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Darkness, dysfunction rule Oscars

KANSAS CITY, Kan. (BP)–Throughout last year, the mavens of moviedom gave us a glut of crude comedies, comic-book action threequels and special effects that overrode story and plausibility.

But as if to repent of a year’s worth of mediocrity and senselessness, in the waning months studios released the works of filmmakers who attempted to examine the soul of man. With few exceptions, however, the films that received Oscar nominations Jan. 22 were those that addressed themes of dysfunctional conscience and the darker nature of mankind. Those deemed worthy of a Best Picture nod were rated R (“Juno” being the lone exception).

The nominees were “Atonement,” “Juno,” “Michael Clayton,” “No Country For Old Men” and “There Will Be Blood”

With “There Will Be Blood,” writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson seems determined to reflect the sourest notes of human behavior. There are two main characters. The filmmaker does his best to spotlight one of them as a snake-oil hypocrite Christian, without including even the slightest portrait of someone else living a life of religious devotion. This leaves the audience with the assumption that those who follow Christ are either phonies or morons. The other lead character hates mankind with a passion that would make Scrooge cringe. What the film doesn’t give is any clear-cut moral. Dysfunction is not just spotlighted — it is given prominence over every other aspect of the human condition.

A DVD alternative is “Giant.” Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson and James Dean (his last film) give exceptional performances in this sprawling version of Edna Ferber’s novel about life on a big Texas spread. Unlike “There Will Be Blood,” which shows evil without repentance, “Giant” exposes bigotry and prejudice, with the lead character becoming a better man by film’s end.

In “No Country For Old Men,” a good old country boy finds a bunch of mob money. Unfortunately, a hit man has been dispatched to get back the loot.

The other day I heard in the news about a young woman who answered an ad to baby-sit. When she arrived, a 19-year-old man shot her to death. They walk among us, these soulless zombies. That describes the villain in “No Country for Old Men.” He’s dead inside. So, despite the fact that the technical and artistic merits blend together, making it one of the most mesmerizing, armchair-gripping films of the year, one feels as if he’s just spent two hours with the devil.

Though “Atonement” is a morality tale, reminding us how a jump to the wrong conclusion can lead to tragedy, it also beats you over the head with its despair, as if that component was enough to make for two hours of movie-watching. Dark, depressing, and immoderate, “Atonement” feels more like a time of penance than a rich movie-going experience.

At least “Michael Clayton” and “Juno” (PG-13 for strong language and sexual content) contained some semblance of right being better than wrong. “Michael Clayton” fascinated with its insightful, nonlinear script. Alas, my appreciation was dampened by the film’s often abusive language. The script was peppered with obscenity and profanity. What a shame, because I thoroughly enjoyed the other elements of this film. The lead is drifting, finding no solace in his work or life, then suddenly finds himself head on with a dilemma whereby he can find a sort of redemption.

In “Juno,” a smart teen becomes pregnant after her first sexual encounter and decides to have the baby, giving it up to an adoptive couple. Starting out with the same cynical attitude we’ve seen in a jillion teen angst movies, intermingled with lots of biting humor, the film soon reveals a perceptive look at today’s high school crowd, with the lead rather blasé about her world until grownup situations take charge of her emotions. As soon as Juno discovers she’s pregnant, her first notion is to have an abortion (tells you where society is, doesn’t it?), but without the filmmakers attempting a flagrant pro-life statement, the sanctity of unborn life quickly becomes apparent.

So, what didn’t get nominated?

The Documentary category (“Sicko,” “No End in Sight,” “Taxi to the Dark Side,” “Operation Homecoming,” “War/Dance”) left out one of the most enlightening films of the year: “In the Shadow of the Moon.” Now, I’m sure it wasn’t snubbed because there’s a Christian witness contained. Or even that it puts Americans in a good light. I think it’s because voters feel it’s just too positive. The film shows what we can become — not just what we are. That was not the fair-haired theme this year.

Other Nominees in the Major Categories

BEST ACTOR: George Clooney in “Michael Clayton,” Daniel Day-Lewis in “There Will Be Blood,” Johnny Depp in “Sweeney Todd,” Tommy Lee Jones in “The Valley of Elah” and Viggo Mortensen in “Eastern Promises.”

BEST ACTRESS: Cate Blanchett in “Elizabeth: the Golden Age,” Julie Christie in “Away From Her,” Marion Cotillard in “La Vie En Rose,” Laura Linney in “The Savages” and Ellen Page in “Juno.”

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: Casey Affleck in “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” Javier Bardem in “No Country For Old Men,” Philip Seymour Hoffman in “Charlie Wilson’s War,” Hal Holbrook in “Into the Wild” and Tom Wilkinson in “Michael Clayton.”

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Cate Blanchett in “I’m Not There,” Ruby Dee in “American Gangster,” Saoirse Ronan in “Atonement,” Amy Ryan in “Gone Baby Gone” and Tilda Swinton in “Michael Clayton.”

BEST DIRECTOR: Julian Schnabel in “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” Jason Reitman in Juno, Tony Gilroy in “Michael Clayton,” Joel and Ethan Coen in “No Country For Old Men,” Paul Thomas Anderson in “There Will Be Blood.”

The 80th annual Academy Awards will air Feb. 24 at 8 p.m. ET on ABC, with Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart serving as host.
Phil Boatwright reviews films from a Christian perspective for previewonline.org, where complete reviews of these movies, as well as details about possible parental concerns, can be found.

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  • Phil Boatwright