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At the Movies: Behind the Hype: Oscar’s Best Picture 2008

The Writers Strike did one interesting thing to awards season this year; it made it about the movies. Because the publicity machine leading up to the Oscars was virtually shut down by the strike, the awards community had no choice but to look at the movies being offered up for Best Picture of the year. That is probably why, for the first time since the early 1970s, a film with an ambiguous, thoughtful ending won the Best Picture Oscar.

No Country for Old Men is not your mother’s Oscar winner. It is bleak and strange and makes no apologies for being complex. Like its bratty little brother, There Will Be Blood, No Country was a film that did very well with the critics yet many moviegoers skipped. Even though it has made more money than any Coen brothers film to date, it is still nowhere near the $100 million mark.

But the quiet distraction brought on by the strike put the thoughts very specifically on “best” rather than “most popular.” Who knows, for instance, what Michael Clayton could have done if gorgeous George Clooney had been unleashed on the publicity scene. There is no telling which direction the Oscar race would have headed in, but in case you’re tired of hearing people complain about how dark the films are, perhaps the strike is the real reason why these films were chosen.

In the end, No Country for Old Men won Best Picture, Best Director(s), Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actor. It did not win Editing, Cinematography, Sound, or Sound Editing, all of which it might have won in a different season. There Will Be Blood took only two Oscars: one for Daniel Day-Lewis for his portrayal of Daniel Plainview and the other for Robert Elswit, the cinematographer.

The “dark” Oscars awarded four Europeans and no Americans. Three of the four characters were villains: one a murderous psychopath with a cattle air gun, the other a prospector who kills or rejects anyone who ever gets close to him as he buys up all of the oil in California, and a corporate apologist and handler who covers up white collar crime, even going so far as to plot a murder.

The other winner, Marion Cotillard, won for her soul-baring portrayal of Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose. The French actress was so stunned after her win that she collapsed in tears in Forest Whitaker’s arms after making it to the stage.

The little ray of sunshine poking through the dark clouds was Juno, which was the people’s choice, as it’s on its way to making $150 million this week. Diablo Cody won Original Screenplay but the film didn’t win any other awards. Juno is the only Best Pic nominee that wasn’t about humanity’s darker nature but was really about problem- solving and optimism in the face of a complex decision. Juno was a sweet film, but it was more entertaining than Oscar voters wanted this year.

For three years now, the Oscars have awarded films that deal with death and crime and perhaps larger themes about identity and overriding despair. The Departed and No Country for Old Men are both films with bleak endings for their protagonists. These films speak of a different kind of justice, one that can’t be left to the clumsy hands of law enforcement or government, but justice of a different kind.

No Country for Old Men is a masterpiece for the ages. While audiences may not have had a chance to see it, they soon will. Some still scratch their heads upon leaving the theater, but once the story settles in, and they wrap their minds around the talent and wisdom of Cormac McCarthy, the film takes on greater meaning.

Without the publicity machine humming at full throttle it’s difficult to imagine how the Oscar race might have been with hype intact. As it is, it was a quiet season full of unexpected wonder and a happy ending.

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