No Country for Old Men: Javier Bardem
No Country for Old Men: Javier Bardem

Maybe it’s the trauma of the writers strike. Maybe it’s a presidential election year with the prospect of worthy candidates on both sides. Whatever’s hit the membership of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the slate of nominees for the 2007 Oscars reads more like a tally sheet from the National Society of Film Critics Awards than the typical Tinseltown ballot. The only Oscar season like this was 1996’s, when just one film among the five best-picture nominees bore the logo of a Hollywood major, and even that was an “indie” movie at heart: Cameron Crowe’s Jerry Maguire, nominated along with the Coen brothers’ Fargo, Mike Leigh’s Secrets & Lies from England, the Australian Shine and The English Patient, which won. 

This year the most nominations—eight apiece—have gone to two dark, ferocious meditations on an American West stalked by monsters: No Country for Old Men, the Cormac McCarthy adaptation from, yep, Ethan Coen and Joel Coen again, and There Will Be Blood, Paul Thomas Anderson’s scalding look at an early-20th-century oil tycoon at odds with both God and man. Between them, they’ve won virtually all the best-picture awards conferred by critics groups. Following hard upon with seven nominations is Michael Clayton, also dark-toned in its focus on a “fixer” for a Leviathan-like law firm with an important and very guilty client to protect. Seven noms also went to Atonement, a lushly textured yet rigorous adaptation of the Ian McEwan novel about a lie—or is the term fiction?—that destroys several lives. Only Juno, the tale of a pregnant teen that manages to be witty, tender and smart from beginning to end, comes near inviting the label “feel-good movie.” It’s got four nominations.

There have been protestations that the Academy is risking irrelevancy by saluting “movies no one has ever heard of” while ignoring the year’s high-profile moneymakers. You know: Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End. National Treasure: Book of Secrets, Transformers. This contention is even sillier than those box-office bonanzas, not least because there’s no guarantee that the millions of ticket-buyers who chose to spend $10 and an evening of their lives on mindless entertainment all came out feeling entertained. But even if they did, the Academy’s rhetoric has always held that the purpose of its awards is to honor not popularity but excellence. (We can argue another day how well that’s worked out over the years.)

Unless you’re an investor, or a filmmaker trying to pull together the backing for his or her next project, box office is meaningless. The dynamics of releasing and promoting a Transformers in 1,000-plus theaters nationwide and those involved in presenting a There Will Be Blood in limited, mostly urban first run are as different as night and day; no way will their grosses be in the same league. Then too, there is life after opening weekend, though maybe not at the multiplex. Citizen Kane (1941) didn’t move into profit till years after it was licensed for TV in the 1950s. Dozens, if not hundreds, of films never enter the public consciousness till their arrival in the videostore or on cable. Quite a few “commercial disappointments” in first-run theatrical release have gone on to become lifelong favorites among not only film buffs but also “normal people” as they pop up on TV or get passed around on DVD or tape among friends. Check back in 20 years to see which 2007 movies cast the longest shadows.

Meanwhile, the Academy pleasantly surprised me by ignoring two preposterously overpraised, thoroughly mediocre bits of Oscar bait, American Gangster and The Kite Runner. Nor did the likewise-much-ballyhooed (but much better) Charlie Wilson’s War find a niche for itself, director Mike Nichols, screenwriter Aaron (West Wing) Sorkin or star Tom Hanks. For me, this film was the shoe waiting to drop during Ten Best season, but when I finally got to see it, it proved to be a clear case of close-but-no-cigar: sharp, funny, expertly made, raffishly entertaining, even historically informative, but not quite one of the five best in any category—except maybe Philip Seymour Hoffman, who turns out to be its lone water-carrier at the Oscars as a best-supporting-actor candidate.

There was no Oscar love for Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, a critical fave directed by the 83-years-young Sidney Lumet. Also shut out—except for, again, a supporting-actor nod—was a big favorite of many at the Toronto International Film Festival, Sean Penn’s Into the Wild. Myself, I was most sorry to see no trace of David Fincher’s brilliant, mysterious Zodiac, an account of police officers and journalists whose personal lives fell victim to the Bay Area’s legendarily unsolved serial-killer case in the 1970s. And despite a nomination last year for directing United 93, neither Paul Greengrass nor his critical and commercial hit The Bourne Ultimatum was remembered; coupla technical noms, that’s it.

One last note: Some of the best performances of 2007 defied pigeonholing as lead or supporting. It’s happened before. In 1994, Miramax ran John Travolta for best actor in Pulp Fiction and the not-yet-famous Samuel L. Jackson for supporting; most filmgoers would have switched those categories. This year, in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Casey Affleck in the latter role exerted much more fascination and probably had more screen time than Brad Pitt in the former, yet Affleck’s nominated (and has already won several awards) as a supporting actor. Who’s the lead in No Country for Old Men, sheriff (and sometime narrator) Tommy Lee Jones, implacable hitman Javier Bardem or fatally tempted good ol’ boy Josh Brolin? And can Cate Blanchett’s incandescent turn as one of the Bob Dylan surrogates in I'm Not There be contained in the supporting-actress category—especially when it outshines her warmed-over monarch in Elizabeth: The Golden Years?

The envelopes, please....

PICTURE: I’m not surprised No Country for Old Men scored a best-pic nomination; it’s not only a riveting suspense film but perfectly realized in every detail of production and performance, which the filmmaking community couldn’t fail to note. I am surprised about the nom for There Will Be Blood, because this is a bravely original, discordant and just maybe unfinished work (its last line notwithstanding); it’s also more likely than No Country to try a casual viewer’s patience. My admiration for Blood grows, but I continue to believe No Country for Old Men should and will prevail. Likeliest applecart-upsetter: Juno, the highest-grossing among the nominees and the only crowd-pleaser. Michael Clayton is a worthy nominee and is anointed as this year’s George Clooney project, but it’s not as exciting as the competition. Atonement’s chances are scotched by the absence of a nomination for its director, Joe Wright.

DIRECTOR(S): Ethan Coen and Joel Coen, No Country for Old Men (see above). My second choice would be Julian Schnabel, who got Joe Wright’s nomination, as it were, for The Diving Bell and the Butterfly—a movie that only has to reimagine the world and the nature of human experience in order to tell the story of a vital personality “locked in” a body made recalcitrant by a catastrophic neurological event. Also nominated: P.T. Anderson, There Will Be Blood; first-timer Tony Gilroy, Michael Clayton; second-timer Jason Reitman, Juno. The Coens nabbed the Directors Guild award, which is usually predictive.

ACTOR IN A LEADING ROLE: No contest: There Will Be Blood’s Daniel Day-Lewis as the epically driven Daniel Plainview, a terrifying portrait of obsession and demonic energy. Tommy Lee Jones is nominated for the wrong movie, In the Valley of Elah. Viggo Mortensen is nominated for David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises as he should have been nominated for A History of Violence two years ago. They should finish as also-rans, but don’t entirely count out the beloved George Clooney in Michael Clayton, or Johnny Depp as Sweeney Todd. Sadly omitted: Chris Cooper as master spy Robert Hansen in Breach; Frank Langella as the aging Upper West Side novelist in Starting Out in the Evening; Mathieu Amalric as the heart’s-core of, but often unseen in, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.

ACTRESS IN A LEADING ROLE: Will Juno teen (actually, 20-year-old) Ellen Page snatch the prize away from front-runners Julie Christie, as the faculty wife slipping into Alzheimer’s in Away from Her, and Marion Cotillard, who could pass for the reincarnation of Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose? Great choices all, as is the always-spot-on Laura Linney in The Savages. Cate Blanchett’s reflexive nod for Elizabeth: The Golden Age should have gone to Nicole Kidman for Margot at the Wedding, Keira Knightley in Atonement or Anamaria Marinca in 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. My bet and my preference: Julie Christie.

ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE: The performance of the year is Javier Bardem’s in No Country for Old Men, and he’s been predicted so long to win that I’m starting to get worried. As usual in this category, every nominee is terrific: the aforementioned Casey Affleck in TAOJJBTC Robert Ford, Hal Holbrook as the hero’s last chance for family in Into the Wild, P.S. Hoffman as the p.o.’d CIA op in Charlie Wilson’s War and Tom Wilkinson as the lawyer driven over the edge in Michael Clayton. I can still regret the omissions of Josh Brolin for No Country and American Gangster and Alfred Molina as Dick Suskind in The Hoax.

ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE: Kelly Macdonald, as Josh Brolin’s wife in No Country, was grievously underrated up to and including her absence from this category. My hopes and expectations are with Cate Blanchett, I’m Not There. No quarrels at all with Saoirse Ronan, Atonement; Amy Ryan, Gone Baby Gone; and Tilda Swinton, Michael Clayton. Ruby Dee is also nominated as Mama in American Gangster.

SCREENPLAY – ADAPTATION: Cormac McCarthy couldn’t have asked for more meticulous adapters than the Coens on No Country for Old Men. However, I’d favor Christopher Hampton on Atonement, Ronald Harwood on The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and Sarah Polley, Away from Her because they had the most work to do, and did it superbly. Paul Thomas Anderson is also up for There Will Be Blood, but as a writer he needs himself as a director, ya feel me? Screenplay awards often end up as consolation prizes for not winning best picture, so I’ll predict Hampton for Atonement and declare no personal choice.

ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY: My early impulse was Diablo Cody for Juno, and I see no particular reason for changing horses in midstream. But I could see this breaking any whichway. Tamara Jenkins’ screenplay for The Savages is just as sharp, funny and true to its (less lovable) characters. First-time director Tony Gilroy, Michael Clayton, really needed himself as a writer, and again the consolation factor may kick in. Brad Bird’s Ratatouille isn’t the first animated film to be nominated in this category, but it would be a gas to see it win. Lars and the Real Girl I haven’t seen yet, but congratulations, Nancy Oliver.

CINEMATOGRAPHY: Roger Deakins is up against himself for The Assassination of Jesse James... and No Country for Old Men; I hope he wins for one breathtaking beauty or the other (he also shot the deliberately ugly In the Valley of Elah). But don’t be surprised if Robert Elswit takes the prize for his sulfur-and-brimstone lighting of There Will Be Blood; besides, Elswit should have been nominated for his work on at least two previous P.T. Anderson pictures, Boogie Nights and Magnolia. No flies either on Janusz Kaminski helping adjust reality for Julian Schnabel on The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and Seamus McGarvey giving Atonement that extra dimension to suggest the mind’s-eye of the novelist as the movie’s real location. Wish there were room for one more: Harris Savides, Zodiac.