UNDERRATED: These Films Deserved Better

The sanctimonious Sean Penn, a great actor, went behind the camera to direct Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild for the big screen, with life-affirming results. The film starts out as a generational snub by a young graduate toward his materialistic parents, but evolves into something much more nuanced and ultimately profound.

The actress Sarah Polley made her directorial debut with Away from Her and brought out the year’s best performance from Julie Christie as a woman facing the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. Though Christie is considered the favorite to win Best Actress, the film deserves much wider exposure than it’s received, and could easily have garnered another acting nomination for Christie’s co-star, Gordon Pinsent.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, another great adaptation of a novel, is a rare film that effectively incorporates voiceover narration, setting it against uniquely distorted visuals that blur the truth—and legend—of Jesse James into a larger story of how America builds up and tears down reputations.

Those four films are all nominated for Oscars, if not in as many categories as they might have been. However, 2007 was a very strong year at the movies, and it’s hard to know which of the other nominated films should be struck from the list to make way for personal preferences.

That said, a few films were completely overlooked by the Academy, including Hairspray, an infectious, uplifting tale that allows an actress who doesn’t resemble a fashion model to end up getting the guy. It’s a fun film for adolescent girls who have moved beyond the fairy-tale world of Enchanted and are looking for something slightly more grown up.

Zodiac, overlooked during its theatrical run, has since been heralded far and wide by critics groups, and is destined to assume the deserving status of classic. The movie embeds multiple themes—obsession, male responsibility, media culpability—into a cat-and-mouse thriller that is never less than fascinating.

Finally, Susanne Bier’s Things We Lost in the Fire is a deeply emotional film about a widow who invites her deceased husband’s best friend—a recovering drug addict—to move in with her and her children and help around the house. The emotional landscape of the two individuals trying to rebuild their lives offers lessons in Christian virtues such as charity, hospitality, and most powerfully, forgiveness. It does not settle for easy answers, but demonstrates the religious power that drugs hold over those who are trying to be free of them, keeping them in bondage.  And it shows how lending a hand to those in need of help can sometimes bring unexpected blessings into our lives.

Amid the darkness of this year’s nevertheless crop of Oscar nominees, that’s a message we could have heard a little more loudly, and more often.

PREDICTIONS

My choice for the films that will likely win in several Oscar categories are marked with an asterisk (*), and the films that I think should win are marked with an “x.”

ACTOR—LEADING
(x)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