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Oscars 2010 – The Breakthroughs

For many of the artists who make movies there is nothing more degrading than the awards circuit. No one wants to admit that they make movies to win awards, because most people don’t make movies to win awards – they make them because they love making movies. They appreciate it when their peers and the critics love them enough to award their films, but they know just as well what it’s like to get no love or attention from either; a cold lover is a cold lover.

So when they ignore you one year and love you the next, are you to take that seriously? Do you believe them this time because this time it’s going to be different? And then, when you offer them something the following year and they turn their noses up at it, what then?

It’s a crazy game, this awards race. Win/lose, success/failure – it seems to have nothing to do with art and everything to do with money and power; a successful film by an unknown can launch a career, alter a whole life. If your movie gets no award attention not as many people will see it. If you don’t campaign for your film it won’t get awards attention. You can campaign all you want and still get nothing back.

There is no predicting, particularly, how well a film will do. Usually, a film will do really well with awards if it is discovered first and the awards, rave reviews and top ten lists follow. If it is designed to win awards, sold as a strong contender long before it ever hits the public or is seen by critics it’s much harder to make it a major player. The reason for this is that the expectations are shot way too high, and very few films can live up to those unrealistic expectations.

All the same, those of us who engage in the Oscar race, write or blog about it, tend to hover somewhere near the bottom of the food chain. Respectable journalists who don’t cover the Oscar race mostly hate the bloggers. Film critics mostly hate the bloggers. But they recognize that the Oscar race often means major bank and in this day and age, that means something; it’s nice work if you can get it, being paid to write anymore.

All of the cynicism aside, however, there are some major transformations that can spring from the awards race. And those are the things I’d like to focus on today.

1. Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, Justin Timberlake – The Social Network. The awards heat on The Social Network (heat being one of the biggest understatements of the year) has thrust these three actors into the spotlight. While one hesitates using the tired clich√©, “they’ve now landed on the A-list!” they have, in fact, landed on the A-list. Eisenberg gave one of the best performances of the year, alongside Colin Firth and Ryan Gosling. His Mark Zuckerberg is pitch-perfect. It was unearthed after much research and many many contemplative takes by the painstakingly detailed David Fincher and the insightful Aaron Sorkin. Each line reading, gesture – even the food Zuckerberg chooses to interact with (a can of tuna, a stick of red licorice, a sandwich he doesn’t eat but tries to stick in his picket) has been well thought through. No stone was left unturned in this perfect film, and that includes every emotion and bit of detail from its actors. Justin Timberlake is now a legit actor, Andrew Garfield is, well, Spiderman. Enough said.

2. Winter’s Bone and Debra Granik – coming off of the first year a woman won the Oscar for directing and picture, two strong female directors are in the awards. While Winter’s Bone’s place in the Best Picture lineup is still uncertain, it is clear that Granik has now made a name for herself in a big way. Her star, Jennifer Lawrence has, with this role, displayed her versatility and strength; there isn’t a better way Lawrence could have launched her career than being the star of Winter’s Bone and having the film get this kind of award attention.

3. Tom Hooper, The King’s Speech – Hooper had another film on the fringes of Oscar, The Damned United. Hooper is now a name. And that’s entirely to do with the awards heat on The King’s Speech. This year will completely alter his career path. People like Hooper get what an opportunity a moment like this can mean.

4. David O. Russell for The Fighter – O. Russell has said it himself; the award attention on The Fighter has given him a “second chance” at being considered someone other than a guy who lost his temper on the set.¬†¬† Having a film in what would otherwise be the Best Picture five (he will get a director’s nomination) does put you in a much more powerful position than you were the year previously. Power means more choices, more money – and for O. Russell, he’s back in business. That has everything to do with the Oscar race.

5. Melissa Leo – this really began with the excitement around Frozen River, but it continues this year; Melissa Leo is a big name now, someone who is automatically overdue. Why? Because with award attention came a chance to take stock of how much she has given herself over to one great character after the next all of these years. Character actors often don’t take front and center unless they have awards heat on them. Now, Leo may very well win her first Oscar this year, with The Fighter. That is partly to do with her own willingness to be a character actor in the first place, to access those emotions and strip away the vanity — but it’s also that she is now a family member of the awards circuit. That now makes anything she does worth a look.

6. Mila Kunis – while Barbara Hershey and Winona Ryder did not, I don’t feel, get the adequate attention they deserved this year, there is no question that Mila Kunis’ career has just taken a giant step forward. Now that she has awards heat (we don’t know if there is Oscar heat just yet) on her, she is suddenly not only a “name” but she’s a respectable name. You really can’t buy that kind of publicity; it is entirely due to this, the right place, the right time, the right people paying attention to her. Sure, it all seems kind of trivial when you step back from it, but since we’re taking stock of those who have gotten a boost, we must include Kunis.

7. Lisa Cholodenko – this writer/director is now a force to be reckoned with. Every deal she makes from here on out will get a boost from this year’s awards race, but most specifically, the New York Film Critics – the one group to really go to bat for the film. The guilds are recognizing it, too, note the Ace Editing nomination. Cholodenko will likely get much more money thrown her way to make the kinds of films she likes to make. Where will she go from here?

8. Derek Cianfrance – no matter what ends up happening with Blue Valentine, we know at least that people know what a dedicated, talented, thoughtful, hard-working writer/director Cianfrance is. Will this translate into any sort of Oscar nominations? Hard to say at the moment. In a year of depressing films, Blue Valentine — sex scenes aside — wasn’t one people were exactly leaping over themselves to watch. Cianfrance spent many years writing and developing this film, and that’s just not what people do anymore, if ever.

9. Trent Reznor/Atticus Ross – it is a laughable concept to imagine the great Mr. Reznor getting any more heat from the awards race than he already has. But in the same way Danny Elfman forever changed the way people perceived what a film’s score could do outside the traditional bounds, Reznor/Ross create a mini revolution in film scoring. This, because so far it’s gotten lots of awards heat. But we know Oscar is much more traditional along these lines, so we’re all bracing ourselves for the inevitable snub; Hans Zimmer’s incredibly moving score is more to their taste, and the King’s Speech may win. But there is no doubt filmmakers could be looking very differently at scoring after this year if Reznor and Ross manage to make the cut.

10. Ben Affleck – while Affleck already gained the kind of respectability one needs to have enough confidence to keep making films with Gone Baby Gone, he really has surpassed it with The Town, a solid hit, an artistic achievement (great writing, directing, acting) and hopefully an Oscar nod for Best Picture. Awards heat will greatly improve Affleck’s credibility as a directing force in Hollywood – even without an Oscar nom, truth be told.

Other benefactors of this year’s race include Hailee Steinfeld in True Grit, John Cameron Mitchell (a breakthrough with Rabbit Hole), James Franco (already a respected actor but has gained credibility as a versatile actor who can carry a film).