By Oliver Lyttelton | www.oliverlyttelton.com September 23, 2011 at 6:29AM
Last week in The Amazing Race, we talked about the films that had gotten a boost for their Best Picture hopes in the Oscar hunt, and those that had taken a hit, after being unveiled in the awards season. To sum it up: good news for "The Descendants," "Moneyball" and "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy," not great news for anyone else. But of course, while Best Picture is the big prize, there are waves and ripples far beyond that, particularly when it comes down to the acting awards.
Even if a film bows at a festival and doesn't look like it go the distance as a whole, a performance can rise up out of it and start to attract attention. In the next few weeks, we're going to look at how things stand in the acting categories, starting with Best Actor, with Best Actress and the supporting categories to follow. For more, head beyond the jump...
What looked like a relatively thin race a month ago has thickened out a bit recently, with a star-heavy list of contenders that'll certainly make TV producers happy. As we said last week, "The Descendants" went down well at Telluride and Toronto, and George Clooney looks to be locked in with another turn that takes his charming star persona and buries it under disappointment and dough. Whether he can win is a bigger question, but he's not got Best Actor under his belt yet, and he's pretty firmly beloved by now.
Clooney's pal Brad Pitt had been an outside bet for "The Tree of Life," but he's actually gotten better reviews for "Moneyball," which seems to be a proper movie star turn, far more accessible than recent character actor-y turns, or his underbite-happy performance in the Malick movie. Assuming the film lands at the box office this weekend, it could well carry him through. Gary Oldman, meanwhile, doesn't have the same A-list cache as Clooney and Pitt, but he's an actor's actor, long-thought overdue, and he's tremendous in "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy." Some might see it as a performance too subtle to grab Academy voters (he has less screen time than you might think), but he's got a couple of good Oscar clip moments, and, more importantly, has the strongest narrative behind him. Our gut says he joins Clooney as a mortal lock in the category.
The final strong contender right now is Jean Dujardin, the mostly-unknown-in-the-States star of Cannes smash "The Artist." His performance has been talked about as a thing of beauty, and without any dialogue, it overcomes the usual hurdles of foreign-language performances at the Oscars. But the English/French barrier may still be an issue: Anne Thompson has reported that Dujardin doesn't speak much English, which could be a problem when it comes to the vital glad-handing that wins votes. We suspect that may become a factor in terms of winning, but if the film's as beloved as it seems to be, it shouldn't stop a nomination.
So that's four actors who look like strong probabilities. Some might fall out (Clooney seems like the only one who really couldn't), but we wouldn't be at all shocked to see them make up three or four of the five nods. So that leaves one big open slot to be filled, and a lot of actors chasing it. The most hotly tipped all year long has been Leonardo DiCaprio, who missed out after a banner year in 2010 with "Inception" and "Shutter Island." The lead in Clint Eastwood's "J. Edgar" looked like the kind of role that's proper Oscar bait -- a real life figure, secretly gay, playing across a long span of time. But that trailer that debuted earlier in the week wasn't well received, with the actor (buried under a slightly dodgy make-up job that, if the script is anything to go by, he wears for a significant chunk of the film) coming across as mannered and try-hard. It's only a trailer and all, but we're far from convinced that it's DiCaprio's year.
So who else have we got? Michael Fassbender is undoubtedly deserving for "Shame," but it's a very tough watch, and Academy voters could find themselves turning their screeners off after twenty minutes. But Fox Searchlight are going to be pushing him hard on this one, and the quality could shine through for the slightly younger, less shockable Academy members -- it's not quite the same case, but many said that "127 Hours" would put people off, and that still managed a nod for James Franco. Ryan Gosling's had a good year, finally stepping up and embracing his movie-star potential, and "The Ides of March" looks like the one that's most likely to carry him. But it's not a particularly showy turn, and it remains to be seen how much impact the film makes. There have been murmurs about Joseph Gordon-Levitt in "50/50," and we're sure it won't be long before the actor gets a seat in the Kodak, but the film will really have to catch alight when it comes out next weekend in order for it to happen, as good as he might be in the film. Finally, Woody Harrelson was widely praised at Toronto for his performance in "Rampart," but the film is, a week on from the festival's close, still without a distributor, which suggests he won't figure into this year's race.
And now we get into the longest of longer shots. Of the films widely seen, Demian Bichir's performance in "A Better Life" was well-liked, and Summit has already sent out screeners, but it'll be an uphill battle, while Owen Wilson has been mentioned for "Midnight in Paris," but if you think about it, no Woody Allen surrogates have ever been nominated for an acting Oscar (male noms: Sean Penn, Chazz Palminteri, Martin Landau and Michael Caine, none of which are classic Allen-substitute parts), and Wilson doesn't seem like enough of a revelation to break that duck. Antonio Banderas is likely too dark and unsympathetic in "The Skin That I Live In," and, even if "Anonymous" is picking up surprisingly good word out of Toronto, we don't see Rhys Ifans happening. More likely, if U.S. critics at NYFF go for "Carnage" in a way that those in Venice didn't, Christoph Waltz might have more luck.
As for those that haven't been seen, there's a trio of young actors with potential: Jeremy Irvine in "War Horse," Asa Butterfield in "Hugo" and Thomas Horn in "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close." For whatever reason, though, it's harder for tyro actors to break in than up-and-coming actresses; in the last decade, Adrien Brody, Ryan Gosling and Jesse Eisenberg are the only ones under 30 to get a Best Actor nomination, and Brody was the youngest ever winner at 29.
Meanwhile, Matt Damon, himself nominated for Best Actor for "Good Will Hunting" at 27, hasn't been nominated in that category since, and while we're yet to be sold on Cameron Crowe's "We Bought A Zoo," it looks like a sterling performance from the actor. If the film's anywhere close to making the kind of connection that "Jerry Maguire" did, he might be recognized for the stalwart, mostly unrecognized work he's been doing in the meantime. Our head was tempted to give him our fifth slot, but our heart wants to give our support to a harder sell. So, our five predictions (many, many months out, so it will of course change...)
George Clooney - "The Descendants"
Jean Dujardin - "The Artist"
Michael Fassbender - "Shame"
Gary Oldman - "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy"
Brad Pitt - "Moneyball"
Next week, the actresses, the week after, the supporting types. Our weekly chart follows below. Numbers in brackets indicate the film's position in last week's run-down.
1. "War Horse" (2)
This'll keep hanging around the top three until we have reason to think otherwise. Spielberg getting a lifetime achievement award from the Producer's Guild only adds to the sense that he's having a year in the spotlight.
2. "The Artist" (1)
Failing to follow "The King's Speech" and "Slumdog Millionaire" to win the TIFF Audience Award is a minor blow, but a very, very minor one.
3. "The Descendants" (=)
We're still not sure that it's anywhere near a potential winner, but we'd be stunned if we get to January and it's not nominated.
4. "Moneyball" (4)
Reviews continue to be excellent in the week of release. The weekend's box office will see if it gets cemented as a nominee.
5. "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" (6)
We haven't yet seen any evidence that this is an actual movie that's coming out in theaters, rather than a computer-engineered Oscar grab, but seeing that Stephen Daldry could probably make a "Final Destination" sequel and get Oscar noms galore, it'll be a force to be reckoned with.
6. "Midnight In Paris" (5)
If "Hugo" works (see below), this has competition on two fronts, between that and "The Artist," and as a fairly minor film, it may not be able to hold its ground.
7. "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" (=)
Opened as a bona-fide hit in the U.K, which bodes well. We'll see how it holds, and we've always said it'll appeal more to British audiences, but the British crowd should be enough to pull it through.
8. "Hugo" (14)
We're hearing some very strong buzz out of early screenings, suggesting that it doesn't play as young and broad as the trailer suggested, while still being a crowd-pleaser.
9. "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo" (12)
We've been skeptical, but that new trailer made the film look richer, and less pulpy, than the last. Could it reach that rare "Silence of the Lambs" sweet spot?
10. "Young Adult" (8)
We get that Paramount are tactically skipping the festival route, but we've only seen a poster and a still at this point. If we don't see a trailer sometime soon, we'll start to worry that there's a lack of confidence in the thing.
11. "The Ides of March" (10)
Two weeks out from release, but without an upswing of critical support (or a topical political scandal breaking), risks dropping way down this list .
12. "J. Edgar" (9)
Clint's hit-and-miss of late, and that trailer makes it look more like "Amelia" than "The Aviator." But maybe there's something great hiding in there.
13. "The Help" (14)
As one prognosticator said this week, if a vote was held today, "The Help" would probably win. We might well be underestimating it, but the fact is, the vote isn't being held today.
14. "The Iron Lady" (16)
Still an unknown quantity, and of all the films skipping the festival circuit, this has been the most surprising. But we keep forgetting that the script's by Abi Morgan, who's had a great year with "Shame" and TV series "The Hour," and we wonder if we've been undervaluing how interesting it could be.
15. "My Week With Marilyn" (13)
If "The Iron Lady" does step up (or "The Wettest County"), this slips down The Weinstein's priority list. Let's see how it goes down at NYFF in the next few weeks.
16. "The Tree of Life" (11)
We can't be the only one who thinks that the momentum is dying on this, particularly with Brad Pitt's "Moneyball" stepping up. Year-end critic's list and awards could bring it back into the conversation, though.
17. "The Wettest County" (=)
Still not sure if this is coming out this year. We live in hope.
18. "Martha Marcy May Marlene" (-)
An astute commenter pointed out we missed this last time around, and it does have the potential to be this year's "Winter's Bone." Having said that, that film only just snuck in in a field of ten.
19. "Contagion" (-)
Yes, we called this dead last week. But apparently it's been going down well with Academy voters. We still think it's a very long shot, but we wouldn't be adverse if it got a groundswell.
Still feels too minor a film for Best Picture consideration, but it's possible that it takes off with audiences when it hits theaters next Friday.
"Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Pt. 2"
Doesn't seem to have the momentum needed. If you want your final fantasy movie to get a nomination, don't split it into two. This means you, "Breaking Dawn Pt. 2"!
"We Bought A Zoo"
Again, we're intrigued by that Matt Damon turn, but it feels like "Marley & Me" type fluff, really.
"In The Land Of Blood and Honey"
The more we think about, the more we think this sounds like a tough sell, even with Angelina Jolie pushing it.
A younger-skewing "Blue Valentine," but with a sniffier critical response, this seems very unlikely, but Paramount are going to push it anyway.
Seemingly a damn fine film, but more niche than even "Precious," so likely to struggle. Has some impassioned fans, though.