Ten months ago, before the dust of the last Oscar ceremony had completely settled, pundits were already calling Atonement this year’s best in show. It didn’t seem to matter that the film was still in post-production, only that it was set to open in December and starred an actress who could (easily) squeeze into a size zero. But something happened on the way to the forum: The film opens in the States and audiences more or less react to it the way professional Oscar pundits have told them to, only it gets the cold shoulder from critics groups and industry guilds alike, leaving the same pundits scrambling to figure out why it may now be shut out of the Best Picture race.
Almost all irrationally blame the December opening (as if this were hurting Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood and Julian Schnabel’s Diving Bell and the Butterfly), never considering the effects their histrionic, year-long prognosticating may have had on voters. In short: tell someone enough times they’ll enjoy tossing your salad, and they will; tell them too many times and they’ll feel like they’re being forced to like this.
Which is not to say that Atonement is exactly shiteous. In fact, if this thoroughly mediocre period drama were to be nominated and win Best Picture, it would still count as one of the better ones to take the prize in Oscar’s 80 years. This sad reality is itself another reason for the potential snub: As a prestige picture, Atonement is too frosty, and the Academy has shown that it prefers its swoony romances to be of a more vulgar vintage (Titanic, The English Patient).
It may have been easy to rejoice an Atonement snub if there weren’t more inane films in the running: Michael Clayton, Tony Gilroy’s middlebrow homage to the middlebrow legacy of his three producers (Steven Soderbergh, Anthony Minghella, and Syndney Pollock), and Juno, the story of a quirky, pregnant 16-year-old played by a quirky 19-year-old who sounds like a 29-year-old fan of Death Proof. My roommate tells me Michael Clayton is a lock because his parents lurved it, and Juno is one too because—to loosely quote Jack Bauer from the first season of 24—it hasn’t been shoved so far down our collective throats that it has yet to be digested by the acids in our stomachs and cling to our intestinal linings.
One thing no one could have told you a year ago was that not one, but two darlings of the critical establishment, No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood, would be frontrunners in this category. Perhaps the WGA strike has forced AMPAS voters to take their work a little more seriously, or maybe the formalist gumption of these films is just too ginormous even for Olivia de Havilland and Mickey Rooney to ignore. And if you doubt that There Will Be Blood isn’t a lock, take a look at its IMDB rating, then read this and tell me that the film isn’t, like, City of God times one million.
That leaves one spot. Sweeney Todd, like Atonement, was a big winner at the Golden Globes, but those awards didn’t exactly happen. American Gangster appears to have lost its groove, and Hairspray has found it a little too late in the game. The same could be said for Diving Bell and the Butterfly and Into the Wild, but the latter has the edge by virtue of being a homegrown product. Besides, all those SAG nominations don’t lie.
This blog entry was originally published on Slant Magazine on the date above.