Charlie Wilson’s War screened last week to muted enthusiasm from critics, the 2007 awards season race was suddenly without a frontrunner. Actually, most prognosticators had already downgraded Mike Nichols’s film based on an uncertain marketing push and (steadfastly denied) rumors of reshoots, but the picture’s Oscar-friendly pedigree demanded too much respect. Also, Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay had acquired a reputation over the years as a can’t-miss proposition in the hands of the right director, and who does the witty/urbane thing better than Nichols? Regardless of the warning signs, Charlie Wilson’s War was still the movie that would dictate the pace right out of the gate.

And its significant stumble has turned no fewer than fifteen films into hard-chargers. With some savvy campaigning, any of these movies could legitimately claim the Best Picture trophy on February 24th, 2008:

No Country for Old Men
Into the Wild
The Kite Runner
Michael Clayton
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
Sweeney Todd
Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead
There Will Be Blood
American Gangster
The Great Debaters

And, of course, Charlie Wilson’s War (which I will finally see for myself this Wednesday).

Compelling cases are also being made for 3:10 to Yuma, Once and, yes, even Hairspray, but voters would have to go chilly on a number of major contenders for this to occur.

In a year awash with greatness, nominating work as slipshod as Hairspray or as anonymous as 3:10 to Yuma would be tantamount to… what happened in 1999, when a decade-capping rush of brilliance was reduced to American Beauty, The Insider, The Cider House Rules, The Green Mile and The Sixth Sense. Of those five titles, only The Insider belonged; the other four were insultingly facile when compared to the audacious and complex likes of Eyes Wide Shut, Three Kings, Fight Club, Being John Malkovich and Election. And then there was the stunningly perfect Toy Story 2. We’ve discussed this before, right? Well, even after all of those words pondering the potential of 2007, the year has far exceeded my expectations.

It’s hardly a surprise to find masterworks like I’m Not There, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and Redacted completely out of the running for Best Picture; though I think the first two are much more accessible than their reputation indicates, they still frustrate the passive viewer (which, in my limited experience, is an apt description of the average Academy voter). This doesn’t excuse Warner Brothers’ half-hearted Best Supporting Actor push for Casey Affleck in Jesse James; just because you don’t get the movie doesn’t mean you give up on the performance of the year (even if Michael Clayton‘s Tom Wilkinson has a much better chance of winning). But that’s precisely what WB is doing; in lieu of unexpected heat from the various critics awards, Affleck’s haunting portrayal is almost completely out of the running. Meanwhile, John Travolta is acquiring a bit of momentum for one of the year’s most jarringly "off" performances in Hairspray.

And this is what puzzles me: how can anyone fall so hard for mediocrity (or worse) in a year when so much is exceptional? Who in their right mind makes room for
3:10 to Yuma when it would have a hard time snagging the fifth nomination in a weak year? It’s a hostile (or maybe frightened) reaction to artistic transcendence, a demand for conventionality as sweet relief from all this maddening achievement. And while it’s alarmist to suggest this, there is an outside possibility that even No Country for Old Men could get squeezed out of the top five.

As of right now, I can’t see it happening; stars Josh Brolin and Javier Bardem have proven very adept at charming voters and journalists alike. But I will guarantee you this: the resolution of the film will absolutely keep it from winning Best Picture. The "Where’s the Ending?" contingent is numerous and, oddly, quite proud of its ignorance. And if No Country for Old Men is in any kind of jeopardy, you can completely rule out P.T. Anderson’s undeniable There Will Be Blood, which gets downright bonkers in its final moments. Voters will accept grim, but they aren’t much for lunacy.

What this bodes for Daniel Day-Lewis’s monumental performance (call it "the other performance of the year"), I’m not sure. Obviously, he gets nominated, but George Clooney’s much more likable rapscallion could pull ahead if voters deem Daniel Plainview too repugnant. Opting for Clooney over Day-Lewis wouldn’t qualify as a travesty per se, but it would reinforce my belief that the Academy prefers "tangible" to "ineffable".

The nice thing about the Oscar race is that we won’t know much of anything until the SAG nominations are announced on December 20th, which leaves us close to three weeks of idle, imprecise speculation based on critics awards and top ten lists. This is the time for lobbying on behalf of the exceptional stuff the Academy doesn’t want to watch (hopefully, these dolts will spend most of their waking hours re-reading Glenn Kenny’s airtight explanation of No Country for Old Men‘s final scenes). And we’ll believe we’re making headway until this happens:

Best Picture

The Kite Runner
Michael Clayton
The Great Debaters

You have been warned.