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Oscar Check – Cannes, 2011

Can the Tree of Life go all the way to Oscar’s Big Ten?  It’s a tough one, and ultimately a little depressing to think about in all honesty.  Coming out of the Cannes Film Fest, it seems that the year’s best films would be selected over the course of the year until the very best remain.  But we know that it doesn’t really work that way because “best” is a matter of taste.  You have to choose films that will appeal to the most voters.  Since they vote in the dark and there are no consequences to their own decisions, most don’t care what anyone thinks about the films they choose: they simply vote for what they like best.

Tree of Life

Whether a film just won the Palme d’Or, or whether the critics hail it as a masterpiece doesn’t necessarily mean that industry voters will go that way.  The Tree of Life is more esoteric than industry voters can usually handle.  They tend to vote for films that have a plot, at the very least.  On the other hand, this is Terrence Malick we’re talking about – someone who is revered by major players in this industry, many of whom name him as a major influence.  It was no less a shock to the system last year to see the industry snub such a critically acclaimed director as David Fincher (no director in history has ever lost the DGA heading into the race with that kind of acclaim) but Fincher and Malick are two different animals. Fincher represents the new – digital filmmaking, the video age – he carries around an iPad.  Malick represents the nuts-and-bolts glory days of filmmaking — and has long since paid his dues, proved his longevity and earned his acclaim over time.  But there is still the matter of “if we didn’t like it we won’t vote for it” to contend with – as every year the Academy must attempt to represent the best of the year while using judging criteria that relies on unreliable  human emotions; crushes, love and lust don’t last for the long haul.  But they’re unstoppable in the moment.

The Tree of Life may be a great film but it will leave many voters scratching their heads: trust me, if Inglourious Basterds was too weird for them, Tree of Life will frustrate and infuriate them.  That doesn’t mean it can’t get a Best Picture nomination – it’s just that it will be one of the more difficult sells.  It requires a lot more than sitting back and letting a film manipulate one’s emotions.  There is manipulation going on but it’s probably more the kind that asks you to think.  And that is usually not Oscar’s cup of tea, pip pip, cheerio.  But it is “important” enough to get noticed.  It’s ambitious enough that it can’t be ignored, which is why I think it won the Palme d’Or.  And most importantly, it has Fox Searchlight backing it. And if there is one studio that turn this into an Oscar contender, it’s them.

The way to do that is to get voters on its side without ever having seen it first.  They’re half-way there already with it being a Malick film starring Brad Pitt and Sean Penn.   Cinematography is in the bag for a nomination.  The score is simply magnificent.  Art direction, a strong possibility.  I think it has enough going for it to at least throw it up on the contender tracker.  Old school Oscar, when they were held in March, would maybe split things up with the DGA going for Malick but the Oscars not going for Best Picture.  A less daring DGA of late seems to indicate they will not go with the risky choice.   I can see the critics maybe going for it – although one never knows what will become their favorite so early in the year.

We Need to Talk About Kevin

Tilda Swinton should head into the race a strong contender this year for her role as the shattered mother of a sociopathic son.  Ezra Miller should also get some attention as he begins what I think will be a very promising career – the kid’s got something otherworldly in that face, which the camera loves.  The characters put some people off in Cannes because they were maybe expecting some kind of redemption somewhere, and were maybe unwilling to accept the notion that sociopaths may be just born.  We always want someone to blame because that might mean we actually have some control over how our children turn out.  This is an exceptionally well-directed, well-written and well acted film – and yes, another tough sell.  Safe bet says Swinton only.  My hope is that it goes much farther than that.  Why do I care if awards don’t matter?  Because I just do.  When a film like this gets award recognition people know about it and maybe seek it out to watch it.

The Artist

The Weinstein Co. is behind this which means they will know exactly how to sell it.  The curiosity factor alone should get people in to see it but that it’s such a wonderful, crowd-pleasing experience makes it all the more possible it will go far in this race.  It will be interesting to see whether it does; I suspect it will follow sort of the path of Il Postino (which was foreign language, but still) – it will be a novelty that many will fall in love with.  How could you not?  It probably has a great shot at a Best Picture nod if it makes any money at all.

Melancholia

No shot.  Not after the Hitler flap.  And even without that – it would have been an extremely tough sell. But if there was going to be any Oscar recognition, it might go for art direction again, cinematography possibly.  That is probably it.  But I am willing to keep an open mind about it.

Take Shelter

Ryan adds: I haven’t seen Take Shelter, but as winner of the Cannes Critics Week competition, it’s earned our attention as a potential contender. We know Michael Shannon’s work is consistently outstanding, and I’ve been waiting to see what Jeff Nichols would do next ever since his debut with Shotgun Stories. (nominated for an Indie Spirit Award in 2007) Ordinarily I might be cautious about relying on the head of the studio handling a films distribution to assess a movie’s quality, but the accolades in Cannes lend credence.

“This film promises to be ‘a can’t miss’ in the marketplace,” said Sony Pictures Classic co-presidents Michael Barker and Tom Bernard. “With Shotgun Stories, Jeff Nichols instantly became a major independent filmmaker. His screenplay for Take Shelter is emotional, deep and timely. Michael Shannon is one of America’s great actors and Sarah Green is one of the finest producers we’ve worked with.”

Cataclysmic global events of the past several weeks have already qualified 2011 as the The Year of Fear of Apocalypse, (and as Sasha says above, Melancholia’s apparent stumble leaves an opening for the Doomsday Slot). So I’m feeling Take Shelter might strike a sensitive chord with ominous timing in by year’s end (assuming any of us survive to see year’s end.)

The Beaver

What a weird predicament this movie finds itself in. It’s Jodie Foster’s best movie to date – Mel Gibson gives his best performance to date, and Jennifer Lawrence could have been up for a supporting nod.  But of course, people don’t vote for people they don’t like – they tend to shy away from controversy – so what hope is there?  Without the Gibson thing, this would be, I think, a decent Oscar player specifically to reward Foster for her work, but maybe Gibson too – lest we forget he did once sweep the Oscars with Braveheart.  But the Jew stuff, the outbursts – it seems kind of unlikely they will change their minds.

Le Havre

If this film enters the race for Foreign Language it will have a great shot to win.  It might be a little too “light” for the kinds of films that usually win in this category but it will be among the most enjoyable in the Oscar race at all.  It will need a good push to find audiences but hopefully it will be discovered as foreign language films sometimes are over here.

The other French film that might compete with Le Havre for submission would be Polisse, which I found to be almost a really good movie — but could end up being very popular in France.

Midnight in Paris

Normally, this would be too light to last all the way until Oscar, and still may be.  But since it already appears to be a hit for Woody Allen, and since it’s one of his better movies of late, it’s worth considering for screenplay.  It doesn’t have any acting standouts, particularly – the best parts are too small for a nomination and the bigger parts aren’t worthy of one.  But again, keep an open mind.  Screenplay is a safe bet for consideration always with a Woody Allen movie.

These are my preliminary notes so far – I didn’t see The Skin I Live in, nor did I see Drive.