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The State of the Race – There Still Is No There There

From Movie City News' Gurus of Gold

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In our ongoing search for Oscar’s best picture winner, which doesn’t necessarily define the best film in a given year, we continue to grope around in the dark. War Horse began screening in various theaters around the country in pop-up screenings, as Paramount’s Young Adult also has (although Para did have one preview here in LA this week). But for the most part, we have to conclude, the blogosphere has been cock-blocked. Enough with the overhype, enough with the bad buzz, enough with not being able to control output. Enough.

Bloggers and VIP-invitee film critics are simply not getting a chance to see the movies but will have to wait until mainstream critics and even Academy members start to see them. Remember Oscars old school? Remember when the first word you heard on a movie was Todd McCarthy at Variety? Remember when reviews that came out of Cannes early in the year were few and far between? Remember when you had to wait until late Thursday to get all of the major reviews? I certainly do. I remember chasing them down in the days before Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic. I remember having to manually type reviews from Entertainment Weekly that came out in print. I remember a reader jotting down all of EW’s Dave Karger’s Oscar picks just as his Entertainment Weekly arrived in his mailbox. Yes, times have changed.

But studios are kind of fighting back. Burn me once, shame on you. Burn me twice, shame on me. How much damage is done to a movie when all of its online hype is delivered months before the movie opens? Isn’t it better to have all the ribbons braided together and peak at the same time the reviews come out, just as the movie unfurls for the public? In terms of the Oscar race, you can’t really build momentum without the bloggers on board. Not these days. There are only a handful of movies that will be up for consideration anyway.

It is this debate that has bloggers scratching their heads with the pop-up screenings for War Horse that have been unleashed countrywide, exceot not right here in Los Angeles or in New York. What that says to some people is that it’s not a movie for big city folk. What it says to others is that it doesn’t matter at all – they’re trying, if anything, to remove the film from its curse of being an Oscar frontrunner early in the year. By showing it to people who don’t necessarily review movies for a living, that could say, well, maybe they want to take some of the potential Oscar heat off of the movie, normalize it in a way.

It’s a radical move, I’d say, though I won’t see the film until the end of November. I already know I will love it. There are very few Spielberg films I don’t love and being that I was raised among horses and ponies, love animals in that embarrassing girly way, and sob at the drop of a hat (hormonal thing?), War Horse IS a movie FOR me. Yet, I’ve not been given the chance to see it and champion it. So I have to go on what I’m hearing “out there.”

Either which way, War Horse isn’t the only film being kept under wraps from us loudmouth bloggers – Extremely Loud, and Incredibly Close, We Bought a Zoo and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo are also movies I’ve not yet seen. It’s funny the way the Oscar race works, but there really isn’t a right way or a wrong way. You can do everything right, you can have the best film of the year in your pocket and you can win every critics award you’re lined up for — and you still will lose to a movie about a British monarch (I’m getting over it, don’t worry). Nobody knows anything.

And yet we are still asked what we think, as this month’s Gurus of Gold was released on November 1. I was busy with the Savannah Film Fest and didn’t have a chance to post it earlier. But it looks like Alexander Payne’s The Descendants, a movie most have seen, is now in first place. That, because of two shifts in the wind. The first, Dave Karger and David Poland’s confidence in The Artist winning. The Weinstein Co. has to keep this lovely movie mostly under the radar so that it seems like an unlikely winner — up until the moment it wins. The other shift is that people don’t seem as confident predicting a film like War Horse, or any other film, that they haven’t yet seen.

Putting a movie you haven’t seen in first place is like writing yourself a check for a million dollars and stuffing it in your pocket. Wouldn’t it be nice?. If wishes were (war) horses beggars would ride. And wouldn’t it be nice if War Horse was a movie we could just look forward to instead of saddling it as a potential Oscar juggernaut? There are a handful of directors whose work gets a lifetime pass from me. Steven Spielberg made Jaws, Close Encounters, E.T. and Schindler’s List. He gets a lifetime pass from me. Martin Scorsese made Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The Departed – he gets a lifetime pass from me. Frances Ford Coppola made Apocalypse Now and The Godfather – lifetime pass.

But back to the gurus — Best Actress comes under the microscope next. And again, my fellow gurus are starting to follow my lead, or else arrive to this conclusion on their own, that Viola Davis is a force to be reckoned with this year. Meryl Streep is no longer in the lead – why – because no one has yet seen The Iron Lady and pundits feel a little less inclined to choose a performance for a film they haven’t seen.

Is this is smart do you think? It’s hard to know. Streep could come along and hit it out of the park. Or it could come down to Viola Davis versus Glenn Close. Meanwhile, Rooney Mara is also going to be one to watch out for, ditto Charlize Theron in Young Adult. Best Actress is probably the toughest and most competitive of the acting categories this year.

My own Best Actress predictions have been left off the guru’s chart. But they are as follows:

1. Viola Davis in The Help, one of the year’s most successful films, inexplicably. An unknown director and bad press about the film’s subject matter can’t stop what’s coming and that’s the brilliant, beautiful and talented Ms. Davis’ exceptional work and place in the sun. If she wins, she will only be — wait for it — the second black woman in 84 mother-fucking years of Oscar history to win Best Actress. Yeah, it’s like that.

2.Glenn Close in Albert Nobbs, Close is one of the best actresses never to win. She is hurt only by the Viola Davis of it all. What an astonishing performance by Close. What a career. It isn’t always enough, though, to give the performance of your life. Winning means you have to be better than the person standing next to you. And in this case, The Help will likely get a Best Picture nomination, Albert Nobbs will not. Therein lies the rub.

3. Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady — you can’t really ever count out Ms. Streep. She has two struggles with this, though. The first is that she’s playing a right-wing icon. Not a good place to be right now. Unless they really trash Thatcher’s memory, which they will not do, it will be hard, I suspect, for voters to go there with their whole hearts. The second, Streep’s past work is her biggest problem – can she top the great performances in her career? Sophie’s Choice, The Devil Wears Prada, Julie & Julia — she’s a miracle.

4. Rooney Mara in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo — I haven’t yet seen the movie but I’ve seen clips of her and they blow the roof off the joint. So if I can hold a place for Streep I can hold a place for Mara.

5. Michelle Williams in My Week with Marilyn vs. Charlize Theron in Young Adult — I love what I’ve heard about both of these performances. Alas, I’ve not yet been invited to a Marilyn screening (cock-blocked again, and always too soon), and unfortunately I missed a screening of Young Adult that was held this past weekend. Though the notion of both of them stepping outside their comfort zone thrills me to no end. I just don’t know which one to include.

And pushing through I also feel:

Tilda Swinton in We Need to Talk About Kevin — this is a frustrating situation with this film. If it keeps building buzz it will overcome that hard thing to overcome — how hard this brilliant film is to watch. Swinton has never been better, but I know that it’s sometimes hard for Academy members to embrace darker films.

Ellen Barkin in Another Happy Day — brilliant performance, her best.

Elizabeth Olsen in Martha Macy May Marlene — what a debut.

Best Actor puts George Clooney in the lead for The Descendants. We still don’t know how the winds are going to shift this year. But right now it feels like Clooney can’t be beat. The only challenger is possibly Woody Harrelson in Rampart. This is one performance I have not been able to shake. I’ve long admired Harrelson’s work in the Messenger, in No Country for Old Men, but I guess I’ve never really seen him dig so deeply, fiercely in. I know many aren’t even considering him for a nomination but it seems to me he’s strong enough to be a contender, at least. Brad Pitt is also in the running in a big way in this, his most mature and endearing performance to date in Moneyball, a film that is as much about America right now as any film released this year.

Unfortunately the NC-17 puts Michael Fassbender in a different category now. That rating hurts the film though I am hoping Fassbender gets in, even though I don’t have him on my Best Actor predictions list on Gurus — but for the record, I did these on my iPhone when I was barely awake and not thinking clearly. My Best Actor list right now would look something like this:

1. George Clooney, The Descendants — this would be a win for his wonderfully raw performance but it would also be a career win for Clooney and all that he’s contributed to the film community.
2. Jean Dujardin in The Artist — especially if The Artist doesn’t win Best Pic, DuJardin could be a big win for that film.
3. Brad Pitt, Moneyball — still among my top personal picks for the year – the performance and the film.
4. Gary Oldman Tinker Tailor — marvelously moving performance and an actor who has yet to be nominated.
5. Woody Harrelson, Rampart vs. Michael Fassbender in Shame vs. Leo DiCaprio in J Edgar. Three actors for the fifth slot. Tough category. We’ll know better in a few months.

As far as supporting turns go, I am still hoping Christopher Plummer pulls out the win for Beginners. I know that it’s sort of hard to sustain all of this momentum for the long haul; it is always so much more tempting to pick someone new by the end. Voters seem to like fighting for someone as opposed to just voting like a lemming. There are also memorable turns as supporting actor like Jonah Hill in Moneyball, George Clooney and Philip Seymour Hoffman in The Ides of March, and then of course, Max Von Sydow in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close seems maybe poised to finally collect an Oscar for his whole career and for this role in this film especially. But again, we can’t really know because we haven’t seen it.

As far as supporting actress goes, you have Octavia Spencer currently leading. Again, love for The Help could pull both actresses through. I would literally run naked down Hollywood Blvd. if Viola Davis AND Octavia Spencer won. Two black actresses? Really AMPAS? Also in the running, god willing, is Melissa McCarthy whose breathtaking, hilarious turn in Bridesmaids is nothing short of one of the best performances of the year male or female. Carey Mulligan in two magnificent performances – Drive and Shame. That girl endlessly impresses. And what to do with the furiously talented Jessica Chastain? Tree of Life, The Help, Take Shelter? I’m going to hope she gets recognized for The Help because I think she does her very best work there. But there are so many more to come that we haven’t seen: Sandra Bullock in Loud and Close. Robin Wright in Dragon Tattoo – although she’s really good in Rampart too.

Janet McTeer is a true standout in Albert Nobbs I can’t imagine she won’t be included. And then there’s Judi Dench in J. Edgar, Berenice Bejo in The Artist, Shailene Woodley — one of the best things about The Descendants — and Vanessa Redgrave who has two performances this year – one in Anonymous and the other in Coriolanus.

But you know, with no real there there these lists will all change significantly once people start to see the movies. Until then, hope springs eternal. We wait for what we hope to be. We wait for a story to be told. It’s possible, when the dust clears, that we’ve already seen our Best Picture winner. It’s also possible it’s waiting in there in the shadows. In darkness.