2008 Best Picture Nominees Show the Nation in Mid-Squall

Mr. Harris used one standout scene in Michael Clayton as an example. “There’s this completely deliberate sense of no real place in that movie. Like, when Michael Clayton entraps Tilda Swinton, it seems like it could be taking place just outside of Conference Room B at any Hyatt anywhere. That’s why that one moment with Michael Clayton standing on grass looking at the horses—it’s a wake-up call. He’s situated in the known universe, he’s touching ground and grass as opposed to linoleum or concrete. You get exactly what kind of predawn moment it is; that light is something you rarely experience in the big city. I don’t think the movie is sentimental about the natural world; it reminds us in an interesting way how completely removed from your own environment you can be, and how destabilizing that is, and how easy it is to go to this moral netherworld when everything around you is artificial.”

No matter the outcome, this Sunday’s broadcast should prove to be an interesting one, since unlike past years (cough, Crash) each of the nominees for Best Picture are deserving, as were plenty of other movies (Into the Wild, Zodiac, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Away From Her, I’m Not There). Mr. Harris pointed out that 18 different movies received nominations for acting—a far cry from the day when all the voters had to choose from was Titanic or Titanic. “Oscar nominations are often this interesting combination of progressivism and denial,” he said. “Sometimes the denial is really loud. Sometimes it’s like, ‘Yes, Chocolat really is the best pictures of the year,’” he laughed. “I do think the Oscars have gotten better in this regard.”

With 40 years past, the world feels quite differently about movies like The Graduate or Bonnie and Clyde (both of which lost in 1968 to In the Heat of the Night) that try to break new ground. We know now that Mike Nichols and Arthur Penn started a new kind of moviemaking that would change the medium and how we view cinema in the four decades that followed, but that wasn’t clear then. Today’s ambitious directors—Paul Thomas Anderson, Sean Penn, David Fincher, the Coen brothers, Joe Wright, and Julian Schnabel—have stepped it up to a new level, Mr. Harris said, and given this year’s nominations, the Academy is responding. “But whether it’s an exciting moment that’s the beginning of something or whether five years from now we’ll look back and say, ‘Oh yeah, that was a really good year, how did it go so wrong after that?’—who knows?”

Still. “I wish there was a dog in this race that I could be really snide about,” said Mr. Harris. “But there’s not.”

2008 Best Picture Nominees Show the Nation in Mid-Squall