2008 Best Picture Nominees Show the Nation in Mid-Squall

“I feel like this is the point where I would point to the 9/11 effect, which is code for skip the next two paragraphs,” joked Mr. Harris, when challenged to explain what this year’s best picture candidates could tell us about the American condition. He noted that all the movies we’re seeing today were probably conceived in the years just after the twin towers fell. “We’re only just beginning to get a sense of how filmmakers and screenwriters reacted to what happened.”

And what of those films that dared to take on the war on terror directly? “It’s really hard to make movies about something people are in the middle of,” Mr. Harris said, explaining why more urgently produced movies that dealt squarely with our involvement in the Middle East—like The Kingdom, In the Valley of Elah, Rendition and the colossal bomb Lions for Lambs—had brief runs, disappointing box office and very few Oscar nods. Look at that year Mr. Harris writes so eloquently about in his book. “There weren’t great Vietnam movies during Vietnam. Maybe it’s not the job of movies to reflect this moment’s headlines.”

Speaking of war … is our endless occupation of Iraq to blame (or to thank, depending on how you look at it) for the fact that so many of year’s movies lacked a traditional ending? Is it our current anxiety over the next four years? Mr. Harris noted that the ending of No Country for Old Men was the most controversial for its departure from the accepted narrative audiences are used to. “The fact that you don’t see the killing of one of the three main characters by another of the three main characters should probably serve as a warning that the ending is not going to go where you expect,” he said. “Anyone who has spent their life going to movies has it hard-wired into their DNA to expect what comes next: a third-a
ct showdown.”

Of course, that’s not what happens. (Spoiler Alert! Do not read on if you do not want to know the endings of these films.) No Country’s three principals greet their respective fates separately, and the movie ends with Tommy Lee Jones’ character’s last words, ‘And then I woke up.’

“When do you hear ‘And then I woke up’? After someone has told you their dream, and dreams are never satisfying narratives—they don’t tend to be well made with endings that tuck in all their corners,” Mr. Harris said. “What I think the Coen brothers, and Cormac McCarthy, are saying is, don’t expect that just because we’re telling you this story of good and evil and money and killing that it will lead to a satisfying resolution.”

So much attention has been paid to the odd-even-within-the-odd ending in There Will Be Blood. We leave Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), a man still unknowable after a whole movie spent with him, with blood on his hands and delivering the last line: ‘I’m finished!’ “It’s a door being slammed in your face,” said Mr. Harris. “A lot of critics have compared [the movie] to Citizen Kane, and I think it’s a good comparison. Rosebud was not a satisfying explanation—like, oh, a sled? Now I get it.”

In Michael Clayton, George Clooney might have helped find justice against a big corporation, but it’s also made clear that it came at a cost. Our last glimpse of him is a melancholic one, a man alone in a taxi, looking pensively out the window. “Technically, the good guys win,” Mr. Harris said. “But I think [writer-director] Tony Gilroy has gotten us so far under the skin of that creepy character played by Tilda Swinton that it’s not entirely pleasurable to see her disintegrate. This isn’t Erin Brockovich or Norma Rae. … The movie ends with the feeling that Michael Clayton still has a lot to atone for.”

Speaking of atoning, there’s that final twist in Atonement when it’s revealed that the characters the audiences have been following and emotionally investing in may just be a continued creation of a novelist. “They are literally characters,” Mr. Harris said. “You are watching fictional characters doing fictional things created by Vanessa Redgrave. When a movie which is as traditional, in some ways, as Atonement goes for a weird, irresolute, pull-out-the-rug-from-under-you ending, something is going on.”

Still, for every movie with an ending that thwarted your expectations, there was a blockbuster fantasy (like this year’s high-grossing 300, or I Am Legend) that tied up more neatly, if not with a bow than with a scrap of industrial twine or wire.

 

“THIS WAS ALSO a really American year for movies,” Mr. Harris said. “This was a year where a lot of American directors really wrestled with the The Land. I don’t think voters nominate movies according to some grand bullshit theme, but this felt like an American year.” When looking at the five best picture nominees, it’s hard not to instantly think of the long, flat plains of Texas and all that we envision of the West while watching No Country for Old Men or the oil gushing out of the hills in There Will Be Blood. “Those first 15 minutes of There Will Be Blood is this man ripping into the earth, trying to pull his living and his future out of the soil,” said Mr. Harris. “In Juno, you absolutely get the feeling of the mini-malls, and the shabby little block where the abortion clinic would be, and how the nice rich yuppie couple’s house looked.”

2008 Best Picture Nominees Show the Nation in Mid-Squall