Who knows what evil lurks within the heart of man? In the world of fiction, we’re told that the Shadow knows.

In the Christian’s worldview, we understand that God truly knows the darkness of the human heart. His revelation to us explains the depths of our depravity. Humans are “by nature objects of wrath” and “dead in transgressions” (Eph. 2:3, 5) “There is not a righteous man on earth who does what is right and never sins,” says the author of Ecclesiastes (7:20). “We all stumble in many ways,” James tell us (3:2).

This year’s Oscar nominees show this biblical condition in the extreme. While a few contenders reveal a little light among the darkness, the top two most nominated films—No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood, tied with eight nominations each—are explicitly about the nature of evil. In one film, evil is an unstoppable force; in the other, it manifests as a dark spirit that seeks to take advantage of, and even destroy, others.

Perhaps in a sign that audiences need a little uplift to offset the unremitting grimness of No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood, the comedy Juno has emerged as a dark horse in this year’s Oscar race—a feel-good film about a grim subject (abortion) that shows how the right choices in life can lead to positive outcomes amid great uncertainty.

The other two Best Picture nominees deal with false hope and moral awakening. Atonement, a boldly cinematic adaptation of Ian McEwan’s novel, unwittingly reveals the emptiness of the idea of atoning for sins apart from any notion of God (McEwan is an atheist), and Michael Clayton is a straightforward legal thriller told through a fractured time frame, superbly acted by everyone in the film, including a deglamorized George Clooney in the title role.

Which films will be chosen this Sunday night, when the winners are revealed during the Academy Awards telecast? Which films should win, and why? Further thoughts on the five Best Picture nominees, plus several other top-nominated Oscar films from 2007, capture a year in which some of our best filmmakers produced work of exceptional quality, and—perhaps by accident—films of theological mysteriousness.

Time—not Oscar wins—will be the ultimate judge of the significance of these films, but the run-up to the Oscar ceremony provides an occasion to reflect on the short-term power—or lack thereof—of the films most often cited by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as worthy of commendation.

No Country for Old Men (8 nominations)
Much has been written about Joel and Ethan Coens’ expert adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel, but after all the verbiage, the meaning of the novel—and therefore the meaning of the movie—remains debatable. A sheriff played by Tommy Lee Jones tracks a relentless killer named Anton Chighur (Javier Bardem, in a performance heavily favored to take the Best Supporting Actor Oscar) in hopes of stopping him before he can kill Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), who has absconded with money from the scene of a drug deal gone bad.

In both the book and the film, the sheriff’s views on human nature hold the key to the story’s meaning. The key passages in McCarthy’s story are a monologue in which the sheriff says that God never came into his life, and a discussion he has with a friend of his father in which he admits the feebleness he feels in the face of the intensity of the criminality he must confront. The friend bluntly tells the sheriff, “You can’t stop what’s comin’”—a cold slap in the face of a man who’s thirsting for meaning and context in which to understand the depths of the evil around him.