I think this is the best lineup overall this decade -- the top two were extremely strong movies, and I liked all of the others at least in some way.
My votes for Picture and Director this year would be The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, which might get my vote for best movie of the decade. And then I'd fill out the top two categories with some combination of Away From Her, I'm Not There, and Zodiac, all of which I thought were top-tier efforts. But the year was very impressive even beyond that, with some really strong entries that were foreign (4 Months, 3 Weeks, & 2 Days; Lust, Caution), animated (Ratatouille), or both (Persepolis).
In the context of this year, I was a little surprised so many people found Michael Clayton to be such a tremendous experience. I thought the movie had a lot of strong elements -- good performances across the board, some cool and cynical dialogue, and a nifty structure that served a far more compelling purpose than many films that pointlessly start in media res. Tony Gilroy gives the movie a moody enough sense of atmosphere, and keeps the suspense engaging throughout. At the end of the day, though, I found the overall plot to be kind of simple -- I wanted a few more turns in the narrative before we got to Michael deducing exactly what happened. It seemed to me that this was a very solid movie for grown-ups whose reputation was inflated just because we don't get too many of those these days.
I remember seeing Diablo Cody interviewed during this awards season, and she made a comment about how surprised she was by her film's awards success because "it doesn't feel like an Oscar movie to me." And so I assume she would take zero offense at me saying that Juno was a movie I thoroughly enjoyed, but found completely miscast as a Best Picture candidate. I thought, unlike last year's quirky indie Oscar crasher Little Miss Sunshine, Juno was pretty consistently funny, in a manner that was both inventively fresh and genuinely sensitive. But given the hugely ambitious dramas excluded this year, the nomination for such a small, lightweight movie as this struck me mostly as an attempt by voters to give a nomination to something -- ANYTHING -- that had been a box office hit, and this was the candidate close enough to vaguely serious movie territory to make the cut. As for Jason Reitman, I will say that he helped make the film feel like something more interesting than a generic teen comedy, but his shocking Director nomination was mostly a coattails nod -- there aren't enough directorial pyrotechnics on display to merit being singled out in this way in my opinion.
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly DID have those energetic directorial flourishes, and the movie is certainly a stylistic feat. And it wasn't just that Julian Schnabel (aided immensely by Janusz Kaminski) made such a visually artful film -- it was that he took a subject that wouldn't seem to lend itself to such a treatment at all (a protagonist who can only move one eye!) and found a way to make it feel cinematically exciting. And yet, though I found a lot of the movie impressive, it was limited as well -- as narrative, the film doesn't go much of anywhere, and though I don't in any way find the movie to be a vapid exercise in style, I don't find it to be quite a revelation because of this. Given that there are two directors (well, technically three) whose dazzling styles served more fully-developed material, I'm inclined to praise but pass on Schnabel here.
I had simply ADORED Atonement the novel, and the film was one I anticipated feverishly all year. In a strange way, my affection for the source material somehow caused me to like the movie both more AND less than I might have otherwise. More, in the sense that I admired the spot-on casting throughout the film, and loved seeing favorite elements from the novel (like Cecilia's green dress) visualized on screen in such perfect ways. I felt like my passion for the story allowed me to forgive some of the less successful elements of the translation. But there were some major disappointments as well, like the changes to the ending (I really missed the performance of Briony's play), and some scenes that just seemed completely off tonally (Robbie returning to the house, having found the kids). In a way, the movie's most talked-about sequence -- the lengthy tracking shot -- sums up my response to the film, as it was an ambitious attempt at greatness, but it was an attempt that didn't feel entirely realized in execution. So, points for effort, and for the fact that this is a period piece that seems like an actual film rather than a stuffy translation of a novel, but I wouldn't consider voting for it.
According to me, No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood might be, along with The Hurt Locker, my favorite Best Picture nominees of the decade. Both movies were hugely exciting pieces crafted by directors with a superb command of film craft, a pair of dark revisionist westerns that were also filled to the brim with black humor, and instantly iconic performances. Choosing one over the other seems basically irrelevant, but, because we must...
No Country for Old Men is, at base level, a truly gripping thriller. The Coens' skill at crafting suspense sequences is about at its peak, and I was completely held by their deft handling of the numerous narratives. Javier Bardem’s coin-tossing villain is a totally macabre show-stealer, but I also thought Tommy Lee Jones was pretty terrific as well, in the role that gives the film a lot of its emotional heft and poignancy. And, thanks largely to Roger Deakins, the gorgeously barren landscapes immensely aid the film’s bleak depiction of the contemporary American West, a vision that feels like the perfect union between Cormac McCarthy's western spareness and the Coens' noirish quirkiness. It’s a movie that’s alternately thrilling, heartfelt, and darkly funny, one of the best in Coens’ oeuvre. But I did already pick them in both categories for Fargo, and...
...I think There Will Be Blood is an even more ambitious and successful achievement. From the opening dialogue-free sequence that synthesizes image and sound in hugely exciting ways, to the violent but almost horrifyingly funny finale in the bowling alley, Paul Thomas Anderson throws one completely dazzling sequence at his audience after another. His detractors have often lobbed charges at him that his movies are little more than film-school-in-a-box exercises in style, but I have never agreed with this argument. He’s a stellar craftsman, and I find that his directorial flourishes nearly always serve his material, in this case, a great, big, sad portrait of turn of the century capitalism run amuck. His film feels completely one-of-a-kind to me, even down to the way the ramshackle sets look like the characters actually built them through years of labor. And in Daniel Day-Lewis’s volcanic turn as Daniel Plainview, Anderson has given us one of contemporary film’s great anti-heroes. To me, There Will Be Blood feels both bracingly modern and like a relic from another era, as if a long lost masterpiece from the 70’s era had only recently been discovered. It gets my votes in both categories, though I certainly felt nothing less than thrilled with the Coen brothers’ wins on Oscar night for their nearly comparable achievement.