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The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Actor, 2007-2008)

The Oscar Quest began in May of 2010. I finished about fifteen months later, and wrote it up for this site. That was essentially the first thing I did on here. Five years have passed since then. I’ve grown as a person. My tastes have changed, matured (or gotten more immature, in some cases). So it feels fitting, on the five year anniversary of the site and of the Oscar Quest, to revisit it.

I want to see just how my opinions about things have changed over the past five years. I didn’t do any particular work or catch-up for this. I didn’t go back and watch all the movies again. Some I went back to see naturally, others I haven’t watched in five years. I really just want to go back and rewrite the whole thing as a more mature person, less concerned with making points about certain categories and films than with just analyzing the whole thing as objectively as I can to give people who are interested as much information as possible.

This is the more mature version of the Oscar Quest. Updated, more in-depth, as objective as possible, less hostile. You can still read the old articles, but know that those are of a certain time, and these represent the present.

2007

George Clooney, Michael Clayton

Daniel Day-Lewis, There Will Be Blood

Johnny Depp, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Tommy Lee Jones, In the Valley of Elah

Viggo Mortensen, Eastern Promises

Analysis:

SAG matched 3/5. They had Emile Hirsch for Into the Wild and Ryan Gosling for Lars and the Real Girl instead of Jones and Depp.

BAFTA matched 3/5. No Depp. No Jones. James McAvoy for Atonement and Ulrich Muhe for The Lives of Others instead.

BFCA matched 4/5. No Jones. Hirsch and Gosling instead.

The Globes matched 4/5 across both categories. No Jones.

Tommy Lee Jones was a shocker come nominations morning. That came totally out of nowhere. Depp also seemed like a bit of a surprise. I would have doubted McAvoy made it. Gosling seemed unlikely a well. I would probably have went with Depp and Hirsch as 4 and 5 this year and been wrong on Jones like everyone else.

No suspense in the win for the fourth year in a row. Day-Lewis was a mortal lock in this one.

Michael Clayton is a film that I always say — when it was coming out, I said, “What the fuck is this? What is this title?” I was not expecting the kind of film that I got.

George Clooney plays a “fixer” who goes around fixing problems for his law firm and their clients. He’s tried (and failed) to leave the business and start his own restaurant and now has a problem of his mentor, Tom Wilkinson, going mental during a disposition during a lawsuit and now having seemingly lost his mind. Which is tough, since he’s representing a corporation that knowingly put out pesticide that led to the deaths of a lot of people. So now the firm is worried that he’s gonna talk, because he’s unpredictable. And Clooney has to navigate all of this. And trust me, it’s brilliant.

Clooney is so fucking good here, I never quite realized it at the time. But if this movie came out a year before this, Clooney would have won the Oscar. He’s that good. The problem is, a one-year winner that would have been solid is going up against one of the great performances of all time. And as much as I’d like to take him, I can’t. Look who he’s up against…

There Will Be Blood is Paul Thomas Anderson’s masterpiece. I realize he’s a filmmaker that might have about five masterpieces already, but this one, to me, is the best of the best.

Daniel Day-Lewis plays Daniel Plainview, an oil prospector who is willing to say and do just about anything to get what he wants. And the film mainly revolves around him and his (adopted. Sort of) son coming to a small town claiming they can get some money if he’s allowed to drill there. He then buys up all the land and steals all of the oil from them, essentially. It’s fucking brilliant.

Daniel Day-Lewis is so good here, I don’t even have to mention how great he is. This is one of the best performances ever given, and people realized that the minute they saw the film for the first time. Just watching the trailer for this movie you realize what kind of performance you’re dealing with. This truly cannot be beat in this category.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is Tim Burton’s adaptation of the Sondheim musical. Which is pretty suitable to his sensibilities. I’m actually surprised at how much I like this movie. This, to me, is Tim Burton’s only really good film of the past twenty years. There are others that I like that are pretty good, but this is the only one that feels really good.

Sweeney Todd (nee Benjamin Barker) comes back to Fleet Street after some years away. He used to be a barber whose wife was lusted after by the local judge. So the judge threw him in prison and raped his wife, which caused her to commit suicide. So now he’s back to exact revenge. And he teams up with Mrs. Lovett, a woman who runs a bakery with the “worst pies in London.” And they start a nice partnership together — he murders his customers, and she bakes them into pies. It’s pretty wonderful.

Sondheim writes amazing music, and that’s the true star of the film, but Depp does a really great job as Todd. He sings really adequately and also gives a tremendous performance to boot. Did he need to be nominated? No. But he feels like a solid #5 to round out most categories.

In the Valley of Elah is one of the most shocking Best Actor nominations in my time of covering the Oscars.

Tommy Lee Jones plays a military policeman whose son came back from Iraq and went missing. And he’s trying to figure out what’s going on, while the military does about everything they can to obstruct his investigation.

Jones plays a man determined to find out what happened to his son, and his quiet determination is really well played here. The performance I prefer is the supporting turn in No Country, but hey, I get it. He had those two performances and had The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada from the year before this that built up a lot of good will (and won him Best Actor at Cannes). It was a nice way to honor a great actor after some absence. Wouldn’t vote for him at all, but he’s done a good job here.

Eastern Promises is David Cronenberg’s followup to A History of Violence. And man, does it not disappoint.

Naomi Watts is a midwife who finds the diary of a Russian teenager who died giving birth at the hospital. She has only a card to a restaurant, and brings the baby there, hoping to find its family and return it to them. Little does she know, the restaurant belongs to the Russian mob, and the diary contains a lot of incriminating evidence toward the owner of the restaurant. Thus putting her in a lot of danger. The baby too.

Viggo Mortensen plays the mobster’s right hand man, who is also the family hitman. He slowly works his way up the mob and is the protector and friend of the mobster’s idiot son, who is nice but a complete fuck up. It’s a classic alternate son scenario, where the son isn’t fit to rule and the surrogate son is.

Mortensen is really quite terrific here, though I completely dock the performance by a late second act twist that’s just completely unnecessary and, while I understand it, dilutes the character. It ends well, and they manage to overcome it, but it still hurts the whole thing in my eyes. Either way, Mortensen is terrific and rates third choice for me in this one. No chance I take him over Clooney or Daniel Day-Lewis, but he does a really terrific job and finally gets some notice after a half-decade of great work.

– – – – – – – – – –

The Reconsideration: This is one of the most open and shut cases of all time. Daniel Day-Lewis wins this category without a moment’s hesitation.

I wish I could take George Clooney, because literally any other year around this, he wins without question. He’s that fucking good in this movie and it’s a shame that got clouded by how good Daniel Day-Lewis is. Clooney is a solid decade kind of winner. Day-Lewis is an all time kind of winner. You can’t ignore that.

The other three are just window dressing. Nice to see them get their nominations, but this is a one-horse race, and that’s just the way it is.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. Daniel Day-Lewis, There Will Be Blood
  2. George Clooney, Michael Clayton
  3. Viggo Mortensen, Eastern Promises
  4. Tommy Lee Jones, In the Valley of Elah
  5. Johnny Depp, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Rankings (films):

  1. There Will Be Blood
  2. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
  3. Michael Clayton
  4. Eastern Promises
  5. In the Valley of Elah

My Vote: Daniel Day-Lewis, There Will Be Blood

Recommendations:

There Will Be Blood is one of the most essential American films ever made. Full stop.

Michael Clayton is an essential film. Trust me, it is. If you’re a film buff, you need to see this movie. This is the closest we’ve come to a 70s movie in the past twenty years. And I love it. Also essential for Oscar buffs, and it’s just a fucking wonderful film. This is one of the best movies of the past decade, and all film buffs should see it.

Sweeney Todd is a very high recommend and a film that I love. Mostly I love the musical and it’s just a really solid and entertaining film. I’m overrating it, but I love it, so I’m fine doing that. If it gets people to listen to Sondheim, I don’t give a fuck how you justify it.

Eastern Promises is awesome. Love this movie. I like it better than A History of Violence. Very high recommend and a movie that film buffs should sees as essential, even though objectively it’s not all-time essential or anything like that. It’s just film buff essential because it’s so awesome.

In the Valley of Elah is not a great movie. Tommy Lee Jones is the reason to see it, and even there it’s just pretty good. Moderate recommend, but easily skippable and not something anyone really needs to see unless it seems like something you’re gonna like.

The Last Word: One of the five or ten best decisions they ever made. This is a performance that immediately ranks among the all-time greats. You can’t pass that up.

– – – – – – – – – –

– – – – – – – – – –

2008

Richard Jenkins, The Visitor

Frank Langella, Frost/Nixon

Brad Pitt, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler

Sean Penn, Milk

Analysis:

SAG matched 5/5.

BAFTA matched 4/5. No Jenkins. Dev Patel instead. (They pushed him Supporting, so that wasn’t gonna happen.)

BFCA matched 5/5 out of six nominees. (Eastwood for Gran Torino was the sixth.)

The Globes matched 4/5. No Jenkins.

This was a pretty easy category. The only other potential nominee was DiCaprio for Revolutionary Road. Seems like five out of six, so most people would have gotten this category or four at worst

Penn won SAG, BFCA.

Rourke won BAFTA and the Globe.

This was a 50/50 decision all the way through. But smart money was on Penn, given the role and his stature over Rourke.

The Visitor sounds like a science fiction movie. But it’s not. It’s one of those nominations that you go, “Oh I like Richard Jenkins,” once you figure out who exactly that is, but even then you have no real idea what the hell this movie is about.

I like to think this was their way of nominating him for Step Brothers.

Jenkins plays a professor who, one day, discovers African immigrants living in his apartment. He works in Connecticut and only occasionally comes back to his New York apartment. So he finds these immigrants squatting in there, and rather than get rid of them, he befriends them and lets them live there. And they allow him to come out of his shell more (as he is a quiet, reserved man). Then one day, the man is arrested on bullshit charges and is facing deportation. And Jenkins now has to fight for him to stay in the country.

It’s a really terrific performance that I wish I could consider more for a vote. He probably ends up fourth for me, just because I think he’s solid, but I wouldn’t take him over at least three other people. I almost have him fifth, but in the end, I think there is more to this performance than just your “standard indie fare.” So I’ll give him fourth. But either way, wouldn’t take him.

Frost/Nixon is… well, you know.

It’s about the famous interview with David Frost and Richard Nixon, which was done because Frost was basically an entertainment journalist and they wanted Nixon to give his first interview after Watergate but not have to face the hard questions he’d have gotten by a “real” journalist. So it’s about Frost trying to do this interview and ask the hard questions but also facing a canny opponent who knows how to throw him off his game at every turn.

Frank Langella plays Nixon, and he’s awesome here. Ten years earlier, he might have won this. Here, he’s really solid, and while he looks nothing like Nixon, you don’t care. He feels like he encapsulates who Nixon was, and really handles the role quite well. So much of this movie feels like a #4 all around. Solid, well respected, really entertaining, but ultimately not something you ote for. Just something you respect and not a whole lot more. He might go higher in a different year, but I doubt he’d ever really make #2 for me.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is the film that put David Fincher on the Oscar map. Which is hilarious, because it’s such a straightforward kind of movie, compared to Se7en, Fight Club and Zodiac.

Benjamin Button is a man who ages backwards. He is born an old man and dies an infant child. And the film is about his life and experiences, and his relationship with a woman, with whom he eventually “meets in the middle,” in their 40s.

Brad Pitt plays Button, and it’s quite a good performance. Most people don’t think so upon first viewing, but a lot of that work is actually him in a motion capture suit. So he’s gotta do double duty, performing this man at various ages. It’s definitely not a performance that wins, and would normally be a fourth choice in the category, but here I’ll give him third. He’s not beating the next two nominees, but shit man, this is a really solid performance that marks the beginning of Pitt’s “quiet” era, where he gave more restrained, mature performances. (Technically that started with The Assassination of Jesse James, which I think was robbed of all the Oscars, but that’s a discussion for another day.)

The Wrestler is the movie that gave us back Mickey Rourke. Not sure we needed him, but we got him, for a brief moment. So that’s nice, right? It also gave us back Darren Aronofsky, even though he never really went away. It just seems like he did because everyone hated The Fountain (which I thought was fucking wonderful).

Rourke plays a wrestler who was huge in the 80s, and is now in his 50s and wrestling in small gymnasiums for a hundred people. He doesn’t know how to do anything else and has nothing else in his life. During the day he works in a deli and at night he puts his body on the line for people who barely give a shit. And the movie is about his attempt at redemption, trying to reconnect with his daughter he abandoned years ago, and forging a relationship with a stripper he frequents.

It’s a beautiful portrait of a man who just can’t give up his self-destructive instincts despite really wanting to. It’s so good, and Rourke is so good in it. I wish I could take him without reservation in this category, I really do. Any other year, almost, and he’d be a runaway winner. Here, he has Sean Penn to contend with, and I love both these performances so much I have no idea what the hell I’m gonna do.

Milk is a biopic of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official in the US, who (spoiler) was brutally murdered because of his sexuality.

Sean Penn is fucking astounding in this movie, and were it not for the sentimental value of Mickey Rourke, this would be one of the most consensus Best Actor winners of all time. I watched this movie openly in contempt of Penn’s earlier win, but I still would fucking vote for him despite that. That’s how good he is. He’s actually breathtaking here, and it’s one of the more impressive performances I’ve seen in the past twenty years.

– – – – – – – – – –

The Reconsideration: The category is between Sean Penn and Mickey Rourke. There’s no questioning that. Langella and Jenkins are fine, but nowhere near the other two, and while I like Pitt, he doesn’t rate either. It’s Penn or Rourke.

The sentimental choice is Rourke. He’s so terrific in The Wrestler, I’d have loved to see him win and even voted for him in 2008. (You know, on my personal ballot. I didn’t actually have a vote.) I’m pretty sure I took him in 2011 when I did the Quest for the first time. But, now with a decade having past, the best performance here is Sean Penn. I have to admit it. I kind of knew it at the time, but now I have to come out and say it. Sean Penn deserved to win this, and since I’m all about the best performance this time, I gotta vote for Penn. I love Rourke here and would have loved to see him win, but Penn is so incredible he has to be the choice.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. Sean Penn, Milk
  2. Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler
  3. Brad Pitt, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
  4. Richard Jenkins, The Visitor
  5. Frank Langella, Frost/Nixon

Rankings (films):

  1. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
  2. The Wrestler
  3. Milk
  4. Frost/Nixon
  5. The Visitor

My Vote: Sean Penn, Milk

Recommendations:

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is David Fincher, and his movies are essential.

The Wrestler is Darren Aronofsky, and his movies are essential.

Milk is an essential film. I don’t care what most people say, it’s essential for film buffs. Maybe time will lessen that and it’ll just be a very high recommend, but film buffs need to see this. The acting, the directing, all around it’s just incredible.

Frost/Nixon is a solid film that I give a high recommend to. Ron Howard makes these movies that don’t hold up as awards contenders, but they sure as hell hold up on watchability. He’s the king of the four star movie that rates in that second tier but never in the top ten. That’s what this is. Very solid and worth seeing and you’ll like it a lot, but you’re not gonna love it the way you’re likely to love the three films above it in his category.

The Visitor is a solid indie film I give a solid recommend to. But it’s not essential and can be skipped. I say use your judgment. If it doesn’t sound like it’s for you, skip it. You’re okay without it. But it is worth a watch, if only for Richard Jenkins’ performance.

The Last Word: Penn is one of the solid decisions of all time. Mickey Rourke, while great in the moment, wouldn’t have held up as well because… well, look what he’s done since then. Penn makes more sense as a winner. No one else would have been nearly as good. So, ultimately, they did make the best choice. I’d have liked Rourke, but I think they made a decision equal, if not better, to him. So thumbs up from me.

– – – – – – – – – –

(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)

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