"There Will Be Blood," the object of gushing critical acclaim and the major contender for a Best Picture Oscar, is an audacious saga about the early 20th-century oil frontier.
Another film sure to be nominated for an Oscar on Jan. 22 is "No Country for Old Men." Joel and Ethan Coen are not easily outdone in the audacious department. Strewn with a graphic series of wanton murders, there is no denying the directorial and storytelling skills of these twisted siblings.
Predicting the other three Best Picture nominees gets tricky.
"The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" is worth seeing, whether or not it gets nominated. Based on the true-life memoir of a stroke victim, it is intelligent, warm and life-affirming. Maybe voters will rally around this creative story about a man totally paralyzed except for his ability to blink one eyelid. It's fascinating in part because it avoids tugging disproportionately on sadness or hope. Maybe voters will overcome the burden of reading French subtitles.
Very few foreign-language films make it into the Oscar club of Best Picture nominees. More often, foreign language film directors are nominated. Such will be the case for Julian Schnabel, the director of "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly."
Curiously, "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" was disqualified from the Foreign Language Film category. This slap came because director Schnabel is American, and lots of the production money and effort was American. This peculiarity improves the odds of a Best Picture nomination for "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," but it is likely that another film, "Atonement," will be nominated for Best Picture and perhaps Schnabel for Best Director.
"Atonement" is this year's epic romance and this year's most overrated Oscar contender. World War II, which occurs in the middle of "Atonement," insufficiently buoys the appeal that Keira Knightley plied more richly in "Pride and Prejudice." "Atonement" only serves as a shrugging credit in James McAvoy's budding career, the way "Titanic" served Leonardo DiCaprio.
Comedies struggle for Best Picture attention. "Juno," this year's successor to "Little Miss Sunshine," offers more than the sharpest script of the year. Tracking a pregnancy born of a single instance of teen sex, rapid fire wisecracking deftly clears a path for believable sensitivity.
It's a big year for movie musicals, with three receiving Golden Globe nominations. "Sweeney Todd" is swaggeringly dark and stylish, though somewhat flat, and "Across the Universe" is a sweeping pop art ride that people seem to love or hate. Both give "Hairspray" shoulders to stand on.
Immersed in the tradition of movie musical fun, newcomer Nikki Blonsky holds her own against John Travolta's appearance in a fat girl suit. Blonsky, playing Travolta's overly chubby daughter, cracks 1960s' barriers to an American Bandstand-like TV world. Blacks do, too. This issue-oriented undercurrent carries well, but essentially "Hairspray" is just top-flight entertainment.
These musicals will topple each other, making way for either the most substantive film on the contender list, "Michael Clayton," or what may be my favorite film of the year, "Into the Wild."
George Clooney's acting boosts the impact of the title character, Michael Clayton, a high powered corporate lawyer buffeted by his faults and his rising conscience.
"Into the Wild," directed by Sean Penn, focuses on a different kind of self-indulgent man and nicely weaves the engaging characters the man affects through the course of the story. Penn's film is a natural for generating conversation about the short arc of a gifted young man's life. My guess is "Into the Wild" will get nominated.