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The Road to Oscars

With the Oscars just a few days away [Sunday, February 24th], anticipation is running high over who will win the 24 different Academy Award categories. During this intense pre-Oscar climate, many criticize the highbrow awards as exclusive and out of touch with popular culture. But is that really the case? VOA's Penelope Poulou has more.

With eight Oscar nominations, Paul Thomas Anderson's drama "There Will Be Blood," is a favorite with both the public and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Murray Horwitz is director of the American Film Institute's Silver Theatre in Silver Spring, Maryland, outside Washington.

He says "a lot of the popular movies that were big box office successes - smashes - won the Best Picture Oscar. 'Titanic,' 'Rocky,' some of the musicals. I think 'My Fair Lady' won for Best Picture. Whatever the artistic merits of these films - and there were many - truth of the matter, they were also huge hits."

This year's "Best Picture" nominations are ... the Coen brothers' film "No Country for Old Men," about a violent manhunt and in the Texas outback; Anderson's "There Will Be Blood," a human tragedy about a ruthless oilman; Tony Gilroy's "Michael Clayton," about a nihilistic lawyer in search of his conscience; Jason Reitman's "Juno," an optimistic story about a pregnant teen and Joe Wright's "Atonement," a tragic love story based on Ian Mcewan's novel of the same name. All five movies deserve their nomination as "Best Motion Picture of the Year" for their cinematography, plot, direction, delivery and poignance.

"Films - - particularly, Hollywood films - - are a terrific way of examining ourselves as Americans," says Mr. Horwitz. "One of my favorite movies of all time," he says, "is 'The Best Years of Our Lives.' It's a great movie. But the fact that it was about returning veterans from World War Two, trying to get a handle on civilian life, clearly must have given it an advantage in 1946."

The same applies to war movies today. This time around, they are about the war in Iraq and most of those nominated are documentaries. One such example is the stark documentary "Taxi to the Dark Side," about the Abu Ghraib interrogations. Murray Horwitz says this genre has been going through a golden age thanks to new and less expensive technology that allows filmmakers to make movies on a small budget.

"Young people are able to tell stories now with cameras and microphones as well as we, their parents, were able to tell stories with pencils and paper, and often better," says the AFI Silver director.

So, are the Oscar awards the highest honor for a film and a filmmaker? Without a doubt, says Murray Horwitz. But he cautions, the selection process is not flawless. He says some Oscar-worthy films end up falling through the cracks because they do not belong in a specific category. One such example was last year's "Letters from Iwo Jima."

"Film is now more global than ever," says Mr. Horwitz. So, it is not uncommon to see a motion picture that's a French, British, American co-production with an American director, a Japanese cast. These kinds of mixes happen all the time."

Murray Horwitz adds that in the Foreign Picture category there is the rule that a given country can nominate only one of its Oscar-worthy films. "My favorite picture of the year, frankly, in this category was 'The Diving Bell and the Butterfly' from France and it wasn't even considered because France could nominate only one picture. So they nominated this extraordinary animated film 'Persepolis,' and that didn't make the final cut. So, neither picture is in."

But overall, the Oscars still hold a mystique over the contenders and the public. The glitz, the lights, the talent, and millions upon millions of viewers, they all come together this one night every year to recognize and to celebrate the greatest works of art for the large screen.