Tim Burton’s film version of "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" is without a doubt my top movie choice for 2007.
Everything about it is just perfect, and all this was confirmed when I got to see this extraordinary movie musical on a big screen with a great sound system at the Ziegfeld premiere Monday night in New York.
This is the film to beat for Best Picture this year; the only "big" picture that is also a work of art. Academy voters should eat it up, pun intended.
Most Broadway musicals have trouble transferring to the screen. Think "Hello Dolly!" or "The Producers."
There were a thousand wrong turns Burton and crew could have taken, but somehow they avoided them. They condensed a complicated three-hour show into a highly entertaining two hours without missing a beat — literally.
I told you last week about Johnny Depp’s Oscar-certain performance as the crazy barber who cuts people’s throats while waiting to avenge himself on his enemies.
What maybe I didn’t make clear is that Helena Bonham Carter is a delight as Mrs. Lovett, who turns Sweeney’s victims into meat pies. She is acerbic, sarcastic, sexy and she can sing. She may come from behind and out run the two potential Best Actress front runners, Marion Cotillard ("La Vie En Rose") and Julie Christie ("Away From Her").
The other performance not to be missed is Sacha Baron Cohen, who sheds his Borat/Ali G persona and literally steals the movie as Pirelli, the faux Italian snake oil salesman who confronts Sweeney and tries to blackmail him with horrendous results.
I asked Cohen at Monday night’s premiere how in the world he went from nude wrestling as Borat to singing Stephen Sondheim.
"I had to audition, and put my singing on tape for him" Cohen said. "I had played Tevye a long time ago in a production of 'Fiddler on the Roof.' So I put all Tevye’s songs on tape and sent it in. He said yes, right away."
Cohen looked skeptical even now, as the movie opens, that he got the part. But if Monday night’s audience is any indication, Cohen may wind up with a Supporting Actor nomination in a fiercely competitive category this year.
The "Sweeney Todd" premiere was a lavish red-carpet affair with all the stars present except Carter, who is also Mrs. Tim Burton. She’s home in England awaiting the birth of a baby.
But everyone else turned up, including Keith Richards and Patti Hansen, who came at Depp’s invitation and had dinner with him while the movie screened. Depp, you see, doesn’t watch his own movies.
"I like the work to speak for itself," he told me.
Will this be his year? It seems every Oscar season I write that "this is Johnny Depp’s year" and it doesn’t happen.
"I’m sorry I’ve disappointed you," Depp said good-naturedly Monday. He is a genial, private, soft-spoken soul who is really not a good Oscar campaigner. But maybe this year the work will speak for itself, as he sings, in an accent no less, and even does a little dancing.
By the way, Sondheim loves the movie version of his insanely wonderful musical. He’s held a bunch of private screenings for friends already, including nearly anyone who’s appeared in the show and tough cookies like Angela Lansbury, Len Cariou and Patti Lupone.
He’s also hosted Bernadette Peters and Hal Prince. All of them have given a "thumbs up." Monday night, the most recent actor to play Sweeney, Michael Cerveris, echoed that opinion as well.
"Sweeney Todd" is a Paramount/DreamWorks production, which means DreamWorks made it and Paramount is marketing and distributing it.
The studios are at each other’s throats, a feud that began a year with "Dreamgirls" when DreamWorks’ David Geffen decided that Paramount didn’t appreciate all the award-winning films they were being given by the smaller studio.
"Dreamgirls" suffered in the crossfire and lost a much-deserved Oscar. Will this happen to "Sweeney Todd"? I sure hope not.
Paramount parent Viacom should put a higher value on these DreamWorks releases. But lately the situation is playing out similarly to the Disney-Miramax divorce that forced the Weinsteins to start their own company. In Hollywood, no one learns from history, and it just keeps repeating itself.
On Wednesday night, Geffen, Steven Spielberg and Stacey Snider -- all of DreamWorks -- host a "Sweeney Todd" premiere on the Paramount lot. Oh, to be a fly on that barbershop wall!
Realistically there are about 30 fiction movies which will yield nominations in all the award categories.
I thought I would introduce my own Top 10, drawn from that list. On Wednesday, the rest.
This year’s group was harder to figure out than most. The number of quality films, especially released at the end of the year, is higher than ever. This is a totally subjective list, and one that shouldn’t surprise regular readers of this column.
1. "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" — director Tim Burton.
2. "Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead" — director Sidney Lumet.
3. "The Namesake" — director Mira Nair.
4. "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" — director Julian Schnabel.
5. "The Savages" — director Tamara Jenkins.
6. "I’m Not There" — director Todd Haynes.
7. "Juno" — director Jason Reitman.
8. "Into the Wild" — director Sean Penn.
9. "No Country for Old Men" — directors Joel and Ethan Coen.
10. "Atonement" — director Joe Wright.
The National Board of Review of Motion Pictures, a group of fans posing as movie critics, announces its annual awards on Wednesday.
But there’s yet another scandal brewing at the NBR, which in the past has sent improper ballots to its members and always shows favoritism to studios they think are in their deep pockets.
I am told that Annette Insdorf, the group’s only claim to respectability, has been removed from the executive photoplay committee.
Insdorf is the highly respected head of the film department at Columbia University, a published critic and writer and much beloved by serious cineastes. She has been the single member of the NBR with any credentials for many years.
The group is otherwise composed of dilettantes and senior citizens who pay around $500 a year as members to watch movies and get their pictures taken with celebrities.
What’s interesting about the NBR is that despite the membership, the executive photoplay committee makes the ultimate decisions about who, and what, will get awards. Most of those decisions are based on the members’ connections to the studios and who they think will show up for their annual awards show and dinner in early January.
Insdorf was considered the only sane member of the group, and the only one who would advocate based on merit. With her out of the voting, it’s feared that the much maligned president Annie Schulhof will push through a number of winners less deserving than others.
Members of the executive photoplay committee are kept secret. But I am told that some other members, all Schulhof pals, include unknowns like ancient mariner Keith Edwards (his credits include David Merrick and David Susskind, OK?) and 74-year-old Amy Greene-Andrews, the ex-wife of considerably deceased minor producer Milton Greene ("The Prince and the Showgirl" circa 1957).
The NBR is kind of a laughingstock group among movie press people, the studios and even the actors and directors.
Ironically, though, the NBR is in a unique situation this year as they do not televise their awards dinner.
With the Writers Guild strike in full force, the NBR could — in a very weird world — wind up being the only awards show for some time.
Picket lines could severely damage if not altogether halt other upcoming awards shows such as the Oscars and Golden Globes.