Stripes staff finds clear winners among this year’s Oscar nominees

By STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 24, 2008

Annually, some of the members of the staff at Stripes select who we believe should win an Academy Award. While we normally gather over some popcorn and jujubes, this year, due to the now-concluded writer’s strike, we took another route, choosing a category or an actor to highlight. It resulted in a range of choices, including a pick for best documentary.

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The Awards: A broad view

This year’s Academy Award nominations contained no really big surprises but, as is always the case, I think they got a few of them wrong.

I was able to peg four of the five Best Picture nominees, but one glaring omission stood out. I was surprised “Charlie Wilson’s War” was left out. I thought it was a far superior film to “Michael Clayton,” but evidently the Academy disagreed with me. While “Michael Clayton” was a solid film with strong performances, I’m not sure it deserved all the nominations that were heaped upon it. “Charlie Wilson’s War” was far more enjoyable to me, primarily for the three exceptional performances from three fine actors. Watching Tom Hanks, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Julia Roberts apply their talents to diverse roles was a pleasure to watch. I was glad to see Hoffman get a nomination for the film.

“Atonement” was an impressive film that haunted me long after I’d finished watching the movie. And my money’s on this movie to win Best Picture. It is exactly the type of movie the Academy likes to honor, in the tradition of “Out of Africa” and “The English Patient.”

“Juno” was a cute and charming little film with great performances, an ensemble cast that reminded me of last year’s Oscar party-crasher, “Little Miss Sunshine.” I was a little disappointed that J.K. Simmons wasn’t nominated for Best Supporting Actor, although his chances in that category would’ve been slim at best.

The reason Simmons wouldn’t stand a chance in the Best Supporting Actor category is, quite simply, the presence of Javier Bardem. His portrayal of Anton Chigurh is the primary reason I thought “No Country for Old Men” was the best movie I saw last year. The Coen brothers are at their best in the tale of a Texas drug deal gone bad in 1980. Josh Brolin happens to stumble upon the aftermath of a shootout between Mexican drug dealers and American businessmen hoping to buy the drugs, picking up a satchel containing $2 million dollars and a homing device that allows Bardem to track him down through most of the movie.

Bardem should get nominated just for his hairstyle alone, but he adds a chilling sense of unwavering professionalism to get the job done with a psychotic streak that truly leaves the audience wondering if he’s going to kill everyone he encounters. Adding to the mystique is the livestock killer Bardem’s character uses as a weapon throughout the movie, a type of compressed-air gun. Bardem demonstrates its cold efficiency five minutes in when he steals a police car, pulls over an unsuspecting motorist and quickly relieves him of his duties in this world.

I can’t possibly imagine anyone else taking home the Best Supporting Actor statue.

— Rich Kilmon, sports copy editor

Best picture: ‘There Will Be Blood’

There will be blood — but served up with an eyeful of greed, precious metal and oil. Lots of oil.

The film starts out looking like a tale of sweaty determination, pitting man (Daniel Day-Lewis in the character of Daniel Plainview) against earth in a familiar wrestling match over who gets the goodies. It’s the American success story played out in a form so twisted that it makes characters in “Sweeney Todd” seem nearly reasonable.

Written, directed and produced by Paul Thomas Anderson, the film was inspired by Upton Sinclair’s 1927 novel “Oil!” First you notice the silence; no one speaks for the first 15 minutes of the film. It’s just a bit creepy, but it helps focus your attention on the all-consuming tasks of getting gold out of the ground. Up close and gritty, Day-Lewis endures bone-breaking fall, then drags himself prone on his back to assay his find. One could almost think him heroic — or at the very least stoic — for all of several minutes.

In a performance that is equal parts riveting and deeply disturbing, Day-Lewis claws, pummels, pick-axes and shoots his way to the top of the financial heap. But it isn’t money he wants — it’s isolation, preferably served with a bottle of whiskey. In Plainview’s vision of the perfect life, people will be forever banished. Nothing is sacred because everything is appropriated for his own ends. Where he could save an orphan boy, Plainview uses H.W. (Dillon Freasier) instead as a prop. He cons the godly out of their oil-rich land; he swindles the trusting; he appears to sell himself out to the preacher Eli Sunday (played with oily slyness by Paul Dano) only to gain more oil; and he shoots the untrustworthy dead in their tracks.

The spiral into full-blown misanthropy, fueled by alcohol and devoid of a single regret, finally pits oilman against preacher in a scene so opulently violent that it’s a relief to see Day-Lewis finally smile and call over his shoulder, “I’m finished.”

The film is worthy of a Best Picture award on many levels, not the least of them being its power to grip you firmly by its masterful performances, skewer you with the powerful duel between greed and power, and toss you breathless at the conclusion: There is no good thing on this earth that man cannot subvert, defile or destroy.

— Meg Irish, marketing director

Best actress: Marion Cotillard, ‘La Vie En Rose’

I don’t remember why I said yes to an acquaintance who asked me to see “La Vie En Rose” last summer. I know, though, that I said yes before reading that it was a biopic about a French woman I knew nothing about. A quick visit to Wikipedia told me that Edith Piaf was a French singer whose amazing voice led her out of poverty and suffering and brought her incredible success — along with more suffering. Sort of like Johnny Cash, but in French.

But I know when the lights came up, I was overwhelmed by Marion Cotillard’s spectacular performance as Piaf. “She’s fantastic,” I told my companion. “They shouldn’t even bother to nominate anyone else for an Oscar. She’s got it sewn up.”

Portraying a real person is a challenge. Portraying the life of someone who is considered an icon has to be daunting. But Cotillard, 32, made it seem like the easiest task ever accomplished. It’s almost like she shares Piaf with us, taking us from the singer’s late teens on the streets to her death. Cotillard’s face and eyes are incredibly expressive and she manages to show the two sides of Piaf — her fragility and her strength, both because she never had stability in her life.

Thanks to Cotillard I felt Piaf’s youthful fear of singing before crowds, felt her desire to share her voice, felt her enjoy her success, felt her fall in love with boxer Marcel Cerdan, and then, in one of the most amazing long takes I have ever seen, was shattered with Piaf when Cerdan was killed in a plane accident.

I was sure, though, that since the movie wasn’t in English, there was no way that Cotillard would be nominated, much less win. Imagine my surprise when she was awarded a Golden Globe and a BAFTA. I hope Cotillard completes a sweep with an Academy Award.

— Danielle L. Kiracofe /Scene entertainment editor

Best actor: George Clooney, ‘Michael Clayton’

I was sure “Michael Clayton” was going to be just another lawyer movie, featuring George Clooney in yet another role where he’s the same character he always is.

But I left the theater feeling just the opposite. It’s not just another lawyer movie.

Clooney is Clayton, just a guy trying to keep his head above water. A divorced guy with a son not living with him, a gambling habit, a troublesome brother. And then there’s his current work assignment: Convincing another lawyer in his firm to go back on medication for bipolar disorder. A lawyer who went crazy while working for a company being sued for its toxic and possibly killer weed-killer.

I have never thought of George Clooney as a diverse actor — I felt like most of his roles are the same. But as the movie progressed I was really starting to get into who he was, and at the end, it was one of those scenes where I wanted to jump up and pump my fist and yell “Yeah! You got him!”

Clooney was lucky to have a great supporting cast in Tom Wilkinson and Tilda Swinton, both of whom were given supporting role Oscar nods. Wilkinson was really strong and convincing as a man suffering without medication, yet still possessing all the knowledge of a brilliant lawyer. But Clooney finally found a movie to support his talents in “Clayton,” and should take home the award.

— Doug Gillam/advertising graphic artist

Best Animated Picture: ‘Ratatouille’

How’s this for a recommendation for “Ratatouille”?

French audiences loved it.

You know when the French love something American, especially if it’s a story about something as French as cooking, you’ve really got something.

After watching writer/director Brad Bird’s first animated feature, “The Incredibles,” a couple dozen times (I have a child), I expect worlds of Bird, who wrote and co-directed “Ratatouille.” I firmly believe the man could animate a movie about a mud puddle that would knock the socks off of kids and parents alike. And really, how much less of a stretch is it to make a rat palatable?

“Ratatouille” is nothing short of a masterpiece. The animation is cutting-edge, to be sure, but the story and the superb direction are its true genius. It doesn’t pander to kids one iota — the rat can’t even talk to people — yet young audiences seem to “get it” anyway.

It’s almost unfair to dump “Ratatouille” into the animated category, an injustice that one of its competitors could argue as well. “Persepolis,” a French-made tale about an Iranian girl coming of age during the Islamic revolution, also takes itself seriously as a piece of cinema; after you’ve taken in these stories, the fact that these movies are animated seems secondary. Whereas “Surf’s Up,” the third entry in the category, is exactly what you’d expect of a modern-day animated film — insanely detailed computer animation, many celebrity voices, in-jokes for parents, potty humor for kids, and an endearing little message at the end, in this case about following your dreams and overcoming your fears.

“Persepolis” appears to fall into that odd category of “animated films that aren’t intended for children.” “Ratatouille” does it all — it’s a well-crafted, inspiring movie with an unlikely hero that you won’t mind watching 37 times with your kids. It manages to fit the mold of an animated movie, yet rises above, which is why I’m hoping it wins the Academy Awards it richly deserves.

— Kate Maisel/Scene lifestyles editor

Best documentary: ‘Operation Homecoming’

"I may not be a very good soldier, but I might be a very good witness."

The wars America is fighting have been chronicled repeatedly, and according to troops who’ve been there, those representations are always wrong. Antiseptic. Incomplete. Wrong.

“Operation Homecoming” is a documentary of the accounts of servicemembers who have been there, most of whom more than once. It is a powerful and deeply affecting film.

It is also an Oscar nominee for Documentary Feature, along with three other war films and Michael Moore’s indictment of the United States’ health system, “Sicko.”

Coupled with commentary of veterans from wars since World War II, this film allows those who have been there to talk directly to you about their experiences. It’s stark and powerful.

These servicemembers don’t claim to have “the truth.” They only report what they have seen. They don’t try to convince; they only lay out facts. The occasionally make larger points, though there is no evangelism. They simply report.

They talk of fear, and remorse. One medic says that everyone who leaves has some measure of regret; that they couldn’t help a wounded buddy, or that they just didn’t “do enough.”

One of the servicemembers in the movie says, “People back home ask ‘hey, what was it like?’ You know, where do I even start?”

See it, if you can. And listen.

— Patrick Dickson, Pentagon bureau chief

Actor: Philip Seymour Hoffman

Know who’s taking it on the chin, come Oscar time? Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Widely regarded as the Golden Boy of Hollywood at this time, it might be hard to feel sorry for him, but I do. In the category of best supporting actor, he’s up against one of the weirdest, most unsettling, and best performances I’ve ever seen — Javier Bardem in “No Country for Old Men.” Bardem is so intense and creepy that you don’t know whether to laugh or … wind your watch.

But watch Hoffman in “Charlie Wilson’s War.” As federal employees, you’ll connect immediately. He effortlessly inhabits the character of Gust Avrakotos. Shocked at the stupidity and bureaucracy of Washington, he jumps at the chance to do something meaningful with fellow maverick Rep. Charlie Wilson. You’ll laugh out loud.

But Hoffman is not getting gypped by losing to Bardem.

Watch him in “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.” He’s a conniving, drug-addicted businessman, in way over his head, as he talks his brother into robbing their parents’ jewelry store. It does not go well.

Watch him in “The Savages.” He’s a frustrated college professor who, with his equally dysfunctional sister, must take care of his dying father.

Hard to believe he’s the same goofball that appeared in “Along Came Polly,” shooting hoops with Ben Stiller and yelling “White Chocolate!” as he clanged another one off the rim.

There needs to be a new award, for best body of work in a given year. The Hoffman. See all three.

— Patrick Dickson/Pentagon bureau chief

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