THE BEST PICTURE PROJECT – ‘No Country for Old Men’ (2007)

In 2008, the 80th Academy Awards ceremony was held at the Kodak Theatre in Los Angeles. Honouring the films released between January 1, 2007, and December 31, 2007, the awards were held on February 24. For the second time, the ceremony was hosted by Jon Stewart.

In the lead-up to the ceremony, Hollywood was in the grips of the Writers Guild of America strike, which had halted production of films and television programs all across the country. As the strike also threatened to cancel the Oscars, the Academy applied for a waiver with the WGA to produce the show as usual, but this was denied. With no end to the strike in sight, the Academy began crafting a backup plan for a decidedly light ceremony, which would have featured historical clips and a simple announcement of each winner. Just 12 days before the ceremony, the strike would end, and the show would proceed as usual.

For only the second time in Oscars history, all four acting winners were born outside America. With his win for Best Actor for There Will Be Blood, Daniel Day-Lewis became only the eighth actor to win this category twice. With her win for Best Actress for La Vie En Rose, Marion Cotillard became only the fifth person to win for a non-English speaking role, and only the second actress to do so in the Best Actress category.

With nominations for both Best Actress for Elizabeth: The Golden Age and Best Supporting Actress for I’m Not There, Cate Blanchett became the eleventh performer to receive two acting nominations in the same year. Blanchett also became the first actress and fifth performer overall to be nominated for portraying the same character in two different films. With his nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in Into the Wild, at 82 years-old, Hal Holbrook became the oldest male acting nominee in history, at this point in time.

Leading the way this year with eight nominations each were Joel and Ethan Coen’s gritty modern western No Country for Old Men and Paul Thomas Anderson’s dark drama There Will Be Blood. The night ultimately belonged to the Coen brothers, with No Country for Old Men taking home four Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director for the Coens, Best Supporting Actor for Javier Bardem, and Best Adapted Screenplay. With their Best Director victory, Joel and Ethan Coen became only the second pair of directors to share this award. With his win for Best Supporting Actor, Bardem became the first Spanish-born actor to win an Academy Award.

The nominees:
Atonement
Juno
Michael Clayton
No Country for Old Men
There Will Be Blood

The winner:
No Country for Old Men

Based on Cormac McCarthy’s 2005 novel of the same name, No Country for Old Men is the dark and bleak cat-and-mouse thriller which will leave you stunned by its conclusion. While out hunting, Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) finds the grisly aftermath of a drug deal. Though he knows better, he cannot resist the cash left behind and takes it with him. The hunter becomes the hunted when a merciless killer named Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) picks up his trail. Also looking for Moss is Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), an aging lawman who reflects on a changing world and a dark secret of his own, as he tries to find and protect Moss.

Why did it win?
One of the bleakest, darkest years of Best Picture nominees in recent memory. Unsurprisingly, this year also marked the ceremony with the lowest television ratings since the telecast began. That’s not to say we didn’t end up with a brilliant film taking home Best Picture. It’s just this year’s choice was such a hefty punch to the stomach, it was hard to get people jazzed about seeing it clean up at the Oscars. Regardless, the pair responsible for this year’s winner were fairly overdue for such success at the Academy Awards. After crafting such terrific films like Fargo, Blood Simple, Barton Fink, The Big LebowskiO Brother, Where Art Thou?, and even the criminally-underrated Intolerable Cruelty, Joel and Ethan Coen were quickly becoming one of the greatest filmmakers of our time. But their best had yet to come, and the brutal No Country for Old Men was here to blow us all away.

Standing as their greatest triumph and ultimate masterpiece, No Country for Old Men is a grim, dark, and harrowing experience, which will likely leave you truly stunned. With a narrative full of twists and turns, and tension that barely ever lets up, the film is a wild ride with an ambiguous and hollow ending only the Coens could deliver. You could call it a western, but it takes many traditional western tropes and flips them right on their head. It’s a daring and brave piece of cinema from a pair of filmmakers who never shy away from crafting challenging films. And this film will challenge you, and therein lies its power.

After their other masterpiece, Fargo failed to take down the might of The English Patient (ugh), many assumed the Coens would someday get their dues for such a confounding defeat. It took over a decade, but the Academy were finally given the chance to right that wrong. It didn’t hurt they had delivered a film with even more artistic merit and emotional impact than anything they’d offered before. But the narrative of voters being given the opportunity to reward two of the industry’s most respected and admired figures certainly helped the campaign of No Country for Old Men. It wasn’t quite a Scorsese-level of overdue, but the Coens had been around long enough to make it seem unfathomable they still weren’t Best Director winners or had a Best Picture winner to their names. It also didn’t hurt their latest film was the most beloved, by both audiences and critics.

On a small budget of $25 million, No Country for Old Men would earn $74 million at the U.S. box-office and a further $97 million internationally, bringing its worldwide total to $171 million. This made is their most commercially successful film of all time. While these numbers don’t quite match the huge box-office success stories of past winners, for a film with such a bleak and gloomy narrative, it was a triumph to see it break $150 million worldwide. However, this made No Country for Old Men the second-lowest-grossing film to win Best Picture, beaten only by Crash, two years prior.

While the box-office success may not have been wildly impressive, the critical reaction was nothing short of widespread acclaim, with many calling it the greatest film the Coens had delivered, thus far. Variety hailed the film as “a scorching blast of tense genre filmmaking shot through with rich veins of melancholy, down-home philosophy and dark, dark humor,” the Los Angeles Times called it an “intense, nihilistic thriller, as well as a model of implacable storytelling,” while the New York Times simply decreed it to be “pure heaven.”

For the first time in several years, we had a film almost completely sweep the precursor season, and become the unstoppable frontrunner from the very beginning. In its quest for Best Picture, No Country for Old Men was awarded Best Picture by the critics groups of New York, Washington D.C., Chicago, Boston, Austin, San Diego, and Toronto, as well as the National Board of Review and the Broadcast Film Critics Association. It wasn’t a total clean-up, with Los Angeles and the National Society of Film Critics going with There Will Be Blood. Plus two other bumps along the way, with BAFTA and the Golden Globes choosing Atonement as their winner. However, these became the only four anomalies of the season. From here, No Country for Old Men took all the major guild awards, winning the PGA, DGA, WGA, and the SAG Ensemble prizes, making it the unbeatable favourite come Oscar night. With critical raves, impressive box-office figures, and the overdue status of its directors, No Country for Old Men had all the right elements to take home Best Picture.

Did it deserve to win?
First things first – 2007 was not exactly a great year for film. Just the fact a dull and forgettable piece of cinema like Michael Clayton made it into the Best Picture nominees proves that. I have seen that film twice, and I still can’t even remember what it was about or why on earth Tilda Swinton won an Oscar for it. Thank god for the Coens, Paul Thomas Anderson, and Diablo Cody. Lord knows what the Oscar race might have looked like without these three brilliant writers. You could easily have picked There Will Be Blood or even Juno, and we would have enjoyed a highly-deserving Best Picture winner. But nothing could match the brut impact and artistic brilliance that was No Country for Old Men. It still stands as one of the greatest films of recent times.

With its expert pacing, thrilling narrative, and a menacing and iconic villain for the ages, No Country for Old Men is a film which leaves an indelible mark on its viewer. Sure, it’s not exactly an uplifting or particularly entertaining film. Emotionally-draining is probably more accurate. But you cannot resist the kind of dark, twisted, and sometimes humourous tale only the Coens can craft. They know this style like the back of their hand, and their work has never been finer than what they deliver here. Taking great inspiration from the best of the western genre, the Coens twist, fracture and defy convention, leaving us with a film which feels familar, yet is somehow unlike anything we’ve ever seen before. It really is an awe-inspiring work of art.

That art is elevated by its impeccable ensemble cast. Javier Bardem got all the attention, but Josh Brolin is equally terrific, and should have received more notice for his impressive work. As the beleaguered and downtrodden Moss, Brolin instills such a sense of desperation in his character, making our hero someone we desperately want to see succeed, but deep down, we get the feeling he won’t. As the gruff and hardened Sheriff, Tommy Lee Jones is typically wonderful, delivering the kind of dry wit and bold self-assurance only someone like Jones can deliver. But, as is often the case, the stand-out is the villain, and with Chigurh, Bardem delivers the greatest cinematic bad guy since Hannibal Lecter. In a visual sense, his pale skin and bizarre hairdo are instantly iconic. But its his flat expression and total lack of empathy which make Chigurh both utterly captivating and downright terrifying. There’s evil, and then there’s someone like Chigurh, who is the devil personified. A masterful performance by Bardem, and one of the best supporting turns of all time.

But it doesn’t end with just the acting and direction. No Country for Old Men is brilliantly written, with a golden screenplay by the Coens, gorgeously filmed by the master that is Roger Deakins (this should have been his Oscar win), expertly edited by Roderick Jaynes, and beautifully scored by Carter Burwell (who shamefully wasn’t nominated). Every aspect of this film is masterful. It’s as close to perfection as film ever gets. Many may be put off by the bleak, ambiguous, and devastating ending, but it fits the tone of the picture so perfectly, and stands as one of its greatest triumphs. It may have been a light year, but thanks to the geniuses that are Joel and Ethan Coen, we were gifted with one of the greatest films there has ever been, and one of the most deserving Best Picture winners of all time.

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