Thursday, January 3, 2008

For Your Consideration - Best Actor

Ah, awards season. A very busy time of year for some, an annoying time for others. Genuinely great films often go unrecognized by the awards givers and the ones that do get recognized do so not because of their quality but more because the studios behind them just happen to be especially adept in playing the awards game (I’m looking at you, Weinsteins). In years past I’ve found it fun to try and guess the eventual nominees (even though the surprises are usually few) but now that everyone and their brother makes a living out of it the fun has been diminished. Not that I would mind if I offered the opportunity to make a living it. I’d probably be pretty good.

Anyway, we’re lucky that 2007 turned out to be a damn good year for movies, with solid releases coming in every month of the year, from majors to indies. When you look at most of the ten best lists out there it’s usually the same titles again and again, but those titles are especially strong and would probably be awards contenders in any year they opened. Unfortunately they can only nominate the top five vote-getters, so if you’re sixth on the list then you’re stuck dangling in the wind, with only consolatory phone calls from friends and family to ease your pain. This is a real damn shame, because we have great films like ZODIAC that deserve to be recognized but probably won’t because it came out in March and wasn’t a hit, so folks have forgotten about it. And that, as we all know, sucks.

What’s also pretty damn sucky is that some great performances are getting lost in the midst, ones that should be recognized but aren’t. I mean, I’m not even seeing these names show up in the critic’s groups voting or in any year-end pieces nowhere. So in the hopes that there are hordes of Academy members (I know of at least two who might) or Oscar bloggers reading HQ10, I’d like to toss these two names into the “For Your Consideration” pit and remind everyone just how terrific these guys were and that everyone should go to their massive pile of screeners and pull these two titles out (or if they weren't sent to you, put them in your Netflix queue) and you’ll see what I’m talking about. This is excellent work that should not be forgotten.

Every career has certain peaks and valleys and Samuel L. Jackson seems to be going through a bit of a valley at the moment. Many would place the blame at SNAKES ON A PLANE, but I don’t think you can fault him for that. Everyone wanted to love that movie, was hoping that it would be everything its title promised and the fact that it didn’t deliver isn’t really Jackson’s fault. On top of that he tends to do a lot of movies (four in 2005, three in 2006), so even though audiences like and admire Jackson , they can also tend to get burned out on him. Maybe because of this they ignored BLACK SNAKE MOAN back in February and in doing so missed what is probably his finest performance yet or at least his best since JUNGLE FEVER. His role in BLACK SNAKE, a very good film overall, was essentially the film’s heart and soul, that of a damaged man who seeks to save the soul (by chaining her to his radiator) of local nympho Christina Ricci (likewise excellent) and to save his own in the process. Plain and simple, Jackson was absolutely electrifying here, and let me tell you I really don’t use that critical cliché at all, but it totally fits here. The opening scene of the film (Jackson's goodbye with his ex-wife) showed a character with a lot of rage in him, and that's a Sam Jackson that we audiences know pretty well, but what's so exciting about BLACK SNAKE is that as the film progresses we see a softer and more soulful (if that's even possible) side of Sam Jackson and we see a character with a lot of love and a lot of pain and no place to let it out, except in music. And then Jackson performs the title song. He performs this song as a man who has truly experienced the blues and what you see is nothing more than a divine movie moment, a perfect melding of actor, character, music and direction that is overwhelmingly amazing. When I saw the film at Harry Knowles' Butt-Numb-A-Thon in 2006 the audience justifiably applauded at this scene; if you ask me this is the scene to run when Jackson finally gets his lifetime achievement awards. He has another amazing moment playing "Stack-O-Lee" later on in the film, but it was at this point in the film that I realized that Jackson has never been better, and to say that when you consider all of Jackson's many amazing performances means a hell of a lot. I do have a few issues with BLACK SNAKE MOAN (namely Justin Timberlake), but as far as Samuel L. Jackson is concerned the only issue I have is why he's not on anyone's list for Best Actor.

Even if Jackson were nominated he might have some competition from another contemporary movie acting great, Chris Cooper, and his stellar work in Billy Ray's BREACH. To a certain extent, this is a role that only the worst of actors could screw up: Robert Hansenn, a longtime FBI vet who had been selling secrets to the Russians for decades, also a devout Catholic and a major league-pervert. That role is acting gold, my friend, and I'm sure plenty of talented folk would have killed their children for the opportunity to play it. But as juicy as it is, it's a real tightrope of a role, because this was a guy with layers upon layers about him. He wasn't merely an evil guy who traded in his country for cash, he had a moral code, a belief system, a love of god and country, and on top of that, was exceedingly intelligent (he had managed to elude capture for decades). Any actor who gets to play this part has to do it right and what Cooper accomplishes is a small miracle; the guy is all this and more, but on top of that, his Hansenn is also a little paranoid, on edge (he can sense that they're on to him) and self-destructive, while also careful not to lose his cool because he is, after all, "not a spy". Few actors can really portray a person under this kind of pressure without making them look like a total nutjob and one of them is indeed Chris Cooper. His Hansenn is completely intimidating for Ryan Philippe's Eric O'Neill (the real-life FBI agent who helped capture Hansenn) and the entire audience since Hansenn is the smartest person in the room and demands absolute perfection from O'Neill, and let me tell you something, he's scary for that reason alone. But he's not a monster and Cooper makes him very human, flaws and all. With Cooper in the role you have an understanding of Hansenn as someone who truly loves America but also feels slighted by the government who he's given so much to, and you actually kind of get the reason why he did what he did. This role is pretty much the very definition of a complex character and what else can I say except that Cooper was superb. And he probably won't be nominated for an Oscar.

Cooper and Jackson are both invited to my place to watch the awards. We'll get a pizza and wish Daniel Day Lewis well, knowing damn well who should have been up there with him.

1 comment:

toothpick said...

i'm with you on Chris Cooper...dude was fantastic in Breach.