Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The Spiritual Popcorn Oscars

Deep and dark... with glimmers of hope.

Yes, "deep and dark." Those are the spiritual themes of many of the Oscar nominees this year. With No Country for Old Men's death-incarnate Anton Chigrugh (Javier Bardem) and There Will Be Blood's incredibly sinister oil tycoon Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), plus the depressing nature of both of those movies and others, I am starting to wonder if anyone in Hollywood is happy anymore. Perhaps those writers who striked needed more than a good contract. Perhaps they just need a hug.

That said, my picks for The Spiritual Popcorn Oscars this year (meaning my choice for the most spiritually uplifting, inspiring, and moving movies) are NOT the ones that will probably win. Then again, Citizen Kane and Alfred Hitchcock never won any Academy Awards, so even if the Spiritual Popcorn Oscars aren't chosen, at least they're in good company.

Best Picture & Best Direction: Juno
This wonderful film is probably among my top five for the whole year, and as for spiritually-powerful, this movie packs a great punch. This is a story of the sacredness of all life, from conception through every twist and turn of our teenage and adult lives. And on top of the great message, this is a fun film to watch (kudos to the director for balancing a very serious subject with lighthearted comedy). You can't help but smile, and for that reason alone it deserves a prize. Among the five Best Picture nominees, there is none better than Juno.

Best Actor: Johnny Depp (Sweeney Todd)
In this dark movie, Johnny Depp plays the vengeful killer with such passion and energy. His performance convinces you, as you leave the theatre, that vengence is always the wrong choice. While the Sweeney Todd character is not an admirable chap, Depp gives us a good look at how sin and avoiding forgiveness can eat away at someone's soul until there's nothing left.

Best Actress: Ellen Page (Juno)
Ellen Page could have played Juno like any other typical teenager in the movies, but she honors real teens everywhere by playing her like a real person - a mix of pride, anger, temptation, fear, sadness, and love. She never overplays any of these but lets them all shine. For giving us such a wonderful glimpse into a pregnant teenager's soul, she deserves all the Oscars she wants.

Best Supporting Actor: Tom Wilkinson (Michael Clayton)
In this film, Wilkinson plays a redeemed prophet, a rare character in the movies today. Here is a man who has walked the path of greed and corruption, but who has finally seen the light. He comes off like Jeremiah, Ezekiel, or John the Baptist as a raving lunatic, but the truth has set him free. For this creative performance as a prophet of the modern age, he's my pick.

Art Direction: Sweeney Todd
This prize, to me, is how far a film has taken me into the soul of the movie through the set, camera work, artistic style, and overall ambiance. In no other film this year other than Sweeney Todd did I feel the scarred emotion and bleak soul of the titular character through the very "look" of the film. Even if Johnny Depp never said a word (or note), I would have known the sadness and angst of Sweeney Todd just by the feel of this dark film.

Visual Effects, Sound Editing & Sound Mixing: Transformers
In Transformers, I was overwhelmed by the rich sounds and sights that made me realize that we needed protection from some robots and that help had come through other electronic aliens. This is a movie about experiencing the power of one young man's journey as he becomes more than meets the eye, and the special effects, cool sounds, and overall sensory package here made that experience so much more powerful.

Cinematography & Original Score: Atonement
Atonement is a creative movie in which the plot, confusing at times because of the flashbacks and flash forwards, is able to move ahead thanks to the crisp cinematography and camera angles mixed with the punchy score with the undertone of a typewriter. The movie is about the atonement of one woman through her writing, and by mixing the typewriter sound into the score, we know that this is the direction we must all go for the final scenes. Image and sound is what makes this movie go from being a confusing romantic mystery to a lush Oscar-worthy film.

Best Adapted Screenplay: There Will Be Blood
Back when Upton Sinclair originally wrote Oil! (around the time of the turn of the century when he was also writing his more famous book, The Jungle), he was warning the people of the day to watch out for the rich and greedy oil tycoons who will capitalize this country to death. It was a fine social justice message then, and it is something we still haven't learned after a century of steamrolling by the corrupt oil and business leaders. For the sheer brilliance of unearthing a social justice work like this, it deserves an award for its prophetic call to action.

Best Original Screenplay: Michael Clayton
If it's not our oil and business dealings that need fixing (as in There Will Be Blood), then it's our legal system that needs a serious retooling. Michael Clayton is an original work that not only points out the problems (like Blood did), but it takes it up a notch - a far better outcome than most of the other films this year - by showing us how to fix it. Through a prophet and a reluctant honest lawyer, this film ends on a good note but still shows us that winning against evil is not a pretty business, and that it comes at great sacrifice for the few who take a stand. With such allusions to the themes of Scripture, it's a wonder Michael Clayton isn't in the adapted screenplay column. No matter, because it deserves the Oscar for its ethics and guts alone.

There are other races, but since I have not seen the majority of the films in these races, I chose not to make my selection there (or, as in the Best Supporting Actress race, I decided not to pick one because none of the nominees I saw were, in my opinion, really all that good). But there you have it. I am sure most of my choices will not be the actual winners, but I always have hope.

See you on the red carpet.

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