In the run-up to this year’s Oscars we’ll be running some debates on classic Oscar categories, beginning with 2008’s Best Picture nominees: Atonement, Juno, Michael Clayton, There Will Be Blood and No Country For Old Men. Nick Evan-Cook will be defending that year’s winner, No Country For Old Men, Eddie Falvey will be backing There Will Be Blood, and Tom Bond will be moderating.
Tom: So, at the 2008 Oscars, No Country For Old Men won Best Picture, along with a whole host of other awards. Why was that the right decision?
Nick: I’ll start off by saying that that was a very, very strong year in terms of Best Picture nominations. But out of that list, only No Country and TWBB are masterpieces. No Country is perhaps the stronger all-round film, and absolutely nails everything it tries to do – the characters, performances, dialogue, and its look/mood/tone are completely perfect. As well as being a “worthy”, Oscar-friendly film, it also manages to be utterly riveting throughout.
Eddie: Despite the many qualities of the other contenders, it really was a two horse race that year and although TWBB is, in my mind, the best American film of the 21st century, that should not stand as a slight to No Country, which is also an exquisite piece of cinema. Both are searing examples of fiercely intelligent, utterly uncompromising filmmaking; however TWBB rises above No Country for the completeness of its vision. It’s a perfect modern tragedy in the classical sense of the word.
Tom: So interestingly, you’re both arguing that your preferred films are more ‘complete’. Nick, what did you find lacking in TWBB?
Nick: In terms of ‘completeness’ there’s quite a lot to be said for the accessibility of No Country compared to TWBB – the uncompromising vision of director Paul Thomas Anderson that Eddie described in TWBB may well be what turned enough Academy voters against it to allow No Country to win that year. For the school of thought that says films must be first and foremost entertainment I think No Country does a better job – much like how Mad Max this year has won a lot of people over through sheer force of entertainment.
Eddie: Interesting. Some, including myself, would argue that No Country‘s structure is at least as challenging as TWBB‘s. I certainly think its decision to kill off one of its leads halfway through and end on what is essentially an ellipsis would prove confusing for mainstream audiences.
Many of my issues with No Country are issues I have with the source material itself (which is one of the weaker entries in McCarthy’s oeuvre) – the film/novel is essentially about the unrelenting twin forces of fate and evil and, once you accept this, the characters become little more than allusions for the more abstract ideas at work. Chigurh (Bardem), certainly, is less of a man than he is an embodiment of fate. On the other hand, TWBB is an intricate and complexly structured descent into greed and madness; it is a horror story about the birth of California and the rise of 20th century capitalism. The oil/blood almost seeps from the screen. It is sublime and the best film of its year.
Nick: I take the point that No Country‘s themes and ideas are made a little more on-the-nose through the dialogue in that film compared to TWBB, though that’s not necessarily a bad thing in terms of audience comprehension. I think that those put off by Moss’s (Brolin) death halfway through and the completely open ending have somewhat misunderstood the film’s message of the randomness and cruelty of life and fate.
Tom: What about the performances in these films? Who shone the brightest? At the Oscars, these films shared the honours with Daniel Day-Lewis winning Best Actor and Javier Bardem taking Best Supporting Actor.
Eddie: Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance already ranks among the all-time greats; it is larger-than-life, flamboyant, terrifying, but he also embodies the themes of PTA’s vision while rendering them more human than any character in No Country.
I would also argue that TWBB is as much Paul Dano’s as it is DDL’s; both characters are brilliantly performed, and both of their tragedies reflect one another perfectly. At its heart, TWBB is a comment on the ways in which religion sits at the heart of the nation’s social and economic infrastructure; the two characters wonderfully signify those entanglements within the nation while retaining enough humanity to keep them grounded.
Nick: I’m inclined to agree with you about Dano, having written for this very site about how well he holds his own against a career-best DDL in this film. On a different note, what do you make of the Academy’s decision that year to award both best film and director to No Country and the Coens – do you think it’s a Departed/Scorsese style ‘career’ Oscar? Because whilst I’d argue that No Country is the best picture there’s a lot to be said to split Best Picture and Director and give Director to PTA.
Eddie: That’s a good question that is not easily answered. My immediate response would be that No Country is a great enough film that it was deserving and didn’t feel like a hollow victory (not in the same way that Scorsese’s win with The Departed did). However, it gets trickier when you consider where the Coens were pre-No Country; arguably, they hadn’t produced any real Oscar bait since Fargo (most of their post-Fargo, pre-No Country output were genre pieces and all too weird, funny, crap for the academy). Perhaps No Country looked like a perfect opportunity to reward deserving directors who were, at that point, a little erratic.
Tom: So, we’re all in agreement that both No Country and TWBB are masterpieces, but does your original choice still hold the edge and why?
Nick: I think it does. There’s so little to choose between these two films that, on a surface level at least, are very similar. Both share a setting (I particularly enjoy the story that No Country had to suspend filming for a day as a huge cloud of smoke from TWBB‘s filming down the road had strayed onto their set), and a focus on classically American values, and both are populated almost entirely by amoral selfish characters.
I’d argue that No Country is the deserving winner as it is a film whose whole is more than the sum of its (already incredible) parts. Looked at individually its elements may not seem all that superior compared to such an important film as TWBB, but everything seems to come together in a special and hard-to-define way. Not to mention what I’d regard as career-best work from Roger Deakins behind the camera who, pretty ironically given the nature of this debate, lost that particular Oscar to TWBB‘s Robert Elswit.
Eddie: It’s hard to judge a film’s ‘value’ in its own time, but I stand by what I said at the outset: TWBB is the best American film of the 21st century. It’s a film that really does reward repeat viewings; each time I watch it I see the faint flicker of another aspect that I had scarcely considered, another terrifying reflection on the hard and knotty heart of the American psyche. On the other hand, without blowing my own trumpet, I feel I’ve mastered No Country; as great as it is I feel like I’ve taken all that I need to from it.
I don’t mean to discredit No Country, but it just feels lighter than TWBB. In TWBB you have a master filmmaker operating at his peak. It is a film that scorches; fearless and uncompromising filmmaking of the highest order, not to mention an interesting critique of the legacy of right-wing American politics and economics and their relation to religion in the years of Bush. It is a masterpiece, while I would argue that No Country is just not quite there. Both are exceptional, TWBB is just a little bit better.
What do you think? Who should have won the Oscar for Best Picture that year? Vote below.