The movies that are ahead in the awards race---or have the most buzz at this stage--either have already opened or nabbed media coverage at film festivals, from Sundance (Blue Valentine, Waiting for Superman, The Kids Are All Right), Cannes (Biutiful, Another Year, Inside Job) and Venice (Black Swan, The Town, The Tempest) to Telluride (The King's Speech, The Way Back, 127 Hours), Toronto (Rabbit Hole, Hereafter), New York (The Social Network) and later reprise fests such as the Hamptons and AFI Fest. Now Paramount has slotted a surprise "secret" AFI Fest screening of David O. Russell's The Fighter, which I will see tonight at Grauman's, with an audience: a smart studio move.
I will also catch for the second time, Thursday at AFI Fest, Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan, because I need to see how the intense ballet thriller plays in Los Angeles. It's not the Academy, but it's close. This gritty creepy movie will score well with critics and audiences, but I'm not entirely sure about the Academy and most crucially, the acting branch, who did come through for a nom for Mickey Rourke in Aronofsky's The Wrestler. Natalie Portman is perfectly cast in the role of a perfectionist/obsessive dancer (see Fox Searchlight's new website, Ijustwanttobeperfect.com). So she's probably a sure shot for a best actress slot. But I remain less than 100 % sure.
Mainstream commercial studio releases such as Love & Other Drugs, Secretariat and Morning Glory are in some ways at a disadvantage without fest support, but that doesn't mean they are out of the running. At its Academy screening a week ago, Secretariat went over really well. Academy members, I hear, especially admired Diane Lane and the cinematography of the horse racing. This movie, like last year's The Blind Side, offers moviegoers much-needed upbeat entertainment. For an adult-appeal drama, it hasn't fared badly, a respectable $51 million after its fifth weekend.
Meanwhile Ed Zwick & Marshall Herskovitz's upcoming Love & Other Drugs (Fox, November 24), starring Anne Hathaway and Jake Gyllenhaal, and Roger Michell's Morning Glory, starring Harrison Ford, Diane Keaton and Rachel McAdams (Paramount, November 10), are both likely to score with audiences as smart romantic comedies with some substance. They aspire to James L. Brooks quality, and while neither comes close to the pitch-perfect brilliance of Broadcast News, at least they're trying. Zwick has been in the Academy zone, as a producer of Shakespeare in Love and Traffic, and with such actor-friendly dramas as Glory and Blood Diamond. Michell's Venus yielded an Oscar nomination for Peter O'Toole, and Notting Hill, starring Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts, scored three Golden Globe noms, but Michell has never been Oscar-nommed. Ford nails his supporting role as a crusty high-minded anchorman reduced to light news duty on a morning show. The Academy could harbor some affection for him.
But critics could do some damage. Morning Glory is only tracking at 58 on Metacritic so far, while Secretariat is at 61. Critics have a say in how these mainstream entertainments are perceived at awards time, but not always (best picture nominees The Blind Side was 53 on Metacritic, Chocolat, 63% on Rotten Tomatoes). I doubt that these pictures will wind up on many year-end best-ten lists or win acting prizes. They are more likely to turn up at the Golden Globes under comedy, or at the SAG Awards. But the Oscars? Last year I thought that Nancy Meyers' It's Complicated was worthy of awards consideration, but the movie was far too comedic for the Academy to rate seriously.