May the Worst Man Win

For weeks I’ve been wanting to write something about this year’s Oscars, but I kept putting it off and putting it off ’til closer to the actual event. I’d noticed a trend in almost all the nominated movies toward honoring people for playing bad guys (and women), and thought it would be interesting to write about how and why that was almost a theme in 2007. So I waited, and waited, and now what?

Last week’s Entertainment Weekly went and scooped me.

Well, screw glib Hollywood-gossip magazines, I say. Anyway, EW mostly just talked about Daniel Day-Lewis and Javier Bardem, the most obvious evil nominees; I can go farther than that. If there’s anything I know how to appreciate, it’s a bad guy, especially the murderous ones. Hmm. Let’s not dwell too heavily on that.

But seriously, if 2007 wasn’t the Year of the Bad Guy, there’ll never be one. Day-Lewis’s oil man Daniel Plainview, a borderline psychotic version of Dick Cheney from 100 years ago, is as civilized evil as you’ll ever see outside the current White House, and Bardem’s Anton Chigurh is the flip side — no pun intended, if you’ve seen the movie’s famous coin-toss scene — pure functional psychopathy. But there were so many great bad-guy performances last year, why limit ourselves to just nominated films and performances? It’s not like there wasn’t enough evil to go around.

For instance, take one of the most entertaining movies I saw last year, “Mr. Brooks,” starring Kevin Costner in the role of an actor resurrecting his career for the fourth or fifth time — whoops, sorry, I meant in the role of a dutiful husband and father who also happens to be a fairly well-organized serial killer, the kind who would understand the mind of Anton Chigurh (and then plan to kill him to avoid an uncomfortable rivalry). I don’t consider myself a Costner fan, although I do own a couple of his better films on DVD, but I was enthralled by his performance: he’s Dexter on the big screen. In fact, the whole movie was populated with actors I’m not nuts about: Demi Moore as an obsessively dedicated cop, William Hurt as Costner’s evil side given physical form, and Dane Cook as, well, his asshole self, only funnier when someone else wrote his script. But the movie was terrific. Costner came off for once as being less buttoned-down, less middle-America, less actor turned golfer than usual. He looked like he was having fun. So did William Hurt. Now that I think about it, those are exceptional circumstances, right there.

There’s also “The Breach,” which I was hoping would earn Chris Cooper another well-deserved Oscar nomination. He gave one of the most riveting performances I remember as a CIA double agent who didn’t think twice about murder or treason but remained a devout Catholic and a dedicated family man. You withdrew from the sight of him onscreen after a while, but you never stopped respecting him: that character had his own tortured brand of ethics and never swayed from them. When you saw him playing in the snow with his grandkids, you got a sense that he really doted on them, and that it was in no way incompatible with his selling national secrets. The only bad thing I can say about this movie is that not nearly enough people saw it, and renting the DVD won’t be the same. You have to see Cooper’s lined face looming at you out of the big screen to really appreciate how good he is when he just acts with his features, not saying a word.

I’ll never understand why neither Denzel Washington nor “American Gangster” picked up many nominations, because it was one of the most fascinating character studies I saw all year, wrapped up in the guise of an action movie. Like Cooper’s CIA double agent, there’s a weird morality to Frank Lucas, the real-life gangster portrayed by Washington: while he deals cheap heroin and crushes his enemies (and pretty much anyone who crosses him), he clearly reveres his mother and loves his wife. There’s much more to him than the ruthless businessman who won’t allow his competitors the chance to show him disrespect… although I’d be lying if I didn’t say the killer in Lucas is what kept me fascinated, unable to take my eyes off him, the same way I’d watch a snake slide by in the grass. Interestingly, while Russell Crowe is playing the good guy in this movie, an incorruptible cop, the good guy is as personally flawed as Lucas is personally forthright. Crowe goes through the film with his integrity intact, but that’s about it: he loses a marriage and a child and almost everything significant in his life except his badge and his good name. It’s worth seeing this movie again to decide if I think it’s a good enough trade-off for his character.

Speaking of Crowe, don’t think he missed out on all the fun: he got to play a pretty bad guy himself in “3:10 to Yuma,” which, like most Elmore Leonard western stories, is really a crime drama set in the wild west. Crowe runs a murderous gang, and when he’s arrested, his fellow outlaws plan to see him set free at any cost. Like Washington’s Lucas, Crowe’s gang leader has his own curious and particular code of ethics… but it doesn’t slow him down when he sees an opportunity to kill to get what he wants.

Did I say every bad guy had to be Oscar-worthy? Well, if I implied that, let me disabuse you of that notion right now by bringing up one — two? — of the best nights out I had all year last year, the one I spent parked in front of Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s double feature “Grindhouse” with a couple of friends after a couple of drinks. Whoohoo! Not a truly good character in either movie, “Planet Terror” or “Death Proof,” but who the hell cares? Bad people melted and got shot in the first one, and Kurt Russell, who plays bad boys better than anyone else of his generation, goes from predator to prey in the second. Evil hasn’t been so much fun since Mr. Blonde’s torture scene in “Reservoir Dogs.” Pass the popcorn and let’s watch it again!

Nor do bad guys have to be guys. Again, someone I thought Oscar-worthy was ignored: Jodie Foster’s badly beaten radio host-turned-vigilante in “The Brave One” was a hell of a lot more than the Charles Bronson “Death Wish” ripoff it might sound like. As with Cooper’s CIA spook, there are layers and layers to her character; she’s as much PTSD survivor as she is killer, and you don’t forget it for a minute. Terrence Howard, as the cop who befriends Foster, is less all-good-or-all-bad than you’re initially led to believe, too.

So in a way it was a very grim year for movies, I guess. It’s not like we didn’t already know there’s almost no one who’s totally evil — OK, except Chigurh — but the dark sides of the year’s best characters were on display, and some terrific actors and actresses showed them off to their best advantage. I wonder what 2008’s national consciousness as seen at the cineplex is going to look like, this time next year? It’s too soon to tell, but the bad guys from ’07 are going to be hard to beat.

Like I said, pass the popcorn. And the ammunition.

*By the way: Orlando Bloom, if you’re reading this, why haven’t you called Wanda yet?!


7 Responses to “May the Worst Man Win”

  1. Why indeed? Maybe because you forgot to include a link.

    I haven’t seen very many movies this year. I’m pulling for Javier Bardem though. Jodie Foster has enough Oscars.

    Hey, I wonder when they’re giving out the Razzies?

  2. Yikes! Sorry. It’s been a long, long day.

    Do they have a red carpet for the Razzies, I wonder?

  3. Razzies are awarded tomorrow, Sat. Feb 23.

  4. I wish E! or some network like it would broadcast them. I heard Eddie Murphy won in several categories for “Norbit” — Orlando’s off the hook!

  5. Yeah, he was robbed.

  6. pandemonic Says:

    I’m sorry to say I haven’t seen any of these. Well, maybe not sorry. In the interim, I’ve been reading and writing.

    Damn, that Orlando. I’m working on something for Wanda.

  7. I enjoyed this far more than the Oscars ceremony. Which isn’t saying much, is it?

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