The box office intake from this year’s five best picture nominees sits just north of $300 million, which is the second lowest tally from that group in two decades. While mainstream audiences were slow to embrace the top nominees — except breakout hit “Juno” — the quality from top to bottom is strong. Despite clear frontrunners in almost every major category, the night — led by host Jon Stewart — should be entertaining and exciting, proving why the Oscars are the only awards show left in which the awards actually mean something.
At this point, it seems like “No Country For Old Men” has this award in the bag. After winning the top prize at the Directors, Screen Actors, Writers, and Producers Guild Awards, it clearly has the momentum and is the film to beat. Critical favorite “There Will Be Blood” and Golden Globe winner “Atonement” are runners-up, but they really don’t stand much of a chance. The Pick: “No Country For Old Men”
For the fourth year in a row, the winner here is a shoe-in. Daniel Day-Lewis in “There Will Be Blood” was hauntingly explosive, showing why his rare on-screen appearances are so special. In spite of George Clooney’s best all-around performance and the always-entertaining Johnny Depp, this belongs to Day-Lewis hands down. The Pick: Daniel Day-Lewis
No matter how much I liked “Juno” and its star turn by Ellen Page, this has become a two-person race between Julie Christie in “Away From Her” and Marion Cotillard in “La Vie En Rose.” Christie’s performance, which saw her character succumb to Alzheimer’s, has won the majority of the awards so far and should win this as well. The Pick: Julie Christie
Best Supporting Actor
In any other year, Philip Seymour Hoffman would be a lock for his second Oscar win with “Charlie Wilson’s War.” However, Javier Bardem was simply superb in “No Country,” creating one of the most memorable villains in recent memory. Sorry friend-o, but this is Bardem’s award all the way. The Pick: Javier Bardem
Best Supporting Actress
The murkiest category of the year, with three actresses having a legitimate shot at winning. Amy Ryan drew raves for her work in “Gone Baby Gone,” Cate Blanchett won the Globe for “I’m Not There,” and then 83-year-old Ruby Dee won the Screen Actors prize for “American Gangster.” The Academy loves Blanchett, as evidenced by her previous win for "The Aviator" and the two nods this year, so I give her the slight edge. The Pick: Cate Blanchett
The Coen brothers did an exceptional job in adapting Cormac McCarthy’s beloved novel, “No Country For Old Men,” and in the process created the most engaging film of the year. They’ve practically won every single directing award already and should finally earn their first Best Director statue. The Pick: Joel and Ethan Coen
Best Original Screenplay
While the Academy rarely awards its top prizes to comedies, stripper-turned-writer Diablo Cody’s script for “Juno” is too good to pass up. The wacky world and eccentric dialogue she created was wholly unique and the driving force behind the film, which charmed audiences all across the country. The Pick: Diablo Cody
Best Adapted Screenplay
It should come as no surprise that this award goes to the Coen brothers as well. Seriously, if you haven’t already seen this film, what are you waiting for? The Pick: Joel and Ethan Coen
Best Animated Feature: “Ratatouille”
Best Art Direction: “Sweeney Todd”
Best Cinematography: “There Will Be Blood”
Best Costume Design: “Atonement”
Best Documentary: “No End In Sight”
Best Film Editing: “No Country For Old Men”
Best Foreign Language Film: “The Counterfeiters”
Best Makeup: “La Vie En Rose”
Best Original Score: “Atonement”
Best Original Song: “Once”
Best Sound Editing: “Transformers”
Best Sound Mixing: “Transformers”
Best Visual Effects: “Transformers”
After having dabbled with a romantic comedy (“Intolerable Cruelty”) and a troubled remake (“The Ladykillers”), acclaimed directors Joel and Ethan Coen (“Fargo,” “The Big Lebowski”) return to a criminal tale reminiscent of those earlier in their career. Renewed with a vengeance, “No Country For Old Men” is some of the best work they’ve done yet.
Adapted from Cormac McCarthy’s 2005 novel, the story is purposefully paced and unafraid to follow its characters for extended periods of time. At its center is common man Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), who stumbles upon the aftermath of a drug deal gone wrong while out hunting. Among the carcasses, he discovers a case filled with $2 million in cold cash and decides to take the money and run. Wrong move.
The simple plan quickly backfires as Brolin (“Grindhouse,” “American Gangster”) spends the rest of the film evading the certain death assassin Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) threatens to exact. Brolin, whose performance is driven by his rough demeanor instead of dialogue, is forced to rely on his resourcefulness merely to remain alive. On the other hand, Bardem steals the show with an Oscar worthy performance.
Bardem (“Before Night Falls,” “The Sea Inside”) is chillingly masterful in his role, making for one of the best villains in recent memory. His weapons of choice — a supercharged cattle stun gun and an oxygen tank — are brutal. He flips a coin over the impending fate of some of his victims, rarely breaking from his calm disposition. His character is also shrouded in mystery — we learn little about who he actually is — but a single look into his odious eyes is enough to freeze any man dead in his tracks.
In the meantime, local sheriff Ed Bell — a part tailored for Tommy Lee Jones — tries to put the pieces together and figure out what is causing the wake of corpses. In between dishing out nuggets of wisdom, he personifies the type of honest, old-fashioned lawman that has almost been extinguished. Now embittered by a world of constant violence, he is left questioning if he will ever wake up from this grueling nightmare.
Even though at first glance the story appears to be straightforward, there is much happening beneath the surface. Questions of mortality and the adverse effects of aging are contemplated and discussed. More importantly, it explores a world inundated by violence — not unlike our own — and wonders if there is any hope for change.
The stark nature of the story is made all the more harrowing by the talent behind the camera. Frequent Coen brothers’ cinematographer Roger Deakins encases the film in an arresting array of light, shadows and blood — beautiful and striking in their essence. The film also lacks the arrangement of a traditional musical score, and the first note of music isn’t heard until the end credits. This places the emphasis solely on the Coens’ stellar writing — which remains laced with their dark sense of humor — and the performances from the story’s participants.
While it first might appear fairly routine, “No Country For Old Men” is anything but. The Coens’ sure handed directing, combined with powerhouse turns from much of the cast, elevates it to the same heights their greatest achievements reached. This thrilling game of cat and mouse is not to be missed.