Given the tone of the front-running films, this would be a good year for a Best Picture coup at the Oscars. Alas, "Juno," the best script of the 2007, can't win. It's just another touching little comedy. The Academy Awards disproportionately dings comedies.
"Juno" stays real, though it hardly takes a breath from wisecrack to wisecrack. It nudges what could have been stereotypical characters endearingly off-center.
Ellen Page carries the tone perfectly as Juno, a girl who gets pregnant as a result of her one-time-only experience. Right on, as well, are the characterizations of Juno's boyfriend and parents and the prospective adoptive parents.
Gold for "Michael Clayton" would be a surprise, though not a coup. First-time director Tony Gilroy wrote all three "Bourne" screenplays. He has traded up in making "Michael Clayton."
George Clooney stars as the title character, a talented "fixer." It's the most substantive film on the list of contenders. It involves the power wielded and the collateral damage caused by a mega-corporation.
At heart it's believable that a huge global company is doing more than dragging its feet in a multibillion dollar lawsuit over poisoning its consumers. With a crazy head lawyer, a too vulnerable CEO and the flaws in the Michael Clayton character, this well-written story can feel a tad far fetched. That said, the complexity fetches a cautionary movie reminder that, one way or another, corporations can kill people.
Forget about a coup or a surprise. One of the two front-runners will win: either "There Will Be Blood," cynical and violent, or "No Country for Old Men," cynical and very, very violent. The praise for these two films is widespread and lavish. The cinematic vision and talent brought to bear is impressive.
The competitive leak in the excellence of "There Will Be Blood" is a lack of chemistry between the characters, and the film's end seemed to have nowhere to go but to become overly excessive. Nonetheless, scene after scene, including the final scene, is packed with powerful sounds, images and affecting characterizations. Writer/Director Paul Thomas Anderson tells a big story of how big oil gained its foothold in the wild West.
"No Country for Old Men" has the more fully realized script, including plenty of chemistry between its characters.
The Coen brothers send an iconic new bad guy, played by Javier Bardem, on the murderous hunt for a man who foolishly stole big drug money. Tommy Lee Jones plays a third-generation lawman overwhelmed by the modern-day pitch of lawlessness but still trying to do the job.
Ethan and Joel Coen write and direct films like no one else. They will win the Best Picture and Director Oscars that eluded them with "Fargo." "No Country for Old Men" is not as imaginative or quirky as "Fargo," but the excellence is twisted effectively enough. It's just that "No Country" has an easier filmmaking challenge, having a villain with Terminator-style invincibility and a good guy forced to sidelined importance.
If this were truly a year for Oscar coups, Julian Schnabel would win Best Director for "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly." How do you make an engrossing story about a man totally paralyzed except for the his ability to blink one eyelid? Schnabel succeeds masterfully, in part because of the way he avoids tugging disproportionately on sadness or hope.
"The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" is an intelligent, warm, and life-affirming triumph, based on a true story. Triumph notwithstanding, it was not nominated for Best Picture. For a foreign-language film especially, this blocks the path to a Best Director win.
Something had to fill the remaining Best Picture slot. Since Oscar gets nervous without an epic romance on the list of nominees, "Atonement" got the nod. It doesn't deserve the nomination and certainly won't win.
The British romance steams up well enough between Keira Knightley and James McAvoy. Then he's banished into World War II. The depiction of the war is no big deal dramatically, and the lovers' pangs of separation don't keep the steam rolling.
After "No Country for Old Men" enjoys its big Oscar night, see "Fargo" again. It is definitely a more inspired, juicier example of the Coen's cinema genius without sacrificing our penchant for extreme violence.