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Dark Victory at the Oscars

By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 25, 2008

HOLLYWOOD, Feb. 24 -- "No Country for Old Men," a stark West Texas meditation on criminality and the nature of evil, won Best Picture at the Academy Awards on Sunday, capping an Oscar season that featured glum movies but happy critics. It was also a night for Europeans, who took every acting prize. It was the second time in Academy history, and the first time since 1965, that non-Americans swept the four acting categories.

"No Country for Old Men" won four awards: Brothers Joel and Ethan Coen also took the Best Director prize, the first time a duo has won the award since 1962 (when Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins won for "West Side Story"), and the only time siblings have shared the honor. It also won Best Adapted Screenplay for the Coens and Best Supporting Actor for Javier Bardem.

"We're very thankful to all of you out there for continuing to let us play in our corner of the sandbox," Joel Coen said, referring to the brothers' two-decade penchant for an alternately comic and disturbing oeuvre.

Daniel Day-Lewis won Best Actor for his portrayal of a cruelly driven oilman in the early 20th century in "There Will Be Blood." It was the second Oscar for four-time British nominee Day-Lewis, who previously won in 1990 for "My Left Foot." He was favored heavily to win this year.

Marion Cotillard won Best Actress for playing Edith Piaf in "La Vie en Rose," which chronicles the French singer's manic highs and lows before she died in 1963 at age 47. ("La Vie en Rose" also won the Best Makeup award for Didier Lavergne and Jan Archibald, who transformed Cotillard-as-Piaf from teen Parisian street waif to morphine-addicted celebrity train wreck.) "Thank you, life; thank you, love," Cotillard said in her acceptance speech, providing some sunshine.

But these were dark movies -- the feel-bad films of the year -- conjured up in what movie people seem to collectively sense as grave times, hatched in producers' offices and on writers' laptops not long after the 2004 election and amid increasing setbacks in the Iraq war and gloomy environmental warnings. Some of the filmmakers and actors wore orange ribbons or rubber bracelets to protest alleged incidents of torture by the United States at its prison in Guantanamo Bay, and in Afghanistan and Iraq -- the subject of "Taxi to the Dark Side," which won Best Documentary Feature.

When not offering a surfeit of death and gloom, Academy nominees this year focused, in at least some metaphorical way, on all the looming issues:

Lovers died in a time of war; the thirst for oil took precedence over humanity; greedy corporate types stooped lower than low; a killer roamed the desolate U.S.-Mexican borderland.

The only cheerful one in the bunch was "Juno," about a pregnant teenager, which won Best Original Screenplay for writer Diablo Cody.

Even many of the actresses showed up, coincidentally, in black: Nicole Kidman, Laura Linney, Jennifer Garner, Ellen Page, Hilary Swank, Tilda Swinton -- as if wearing the metaphor made it more true. (It seemed as if all the others wore red.)

Spanish actor Bardem won Best Supporting Actor for his role as the ruthless killer named Anton Chigurh in "No Country" -- the second time he's been up for the award. He thanked his mother, Pilar Bardem, the grande dame of Spanish cinema, in Spanish. "I believe he told his mother where the library was," host Jon Stewart quipped afterward.

British performer Swinton won Best Supporting Actress for playing a corporate executive trying to cover up an environmental scandal in "Michael Clayton." Asked backstage about the European domination of the acting prizes, Swinton replied: "Dude, Hollywood is built on Europeans. Don't tell everybody, but we're everywhere."

In other awards, Robert Elswit won Best Cinematography for "There Will Be Blood." "The Counterfeiters," an Austrian thriller about forgery and the Nazis, won Best Foreign Language Film. Glen Hansard and Mark┬┐ta Irglov┬┐ won Best Original Song for "Falling Slowly," from the Irish romance "Once."

And as for big Hollywood movies that megaplex audiences saw? "The Bourne Ultimatum" won three awards -- one for Best Film Editing and two for sound. "Ratatouille" won Best Animated Feature.

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