The movie-going public may not think much of this year's major Oscar contenders judging by their weak box-office performances. But for US movie critics, the nominations announced amid a debilitating writers' strike and a global market meltdown were a sign that the US movie machinery is at least doing one thing right.
"The 2008 nominees, announced Tuesday at the crack of dawn, represent one of the strongest fields in recent years, reflecting the surge of superb films starting in September," said Roger Ebert, the dean of US film columnists.
Brooks Barnes of the New York Times said the bleak slate of nominees reflected the downbeat atmosphere in America's movie-making capital.
"Hollywood is in a bleak mood this year, and the Oscar nominees announced Tuesday morning reflected that state of mind," Barnes wrote.
It's always dangerous to read too much political significance into pop culture, but the bleak analogy could also be stretched to reflect a wider sense of disquiet as the country remains mired in an unpopular war and questions its place in the world amid its floundering currency and challenges from rivals from China to Iran.
Two of the most nominated movies challenged the economic system at the heart of US power. Michael Clayton stars George Clooney as a lawyer who exposes the ruthless injustices inherent in the corporate structure, and There Will Be Blood features Daniel Day Lewis as a rapacious oil baron in a blasting critique of an ultimate American hero, the voracious entrepreneur.
No Country For Old Men also deconstructs a classic American theme with a violent Western tale of a drug deal gone wrong. Atonement, the British contender for glory, tells a story of lies and betrayal in a time of war.
Even Juno, the indie comedy that is the outside pick for glory, presents an interesting commentary on the state of the nation.
It features Canadian newcomer Ellen Page as a teenager who handles her unplanned pregnancy with a sense of whimsy and poise that belies the country's usual mix of hysteria and hypocrisy over sex.
For once the main speculation following the nominations was not who would win but whether the Oscar show would even take place.
The strike by screenwriters already hobbled the Golden Globes and the fear is that a similar fate could befall the Oscar telecast set for Feb 24. But producer Gil Cates insisted that won't happen.
"I'm optimistic. I hope they come to a settlement but the bottom line is the show will go on," he said. "It won't be cancelled."
Variety reported that Cates and his crew have already begun working on the show's set, hiring musicians and other backstage personnel and are set to start work on production numbers and film packages.
Even if the strike continues for another month the show will just "be heavy on clips and low on star power", the trade magazine reported.
Tom O'Neill, the awards expert of the Los Angeles Times couldn't resist a little guessing about which movie will claim the ultimate prize. He predicted that the best movie award will go to either No Country for Old Men or There Will Be Blood, which are tied with a leading eight nominations.
"Over the past 20 years, the movie with the most Oscar bids has won best picture 15 times," he noted. "But beware: three of those exceptions were in the past three years."