BEVERLY HILLS, California (Reuters) - "No Country For Old Men" and "There Will Be Blood," two violent portraits of moral decline, led the Oscar race with eight nominations each
on Tuesday, but the main drama was whether a Hollywood writers strike would cancel the awards show altogether.
The British period romance "Atonement" and the legal thriller "Michael Clayton," both dealing in lies and deceit, picked up seven nominations each.
All four films were nominated for best picture, along with the quirky teen comedy "Juno," a rare showcase for levity in a field packed with heavy material.
"These are grim pictures for grim times," said Robert Wilonsky, movie critic with Village Voice Media and the Dallas Observer.
Indeed, the main question in Hollywood was not who would win the entertainment industry's most coveted awards, but whether the ceremony would take place at all.
Hollywood has been crippled by a writers strike now in its 12th week. If the walkout is not settled by the time the awards take place on February 24, the Writers Guild of America has threatened to protest at the ceremony, and the Screen Actors Guild vowed its members would not to cross any picket lines.
"I don't think anybody is going to go (to the Oscars ceremony)," Oscar-nominated "Michael Clayton" writer-director Tony Gilroy told Reuters at a union rally in New York. "It won't be a decision I'll be taking individually. It's one of these situations where you just don't cross a picket line, and I think everybody knows that."
Oscar organizers insist the show will go on one way or another as scheduled.
"No Country For Old Men" and "There Will Be Blood" each got only one acting nomination. Spanish actor Javier Bardem was cited for his supporting role as a cool-headed killer who cuts a random swath of destruction across small-town Texas in "No Country For Old Men."
British actor Daniel Day-Lewis, who previously won an Oscar for 1989's "My Left Foot," was cited for his lead role as a misanthropic oilman in "There Will Be Blood."
Both movies were set up as co-productions between Walt Disney Co's Miramax Films and Viacom Inc's Paramount Vantage by producer Scott Rudin.
"No Country," directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, is a gory meditation on slipping moral values presented within the framework of a highly stylized chase movie.
"People are living with a certain amount of fear and don't quite know what it means to feel safe anymore. And I think that's really what this movie is describing," Rudin said.
Director Paul Thomas Anderson's "There Will Be Blood," while set in the early 20th century, presents two themes that still dominate America's political life -- oil and religion, Rudin added.
"That's a movie that deals with the collision of those two factors in a way that has incredible contemporary resonance."
The Coen brothers, Anderson and Gilroy will compete for the directing Oscar with two first-time Oscar nominees, Canadian filmmaker Jason Reitman for "Juno" and American artist Julian Schnabel for "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly."
Rolling Stone magazine critic Peter Travers said "No Country For Old Men" will be "the one to beat" for best picture. But if it splits the vote with "There Will Be Blood" -- they will face off in six categories -- "Michael Clayton" could take the big prize, he said.
"Michael Clayton," which stars best-actor nominee George Clooney as a legal "fixer," also was nominated for the supporting turns of Britons Tom Wilkinson and Tilda Swinton.
Day-Lewis and Clooney will compete against Johnny Depp for the musical "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street," Tommy Lee Jones for the war-themed "In the Valley of Elah" and Viggo Mortensen for the mob movie "Eastern Promises."
Australian actress Cate Blanchett received two nominations -- for her title role as the British monarch in "Elizabeth: The Golden Age" and for her supporting role as Bob Dylan in "I'm Not There." Her nomination for "Elizabeth" surprised some critics. Wilonsky said the film was "totally disposable."
The other lead-actress contenders were British veteran Julie Christie for "Away From Her," French actress Marion Cotillard for "La Vie en rose," Laura Linney for "The Savages" and Canadian actress Ellen Page for "Juno."
Sean Penn's acclaimed wilderness adventure "Into the Wild" earned just two nominations, one for veteran actor Hal Holbrook, a first-time nominee at age 82.
Additional reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles, and Robert Campbell in New York; Editing by Cynthia Osterman