Armchair Cinema – 2007

Best Picture

No Country for Old Men (Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen)
The Nominees: Atonement, Juno, Michael Clayton, There Will Be Blood

Juno (Directed by Jason Reitman)
My Nominees: Across the Universe (Julie Taymor), Away From Her (Sarah Polley), In the Valley of Elah (Paul Haggis), No Country for Old Men (Joel and Ethan Coen), Persepolis (Vincent Parronaud and Marjane Satrapi), Ratatouille (Brad Bird), 3:10 to Yuma (James Mangold)


A nasty writer’s strike nearly sandbagged Oscar’s 80th birthday party. No one wanted to cross the picket lines to work on the show and when the nominations were announced in January, Oscar night was a big question mark. The strike had already brought network television to its knees and turned the Golden Globe ceremony from a star-studded event to a half-hour special with two lonely commentators reading results from behind a podium. The strike ended just two weeks before the ceremony and those who tuned in to the annual proceedings were treated to one of the dullest shows in Oscar history.

The show may have been dull but certainly not the nominees for Best Picture. For the first time in many years I had nothing to complain about because the five nominees were all smart, intelligent, original and compelling. Out of these diverse choices, the academy finally rewarded The Brothers Coen and fortunately they just happened to have made one of the best films of their career.

No Country for Old Men was a quiet, poetic, nicely modulated western about the nature of good guys and bad. It runs circles around the so-called revisionist western boasted by Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven by actually examining the way the law and the killers operate. I admire the film on nearly every level but I must admit that I stand with those who were troubled by the film’s abrupt ending. This resulted in a positive but mixed critical reaction.

My favorite film of the year was Juno, a movie that had as many mixed reactions as the Coen’s film but, for me, the results were far more satisfying. This is the kind of film that doesn’t register on first viewing. It took me at least three to appreciate its fullness. This is one of those human interest stories that builds on fully realized characters and allows their personalities to flow naturally through the progression of the story. By its end we’ve gotten to know these characters so well that they feel like family.

At the center is Juno Maguff, a pretty 16 year-old, wise beyond her years and possessing a mouth that spins words like comic candy. She is cynical but not hateful, smart but not egotistical, pretty but not ethereal, wise but still unlearned. You notice in her personality, a bright girl who will, with the progression of maturity, grow into a remarkable adult.

In the few short opening scenes we get to know something about Juno and her world. She lives in a lower middle-class family with her father Mac (J.K. Simmons) and stepmother Brenda (Allison Janney). Her best friend is the mousy Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera) who vegges on tic tacs and is forever practicing for track. His eyes convey a kind wandering fear of trying to figure out the wider world than most any teenager I’ve ever seen in the movies. Her best friend is the pretty Leah (Olivia Thirlby) whom she confides in. Leah is a beautiful girl with the same spirit as Juno but maybe not the same wit. All these characters are more than the sum of their parts and are drawn very specifically and given traits that make them more interesting. I love it when a writer gives me a character then adds a little something extra just to make them a little more colorful. Mac has his fishing. Brenda sews and raises dogs. Paulie has an addiction to orange tic tacs. Leah has pet rabbits and lusts after older men (consider that twist she could have had just a cat and lusted after boy bands).

Juno is bold and curious and that, we assume, is the reason she got bored and had sex with Paulie. After three pregnancy tests confirm the drug store cashier’s assertion that “your eggo is preggo”, her first thoughts turn to abortion. A visit to a clinic quickly changes her mind and, as plan B, she decides to find a nice couple to adopt the baby.

It was an interesting touch to get Juno to the point of considering adoption before she tells her parents. The scene where she breaks the news is so smartly written that I wanted to give Cody and director Jason Reitman a group hug. There isn’t the dour dramatic note of an Afterschool special. Note the coldness of the moment when she tells them. The new is brought back by a perfect note as Juno’s dad asks about the father, when she tells him it was Paulie, he and Brenda snicker and Mac’s perfect delivery “I never knew he had it in him”. This scene is special because instead of ranting and raving, there is the concern over the gravity of the situation. There is a perfect sting of heartbreak in Juno’s eyes when her dad tells her “I just thought you were the kind of girl who knew when to say when”. That would have been a fine but then Juno offers “I don’t really know what kind of girl I am.” The scene plays beautifully between the heartbreaking reality and bold humor. It is a gamble that pays off.

Juno finds the adoptive couple in a penny-saver. They are Mark and Vanessa Loring, a beautiful couple living in one of those showroom houses where everything is decorated and the place is cleaned within an inch of it’s life. At first we assume that Mark and Vanessa are the yuppie-types, career-driven and further driven to show their education and their career status with the objects that populate their house. This is a first glance however and as we move deeper into their home and their lives we understand that they are more complex than they first appeared. We understand their relationship is in the details especially in the fact that Mark’s “treasures”, the remnants of his truncated dreams of being a rock star, are kept away in one room upstairs. “You have your own room?” Juno gasps and then marvels at his guitar. What emerges is that Vanessa looks to the future, to motherhood while Mark holds tight to his past days in his band and the glimmer of hope of a once-hopeful career goal that has now turned into a more sensible, more lucrative career writing commercial jingles.

The details in Mark and Vanessa’s life are crucial because they outline what will ultimately happen and they will become part of Juno’s awakening that just because someone grows up doesn’t mean they have matured. There are glances and exchanges between Mark and Vanessa the do not speak words but suggest volumes. Notice the look that passes between them when Vanessa tells Juno about a previous adoption that didn’t pan out.

What progresses through the film is the growing maturity of most of the characters especially Juno. There’s a snarky still-a-kid vibe about her in the beginning and then, as the pregnancy grows and childbirth loom, the tone of her personality changes. Something in this sweet face grows older, tired. Note her energy in the scene where she breaks the news to her family and then notice the weariness in her face when, in the eighth month she has it out with Paulie. “You don’t have the evidence under your sweater,” she says, “I’m a planet.”

What impresses me most about Juno is that Diabo Cody is so confident that she created a compelling lead character that she will keep our interest and our sympathy no matter what she does. She gives her a situation that is not light but is dark, difficult and requires a lot of growing up. Cody could easily have sold the character out and given her a simple-minded problem (prom date, concert tickets, romance, vampires) but by making her pregnant she finds a situation that allows her mature personality to equal those she has to contend with. Most interesting is the way the pregnancy changes almost all of the characters. Cody’s script is a beautiful juggling act that combines the heart-tugging moments, the dramatic gravity and the comedy and manages to keep it from being too dark, too light, too schmaltzy or too cute.

I also thought it was a brilliant choice to bookend Juno’s story with a motif of chairs. She narrates her story beginning with “It started with a chair” and we gaze upon a big, worn-out comfortable-looking chair. Near the end she tells us “It ended with a chair” and we see a different chair, this time a lovely slimmer, not-so comfortable rocking chair. These two things illustrate the journey our hero has taken, that our security blanket in childhood becomes not-so comfortable when our eyes are open to the realities of the world.

Best Actor

Daniel Day-Lewis (There Will Be Blood)
The Nominees:George Clooney (Michael Clayton), Johnny Depp (Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street), Tommy Lee Jones (In the Valley of Elah), Viggo Mortensen (Eastern Promises)

Tommy Lee Jones (In the Valley of Elah)
My Nominees: George Clooney (Michael Clayton), Daniel Day-Lewis (There Will Be Blood), Johnny Depp (Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street), Ryan Gosling (Lars and the Real Girl), Phillip Seymour Hoffman (Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead), Phillip Seymour Hoffman (The Savages), Joseph Gordon Levitt (The Lookout), Graham Pinset (Away From Her), Denzel Washington (American Gangster)


The last time Daniel Day-Lewis was nominated for an Oscar he played Bill “The Butcher” Cutter, a tyrannical xenophobe with no use for other human beings in Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York. Five years later he was nominated for playing Daniel Plainview, a tyrannical oil man with no use for other human beings in Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood. The two were almost identical (including the mustaches), the only difference is that the latter won him his second Oscar.

You could spend a lifetime trying to get inside the mind of Daniel Plainview, but what you’d find wouldn’t illicit much joy. Plainview is a businessman for whom oil is his life’s blood and human beings are merely cogs in his financial pursuits (he’s so detached that when a man comes calling claiming to be family, he takes the man at his word). But while Day-Lewis gives a ferocious performance, it comes wrapped in a character that I don’t want to spend five minutes with. Not that he has to be likable, but Plainview is a man so diseased by greed that after a while he grows repellant.

It is easy to understand what the academy voters saw in Day-Lewis’ performance. This is one of those broad-lined performances with a lot of scenery chewing, boastful quotable dialogue and an vocal style (which he borrowed from John Huston). He is an interesting study in how greed breeds a diseased mind, but beyond his outward personality there isn’t much of a character there. Plainview is endlessly fascinating to watch but it is a test to see how much you can take. It has been said that there is a lot of Charles Foster Kane in Daniel Plainview but with Kane, we understood and sympathized even while he pushed his friends away.

Such a broad-lined character might have been easier to get the academy’s notice than playing for minimalism. The voters don’t generally select actors for minimalism and that’s probably why I was surprised that one of Day-Lewis’ competitors was Tommy Lee Jones. His performance in Paul Haggis’ In the Valley of Elah contains no great speeches and no overly dramatic scenes. This is a performance that flows naturally from the story.

Jones gives his best performance as Hank Deerfield, a former Army sergeant who’s days are spent hauling gravel at home in Tennessee. His world begins to close in on him with a phone call that informs him that his youngest son Mike, who has just returned home after serving 18 month in Iraq, has gone AWOL from Fort Bragg in New Mexico. Something about this doesn’t feel right and so Hank jumps in his truck and drives to the base to find out what is going on. All nine men in Mike’s platoon have come home, but neither they, nor any military personnel, seem willing to divulge any information about his whereabouts. It doesn’t take long until pieces of Mike’s body turn up in a field near the base – but conveniently just outside military jurisdiction (trust me, I haven’t given anything away).

No one wants to give Hank any answers, not the military, not the local police, not his son’s friends friends. The details come in dribs and drabs and in small fuzzy snippets from Mike’s camera phone. He gets half-answers from strip club and restaurant employees, from evidence that turns up that just doesn’t make any sense. The movie becomes a unfolding mystery that opens up possible motives then opens other possible motives without leading to a direct answer. What it all comes to are circumstances that don’t gel, actions that seem to paint Mike as a criminal or at least cruel and immoral. Hank, who knows he son better than anyone, doesn’t believe that he is getting the full picture.

Jones gives us the sense of a man who has spent the better part of his life in the military. He understands his way around procedures (He was an MP). He keeps a sharp eye out for details. Jones is never given in to the temptation to overact. There is a deepening sorrow just under the surface that often threatens to break out. He could have acted the daylights out of the scene in which Hank goes to see Mike’s burned remains, but the sadness around his eyes and the corners of his mouth say more than any ten pages of dialogue. It is a powerful moment given tone and mood by Jones’ ability to hold the scene without pushing.

What is most interesting about Hank is how little he realizes has changed in the military code of ethics since his time. Note when he tells Emily “You do not serve with a man and then do that to him” and contrast that with what he learns later about Mike. Hank comes into his son’s death with a full confidence that he understands his military. But times have changed and what is revealed is the full knowledge that this war is like no other, that the rules of military conduct pull back and forth on the soldier’s ethics and their mental duress.

The whole movie rooted in the performance by Tommy Lee Jones who has aways had a sad, solemn face with deep lines and an expression that suggests a man who has witnessed a lifetime of pain and regret.  That Hank has already lost a son in combat only adds to the sorrow that we sense within him.  Even worse is the knowledge that he thinks he understands the conditions his son was under in Iraq but only slowly begins to understand that this confounding war is something he cannot understand.  The last scene in the film, in which Hank raises a flag upside down, has been criticized as being too obvious but I think it signals something, a bold statement about this war that most of us are too afraid to admit.

Best Actress

Marion Cotillard (La Vie En Rose)
The Nominees:Julie Christie (Away From Her), Cate Blanchett (Elizabeth: The Golden Age), Ellen Page (Juno), Laura Linney (The Savages)

Ellen Page (Juno)
My Nominees: Amy Adams (Enchanted), Halle Berry (Things We Lost in the Fire), Helena Bonham Carter (Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street), Angelina Jolie (A Mighty Heart), Nicole Kidman (Margot at the Wedding), Sienna Miller (Interview)


I would like to go the France, sneak into Marion Cotillard’s home, steal her Oscar then bring it back to the states and put it in Ellen Page’s mailbox. All due respect to Ms. Cotillard who turned in a fine performance as singer Edith Piaf but watching Ellen Page bring Juno to life is like watching the sun come out. As Juno Maguff, Page offers a burst of intelligence, she is wise beyond her years but finds that she has only a limited understanding of the adult world. She has to grow up fast because, at 16, she finds herself pregnant by a friend whom she isn’t even dating. Page doesn’t play her situation like a TV melodrama, rather she infuses Juno with a specific personality, takes a difficult situation and allows the personality to guide her judgement.

Given her predicament, her first instinct is to seek an abortion. The trip to the clinic changes her mind, for reasons the movie doesn’t dwell on. She instead decides to give the baby up for adoption to a nice childless couple. Scanning the Penny Saver she finds Mark and Vanessa Loring, one of those sweet, rich, career-driven couples who seem to have designed their home soley on the advice of Martha Stewart. Things are not as they seem, however, and as the world widens for Juno she sees that all that glimmers is not gold. We see Mark and Vanessa through Juno’s eyes and assume that everything is perfect, that uptight Vanessa and laid-back Mark seem to fit those molds to our expectations. But as Juno gets to know them she begins to understand that love depends on selflessness, on finding someone who connects with you because of who you are.

What makes Juno so facinating is the journey she takes. She is confident that she understands the adult world and only truly understands the reality when she stands in the middle of it. In the opening scenes, Juno’s face and body language convey a young girl still lingering on the things that defined her in her pre-teen years. Watch the way she walks, the way she tilts her head, the way she rolls her eyes, all are leftovers from an age that she will quickly lose. Then look at her near the end of the film, after she has become fully aware of Mark and Vanessa’s shoddy relationship. When she professes her love for Paulie (the baby’s father) there is a gleam in her eye, a maturity that we have witnessed throughout the story.

If Juno had to be pregnant, I think it was a brilliant decision to make her 16. A year younger and it would have seemed seamy, a year older and we would have been distracted by the idea that she should have known better. Sixteen is an age when the world hasn’t fully unfolded, when we only think we know it all but only come to understand, in hindsight, how limited our scope had been. I noticed that Juno runs through the idea of an abortion and then lands on the idea of giving the child up for adoption before even telling her family. But I also noticed that when her father says “I thought you were the kind of girl who knew when to say when”, her eyes drop and she says “I don’t know what kind of girl I am.”

I’ve never seen a character like this, she has a walk and a way of speaking that I haven’t experienced before. She creates the best kind of character, the kind you want to spend some time getting to know.

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