Oscar, are you listening?

Salon writers and special guests weigh in on their favorite performances and movies of the year -- and the ones they couldn't stand.

Published February 19, 2008 12:00PM (EST)

Kathryn Harrison, author of "The Kiss" and, most recently, "Envy"
I love "Sweeney Todd." That a relentlessly bleak tragedy, without justice or hope of redemption, a sordid story of a serial killer and unwitting cannibalism, would be set to irresistibly catchy music and lyrics makes "Sweeney Todd" the only musical I love, probably for its subversive quality: It's a triumph of poor taste that somehow excuses what I find inherently ridiculous in the form. It was the first musical I saw performed onstage, with Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou in the leads, nearly 30 years ago, and though I tried to keep my enthusiasm in check, not wanting to be disappointed, I couldn't help but have high hopes for the film version's potentially brilliant match: Tim Burton directing Stephen Sondheim. But I never imagined -- how could I have imagined? -- it might turn out to be the masterpiece it is.

Immediately -- from the first frame -- I loved the sinister, seductive squalor of Dante Ferretti's sets of 19th-century London. As for Burton's mischievously noir sensibilities, his vision is sublimely matched to this material. And the lead performances were mesmerizing. From the moment in the first act that Johnny Depp sings a love song to his "friends" the straight razors, caressing them, I relinquished any reservations about his ability to carry the role of Todd, which requires him to plummet from righteous fury into madness. And Helena Bonham Carter's madcap Mrs. Lovett, her cheery lack of conscience, is the perfect foil for Depp's depressive, brooding Todd. Even the sepulchral makeup, the dead pallor accentuated by black shadowed eyes, makes Depp and Bonham Carter look strangely glamorous and elegant, not compromising but enhancing their good looks. The montage of Mrs. Lovett's completely daft fantasies of beach-front retirement with Todd is testimony to Burton's genius: He can transform sun-drenched scenes into darkness simply by virtue of tone. Somehow he's made a film that's gothic and savage and very funny, as well as desperately sad and pessimistic. And so wonderful to look at -- so astonishingly beautiful in its debasement.

Kevin Berger, Salon features editor
Here's how I felt after seeing "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead": sick, as in nauseated, as in, "I don't know why I ever pay attention to movie reviews." If this godawfully bleak melodrama, with no redeeming humanity or artistic catharsis, is the valediction with which 83-year-old director Sidney Lumet wants to exit the world, his final message is clearly, "Fuck you, and by the way, Eugene O'Neill was too cheery."

But I do want to say one thing, and that is, "Ladies and gentlemen: Philip Seymour Hoffman." What does it mean that the most riveting and frightening human being on the screen these days is a corpulent everyman who looks and sweats like the cook on a Denny's night shift? In this movie, as he persuades his pusillanimous younger brother, overacted by Ethan Hawke, to rob their parents' jewelry store, Hoffman is Falstaff and Iago and Macbeth rolled into one fantastic human specimen of mirth, malignity and desperation. Wearing a vertiginous orange business shirt and risible brown tie, he communicates all of this through perfectly timed smirks and squints, tiny laughs and sighs.

There is one long and brilliant scene, before the movie disintegrates into Freudian histrionics, when Hoffman steps as lightly as a deer, all the more remarkable for a fellow of his pasty girth, through the upscale apartment of his sylphic drug dealer, staring at the austere postmod furnishings for God knows what reason, his face and body speaking a silent language of razor tension and horrible things to come. I know he wasn't nominated for best actor. But who cares? On principle alone, I would give Hoffman an Oscar every year.

Anne Lamott, author, most recently, of "Grace (Eventually): Thoughts on Faith"
I hated "Atonement." Everyone in the world besides me and my boyfriend seems to have fallen in love with it. We had to hide in the movie theater because we saw some friends approach at the end, with tears in their eyes and swoony looks on their faces -- so we pretended to reach for purses and coats below the seats.

I am so sick of Keira Knightley's lips that some days I can barely go on.

I am known to cover my eyes during violent or intense movies, but loved -- and watched -- almost all of "There Will Be Blood." Daniel Day-Lewis should get the Oscar for best performance. On the other hand, I saw perhaps 45 minutes of "No Country for Old Men" and had not only my eyes shut, but also my fingers in my ears, to block out the sound of Javier Bardem's footsteps. I got exactly one shot of the air gun.

There were so many great appearances by women: Julie Christie in "Away From Her," stunning, once in a lifetime. Laura Linney was fantastic in "The Savages," although I think probably about 38 people in the country saw it. I accidentally loved "Juno," and saw it twice. I loved Amy Ryan in "Gone Baby Gone," and feel as though a friend of mine got nominated, because I have loved her for years on "The Wire." I feel we are secretly very close friends, although I don't believe she knows this.

Cate Blanchett was unbelievably great in "I'm Not There." My favorite movies of the year were "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" (boy, did that kick the shit out of all my excuses for writer's block); "Starting Out in the Evening," with the great Frank Langella, who should have been nominated for best actor; "4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 days," truly a great movie, one for the ages. I loved "Into the Wild," despite its being too long by half an hour: That young man [Emile Hirsch as Christopher McCandless] was excellent and lovely, and my son and his friends were deeply moved and enlivened by it.

Well, who asked me? Oh, wait -- you did. So let me add one more quick thing: Philip Seymour Hoffman is our best male actor, period, and should win in every category, including animation and costume design. But "Charlie Wilson's War" left a bad taste in my mouth, that ridiculous paean to the destructive, benevolent force of American arms. We need this from Mike Nichols? I ask you.

Steve Almond, author of "Candyfreak" and the recent "(Not That You Asked): Rants, Exploits, and Obsessions"
The coroner's report on 2007: We're talking multiple homicides, assorted torture, sexual assault, corporate assassination, geysers of blood. And that's just the Best Picture nominees. Yes, folks, it was another banner year for stylized violence in Hollywood. The stuff has become our leading national export. Modern American crude. My only real question is: Can "Gladiator" win again?

Or no, wait, my real question is: How the hell did "Juno" find its way into this spattered lineup? I may have missed something, but the body count actually increases in that movie. It's a lovely picture, but a diversion, a "Rushmore" for the "Knocked Up" crowd.

The only picture I saw that seemed ready to grapple with our national bloodlust -- as opposed to exploiting it prettily -- was "No End in Sight." It's not flashy, but it aims at the right truths. Hopefully, it will lead a few Netflix warriors back to "Hearts and Minds," the wrenching 1974 documentary about the American presence in Vietnam. Here is the movie our citizens should watch as we brace for eight months of John McCain-led revisionist horseshit about that war. It not only reminds us what violence is, but also brings into focus how rapidly we've allowed our nation to embrace barbarism as entertainment.

Farhad Manjoo, Salon staff writer
Skip to about 30 seconds into this clip and behold, slack-jawed, Paul Dano in "There Will Be Blood." If you haven't yet seen the film, watching this now won't spoil any plot points, but beware that you will miss the electric shock of realizing the extent to which Dano's character Eli is -- to use the official DSM diagnosis -- bat-shit insane.

The thing about this movie is that every encounter ends up on the lonely side of loony; you're led to think these folks are merely eccentric, and then, across several pivotal scenes, it turns out, no, they're actually far, far further gone than you ever suspected. The film's famous ending is the ultimate example of this, but this scene with Dano, which comes at about a third into "There Will Be Blood," is the audience's first glimpse.

Until this point in the movie, Dano's Eli is just an odd religious kid. He has started a church and has some followers, and oh look, he's got them thinking that he's a faith healer. And then, as you see him heal this arthritic woman, suddenly the whole mood changes and the little voice in your head goes, "OH MY GOD, oh my god, this dude is nuts." Dano's voice strains demonically, his face reddens and assumes a series of tortured poses, he bats his fists and claps his hands. This is not acting. Paul Dano is possessed.

Curtis Sittenfeld, author of "Prep" and "The Man of My Dreams"
An underrated movie that's worth seeking out is "This Is England." It's about a 12-year-old boy named Shaun in working-class England in 1983 and how he gets tangled up with some skinheads. The characters seem very real, sometimes in endearing ways and sometimes in disturbing ones. The part of the movie that has most stayed with me is Shaun's budding romance with an eccentric girl who's about 16. It should be bizarre and improbable (he looks like a boy and she towers over him), but the actors make it charming.

As for overrated, I found "Superbad" execrable. I'd heard that this teen buddy movie was raunchy but sweet, which sounded like a winning combination. Instead, I found it totally unfunny in a smug and sexist way. After watching it, I briefly considered moving to an island where there are no boys or men, and I felt as though Judd Apatow, who was a producer, had failed me personally.

Mary Elizabeth Williams, host of Salon's Table Talk
For all the well-earned ballyhoo surrounding Ellen Page's quirky, intelligent performance as the title character in "Juno," it was Jennifer Garner's that broke my heart.

As Vanessa, the potential adoptive mom to Juno's baby-to-be, Garner is cheerful and perfect, fanning magazines on her coffee table and eagerly throwing herself into nursery color schemes. Only a woman who'd been so cruelly disappointed in the quest to have a child, one whose marriage is so painfully strained, could possess such steely desperation to make it all right, and Garner knows it. When she touches Juno's belly and bravely attempts to talk to the fetus, she reveals all of Vanessa's terror and awkwardness and wonder. Vanessa, like Juno, is a woman who refuses to be pitied. In Garner's hands, though, she's one to love.

John Cameron Mitchell, actor, writer and director of "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" and "Shortbus"
My favorite film of the year was a documentary called "Billy the Kid," about this beautiful, odd teenager in Maine who struggles with Asperger's and a broken family. It's so funny and poignant and is now playing at a few theaters across the United States.

My favorite performance is probably Philip Seymour Hoffman in "The Savages"; he didn't get nominated for an Oscar partly because he's brilliant in three films this year. I haven't seen such a naturalistic yet beautifully sculpted view of a depressed person since Gene Hackman in "The Conversation."

Louis Bayard, author of "Mr. Timothy," "The Pale Blue Eye" and the forthcoming "The Orphan in the Tower"
Forget for a moment the Academy Awards. Let us now praise the Screen Actors Guild awards, which have the decency to admit that acting is a communal art. If the Oscars were to follow the SAG example and award ensemble prizes, they would spare themselves the need to overinflate performances that are actually case studies in refracted glory.

Julie Christie has been justly praised for her Alzheimer's patient in "Away From Her," but it's the quiet, pained performance of Gordon Pinsent as her husband that anchors the film. Pinsent is a veteran Canadian actor largely unknown on this side of the border, but his oaky baritone -- the voice that Heath Ledger's might have grown into -- draws every last nuance of regret from Alice Munro's story.

Casey Affleck, the besotted young outlaw of "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford," can count himself lucky twice over. He found a role to transform his edge-of-puberty timbre into an asset. And then he found, at the receiving end of his gooey gaze, Brad Pitt. The poses of this overly premeditated movie would melt into nothingness without a charismatic madman holding them in place. Not only is it Pitt's most mature performance to date, it's the first in which he seems to interrogate his own stardom.

In "No Country for Old Men," Javier Bardem's assassin -- sporting the most menacing bowl cut since Moe Howard -- would be every bit the tiresome death principle he's intended to be if he didn't have, at the other end of his transponder, the supple and flinty Josh Brolin. It is one of the perversities of this otherwise blood-happy movie that these two antagonists never get a climactic showdown and that Tommy Lee Jones' tragic eyes have nowhere to settle on, finally, but bare, immaculate vistas. Ensembles, it's clear, either live together or die apart.

Robert Burton, M.D., author of "On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You're Not," and Salon columnist
Truly great movies jolt us into a new way of seeing. "Into Great Silence," a documentary about the meditative life in the Carthusian monastery in the French Alps has accomplished the near impossible -- to make silence the main character in a plotless yet riveting narrative. You get the sense of how silence "looks" and how the dialogue between loneliness and aloneness are the central textures of this silence. Without a single word of moralizing commentary, the movie forces a degree of self-examination rarely directly experienced during a movie. But be warned: After you see the movie, your iPod and cellphone will be stripped of their best-friend status.

Andrew O'Hehir, Salon senior writer
A lot of the wonderful performances found in 2007 films have been amply covered elsewhere, like Mathieu Amalric's mesmerizing work as the ambiguous protagonist of "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," both before and after his devastating paralysis, or Anamaria Marinca's unforgettable role in "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days" as a dauntless heroine struggling to make sure her best friend will survive an illegal abortion in 1980s communist Romania. But here's one you probably haven't read about and, unfortunately, may never get to see.

As a Beirut doctor with a mysterious connection to a series of gruesome murders in Ghassan Salhab's leisurely, existential thriller "The Last Man" (which played last year at the Tribeca Film Festival), French-Lebanese actor Carlos Chahine is every inch a movie star, an Arab-world blend of Brando, Yul Brynner and Russell Crowe. Handsome, cue-ball bald and superbly masculine, Chahine also has an inwardness and uncertainty befitting a character who may be wrestling with homosexual impulses, or losing his sanity, or something much worse. Chahine has mostly played bit parts on French TV, but like Salhab, the writer-director of this mesmerizing and taxing film, he seems prepared to play a major role in the transnational renaissance of Arab cinema, fueled by European production funds, that is only now beginning to emerge.

Watching bad acting in a bad movie is irresistible (if small-minded) fun, but for sheer cinematic torture there's nothing like watching good actors struggle against a terrible film. For my money, "Reservation Road" hit an unusual trifecta of atrociousness: It paired Joaquin Phoenix and Mark Ruffalo, two of our best screen actors, in a doubly painful story -- painful because it was sentimental and implausible crap, and painful because it included the death of a small child, the most emotionally wrenching subject matter imaginable -- and it marked the final descent of Irish writer-director Terry George ("Hotel Rwanda") into hopeless Hollywood hackwork. As the father and accidental killer of the dead kid, respectively, Phoenix and Ruffalo try to out-smolder and out-mumble and out-obsess and out-mental-illness the pure, sadistic, sober-sided dreadfulness of the movie, but every actorly nuance only digs the grave a little deeper. If produced with a cast of TV no-names for the Hallmark Channel, this movie would have been a lot more honest and probably more watchable as well.

Mary Harron, screenwriter and director of "I Shot Andy Warhol," "American Psycho" and "The Notorious Bettie Page"
My favorite movie of the year was "There Will Be Blood." My favorite performance of the year was Tilda Swinton in "Michael Clayton," because who else would have found that kind of depth in that character? Among underrated performances I would choose Philip Bosco in "The Savages." It's the kind of acting that doesn't get nominations because it's so understated: an austere and painfully truthful portrait of a dying man. Also, Ben Foster was spectacular in "3:10 to Yuma" -- I'm surprised he wasn't nominated for an Oscar. Some other fine supporting performances: Heath Ledger and Charlotte Gainsbourg in "I'm Not There," Ethan Hawke in "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead."

Matt Singer, host of IFC News
"Once" vs. "Music and Lyrics": It was the best romance and the best musical of last year: an older musician and a younger one, falling slowly in love as they race to complete a demo under deadline. No, not "Once"; I'm talking about "Music and Lyrics," starring Hugh Grant and Drew Barrymore.

Actually, they're practically the same movie and they're both quite good. Granted, one cost about $150,000 and the other probably spent that much on hair and makeup alone (from the looks of the film, the stars of "Once," Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, didn't even wear makeup). As a result, they look totally different as well: One was shot run-and-gun with a grainy DV camera on the streets of Dublin, while the other features a glamorous New York City buffed to a high-gloss shine. But both effectively evoke the same things: the cruel world of show business, the giddy thrill of creation, the redemptive power of music, and the beauty of artistic collaboration. And they both have their stars performing sparkling pop songs (admittedly, Grant and Barrymore didn't write theirs).

It's just a shame that "Once" has garnered oodles of critical acclaim (and an Oscar for best original song) while "Music and Lyrics" has already been forgotten, another Hollywood product destined for the discount bin of movie history. It's maybe not as "arty" as its Irish cousin, but it's got just as much charm and quite a bit more humor. And if you can get that "Pop! Goes My Heart" song out of your head after you've seen it, you're a better man than I.

Great acting is a team effort: 2007 was a great year for memorable performances and, unfortunately, an even better year for fine performances that have been too quickly forgotten in the rush to shower their costars with accolades. I don't mean to diminish the achievements of Julie Christie in "Away From Her," Javier Bardem in "No Country for Old Men," or Daniel Day-Lewis in "There Will Be Blood" -- all deserved Oscar nominees and front-runners in their respective categories -- but rather to remind people that their accomplishments would not be possible without the outstanding but overlooked work by their respective costars Gordon Pinsent, Josh Brolin and Paul Dano.

In all three cases, the former do the Jon Lovitz-type "ACTING!" with big capital letters and an exclamation point: They suffer mental illness, they are brutal, charismatic murderers, they are flamboyant capitalists. But the latter arguably bear the more difficult roles: carving out more nuanced characters while trying not to get swallowed up by the whirlwind of disease, pageboy haircuts, and milkshakes. Their task is crucial but thankless: provide the audience a filter through which to view the other, larger-than-life characters, then let their costars bogart all the glory.

So kudos to these forgotten all-stars. If acting really is about reacting, then these guys gave the best performances of 2007.

By Salon Staff

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