Oscar 2007: Best Director for Joel and Ethan Coen

Joel and Ethan Coen's “No Country for Old Men” is not only their best picture to date, but also an instant classic and, as of November, one of the year's very best films.

The Coens have been around for over twenty years, but their latest work is their most mature and resonant work, surpassing in various achievements other films they have made, the splashy 1985 debut “Blood Simple” (my favorite Coen brother up to “No Country”), “Barton Fink” (1991), everyone's favorite “Fargo.”

However, despite many accomplishments, only one of the Coen brothers films, “Fargo” in 1996, was nominated for Best Picture and Best Director winning the Original Screenplay Oscar and the Best Actress for Frances McDormand. I have been a champion of “No Country for Old Men” ever since I saw it at Cannes Festival, in May, and would like to propose that a Best director nomination for a film in which both Joel and Ethan get credit as helmers, would be most appropriate this year.

At once a modern legend and a literary maverick, Cormac McCarthy was already renowned for his extraordinary take on the changing American West when “No Country” was published in 2003. McCarthys complex characters and symbolic themes were written so large that it took filmmakers of the Coens caliber, with their distinctive, singular vision to transform the powerful book into a powerful movie with striking images and crisp dialogue.

Its hard to imagine a better match for the dusky wit and stark humanity of McCarthys characters than Joel and Ethan Coen. With this film, the Coens match McCarthys voice–complex, nuanced, layered and often humorous with their unique vision, resulting in a compelling, action-packed thriller with strong philosophical overtones that take their oeuvre to a new, higher level.

The Coens first became aware of McCarthys novel through producer Scott Rudin. Upon reading it, they thought they could do “something with it. On one level, “No Country” is as close to an actioner movie the Coens have ever made. What with its central chase story: Chigurh (Javier Bardem) chasing Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) and the Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) bringing up the tail. But, like most of the Coens films, it's also an actioner that subverts generic expectations.

The Coens have succeeded in turning the story into a taut filmic structure, emphasizing the darkly humorous and humanly revealing interplay between Moss, who discovers millions of a dollars in the wreckage of drug deal gone wrong, and the two antithetical men who tracking him: the chilling psychopath Chigurh, on the one extreme, and the towns decent Sheriff Bell, on the other.

The Coens' brilliant rendition turns the book into a film that's both plot-oriented and character-driven, an unusual feat in American cinema. All the characters, which are uniquely American in psychology and values, are full developed individuals, with past, present, and future, or rather aspiration for the future, since in the end, several of the crucial ones are dead.

“No Country” also works effectively as a Western, a modern Western, a genre that's all but extinct in today's Hollywood. Sheriff Bell, the story's main lynchpin, is like a prophet offering in a stoic, philosophical mode observations on how the Westand American societyhave changed and deteriorated. Astonished by the new, at once immoral and amoral reality, Sheriff Bell represents an acute yearning for the more honorable way things used to be but will never be the same. Through the Sheriff, we get meditations on changing mores and values.

If a good deal of the director's job is doing the right casting, then the Coens should get credits for what's easily one of the best ensembles of the year. As such, the film should be nominated by SAG in its “Best Ensemble Cast category, which, regrettably doesn't exist in the Academy's lexicon.

As Sheriff Bell, the saga's soul, the perfectly cast Tommy Lee Jones, who is a native Texan, delivers one of his most accomplished and quietest performancesjust look at his melancholy expression and soulful eyes. It's hard to imagine anyone else doing the part so well. Jones may be nominated for two Oscars this year: Supporting in “No Country” and Best Actor in “In the Valley of Elah.”

Equally good is Josh Brolin as the “All-American Boy,” Llewelyn Moss, a Vietnam vet, decent-hearted Texan who would likely never have crossed the lawuntil the temptation arrives in the form of unexpected drug money, which belongs to a group of dead men. Moss stands in for an ordinary man who's caught up in extraordinary circumstances and makes a quick but fatal decision to appropriate money that isn't his, thus setting a chain of events that spirals out of control and affects all the other characters. If Sheriff Bell is the film's soul, Moss is its nominal (anti) hero, the movie's action center.

Javier Bardem, who's never been that scary, provides the third side of films moral triangle is Anton Chigurh, the chilling, offbeat hit man who leaves no witnesses behind. Having demonstrated intensity and wide range before, Bardem gives a chilling performance as a darker than dark relentless man, who doesn't hesitate to use extreme measure to achieve his goal, retrieve the money he believes belongs to him.