There will be blood as Oscars turn 80
Violent movies are tipped to carve up the top honours when the red carpet is rolled out for the 80th Academy Awards on Sunday, reflecting Oscar voters' increasing willingness to honour darker fare.
As stars and powerbrokers prepare to descend on the Kodak Theatre for Hollywood's biggest party of the year, all eyes are on a best picture race that features a slew of films notable for their grim, dark themes.
The heavy favourite with eight nominations is No Country for Old Men, Joel and Ethan Coen's film about the murderous forces that are unleashed after a drug deal on the US-Mexico border ends in a pile of bullet-ridden corpses.
There Will Be Blood" an edgy movie about a tyrannical oil prospector, also has eight nods and is joined in the best picture category by legal thriller "Michael Clayton," historical drama "Atonement" and comedy "Juno."
But after scoring a sweep of the movie industry's professional awards - seen as key Oscar indicators - the Coen brothers' bleak "No Country" looks unstoppable as the best picture winner.
"The old days of The Sound of Music and Oliver winning best picture are gone, at least for the time being," said Tom O'Neil, an awards season pundit with the Los Angeles Times' theenvelope.com.
"It's going to be the second year in a row that a best picture winner has won where all guns have been blazing," O'Neil added, recalling Martin Scorsese's win in 2007 for gangster movie The Departed.
Pundits say the expected success of No Country for Old Men indicates the willingness of the Academy of Motion Picture Art and Science's 5,829 voters to reward quality film-making regardless of the level of violence.
"Whether it's violent or not does not matter as much as whether the film has been well made," said Maxim film critic Pete Hammond.
"That said, it's unusual that for two years in a row we see a dark, violent movie getting the Oscars' top prize. But maybe Oscar is simply reflecting the times we live in."
Lew Harris, the editorial director of Movies.com, meanwhile noted that only one out of the five best picture nominees - the acclaimed comedy Juno - had broken the 100-million-dollar box office barrier.
"There is a growing gap between what the Academy is going to reward and what the audiences out there want to see," Harris said. "That may or may not be a good thing."
Outside the contests for best picture and best director, which is expected to see the Coen brothers triumph, clear front-runners have emerged in most of the acting categories.
Daniel Day-Lewis is regarded as a shoo-in to scoop the second best actor statuette of his career for playing a murderous oil baron in There Will Be Blood, ahead of fellow nominees that include George Clooney for Michael Clayton and Tommy Lee Jones for In the Valley of Elah.
The best actress award is expected to be a straight fight between British veteran Julie Christie, who plays a woman grappling with Alzheimer's in Away from Her and France's Marion Cotillard, nominated for her startling portrayal of tragic chanteuse Edith Piaf in La Vie En Rose.
In the supporting categories, Javier Bardem is poised to become the first ever Spaniard to win an acting Oscar for his performance in No Country for Old Men, where he plays a psychopathic hit-man whose specialty is executing victims with a slaughterhouse cattle-gun.
But the race for best supporting actress is less clear-cut. Australia's Cate Blanchett, who is also nominated in the best actress category, had been the early favorite following her gender-bending performance as music legend Bob Dylan in I'm Not There.
However Blanchett could face stiff competition from 83-year-old Ruby Dee, who would become the oldest winner of a competitive Oscar in history if she wins for her role as a drug lord's mother in American Gangster.
This year's Oscars are taking place after months of uncertainty following the Hollywood screenwriters strike that wreaked havoc with the entertainment industry's awards season.
The Golden Globes were canceled after stars vowed to boycott the event in support of striking writers and fears of a similar no-show had plagued the Oscars until the strike was called off last week.