Just like the best music and literature, films channel that which is best in humanity. They teach us about ourselves, about every aspect of ourselves, and they celebrate the human condition. The truly great films, however, transport you to another place entirely, help you to escape the reality around you. I find that one only encounters a phenomenal film when one forgets he’s even watching a movie. Out of the 30 or so films I’ve seen in theaters this year, only three truly stand out for that feeling. All three completely sucked me in, all three blew me away. The thing is, all three are very distinct, very separate pictures. And all three are, in no way coincidentally, front runners for the Best Picture Oscar this year.
The first of the three that I saw was No Country For Old Men, the modern Western epic from the Coen brothers. I was blown away almost from the minute the film started. It affected me visually in a way I haven’t really seen since my Orson Welles freshman seminar. I don’t want to jump to any Kane references, but this film is simply that good; it’s one of the best I’ve ever seen. The silence is sometimes more important in the performances than any dialogue that the characters could possibly say. The setting and backgrounds become part of the plot, affect the viewer in a way I didn’t expect. I found myself completely absorbed by the film and responding to the more suspenseful moments. Josh Brolin and Javier Bardem are both incredible and Bardem is a lock for a nomination, if not a win for Best Supporting Actor. It is, simply put, one of the strongest overall films I’ve seen in years.
The next film I saw was Atonement, a movie I had been anxiously awaiting since April when I read the book. From the second it started, I was utterly enthralled. The atmosphere that Joe Wright creates around this family is intoxicating, and the performances from Keira Knightley, James McAvoy, Saoirse Ronan, Vanessa Redgrave, and even Romola Garai are so compelling, passionate, subtle, and believable, that you get lost in the movie. I watched it in theaters twice and find myself loving it more every time I see it. The plot was tweaked in rather major ways, but the sentiment is still the same, and the performances are really what make the movie, despite the ingenious plot from Ian McEwan, glorious shots and landscapes from Joe Wright, and mind-blowing score (a type-writer as a musical instrument) from Dario Marianelli. A must-see and must-own movie, and a favorite for years to come.
Finally, this past weekend I saw the lovable and quirky Juno. Ellen Page’s turn as a pregnant 16-year-old is truly astounding, and the direction from Jason Reitman, writing from Diablo Cody, and her supporting ensemble, including Allison Janney, Michael Cera, Jennifer Garner, and J.K. Simmons, all come together to create a pitch perfect film. Of course it’s intelligent, of course it’s hilarious, of course it’s witty and quick-fire. What surprises is how deep it is, how poignant it becomes, and how you don’t even realize you just experienced a plot twist because you’ve become so invested in the characters up to that point. It is a film that audiences truly love, and calling it this year’s Little Miss Sunshine doesn’t do it justice, because the writing is smarter and the performances are, quite frankly, better. Out of the four screenings I’ve attended of these three classic films, this is the only one where people spontaneously applauded afterwards.
In short, all three films are stellar, all three will endure after this year is over and a winner is picked, all three will go down as some of my all-time favorites. But in a race that has become so crowded of late, with the Oscar chances becoming ever murkier as the dates climb forward, these three are THE strongest films of the year. Overall, the violent Western involving drug money, the epic story of love, war, and betrayal, and the cute but fresh comedy about teenage pregnancy are quickly becoming the films everyone else is trying desperately to upset.