings an essential humanity to "Lars and the Real Girl." In many ways, it's the most difficult role in the film because she is the audience surrogate. In "No Country for Old Men," Javier Bardem's is obviously the showiest of the supporting roles and expertly done, but Tommy Lee Jones -- like Emily Mortimer -- is the person we hang onto. He grounds the film in reality.  I'd give the original screenplay prize to "Once" and "Lars and the Real Girl." They are very different: "Lars" is a beautifully constructed piece of obvious artifice; and "Once" feels like it wasn't written at all -- it feels completely natural. But you are convinced of the reality you are seeing in each one. "Lust, Caution" is a long film adapted from a short story that has been beautifully expanded: Hints have been teased out into scenes, and almost everything is true to the spirit of the story.

The Washington Post

PICTURE: "No Country for Old Men"
DIRECTOR: Joel and Ethan Coen ("No Country for Old Men")
ACTOR: Tommy Lee Jones (Warner Independent's "In the Valley of Elah")
ACTRESS: Julie Christie ("Away From Her")
SUPPORTING ACTOR: Ashraf Barhom (Universal's "The Kingdom")
SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Saoirse Ronan (Focus Features'
ADAPTED SCREENPLAY: Ronald Harwood ("The Diving Bell and the Butterfly")

"No Country for Old Men" is the only movie I have watched from beginning to end without losing my concentration. Everything flowed as if it were in the present tense. It felt like one scene that never ended -- a narrative flow that is hypnotic. And I'd choose the Coens for director because they both preserved the original flavor of the book and yet made a movie of their own. What they added was their existential sense of humor. Tommy Lee Jones made a mediocre film, "In the Valley of Elah," seem amazing through his performance. His characters really seem to exist on a level that you just don't see -- and not on a stylized level but on a realistic level. Julie Christie takes what would have been a trite disease-of-the-week movie and gives it a real and palpable new state of existence, as if no TV movies of the week had ever existed before. Everything she does seems newly considered and not pulled from the playbook. In "The Kingdom," which is Hollywood at its worst, Ashraf Barhom becomes the cultural ambassador of the film; you learn more about another culture just through his presence than anything else in this movie. Saoirse Ronan had this air of intelligence that seemed to practically poke through the screen, and I really felt the urgency of this young girl trying to make sense of the world in "Atonement." I felt the presence of a child like I haven't in a long time. "Juno" is a screenplay where everything seems new and fresh. It manages to be both detached and genuine at the same time -- it has a postmodern sense of humor, but inside that is a genuine feeling for all of its characters. I don't know the original book of "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," but Ronald Harwood has produced a story that is so emotionally immersive, you think you'll never come out of this world.

The Christian Science Monitor

PICTURE: "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days"
DIRECTOR: Cristian Mungiu ("4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days")
ACTOR: Chris Cooper (Universal's "Breach")
ACTRESS: Anamaria Marinca ("4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days")
SUPPORTING ACTOR: Hal Holbrook (Paramount Vantage's "Into the Wild")
SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Cate Blanchett ("I'm Not There")
ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY: Cristian Mungiu ("4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days")
ADAPTED SCREENPLAY: Joel and Ethan Coen ("No Country for Old Men")

"4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days" is extraordinarily powerful; every moment is so well acted and so rich. More than any film I have seen since another Romanian film, (2005's) "The Death of Mr. Lazarescu," it breaks open a society in terms of the personal anguish of its people. The film has a kind of verite realism that isn't overdone; you feel you are watching something in documentary style, and yet it's clearly a film that has been acted and written and prepared. A lot of movies from Eastern Europe are so symbolic, and this seems to exist on its own, rather than making you feel you need to wear bifocals to watch it. Anamaria Marinca, who plays the lead, just seems alive to every emotional possibility; she builds a full-scale emotional performance without seeming in any way stagy or rehearsed. Chris Cooper gives a very intricate psychological portrait of a covert man in "Breach," and that is one of the hardest things you can do: to externalize someone who lives entirely within himself and is covering up his essence. Hal Holbrook gives the kind of performance that you couldn't give if you hadn't been an actor all your life. It seems like the summation of everything he has done as a performer. I'm surprised Cate Blachett didn't get either the Los Angeles or New York film critics' awards. This could have been just her playing in drag as Bob Dylan, but she seems to have infused his essence in some way. "No Country for Old Men" would have been my choice for best film if it weren't for "4 Months." It's a first-rate adaptation of a first-rate writer. There's a marvelous Old Testament fatalism about this film that is carried through without being too heavy-handed.


PICTURE: "There Will Be Blood"
DIRECTOR: Paul Thomas Anderson ("There Will Be Blood")
ACTOR: Daniel Day-Lewis ("There Will Be Blood")
ACTRESS: Julie Christie ("Away From Her")
SUPPORTING ACTOR: Javier Bardem ("No Country for Old Men")
SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Kelly Macdonald ("No Country for Old Men")
ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY: Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola and Jason Schwartzman (Fox Searchlight's "The Darjeeling Limited")
ADAPTED SCREENPLAY: Joel and Ethan Coen ("No Country for Old Men")

For best picture, it's a tossup between "No Country for Old Men" and "There Will Be Blood." I give an edge to "Blood" because it is more unusual and beautifully realized. It is a peculiar film because it has all the trappings of a much more conventional picture -- a period drama about one man's quest for oil -- and it's not. With Daniel Day-Lewis, I admired the relentless focus of his performance on the unconquerable obduracy of the character, the refusal to cave. The films that are front-runners do not have incredibly strong roles for women. "Away From Her" does. Julie Christie is a legendary film figure who gives a really remarkable piece of acting. With Javier Bardem, there is something not quite human about his character. He reminds me of a Lon Chaney figure out of silent film. Doing that created a real risk; it could have come across as absurd, but it's very frightening. It is always nice when a Glaswegian can manage the Texas accent, as Kelly Macdonald does. A lot of people have criticized "The Darjeeling Limited" for being overly whimsical, but it is a tight script. It may be emotionally detached, but it is not emotionally vacant. For adapted screenplay, I'd go for "No Country" because I know the material and can see the interesting changes they made. A lot of stuff in the ending, they chose not to show; and the whole way they've reconfigured the standoff at the motel is very fascinating.

Los Angeles Daily News

PICTURE: "I'm Not There"
DIRECTOR: Todd Haynes ("I'm Not There")
ACTOR: Gordon Pinsent ("Away From Her")
ACTRESS: Ellen Page ("Juno")
SUPPORTING ACTOR: Philip Seymour Hoffman (Universal's "Charlie Wilson's War")
SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Cate Blanchett ("I'm Not There")
ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY: Todd Haynes & Oren Moverman ("I'm Not There")
ADAPTED SCREENPLAY: Sarah Polley ("Away From Her")

I am a huge Bob Dylan fan, and "I'm Not There" resembles visually my favorite Dylan songs, which were long, free-form, not exactly clear but very evocative and poetic rambles. It's an incredibly ambitious film with lots of smart ideas on every level. "Away From Her" is a duet, but it is from Gordon Pinsent's point of view, and he has the bigger job: He's the one who has to get all the relatable emotion across. Rarely have I seen such a convincing portrayal of true, lifelong love by a character who's a dog. "Away From Her" was the most moving human story I've seen this year. It expands with great emotional intelligence on a brilliant story. In "Juno," Ellen Page gives the smartest portrayal of a teenager that we've seen in a long time. She handles reams of impossibly phony dialogue in such a committed manner that we completely buy the smart-yet-confused teenage girl. Philip Seymour Hoffman gets a certain pissed-off American point of view across in every scene of a very dodgy and questionable movie, "Charlie Wilson's War." In a movie that's supposed to be a wised-up political semicomedy, he was the only wise element. Cate Blanchett gives simply the smartest performance onscreen this year, and Blanchett -- who often seems to be "acting" in her movie roles -- so completely disappears into this very severe character, I didn't feel a bit of actorly strain.


PICTURE: "There Will Be Blood"
DIRECTOR: Joel and Ethan Coen ("No Country for Old Men")
ACTOR: Chris Cooper ("Breach")
ACTRESS: Parker Posey (Magnolia Pictures' "Broken English")
SUPPORTING ACTOR: Stephen Graham (IFC Films' "This Is
SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Cate Blanchett ("I'm Not There")
ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY: Shane Meadows ("This Is England")
ADAPTED SCREENPLAY: Joel and Ethan Coen ("No Country for Old Men")

There were a lot of movies I liked this year, but "There Will Be Blood" bowled me over. The movie has been misleadingly compared to (1941's) "Citizen Kane" and (1956's) "Giant," but it reminded me thematically of (director Werner Herzog's 1972 film) "Aguirre: The Wrath of God," and it has some of the emotional temperature of (1980's) "Raging Bull," both very intense character studies. There is not an ounce of fat in "No Country for Old Men" -- it is lean and mean and totally controlled. The Coen brothers really know how to craft a movie, but there is also a depth of feeling in this that you don't usually get from them. It takes a genre movie and elevates it to an almost philosophical level. Daniel Day-Lewis is great in "There Will Be Blood," but I want to mention an overlooked performance -- Chris Cooper in "Breach." The guy he plays is a riddle, maybe even to himself, and he brings that out in a way that is hypnotic and subtle. Parker Posey in "Broken English" showed a kind of emotional vulnerability that I've never seen from her. It's both a comic performance and a nakedly emotional one. Cate Blanchett is the movie's definitive Bob Dylan. You are afraid it is going to seem merely a stunt -- a woman playing a guy -- but it is a genius stunt. She comes closer to capturing the Dylan we think we know, in a fierce and funny performance. The supporting actor performance that knocked me out was from a guy I had never heard of before, Stephen Graham in "This Is England." He plays a racist skinhead and completely ignores stereotypes. He is a figure of enormous emotional complexity. And I'd also mention "This Is England" for original screenplay. The form is conventional -- a kid trying to find his place in the world -- but the characterizations are rich and unexpected. It's screenwriting that's true to life.

The Wall Street Journal

PICTURE: "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly"
DIRECTOR: Julian Schnabel ("The Diving Bell and the Butterfly")
ACTOR: Daniel Day-Lewis ("There Will Be Blood")
ACTRESS: Julie Christie ("Away From Her")
SUPPORTING ACTOR: Hal Holbrook ("Into the Wild")
SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Leslie Mann (Universal's "Knocked Up")
ADAPTED SCREENPLAY: Ronald Harwood ("The Diving Bell and the Butterfly")

In "Diving Bell," Julian Schnabel took on an immense subject and rose to it in a completely unexpected way. It is about human consciousness and art -- and all of it within the framework of this small, singular film whose inner voice reaches almost effortlessly from irony to grim humor to terror. There's an emotional spectrum there that's fully explored. Daniel Day-Lewis makes that appalling creature's rage against humanity interesting and exciting. The movie asks us to care about a man who has lost his soul, and we do. I loved what Julie Christie did. She's at a time of her life where she trusts herself to do very little when it's appropriate. It's a beautiful performance of nuance, withholding and occasional revelation. We've all seen Hal Holbrook for all these years, and it's wonderful to discover that someone whose work you respect can still surprise you. That's not a performance I knew he had in him. Leslie Mann brought a real sense of life and warmth to a movie ("Knocked Up") that knew how to capitalize on it. "Juno" is an awfully good screenplay that delights in the power of language and trusts the audience to share the pleasure. It's complex, unpredictable and fluid. It has a kind of liveliness that many writers a hell of a lot older than Diablo Cody don't know how to do anymore. It's alive, and that's the highest compliment I can bestow.
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