By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist June 22, 2011 at 4:06AM
This week marks the start of a new regular column here at The Playlist, focusing on the awards season. It'll be intermittent at the present, and more regular once the season really gets going come September or so.
We're getting close to the mid-way point of the year, and we're almost exactly half-way through the summer blockbuster season. Inevitably, this means that in some circles, the talk is starting to move towards the pile-up of quality, or would-be quality, pictures that come in the fall, signifying the so-called awards season, something exacerbated by the Academy's surprise awards shake-up last week, which no longer guarantees ten best picture nominations, with films having to land more than 5% of the vote to get a nod.
And inevitably, the first rumblings have been met with a slanging match between Oscar bloggers. Gregg Kilday of The Hollywood Reporter ran a piece looking ahead to the race this year, commenting on certain trends that look to be prominent this year. Awards veteran Patrick Goldstein of the LA Times responded with an attack, specifically on Kilday, but on all early prognostication of this kind, saying "that this sort of nonstop forecasting is exactly what has wiped out any of the anticipation we might have for the Oscar race. Having to imagine an academy season that never ends is exactly the kind of buzz kill that makes you want to tune out the Oscars on a regular basis."
And to a degree, Goldstein is right. For one, there are certainly holes in THR's piece -- "Return of the King" might have swept the board a few years ago, but we don't see "Deathly Hallows Pt. 2" doing the same for the 'Harry Potter' films, considering its action-heavy bent and the series has never been seen as a risk or gained the critical adulation that Peter Jackson's trilogy got. But perhaps more importantly, discussing the race so soon, barely three months after last year's ceremony, can easily lead to a degree of Oscar fatigue among both readers and writers, particularly when most of the movies in question won't be screened for months.
Indeed, we've been guilty of it ourselves: this writer took a long-distance stab at the 2012 nominations back in March -- although it was intended more as a fun conversation-starter, and as something to get us through the barren spring months than any serious guessing: already, we regret many of the picks we made. To quote William Goldman's oft-used dictum, "nobody knows anything," and particularly this far out: if you were to show us someone who claimed this time a year ago that "The King's Speech" would win Best Picture, we'd show you a liar. Furthermore, of the 60 Best Picture nominees in the last 10 years, only six -- "Moulin Rouge!," "Crash," "The Hurt Locker," "Up," "Winter's Bone" and "Toy Story 3" were released in the first half of the year, although it is at least worth noting that two of them went on to victory.
But does Oscar speculation in June or earlier devalue the nature of the Oscar race and of what people like Goldstein do? Not really. It's undoubtedly a fascinating field, but very much an inside baseball one: 99% of people don't follow the Oscar blogs in anywhere near as much detail as you or I do, and are unlikely to be put off by early Oscar talk. And those who are interested, are interested exactly because they love the minutiae of the race, and, while they might grumble, aren't going to be put off by some gun-jumping in certain quarters.
More importantly, by this stage of the year, the fate of certain films can already be ascertained, and the race can be commented in a way that isn't about hit-baiting or wild speculation. Sundance, Berlin and Cannes have come and gone, containing many of the high-profile arthouse films which, even if a major Best Picture contender isn't to be found, can often highlight real threats in the acting or writing categories. In fact, by the time the traditional "awards season" began with the Telluride and Venice film festivals at the start of last September, four of the eventual Oscar nominees ("Toy Story 3," "Winter's Bone," plus "The Kids Are All Right" and "Inception") were in general release, while 2009 saw even more: "Up," "The Hurt Locker," "Inglourious Basterds" and "District 9," plus Sundance bows for "An Education" and "Precious."
To say that it's not possible to start to talk about the race at this stage is, frankly, a little naive. Despite an unnamed Oscar consultant telling THR that "I've been trying not to think about it," there's no doubt that awards campaigns and strategies are already firmly underway for most of the films that we'll be talking about come the end of the year. If you don't believe us, watch the Fox Searchlight featurette with Christopher Nolan and David Fincher paying tribute to "The Tree of Life." Or how about the Weinsteins recently dropping release dates for the majority of their fall Oscar-baiting slate? Most importantly, talking about some of these smaller films in Oscar terms early on can mean the difference between life and death at the box office, or even at the acquisition stage. If reviews talk about, say, Elizabeth Olsen in "Martha Marcy May Marlene" as a potential Oscar contender at a festival, as many did this year, it makes it that much more enticing for a distributor to pick it up. In turn, it means that they can run advertising with a similar quote when the film hits theaters (look at Fox Searchlight's use of festival awards in the 'Martha' trailer), creating a 'must-see' feeling.
With the recent rule change making it harder for little films to get a Best Picture nomination ("Winter's Bone" may well have missed out last year with the new system), not couching these films in awards terms means they're the ones more likely to miss out: Roadside Attractions can't afford to keep chucking advertising at Debra Granik's film in the way that, say, Warner Bros. can for "Inception," and being told early on that a film is a possible contender helps keep its name in the race. The only chance that a March release like "Jane Eyre" has is if Oscar bloggers keep bringing it up across the year.
So with all that in mind, where do we stand half-way through the qualifying year? What films have already proven themselves critics favorites or have gained traction with audiences, and which fell at the first? It's doubly hard to predict, because of the rule change: the "District 9" slot, for a smart, CGI-heavy blockbuster, isn't necessarily up for grabs, depending on the strength of the field. Nevertheless, things are starting to come into focus: below are the strong contenders that have emerged so far, the long-shots, and the films out for the count.
First and foremost seems to be Woody Allen's "Midnight in Paris," the director's best-received and most commercially successful film in decades. Talk has already turned in some quarters to the idea of it being a serious awards possibility, and it's entirely plausible: Allen's always been an Oscar favorite, in terms of the acting branch, anyway, but with few obvious awards-bait turns in the picture, it seems likely that the 75-year-old writer-director and the film itself would get the most attention here. An Allen project hasn't been nominated for Best Picture since "Hannah and Her Sisters" -- a film that, not coincidentally, was also his biggest hit in the intervening few years. It's probably too slight to be a serious threat of winning, but a nom isn't out of the question at all.
"The Tree of Life" has likely turned out to be too inaccessible to really connect with the Academy, and didn't seem to get the unanimous critical love that such a film would need to get in there. But it's doing quite well at the box office so far and has Fox Searchlight behind it, so if it sweeps the critic's groups (which is possible, despite the naysayers), it could still get in. As much as we love "Beginners," we still feel that the film is too intimate in feeling for a Best Picture nomination, but it's one of the best reviewed films of the year, and if "Lost in Translation" can get in, it's not one to count out. And we maintain what we said earlier in the year: Christopher Plummer is a major threat in the Supporting Actor category.
"Martha Marcy May Marlene" is the most obvious contender for the "Winter's Bone" slot, although, like we said, it faces a harder battle now, although both Elizabeth Olsen and John Hawkes are good bets in the acting category. Finally, and this is something of a gut call, but the one to really keep an eye on is Cannes entry "The Artist." The silent movie homage played like gangbusters, proving itself to be a real crowd-pleaser and was swiftly picked up by Oscars heavyweight The Weinstein Company. While the conceit might put off viewers initially, it's got Hollywood names and transcends the language barrier through its lack of dialogue, but more importantly, it's hugely enjoyable and should hit the predominately older Academy voters right in their sweet spot. Not only that, it's exactly the kind of film where word of mouth could quickly drive it into major contention. It's the most obvious answer to the "Slumdog Millionaire"/"The King's Speech" little-film-that-could, and if it can get in the final short-list, it could be a contender to actually pick up the gold, mark our words.
"Super 8" always seemed like the most obvious candidate of the big-budget summer movies to make it in, and the good notices means it remains that way. However, the notices weren't across-the-board glowing, and it's undoubtedly been hurt by the new rule change -- we're not sure we see 5% of Academy voters going for it as first choice, although the movie-making bent might help with that. Really, it depends on the box-office: it didn't drop like "Cloverfield," which helps, but it's not quite a phenomenon, which we suspect will keep it out. Of the Cannes films, "Drive" got great reviews, but is probably too pulpy for a nomination ("The Town" was a more traditional, well-reviewed crime flick with bigger names, and still couldn't make the cut in a ten-strong field last year), although Albert Brooks is looking like a potential Supporting Actor nominee.
"We Need To Talk About Kevin" is a more likely Best Picture nominee from the Cannes field, but still probably faces an uphill battle. Tilda Swinton is a definite possibility, although the field looks strong this year, so it's far from a lock. It's an extraordinarily tough film and indie shingle Oscilloscope Laboratories will only have so many resources at its disposal to get the word out. Pedro Almodóvar's "The Skin I Live In" is almost certainly too dark for anything beyond Best Foreign Language Film: "Black Swan" might have got a nom last year, but it was at least in English (and it certainly had much better reviews). "Coriolanus" likely isn't at the top of TWC's priority list, but if the reviews are anything to go by, Vanessa Redgrave might as well book her limo now: a Supporting Actress nom has been talked about ever since Berlin. We loved "Jane Eyre" and it's the kind of costume fare that the Oscars love, but Focus put it out like they were ashamed of it, and it doesn't seem to have anything near the traction that a March release would leave. Maybe there's something clever up their sleeves, but it's a real long-shot at this point.
Speaking of films we love, "Bridesmaids" was a critical and commercial hit: is there any chance it could be a contender? Not really. Of all the recent acclaimed comedies ("The Hangover," "Knocked Up"), skewing female makes it seem more respectable, but it's still a foul-mouthed Apatow-com. It's a virtual lock for a Golden Globe nomination (and possibly even a win, considering the far inferior "The Hangover" got the prize two years ago), but Oscar isn't going to happen.
Finally, Sundance films "Another Earth," "The Sound of My Voice" and "Pariah" don't seem to have broken out in the way that "Precious" did, but once they're released officially, that could change. That didn't really seem to work out for "Win Win," which probably needed to be a hit of "Little Miss Sunshine" proportions to become a real contender, although considering director Tom McCarthy's much less high-profile "The Visitor" got Richard Jenkins a Best Actor nomination, lead Paul Giamatti shouldn't be counted out yet.
Out Of The Race:
The chance of "Melancholia" getting any kind of attention was always slim. A Best Actress award for Kirsten Dunst at Cannes might have put her in the race, but Lars Von Trier's outburst at the festival has pretty much ruled that out. As for other Cannes pictures, "This Must Be The Place" looks to be a non-starter, although if Sean Penn can get nominated for "I Am Sam," his gonzo performance could be a dark horse, but we suspect it's not going to happen. And "Priest" has more of a chance of getting any awards love at this point than Gus Van Sant's "Restless," considering the poisonous reviews from the Croisette.
As for actual releases, we saw a few prognosticators mention "X-Men: First Class" when the good reviews came in, but they are, quite frankly, out of their fucking minds: if a superhero movie ever gets nominated, it'll be "The Dark Knight Rises," but there'll be nothing before and probably nothing after, either. This writer adored "Hanna," but despite its award-bait credentials (Joe Wright, Saoirse Ronan, Cate Blanchett), it's not an Academy movie in the slightest. "The Conspirator" died on arrival (and also wasn't very good), so that isn't going to happen, while if Fox thought weepie "Water for Elephants" was ever a contender, they wouldn't have released it in April, and the lukewarm reviews and box-office reflected that.