Welcome back to Ten Decades of Oscars! Today it’s the 2000s, one of my favourite decades. CRASH (2005) is the only black eye in an otherwise distinguished lineup of winners. Even when my personal pick of a given year didn’t win, I was happy with the outcome. Films like THE DEPARTED (2006) and GLADIATOR (2000)? **chef’s kiss** I’ve already written several personal essays on THE LORD OF THE RINGS—the seminal, defining film experience for my generation—and so RETURN OF THE KING’s (2003) sweep still warms the blackest parts of my heart when I think about it. Even though I preferred THE AVIATOR (2004), I’ve always had a soft spot for MILLION DOLLAR BABY (2004). Ditto for the much maligned A BEAUTIFUL MIND (2001), which has always been viewed as the film that conservative voters went with instead of the outlandish MOULIN ROUGE! (2001). It’s good! Russell Crowe used to do movies and he was good in them! Come on, people! And even though it hasn’t aged as gracefully as its counterparts, it’s difficult to overstate the crowdpleasing phenomenon that was SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE (2008). I felt the infection back then—I think I played Jai Ho until my speakers blew.
This was also an era of major cultural shifts. The Academy went from “nominations are enough” where BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN (2005) is concerned to awarding films like MILK (2008) several awards. There was a massive push for THE DARK KNIGHT (2008) to be included in its year’s Best Picture lineup, and while that big campaign probably helped finalize Heath Ledger posthumous (and very deserving) Oscar, it also helped push the Academy into opening the nominees back up to ten films.
Oh, and then there’s 2007. Gather ‘round, children, and let me tell you the tale of 2007: a cinematic diamond in the rough. A year as bonkers as 1999 and unlike anything since. Now we have the MCU and, uh, other Disney properties, but 2007 was before math formulas dominated the big studios and they still backed risky projects. 2007 saw an explosion of indie and studio releases: THERE WILL BE BLOOD, JUNO, SWEENEY TODD, RATATOUILLE, SUPERBAD, GONE BABY GONE, ZODIAC, ATONEMENT, KNOCKED UP just to name a few. THE SIMPSONS got their own movie (we don’t talk about that). Spider-Man donned the black symbiote suit (we don’t talk about that). We saw a HARRY POTTER flick, a PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN flick, an OCEAN’S flick! DIE HARD got rebooted (we don’t talk about that). TRANSFORMERS started. Hidden gems like EASTERN PROMISES, GRINDHOUSE, 3:10 TO YUMA, INTO THE WILD, MICHAEL CLAYTON, WALK HARD, CHARLIE WILSON’S WAR, and SHOOT ‘EM UP. And, the most deserving film of the bunch to win Best Picture, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN.
I’ve shown NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN to several people now. I think they’ve all hated it. At the very least, they were polite enough to go, “Huh, I dunno about that one.” It seems like an even bigger underdog now than when it first raced the Coen brothers to their first major sweep. From the outset, with pictures of sunburnt terrain and Tommy Lee Jones narrating, the film walks in an ethereal fashion. It is not interested in moralizing, but it is interested in testing your morals. It’s a clever, gorgeous, deeply engrossing tale of paradigms that has done nothing but impress me on every single watch—and there have been many. It should be essential for film schools—the way it treats the audience intelligently and provides information almost always through visuals. There are scenes like when Anton Chigurh (played by Javier Bardem like a chef savouring the best steak he’ll ever eat) removes his shoes to walk barefoot outside the motel so nobody can hear him approach. We’re never told why he’s doing what he’s doing, but that’s part of what makes him so effectively sinister: he’s inscrutable yet dangerously competent.
But even on a less critical level, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN is a tautly weaved thriller composed by two filmmakers at the top of their game. The tension and pacing is palpable with every viewing. The ambiguity of some scenes is offset by the fraught stress of the more straightforward ones. It’s a film that wants to test you, maybe even test itself, and offer both thrills and thoughts. That’s a pretty banal simplification, I grant you, but I can’t beg you enough to watch this film. Watch it twice. I’m quite sparing with my lovesick vocabulary, but NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN is a masterpiece—straight up, a masterpiece.
Next week is the Oscars and our final Best Picture winner for this feature. If you’ve been following along despite the erratic scheduling (I bought a damn house in the middle of this, damn it!!), then I love you. Join me on Sunday.
NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN is available on Blu-Ray, streaming on Netflix and Crave, and for digital purchase on Apple TV, Google Play, and Microsoft.