By Oliver Lyttelton | www.oliverlyttelton.com September 16, 2011 at 5:44AM
After two bonkers weeks, the September festival season is just about dragging to a close (at least in terms of major awards-season debuts; Fantastic Fest is pretty much imminent, but it's not an awards player and the NYFF follows hot on its heels, but most of those films have screened already). And as ever, the films that we're likely to see strutting their stuff at the Kodak Theater -- and the ones that we won't -- have started to come into focus.
What's surprising, actually, is how few home runs came out of Venice, Telluride and Toronto, awards-wise, with only three films -- all fairly commercial prospects -- really getting any significant momentum behind them. A few others remain players in this race, and quite a few contenders fully dropped off, meaning that the shape of the season is already looking very different than it did a few weeks ago. Below, we've run down what the debuts of the big festival movies mean for their chances at Best Picture (we'll get into acting and craft nominations next week and the one after). And beneath all of those, our second chart, looking at the 20 films that we think are in the mix.
Probably the biggest winner of the last couple of weeks. Prognosticators had certainly kept their eye on Alexander Payne's latest, particularly considering the presence of the beloved George Clooney in the lead. But we'd heard some mixed buzz on the film, and Payne's work can be a little too prickly for awards season -- "Sideways," after all, won only for screenplay out of five nominations. But working from someone else's source material (the novel) seems to have brought out something new in the director -- the near unanimous raves out of Telluride called it his warmest, most accessible film to date (here's our A-grade review). With the notices holding up when it got to Toronto, this is as close to a lock for a Best Picture nom as any film as we have. At least, right now it is...although we suspect it's not big enough in scope to win. However, look for Clooney to earn his fourth Oscar nomination for acting -- many are citing this performance as one of his best.
"Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy"
Tomas Alfredson's spy picture has mostly hung around the fringes of the conversation this year, with most doubting its ability to transcend its genre background. But the film went down a treat in Venice, picking up very strong reviews across the board (we'll concede that this writer was on the top end of that scale, but it's a very, very good film -- here's our review). And with other contenders falling off, it's looking more and more likely to land a place in that final 5-10 Best Picture field. For one, it's very much an actors' showcase, with an impeccable cast -- actors make up the largest branch of the Academy. Furthermore, there's a significant British contingent among Oscar-voters, who can sometimes vote country-first -- hence the success of "The English Patient" and "The King's Speech," among others. It'll kill at the BAFTAs, and with no other looming British entry on the horizon, this will certainly get a boost. It's not a lock, however; some found the film chilly and hard to follow, and eschewing the Toronto/NYFF route, it may let other films step up in its place -- at least until stateside critics get their teeth into it.
There was never any doubting the pedigree behind "Moneyball": it's a stirring true story, helmed by a man who got a Best Director nomination first time at bat, and written by two Oscar-winners (Steve Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin). But whether it was the presence of comic star Jonah Hill, or just that the film looked so solidly commercial, most commentators thought that it was going to end up being a hit, but not factor into the awards season. But glowing to a tee, reviews from Toronto suggest it looks like a big hitter (we promise we'll ease off on the baseball metaphors by, oh, November or so -- our review). It will depend on the box-office, as broad-appeal films like this always do, but if it can come close to the numbers posted by "The Social Network," it should be an easy route to a Best Picture nomination. Brad Pitt and Hill look like they could possibly figure in to the acting nomination conversation too, but more on that next week.
"The Ides of March"
The Gurus of Gold, David Poland's brain trust of Oscar voters, picked George Clooney's political drama as a frontrunner in their first chart of the year, which we were skeptical of at the time, and even more so once we saw the film. Not that it's bad in the least; it's a very solid, gripping political drama with some very good performances. But it never really becomes more than that, never saying anything particularly new about the electoral process. And it doesn't really move you, either. Having said all of that, it shouldn't be counted out, at least in advance of opening, but there are obstacles. It'll depend a lot on the film's box office. It looks unlikely to ride a wave of acting nominations. And we're don't see it garnering the 5% of first choice votes needed. Plus, with "Moneyball" stepping up, and "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" in the mix as well, Sony suddenly has several films fighting for attention.
"A Dangerous Method"
Considering that David Cronenberg was directing, this psycho-sexual-drama was certainly being keenly watched, what with being a period piece and all. But the film, now that it has screened in Venice, Telluride and TIFF, has a serious uphill battle to fight. It's just pervy enough to put off the older crowd, but not really compelling enough for those adverse to corsets. It's an actors' film, and Sony Pictures Classics will chase nominations hard, but Michael Fassbender's got another sexually-explicit drama ("Shame") to split the votes with, and Keira Knightley is severely divisive in her part. Almost certainly unlikely to happen (here's our review).
"The Deep Blue Sea," "Albert Nobbs," "Carnage," "The Lady" and "Shame"
Quite a diverse mix of films here, but with one thing in common; they're all performance-driven pictures, which will be happy to land a nomination for their star, and not much else. "The Deep Blue Sea" has one of the most widely praised turns from Rachel Weisz, but the film doesn't have legs outside that (as good as it might be). Furthermore, it doesn't have distribution yet (though that may change in the next few days). Neither "Albert Nobbs" or Luc Besson's "The Lady" were well-received enough to look for anything other than nods for their stars, Glenn Close and Michelle Yeoh (and, possibly, for supporting performances from Janet McTeer and David Thewlis, respectively, although those are more of a stretch). "Carnage" is very minor Polanski -- good fun, but much too small to figure into the big race (and even the actors are far from locks, only Jodie Foster looking like she might have the momentum, and that's still far from certain). And, while there's no doubt from those who have seen it that Michael Fassbender (and, indeed, Carey Mulligan) is deserving for Steve McQueen's "Shame" (read our review here), the film is controversial enough, and alienating enough to Academy voters, that it'll be a near miracle for the actors to get a look in, let alone a Best Picture nod.
"50/50" and "Butter"
Two of the more comedic offerings on the plate, and facing all the usual problems that that entails, these two star-driven pictures have very different chances. "Butter" got mixed-to-negative notices (we didn't disagree), and we have to count it out at this point, particularly with no single performance standing out in reviews (and also considering it won't get a wide release until 2012, though it will get a qualifying run). Had the reception been wildly enthusiastic, it's possible that the Weinsteins would have given it a strong push, but it wasn't, and so they won't, particularly with "The Artist" looking like such a heavyweight. "50/50" has had pretty great notices (we were on the slightly-less impressed end of the scale, while still finding things to like), but as touching and funny as it may or may not be, it's got one major hurdle that we don't think it'll overcome; it's a young-skewing comedy with Seth Rogen and jokes about ball-trimming in it. "Terms of Endearment" was loved by voters, but "Terms of Endearment" was more relatable to the still firmly middle-aged Academy membership. A screenplay nod is not out of the question, but we sincerely doubt it'll go beyond that.
"W.E." and "360"
Fernando Mereilles' latest got pretty weak reviews in Toronto (including ours), and even if it had a 2011 release date and distributor, which it doesn't, it should be counted out by now. As for Madonna's first-class disaster -- ha! Costume, if it's lucky. Maybe Best Original Song if Madge tacks something onto the end credits before it hits theaters.
"Pariah," "Wuthering Heights," "Anonymous" and "Rampart"
If we're being honest, these films have nothing in common other than being the ones left over at the end, although "Pariah," "Wuthering Heights" and "Rampart" were all festival favorites of ours. The latter seems to have the best bet at some kind of action; if someone picks the film (which hasn't happened yet, at time of going to press), than Woody Harrelson seems like he could be in the mix, although it's a tough year in the category. Focus are hopeful about Sundance pick-up "Pariah," but it doesn't have anything like the narrative behind it that "Precious" had; it's not happening. And "Wuthering Heights" likely won't hit theaters in the U.S. until 2012, and even then, it's rather too savage a period piece for awards season -- even the BAFTAs are likely to turn their nose up. Having seen about 20 minutes of footage about a month ago, we're stunned that "Anonymous" has had the reasonable reviews that it managed in Toronto -- we thought it looked like a trainwreck, but maybe it works better in context. Either way, awards aren't happening; it's, at most, Sony's number four priority, and reviews haven't been ecstatic. Some have mentioned Rhys Ifans, but again, it's a competitive year.
Next week, we'll make some stabs at the acting categories... In the meantime, our chart of Best Picture contenders is below (and here's our previous chart in case you missed it).
1. "The Artist" (2)
First murmurs of discontent in Telluride, with some critics finding the film quite slight. But that was always going to happen at some point; this is looking more and more like the film to beat.
2. "War Horse" (1)
By virtue of its director and subject matter, still a giant threat. But if it's anything less than exceptional, it could become another "The Color Purple."
3. "The Descendants" (8)
Barring a Mel Gibson-style meltdown from Clooney, this is happening.
4. "Moneyball" (16)
Could rise or fall depending on box office, but looks like a popular hit that could go the distance.
5. "Midnight In Paris" (=)
We'd wondered if this might fall off over time, but with competition dropping like flies, our gut says this will hold on til the new year. Not a chance in hell of winning, however.
6. "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" (3)
Dropping down a little by virtue that we haven't seen even a still from this yet (part of us wouldn't be totally surprised if it was struggling to make its date). But, should it come through, the 9/11 anniversary climate puts it in an even stronger position.
7. "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" (=)
Not going to be universally loved, but should have enough fans across the spectrum to make an impact.
8. "Young Adult" (17).
This is a gut call, somehow; Paramount seem to believe they have something special, with a meticulously-planned strategy, and we feel like this is the big dark horse right now, although the material is difficult enough that it may struggle to get a foothold.
9. "J. Edgar" (4)
There's a distinct lack of buzz here that makes us wonder if it's more "Hereafter" than "Million Dollar Baby." But Clint got "Letters From Iwo Jima" a Best Picture nomination, so anything can happen.
10. "The Ides of March" (11)
The film everyone likes, but no-one loves. We suspect that won't be enough.
11. "The Tree Of Life" (6)
Some passionate fans, but it's less accessible than "The New World," and that got shut out. Fox Searchlight have to run a killer campaign to get this in the final list.
12. "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" (13)
We know it's Fincher, and we know he was robbed last year, but the material is so pulpy. Put it this way: do you remember "Panic Room" getting a Best Picture nomination?
13. "My Week With Marilyn" (-)
Still an unknown quantity; could be a performance driven film, could be a damp squib, could be this year's "The King's Speech."
14. "The Help" (-)
We still suspect that other films will overshadow it, but it's hard to argue with that box office, heading gently towards $150 million.
15. "Hugo" (9)
Not feeling this one, somehow; seems to play very young, even given the Scorsese credentials. But maybe it's his "Cinema Paradiso?"
16. "The Iron Lady" (19)
Still being kept firmly under wraps, which doesn't bode well, and even if it is good, the material's less identifiable than, say, "The Queen." But Meryl's probably already got her limo booked, and rightly so.
17. "The Wettest County" (-)
This is still, as far as we know, set to platform before the end of the year. Given John Hillcoat's at the helm, it could well be too tough for voters. But it could also be really, really good.
18. "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Pt. 2." (20)
We still think it's not going to happen, even given its giant box-office (No. 3 worldwide). It is after all, half a movie. But Warners will fight for it.
19. "In the Land of Blood and Honey" (-)
Angelina Jolie's directorial debut is the great unknown left in the race. She'll campaign like hell for the film, but it is, ultimately, a star-free, subtitled war drama full of rape and genocide.
20. "50/50" (-)
As we said, we think it's very, very unlikely, but the film does have its supporters. If it catches on at the box office, it could move on up.
Momentum dying slowly, but Christopher Plummer still looks like a good bet unless the push goes towards "Barrymore".
"We Bought a Zoo"
That trailer didn't make it look like anything other than a very commercial middle-of-the-road film. But maybe there's a gem buried underneath, and it'll catch on like "Jerry Maguire."
Simply not good enough, and pretty much D.O.A at the box office.
"Rise of the Planet of the Apes"
A surprise box office champ, but too many negatives -- CGI heavy, sci-fi tentpole, franchise picture -- in the eyes of the Academy.
Well liked, but doesn't have enough passionate supporters to make the cut.
Focus needed to run the king of all comeback campaigns for this March release. They're not going to. Costume and score faintly possible, however.
Killed by its disastrous box office. Nick Nolte still just about feasible as Best Supporting Actor nominee, but our gut says even that won't happen.
Never an Oscar picture, and solid-but-unexceptional box office won't change that. In a just world, Jennifer Ehle would be a Supporting Actress contender. This isn't a just world.