By PHILIP WUNTCH
Film Critic Emeritus
The 80th Oscar nominations, announced this morning, made me a happy movie fan. Or at least, a reasonably happy movie fan. The lists have a noble share of pleasant surprises, and I can live with the disappointments.
In fact, the disappointments were fewer than I expected. I was eagerly prepared to lash out at the Academy for ignoring "In the Valley of Elah" as well as Laura Linney's tender performance in "The Savages." But Tommy Lee Jones won a deserved nod as "Valley"'s grieving, searching father of a murdered Iraq war veteran. Despite favorable reviews, the film fizzled at the box-office, and voters keep an eye on the bottom line. With both "No Country for Old Men" and "There Will Be Blood" heralded as Oscar headliners, I feared Academy voters might have had an "enough, already" attitude towards "downers."
As for Linney, she's become so reliable that a poignant Linney performance is practically a given. She's also proved her versatility, with her blue-collar Lady Macbeth in "Mystic River" never getting its due. Her "Savages" character, a daughter coping with both personal and family crises, was sympathetic enough to woo those softie Academy members. But don't expect a Linney victory.
Yet along with many others, I'm surprised at the "Into the Wild" shut-out. Sean Penn's expert direction was excluded, as was Emile Hirsch's powerful performance. In the past, Hirsch seemed like just another photogenic male ingenue, but "Into the Wild" called for strength and majesty, which he provided. And Catherine Keener can play an "earth mother"-type with total conviction. But Hal Holbrook's penetrating depiction of senior-citizen loneliness deservedly received mention. If anyone can usurp Javier Bardem in the supporting-actor ranks, it will be Holbrook. Still, someone ought to clasp Penn on the back and buy him a couple of drinks.
The best-actress category also had two notable omissions, Angelina Jolie and Keira Knightley. Jolie's "A Mighty Heart" made only the mildest murmur at the box-office although the actress remains a star of tabloid TV shows. (Marry the girl, Brad). Or does estranged father Jon Voight have a lot of friends among Academy members?
Knightley's snub for "Atonement" recalls the shunning of Nicole Kidman for 2003's "Cold Mountain." Both actresses looked great in their roles, with "looked" the operative word. On closer inspection, both their performances seem posed although, to give dear Keira her due, her aristocratic Brit was brought up to be a poseur. "Atonement" remains a noble, heartfelt effort, but like "Cold Mountain," its central romance was more penetrating in novel form than on the screen.
In the lead actor category, I wish there had been room for Benicio Del Toro in the unjustly neglected "Things We Lost in the Fire," Frank Langella in "Starting Out in the Evening" and Gordon Pinsent in "Away From Her." Pinsent's performance as Julie Christie's confused, remorseful yet hopeful husband was a tower of quiet strength, overshadowed by Christie's showier role.
It also would have been gratifying to see Josh Brolin's breakthrough performance in "No Country for Old Men" acknowledged. His bumbling yet resilient Everyman anchored the movie. Meanwhile, he's just signed to play Dubya in Oliver Stone's "Bush," which the controversial director says "will contain surprises for Bush supporters and his detractors."
With noble resignation, I had prepared myself for the snubbing of "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead." But it still rankles. It could be Hollywood's prejudice against New York-based director Sidney Lumet. The gifted director has never received his deserved Oscar attention. He was last nominated as Best Director for one of his most Hollywood-ish films, 1983's Paul Newman starrer "The Verdict," which Lumet described as "Rocky Goes to the Courtroom." Or it could be that Academy members didn't want too downbeat a list, which could explain director Jason Reitman's suprise nomination for the endearing, popular "Juno."
Also missing from top categories were "Zodiac," released early in the year and featuring a dynamic Robert Downey Jr. performance, and the haunting "Once," about two musicians who express their amorous yearnings through their music. "Once" was an art-house success that crossed over to mainstream audiences.
Other than Ruby Dee's nod, "American Gangster" got no mention in the main categories. I am not weeping. The movie was watchable without being riveting and paled alongside last year's "The Departed." It seemed calculated to win Oscars, and, at least on occasion, poetic justice prevails.
"Michael Clayton"'s triumphant showing confirms George Clooney's standing in Hollywood. His democratic on-the-set behavior wins friends, and he's definitely a talent. And Hollywood can relate to all three nominated roles: Clooney's disillusioned, tarnished "fixer," Tilda Swinton's edgy executive on the verge of freaking out and Tom Wilkinson's ready-to-jump kingpin. Has anyone noticed, though, how closely their characters mirror Lumet's 1975's "Network" ensemble of William Holden, Faye Dunaway and Peter Finch?
As always, the lead acting and supporting acting ranks grow fuzzier. Casey Affleck was superb in "The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford," but his screen time matched Brad Pitt's, and Casey's Ford, rather than Pitt's James, fueled the film's narrative.
Had Affleck been in the lead-actor category, there might have been room for J.K. Simmons, who was sublime as the title character's father in "Juno." You could sense their testy yet undeniable father-daughter bond in every scene. Also worthy of mention was Paul Dano's conflicted faith-healer in "There Will Be Blood," with Dano also making a brief but memorable appearance as the faith-healer's twin brother.
I can't argue with any of the supporting-actress nominees, but, again, I wish room could have been made for two "Juno" players. Allison Janney can do no wrong as an actress, and she was both hilarious and moving as Juno's stepmother, while Jennifer Garner did her finest big-screen work as an eager adoptive mother.
For now the supporting-actress frontrunner looks like Cate Blanchett for playing a character based on Bob Dylan in "I'm Not There." Blanchett won the 2004 Oscar as Katharine Hepburn in "The Aviator." The Academy probably won't be able to resist the novelty of having one actress win Oscars for playing both Bob Dylan and Katharine Hepburn.
Other probable winners:
Best Picture: "No Country for Old Men"
Best Actor: Daniel Day-Lewis, "There Will Be Blood"
Best Actress: Julie Christie, "Away From Her"
Best Supporting Actor: Javier Bardem, "No Country for Old Men"
Best Director(s): Joel and Ethan Coen, "No Country for Old Men"
But, as always, a lot can happen between now and Feb. 24.