One-year wonder or sign of things to come? Either way, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences delivered an unusually defensible group of nominees for the 80th Oscars. Not only is there nothing in this year’s Best Picture field that I hate (rare enough in recent years), but for the first time in nearly a decade, my favorite movie of the year made it onto the Academy’s shortlist. Indeed, Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, a bold, strange, and deeply impolite film about a misanthropic oilman in early-20th-century California, tied for the most nominations with tonight’s heavy favorite, Joel and Ethan Coen’s No Country for Old Men. And had Jonny Greenwood’s dissonant score, one of the best in modern cinema history, not been disqualified on a technicality, There Will Be Blood would almost certainly have led the field with nine nominations.
I hesitate to even say this, but it looks like the Academy’s tastes are finally getting a bit younger and hipper. None of the five films nominated for Best Picture this year feel like a typical Oscar winner. At first glance, Atonement might seem to fit the profile: epic World War II romance based on a well-known novel, but beneath all the lavishness lurks a resolutely contemporary sensibility. It’s hardly a great movie, but Atonement deserves props for being literate, not just “literary.” Likewise, the teen comedy Juno and the legal thriller Michael Clayton are far from spectacular, but both have their merits. Juno suffers from severely overwritten dialogue and a directorial style shamelessly pilfered from Wes Anderson, but it’s also a refreshingly female-centric take on its genre. And there’s nothing really wrong with the modest, solidly crafted Michael Clayton aside from its overall ordinariness.
And this isn’t just a one-year phenomenon: You have to go back five years now to find a “typical” Best Picture. The last four winners have been a fantasy epic, an intimate auteurist drama, a hysterical ensemble piece (yes, Crash was terrible, but it was terrible in new and interesting ways), and a stylish cops-and-criminals flick.
The big narrative coming out of tonight will be Hollywood bestowing its top prize on a pair of indie stalwarts, but it’s fair to say that the Coens met Hollywood halfway. No Country for Old Men is well acted and impeccably made, but it mostly lacks the oddball humor of the pair’s best work (Fargo, The Big Lebowski). It’s a good movie, I guess, but it was all a bit nihilist-chic for my taste; the somber tone, verging on self-importance, didn’t feel wholly earned.
Still, it would have to be considered an above-average Best Picture winner. And the nomination of There Will Be Blood really does represent a massive leap forward for the Academy. Nakedly ambitious, morally complex, and lacking either a sympathetic hero or any romantic interest, it’s precisely the type of prickly art film that the Academy has dismissed out of hand in the past. At 37, Anderson is the best director currently working in American cinema, and as long as his movie takes home at least one or two prizes tonight, there won’t be any complaints from me.
Going into the season, I thought No Country For Old Men would feel too much like a critics’ film for the Academy to embrace, but the inclusion of There Will Be Blood makes it appear positively mainstream. I don’t see an upset happening here. Atonement failed to land a Best Director nomination, Juno and Michael Clayton are too small, and There Will Be Blood is just too weird.
Will win: No Country for Old Men
Should win: There Will Be Blood
This isn’t quite the slam-dunk that Best Picture is, but the Coens remain heavy favorites. With the brothers a virtual lock for the top prize, it’s conceivable that the Academy could honor Anderson for either director or screenplay, but I wouldn’t bet on it.
W: Joel and Ethan Coen, NCFOM
S: Paul Thomas Anderson, TWWB
It’s no secret that merit has never had a whole a lot to do with winning Oscars, but once in a while a performance comes along that’s so incredibly good, it can’t be denied. Day Lewis’s Daniel Plainview is well on his way to joining the likes of Charles Foster Kane and Ethan Edwards among the iconic characters of American cinema. Clooney and Depp could both win one of these in the next five years, but not tonight.
W: Daniel Day Lewis, TWBB
S: Daniel Day Lewis, TWBB
Julie Christie’s quietly tragic performance as a woman losing her mind to Alzheimer’s stands to be the deserving winner. Her main competition is Marion Cotillard in the Edith Piaf biopic La Vie En Rose, which remains unseen by me.
W: Julie Christie, Away From Her
S: Julie Christie, Away From Her
The toughest call of the night. Any of the five nominees could easily win.
W: Ruby Dee, American Gangster
S: Saoirse Ronan, Atonement
The easiest call of the night. Will Americans ever tire of serial killers?
W: Javier Bardem, NCFOM
S: Casey Affleck, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
W: No End in Sight
Foreign Language Film
W: The Counterfeiters
W: The Bourne Ultimatum
W: La Vie En Rose
S: [reserved for Jonny Greenwood]
W: “Falling Slowly,” Once
S: “Falling Slowly,” Once
W: Peter and the Wolf
Live Action Short
W: Le Mozart des Pickpockets