National Commentary

Nicholas F. Benton: Will Oscar Smell

I am proud to report that I achieved one of my New Year’s resolutions this week by, for my first time, seeing all five Academy Award “Best Picture” nominees prior to the Oscar ceremonies this weekend. It was hard to make it to a screen still showing “Michael Clayton,” but since it was the last of the five for me, I resolved to go through considerable pains to get it under my belt, so to speak, and I did.

Cinema, after all, is the most influential popular cultural medium of our time. It is what temple art, myths and oral histories, poetry, visual art, baroque and classical music, stage drama, opera, and the novel have represented to other ages. It offers the opportunity for a far more artistic and meaningful mode of general cultural communication than any other in our age. It is heartening that none the “Best Picture” nominees this year were produced or marketed as “blockbusters,” subordinating that to their artistic value.

Figuring out how the members of the Academy are going to rate the films is almost impossible to do. Their moods have swung so much in recent years, from preferring gritty works like “Crash” and “Silence of the Lambs,” to the chick-flickish “Shakespeare in Love” and “Dances With Wolves,” and last year’s “The Departed,” which had more point-blank bullet shots to foreheads than perhaps any film ever.

If their general assessments are anywhere close to mine, then I would venture that their choice for Best Picture will be either “Atonement” or “There Will Be Blood.”

The other three nominees, “Juno,” “No Country for Old Men” and “Michael Clayton,” are all also truly outstanding films, with vastly varying subject matters, but are on a tier slightly below the other two, in my view.

For those paying attention to the movies, most know the general subject matter of them all:

* “Atonement,” based on the novel by Ian McEwan, flows from a lie told by a young girl about her sister and the sister’s beau, played by Keira Knightley and James McAvoy, that forces their separation in England in the years prior to World War II.

* “There Will Be Blood,” based on the 1930s novel, “Oil!,” by Upton Sinclair, is about a dirt-poor miner played by Daniel Day Lewis who discovers oil in the Central Valley of California around 1900 and becomes a multi-millionaire independent oil man 30 years later.

* “Juno” is about a 16-year-old girl of loving parents, played by Ellen Page, who gets pregnant from a single encounter with a friend. It’s about her decision to have the baby and to give it up for adoption and what flows from all that.

* “No Country for Old Men,” based on the novel by the social pessimist Cormac McCarthy, who hangs out in Santa Fe, New Mexico and predicts humanity’s doom. This is not to diminish his talent or the film’s ability to vividly convey his sentiments about the “dismal tide,” as one of his characters calls it, sweeping over the species. Filmed at dusty, real life sites along the U.S.-Mexico border, it is a gripping thriller.

* “Michael Clayton” centers on the star power of George Clooney and is a compelling account of a lawyer at huge law firm discovering that his client, an agribusiness giant, has covered up the lethal impact of a pesticide.

It is worth noting that three of the films ride disproportionately on the shoulders of their main characters. Lewis is almost a shoe-in to win “Best Actor” for his role as Daniel Plainview in “There Will Be Blood,” Page is all “Juno” is about, really, and Clooney is seldom absent from a scene in “Michael Clayton.”

“Atonement” is the most aesthetically beautiful of the films, inclusive of its cinematography, musical score and settings. The scenes of the British troops trapped at Dunkirk in the early years of World War II are amazingly compelling.

But the most fascinating relationship is found not between the lovers in “Atonement” or “Juno,” but in “There Will Be Blood,” in the almost cosmic decades-long conflict between Day’s character and the young pastor played magnificently by Paul Dano. The depiction of that protracted clash, and the overall context by which the film shows Day’s character, besieged by fraud, betrayal and exploitation, devolve into the ultimate cynic makes it, in my view, worthy of “Best Picture” among a field of five most qualified finalists. It gets my vote.