It’s becoming apparent that the Best Picture race is down to two films. And that second, non-Coen brothers film may well surprise you. According to the latest buzz in Hollywood, Warner Brothers’ “Michael Clayton” is surging right at the perfect time. Will it be enough to sprint past “No Country” at the finish line? Let’s take a closer look.

At first glance, it would seem “Clayton” doesn’t stand a chance. It hasn’t won any major precursor awards. And it’s more or less a legal thriller. When’s the last time such a movie won Best Picture? But explore the film a little deeper and you’ll find themes that resonate in everyday life, and themes that have historically played well at the Oscars.

Then look at the nominations. It’s got seven, just one behind “No Country.” Three of the nominations are for acting (Clooney, Wilkinson, Swinton). This is such an interesting point that follows: None of the other nominated films have more than ONE acting nomination. Wow. We know that the actors branch comprises the largest percentage of Academy voters, so this is a good sign. Still, one has to wonder why “Clayton” didn’t score a SAG ensemble nomination. Strange.

Another thing in its favor is that the movie plays well on DVD. Nowadays, screeners seem to rule the day, as Academy voters get lazier and lazier. This, of course, hurts films like “Letters From Iwo Jima,” “Dreamgirls,” and “Into the Wild,” which play better on the big screen. A tense, character driven story like “Clayton,” on the other hand, is ideal to be enjoyed in your home theater as you munch on a late dinner.

For “Clayton” to triumph, however, there needs to be at least a sizeable backlash against “No Country.” After all, the favorite is still the favorite, and Miramax has run a fairly solid, aggressive campaign. The way we see it, any potential backlash would most likely involve either the excessive violence in the film, or that bleak, nonsensical ending. As other Oscar watchers have noted, even passionate supporters of “No Country” concede the ending is lackluster. Could that be enough to make the difference? “Clayton” is superb from start to finish and never stumbles in terms of plot or character. Also, it’s fairly clear what the message behind “Clayton” is. “No Country” is the kind of film that people walk out of thinking, “that seemed pretty good, but what the hell was that about?”

Finally, let’s examine theme. Though at first glance, both films seem completely different, there is actually something they both have in common. Both films are about the bleakness of how the world is. In “No Country,” the issue is violence – brute force, physical violence. It is just so out of control that you feel hopeless in the face of it. “Michael Clayton” also deals with violence, but it’s of a more subtle variety. It’s the violence driven by corporate greed, and the mentality of people wanting to succeed at any cost. It’s a society where people seem to no longer be able to do the right thing.

But here’s the difference. In “Clayton,” someone actually does something about it. The character of Michael Clayton, although apathetic and accepting for most of the film, finally comes to his senses and takes a stand at the end. This is a clear contrast to the Sheriff Bell character in “No Country” who just repeatedly stands in shock and awe of the senseless violence in front of him, helpless.

The Academy has a history of championing more uplifting themes, so if you follow this logic, maybe “Clayton” has a chance after all. Or has our society devolved to a point where the emotions associated with “No Country” resonate too deeply. Maybe we all just “can’t stop what’s coming.” I would choose to think otherwise.