Archive | April 2010

the great big academy awards project: BEST LEAD ACTRESS in the AUGHTS

And so it begins. As I explained last week, I’m taking on a big step in my film education. For better or worse, I plan on watching every film nominated for the elusive Oscar. And once I finish a particular category per a particular decade, I’ll do my full report back here on the ol’ blog. We’re starting with one of the most beloved categories in the bunch, Best Lead Actress, and I’m heading backwards from the most recent decade – the aughts.


The Winner: Julia Roberts (Erin Brockovich)

State of the Category: If nothing else, 2000 provided us with a fairly diverse line-up in terms of types of roles for these lead actresses. We start with Allen, whose role as a shamed vice-presidential contender is tamed down from that of her hammier co-stars (I’m talking to you, Gary Oldman). She’s given material that could easily run average, but she has a way of commanding the screen in a way unlike most of her female peers. She reads truly presidential. Then there’s Binoche, whose fluffy role in the fluffy Chocolat is hardly cinematic history, but it’s harmless fun. The movie itself is delightful, but she seems out of place here in a crop of heavy-hitters. Burstyn is harrowing and brilliant in Requiem for a Dream. It’s no wonder the film has such a following – she is a horror to watch for all the right reasons. Linney is pure brilliance as the small-town girl with family troubles. This is easily her greatest performance, and she’s a magnificent talent to watch. And finally, the winner Roberts is better than you may remember. Sure, she’s using some of biopic 101’s oldest tricks (no-nonsense, impossible-to-rattle attitude and money woes), but she adds the Julia flavor that makes it a uniquely good take on the working mom.

Report Card

Joan Allen (The Contender)B+
Juliette Binoche (Chocolat)B
Ellen Burstyn (Requiem for a Dream)A
Laura Linney (You Can Count on Me)A
Julia Roberts (Erin Brockovich)B+
My Choice: Laura Linney

The Winner: Halle Berry (Monster’s Ball)

State of the Category: So the uglifying really begins – Berry really kick-starts the trend this year of gorgeous women taking roles as run-down, dowdy, and often meager characters. Though Monster’s Ball as a whole is a mediocre grieving drama, Berry very clearly is the stand-out. She’s better than she’s ever been, but she’s no more of a visionary than any other grieving mother role I’ve seen. Dench – who has a knack for making every character so uniquely likable – is rather good as Iris Murdoch. Her take is definitively Dench, though, so it’s tough to see just how much newness she brought to this role. Kidman is obviously breathtaking as Satine – it will remain one of the iconic roles of the past decade. Her lovelorn burlesque dancer is one of her strongest performances. Spacek is on-edge brilliance as a grieving mother in In the Bedroom (she’s got Halle beaten in this department, in my opinion). From the plate-smashing scene alone, she’s doing something we’ve never seen Spacek do before. And finally, Zellweger is goofy fun (and totally in her element, thank god) as Bridget Jones. It’s hard to compare her to the rest, but I can appreciate her believability as the unlucky-in-love plus-sized Brit.

Report Card
Halle Berry (Monster’s Ball)B
Judi Dench (Iris)B+
Nicole Kidman (Moulin Rouge!)A-
Sissy Spacek (In the Bedroom)A-
Renee Zellweger (Bridget Jones’ Diary)B+
My Choice: Sissy Spacek

The Winner: Nicole Kidman (The Hours)

State of the Category: An interesting year, this is. First we have Hayek, who’s typically not someone of great range in terms of acting, but at least brings a sense of whimsy to the role of Frida Kahlo. She’s not exactly presenting a magnificent performance (it becomes a slight caricature), but she’s hard to turn away from, which has to be commended. Kidman is dark and brooding as Virginia Woolf. And though I prefer her in other films – and her co-stars in The Hours as well – I acknowledge the above-average work she’s doing here. It’s quite the transformation from Satine to Virginia. And then there’s Unfaithful – the movie is at times unintentionally funny and other times a little bit of a train wreck, but it’s clear that Lane is something special. Though the writing is at times cringe-worthy, she’s a great screen vixen, and her passionate performance is more than the movie deserves. Moore is just the right amounts of over-the-top as the doting wife with a family secret in Far From Heaven. The stylistic performance is right up her alley, and she excels amid the scenery. Then there’s Zellweger with another nod, this time as Roxie Hart in Chicago. She really didn’t get enough credit for this role, which I believe to be her best (next to Jerry Maguire). Roxie is a brave choice – she’s an entirely unlikable woman (money hungry and a little bit of a fame whore) – yet somehow the audience has to admit her appeal.

Report Card
Salma Hayek (Frida)B
Nicole Kidman (The Hours)B+
Diane Lane (Unfaithful)B
Julianne Moore (Far From Heaven)B+
Renee Zellweger (Chicago)B+
My Choice: Renee Zellweger

The Winner: Charlize Theron (Monster)

State of the Category: This category is awfully divisive for me. The first nominee is Castle Hughes, whose work is some of the best child acting I’ve ever seen. She’s so natural and seamless in her interactions with her on-screen family, and she doesn’t miss a beat during her climactic, tear-filled speech. Keaton has never been more radiant than as playwright Erica Barry. Again, it’s hard to judge lighter fare against the harrowing dramas, but it’s easy to see that Keaton is wonderful as a woman of a certain age, reliving a little bit of youth. Morton is as always a subtle gem as the Irish mother in In America. She heads up a brilliant ensemble and shows great range from the carnival contest to the hospital scenes. All right – on Theron: she’s very clearly hamtastic, that we can all probably agree upon. But what I feared would be a complete waste of an Oscar turned out to be a fully-realized character (albeit an erratic, crazy-faced one). Although, it’s definitely hard to tell if it was the makeup team that more deserved her recognition. Finally, there’s Watts, who I like as a general rule, but her messy role in 21 Grams was very one-dimensional. The film boasted a great cast, but the script and Watts’ teary, screamy Cristina were a waste.

Report Card
Keisha Castle Hughes (Whale Rider)A
Diane Keaton (Something’s Gotta Give)A
Samantha Morton (In America)A-
Charlize Theron (Monster)B
Naomi Watts (21 Grams)C+
My Choice: Keisha Castle Hughes

The Winner: Hilary Swank (Million Dollar Baby)

State of the Category: Here’s the hotly contested one – just how much snubbing did Swank’s win actually result in? First, there’s Bening in arguably her greatest role. Julia Lambert is a shamefully snubbed, absolutely brilliant character study, and Bening shines as the vindictive and domineering stage actress. Sandino Moreno is, well, fine. Unfortunately, Maria Full of Grace reads more like an event and message movie than it does a showcase for actors. She was better than I expected, but there was little depth to a role that it seems many actresses could’ve filled equally well. Staunton moved away from character work with relative ease and delivered a nuanced take on the stout, motherly illegal-abortion-provider Vera Drake. It’s far from her typically zany work in minor roles elsewhere. Ah, Swank. From what I could remember (possibly blinded by my anger over the Bening snub), I detested this performance on first viewing. But after seeing it again, I see the redeemable qualities. Though it’s not very impressive by certain standards (it’s country bumpkin acting 101 and really nothing more), she at least commits. Winslet is mercifully light-hearted for a change in the quirky comedy Eternal Sunshine. Clementine is a great prototype for the film, and Winslet is a believable fit for the well-written role.

Report Card
Annette Bening (Being Julia)A
Catalina Sandino Moreno (Maria Full of Grace)B-
Imelda Staunton (Vera Drake) A-
Hilary Swank (Million Dollar Baby)B-
Kate Winslet (Eternal Sunshine of the…)A
My Choice: Annette Bening

The Winner: Reese Witherspoon (Walk the Line)

State of the Category: All in all, 2005 was a pretty weak year for film (possibly the weakest of the decade, in fact), so it’s no surprise that the lineup for Best Actress mirrors the quality of the year. First there’s Dench, who is (much like Juliette Binoche before her) perfectly harmless as the cheeky old Mrs. Henderson, but it lacks any kind of stretch for the actress, which makes you wonder how it managed this spot. Huffman’s performance is almost entirely comical. There’s very little poignance, despite her occasional good comedic timing. The role is one of the ultimate caricatures in this group of 50 roles. Knightley transcends her early criticism and generally surprised in the remarkably good adaptation of Pride & Prejudice. Though I’ve never seen Elizabeth Bennet as waifish as she is here, Knightley brings some new softness to the hardened character. One flick that I was not looking forward to re-watching was North Country. I remembered it being an unremarkable throwaway piece in which Theron’s nomination was seemingly pointless. But I was pleasantly surprised to see that she brings much more of an actorly touch to this role than she did to her winning performance. Her end-of-movie speech is a great Oscar clip. Lastly, Witherspoon is a ball of fire as June Carter, and though she’s been superior in other films (Election, perhaps), it’s undeniable that she does the film a great service with her voice and her nuance.

Report Card
Judi Dench (Mrs. Henderson Presents)B-
Felicity Huffman (Transamerica)C+
Keira Knightley (Pride & Prejudice) B+
Charlize Theron (North Country)B
Reese Witherspoon (Walk the Line)B+
My Choice: Reese Witherspoon

The Winner: Helen Mirren (The Queen)

State of the Category: Upon at last seeing all of these performances, I finally realized that this might just be my favorite line-up of the decade. I was highly pleased with each and every one of these ladies’ work. Starting with Cruz, whose fiery down-and-out mother is devastatingly beautiful and yet formidable, Volver may not be Pedro’s crowning achievement, but it’s quite possibly the actress’ best work put to film. Then there’s Dench, who is diabolical and absolute genius as an obsessed co-worker to Cate Blanchett. She may be one of the most terrifying, and yet ridiculously enjoyable, characters to watch in film history. Dame Mirren is, of course, completely worthy of all the hype. Her Queen Elizabeth II doesn’t back down from being a little bit prickly and yet she brings some humanity to the royal that most people would hardly notice. Streep is comic gold in this, her likely best performance in a comedy movie (sans Adaptation of course). Miranda Priestley is more than a chick-flick villain – she’s a knock-you-down-with-a-glance cinematic diva. And last, Winslet’s suburban mom turned sultry temptress is both funny and disturbing. Her recklessness reads so perfectly as a woman trapped in suburban hell.

Report Card
Penelope Cruz (Volver)A-
Judi Dench (Notes on a Scandal)A
Helen Mirren (The Queen)A
Meryl Streep (The Devil Wears Prada)A
Kate Winslet (Little Children)A-
My Choice: Judi Dench

The Winner: Marion Cotillard (La Vie En Rose)

State of the Category: This category gets a little questionable. For starters, Cate Blanchett, an assuredly talented actress otherwise, somehow got nominated for the exact same performance a second time in Elizabeth: The Golden Age. Wait, I take that back – this time around it was far more filled with melodrama. Don’t get me wrong – it was a visual treat, but it was a far inferior entry to the first film. Then there’s Christie, whose performance as Fiona in Away from Her was both heartbreaking and absolutely beautiful. Her Alzheimer’s patient was so real it reminded those who’d forgotten about the actress just how could she was at this. As far as Cotillard goes, though there was some backlash that La Vie En Rose was faced with, luckily she’s proven her subtler talents in later work (see Nine). Sure, her perf as Edith Piaf was hilariously over-the-top at times, but bottom line, the film was very French. And it was a slick biopic that I secretly really liked despite the critical drubbing. And what can I say about Linney that I haven’t already said? She’s magnificent as usual in this less-than-likable role as Wendy Savage. She’s brilliant as usual, and I’m glad she managed to sneak in and nab this nod. Finally, though some may say she was given too many snarky things to say by screenwriter Diablo Cody and that perhaps she was just playing herself, but Page’s Juno MacGuff is quintessential retro teen. And, like she says herself, she’s got charisma.

Report Card
Cate Blanchett (Elizabeth: The Golden Age) – B-
Julie Christie (Away from Her) – A
Marion Cotillard (La Vie En Rose) – B
Laura Linney (The Savages) – A-
Ellen Page (Juno) – B+
My Choice: Julie Christie

The Winner: Kate Winslet (The Reader)

State of the Category: Here’s what probably amounts to my second-favorite lineup of the decade. 2006 slightly edges it simply for that pesky little Angelina Jolie nomination. First, we’ve got Hathaway, who’s shed any modicum of Princess Mia she had left to prove just how riveting she can be. Kym is sometimes detestable, but her tense banter with her sister and mother is stuff of movie genius. Now, I’ve got nothing against Jolie in Changeling. She’s perfectly commendable. The problem is that Sally Hawkins’ spot got robbed by someone giving an adequate performance. I felt her character’s strife, but like 2003’s Naomi Watts nod, it was entirely one-dimensional. Leo’s take on Ray Eddy is magnificent – she makes the uglying down and struggling bit so much more rewarding. She’s tough-as-nails and a little bit of a bad guy, but you root for her relentlessness by film’s end. Call Streep’s tendency toward picking baity roles what you will, but she completely destroyed Sister Aloysius (in a good way, of course). In a film like Doubt, where theatrics are expected rather than reviled, she was pitch-perfect going toe-to-toe with Philip Seymour Hoffman. Last, though I believe Winslet to be superior in her less in-your-face performances, Hanna is a divisive and flawed character that she fit into seamlessly.

Report Card
Anne Hathaway (Rachel Getting Married) – A
Angelina Jolie (Changeling) – B
Melissa Leo (Frozen River) – A
Meryl Streep (Doubt) – A
Kate Winslet (The Reader) – A-
My Choice: Melissa Leo

The Winner: Sandra Bullock (The Blind Side)

State of the Category: A disclaimer before we begin this one – that pesky Last Station was in about 1 or 2 theaters it seems, and the DVD is nowhere to be found anytime soon, so an additional supplemental post will have to be posted later to talk about Mirren’s performance. Now, on to the other four. First, as any reader of this blog knows, I have nothing against Bullock. In fact, I think her Leigh Ann Touhy was better than average. It was very clearly not even close to being one of the five best performances of the year, but c’est la vie. Mulligan was well-suited to her role in An Education. Though I didn’t slobber over it as much as pretty much everyone else, she’s definitely a promising performer as shown by this flick. Sidibe was wonderful in Precious. I’ll just say it. Particularly after seeing her in interviews and realizing she’s bubbly and peppy – you truly learn how much of a stretch Claireece was for the actress. It’s probably one of the best debut performances ever put on the big-screen. And finally, Streep was nothing short of delightful as Julia Child. Much like Keaton in 2003, perhaps it doesn’t scream “Oscar” because of its light demeanor, but the performance is right-on, and for once it seems less like a good impression and more like an embodiment.

Report Card
Sandra Bullock (The Blind Side) – B
Helen Mirren (The Last Station) – TBD
Carey Mulligan (An Education) – B+
Gabourey Sidibe (Precious) – A
Meryl Streep (Julie & Julia) – A
My Choice: Gabourey Sidibe

Get those thoughts and qualms out in the comments, and stay tuned for much more “Great Big Academy Awards Project” mayhem – next up: Best Lead Actress of the 1990s!

ensembly challenged: WHEN BIG CASTS GO WRONG

One of the most hit-or-miss sub-genres you’re likely to find this side of the year 2000 seems to be the “huge ensemble cast” variety of films. Now before I begin, I should clear some things up – by “huge ensemble cast” movies, I’m not referring to those flicks that feature a core cast of four or five that spend the bulk of their screen-time together (think Closer or Junebug) or even the large casts that seem to be a force of nature (as in My Big Fat Greek Wedding or Ocean’s Eleven). No, I’m talking about the movies so hell-bent on big names that the marquee can’t support the weight of said name-dropping. The movies that are so scattered while searching for an ascertainable plot, that they forget to develop any of their characters. The best example of this plague in the past decade is 2006’s Bobby, a movie so interested in showing you recognizable faces that it forgets how stunted it is. From Demi Moore’s uncannily hammy diva to director Emilio Estevez’s downtrodden sidekick with a flat-as-a-pancake personality, the movie brings a hefty cast (nine people are featured above the title alone, for god’s sake!) but none of them deliver a meaningful performance. So I ask you, what then is the point?

Now, these big-cast flicks aren’t always horrible. There are the mediocre ones as well. Sure, The Women remake was mostly harmless fun, but it lacked a lot of chemistry, which is unforgivable considering the cast they were working with. Take Fast Food Nation as another example – it boasted a gigantic cast (a la Bobby) but none of them were able to live up to the compelling story they were trying to tell. The meat-packing plant scenes were painful to watch for all the wrong reasons – Wilmer Valderrama and Catalina Sandino Moreno were nap-inducing and lifeless. And though He’s Just Not That Into You had its moments (most of them thanks to bubbly Ginnifer Goodwin), it was bogged down by overdoing it with the storylines. How are we to care about any of their predicaments when we barely get a chance to get to know any of the characters?

And then there’s the hotly debated representative of all things intertwining and highly quantitative – 2005’s Crash. The Best Picture winner had critics polarized, including this one. Sure, it had a few reasonably acceptable performances (I was particularly taken with Sandra Bullock in fact), but the self-awareness of its own melodrama resulted in one of the most painful performances I’ve seen in recent years from Thandie Newton. The definition of over-the-top. Sure, backlash contributes to people’s seeming hatred of the movie (was it the biggest case of award-robbing in the past 20 years?), but it was always mediocre at best. Too much of the character work was meaningless and brought us nowhere by the film’s end.

But never fear, my friends, for there is hope. Sometimes twisty-turny ensemble pieces can be intelligent, cohesive, and, at times, fun. Leading the charge is Christopher Guest, whose ensemble pieces (particularly Best in Show and A Mighty Wind) seem to manage character development in mere moments. A great skill that Emilio Estevez just couldn’t reproduce. And let’s not forget the master of this sub-genre, Robert Altman, whose contribution of 2006’s A Prairie Home Companion just solidified his reputation as the ensemble master. So in the future, let’s have faith that we’ll see a lot more of Inglourious Basterds and Happy Endings and a lot less Demi Moore in 10-foot-tall hair.

best films: #34: HANNAH AND HER SISTERS (1986)

I’m going against the grain with this one, and I’m proud of it. Though Annie Hall held a place earlier in the countdown, it is, alas, not my favorite Woody Allen piece of filmdom. When it comes down to it, my favorite Allen work is 1986’s Hannah and Her Sisters. Aside from its obvious ensemble appeal (Dianne Wiest! Michael Caine! Mia Farrow! Oh my!), it’s a genuinely comically touching film, which is not always the case with Woody’s movies. From the doting wife and mother Hannah (played with dowdy brilliance by Farrow) to the artsy beauty Lee (played by the now-missing Barbara Hershey) to the occasionally coke-snorting struggling actress Holly (played with utter comic genius by the wonderful Wiest), the sisterhood at the core of the movie isn’t hardly as played up as their separate lives, particularly with their paramours. That’s where Michael Caine, as the bumbling, professorly husband to Hannah, Elliot, comes in – well-earning his first Oscar here. But where would this fantastic cast be without the words of Woody? Say what you will about how he writes his characters and the major age differences in the screen romances, but in the ’70s and ’80s (and with a little resurgence in this past decade), Woody certainly had a knack for crafting a unique story about men and women simply living (albeit hilariously). Hannah is the selfless centerpiece whom we all admire yet would never want to become, Lee is the free and aimless spirit whom we know all too well in ourselves and others, and Holly is the sister truly taking a journey – she goes from being a self-absorbed drama queen to finding her passion and running with it. There’s something for everyone in Hannah and Her Sisters.

Standout Performance: C’mon, who are we kidding – Dianne Wiest has really never been better than in this film. Holly is a fully realized character with relatable flaws that translate to funny, frustrating, and lovable all at the same time.

starting next week…

As previously mentioned, something known as “The Great Big Academy Awards Project” would be starting this month. Well I have a little bit more of the details for you now. Starting next week, I’ll begin a looooooong drawn-out process of attempting to do what I previously had thought was impossible – watching every film ever nominated for an Oscar. Now, the way I’m going about it is by category per decade. I’m starting with the 50 women nominated for Best Lead Actress in the aughts. Look for the full write-up, including commentary on the nominees and eventual winners, starting next week. And wish me luck.