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Atonement, No Country For Old Men, more

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Best Picture Oscar Nominees

ATONEMENT This stately picture mostly lives up to its lofty expectations, even if it doesn't possess the sweeping emotion that provided other British period pieces like Sense and Sensibility and The Remains of the Day with their enduring resonance. In this adaptation of Ian McEwan's novel, Keira Knightley plays Cecilia, who finds herself attracted to the family servant's upwardly mobile son Robbie (James McAvoy). But Cecilia's younger sister Briony (Saoirse Ronan) has also developed a crush on Robbie, and she grows jealous of the bond between the lovers. Eventually, Briony uses a family tragedy as a way to get back at Robbie, not comprehending the long-term implications of her actions. Knightley's role doesn't allow her to flourish as she did in Pride and Prejudice (her previous collaboration with Atonement director Joe Wright), which is fine, since this is Briony's story and McAvoy's film. As played by Ronan, Briony comes off as a bad seed writ large, with an IQ that, coupled with her naivety, makes her especially dangerous. It's a memorable performance, yet it's McAvoy who excels the most: We ache for Robbie throughout this tale, and the actor expertly conveys the feelings and frustrations of a man who dared to dream outside his station in life, only to watch as his desires go up in flames. It's a shame that the denouement doesn't completely provide us with the emotional catharsis we require. Providing a clever, bittersweet twist, it affects the head more than the heart, and reveals a certain measure of clinical execution on the part of Wright. It caps the film with a slow simmer, when nothing less than a full blaze will suffice. ***

JUNO Ellen Page (Hard Candy) is pure perfection as the title character, a spunky and verbose teen who finds herself pregnant after a dalliance with sweet classmate Paulie Bleeker (Superbad's Michael Cera). After careful research, she decides on the adoptive parents: Vanessa (Jennifer Garner), a tightly wound businesswoman who wants a child in the worst way, and Mark (Jason Bateman), a TV jingle composer who tends to live in the past. But Juno's idea of how everything should proceed doesn't exactly pan out, and her sarcastic front falters in the face of fear and uncertainty, revealing the child underneath. Perhaps because it's written by a woman – and a former stripper at that – Juno is already receiving the sort of knee-jerk backlash that tellingly was never foisted upon Judd Apatow's similarly themed Knocked Up. Yet Diablo Cody's script is more balanced than Apatow's: The laughs are plentiful in both, but Cody places more emphasis on the emotional fallout, with Juno and Bleeker awkwardly trying to express their feelings for each other and Vanessa's anxiety almost palpable as she worries that Juno might change her mind about handing over the baby (Garner is excellent in her best film role to date). Cody's dialogue may not always be believable (how many 16-year-old girls reference Dario Argento, let alone Soupy Sales and Seabiscuit?), but its intelligence and quirky humor qualify as music to the ears of moviegoers tired of witless banter. And speaking of music, the soundtrack is a keeper as well, with eccentric tunes that complement the action. Kicking up a fuss (much like Juno's unborn child), this is one of the year's best releases. ***1/2

MICHAEL CLAYTON Far easier to follow than its impenetrable trailer would lead one to believe, Michael Clayton plays like Erin Brockovich without the populist appeal – it centers on the title character (George Clooney), a law firm "fixer" who's always called upon to clean up messy problems for the company's clients. Hating his job but stuck with it due to massive debts and an expensive divorce, Michael finds himself caught in the middle when Arthur Edens (an excellent Tom Wilkinson), Michael's good friend and the firm's best attorney, seemingly goes bonkers and threatens to derail their most important case: defending an agrochemical company against a lawsuit filed by ordinary citizens. Michael's boss (Sydney Pollack) orders him to talk some sense into Arthur, but it turns out that the agrochemical company's chief counsel (Tilda Swinton) is willing to go to more extreme lengths to silence the wayward lawyer. Tony Gilroy, adapter of the Jason Bourne novels, makes his directorial debut here (as well as writing the script), and it's an assured first effort. Almost everything about the movie is muted – the settings, the exchanges, the emotions – and this decision gives the story a real-world gravitas that makes the odious executive actions seem even more plausible than they already are. Gilroy steadfastly avoids including anything that can be deemed extraneous or overreaching, preferring to rest his faith – and the picture's fate – in the hands of his accomplished actors and in the strength of his own script. There are no real surprises in Michael Clayton, just the awareness of a job well done. ***

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