THINK "No Country for Old Men" is the clear best picture Oscar front-runner? Maybe, but remember, Oscar prognosticating is a game with endless variables -- the mood of the voters, the mood of the country, the campaign missteps, the likability factor. At least there are no exit polls. In fact, after nearly 80 years of handing out awards, a few precedents bode well for the five nominees. Here's a glance at their chances in light of comparable themes, characters and settings that have won over the voters before.
-- Lisa Rosen
"ATONEMENT"/"THE ENGLISH PATIENT"
Betrayal, check. Undying love, check. Epic drama set against a backdrop of World War II, check. Beautiful leads with marvelous British accents, check. Acclaimed film adaptation of beloved novel, check. "Atonement"? Yes, but also "The English Patient," 1996's best picture Oscar winner.
How often does a quirky romantic comedy with snappy, stylized dialogue and a strong, oddly dressed female lead win an Oscar? Pretty often, as it turns out. "Annie Hall" was an art house and commercial success in its day, as well as the best picture winner for 1977. Even films as disparate as "Shakespeare in Love" (1998) and "The Apartment" (1960) could be thrown into the mix; they both featured progressive young women facing down obstacles that befit their time and status.
"MICHAEL CLAYTON"/"ON THE WATERFRONT"
Michael Clayton, the corporate "fixer" faced with a level of corruption that's too much even for him, harks back to reluctant hero Terry Malloy. Played by Marlon Brando in the 1954 winner "On the Waterfront," Malloy could continue his easy life as a hatchet man or stand up to the mob. Both films center on charismatic stars revealing vulnerability; Clayton even has an "I coulda been a contender" scene, in which he tells his boss he could have been a good lawyer rather than the hack he has become.
"NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN"/"THE DEPARTED"
One need go back only to last year's winner, "The Departed," to match "No Country" in body count and impressive violence. It also didn't hurt that both films were directed by universally acknowledged masters of their art. The cat-and-mouse game that ensues in each film ratchets up the tension with every subsequent turn of the plot.
"THERE WILL BE BLOOD"/"THE GODFATHER"
"Blood" portrays an antihero in a story that is in its own brutal way quintessentially American, as oilman Daniel Plainview rises in a business known for its inhumanity and greed. Grand operatic scenes unfold, complete with over-the-top violence. The whole film could be seen as a metaphor for unbridled capitalism. That certainly sounds like "The Godfather," doesn't it? And why not throw in "The Godfather Part II" while we're at it, they both won -- 1972 and 1974, respectively.