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What Happened to Contagion?

Awards
by Terry Curtis Fox
December 30, 2011 3:07 PM
33 Comments
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"Contagion"

It’s completely disappeared from any awards conversation, including, incredibly, best screenplay and direction.

When I saw it, I thought it was the second great movie of the decade. At least "The Social Network" was a real contender up to the wire. I was certain that "Contagion" would be the same.

Remember, this is not a deliberately slow and narratively challenging film like "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy." Quite the opposite – what makes "Contagion" so stunning is that Scott Z. Burns and Steven Soderbergh take a scientific subject and treat it as a thriller. The only other films I can think of that managed to pull this off were "Lorenzo’s Oil" and (perhaps) "Panic in the Streets."

What’s more, the interweaving stories are far more effective than those of "Traffic," which always betrayed its mini-series roots.

Nor is it a cold film (which is probably what keeps "Margin Call" from contention). The performances are very strong, provoking real emotional responsiveness. (I can’t tell you how many people shared my reaction of being utterly petrified by their first post-viewing sneeze.)

And – usually a help for Oscar contention – it’s about a pressing issue of the day: there may never have been a movie that so well defines what government and only government can do. There is plenty of individual heroism in this film, but without national coordination, the plague could never be contained.

Burns should get a lot of credit for this since his script doesn’t have a single preachy sentence in it. Every idea is purely dramatized. This script should be at the top of the WGA list. (I'm a voting member.)

Is "Contagion" too smart for the movies?

This is a terrifying thought. We seem to have accepted that character drama now plays only on TV (and in indies destined for streaming). Have we done the same with smart?

Is this the difference a single year makes? Sure, the Academy went for sentimental over smart last year, but it was a real race. (Me – I haven’t thought about "King’s Speech" since it won the Oscars. I think about "Social Network" all the time.)

"Hugo" combines smart and sentiment. "Contagion," like "Social Network" and "Moneyball," is a mixture of intelligence and emotion. There’s always a faction of the business that prefers sentiment to emotion, but usually not to emotion’s exclusion.

"Contagion" works as a thriller, as a horror film, as a social drama, and as a character piece. It had a more than respectable showing at the box office. The competition is hardly fierce.

By any reasonable standard, this is a film that should be in contention. The audience was smart enough for it. Why not critics and voters?  

Awards
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More: Awards, Awards, Oscars, Steven Soderbergh

33 Comments

  • Ryan Sartor | January 2, 2012 11:37 AMReply

    I agree that it's one of the best films of the year. I think it is perceived as a "one for them" in Soderbergh's canon, which is a shame because it's really one for both.

    I have seen quite a few "For Your Consideration" banners on different sites. I don't think of Warner Bros. as a really big Oscar campaign studio in general, though.

  • Dax again | January 2, 2012 8:56 AMReply

    Apologies for spelling. I post from a kindle on my commute home from the office ><+

  • Dax | January 2, 2012 8:54 AMReply

    I completely agree. It actually reminded me of the possibility of what World War Z can be. But Brad Pitt factor has me worried. The characters could stand on their own two feet without exponential introduction scenes where they set up simple archetypes for the lamen. It saddes me how cast and release dates have become the "shock and awe" of nominee runnings.

  • Big-Time Contagion Fan | January 2, 2012 5:15 AMReply

    I think this and 'The Informant' are seriously underrated movies, playing fascinating games with narrative. In ways I couldn't completely grok, in this case: but I'm sure of it.

    Soderbergh called 'The Limey' a mix of 'Get Carter' and Resnais, I think; 'Contagion' is like Peter Watkins does 'Juggernaut'.

    Awards-wise, I don't think there's been a better constructed original film all year. If Ehle had another 10 minutes' screen time (and the film was longer to begin with) she'd be in contention.

    I've never understood why the end of this film is seen as propagandistic. And I *like* that it's cold.

  • HAZ | December 31, 2011 2:24 PMReply

    Thank you Anne! Contagion was brilliant and deserves at least director and screenplay awards. Agreed that the ensemble performances make it hard to single out actors, but they were marvelous, from Matt Damon to Jennifer Ehle to Jude Law playing one of the most haunting and relevant villains in recent memory. However the movie goes against the current fashion for complete social catastrophe and the end of the world, hence people didn't "get" it. Too bad.

  • Chris | December 31, 2011 12:54 PMReply

    This article can't be serious. If Soderbergh's name weren't on it, would anyone have given a second thought to such a mediocre film? Even apart from the handful of reviewers who praised it, I think you're alone in deeming it award-worthy.

  • Guest | December 31, 2011 12:47 PMReply

    The film was dull, boring and frankly could have been a hell of a lot better. The reason this is not going to be seen anywhere near awards is because it was a poor film, and deserves to be forgotten. The fact you think it is award worthy makes me doubt your judgement as a film critic.

  • Anne Thompson | December 31, 2011 12:13 PMReply

    It's the best-received Soderbergh film in some time, and while it may not be a moneymaker, it's perceived as a commercial hit. The ensemble cast is part of the problem: none stood out as a potential Oscar contender, so no campaigns there. Clearly the studio decided not to throw good money after bad in a failed awards campaign. They did put forward Scott Z. Burns--he deserves an original screenplay nod for pulling off a remarkably difficult assignment. What's more mysterious is why the film wound up at 46 on the top ten lists. The critics could have pushed it too. http://moviecitynews.com/2011/12/the-top-tens-updated-december-30/

  • Carycomic | December 31, 2011 11:12 AMReply

    Olli is only half-right. "Contagion" is undeniably superior to the _needless remake_ of "The Andromeda Strain." But, it is definitely destined to be as much a medical-thriller classic as the 1970's original. And, thus, I agree with you. This is far worse a snub than the Academy's ignoring of "Titantic's" director!

  • Samantha | December 31, 2011 10:48 AMReply

    I couldn't agree more with your article. And sitting here with my NY Times..and their special OSCAR section..not one mention of the film..or even an ad...WB has a large ad for J Edgar
    (WB, always with the ass kissing to Leo and Clint)..and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
    (very 'meh' on an 'important' subject) plus Hanks! plus Bullock! ugh.

  • Nilay | December 31, 2011 5:03 AMReply

    Finally someone who agrees about Contagion! When i saw it with my family my mom and bro both said its a dreadfully dull and cold film. When i mentioned that this should be nominated they said zero chance. Looks this could be one of the worst awards snubs for a film ever!

  • Ralph | December 31, 2011 4:00 AMReply

    I couldn't agree more. "Contagion" is one of the two or three best movies I have seen in 2011 (and I see a lot). It features superb writing, editing, direction and acting. The thought that character and smart are no longer valued by American film producers, audiences or critics is terrifying and sad. I have just finished reading Mark Vieira's biography of the great Irving Thalberg who valued character above all in the recipe for film success. And what success!

  • Dooby | December 31, 2011 3:49 AMReply

    I agree with everything this article says x100. A film as smartly and confidently directed, crafted, written and acted as this should be in the Oscar race. I was blown away by this film when I was merely going in to be entertained based on the somewhat-muted response by critics and audiences.

    This might've done well with awards if it had achieved much bigger numbers at the box office.

  • Olli | December 31, 2011 3:44 AMReply

    Yes, it had a clever script, good direction and a bunch of great actors in it, especially Jennifer Ehle, but in the end it was not very engaging. Surely one of the better films of 2011 but to me it's no award contender.
    Robert Wise's "Andromeda Strain" or Roger Spottiswoode's HBO-movie "And the band played on" are far superior to "Contagion".

  • Todd | December 31, 2011 12:27 AMReply

    I am disappointed especially that there is no talk of Jennifer Ehle in the Best Supporting Actress category. She was luminous, and humanized the role of "scientist." She pretty much got Best in Show when the film came out. I think, like Ides of March, it came out too early; movies that don't pluck the heartstrings like a banjo benefit from a late release date. Look at how well Tilda Swinton is doing with We Need to Talk about Kevin. If that film had been released in September or October, I'm not sure Tilda would be the presumptive fifth nominee.

  • Ronnie D. | December 31, 2011 5:45 AM

    Couldn't disagree more; Jude Law stole the show - don't even remember whoever Jennifer Ehle was in the movie.

  • Nilay | December 31, 2011 5:04 AM

    *hits like button*

  • KitCon | December 30, 2011 11:01 PMReply

    I had high expectations having read the reviews but it was a HUGE disappointment. I could appreciate Soderbergh's talent in framing each shot but the film as a whole was unengaging. The problem wasn't in the multiple stories but in how they were developed in aid of the story. Some had needless details while others were underdeveloped. Per boxoffice.com it only made $135M on a total budget of $95M and there is a reason it didn't connect with audiences despite the big name cast.

  • Dave Taylor | December 31, 2011 1:02 AM

    I think you're spot on, Kitcon. Contagion was a smart film, scary and thoughtful, but it was also remarkably unengaging and left me flat, wondering why no-one seemed to actually *care* about the pandemic they were wrestling with. Oh, and there's a long line of smart scientific films in this genre, my favorite of which is the original "Andromeda Strain" (written by Michael Crichton). My review of Contagion, btw, is here: http://www.daveonfilm.com/review-contagion-10068.html

  • Blake | December 30, 2011 10:04 PMReply

    CONTAGION suffered a post release award push because this film was a passion project of Alan Horn...Jeff Robinov refused to get behind the film..even when it opened #1 because he felt it would only make Alan look good after his departure...This is definitely one of the best films of the year..and should be in the conversation.

  • J. Sperling Reich | December 31, 2011 1:57 AM

    You have posted one of the most accurate comments here. One of the main reasons "Contagion" has fallen of the awards radar is because the studio never got behind the film with an awards campaign. "Contagion" was released in September so for it to be remembered during the awards season, it would have needed studio support... in fact, it would have needed the same kind of support Warner Bros. is giving the final Harry Potter film in a campaign meant to nab it a Best Picture nomination.

  • jingmei | December 30, 2011 8:17 PMReply

    Don't know this article's author yell for what, as a Contagion's fanastic? I have watched Contagion, a cool film, with gang of stars, brilliant performances, and dark educational themes. By all means not deserved of defending like this anyway.

  • MDL | December 30, 2011 6:53 PMReply

    Contagion has an 84% on rottentomatoes and it made a handful of best film lists so it is not as bad as some here want to make it. I'm not sure I would call it the second best film of the decade but if that's your opinion that's cool. Few of us would probably agree on what is the second best film of the decade.

  • gregorylent | December 30, 2011 6:13 PMReply

    hokey film, crikey, what do you expect apart from disappearance?

  • Sergio | December 30, 2011 6:04 PMReply

    Maybe because I thought it came off like a sequel to Outbreak. I agree with MWard2884. I liked the film, but I didn't think it was ALL THAT. (Though I did like it a lot better than a lot of Soderbergh's movies, but The Informant was better) Funny I actually have the blu-ray DVD for Outbreak, but didn't even bother to look at my Academy screener of Contagion. Once was enough. Maybe it needed Dustin Hoffman running around like a crazed man and a rapid monkey creating havoc.

    Moneyball was about baseball which was enough to leave me cold and uninvolved with the film. As Bill Cosby said about the game: "It's nine guys standing out in a field doing nothing" As for me Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is still the best film I've seen this year

    By the way, you're the same Terry Curtis Fox who used to review films for the Chicago Reader before Dave Kehr?

  • Nick | December 30, 2011 5:43 PMReply

    Ides

  • Nick | December 30, 2011 5:42 PMReply

    You must be Soderberg's mother! Idea of March maybe but Contagion? Please.....

  • zobel | December 30, 2011 4:26 PMReply

    See, this Dan guy regrets not seeing that Lionsgate mixed martial arts movie The Warrior instead of Contagion. It's just this weird thing where people really wanna tell you that you are wrong if you personally felt this movie worked...

    Killing off "the only character we really care about (Kate Winslet)" may be unsatisfying for MWard2884, but I sorta thought that storyline was brilliant. And I happen to think that "having several different storylines" was as artfully handled as I've seen in a long time. I was never confused as to where I was, who was who, or what of the myriad dramatic aspects of a serious viral outbreak I was watching. Which is good writing and good directing.

    But Dan here thinks "you can watch the news to get a better story," which I'm sure would have Soderbergh laugh out loud about this movie in particular.

  • Dan | December 30, 2011 4:06 PMReply

    There are hundreds of movies better than this one including comedies and as far as a 'thrilling' screenplay I'd like to disagree with a passion on that. People fell asleep to this film. It was made like a documentary and at the end it had the most propaganda feeling message I've ever seen. As far as acting, it was nothing special. This movie left my mind in hours after I saw it. I regret not seeing The Warrior in theatres when they were both released at the same time because I heard it was much better than that movie. When you mentioned best screenplay it's funny because you can watch just about any other epidemic or disaster or even alien film where the government denies everything or lies or w/e. It's nothing new. That's the problem with this movie. If you watch a lot of movies like I do you'll end up thinking you've seen this before, but this has absolutely no action and you can watch the news to get a better story...

  • amanda | December 30, 2011 4:04 PMReply

    None of the actors are "working" for a nomination for the movie. They aren't campaigning for the movie and lets face it you have to campaign for your movie to get recognized. No asskissing means no love at the end of the year.

  • mward2884 | December 30, 2011 3:59 PMReply

    Uh...it's not being recognized b/c it's not that great! The movie had several different story lines that could've been their own movies. Not to mention they kill off the only character that we really care about (Kate Winslett) who is actually out in the field trying to help people. She doesn't seem to have a hidden agenda like all the other characters. Marion Cotillard's segment of the movie definitely could've been a whole movie unto itself. But that's just my opinion.

  • zobel | December 30, 2011 3:53 PMReply

    Totally agree. Confused why I'm defending this movie all the time. It's great, right? Are we fans of this movie crazy?

  • Cafe Noir | December 30, 2011 3:48 PMReply

    A "best" of decade. So you saw 5 or 6 in last decade? C'mon ! Back-to-school.

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