By Oliver Lyttelton | www.oliverlyttelton.com January 13, 2012 at 1:50PM
Oscar ballots are due today, meaning that the tardier Academy members are currently flipping coins and scrabbling to make their last minute picks (this means you, Marcia Gay Harden!). So, with the announcement of nominations about ten days away, we're finally close to thinning the field, and starting to talk about who's actually going to win the little golden men.
But do we already know? Last night, "The Artist" once again picked up the top prize at a ceremony, winning Best Picture and Best Director, having already led the pack in most announced nominations so far, and having been the pick of most critics' groups to boot. On top of that, the film's competition is looking increasingly weak: "The Descendants" is yet to win a major Best Film prize, bar the LA Film Critics, while "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" (which we once pegged as the most serious threat) failed to deliver the goods.
And perhaps most importantly, "War Horse" continues to suffer blow after blow; snubbed by the WGA and, more surprisingly, the Director's Guild, who announced their nominations on Monday, with Spielberg nowhere to be found. Reviews were decent, but never spectacular, and the box office shows a similar reaction, with the film running neck-and-neck with "We Bought A Zoo" (although "War Horse" should play in theaters longer). It's far from the front-runner that some had placed it as initially, and for the first time, we're wondering if it even stands a chance at losing out on a nomination (although we suspect it'll get in).
Other films are proving stronger -- having been initially dismissed, it's looking increasingly likely that "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo" will make it to a Best Picture nod after its success with DGA and PGA nominations, while "Bridesmaids" has a had a late surge as well. But do either stand a serious threat of winning if they do get in? We suspect not.
But that doesn't mean that Michel Hazanavicius and co. should count their chickens just yet. Upsets have happened before, to films that looked far more certain, and six weeks is a long time in the Oscar season. Below, a selection of scenarios that could see "The Artist" lose out to the competition.
As we've discussed before, there's a certain warm, comforting, nostalgia-happy period piece theme to the major contenders this year. Let's assume for a moment, as seems entirely likely, that "The Artist" "Hugo," "War Horse" and "Midnight In Paris" (arguably "The Help" and "The Tree of Life" qualify here too) all get nominated. All four are rose-tinted looks at the past, targeted at the older voter block. "The Artist" is obviously leading the field, but there are only so many Academy members in that group; could the other films, which all have their fans, split the vote enough to let in the slightly more contemporary, less obviously audience-pleasing fare like "The Descendants" or even "Moneyball" slide in instead?
However: There's been no sign of this happening at any other Academy Awards so far -- "The Artist" does appear to be the overwhelming favorite.
"The Artist" is a lovely little film, but it's also quite slight -- a love letter to classic Hollywood, but it's not the most substantial film around. The Academy love to vote for films that feel "important," and one has to go back to "Chicago" a decade ago to find something that was purely aimed at the pleasure centers of the brain walking off with the top prize. "The Help," dealing as it does with racism, as winning films from "In The Heat Of The Night" to "Crash" did, is best placed to come in as the film that "matters," regardless of whether it does or not. It's certainly proven successful across the awards season so far, even if its win would likely cause a "Driving Miss Daisy"-style uproar. And let's not forget it's by far the most successful of the potential nominees, taking double what any of its potential competition did at the box office.
However: "The Help" may be seen as simply another actors' film. And then there's this: Tate Taylor missing out at the DGA suggests that he'll not be winning an Oscar nomination either. And the last film to win Best Picture without a Best Director nomination? Again, it was "Driving Miss Daisy" in 1989; possibly a good omen, but bear in mind, it still hasn't happened in the twenty years since.
One thing to remember is that the vast majority of awards given so far, including the BFCA last night and the Golden Globes, are awarded by critics. The guilds are perhaps better indicators, but remember that none have actually given out their awards yet. There's clearly a lot of love for "The Artist," but it's not necessarily going to be the number one pick for writers, actors or even producers, who may favor the verbal fireworks of Woody Allen, the rock-solid ensemble of "The Help" or the sheer logistical feat of "Hugo." There's clearly enough support for the film to be nominated, but could we see other films triumphing with the guilds? The movie is perfoming solidly at the box office, but not exceptionally, suggesting it's far from the kind of public phenomenon that "The King's Speech" became, and that there's something of a gap between the critics and the community.
However: A love letter to filmmaking of a bygone era, "The Artist" couldn't be targeted more to a group of film practicioners (even if it has stiff competition from "Hugo" on that front), so even if it doesn't catch alight with the public, Academy members are still likely to respond.
"The Artist" was made in Hollywood, but with key cast, crew and money from France. The DGA have never honored a film made from a source from outside the U.S. or U.K (the closest they came was Bernardo Bertolucci's "The Last Emperor," which was backed by Columbia). Neither have the PGA, or the SAG's ensemble prize. Roberto Benigni is the only foreign-language actor ever to win an actor's guild prize, and the WGA have never awarded a foreign-language script. The silent nature of "The Artist" helps it -- it's possible that some aren't even aware of its origins, and Harvey Weinstein has taken ownership in a big way. But Academy members love to honor their own, which again could favor almost anything else in the race, "The Descendants" and "The Help" in particular.
However: The Academy seem to have no problem rolling with British films, with "Slumdog Millionaire" and "The King's Speech" among the last couple of winners, while Marion Cotillard won Best Actress a few years back. Plus eligibility disqualifies many foreign films from the guilds, so one shouldn't read too much into that.
Or failing that, a rewatch of the film discovers Nazi symbolism hidden throughout the production design. We're joking, obviously, but there's a serious point at play here. There's a phrase in U.S. political campaigning known as "the October surprise" -- the late breaking game-changer that turns the race on its head. That horseshit Kim Novak "rape story" was likely only the first exchange of fire in a race that has frequently seen dirty below-the-belt fighting in the past, and it's possible that something may end up sticking eventually. Furthermore, you don't necessarily need anyone else's help to derail your own campaign; "The Hurt Locker" producer Nicolas Chartier hurt his film when he broke Academy campaigning rules -- even if the film won out, Chartier wasn't there to see it.
However: Generally, smear tactics have proven unsuccessful in recent years, and this isn't the Weinsteins' first rodeo.
In all reality, we'd still put odds-on "The Artist" to win, if only because the weak field hasn't seen anything else emerge that could become a likely contender (look for whatever wins the Drama Golden Globe on Sunday, probably "The Descendants" or "The Help," to be anointed as the serious threat). But the race is far from over at this point. Chart below, and next week, we'll be finally putting our money where our mouth is, and revealing our final Oscar predictions.
1. "The Artist" (=)
See above; we can't see a scenario in which anything else is able to beat it. But still everything to play for.
2. "The Help" (3)
Looking like the most likely of the contenders, but will need a swell of support in the next couple of months. "War Horse" missing out on a nomination would help, freeing up Disney/Dreamworks resources, but assuming Taylor misses out a nomination, its odd shorten again.
3. "The Descendants" (2)
The best record with the guilds so far, but has a problem in that it's not strong in the below-the-line categories; no film since "Ordinary People" thirty years ago has won without a single technical nomination. Fox Searchlight are aware of the problem, but it's an uphill fight.
4. "Hugo" (=)
Maintaining its momentum, and successfully spinning away its box office (and for the record, it's outgrossed most potential nominees), but we can't see many picking it over "The Artist," despite the love for Scorsese. A Golden Globes Drama win, which is entirely possible, would help.
5. "Midnight In Paris" (7)
Nominations from the SAG, the WGA, the PGA and, crucially, the DGA suggest a wide range of support across voters; like it or not, the film's going to be among the nominees. That'll have to the prize, we suspect.
6. "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo" (12)
We'd dismissed WGA and PGA nominations as flukes, but the DGA nod for Fincher has made it clear that the film is on its way to a Best Picture slot, even if it's only in part an apology for "The Social Network" losing out last year. No chance of actually winning.
7. "Moneyball" (6)
Easily our favorite of the serious potential nominees, but it's struggled to keep up any momentum -- one of the cases where a September release hurts, rather than helps. Bennett Miller looking very unlikely to get nominated doesn't help either. Not necessarily a lock for a Best Picture nod, but should make it in.
8. "War Horse" (5)
Not done, necessarily; it is a Spielberg film, after all, and "Munich" didn't fare any better with the Guilds than this has. But few seem to really love it, meaning it may struggle to get the necessary 5% of first choice votes, and we won't be shocked if the film's name isn't read out on nomination morning outside the technical categories.
9. "The Tree of Life" (8)
Really could have used support from the guilds to carry it through, and the lack of DGA nomination suggests to us that it's one of those cases of a critical favorite not connecting with awards nominations. But it does take relatively few votes to get to 5%, and few films have more fervent supporters...
10. "The Ides of March (=)
The film that's been hanging around the fringes of the conversation for a while, occasionally popping in to pick up something like a PGA nod. But with Sony's 'Dragon Tattoo' surging, we suspect this'll end up just outside the nominees.
11. "Bridesmaids" (9)
We can't imagine talk of a potential sequel without Kristin Wiig has helped its standing among voters, even if Universal have otherwise run a strong campaign on the film.
12. "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" (13)
Going wider saw the film continue to perform very strongly at the U.S. box office, and it should do well at the BAFTA nominations on Tuesday. But unless the British contingent really pull through for it, it'll be miracle for the film to pick up more than a couple of nominations.
13. "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" (11)
Do bear in mind, Stephen Daldry is three-for-three on Best Director nominations so far. Also bear in mind that no one seems to like this film, and it's been virtually invisible in the conversation since 2012 rolled in.
14. "The Iron Lady" (-)
A bona-fide hit both at home and in the US (albeit in limited release), the Weinsteins have plenty of reasons to celebrate. But will anyone be able to look past the film's plentiful flaws to award anything bar La Streep?
15. "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Pt. 2" (=)
Our favorite question of the week: could Warners have taken the well-liked "Contagion" to a nod if they hadn't been more focused on Potter and 'Extremely Loud'? Woulda coulda shoulda. Either way, we'll eat a broomstick if this gets a Best Picture nomination, although it'll likely make up for it with a strong showing in technical categories.