Was this the best year ever?

In recent years, The Academy has come under fire for giving its Best Picture award to undeserving films (Green Book) and for nominating those that had no business being in the conversation (Bohemian Rhapsody) for Hollywood’s top prize. Sometimes, in the moment, the award is given to what feels like the obvious choice, but, as time passes, the winner ages like milk and the runner-up more like a fine wine.

Because of the varying degrees of execution and innovation that go into film-making, some years will naturally produce stronger nominees than others. This, coupled with the unpredictability of the Academy’s 7,000 voters, makes it seem as if the stars must align for a truly special class to emerge. In 2007 we saw what likely will never happen again, as all five nominations were masterpieces. Their influences are still being felt, both culturally and in the industry. With unforgettable characters and narratives that are still being explored more than 10 years later, 2007-2008 was the best year of the 21st century for awards-season cinema. The nominees were Juno, Michael Clayton, Atonement, No Country For Old Men, and There Will Be Blood.

Juno

A coming-of-age story that follows a teenage girl who gets knocked up after the first time she does sex stars Ellen Page with a breakout leading performance as the mother-to-be Juno and Michael Cera as Paulie Bleeker, the other half of the baby-making equation. If you were buying stock in Michael Cera this would have been a good time, as Juno would be the beginning of a run of teenage angst films he would go on to star in.

Michael Cera - Juno

The narrative was undoubtedly original. Teen pregnancy had never been depicted with a lighthearted comedic touch. In 2007 we were used to characters falling into specific categories, outlined by movies like The Breakfast Club or even Mean Girls. The characters don’t fall into any one specific predetermined category but blend into unique people with personality.

Juno isn’t the cheerleader who got pregnant after prom with the football star she “loved.” She’s the hipster girl who spends her time listening to the Melvins and watching slasher films who got pregnant fucking the skinniest dude on the track team because she was bored. Her quick-witted humor and happy-go-lucky outlook makes this film work as a comedy despite taking on some difficult real-life issues.

What makes Juno memorable more than 10 years later is the incredible screenplay by Diablo Cody, who took home the academy award for her work. Being able to perfectly balance the quick-witted style of comedy while touching on the stigma attached to teen pregnancy, infertility, and adoption is a line difficult to walk, but Cody does so carefully. If pushed too far in one direction it becomes forgettable and falls into a corny genre film.

Ellen Page - Juno

With a topic as hot as abortion, Juno delicately and thoughtfully advocates pro-choice, without pissing off a bunch of old white guys in Hollywood (as it still received four nominations) or making the film only about that one issue. Being original in style while subtly getting the message across makes Juno one of the best movies of the decade. 

There Will Be Blood

Set in the early 1900s, There Will Be Blood follows entrepreneur Daniel Plainview, played by the recently retired Daniel Day-Lewis, and his quest for wealth and power in the booming oil business. In winning his second of what would end up being three Best Actor awards, Day-Lewis seems as if he were born for this role.

Driven by greed, Plainview’s only goal is to get stupid rich and stomp out the competition. We see a man slowly lose his mind and turn to a by-any-means-necessary approach to doing business.

Plainview’s abuse of the people around is unforgettable. Whether it be slapping the self-proclaimed prophet Eli Sunday around in the mud and calling him “afterbirth” or telling his deaf son that he is “a bastard from a basket,” Plainview’s relentless abuse and disdain for everyone around him only ticks up until the final scene when we finally … see blood. Day-Lewis created one of the most iconic villains of all time. The performance is simply chilling.

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Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, the script is loosely adapted from Upton Sinclair‘s 1920s novel, Oil! Anderson’s epic touches on family, greed, corruption and religion. Despite having a daunting runtime of almost three hours, There Will Be Blood is one of PTA’s (Paul Thomas Anderson) more accessible films. The metaphors are subtle but you don’t need a master’s degree to decipher what the film is trying to say, which can’t be said for all of Anderson’s work. Although it takes place more than 100 years ago there’s a obvious connection to the state of America today. Our capitalist economy facilitates the behavior of our deranged leaders to the extreme.

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The film received eight Oscar nominations but only took home wins in two categories: One for the aforementioned Best Actor in a Leading Role and the other for Best Cinematography. Every scene is carefully crafted, from the dark opening scene, as Plainview chips away at rock as he looks for silver in a dark hole, to the final shots in Plainview’s mansion. You can’t take your eyes off it. Cinematographer Robert Elswit, a frequent collaborator with Anderson, provided iconic shots that are still being admired today.

With long lists of critical acclaim before and after There Will Be Blood, Paul Thomas Anderson, Daniel Day-Lewis and Robert Elswit are considered masters of their crafts. All three are at the of their game for this one, creating a masterpiece that is considered one of the greatest feats in film making.

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We’ll never know for sure what film was the runner-up in the Best Picture category because the Academy doesn’t release that information. There Will Be Blood is widely considered to be the runner-up, as the race was as close as any. Ten years later the argument is frequently made that it should have won Best Picture, thus taking on a new life of its own as we all go back and revisit it to watch the unhinged Daniel Day-Lewis yell “I DRINK YOUR MILKSHAKE.”

Atonement

Taking place in England in 1935, two love birds are torn apart by a lie that would change their lives forever.The film follows Cecilia Tallis (Keira Knightley) and Robbie Turner (James McAvoy) and the aftermath of what happens after Robbie is accused of rape by Cecilia’s younger sister Briony (Saoirse Ronan). We see how their lives take different directions and how each deal with the consequences of the lie. It’s a romance story that we all hate to love about what could have been.

As we take a look back on this crop of nominees, Atonement is the least remembered of the group. But that’s not to say it wasn’t heavily in the conversation at the time. Someone clearly thought it was in the running for Best Picture as it won the award at the Golden Globes (they do weird stuff, I know) but the film hasn’t taken on a second life of its own since it came out.

What felt like career apexes for multiple actors and crew members in the other nominated movies, Atonement isn’t remembered as being the best work of any of its actors or director Joe Wright. When rewatching Atonement, you’re reminded that these actors got some of their early starts here. It looks good on the resume but James McAvoy is better remembered for his 24-split personality performance in Split or for his role in the X-Men franchise. Knightly is better remembered for Pirates of The Caribbean, Ronan and, most recently, Lady Bird.

Michael Clayton

George Clooney stars as lawyer or “fixer” Michael Clayton. After a lawyer has a mental breakdown while representing a corrupt company in a  multimillion-dollar class-action lawsuit, Michael Clayton is called in to clean up the mess. He’s in a pickle in his personal life, as he owes a loan shark $60,000 to cover his brother’s debts and his own gambling addiction has left him with nothing. He takes special interest in the company in question, U-North, a weed-killer company that is being sued for covering up reports that exposure to their product can lead to cancer.

This rich- guy law-drama sounds like a real snoozer. What is it even about? What exactly does he do? Is he a scumbag or a good guy? All valid questions that are difficult to explain to your half-asleep co-worker at the water cooler on a Monday morning.

In his impressive directorial debut, Tony Gilroy turns what could be a boring episode of Law & Order into a compelling drama layered with moral ambiguity. Gilroy, who also wrote the screenplay, was no chump to storytelling, as he had previously written huge blockbusters such as the Bourne franchise and Armageddon.

But Michael Clayton possessed a new challenge. It didn’t have the mass appeal that a spy shootout thriller starring Matt Damon would easily have. Gilroy would go on to tell a deep legal drama that could easily lose the average viewer’s interest if not told in an engaging way. He couldn’t rely on the star power of sending Bruce Willis to space or Matt Damon having jump through windows. Touching on themes of addiction, gambling and violating personal moral values (in this case, U-North) for money, Gilroy successfully keeps you revited from the opening sequence. He carefully plants information in a way that’s not too obvious, which makes the second and third watches just as enjoyable as the first, as we look at it from a different point of view each time.

George Clooney is subtle in his portrayal of Michael Clayton, a recovering gambling degenerate and the smartest guy in the room. Clooney always looks like he needs a nap, which is fitting for the situation his character is in. Michael Clayton needs to somehow pull together $60,000 to pay back the debt his crack-addict brother has racked up, maintain a positive relationship with his son, and clean up the mess of others while taking special interest in corrupt corporation U-North. He’s rightfully exhausted at all times. As he puts it, “I’m not a miracle worker, I’m a janitor.” Clooney was nominated for Best Actor and perhaps in another year that didn’t feature Daniel Day-Lewis’ career role, he would have won.

No Country for Old Men

The Best Picture winner of 2008, No Country for Old Men, was directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, whose style is generally offbeat and obscure. Their style — filled with dark comedy and ambiguous metaphors — isn’t for everyone, masterful and unique as it is.. The neo-Western crime thriller No Country for Old Men is the exception, as it is easily their most widely accepted film. No Country for Old Men still possesses their unique touch, though it’s not as satirical as others. Also, they don’t require audiences to find the hidden meaning, so everyone can enjoy a violent thriller with a theme that everyone can relate to: greed. This wasn’t the first time the Coens grappled with greed. Their 1996 classic Fargo draws the closest comparison but with No Country they seem to have perfected their craft.

Based on Cormac McCarthy’s 2005 novel of the same name, No Country for Old Men is the ultimate game of cat-and-mouse. Good ol’ boy Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) stumbles upon the aftermath of a drug deal gone wrong and, instead of reporting the incident to the police, he takes a suitcase full of cash that was left behind. But a tracker was hidden the stacks of money. On the other end of the tracker? An emotionless psychopathic killer, Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), who will kill whoever is in his way or is just on the way to the claim the money for himself.

The Coens put us in the shoes of Llewelyn Moss. We see the situation he’s in, which is living in a doublewide with his wife, who works at Walmart. While he appears to be content with his way of life, he defends this newfound wealth with his life, because no one is going to turn down $2 million dollars. We see the story unfold, mostly through his eyes, elevating the suspense to an uncomfortable level that keeps you on the edge of your seat. You’re rooting for Llewelyn to make a clean getaway, whether he is running from bloodhounds or from the ruthless killer Chigurh.

Part of what makes this crop of movies so unforgettable is how we look back on the iconic characters, particularly the villains. Javier Bardem’s cold demeanor as the film’s antagonist won him the award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role. Chigurh’s irrational and swift method of killing makes for an uncomfortable watch as you wonder who will get the work of a silenced shotgun next, just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Bardem and Daniel Day-Lewis both took home trophies for their work as greed-driven villains. Their methods and emotional levels couldn’t have been more different. Very rarely is there one iconic villain who can joins the ranks of Hannibal Lector and Jack Torrance as all-time greats, but this year we got two.

The Coen brothers aren’t always shooting for an Oscar, and they seem to rarely care about making noise in awards season. But with No Country for Old Men they show can do this every single time if they want.

Looking back, more than 10 years later, the argument for There Will Be Blood as Best Picture is valid. It has held up over the years, containing career apexes for all involved. No Country for Old Men also featured career performances or breakouts that sprung huge careers (see Josh Brolin in the biggest movie of the decade as a giant purple alien in Avengers: End Game next month). Saying the Academy got it wrong here is to say No Country was undeserving. With a race so close that it might have come down to a coin flip, either would be correct. No Country likely had the edge because it was more widely accessible.

Each film nominated this year tells a unique and engaging story touching on important topics such as greed, corruption lies, and social stigmas. There’s something here for everyone. With the number of nominations being expanded to up to 10, it’s likely that we will never see a list as strong as this one from to bottom.

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