And the Oscar nominees are ... a bit on the dark side

The films leading the race tended to be long on grandeur and bleak in outlook. Is it a reflection of America's mood?

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Nominee: Actor Javier Bardem is shown in a scene from 'No Country for Old Men,' which has been nominated for best picture.
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    Nominee: Actor Johnny Depp is nominated for his role in 'Sweeney Todd' and has already won a Golden Globe.
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    Nominee: Actor Daniel Day Lewis is shown in Paul Thomas Anderson's 'There Will Be Blood," which was nominated for an Academy award for best picture.
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    Nominee: Actress Ellen Page and Actor Michael Cera are shown in a scene from the film 'Juno,' which was nominated in the best picture category of the Academy Awards.
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The films garnering the most Academy Awards nominations Tuesday covered a wide range of topics, from the early US oil industry and corporate greed to love and loss during World War II. But many had this in common: They were marked by merciless, unsentimental endings.

With the exception of "Juno," the indie comedy about a wisecracking pregnant teenager, the films leading the Oscars race tended to be long on grandeur and bleak in outlook. The Coen Brothers' "No Country for Old Men," which tied for most nominations at eight, was dominated by drug-fueled violence and ended with a weary speech by Tommy Lee Jones lamenting the onset of unstoppable evil in the world.

"There Will Be Blood," a screen adaptation of Upton Sinclair's novel "Oil!" also earned eight Oscar nods and was capped by a bitter I-hate-everyone speech by Daniel Day-Lewis's ruthless oil baron.

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The prevalence of unhappy endings on the silver screen could have its beginnings in the real world: It may reflect the country's overall dissatisfaction with a downturn in the economy and continued turmoil in the Middle East, says Christopher Sharrett, a professor of communication and film studies at Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J.

"It's not incidental that these increasingly downbeat films come out at a time of increasing pessimism on the part of the American population," he says. "They're interesting films anyway, but their critical reception … and ultimately commercial reception, is really dependent on the public mood."

He points to "There Will Be Blood," a harsh look at the California oil boom of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. "You have a commentary on the nature of the country itself on oil, which is a topic of much public discourse right now. It's a film that is based on a US novel that is a critique of America, and so is the film. I think there is a connection, if rather tenuous, between the type of fare that came out this season and the current public outlook."

"Sweeney Todd," Tim Burton's dark musical tale of murder and meat pies, offers a macabre ending with no prospect of hope. "Eastern Promises," about the Russian mafia in London, "La Vie en Rose," a melancholy biopic of French singer Edith Piaf, and "Away from Her," about the onset of Alzheimer's disease, all deal with tragedy and loss.

Some critics reveled in the lack of mirth. Roger Ebert, for example, gave up rationing four stars in his ratings system and called 2007 "one of the best years in recent movie history."

But the general public didn't exactly embrace the films. Unlike last year's Oscar nominees, such as "Dreamgirls," "The Devil Wears Prada," and "The Departed," all of which performed well at the box office, none of this year's Oscar favorites broke the top 50 list of 2007 box-office earners. That distinction belonged to films like "Spiderman 3," "Shrek the Third," and "Pirates of the Caribbean 3."

That's no coincidence, notes Brandon Gray, publisher of Box Office Mojo, a tracking service in Los Angeles. Critics and Academy Award members, he says, "tend to go for the darker, ambiguous pictures, the pessimistic ones.... For the most part, people don't want these qualities in movies when making decisions at the box office." Mr. Gray points to "Ratatouille," the animated comedy about a rat who aspires to be a chef, as one of the few movies of 2007 that was both a box-office and critical success.

Audiences who long for more happily-ever-after stories shouldn't give up just yet, notes Jim Farrelly, director of film studies at the University of Dayton in Ohio. "The dark side portrayed in movies such as 'There Will be Blood' [and] 'No Country for Old Men' is a mere passing fancy," he says.

If, by chance, the lighthearted 'Juno' makes a surprising sweep of statuettes on Oscar night, a "plethora of happy movies" will grace theaters in 2009, Dr. Farrelly predicts.

Forget the presidential race. Here's the Oscars slate.

The Oscars, the film industry's most coveted awards, are to be presented Feb. 24 at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood. Jon Stewart is scheduled to host, but the Hollywood writers' strike has cast uncertainty on the show's format. Awards will be presented in up to 25 categories, including the following:

Best picture

"Atonement"

"Juno"

"Michael Clayton"

"No Country for Old Men"

"There Will Be Blood"

Best actress

Cate Blanchett, "Elizabeth: The Golden Age"

Julie Christie, "Away From Her"

Marion Cotillard, "La Vie En Rose"

Laura Linney, "The Savages"

Ellen Page, "Juno"

Best actor

George Clooney, "Michael Clayton"

Daniel Day-Lewis, "There Will Be Blood"

Johnny Depp, "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street"

Tommy Lee Jones, "In the Valley of Elah"

Viggo Mortensen, "Eastern Promises"

Best supporting actress

Cate Blanchett, "I'm Not There"

Ruby Dee, "American Gangster"

Saoirse Ronan, "Atonement"

Amy Ryan, "Gone Baby Gone"

Tilda Swinton, "Michael Clayton"

Best supporting actor

Casey Affleck, "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford"

Javier Bardem, "No Country for Old Men"

Philip Seymour Hoffman, "Charlie Wilson's War"

Hal Holbrook, "Into the Wild"

Tom Wilkinson, "Michael Clayton"

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