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by MICHAEL BOWEN & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & N & lt;/span & o Country for Old Men. Julie Christie. Daniel Day-Lewis. & r & & r & For Oscar's Best Picture/Actress/Actor categories in 2008, that's all you have to know. They're locks.

Oh, sure, There Will Be Blood might challenge for Best Pic, and Marion Cotillard (for her Edith Piaf impersonation in La Vie en Rose) might sneak in for Best Actress. As for Best Actor ... nah, Day-Lewis has got it.

None of them are competitive categories, not really. And while we're at it, most of the other major races are pretty much decided, too. Javier Bardem will certainly win Supporting Actor (for his personification of ugly evil with an ugly name, Anton Chigurh, in No Country). The Coen brothers will win Best Director (an award Joel Coen was denied in 1996 for Fargo, losing to Anthony Minghella for The English Patient, which he apparently directed in order to try our patience). Diablo Cody will win for the quirkiness of her original screenplay for Juno; the Coens will win for adapting Cormac McCarthy's novel, a high-desert morality play. Only Supporting Actress promises surprises, because only the little girl in Atonement (Saoirse Ronan) is out of the race. The gold guy could go to any of the other four: Cate Blanchett's gender-bending Dylan in I'm Not There, Ruby Dee's slap-happy mama in American Gangster, Tilda Swinton's sweaty corporate lawyer in Michael Clayton, or Amy Ryan's grieving druggie in Gone Baby Gone.

Instead of jumping on the There Will Be No Country of Blood for Old Men bandwagon, let's try a different tack on Best Pic. Let's reduce each film to its core.

No Country for Old Men: Evil can never be stamped out.

Michael Clayton: Even flawed little guys can stand up to corporate corruption.

Juno: Mature, responsible love pops up in unexpected people.

There Will Be Blood: Some people are power-mad.

Evil's out there, in other words, and sometimes we can defeat it -- just don't rely on your preconceptions. Collectively, that's what four of the five nominated Best Pictures convey.

Nothing wrong with reinforcing familiar lessons. There's a playwright who keeps yammering on about how revenge and jealousy and murderous ambition are all very, very bad, and his name is Shakespeare. But sometimes we ought to consider works that explore different territory.

Consider, then, the message of Atonement: Remorse is typically a form of self-consolation that doesn't change how other people's lives have been violated.

This is not the usual stuff, yet it hits us where we live. We've all made apologies without making reparations. "I regret that you felt offended by what I said" lays the blame on the other guy's feelings, not your own actions. Atonement has the kind of conclusion that causes ethical squirminess.

All of which is to say that Atonement is this year's best movie.

Also its most traditional and least groundbreaking. Which means that it has no chance whatever of winning.

Which is fine. The Oscars are more important for their collective wisdom about each category's best performances than for the political niceties of which script or actor "won" (by virtue of getting a few dozen more votes out of thousands cast). The Oscars still matter because they call attention to movies worth seeing, despite whether they go better with caviar or Cracker Jack.

The 80th annual Academy Awards will be televised live on ABC on Sunday, Feb. 24, from 5 pm until way too late, with red carpet coverage beginning way too early at 3 pm on E! TV.

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