Mulling over the best Best Picture noms in decades. 

With none of this weekend's new-release mediocrities (Jessica Alba's The Eye, Eva Longoria's Over Her Dead Body, etc.) screening in time for our Tuesday deadlines, I initially planned to fill this space with a review of one of last weekend's new-release mediocrities (serial-killer thriller Untraceable, perhaps). But in a typically bad post-holidays period for Hollywood product, the truth is that thoughtful filmgoers are less likely to be choosing among these studio dregs than playing catch-up with Oscar nominees they missed.

Nominations were announced last week, with eight-nods-each auteur jobs There Will Be Blood (directed by Paul Thomas Anderson) and No Country for Old Men (by Joel and Ethan Coen) edging out more conventional seven-nod flicks Atonement and Michael Clayton in a diverse field. Little-engine-that-could Juno, which cracked the $100 million box-office threshold over the weekend, joins those four on the ballot for Best Picture.

This is supposedly a bad time for movies, but scanning through the Academy Awards' back pages, I don't think there's been a stronger slate of Best Picture nominees since the mid-'70s. And, with Michael Clayton re-released, There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men expanding to more theaters, and Juno still going strong, you can see them all on the big screen right now.

Anderson's There Will Be Blood is such a weird movie to be an Oscar frontrunner: It's a dark, process-oriented three-hour epic about frontier capitalism and manifest destiny. Daniel Day-Lewis' self-made-man protagonist spends an extended, dialogue-free prologue extracting the raw materials of empire from the earth — a vision of obsessive concentration that boldly demands the same from the audience. In portraying capitalism and Christianity as ambitious, charismatic forces working, warily, together and then battling for supremacy, Anderson crafts an old-fashioned yet idiosyncratic cinematic vision that might be called, simply, America. And then he ends it with an almost abstract finale of fevered oratory and spilled blood that takes place inside a bowling alley. This is a strong contender for the award typically given to self-congratulatory claptrap like Crash or self-serious blockbusters like Gladiator? Really?

The Coens' career-best No Country for Old Men is only slightly less unlikely Oscar bait — an impossibly tight and assured thriller that elides its own climactic violence as it ultimately forgoes conventional narrative closure.

This isn't to say that the Oscars have suddenly overcome all their chronic limitations. There are still vast areas of great filmmaking that exist beyond the Academy's conception: arty films without enough industry-, box-office-, or star-granted prestige (David Fincher's Zodiac); foreign-language flicks that refuse to pander (Paul Verhoeven's defiant Black Book); comedies deemed too populist to be "serious" (Judd Apatow's Knocked Up — a far more perceptive and enjoyable film about human relationships than Best Pic weak-link Atonement).

But even the conventional picks in this year's slate are a cut above the norm. George Clooney's searching, downbeat Michael Clayton is superior to any of the other male star vehicles to be nominated this decade (Ray, Capote, anything with Russell Crowe). Juno is a deeper, truer, less self-satisfied underdog comedy than, say, Little Miss Sunshine or even Sideways. And even Atonement — smart and sexy early on, too familiar in its war-torn middle section, lacking the confidence to embrace the coldness of its final twist without a final lacquer of Harlequin — is something more than typical period-piece Oscar bait.

Unless you've seen them all already, maybe this is a great weekend at the movies after all.

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