Oscar 2007: Top Contenders for Best Picture

It's that time of the year when we begin to think about the Golden statuette, the most coveted award in the film world. Here is a list of front-runners for the 2007 Best Picture Oscar (in alphabetical order).

American Gangster

Ridley Scotts “American Gangster,” one of the most exciting features of the year, combines elements of a uniquely American genre, the crime-gangster, with a fact-based drama about a complex and contradictory figure of the 1970s, drug lord Frank Lucas, played by Denzel Washington in a grand performance that should be remembered at Oscar time. As the obsessive cop, determined to bring Frank down, the movie also offers an interesting role for Russell Crowe.

Positing Washingtons crime mastermind and folk hero Frank against Crowes honest cop Richie Roberts in this blistering tale of a true American entrepreneur enriches the film in a dramatic way, since the characters are not only opposites in many ways, but also stand for different ideals of that elusive term, the American Dream.

American Gangster links itself to the best works of American cinema of the past three decades: Scorsese's Oscar-winning crimer “The Departed,” GoodFellas and Casino, and to David Fincher's “Zodiac,” another sprawling crime saga. While both stars have won Oscars before, Ridley Scott has not, despite three Best Director nominations, one for “Gladiator,” which received Best Picture but no Director in 2000.

Atonement

Joe Wright's follow-up to his acclaimed adaptation of “Pride & Prejudice,” is another meticulous literary rendition, this time around of accomplished novelist Ian McEwan, whose works have not always been successful in their transfer from page to screen. Toplined by Keira Knightley, who won an Oscar nomination in 2005 for “Pride & Prejudice,” and James McAvoy, who impressed last year in the “Last King of Scotland,” “Atonement” is the kind of classy entertainment that's made to order for Oscar considerations.

Post-modern critics and viewers may find “Atonement” to be stiff and stately, a sampler of literary cinema, yet in its combination of epic sweep, tragic vision, impeccable acting, and breathtaking imagery, “Atonement” is a literary rendition that works just as well as a movie. As such, it links itself to other prestigious literary renditions, like Minghella's “The English Patient,” which swept the 2006 Oscars.

In “Atonement,” Wright remains painstakingly faithful to the source material, McEwan's novel published in 2001. As period drama, set in 1935, “Atonement” recalls vintage Hollywood and British melodramas, such as “Wuthering Heights,” which also centered on a doomed romance across class lines, or “Affair to Remember” and “Waterloo Bridge,” well-acted movies about tragic affairs.

“Atonement” details the destructive impact of secrets and lies, false accusations and misunderstandings, as the product of an irresponsible and impressionable teenager. The tale begins in rural Southeast England, where Briony (Irish actress Saoirse Ronan), age 13, is writing an amateurish play to be staged at home. In the first reel, we meet Briony's bored and seemingly snobbish sister Cecilia (Knightley) and realize her attraction to Robbie Turner (McAvoy), the housekeeper's son, who, despite hierarchy, has been treated as “member of the family.”

Three actresses play Briony: Saoirse Ronan as adolescent, Romola Garai as youngster, and Vanessa Redgrave as the older and long-suffering. But ultimately “Atonement” belongs to Knightley. Still in her 20s, Knightley is quickly emerging as a supremely talented lady, navigating between popcorn like “Pirates of the Caribbean,” literary classics like “Pride & Prejudice,” and actioners like “Domino.” If “Atonement” is critically acclaimed and commercially successful, Knightley should get her second Oscar nomination in two years.

Into the Wild

Though better known as an actor, Sean Penn is an original filmmaker who doesn't repeat himselfthematically or stylisticallyand that he is not afraid of choosing challenging texts, like his new film. “Into the Wild” is Penn's adaptation of Jon Krakauer's 1996 popular tome, an account of the adventures of Christopher McCandless, an upscale college graduate whose quest for freedom terminated in death of starvation in Alaska.

Penn has expressed his admiration for the book's rebellious anti-hero, and his careful screen adaptation shows that. Despite some flaws (it's overlong and indulgent), “Into the Wild” feels like a personal film for which Penn must have felt emotional affinity. As played by the gifted Emile Hirsch, the protagonist is the kind of role Penn himself might have essayed 20 years ago.

The tale begins with Christopher graduating from Emory University circa 1990. At 22, like many members of his generation, the nave West Virginian felt eagerness to leave his prosperous background and embark on a peculiar odyssey, without sharing his plans with his old folks or even his sister, Carine (Jena Malone), with whom he was close.

Penn treats this thrilling yet horrific saga as a celebration of youth wanderlust, a ritualistic rite of passage motivated by the need to explore new realities as well as the urge to reject old and familiar ones. Penn doesn't try to explain Christopher, other than delineating some basic traits, such as his intelligence, romantic and intellectual alertness, self-righteousness when it comes to values, and a generational rebellion against his bourgeois parents (played by Oscar-winners Marcia Gay Harden and William Hurt).

Senn has won the Best Actor Oscar for “Mystic River,” but he has never been nominated as a director, nor was Emile Hirsch as an actor.

Michael Clayton

Modeled after the character-driven conspiracy melodramas of the 1970s, “Michael Clayton,” which represents Tony Gilroy's feature directorial debut, but is a George Clooney star vehicle, is a rather intelligent message picture in both the positive and negative senses of this term.

Actor Clooney (who's also a producer) and director-writer Gilroy have expressed admiration for films of the 1970s, with such highlights as Alan Pakula's trilogy of “Klute,” “The Parallax View,” and “All the President's Men,” and Sidney Lumet's urban policiers like “Serpico” and “Dog Day Afternoon” and satires like “Network.”

The new film shows a promising directing career for Gilroy, who up until now has been known as the scribe (or co-scribe) of the mega-successful “Jason Bourne” franchise. More importantly, it flaunts Clooney in one of his strongest, most fully-realized performances that deserves serious Oscar consideration. Aging gracefully, Clooney, 45, is beginning to lose his surface glitz as a movie star and move in the direction of a star-character actor, which is perfect for this picture.

The story unfolds as one long flashback, which begins and ends with Clayton's car exploding in flames in the fields. Clooney plays an in-house fixer at one of New York's largest corporate law firms. At the behest of the firms co-founder Marty Bach (Sydney Pollack), Clayton, a former prosecutor from a cops family, takes care of Kenner, Bach & Ledeens dirty work. He cleans up clients messes, from hit-and-runs and damaging stories in the press to shoplifting wives and crooked politicians. Though beginning to show signs of wear-out and discontent, Clayton is still very much tied to the firm.

One of the richest roles Clooney has tackled, Clayton is not the type of hero who does the right thing. The qualities that have served Clayton well in the past–his charisma, ease with clients, natural commanding authorityprove less useful as the story progresses. It's easy to see what attracted Clooney (who some critics compare to Cary Grant) to the part. He possesses spark, intelligence, and charm that make people believe hell make all their problems go away. “Michael Clayton” is an intelligent and enjoyable film, a worthy reminder as a cautionary tale of the problems that continue to plague the lives of decent, honest Americans in and outside the workplace.

No Country for Old Men

Brilliant from first frame to last, Joel and Ethan Coen's “No Country for Old Men,” a mesmerizing adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's acclaimed novel, is their best film to date. After a decade of making disappointing features, including the goofy and trivial “O' Brother Where Art Thou” the Tom Hanks starrer “The Ladykillers,” and the divorce comedy “Intolerable Cruelty,” the Coens have gone back to their roots and what they do best, “small,” regional films, such as “Blood Simple” and “Fargo” (1996), their last great work, which was Oscar-nominated.

There's a perfect match between McCarthy's uniquely American literary sensibility and the Coens' uniquely American cinematic sensibility, resulting in a mature and poignant work, a contemporary Western that's effective as a suspenseful thriller and meditation about the roots and nature of violence in American life.

It's the Coens' least movieish work, self-reflexive without being self-conscious, a film that's based on literary material rather than old Hollywood movies. “No Country for Old Men” seems deceptively simple but is actually ambitious in its intellectual and metaphysical concerns, yet without being pretentious or overreaching. The plot is set in 1980, when rustlers have given way to drug-runners, and small towns have become free-fire zones. Anchored by three terrific performances, from Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin, and Javier Bardem, “No Country for Old Men” displays meticulous attention to detail, from the precise mise-en-scene to the calibrated tone to the visual look and ominous sound.

“No Country for Old Men” features a multi-layered saga, a humor-spiked thriller that revolves around an honest American man who happens upon $2 million in cash. The movie offers a provocative meditation on good and evil in the American West, a place that has grown into a violent, lawless land. The Coens emphasize the darkly humorous and humanly revealing interplay between Llewelyn Moss and the antithetical men tracking him: the chilling psychopath Chigurh on the one extreme, and the towns profoundly decent Sheriff Bell on the other.

Sweeney Todd

Dark, haunting, and unified in theme and style, “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” Tim Burton's horror-musical movie of Stephen Sondheim's masterpiece, is a brilliant work of art. It may bring Oscar nominations to Burton, who has never been nominated before, and star Johnny Depp, who has been nominated twice but has not won yet.

“Sweeney Todd” is the most satisfying film of any Sondheim work, including the joyous but mediocre “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” and the disappointing “A Little Night Music,” movies that failed to convey the magic of their respective theatrical productions.

Though nominally it's Burton's first foray into the musical genre, “Sweeney Todd” is arguably the auteur's best film since the stylized black-and-white, loving biopic-tribute, “Ed Wood,” in 1994, starring Depp as the notoriously inept director. Marking Depp's sixth collaboration with director Tim Burton, following “Edward Scissorhands,” “Ed Wood,” “Sleepy Hollow,” “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” and “Corpse Bride,” “Sweeney Todd” is arguably their most fulfilling teaming, one that enables both to stretch and show new facets of their already impressive artistic palette.

Not surprisingly, composer Sondheim, who had a say over the hiring of the director and the casting, has given his blessing to this endeavor, stepping aside, while endowing writer John Logan (“Gladiator”) and Burton artistic liberty to turn his creation into a full-fledged movie. Amazingly, “Sweeney Todd” bears the unique signature of Burton as a filmmaker, while also maintaining the integrity of the work as a quintessential Sondheim work. Indeed, thematically, there's congruency between the musical's subject, characters, and mood and Burton's idiosyncratic sensibility, which has always been at its strongest and most dazzling when dealing with “taboo” issues and misfit persona, the best of which were epitomized by Depp, the most eccentric actor of his generation.

Depp stars as a man unjustly sent to prison, vowing revenge not only for that cruel punishment, but also for the devastating consequences of what had happened to his wife and daughter. Helena Bonham Carter plays Mrs. Lovett, Sweeney's amorous accomplice. Neither Depp nor Carter is a professional singer, but it's not a problem: Sondheim and Burton have said that they favored “actors who could deliver a song,” over “singers who could act.”

There Will Be Blood

Centering on one man's greedy entrepreneurship, played with aplomb, panache, and immense intensity by the brilliant Daniel Day-Lewis, “There Will Be Blood,” a uniquely American sprawling epic of oil and power, family, faith and religion at the turn of the century, is Paul Thomas Anderson's fifth and most ambitious film to date.

It's almost tempting to say that it was worth waiting for five years for the gifted Anderson to make another feature, for new work not only signals a new direction but also shows signs of reenergized invigoration after Anderson's last feature, the minor conceptual comedy “Punch-Drunk Love,” which in hindsight feels like a footnote in his growing body of work. Accomplished on every level, this is Anderson's most resonant work since “Boogie Nights,” his undisputed masterpiece of ten years ago.

Richly dense with references to American literary and cinematic history, “There Will Be Blood” is loosely based on Upton Sinclair's 1927 epic novel “Oil!” but it also recalls the work of the other Sinclair, Sinclair Lewis, specifically “Elmer Gantry” (a critique of revivalist evangelist religion), which also was published in 1927, the time frame in which the last segment of Anderson's story takes place.

In terms of intertextuality (to use a film studies concept), “There Will Be Blood” will be compared to the Coen brothers masterpiece, the modernist Western “No Country for Old Men,” and to George Stevens' “Giant,” and not just because all three are epic tales shot in the same geographical region, in Marfa, Texas. Like the Coens, who also did first adaptation of a prestigious literary source, Anderson digs deep into the sources of one of American society's recurrent problems, capitalism and free enterprise at their nastiest and greediest form, and like Stevens' “Giant,” the new film is a sprawling saga spanning generations (from 1898 to 1927 to be exact) and dealing with the oil industry as a major force that forever changed the institutional fabric of America's economy and politics.

However, as a study of a uniquely American character, a monstrous, merciless, egomaniac man, seeking riches, power and fame at all expense, “There Will Be Blood” is Anderson's take on Orson Welles' “Citizen Kane,” and more particularly John Huston's “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” a chronicle of greed, malice, and violence centering on gold rather than oil (black gold).

John Huston and his father, actor Walter Huston (who won an Oscar for “Sierra Madre”), are also relevant in dissecting the acting, voice, accent, and tone of Daniel Day- Lewis's interpretation of his challenging role, his most demanding and most fully realized since “My Left Foot,” in 1989, for which he won the Best Actor Oscar. At this point, Day-Lewis is a frontrunner for this year's male lead Oscar in a role that literally carries and defines the entire yarn, calling for him to be in almost every scene of a saga boasting a running time of 159-minutes!