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The State of the Race: The Calm Before the Storm

As we contemplate where we’re going and where we’ve been it’s important to take note of how things stand right now. To my mind, there are three films that could win Best Picture if the Oscars were held today. So many movies have yet to open, some of them completely shrouded in mystery, others seem to be deliberately avoiding being screened here in Los Angeles. Reports are trickling in on how the films are doing but one can’t help but think there is a concerted effort to gauge audience reaction without the most vocal bloggers getting a crack at it.

It really is as true today as it’s ever been: “Nobody knows anything.” What William Goldman meant by that is this: all of the planning and good intentions can vanish in an instant when the film hits audiences. The great movie everyone expected and hoped might suddenly turn out to be a disappointment at best, a total bomb at worst. It’s the publicity department’s job to help mitigate this. It worked well for The Blind Side to avoid the bloggerati completely, to go straight to the people and the major news outlets that aren’t in the business of determining artistic value but are perfectly content to simply tell the film’s story to the world. Even though no one has yet seen J Edgar, you could see Clint Eastwood doing 60 Minutes with the film profiled and have absolutely no idea whether the film was good or not: you would simply want to see it. Publicity old school. It worked then; it works now.

But blogs work too. Grass roots publicity campaigns pretty much rule the Oscar race these days. Even if The King’s Speech won without any significant support from critics or bloggers — almost all of whom preferred a different film — it was still important for the filmmakers responsible to work the bloggers at festivals long before its preordained Oscar win. Jason Reitman’s Young Adult seems to be screening in various locations, as pointed out by Kris Tapley on Twitter, but isn’t being screened here in Los Angeles yet. A few people seem to have seen Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close but that film, according to the studio, isn’t yet finished. We Bought a Zoo, The Iron Lady, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and War Horse have not yet been seen by anyone. There are no trickle down reports. J Edgar will be unveiled in early November at the AFI Fest. The others most likely in November, some maybe even December.

And each time those screening invites go out and the bloggers assemble, like a Greek chorus, or the judges on American Idol, sitting there and waiting to decree whether the movie’s “got game” or not, one can’t help but die inside just a little bit. Even if you like the movie, as I did last year with Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter, I knew what was coming, and you can’t stop what’s coming.

But until that moment, nobody knows. Not the producers, not the director, not the writer, not the crew and cast who have just devoted years out of their lives to make the movie, not the publicists who have to sell the film anyway, whether it’s good or not, and certainly not us, the Oscar predictors, who faithfully check out box scores and make our predictions sight unseen. The only reason anyone would do that is because the Oscars have always been, and always will be, a game. Predictors are oddsmakers who are playing that game, taking a gamble on much the same set of criteria one might utilize when picking a good racehorse.

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As we wait, as we bite our tongues and sit on our hands and feel all of that premature excitement well up, I am reminded of Oscar’s past, the years when things shifted suddenly and without warning. Those kinds of years are a lot more exciting than the years when one film started winning and didn’t stop, like Slumdog Millionaire. Many pundits are betting that The Artist is already that movie.

With so many surprises left to unearth, we continue to look at what’s right in front of us. Right now, I think there are only three movies that have been seen that can win Best Picture: The Artist, The Descendants and Moneyball. Of those, Moneyball is the only one that’s passed all of the tests so far – it’s the only one that’s opened to the public, gotten the best reviews of any film this year, and is making money steadily at the box office.

Box office isn’t everything, but it’s not nothing either. To date, Moneyball is doing well at the box office, hitting $63 million over the weekend. Both The Artist and The Descendants will have to sweat the box office. The Artist is an enormous crowd-pleaser which will test the strength of its word of mouth while also answering the question of whether audiences will pony up for a silent black-and-white film.

The Descendants also has great word of mouth, and will test George Clooney’s box office appeal in a role he seems to have been waiting his whole career to play. What he hinted he could do with Up in the Air he delivers deeply with The Descendants. It is a warm film, an optimistic film, and a change of pace for director Alexander Payne, one of this country’s finest directors to have never won an Oscar. Election, Sideways, About Schmidt — a brilliant writer/director whose only Oscar came for writing Sideways. But he’s yet to win Director – hell, he’s only been nominated once. Most of his films have been black comedies and we know the AMPAS can’t go there. But The Descendants delivers on catharsis and leaves no dry eye in the house (well, ok, a few dry eyes).

The Artist was directed by French director Michel Hazanavicius. A film by an unknown foreign director winning Best Picture? It’s an unprecedented challenge, to be sure, and would be a tad shocking were it come to pass. But last year it seemed unlikely Tom Hooper could pull off a win, him being mostly known as a TV director (HBO, but still). If anyone can pull this one off, the Weinsteins can. They will know just when to bring out Hazanavicius and introduce him to the industry and to the world, something that will have to happen if that movie is to win Best Picture of the year.

Why are Moneyball, The Artist and The Descendants so good? Story, story, story. Along with Woody Allen’s absolutely wonderful Midnight in Paris, one of the year’s strongest films, what stands out here are mostly traditional stories well told. There is very little ambiguity here. They are heavy on character, with with plots that hinge on the internal troubles of their protagonists. In this case, they are all men. DuJardin isn’t American, though it hardly matters since The Artist is an American story about an American star. These are stories about our own inner worlds, our collective psyches, our longings, our failings, our successes. And, my friends, there is very little new here.

These movies are very different from many other important films we’re seeing this year — films that are more daring in their disregard for the typical desire to give us a tidy story wrapped up neatly. The endings of movies like Drive, Shame, Tree of Life, are more opaque, their plots in some cases completely invisible. Their protagonists more elusive. The outcomes uncertain. In a time when our own outcome feels insecure, movies with too much ambiguity will frustrate viewers — maybe even rattle or disturb them — be they regular folk or insulated Academy members.

Ah, but the deliciousness of the quietly reliable successes in Moneyball, The Artist, The Descendants, and Midnight in Paris are not to be underestimated. A man leaves his trapped life to find a nostalgic Paris of the 1930s only to come to discover that nostalgia is something that always trails along with us no matter what time we’re living in. The deliciousness of Brad Pitt’s endearing Billy Beane, a man who changed the way baseball was played only to discover that his very strategy couldn’t help his own team win. But what did it matter? He has his daughter. And the home run he hit he never got up off the ground to notice. It is an American story. One so bittersweet that it just might resonate right through all the ups and downs of awards season.

And the deliciousness both The Artist and The Descendants have in store for the public, I will not spoil here, except to say that these movies are about compromising, evolving, learning how to accept what is, and how to close one door and then open another. All of these films were written by people who knew exactly what they were doing.

Movies that leave people lost or feeling unfulfilled in the dark may have a hard time fitting themselves into this year’s race, partly because these stories already hold their place so well, but also, in 2011 we are living through dark times, uncertain times. Darker than the darkest theater, more uncertain than the most ambiguous open endings. Many of us are scared of what the future holds. It’s been a while since we’ve seen protests in the streets about the direction our government is taking us. Disillusionment with our President has set in and almost everyone, the 99%, are barely scraping by.

Of course, Academy members aren’t the 99%. But they’re likely feeling the uncertainty too. (If they’re not, they ought to be. It’s the 99% who pay for movie tickets instead of receiving screeners by express courier. The 99% are the source of profit that keep the 1% in business.) If the films that seem to be Oscar bound right now feel a little light, a little uplifting, a little more optimistic that recent years that’s because the last thing a struggling family is ever going to do is plan a night out at the movies to feel worse about their lives.

Movies like J Edgar and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo are going to propel us into dark realms, but maybe that is also what will make them stand apart from the rest. Right now, though, the dogs are still sleeping and we’re letting them lie.