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.

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.

Michael Clayton (7 nominations)
A straightforward legal thriller told in disorienting but stimulating fashion, Michael Clayton is the default Best Picture choice for those uncomfortable with the darkness of the leading candidates.

George Clooney leads a stellar cast in the story of a legal-firm “fixer” led to see the error of his ways. His firm stands to lose big after attorney Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson) embraces the plaintiffs in a lawsuit against a chemical company represented by Edens’ and Clayton’s firm. Though labeled as worthy of being institutionalized, Edens slowly leads Clayton to see the truth.

Christians are familiar with C.S. Lewis’ challenge about the teachings of Jesus: The things he taught were so radical, Lewis said, that one must believe Jesus is either a liar, a lunatic, or Lord. Michael Clayton is not a Christian parable, and Arthur Edens is not a Christ figure, but in showing us a man who is forced to choose right or wrong while being led into the truth by someone regarded as crazy, it testifies to the power of the individual to make a difficult decision, even at great cost, simply because it’s the right thing to do. Though coarse in its language, Michael Clayton is a film of redemption and hope.

Ratatouille (5 nominations)
The remarkably consistent Pixar Animation Studios deserves its five Oscar nominations for this wonderful tale of Remy, a rat who loves food, and the young man he turns into a first-rate chef. Embracing the motto of a famous deceased chef, Remy believes “anyone can cook,” and so he does, preparing a variety of delicacies. This despite the protestations of family and friends who are willing to settle for whatever trash they can find.

Ratatouille is an inspirational film for kids and adults—and for critics, who, in the character of Anton Ego, the notorious food critic whose reviews can close down restaurants and ruin great chefs, are ultimately shown to have full hearts.

We critics can be a complaining lot, but when movies are as good as Ratatouille, who needs to be glum?

Juno (4 nominations)
The highest grossing of the Best Picture nominees, Juno is the story of a pregnant teenager who decides to give up her baby for adoption. She finds support for her decision from her father and stepmother but is unprepared for the decisions she must make about the adoptive parents she’s chosen for her child.

Ellen Page is a sensation as Juno, but her sarcastic character is at once too knowing and much too grating. The film’s heart comes from its supporting players:  Jennifer Garner as the adoptive mother; Jason Bateman as the tentative adoptive father; and J.K. Simmons and Allison Janney as Juno’s parents.

Juno is a comedy with few laugh-out-loud moments, but its tone is pleasantly humorous throughout, and the film is downright admirable in choosing life over death.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (4 nominations)
Mathieu Amalric, a memorable figure from Steven Speilberg’s Munich a few years ago, stars as French fashion editor Jean-Dominque Bauby, who suffers from “locked-in syndrome.” The condition leaves him paralyzed throughout his body, except for the ability to blink. He thinks clearly but has no way of sharing his thoughts, until, with the help of the women assisting in his attempts to overcome his condition, he devises a way to share his thoughts.

Artfully filmed by painter and director Julian Schnabel, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is a bittersweet tale of personal triumph, although Bauby’s inner life includes thoughts and ideas that are far from chaste. (The film is rated “PG-13” for nudity, sexual content and some language).

Enchanted (3 nominations)
Disney’s Enchanted is a fairy tale that brings an animated prince and his princess-to-be into real-world New York, followed by the evil queen who wants to preserve her power by killing off the young girl before she can marry the prince.

Amusing and full of catchy tunes—all three of the film’s Oscar nominations are in the category of Best Song—Enchanted is an especially good film for young girls, who will enjoy the sweet romance between Amy Adams and Patrick Dempsey. (For the year’s best film for older girls, see "Underrated: These Films Deserved Better," below.)

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (3 nominations)
Johnny Depp is nominated for Best Actor in the title role of Stephen Sondheim’s musical about a murderous barber, brought to life by director Tim Burton. As with No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood, Sweeney Todd showcases the dark recesses of the human heart, but unlike those films, Todd includes a form of justice for those who seek the destruction of others.

Soaked in blood, Sweeney Todd is not for the faint of heart. Those who can stomach Todd’s descent into madness will find that the story vindicates Todd’s accusers, but the taste the film leaves is not pleasant. Its songs are memorable, if not memorably sung, and the entire package is so effectively gloomy that Sweeney Todd is difficult to recommend. But it’s also very hard not to respect.

La Vie En Rose (3 nominations)
Marion Cotillard plays Edith Piaf in a strong performance that has drawn critical raves for months, and has her making a serious run for the Best Actress Oscar. The film suffers from being too long and doesn’t flinch from showing Piaf’s unpleasantness, but the woman’s obnoxious, destructive behavior wears thin. Cotillard’s remarkable transformation into Piaf makes the film worthwhile, even though it’s not an easy sit.


The Bourne Ultimatum
 (3 nominations)

This blockbuster is nominated for Best Film Editing, Best Sound Editing, and Best Sound Mixing. The film is so rapidly cut that it’s hard not to believe it deserves some sort of award for holding viewers rapt throughout its running time.

Transformers (3 nominations)
Michael Bay
’s Transformers goes up against The Bourne Ultimatum in the sound editing and sound mixing categories, and earns a third berth for its visual effects. What, no screenplay nomination? 


UNDERRATED: These Films Deserved Better

The sanctimonious Sean Penn, a great actor, went behind the camera to direct Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild for the big screen, with life-affirming results. The film starts out as a generational snub by a young graduate toward his materialistic parents, but evolves into something much more nuanced and ultimately profound.

The actress Sarah Polley made her directorial debut with Away from Her and brought out the year’s best performance from Julie Christie as a woman facing the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. Though Christie is considered the favorite to win Best Actress, the film deserves much wider exposure than it’s received, and could easily have garnered another acting nomination for Christie’s co-star, Gordon Pinsent.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, another great adaptation of a novel, is a rare film that effectively incorporates voiceover narration, setting it against uniquely distorted visuals that blur the truth—and legend—of Jesse James into a larger story of how America builds up and tears down reputations.

Those four films are all nominated for Oscars, if not in as many categories as they might have been. However, 2007 was a very strong year at the movies, and it’s hard to know which of the other nominated films should be struck from the list to make way for personal preferences.

That said, a few films were completely overlooked by the Academy, including Hairspray, an infectious, uplifting tale that allows an actress who doesn’t resemble a fashion model to end up getting the guy. It’s a fun film for adolescent girls who have moved beyond the fairy-tale world of Enchanted and are looking for something slightly more grown up.

Zodiac, overlooked during its theatrical run, has since been heralded far and wide by critics groups, and is destined to assume the deserving status of classic. The movie embeds multiple themes—obsession, male responsibility, media culpability—into a cat-and-mouse thriller that is never less than fascinating.

Finally, Susanne Bier’s Things We Lost in the Fire is a deeply emotional film about a widow who invites her deceased husband’s best friend—a recovering drug addict—to move in with her and her children and help around the house. The emotional landscape of the two individuals trying to rebuild their lives offers lessons in Christian virtues such as charity, hospitality, and most powerfully, forgiveness. It does not settle for easy answers, but demonstrates the religious power that drugs hold over those who are trying to be free of them, keeping them in bondage.  And it shows how lending a hand to those in need of help can sometimes bring unexpected blessings into our lives.

Amid the darkness of this year’s nevertheless crop of Oscar nominees, that’s a message we could have heard a little more loudly, and more often.

PREDICTIONS

My choice for the films that will likely win in several Oscar categories are marked with an asterisk (*), and the films that I think should win are marked with an “x.”

ACTOR—LEADING
(x)George Clooney - Michael Clayton
(*)Daniel Day-Lewis - There Will Be Blood
Johnny Depp - Sweeney Todd:  The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Tommy Lee Jones - In the Valley of Elah
Viggo Mortensen - Eastern Promises

ACTOR—SUPPORTING
Casey Affleck - The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
(*)Javier Bardem - No Country for Old Men
Philip Seymour Hoffman - Charlie Wilson's War
(x)Hal Holbrook - Into the Wild
Tom Wilkinson - Michael Clayton

ACTRESS—LEADING
Cate Blanchett - Elizabeth:  The Golden Age
(x) (*)Julie Christie - Away from Her
Marion Cotillard - La Vie En Rose
Laura Linney - The Savages
Ellen Page - Juno

ACTRESS—SUPPORTING
(x)Cate Blanchett - I'm Not There
Ruby Dee - American Gangster
Saoirse Ronan - Atonement
Amy Ryan - Gone Baby Gone
(*)Tilda Swinton - Michael Clayton

ANIMATED FEATURE
Persepolis
(x) (*)Ratatouille
Surf's Up

CINEMATOGRAPHY
(x)The Assassnation of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Atonement
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

(*)No Country for Old Men
There Will Be Blood

DIRECTING
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
Juno
Michael Clayton
(x) (*)No Country for Old Men
There Will Be Blood

ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
(x) (*)Atonement
Away from Her
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly 
No Country for Old Men

There Will Be Blood

ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
(*)Juno
Lars and the Real Girl
Michael Clayton
Ratatouille
(x)The Savages

BEST PICTURE
(x)Atonement
Juno

Michael Clayton
(*)No Country for Old Men
There Will Be Blood