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Image: No Country For Old Men
Miramax
Josh Brolin’s corruptible Everyman is just one of a myriad reasons that "No Country For Old Men" will take home the Oscar for best picture.
By Film critic
msnbc.com contributor
updated 2/19/2008 2:45:30 PM ET 2008-02-19T19:45:30
COMMENTARY

’Tis the season for making sweeping statements about the Oscar race. You’ll be hearing gems like: “Money-making hits don’t win best picture anymore,” despite the recent statuettes given to smashes like “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” and “Chicago.” Another oft-repeated dictum is “Indie films have elbowed Hollywood fare out of the way in the major Oscar categories.” Tell that to the producers of “Gladiator” or “A Beautiful Mind.”

Granted, this year’s best picture race is indie-er than most, with only “Michael Clayton” being released under the aegis of a major studio (Warner). But it’s not like “Juno” and “Atonement” are so narratively challenging that they couldn’t have been made by major studios. (Besides, “Juno” distributor Fox Searchlight is owned by News Corp., and “Atonement” was released by Focus Features, part of the NBC/Universal family, so when we say they’re indie movies, we aren’t suggesting that they were made with credit cards and borrowed film stock.) Ditto “No Country for Old Men” and “There Will Be Blood,” both collaborations between Miramax and Paramount Vantage.

One sweeping statement that all but the most wide-eyed would endorse is “The Oscars exist to sell movie tickets.” And this year, the best picture contenders could use the boost. Putting aside the sleeper success of “Juno,” none of these films have reached the magic $100 million mark at the box office, although the Coen brothers and Paul Thomas Anderson are no doubt enjoying the fact that “No Country” and “Blood,” respectively, are their career high-earners to date.

Predicted winner: “No Country for Old Men”

"No Country For Old Men"
Miramax Films
In a way, “No Country for Old Men” can be all things to all Oscar voters.

If you’re judging it as an actors’ showcase, the film offers one great performance after another, from Javier Bardem’s chilling contract killer to Josh Brolin’s corruptible Everyman to Tommy Lee Jones’ world-weary sheriff. Even the smaller roles are filled by exceptional character actors like Beth Grant (of “Donnie Darko” and “Sordid Lives,” among many others) and Stephen Root (“Office Space”).

Oscar voters looking for sweep can revel in Roger Deakins’ extraordinary cinematography; those looking for literary cachet can be swayed by the imprimatur of novelist Cormac McCarthy, who wrote the novel on which the film was based; and those wanting to champion challenging art films in the competition are no doubt enjoying the ongoing arguments over what the hell the ending means.

With this many segments of the Oscar electorate on its side, “No Country for Old Men” looks like the favorite. But all five nominees have their strong points.

“Atonement”

Image: Atonement
Focus Features
Somewhere along the line, this plummy little morsel of Oscar bait went from being a sure thing (Keira Knightley reteams with her “Pride and Prejudice” director to adapt award-winning period novel!) to that friend of your parents that you begrudgingly have to invite to your party. The reviews were mostly respectful but rarely rapturous, and the ticket sales have been middling at best. If there’s a longest shot in this category, it’s most certainly “Atonement.”

Let’s not count it out entirely, however. For some viewers, particularly older ones, there’s a definite appeal to movies about suffering Brits lolling about their endless lawns while smoking and wearing tuxedos. (Even with its R rating up against “Juno’s” PG-13, “Atonement” is definitely the most grandma-friendly flick of the bunch.) And even though neither Knightley nor her onscreen inamorata James McAvoy were nominated this year, both actors are on the rise (and lovely to look at) and could certainly sway some votes their way.

“Juno”

Image: Juno
Fox Searchlight  /  Fox Searchlight
This quirky — some might say studiedly quirky — comedy about a mouthy teen who finds herself with child struck a chord with U.S. moviegoers, landing it in the big leagues as one of this year’s major Oscar contenders. And while it’s probably a shoo-in in the original screenplay category — where stripper-turned-blogger-turned-screenwriter Diablo Cody became one of the most written-about film scribes since Affleck and Damon decided to collaborate on “Good Will Hunting” — “Juno” has its work cut out for it as a would-be best picture.

For one thing, it’s a comedy, and the last out-and-out funny movie that took the top prize (the unintentional laughs of “Crash” notwithstanding) was “Annie Hall,” 30 years ago. It’s also got the lowest budget of the nominees, which generally casts a pall over the film’s chances of winning. And to get super-hair-splitting about it, it wasn’t nominated for best editing, and no best picture winner ever has failed to snag at least a nomination in that other category. Go figure.

On the other hand, “Juno” is the one film up for best picture where (spoiler!) no one dies, and in a year of bleak bummers, its shiny smirkiness could be a beacon for Oscar voters looking for a little uplift. And if the constituencies for “No Country” and “Blood” wind up splitting the vote — as both films appeal to similar tastes — “Juno” could find itself the beneficiary.

“Michael Clayton”
George Clooney, George Clooney, George Clooney — he’s why “Michael Clayton” was made, he’s the hook for how it was marketed, and he’s certainly the linchpin of the film’s Oscar campaign. But if the Academy’s obvious admiration for the actor-director wasn’t enough to boost the Oscar chances of “Good Night, and Good Luck,” a film that was even more his baby than “Clayton” is, it seems unlikely that voters will be swayed in great enough numbers toward this intelligent thriller.

Image: Michael Clayton
Warner Bros.
Then again, there’s no discounting the fact that “Michael Clayton” is the only film this year to receive acting nominations in multiple categories. And past Academy Awards seasons have certainly taught us that, if you’re going to have one branch firmly in your corner, you want it to be the actors. They’re a sizable voting bloc that can make or break a movie.

“There Will Be Blood”
Paramount Vantage’s Oscar campaign is stressing the fact that “There Will Be Blood” is a modern classic, a film for the ages, one that will be discussed and contemplated for decades to come. And they’re right. But the Academy rarely notices films like that when they’re new, so Paul Thomas Anderson’s ambitious exploration of greed and corporate chicanery will probably take its place among previous also-rans like “Raging Bull,” “2001,” “Goodfellas” and “Citizen Kane.” Besides, like certain presidential candidates, “Blood” is the kind of film that creates detractors as harsh as its partisans are fervent, which makes winning awards tricky.

Image: There Will Be Blood
Paramount Vantage
On the plus side? Well, it’s a great movie, for what that’s worth. And as the least-seen best picture contender when the nominees were announced, the buzz for “Blood” has only built in the last few months. We’ll know soon enough if its ascension will take it high enough to beat out the competition.

Should have been nominated: “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford”

"The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford"
Warner Bros.
And no, not just for longest title, either. Written and directed by Australian filmmaker Andrew Dominik (from the novel by Ron Hansen), “Jesse James” takes a familiar chapter of Wild West lore and turns it into … well, “art,” for lack of a better word. Casey Affleck’s haunting performance as Ford — he received a best supporting actor nod this year, but trust me, it’s a lead — is arresting from start to finish as he inhabits a man who longs to be close to greatness, only to find himself shackled by his mediocrity when he finally gets to rub elbows with his idol Jesse (an equally riveting Brad Pitt).

While the Academy recognized Affleck and cinematographer Roger Deakins with nominations, “Jesse James” was mostly ignored by the viewing public, mainly because distributor Warner Bros. feared its 160-minute running time and its elegiac, poetic tone. But the film was certainly a high point of 2007, deserving of both a best picture nomination and the publicity boost such an honor would have provided.

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