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LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - Rarely has a slate of best picture Oscar contenders centered on characters so much at odds with society.
That is true of the driven oilman played by Daniel Day-Lewis in Paul Thomas Anderson's "There Will Be Blood," who seems to veer further and further from society's mores as he climbs higher up its ladder. And it is true of George Clooney's conflicted law firm "fixer," who finds himself increasingly alienated from the corporate world he is supposed to fix in Tony Gilroy's "Michael Clayton."
It is also true of the teenage girl played by Saoirse Ronan in Joe Wright's "Atonement," an outsider to the adult world she doesn't understand, whose lies push the adults themselves out of their cocoon. And it is equally true of a more contemporary teenager, the eponymous lead in Jason Reitman's "Juno," played by Ellen Page, who discovers that the perfect insiders, the prospective parents for her baby, are hardly more comfortable in their world than she is.
The outsider stamp is branded on not one but all three leads in Joel and Ethan Coen's "No Country for Old Men." The down-and-out welder (Josh Brolin) whose discovery of a briefcase full of drug money sets him on a journey of violence and terror; the veteran cop (Tommy Lee Jones) whose moral ruminations have little place in this amoral universe; and the implacable assassin (Javier Bardem) whose indefinable accent and indescribable haircut make him even more of an outsider than the blue-collar guy he's pursuing.
"All these movies seem to have this individual who is an outsider," notes Russell Smith, one of the producers of "Juno," which will compete for four awards at the Oscars on Sunday.
"They are real studies about outsiders trying to deal with the complicated life that we have -- whether they're driven by greed, like the (Brolin) character in 'No Country for Old Men,' or whether they're like this young girl, Juno, just trying to make her way through her problems."
If these pictures place outsiders at the heart of their stories, that is hardly surprising, given that outsiders themselves have made the films.
There are no veterans of the Hollywood establishment behind this year's best picture or best director lineup: no Clint Eastwoods or Steven Spielbergs or Martin Scorseses. Instead, we have a group of filmmakers tilting at the system, who could represent the next wave of Hollywood filmmaking.
Four of the director nominees are at the very beginning of their careers: This is Gilroy's first time directing, Reitman's second, Julian Schnabel's third ("The Diving Bell and the Butterfly") and Anderson's fifth. Only the Coen brothers -- once quintessential outsiders -- are veterans, a notion that might tweak their anarchic sense of humor. And even "Atonement," the only picture nominee that didn't garner a directing nomination, was helmed by a sophomore filmmaker.
Contrast that with last year, when veterans Eastwood ("Letters From Iwo Jima") and Stephen Frears ("The Queen") competed in the director category with Scorsese, the eventual winner for "The Departed."
There's another striking feature of this year's lineup. In contrast to the majority of last year's nominees, many of this year's directors also wrote their own screenplays, including Gilroy, Anderson and the Coens themselves. And all (except for Reitman) had approval of the final cut, giving them the freedom to make their movies the way they wanted.
"These were final-cut pictures, and there were not a lot of other hands on them," notes Gilroy. "Julian's picture is his picture; you're certainly not going to mess with the Coens; and there is little more bespoke than 'There Will Be Blood,' which is auteur filmmaking at its apex."
As for his own film, Gilroy says, "I didn't have anyone mess with me. I had final cut, and I had George (Clooney) watching my back every step of the way. Our influence extended all the way through to how the film was promoted. We had a really unusual level of control over what we were doing."
Having that control came at a price. As Gilroy observes, not a single one of the major pictures in contention cost more than around $30 million, half the production budget for an average studio picture. (Paradoxically, among the best picture nominees, the one that has performed the best at the boxoffice, "Juno," was the least expensive: It came in under $7 million.)
The Academy turned its back on some far more expensive movies whose lavish production values might have made them awards-worthy in the past.
Among the most prominent were "American Gangster," one of the biggest surprises when it failed to earn any major nominations other than a supporting actress nod for Ruby Dee, and "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street," Tim Burton's much-admired musical.
Nor were these pictures the kind of bloated endeavors that another era might have rewarded; they were genuinely challenging films in their own right. But this year, if the Academy chose to send any message in its nominations, it was against the large-scale and in favor of the smaller and most original projects.
Not all such films were recognized, of course. Two widely touted movies that gained some traction among critics -- Sean Penn's "Into the Wild" and Marc Forster's "The Kite Runner" -- were overlooked in the picture, directing and writing arenas. That was a particular slap at "Wild," which earned nominations at both the DGA and WGA awards.
Other films that took direct aim at society's current woes were also largely shunned, not least Paul Haggis' "In the Valley of Elah" and the John Cusack drama "Grace Is Gone," a Sundance sensation last year that has become the poster child for overpriced indie acquisitions.
The Academy also chose to shut out a number of widely acclaimed foreign-language releases -- among them the Cannes Film Festival winner, "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days," from Romania -- drawing an outcry among specialty distributors.
But if the Academy has avoided some movies, it nonetheless has lent its weight to a body of films of unusual individuality and unusual topicality, films that seem to address the tenor of the times.
What they ultimately say about our era will be debated for years, but these are hardly the feel-good films of the past.
"We are really suffering through a malaise right now," Smith notes, a trait he finds reflected in all the picture nominees. "Is it the war? Is it the economy? Is it eight years of not having too much fun? Whatever it is, there is a malaise and it's made a lot of us feel like outsiders in our own country."