Critics have interpreted the book and the film as nihilistic, but the sheriff’s closing description of his dreams offers the slightest glimmer of the possibility of a future hope—if not here, then in the hereafter.

There Will Be Blood (8 nominations)
Tied with No Country for Old Men in number of Oscar nominations, director Paul Thomas Anderson’s story of oilman Daniel Plainview is a companion piece of sorts for the Coen Brothers' film. Both are highly cinematic, well-acted stories of the human capacity for darkness, but in this case, the uncaring and inhuman character isn’t a supporting player like No Country’s Anton Chighur, it’s the film’s central character. Daniel Day-Lewis, in a performance favored to win Best Actor, portrays Plainview as a suave, ruthless businessman who will stop at nothing to get his way.

The film’s central conflict is between Plainview and Eli Sunday, brother of a man who tips Plainview off to the oil waiting to be discovered in his family’s hometown. Eli wants money for the church he’s building, and to further expand his ministry. Plainview needs Eli’s cooperation, but only to get to the oil he seeks. Once he has that, he refuses Eli’s demands for money and accuses the preacher of being a fraud.

The conflict between the two will force each to make a confession about their family and vocational failures, and the final struggle will put an end to their conflict, and to the movie itself. But as with No Country for Old Men, we’re forced to ask what the film is trying to say about human nature and the power, or lack, of faith. Plainview’s motives, and his moral progression, are clear, but what about Eli’s? Is he a fraud? Has God used him despite his mixed motives? Are both characters equally sinister? What does the outcome of their final confrontation mean?

After spending two-and-a-half hours watching this often mesmerizing film, I was no closer to the answer to those questions than I was when the conflict was laid out early in the film. Is the film brilliant? In parts, yes. Does it seem to fall apart in the final third? I thought so. Is the ending making a point about Daniel Plainview that the film hasn’t already made long before then? I doubt it.

But to the film’s credit, I’m willing to watch it again, and can only hope that there’s more to the film than appeared on first viewing.

Atonement (7 nominations)
Next to No Country for Old Men, Atonement marks the year’s other outstanding literary adaptation. Director Joe Wright, who previously directed the adaptation of Pride and Prejudice starring Keira Knightley, realizes Ian McEwan’s story while demonstrating a stunning command of craft.

Saoirse Ronan stars as the adolescent Briony, who sees her older sister, Cecilia, engage in questionable contact with an acquaintance, Robbie. Budding jealousy fuels Briony’s creative mind, leading to a false allegation that sends Robbie away, and ultimately into war. The heartbreaking consequences of Briony’s allegation are slowly revealed, ending in a scene that suggests that the idea of atonement apart from God is a form of wish fulfillment or fantasy.

An instantly famous, if controversial, long take of the evacuation at Dunkirk serves notice that Wright can do much more than film talky dramas. Wright was not nominated for Best Director—Julian Schnabel grabbed the fifth slot for directing The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, which was not nominated for Best Picture—but given the power of Atonement in all phases of execution, this injustice will likely be set right in the future. Wright is here to stay.