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The State of the Race: Five Things

Oscar season has a way of sweeping out the old to make way for the new. This is really simply understood as award fatigue, an affliction caught by some as they keep sifting through the same old pile of films. Naturally this would lend itself to the kind of breaking news that may or may not mean something — but it is notable and noticeable because everyone battles the same affliction. In the end, the illness wears off. It usually takes one full year for awards junkies to look back and think, wow, how did THAT happen?

One quick read down Hollywood-Elsewhere‘s main page and we get: Pete Hammond promoting Sandra Bullock for The Blind Side, Kris Tapley promoting Jeff Bridges for Crazy Heart (he says Bridges wins for this) and he also guns for Maggie Gyllenhaal. All of these proclamations are tempered with “could” and “may,” still it’s probably enough for the studio to mount a campaign and bloggers take note, or rather, get a blogger, show them the movie and hope that they can push it hard enough to make it matter. Even if it just hops from one site to another until eventually it materializes as buzz. Bloggers are mostly competing with each other for best positioning, as in, whom the studios rely upon. And it is kind of cut-throat, believe it or not. It seems silly but you’ll just have to trust me on this one. Either way, if the goods ain’t there, the goods ain’t there.

Despite how many will try to position it as already over, this is a race that will really start to take shape in mid-December. There is going to be a lot of last-minute rallying going on, I figure. But what do I know? In the end, my legacy will be: the one who didn’t know anything.

Here are five I hope do not get lost in the shuffle, and that, as the season builds to its climax, don’t get left back in the lobby.

1. The script for In the Loop.
I still haven’t seen anything that good all year. If the Academy can nominate, repeatedly, Mike Leigh for his mostly improvised scripts, surely they can remember the dazzling array of brilliance at hand in the Armondo Iannucci’s film. But they probably won’t. It isn’t “fresh” enough. In the Loop has stayed with me throughout the year.¬† Here’s to hoping, even if it’s not in the awards race at all (which it should be), that audiences re-discover it on DVD (January 12). It is the rare film that works their ensemble like a well-oiled machine. This film is Mike Leigh wired on meth but it is so spot on and such a brilliant satire it belongs in the same club as Dr. Strangelove.¬† It will probably be obliterated, though, as it might have had a shot if the script were original – but since it’s an adapted work, it will go toe-to-toe with the likes of The Lovely Bones, Nine, An Education, etc.

2. When (500) Days of Summer came out, it was praised but not as enthusiastically, perhaps, as Fox Searchlight’s past winners, Juno and Little Miss Sunshine. It could have fit into Searchlight’s brightly lit campaign quite well, however. But the problem with it, as far as Oscar is concerned, is that it isn’t so much a general audience movie, as the other two were. Top to bottom, (500) Days is, mark my words, one of the most unforgettable films of 2009. It might take some time be realized and defined as such, and it might not have what one might assume is “Oscar heat,” or packaging, but as movies go, as writing goes, as stories go, as acting goes — this one stands out.

I have noticed in the ….wait for it … ten years I’ve been covering Oscar that the kind of love voters experience with a (usually young, white male) director is passionate but fleeting. It is a moment to lift them up and thrust them into the big leagues. This celebration will make their careers, on occasion. Usually, though, history rubs them out in favor of the one who didn’t become the crush magnet. The problem with (500) Days is that the crush never happened. No one ever fell in love with Marc Webb, thus, there was no way to really sell the thing. Look, folks, I don’t make up the rules, I just observe and report them.

Great love stories are few and between anymore. What we usually get is some glossy, generalized, typical study of love. It has become so formulaic that it’s no wonder most people prefer to cut to the chase with porn. At least if you have to watch something formulaic you might as well be getting something useful back.

500 Days should be noticed for screenplay, perhaps actress. It’s too much to hope for anything more – and I promised myself I wouldn’t get into the “shoulds” at all this year. So disregard that last sentence.

3. The Hurt Locker and Jeremy Renner. There seems to be a lot of attention being paid to Kathryn Bigelow’s Hurt Locker. No matter what anyone says, this has been a significant step forward for women directors – on the mainstream end, with Nora Ephron and Nancy Meyers, as well as in the area that women aren’t allowed in very often – the frontrunners in the Oscar race end. So here we have, so smooth it doesn’t need a lubricant, Lone Scherfig, Kathryn Bigelow, Jane Campion. Okay, so maybe only Bigelow is really headed for the DGA and then Oscar, but it’s fun to imagine a scenario where more women are represented. No, a girl group of directors isn’t going to bring the kind of ratings the telecast needs, and maybe this year it really IS about the ratings, it is still kind of pleasurable to imagine a year where it didn’t really matter that the directors of these fine films were women.

But back to Jeremy Renner. The best actor race is crowded and getting more crowded. You can’t really trust every Tom, Dick and Harry who throws out a name and says “so and so is going to win” or “so and so is now the frontrunner.” If I had a dime for every time I heard that one. What’s that? Oh, I have? But it’s different when I say it. Isn’t it? (No). The rules of Oscar watching apply until the end of time: nobody knows anything. We guess, that’s all. However, it is always worth keeping an ear trained to the chatter.

Here is what I know about Jeremy Renner. It is a difficult, layered performance there. It isn’t a scenery-chewing, showy one. This is a man on whom the entire film’s thematic content rests. He is America.¬† But because he isn’t scenery-chewing, and because he isn’t exactly a star, fighting his way into the top five is going to be difficult. There are still other performances yet to be seen, Daniel Day-Lewis in Nine for instance. But if we have Colin Firth, George Clooney, Jeff Bridges, Viggo Mortensen, maybe Michael Stuhlbarg, Matt Damon (who is having a hell of a year), it is going to be very competitive. How do voters choose? On what do they base those decisions? Do those decisions then mean anything?

4. District 9. This movie, I fear, has dropped so far off the radar that when Avatar comes along and finally destroys it there will be nothing left until, at last, it is rediscovered in the next few years, excavated by future audiences. D9 was a beautifully written, suspenseful, entertaining knock out of a movie. Can anyone really make the argument that Sharlto Copley didn’t give one of the best performances of the year so far? But why will it be forgotten? Because it isn’t Oscar-y enough. There is always that need to be highfalutin, which often excludes performers in “genre films.”

5. Melanie Laurent in Inglourious Basterds – It would be a crying shame if, when all was said and done, Inglourious Basterds only got the one nomination for Christoph Waltz. Laurent gave a subdued but captivating performance in the film and probably has an outside shot anyway. While this was meant to to be a reminder of what was once all of the talk and that is now being swept off to the side, as the year wears on some performances stick with you while others don’t. And just because people aren’t talking about them doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be remembered come Oscar time.