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Published: Monday, 2/4/2008

The Oscars: doom and gloom

WITH the exception of Juno, a sunny movie about a teenager's unplanned pregnancy, the Oscar nominees for Best Picture this year are an exceptionally dark lot.

There Will Be Blood, No Country for Old Men, Atonement, and Michael Clayton round out the list of what the Oscar committee considers the best films of the year. The titles alone are a tip-off that these are not feel-good productions.

Some would say that despite its lighter tone, Juno very much belongs on this list. Parents, for instance, might think that having a pregnant teen with a smart mouth is a horror comparable to being chased by killers in the Texas badlands.

Still, Juno doesn't ooze the despair or traffic in unfulfilled desires to the same degree as its competitors. It even manages to deliver what the other movies don't even bother faking - a relatively happy ending.

What accounts for the darkening of mood at the American multiplex? With the exception of Juno, a modest box office hit, these films aren't exactly filling the seats, though they are worthy of larger audiences.

Maybe box office indifference has something to do with the movies' frank assessment of the complexity of the human condition. It's easier to sit through a well-done teen-sex comedy like Superbad than to wrestle with the moral dilemmas at the heart of Michael Clayton and There Will be Blood.

What these films do better than far more popular fare is mirror our collective and individual anxieties. They are being honored because society, if the work of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is any reflection, likes to reward art that acknowledges when we're at a crossroads.

With the economy worsening and alienation growing, Americans no longer have confidence that there's a "happy ending" out there. Hollywood, which often produces accurate pictures of who we think we are, is bound to reflect this growing pessimism.

Though most are depressing, the nominated films are well-crafted movies with often brilliant performances that shed light on different aspects of either the national character or the human condition.

Let's hope that when the lights come up, people have enough courage to move beyond the limitations of their celluloid shadows.

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