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State of the Race: The Calm Before the Storm

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It’s a funny season. It’s a quiet season. There are a lot of gun-shy studios it feels like to me. There are a lot of people playing it safe, hedging their bets, not trying to plunge in so soon. Is that because everyone is afraid of looking like “the frontrunner” too soon? Or is that the demand has at last outrun the supply? There has never been an opportunity for more films to break into the Best Picture category and yet so few actually in the running.¬† Right now it feels quiet. Too quiet. Could it be that something is about to drop to really shake things up? There are still so many question marks – The Lovely Bones, Avatar, Invictus, Nine, namely.

There is something to be said, though, for the hearty success story. You can’t really get one of those in the Best Pic race unless it’s released early in the year and is around long enough to prove staying power, and perhaps historical significance. It is the opposite of the mad love story (Slumdog Millionaire) that flies in, takes over the town, blows everything else out of the water and then disappears on down the road, leaving its wreckage behind, with Tippi Hedren being taken out of the house mute and bandaged. Okay, so that’s taking the weak metaphor a bit far. The hearty success story is a great thing when it comes along because you kind of know that film is here to stay – The Departed, No Country for Old Men, The Silence of the Lambs

David Poland has just written his Oscar column and in the first paragraph he kind of hints at something we’ve been figuring for a while now (well, to be specific, you readers, Craig Kennedy and Ryan have figured while I was reluctant at first, still kind of am), that Inglourious Basterds could be that hearty success story of the year and the one that will become an undeniable Best Pic contender.

Pushing out the column this week, I overlooked one title that I really do think is a serious contender for Best Picture now… and that is Inglourious Basterds (the chart has now been corrected). It is not the film I would normally expect to get in and I discounted the likelihood around release. But with Toronto flopping as an award parade, a quality movie-movie that many people really, really enjoy – not unlike The Departed – becomes more and more likely to make the cut.

Inglourious Basterds is slightly different from The Departed, I think, in that I knew (and I think others knew) that The Departed was not only the hearty success story but combined with Scorsese lose-lose status, the surefire frontrunner and winner. The Departed is unlike Inglourious Basterds in that one is a film that asks more questions than it answers, is a work of art probably, and divides audiences. The other is a major crowdpleaser that, even with a difficult ending, is still a film most people could watch and appreciate. I felt that The Departed was a tight nut – compact and perfect, without a single flaw. Inglourious Basterds is a more difficult sell but is one of those films that will become, unlike The Departed, iconic.

Still, I think one can say with a fair amount of confidence that Basterds is easily one of the most talked about, and one of the best, films of 2009. I think that’s an easy call. But back to Poland.

I can’t really get down with his chart because he has films at the top of the list that haven’t been seen and then just two near the bottom that are “still too blurry.”

More over, he puts The Hurt Locker in the same category as The Fantastic Mr. Fox, Inglourious Basterds, Coco Before Chanel and Avatar — these he calls “Serious Contenders.” The Hurt Locker belongs square at the top of the list. If there is one lock in the best picture race (okay, two counting Up in the Air) it’s The Hurt Locker, easily one of the best films of 2009, and one that might clock in as the best film of the year (even though it won’t win because it won’t have made enough money).

And he has Up in the Air, the one film you could bet the house on, as an 80% lock. Really David? Really? He has Up in the second slot – and yeah, it’s looking fairly likely that the film will be the first animated to get nominated but there are still a few contenders left — and there is still the animated category itself. If Up is THAT strong, it will win there and won’t need to take a spot away from the live action films. But if the Academy is trying to use the Big Ten as representative of all films, foreign language, animated and doc – Up is probably your best bet, but still, it’s not a 90%.

Finally, he has Nine in the top slot. I guess I’d ask, has he seen it yet? Even if he has seen it that doesn’t guarantee anything. One’s opinion in the privacy of a screening can be very different from how the film ultimately plays with critics and audiences. Nine looks great, it’s true, but it’s still too early to be calling it the frontrunner, in my opinion.

He tosses in the Toronto contenders, An Education, A Serious Man and A Single Man, lumping together the latter two as the “Jewish Precious” and the “Gay Precious.”

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Finally, he calls Bright Star The “Walking Dead.” This is probably the only real gripe I have with his list — this isn’t a science, hell, it’s hardly even a noun, but to put this Campion film so far down on the list is crazy. This is one of the few films floating around out there that will capture the attention of, I think I can say without sounding too sexist, the women voters, if nothing else. But I think it has a hell of a lot more going for it than that.

First off, one has to take any film with a strong performance in it seriously.¬† Usually if a woman is up for Best Actress that means, at the very least, the film will be seen. It is also likely going to be strong with the tech categories. Toss in Jane Campion for actress and screenplay and you have a Best Pic contender that is a hell of a lot stronger than a DOA. There, I think that is a lot nicer than saying, “is he out of his fucking mind?”

But of course, you can’t please all people and fans. Even now, though, before many of the other films screen for bloggers, critics and audiences, several titles are floating around that seem strong enough to jot down on the list. So if we had to pick ten today, not counting those that haven’t been seen, and not counting animated, foreign language and doc, I think it would look something like this:

Up in the Air
The Hurt Locker
A Serious Man
An Education
Inglourious Basterds
Bright Star
Precious
District 9
A Single Man
Julie & Julia

You’d have to toss out a few to make way for those still upcoming – and you may have to toss out at least one for animated, but I’m going to guess that there will be more than a few crowdpleaser/moneymakers on the list. So Avatar may bump District 9.

Again, those are the films I think have the best shot right now at making anyone’s top ten list. We’re still a few months out for the critics’ top ten lists, and we still have a long way to go before the ballots go out. A lot can happen when a storm is building. And we’re all still waiting for that hurricane.

As far as the acting categories, Poland runs them down this way:

If it’s Day-Lewis, Clooney, Firth, Renner, and Damon… what happens to Mortensen, Wahlberg, Sarsgaard, Stuhlbarg, and Maguire?

If it’s Streep, Mulligan, Cotillard, Weisz, and Sidibe… what happens to Tautou, Cruz, Cornish, Swank, and Theron?

It’s making my head spin. I don’t know where he is coming from with this. But Streep, Mulligan, Cornish, Sadibe – that’s your four locks. Maybe there is a fifth slot for Farmiga, maybe someone else.

Actor – Firth, Clooney (two strongest), Renner, Damon, Stuhlbarg – I see as the locks. But others will break through. I’ll leave the supporting categories out for now.

It’s only October. We have a long way to go before we know anything about anything, and even then we may know nothing.