The complaint you hear each year from a lot of people who write about movies for a living is "The Oscars don't mean anything." I disagree, though they're right that the Academy Awards are hardly an objective measure of quality.

The complaint you hear each year from a lot of people who write about movies for a living is "The Oscars don't mean anything." I disagree, though they're right that the Academy Awards are hardly an objective measure of quality.

But who cares? Objective measures of quality are fine if you're grading meat for the USDA. But if you're a movie lover, you should watch the Oscars tonight precisely because they're so subjective — a snapshot of how a cross-section of movie industry insiders defines excellence. Knowing what these 6,000-some folks admire can offer us a hint about where movies might be going.

Well, that's usually true. Then there are the years that underscore screenwriter William Goldman's famous assertion that "nobody knows anything" about where movies are going. This is one of them. The House of Oscar is never more fascinating than when divided against itself. And this year, the division runs deep.

It's not exactly the same as the red state/blue state divide — the Academy's membership, politically speaking, is a big bucket of indigo splashed across the screen, with some lonely red droplets here and there. But its taste in films comes in red and blue shades of aesthetic conservatism and progressivism.

And if the main Oscar contenders are any sign, the two sides are dug in across a wide chasm, bickering over what a good movie and the future of Hollywood should look like.

Last year, American directors entering their prime, from Joel and Ethan Coen to Paul Thomas Anderson to non-nominees such as David Fincher ("Zodiac") and Sean Penn ("Into the Wild"), grappled with dark, troubling stories that denied their audiences easy endings. Are they exceptions — talented oddities who'll always defy Hollywood norms — or do their visions add up to the beginning of a new ruling aesthetic for American movies? The voters don't agree, and no one's budging.

In recent years, the Academy has invited a younger, more diverse and more international group of actors, directors, writers, musicians, cinematographers, etc., to become voting members. But in many voting branches, old-guard tastes still rule.

"No Country For Old Men" and "There Will Be Blood" are this year's blue-voter choices for Best Picture. They share distributors (they're co-productions of Miramax and Paramount Vantage), a producer with adventurous tastes (Scott Rudin) and a swath of the arid, unforgiving Texas terrain. (As Ethan Coen recently told Entertainment Weekly, the movies were shot in such proximity that one take of "No Country" was ruined by a cloud of black smoke in the distance that turned out to be one of Anderson's burning oil wells).

But beyond that, they share an enthrallment with the human heart of darkness. Their portrayals of the monstrous men played by Daniel Day-Lewis and Javier Bardem refuse to traffic in the kind of clear-cut "psychological" character motivation that filmmakers use to put audiences at their ease, and their endings ... well, it gives nothing away to say that they give nothing away.

These movies don't provide closure or comfort; they don't offer up the neat character arcs or third-act payoffs that are the stuff of countless (and pointless) how-to-write-a-screenplay manuals. In other words, they're the kind of movies that, not so long ago, would have been dismissed as too bleak or too strange.

By contrast, the red-voter pick for Best Picture is "Atonement." This British period drama was thought to be fading from contention before the nominations were announced, but it rallied thanks to strong support from voters who like their movies filled with glamorous costumes draped on beautiful bodies set off against handsomely photographed scenery.

In fact, director Joe Wright's adaptation of Ian McEwan's novel gets little credit for an ending that is, in its way, as unnerving and destabilizing as those of "No Country" or "There Will Be Blood"; its detractors think it's the pretty, glossy, retro choice, a dainty pastry in a year when they're hungry for red meat — and "change."

That leaves two centrist candidates. Writer-director Tony Gilroy's legal thriller "Michael Clayton" holds a lot of appeal for those Oscar voters who don't want to have to worry about what a movie means; George Clooney's the good guy, and this is the kind of film in which the good guys win. The plot — a bad corporation acts badly and then tries to cover it up — is familiar stuff. But Gilroy unfolds it with such skillful incrementalism and clever misdirection that his movie can't be brushed off; it's especially popular with the Academy's largest branch — actors.

And then there's "Juno," by far the highest grosser of the Best Picture nominees, and a movie that appears literally to take place in purple America — a recognizable version of Anyburb, USA, where abortion is legal but not chosen, where teen-age girls pay the price for carelessness but still end up with sweet boyfriends, and where things essentially work out for the best.

As a compromise between the acrid hellfire of "There Will Be Blood" and the lacquered romanticism of "Atonement," could "Juno" thread the needle and win the top prize?

A comedy amid four dramas might stand out from the pack, but it can rarely gather enough momentum to win the top prize (see last year's also-ran "Little Miss Sunshine," and a decades-long trail of equally sunshiny hopefuls that preceded it). "Shakespeare in Love" is the only pure comedy in the past 20 years to take the Best Picture trophy.

Besides, just as in the other big contest that's grabbing attention and attracting oddsmakers, sides are being chosen, and the electorate doesn't seem to be in the mood to choose a third-party unity candidate. The favorite for Best Picture, according to most handicappers, is "No Country for Old Men," which has won the lion's share of the regional critics' awards that now serve as Oscar primaries.

But anybody inclined to take its win (or loss) as indicative of a new, tougher, more director-driven Hollywood aesthetic (or not) should think twice. In a five-way race for Best Picture, a winner only needs 22 percent of the vote.