Depending on who you talk to, the 80th Academy Awards were either a roaring success or a spectacular failure. On the one hand, the awards had the lowest viewership figures of all Oscar ceremonies since records started in 1974. This poor performance has largely been attributed to a slate of nominees which focused heavily on independent films rather than blockbusters. Most of the movie-going public, it appears, simply didn’t care about these movies. Of course, the Academy’s focus on these sorts of movies is more of a feature than a bug to many cinephiles. The 80th Academy Awards feature some of the best films of the 21st century, in sharp contrast to other fairly lackluster years [I’m lookin’ at you 79th Academy Awards]. In a single year, we saw Academy Awards nominations for There Will Be Blood, No Country for Old Men, Atonement, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Persepolis, and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Any of these movies could go down in history as classics. Some, most notably There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men, already have.

When it comes down to it, though, the 80th Academy Awards were a showdown between two titanic films: No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood. Both films received 8 nominations, with 6 categories in common. In the end, No Country for Old Men came out the victor, snatching up 4 Oscars including Best Picture and Best Director. There Will Be Blood ended up with 2 Oscars: one for cinematographer Robert Elswit and a well-deserved award for Daniel Day-Lewis.

With those two films in the mix, it’s easy to forget that there were several other spectacular films in contention. In particular Atonement, Joe Wright's twisted tale of love and lies during WWII received 7 nominations including Best Picture, although it only walked away with an Oscar for Best Original Score. Michael Clayton, a tale of corporate greed starring George Clooney, also garnered 7 nominations including Best Picture and Best Actor; it failed to win any of them. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and Juno each received 5 nominations, with Diablo Cody taking home an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.

In the more technical categories, The Bourne Ultimatum finished the night with 3 Oscars: Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing, and Best Editing. This outcome should come as no surprise to anyone who has watched any of Paul Greengrass’ Bourne films with their hyperkinetic action sequences. While his technique is often imitated, films rarely combine Greengrass’ talent for stitching together millisecond slices of film into a coherent scene. Surely these scenes would shatter into incoherence without a masterful application of sound editing and mixing, not to mention editing in general.

With any awards ceremony, it’s fun to go back and look at who should have won. While I could spend pages going on what film should have won which Oscar, as usual we’ll set a couple of rules. First, I’m only going to examine the major Oscars where No Country for Old Men was in contention. Second, I’m only going to pick among the nominated films. While it would be fun to pick from all films released in the same year, that would simply be too much of an undertaking to do properly. So, with that in mind, I present to you Re-thinking the 80th Academy Awards.

Best Actor in a Supporting Role
The Nominees:
Javier Bardem [No Country for Old Men]
Casey Affleck [The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford]
Philip Seymour Hoffman [Charlie Wilson’s War]
Hal Holbrook [Into the Wild]
Tom Wilkinson [Michael Clayton]

Winner: Javier Bardem [No Country for Old Men]
Who Should Have Won: Javier Bardem [No Country for Old Men]

The best supporting actor nomination this year presents a conundrum. As I watched all of the performances, it became clear to me that Casey Affleck was putting in an award worthy performance as Robert Ford in The Assassination of Jesse James. His fascinating portrayal of a man that’s a bit off kilter is unique without falling into the kind of caricature that it might have in lesser hands. Instead we’re given a nuanced performance that I certainly won’t be forgetting soon. Unfortunately, he was nominated in an inappropriate category. He is clearly the lead actor in The Assassination of Jesse James, and I have to imagine that his inclusion in this category was a cynical ploy to win Affleck an Oscar by avoiding direct competition with shoo-in Daniel Day-Lewis. On this technicality, I can’t say he should have won. His screen-time just gives him too much of an advantage against his competition.

A couple of the other performances are not particularly memorable. Tom Wilkinson in Michael Clayton provides a scenery chewing performance which is entertaining but ultimately without substance. Philip Seymour Hoffman puts in a fun performance with a magnificent mustache in Charlie Wilson’s War, but Oscars just aren’t won for impressive facial hair. 

Hal Holbrook in Into the Wild may have won the Oscar in the right year. His heartbreaking performance as a retiree with a tragic past is naturalistic and highly effective. Unfortunately for him, he had to contend with Anton Chigurh.

Simply put, Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men, creates one of the most terrifying presences in all of film in Anton Chigurh. He blows Anthony Hopkins’ Oscar winning portrayal of Hannibal Lecter out of the water. The performance is not nuanced or subtle. It doesn’t display a wide ranging acting ability. It doesn’t pull on the heartstrings. Instead it does one thing perfectly: portray a cosmic force of destruction. Like Hannibal Lecter before him, Anton Chigurh is sure to remain in the cultural memory for decades. I don’t know which demon Bardem made a Faustian bargain with to pull off this performance, but the least the academy could do is grant him an Oscar. After all, he most likely risked his soul to win it.

Best Cinematography
Robert Elswit [There Will Be Blood]
Roger Deakins [The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford]
Seamus McGarvey [Atonement]
Janusz Kaminski [The Diving Bell and the Butterfly]
Roger Deakins [No Country for Old Men]

Winner: Robert Elswit for There Will Be Blood
Who Should Have Won: Roger Deakins for The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

The best cinematography nominations for the 80th Academy Awards were a celebration of desolate American scenery. There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men both featured the rugged beauty of the American Southwest while The Assassination of Jesse James focused more on the central plains. This common thread makes for some interesting comparisons.

Of course, two of the films were decidedly not centered on isolated scenes of sunsets and blowing grass. Janusz Kaminski, in his work for The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, faced with the challenge of capturing the point of view of a paralyzed person, is the most unconventional nomination. From the unusual angles used in the point of view shots to the frequent soft focus and high exposure, the cinematography in this film stands front and center. When it works, it works wonderfully, but there are times when it’s a distraction.

Seamus McGarvey puts in a strong entry for Atonement, where he’s able to put his eye for composition and color to good use. He’s particularly effective at setting a visual tone for a complex film that spans multiple locations and eras. This tone not only heightens the action on the screen, but also helps viewers navigate the difficult narrative. In another year, Seamus McGarvey would have been my pick to win Best Cinematography.

While Roger Deakins is nominated twice this year, his work in No Country for Old Men, was clearly his weaker entry. The film is beautiful, but the cinematography is completely subservient to the other elements of the movie. In short, while No Country for Old Men is indeed a good-looking film, the cinematography simply isn’t given a big enough role to shine.

Deakins’ cinematography in No Country for Old Men contrasts with Robert Elswit’s work in There Will Be Blood. While both films often feature almost identical settings [they were both filmed in West Texas], the cinematography in There Will Be Blood stands out for creating a true sense of place. From the beautiful and cryptic opening shots of the film to its closing moments in Daniel Plainview’s mansion, the cinematography beautifully and effectively situates the viewer in the heart of the story.
Without a doubt, though, Roger Deakins deserves the Best Cinematography Oscar for his work on The Assassination of Jesse James. The movie features multiple staggeringly beautiful scenes which harken back to the expansive vistas that we’re accustomed to in westerns. Perhaps more importantly, due to the meditative nature of the film, viewers are truly given time to soak up all of the great work. I’d re-watch this film for the cinematography alone.

Best Adapted Screenplay
No Country for Old Men
Away from Her
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
There Will Be Blood

Winner: No Country for Old Men
Who Should Have Won: Atonement

The Best Adapted Screenplay category of the 80th Academy Awards was notable for its challenging material. From a memoir of a person with locked-in syndrome to works from literary heavyweights like Cormac McCarthy and Ian McEwan adapting much of the source material for these scripts required some serious writing chops. Frankly, all of these scripts deserve the love that they’ve garnered. 2007 was a seriously good year for Adapted Screenplays.

Take No Country for Old Men. Anyone who’s read any Cormac McCarthy knows that his writing is not only deeply thematic, but steeped in the author’s gruff voice. The screenplay for this film not only captures McCarthy’s literary voice, but also preserves the essential themes of the book, all while remaining a terrific piece of entertainment. There Will Be Blood took a different tack in adapting Upton Sinclair’s Oil!. The result is a wonderful character study which comments with equal measure on man and the American dream. In both of these cases, along with Sarah Polley’s work in Away from Her, the screenplay is vitally important but draws little attention to itself.

Unlike the aforementioned scripts, the screenplay for The Diving Bell and the Butterfly takes center stage in the film. Creating a screenplay from the point of view of a paralyzed person is no simple task, and Ronald Harwood largely succeeds. The film, full of musings and flashbacks, is a testament to film’s ability to help us imagine the inner worlds of others. While the script sometimes falls into saccharine sentimentality, it’s an incredible feat of writing nonetheless.

The screenplay for Atonement is similarly showy, deftly adapting a complex book with an intricate structure. Christopher Hampton engages in what I can only describe as a heroic effort of adaptation as he tackles this literary behemoth. From its smart use of multiple perspectives on the same event to meta-commentary on the nature of literature to imagined episodes, the script covers this thematically dense subject matter without succumbing to it. In a year of tough competition, the adapted screenplay for Atonement comes out on top.

Best Director
The Nominees:
Joel Coen and Ethan Coen [No Country for Old Men]
Paul Thomas Anderson [There Will Be Blood]
Tony Gilroy [Michael Clayton]
Jason Reitman [Juno]
Julian Schnabel [The Diving Bell and the Butterfly]

Winner: Joel and Ethan Coen [No Country for Old Men]
Who Should Have Won: Paul Thomas Anderson [There Will Be Blood]

The Best Director Oscar boils down to a competition between the Coen Brothers and Paul Thomas Anderson. None of the other directors displayed the combination of vision and mastery of these directors.

Tony Gilroy provided a highly competent but conservative entry with Michael Clayton. The man clearly knew what he was doing as he executed this project with the acumen of a Swiss watchmaker. Unfortunately, the film never quite rises beyond being a utilitarian piece of craftsmanship. At times, it feels almost clinical in its execution, and this boils down to a director that simply played it too safe.

In contrast Juno oozes personality thanks to a lively script and quirky performances. Director Jason Reitman’s primary success with this movie is providing this screenplay and Ellen Page a space to show off. While this isn’t an easy task, it just isn’t enough to justify a Best Director award, particularly in a year with such stiff competition.

Julian Schnabel, with The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, takes some significant risks, and often succeeds. His entry takes material that is extremely challenging from a cinematic point of view and transforms it into a highly original and effective film. Unfortunately, the film sometimes tries too hard to be unique and sentimental, leading to some misfires. 

And only two remained… 

Joel and Ethan Coen are at the top of their game with No Country for Old Men. Certainly, in many other years, I would have awarded the Best Director Oscar to them. This film pulls together a variety of phenomenal performers and craftsmen to create a product that is more than the sum of its parts. It combines enough Coen-ness [for lack of a better word] to offer a unique point of view without constraining the source material and performers. The famed brothers certainly pull off this balancing act with aplomb creating a film that should be enjoyed for years to come. 

But they just couldn’t stand up to Paul Thomas Anderson’s work in There Will Be Blood. This film combines an epic feel with a deeply personal story and some unconventional elements to create a unique artistic achievement. From the gorgeous cinematography to the entrancing central performance to the unsettling soundtrack, the whole film clicks into place with an elegance that I have to attribute to Paul Thomas Anderson’s direction. He’s still a fairly young director who likely has many movies to come. I can only hope that he tops his achievement with There Will Be Blood someday and take home a Best Director Oscar.

Best Picture
The Nominees:
No Country for Old Men
Michael Clayton
There Will Be Blood

Winner: No Country for Old Men
Who Should Have Won: There Will Be Blood

Unlike some other ceremonies, the 80th Academy Awards provide multiple strong contenders for best picture. While No Country for Old Men walked away with the award, in a different year it could have been There Will Be Blood or Atonement.
Of course, that leaves Michael Clayton and Juno. Both of these films are good if not spectacular. Re-watching Juno nearly ten years after its release, I worried that it’s highly stylized dialog and quirky performances wouldn’t age well. I needn’t have worried. Juno is still charming as ever. Unfortunately for the film, charm will only take you so far, and in a year with as many heavy-weight contenders as this one, Juno never stood a chance. Michael Clayton, too, is a worthy, grownup thriller with nice central performances, efficient conveyance of a complex storyline, and an unusual level of polish. Still, it’s hard to imagine seeing the film on anyone’s list of favorite movies [except maybe disgruntled corporate lawyers]. It’s just nothing special in a year that featured some exceptional movies.

Atonement, despite it’s relatively low profile, sits in the same league as No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood which hogged most of the attention. The film is a cinematic gem that combines a distinctive aesthetic with a challenging script. The final product is a melancholy meditation on the impact of our choices, the role of chance, and the power of literature. In the end, though, it’s no surprise that this film didn’t win. Not only was it up against some stiff competition, but also, it’s at once too weird and too depressing to garner the wide appreciation it deserves.

The Coen brothers received a well-deserved Best Picture Oscar for No Country for Old Men. The film certainly sits near the top of their oeuvre of excellent films. Re-watching it, I was impressed by its ability to translate the mythological atmosphere that Cormac McCarthy brings to his books onto the screen while creating a first-rate piece of entertainment. I would have chosen, There Will Be Blood as best picture, but I can’t fault anyone for choosing No Country for Old Men.

In the end, though, the winner for Best Picture should have been There Will Be Blood. I’m convinced that future film historians will hold There Will Be Blood up as a pinnacle of early 21st century cinema. From Jonny Greenwood’s unorthodox score to the first 14 dialog-free minutes to Daniel Day-Lewis’ masterful performance, this film has it all. This film brings together mastery of all cinematic crafts with a vision that’s rarely matched, and for that, it deserves the Best Picture Oscar.