Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Atoning for the Oscars

I haven't really watched the Academy Awards since The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (2003) swept all eleven categories it was nominated for in an unprecedented victory (and one that kind of made everyone feel bad for the other films nominated that night). Every year there's at least one movie that excites me - Finding Neverland (2004), Hotel Rwanda (2004) or Pan's Labyrinth (2006) - but these films, if even nominated in the top categories, are usually the underdogs. And usually they don't win.

Oscars, schmoscars, I say.

I probably won't bother watching the 80th Academy Awards as there were no films in 2007 that I'm really rooting for this year and it seems unlikely the underdogs will cause any upsets. Johnny Depp really doesn't have a chance of winning for Sweeney Todd (and the fantastic Helena Bonham Carter missed out on her nomination).

Of the five films nominated for best motion picture this year, there are only two that I've actually seen - Juno and Atonement. While Juno is charming and Ellen Page delivers a vulnerable and funny performance in the title role, I'm not so sure that the film is one of the top five of the year. This little indie trouper got lucky - good timing coupled with excellent word of mouth and riding high on the coattail of that other heart-warming indie film to get nominated last year, Little Miss Sunshine (2006). It will probably win best original screenplay but is unlikely to garner any of the other awards.

Atonement, on the other hand, probably will snag a few wins (original score, cinematography, and possibly even the coveted top prize). This sweeping narrative is at once an epic love story and a collection of quietly understated vignettes. While the visuals are far from muted (vivid colors abound), the film itself is subdued, made up of subtle moments that become significant, simply by being - an encounter at the fountain, a secret rendezvous in the library.

Even the war scenes are seemingly secondary moments not usually dwelled on in film. Rather than battle scenes, we are given the intermission - the parting lovers, a nurse giving comfort to an unknown soldier on his deathbed, and most staggering, a tracking shot through a beach of thousands of loitering soldiers all waiting to be shipped away to the next stage of battle and possibly to their deaths. The film's score is less subtle, penetrating the transitions relentlessly, pounding typewriter keys as the story unfolds.

Atonement ends somewhat unexpectedly with a bittersweet finale that few unfamiliar with the original source material (novel by Ian Mcewan) will see coming. It's hard to deny that the film is a rather beautiful, unique love story, but it is one that has failed to inspire me to tune in on February 24th. I'll be rooting for the film, I suppose. But only from a distance.


Just one question: How did the raw, Irish film Once, a love story told in song, fail to receive a nomination for best original score? That film's music really had the power to seep beneath the skin and grab a hold of the heart.

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