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Friday, January 04, 2008

Be excited

I've seen two major Oscar contenders over the past few days, and both are enough to restore your faith in American cinema, after the largely wretched movie year that was 2007.

The first was No Country For Old Men, the Coen Brothers' bleak, bloody and baleful adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's novel. Critics have been falling over themselves in praising this movie, and it's hard to argue. It's at once an awesomely suspenseful thriller with some of the most knuckle-whitening set pieces I've seen in many years, and a profound and philosophical lament for American society and the values that it once held dear.
No Country is anchored by a faultless cast, led by the brilliantly worldweary Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin (all grown up from his days in The Goonies!) and, most memorably, Javier Bardem, sporting a bizarre bowl haircut, and baiting award booty with his chilling embodiment of irredeemable, baffling evil. Beautifully shot, faithfully and fluently adapted, and tightly directed, this is truly magnificent stuff.

The second is Juno, which has firmly established itself as the Little Miss Sunshine flick of 2008 (quirky indie movie with idiosyncratic characters and massive breakout hit appeal). Directed by the sickeningly promising Jason Reitman (he of Thank You For Not Smoking fame), Juno is the story of a whip-smart, sarcastic, independent-minded teen named Juno McGuff (played by 20-year-old Ellen Page, who, mark my words, will be the biggest star of the year) who becomes pregnant by her best pal and sorta boyfriend Bleeker (Michael Cera, from Superbad and the much-missed Arrested Development).

Quickly abandoning the idea of an abortion, Juno, with the support of her dad (JK Simmons) and dogs and nails-loving stepmother (the brilliant Allison Janney), opts instead to give the baby to yuppie childless couple Mark and Vanessa (Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner, extremely impressive in the movie's most dramatic performance).

I won't say anymore, but needless to say there are a few ups and downs along the way, but, thankfully and refreshingly, the plot does not descend into mawkish, judgemental hogwash. All the way through, it remains funny, sharp, insightful and ineffably real. This is testament to the strength of former stripper (yes, you read that right) Diablo Cody's script, a surefire contender for this year's Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.

Juno has been highly praised by critics over yonder, and has appeared in the Top 10 movies of the year of several well-respected publications and hacks. There is great ensemble work here - the finest of the year perhaps - but special mention must go to the luminous Page, who appears in almost every scene, and invests the sassy but romantic, strong but vulnerable, mature but childish teen with so many shades, and communicates so many conflicting emotions, often at once.
Juno is the kind of movie that you just can't wait to own on DVD, because it brings comfort knowing it's just there, in arm's reach, to pop in the DVD player whenever you need inspiring, or just to bring a smile to your face.

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