by Roger Ebert
There may or may not be a spectacular Oscarcast on Feb. 24, but now we know who will or won't win the Oscars. The 2008 nominees, announced Tuesday at the crack of dawn, represent one of the strongest fields in recent years, reflecting the surge of superb films starting in September.
Leading the pack, with eight nominations apiece, were the heavy-duty dramas "No Country for Old Men" and "There Will Be Blood." With seven: "Michael Clayton" and "Atonement." With four nominations, "Juno" and "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” became the little movies that could. "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" and "La Vie en Rose" (2007) had three, "American Gangster," "Into the Wild" and "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" had two, and Cate Blanchett got two all by herself, for best actress ("Elizabeth: The Golden Age") and best supporting actress ("I'm Not There"), achieving the remarkable stretch of playing the Queen of England and Bob Dylan in the same year.
Even as the nominees were announced by Academy president Sid Ganis and Oscar-winner Kathy Bates, doubts remained about whether the Academy will be able to stage a full-fledged ceremony because of the writers' strike. Actors and directors, among others, would not cross a picket line. The awards will certainly be announced Feb. 24 in the Kodak Pavilion on Hollywood Boulevard, but who will announce them? The Golden Globes made do with an awkward gaggle of infotainment reporters.
The best picture nominees contained no surprises: "Atonement," "Juno," "Michael Clayton," "No Country for Old Men" and "There Will be Blood."
Ellen Page ("Juno") and Julie Christie ("Away from Her") won best-actress nods, as expected. Cate Blanchett's "Elizabeth" nomination came for a film generally not well-regarded. Marion Cotillard ("La Vie en Rose") and Laura Linney ("The Savages") certainly deserved best actress nominations, but not everyone predicted them.
In the best actor category, no surprise that George Clooney, Daniel Day-Lewis and Johnny Depp were nominated. But the academy did itself proud by reaching out to Tommy Lee Jones ("In the Valley of Elah") and Viggo Mortensen ("Eastern Promises") for their powerful work.
Hal Holbrook was himself surprised at his (deserved) supporting actor nomination for "Into the Wild." Casey Affleck was honored for his personal breakthrough in "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford." Javier Bardem, the probable winner, was nominated for his very strange killer in "No Country for Old Men," Philip Seymour Hoffman for "Charlie Wilson's War," and Tom Wilkinson for "Michael Clayton."
Jason Reitman, 30, won a best director nod for his second film, "Juno," which became a huge audience favorite. The artist Julian Schnabel was nominated for "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," writer-director Tony Gilroy for "Michael Clayton," writer-directors Joel and Ethan Coen for "No Country for Old Men" and Paul Thomas Anderson for "There Will be Blood."
The Coens and Anderson were also nominated for adapted screenplay, along with Christopher Hampton for "Atonement," first-time director Sarah Polley for "Away from Her,” and Ronald Harwood for "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly."
I took great pleasure in the supporting actress nomination of the veteran Ruby Dee for "American Gangster," coming three years after the death of Ossie Davis, her husband of more than 50 years. The Academy was discerning in nominating Saoirse Ronan for "Atonement," Amy Ryan for "Gone Baby Gone" and Tilda Swinton" in "Michael Clayton."
The year's best background story came with Diablo Cody, nominated for her original screenplay for "Juno." As everybody now knows, she was notoriously a stripper before penning this first screenplay, which took Hollywood by storm. But let's put her in perspective: There is no indication she was ever a prostitute, she wrote a book about her year as a stripper, and stripping is, after all, a branch of show business. Other nominees for original screenplay: Nancy Oliver for the overlooked gem "Lars and the Real Girl," in which she brought poignancy to the story of a (non-sexual) relationship with a love doll; Tony Gilroy for "Michael Clayton," Brad Bird for "Ratatouille" (it isn't every day an animated film is nominated for its screenplay), and Tamara Jenkins for "The Savages."
One nice surprise came with the well-earned nomination of "Persepolis" among the best animated films, after the French entry was denied a nomination as best foreign-language film. The animated penguin comedy "Surf's Up" edged out such as "Bee Movie" and "Beowulf" for the third spot in animation, which included the sure nominee and probable winner "Ratatouille."
An odd note in the foreign language film category. The Israeli film "Beaufort" was nominated after the Academy rejected Israel's much-loved "The Band's Visit" for containing too much English (the only common language of the Israeli and Egyptian characters). Also notably lacking was the brilliant Romanian "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days," the overwhelming critics' choice, which didn't even make the short list chosen by the Academy's platoon of retired volunteer screeners.
The best documentary nominees included three films critical of our conflict in Iraq: "No End in Sight;" "Operation Homecoming," about soldier's letters home; and "Taxi to the Dark Side." Also nominated: "Sicko," Michael Moore's lambasting of the U.S. health-care crisis, and "War/Dance," about kids competing in a dance contest in the chaos of Uganda.
How do I feel about the nominations, overall? Sure there are some names I would have liked to have seen: Sean Penn as director, J.K Simmons, Allison Janney or Jennifer Garner ("Juno") in the supporting categories. But here's a rather amazing onservation: Of all the major nominations, there is not a single film I was not enthusiastic about, except for "Elizabeth: The Golden Age." I don't think there's ever been a previous year when I could make that statement. The Los Angels Times says "Juno's" strong showing was "perhaps the biggest surprise." Not for me. From the day I saw "Juno" at its world premiere, I knew, just knew, that it was headed for the best picture, actress, screenplay and director categories.
My Outguess Ebert contest, in which I fearlessly predict the winners, will appear Feb. 10. Valuable prizes!