Grim No Country dominates Oscars but peppy Juno may surprise

( dpa ) - Even the weather fits the bleak theme of the Oscars this year. The renowned awards show goes ahead Sunday at the Kodak Theatre in Los Angeles after the writers' strike that had threatened to scuttle the cinema extravaganza was settled last week.

That cleared the way for a show dominated by the grimmest movie slate in years. As though managed by a Hollywood production crew, the weather in usually sunny Los Angeles was a matching shade of grey Thursday, with rain expected to continue through the Sunday night gala.

Against the dour backdrop, a string of gloomy performances are expected to dominate the most prestigious awards event in the movie industry.

Leading the front-runners is the movie No Country For Old Men, created by the brilliant and prolific filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen.

Pundits like respected critic Roger Ebert predicted Thursday that the Minnesota-born brothers would become the first-ever siblings to win the award for best director. The brothers are also in line to win best picture with their film.

It's not just high-brow film critics. Given the downbeat mood of the nation, No Country's visceral tale of a drug deal gone wrong has a clear advantage.

That's reflected in its dominance if the various Guild Awards that were chosen by the same professionals who vote on the Oscars. Bookies this week had No Country as the 18-to-1 odds-on favourite to take the coveted best-picture statuette. Other odds include Daniel Day Lewis as a 16-1 odds-on favourite for best actor, and Julie Christie at 3-1 odds-on to win best actress.

The website Rotten Tomatoes - which rates movies according to a wide sampling of reviews - has a different method of determining the favourites, concentrating on the overall critical reception enjoyed by the competing movies. Here the stakes might even go in Juno's favour.

It lags behind No Country by just 1 percentage point, 93 to 94 per cent, but could easily overcome that with its success at the box office, where it is the only major best-picture contender to break the 100-million-dollar mark. Juno has earned 126 million dollars in US cinemas, more than double any of the other nominees.

Pete Hammond, film reviewer for racy men's magazine Maxim, respectfully begs to disagree.

So far, 2008 has been the year of the underdog, he argues, pointing to such important cultural barometers as the Grammies, where Herbie Hancock curiously won for best album, to the Super Bowl, where the New York Giants overcame long odds to beat the "invincible" New England Patriots, and even to the prestigious Westminster Dog Show, where a lowly beagle named Uno was the first-ever example of his breed to be named top dog.

That's why Hammond thinks that Juno, a perky and brilliantly made movie about a pregnant teenager could yet triumph over the violence of No Country, the mania of There Will Be Blood, the cynicism of Michael Clayton and the heart-wrenching betrayals of Atonement.

"Something's definitely in the air, so could the long-shot cloud be headed for the Kodak Theatre next?" he asks. "Is the academy going to find its way out of the darkness to anoint a teen-centric movie with heart and hope as the first pure comedy to win best picture since Annie Hall?"

It's unlikely, but it could happen, and the sun could even shine Sunday in Los Angeles.

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