With the field for the best picture Oscar broadened to ten, a batch of summer movies are now positioned for possible inclusion. Yes, year-end movies still have the advantage. It used to be that a summer movie had to be strong and the late-season weak for it to make the top five (think Sea Biscuit, Apollo 13, Forrest Gump, Saving Private Ryan, Gladiator). But this year, five summer movies could score a top ten slot, from crowd-pleasers Up, Star Trek and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince to higher-end fare such as Public Enemies and Hurt Locker.
The good news for Public Enemies is that the Academy screening this weekend was packed, probably the best-attended so far this year. But it didn't earn a rousing reaction. Michael Mann, Johnny Depp, Marion Cotillard and director of photography Dante Spinotti did nab a smattering of applause. My guess: it will rack up some nominations by year's end, especially in the acting and tech categories--Marion Cotillard is a front-runner for supporting--but might not go all the way. By then, the $100-million period epic may look like a picture that didn't make its money back. The Hurt Locker, on the other hand, could have long legs indeed, and will look like a movie that overcame considerable obstacles en route to inevitably landing on many critics' ten best lists.
A surprisingly robust Academy possibility is Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. While so far the series has been overlooked for best picture, that will work in this film's favor. Half-Blood Prince, while costly ($250 million), is just about the best-made picture I've seen in many a moon. This Potter is as elegantly designed as a Pixar movie.Its tech credits are outstanding: period production design and costumes, cinematography, and visual effects (the quidditch matches are stunning).
What about the actors' branch? Well, admittedly, like the Lord of the Rings ensemble, Potter's gang of kids won't score any noms, but Michael Gambon as Dumbledore could land a supporting nod, as Ian McKellan did as Gandalf in 2001's Fellowship of the Ring. In this film, Gambon gets plenty of screen time and is aged and beloved, as opposed to charmingly villainous Alan Rickman as Severus Snape.
Harry Potter has similar factors going for it as the third Lord of the Rings installment, The Return of the King (2003). Both films boast complex scale and scope, and period always helps. The Fellowship of the Ring earned 13 nominations including best picture, and won four. The Two Towers was nominated for six and won two. Then The Return of the King swept all eleven Oscars for which it was nominated, including best picture. Finally, it was time for the Academy to overlook the fantasy blockbuster ensemble side of the equation and reward the quality of the filmmaking. Besides, while genre films have long suffered with Oscar voters, those prejudices have been subsiding ever since 1991's The Silence of the Lambs.
Conventional wisdom deems the Harry Potter series as too popular to score with Oscar. So far five films have generated $7.2 billion worldwide in box office and DVD sales. While David Yates may not be Peter Jackson, the Brit director has kept this franchise on track through installments five and six, and brought Half-Blood Prince's craftsmanship to an extraordinary level. He's also set to direct the last two films covering J.K. Rowling's final book, The Deathly Hallows. Warners expects to open the first in November 2010 and the second in July 2011. Academy voters may choose to hold off--The Return of the King was the ultimate LOTR movie. But what if Half-Blood Prince--my daughter's favorite of the lot--marks the series' peak?
If as many as five summer movies make it to the Oscar Ten, the Academy Governors will be very very happy. That's just what they wanted.