By Oliver Lyttelton | www.oliverlyttelton.com November 6, 2012 at 9:58AM
Now that we're into November, things are really starting to get underway and we're about to see an onslaught of Oscar contenders. Last month had a couple of hopefuls with "Argo" and "The Sessions," but from the release of Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln" this Friday, awards bait is coming thick and fast, with virtually every week seeing at least one film heading into release.
The last few days saw two in particular given scrutiny: Robert Zemeckis' "Flight," which went on general release and proved a pretty impressive box office hit, and Sacha Gervasi's "Hitchcock," which opened at AFI Fest to a reasonably warm reception. Since they appeared on release schedules (the latter only about six weeks ago), prognosticators have pegged them as possible players in the acting races. But will their warm receptions help them break out beyond those categories and into the big race?
Judging by the reviews, many of which describe the central turn as the finest the actor's given, Denzel Washington is certainly locked in for an acting nomination. Going by box office alone, one could certainly consider "Flight" a contender for much more; despite a modest sub-2,000 screen release (almost half of the number one film, "Wreck It Ralph"), the film picked up a hugely impressive $25 million opening weekend, and an even better $13,000 screen average (the kind of number that movies in a handful of theaters usually get).
As we've discussed before, the box office feels less important to the Oscars these days than in recent years (see "The Hurt Locker" and "The Artist" of late), but it can certainly make the difference to a kind of movie, and with "Flight" on its way to being a substantial hit -- and an A- CinemaScore that suggests it'll have strong legs -- it certainly seems to have given Paramount renewed confidence. It's the company's only major player in the race ("Not Fade Away" is in the mix too, but never got a head of steam out of NYFF), and the opening weekend success has seen them cut special spots targeting Academy voters.
The disadvantage the film does have is that it's not a great critical favorite. Warmly received by many, certainly, but there are a fair few naysayers and not a lot of absolute raves. It's at 77 percent on Rotten Tomatoes and 76 on Metacritic, a good 10-15 points behind films like "Argo" and even "Beasts Of The Southern Wild." Meanwhile, it manages a B average on Criticwire (though Roger Ebert, a critic who holds more sway with Academy voters than most, called it "nearly flawless"). What this means is that it's unlikely to do especially well with the critics' groups and in year-end top 10 lists, which may let later-breaking fare overtake it.
It would help the film's case if Paramount made their campaign about more than just Washington's performance. The risk with a film like this is that voters end up thinking the film hinges on that central turn, and that it's the only thing worth recognizing in it. Given the present day setting, it's certainly not a film that's going to pick up a lot of craft nods, barring maybe effects. But the popular success of the film does theoretically open the way towards nominations for John Goodman and Kelly Reilly in the still-fluid Supporting categories (we'd say James Badge Dale would be in with a good shout if he had more than a single scene), and a screenplay nod for John Gatins (in the thinner Original Screenplay category). A nomination for Zemeckis as Director is tougher, and would have to follow the film.
The word is that Academy screenings have seen very warm reactions from voters; it certainly has a chance at a Best Picture nomination, with the right mix of grit and glossiness for Academy voters. Washington's certainly in, and in a fairly open field could end up being a dark horse to win. Whether the film picks up more nominations alongside him will depend on whether Paramount can sustain this momentum and continue to campaign smartly.
In theory, Fox Searchlight have an easier sell with "Hitchcock" -- it's not a dark drama about substance addiction, it's a movie about movies (which always goes down well). Focusing on one of the most popular directors of all time, it stars two Academy favorites in showy performances, and it seems, from the reaction at AFI, to be something of a crowd pleaser.
And yet we're a little less confident about it picking up more than a handful of nominations. The best hope looks like it lies in the two central performances. If we were betting men, we'd put money on Helen Mirren ending up with a nomination. Anthony Hopkins is certainly in the hunt as well, though an overstuffed category means he could yet fall short. There've been some murmurs of Scarlett Johansson as Janet Leigh in certain quarters, but most seem to think it's fairly unlikely.
Critical reaction on the whole has been cooler than with "Flight." The film has its champions, but they don't seem especially fervent, and there are plenty of lukewarm-to-negative views of the film out there, too (read our man in LA Charlie Schmidlin's take on the film here). The obvious reference point that's been chucked around is "My Week With Marilyn," and while it seems to be better liked than the film, the words being used are ones like "entertaining" and "absorbing," without the plaudits getting much more glowing than that. And with a relatively unknown director and writer, it's not really a film that's "in the club," so to speak.
That said, it seems to play especially well with filmmakers, being a film about process as much as anything else, and sometimes that can make all the difference. It could even end up hurting the momentum of the similarly inside-baseball "Argo," though it's unlikely to be anywhere near as popular as Affleck's film. Ultimately, our gut tells us that "Hitchcock" doesn't quite seem to have the kind of support to get it the crucial 5% of first place votes. It might end up being people's third or fourth favorite movie of the year, but we're not sure how many people would place it at the top of the ballot. Still, it's definitely in the hunt, especially if some of the December films fall short.