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The State of the Race: The Wide Open Landscape of the Best Picture Race

This year, there are only a handful of films that have run the gauntlet and came out the other side. As we head into the season of the critics awards, more favoritism and preference will fall into place. As of today, though, Best Picture is anyone’s game.

The critics, an ever-changing and growing chorus, seem not to agree this year on any one film. There is no Social Network, Hurt Locker, No Country for Old Men, or even a King’s Speech – there is certainly no Slumdog Millionaire. Each new film that comes out has its supporters and its detractors, passionate detractors, in fact, who are maybe a little less inclined to agree with their peers after last year’s unanimous push for one film. Perhaps they didn’t like being lumped into one big group aligning behind one film.

Either way, things feel like they’re all over the place. So unless we’re talking about Harry Potter or Rise of the Planet of the Apes, any film could take the lead right now and it wouldn’t be that surprising. The Descendants and The Artist seem to be the two most popular choices among films that can win. But we’re not even at that stage; strangely enough, we’re still wondering what might get nominated.

When the Academy took away the assurance of ten slots for Best Picture most of scattered like barnyard chicks. We’d grown accustomed to imagining a ten picture race where just about anything was possible. The original expansion to ten was designed to include popular films but it was discovered that the Academy was just as oriented towards great films, be they big or small, as the critics were. The change failed to do what they wanted it to do. Now we’re back to a scenario that is more similar to their Big Five. There will be five strong films and those films will likely find matching nominations in acting, writing, directing, and possibly editing. The Academy has always felt secure in the notion that the branches could share the wealth with no problem. Big, effects-heavy movies that lacked good writing and acting could sit comfortably in the tech categories, but the more preferred films — the dramas, the period war movies — would take the “top” categories. It shouldn’t matter that a film “only gets” art direction and cinematography nominations. But it does, somehow. It does.

The “best” that count most are best writing, acting and directing. Editing gets to go along for the ride too. When the planets align a movie comes along and takes it all because it is a good story, epic in scope, with many branches vibing its greatness. But this year, things feel very strange. Nothing is lining up. Where is that movie everyone loves? Even films that seem like they should be up in the 90s are pulled back down to the 80s on Metacritic by one or two strong, negative reviews. It can’t be agreed that everyone loves Hugo or The Descendants or The Artist — there are one or two or three holdouts who don’t.

This could be because Metacritic is using a stricter scoring system than they’ve used in previous years, or the critics just can’t allow themselves to all fall in love with one movie, or the movies just haven’t been up to snuff. Me, I’m scratching my head at, say, Kenneth Turan’s negative take on Hugo. I expect that from the critics who like to be contrary but Turan has never been one of those. Of all people, I expected him to love the film. Then again, at the Q&A for the film he didn’t stay to see Thelma Schoonmaker chat with Paul Thomas Anderson — I knew then that he wouldn’t give the film a rave.

A word about critics, their reviews, and Metacritic. When I met Joe Morgenstern in Telluride and asked him what his favorite film of the year was he answered Midnight in Paris. Metacritic has Morgenstern’s review of that film scored at 90. Wouldn’t it be 100 if it was his favorite of the year? Well, apparently not. This is something to keep in mind when looking at the way reviews are scored, subjectively. But I’ll still take it over Rotten Tomatoes which only gives you a thumbs up/thumbs down collective.

In the end, all things inevitably drift back to two movies. Only two have hit the highest score at Metacritic, tied with a conservative 87, and have been tested with audiences — Moneyball and Harry Potter.

Both films, if the critics are being honest about their reviews, should do well with the critics awards. Then again, you have to wonder about scoring reviews in the first place. What does it mean if most of the prominent critics gave a film a 100 but a few select critics, like the Descendants’ main detractors, Dana Stevens of Slate and Stephanie Zacharek of Movieline, hate the film? What does it mean if Kenneth Turan gives Hugo a middling score while Manohla Dargis, Ebert, TIME magazine all praise it?

It means, like everything else in life, there is nothing unanimous about the critics awards. This was the predicament I feared after last year came to a crashing end. That the industry had wholly shut out the critics’ darling so thoroughly and completely it had to mean that the following year would offer no such alignment. It feels like a free-for-all now, not a Presidential election where you take sides in order to push forth one candidate. And what it might mean is an unpredictable Oscar race ahead.

Right now, the field is so wide open, in fact, that if any of the films that haven’t yet opened hit really big, there is room now for a juggernaut to take hold. And if there is one coming it will either have to be War Horse, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close or The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. If one of these films aims straight, hits big, and dings the box-office gong, it’s all over.

But what if none of them do? Does that mean Moneyball and Harry Potter are the two frontrunners heading into the Oscar race? The stories for Shame, The Descendants and The Artist are still unfinished; too soon to count them out. We do know that none of them have thus far gotten a Wall-E seal of approval with many scores of 100. The Oscar race this year, we have to conclude, might not be driven by critics at all. I’ve always gotten the sense, despite the push last year for one film, that tThe critics like to be on the other side of the party, across the room from the Oscar voters. (And the Oscar voters don’t want to mingle either.)

Spend some time with Academy members and critics and you can see why. Critics actually love movies. They love watching them. They have to watch a lot of them every year. They see more movies than Academy members do. They see more movies than most people in the general public do. They care about the future of cinema.

Academy members, on the other hand, probably watch a lot more TV. HBO is where all of the good filmmakers and writers have exiled themselves to – there, they are not imprisoned by the bottom line. They aren’t necessarily focused-grouped to death. They don’t have to be subjected to the gauntlet of critics and Twitter before their films ever even open. That’s where most of the great filmmaking is happening in America now: on cable TV.

Walking through the Academy when they screened The Artist it was clear that these aren’t people who are going to fall all over themselves to check out the latest Von Trier film. They’re lucky, most of them, if they can manage to stay awake during a screening of any film, let alone one that is supposed to be hailed as the greatest film of the year. Not to generalize but their voting proves how they think. The movie has to be exceptionally entertaining, like Slumdog Millionaire, or I suppose The King’s Speech, to pull them out of their comfortable coma cocoon to pay attention.

That brings us back to this year — our headless horseman of an Oscar year with so many wonderful films getting slaughtered, needlessly, by critics who, frankly, think too much. Many of them could do with a dose of the Academy’s attitude: is it a good picture or not? Perhaps it’s that there are just too many of them now. Too many opinions floating around out there. And studios think that if they co-opt the bloggers they can somehow control how their movie is perceived. But it doesn’t quite work that way, does it? The critics still matter. The public still matters. The Oscar race isn’t decided by twenty bloggers who went to Telluride.

So what happens now? We cluck about waiting for something significant to happen. It’s about to happen. The clock is ticking. The votes are going to have to be counted in about a week as the New York Film Critics hand in their choice for the year’s best. I’m going to bet that the Los Angeles Film Critics, which comes a week later after New York, doesn’t align. I’m going to bet that this year, the awards will be all over the place and there will be no consensus.

What is Oscar buzz? Oscar buzz used to be something tangible and real. It used to be “this is the movie all of the Academy members are talking about.” That was Crash. That was Slumdog Millionaire. That was The King’s Speech. But publicists and studios have gotten so good at manipulating what is thought of as buzz (starting back in the days of Saving Private Ryan and Shakespeare in Love, when it became more obvious that the system could be manipulated) it’s hard to know what’s real and what isn’t real. With so many mouthpieces speaking FOR the Academy who can we really trust? This year, everyone will body-flop towards those who were “right” about the King’s Speech. Fair enough. You will never lose too badly by aligning with popular thinking, and by underestimating the the willingness to always choose the safe crowd-pleaser.

However, films that cut through the safe zone this year will mostly ignored. The Rise of the Planet of the Apes is still one of the best films I saw this year. The critics didn’t agree and neither will the Academy. I still love that movie. I personally need no validation from either group. The only reason I care what the critics think is because I do believe they influence the awards. I only care what the Academy thinks when they step outside their comfort zone and reward true cinematic greatness: No Country for Old Men, The Departed, The Hurt Locker, All About Eve, Casablanca, The Silence of the Lambs. It happens.

If I had to pick a top ten right now, without seeing the films that are still yet to open it would be easy to find ten. It would be easy to find 20. My ten would look like this:

The Artist
The Descendants
The Rise of the Planet of the Apes
We Need to Talk About Kevin
Tree of Life
Project Nim

And the next tier would be:
The Ides of March
J. Edgar
A Dangerous Method
The Help

It won’t matter what I think, I know. But I can end the year with the comfortable knowledge that we must always remember to love the movies we love, no matter what the critics think, no matter how the Academy decides.

But let’s take yet another look at the films as they stand now. The box office story is not yet told for The Descendants and The Artist. How much money people pay to see those movies will impact their position in the race for Best Picture, even though they’re currently considered the frontrunners.

Box office: $72 million
Metacritic score: 87
Metacritic user score: 7.9
Metacritic scores of 90-100: 15
Rotten Tomatoes: 95

Moneyball — when I think of this film I see the last shot of the movie. I see a closer look at Billy Beane, played by Brad Pitt whose face has finally loosened around the edges, with fatherly pride and worry all competing for his state of being. I see the fear from his failure as a young, promising player, his missed opportunity to study at Stanford under a full scholarship, and his innocent optimism about changing the game of baseball. His putting the “moneybag” practice into play DID change baseball. Some think not for the better. Some think it plays the game the right way, by taking away the concept of star players. But me, knowing not a lot about economics or the statistics of anything, can see only the film – a script sculpted by many hands over the years, honed and dissected and eventually refined into something meaningful. I see the ensemble cast, led by Pitt in a career best performance but supported beautifully by Jonah Hill and the unknowns cast as baseball players. I see the almost-win in the last act, the last hurdle before the big World Series win and maybe it reminds me once again that winning everything isn’t everything. When Billy Beane hears his daughter singing to him, when he remembers that life is short and our children grow up so fast, sometimes it isn’t that moment when you step up and accept the trophy that matters. Sometimes it’s what’s right in front of you right now. Nothing lasts. Billy Beane could have left California and missed out on his daughter’s growing up. Maybe that would have made him a success. Maybe people wouldn’t think him such an eternal loser. But to me, when he made that decision to stay, when he stopped looking ahead to find his happiness and saw it, briefly but undeniably, right in front of him? That is what makes Moneyball one of the best films of the year.

In any other year Moneyball might be just one of the good movies released but not the best reviewed. Somehow, though, by some fluke, there it sits. Moneyball seems in line for a PGA, WGA, SAG and perhaps a DGA nomination. It will be nominated, most likely, for a Golden Globe, and it should sail through the top ten lists for AFI and National Board of Review.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2
Box office: $381 million
Metacritic score, 87
Metacritic user score, 7.8
Metacritic scores of 90-100: 15
Rotten Tomatoes score, 96

The FYC ads for Harry Potter say “attention must be paid,” and this is how the Harry Potter fans feel too. All of those movies, watching that cast grow up before our eyes, all of them successful, a tribute to readers and fans everywhere. And yet, and yet…Harry Potter makes little sense to anyone who hasn’t read the books, especially tired old adults. It’s hard to see Best Picture prestige in stories about pre-teens who just end up married by the end of it. The real problem with Harry Potter, to my mind, is not the films’ fault but the source material. You can’t really argue with all of the money the franchise has made, but after all of that, Harry just didn’t seem like an interesting enough character to me to warrant all of that drama with Voldemort. I’m willing to admit to being wrong and out of touch on this. I can’t really sell Harry Potter the story for Oscar’s Best Picture. But I can sell, or argue, the notion that when you’re talking about taking stock of the best films of any year, attention must be paid to one that made that kind of money, entertained that many fans and closed out a very successful series which never got any awards recognition in the major categories. I can argue that 2011 could remember Harry Potter as one of its best. I could also argue that Inception didn’t really make sense either and that didn’t prevent it from being nominated.

But I know deep down that with ten slots, Harry Potter’s inclusion would be a cake walk. With the new voting system, it has to not only earn 50 or 60 number one votes – which is possible if supporter can rally and put that film at number one. It then has to pass the second test, where it really needs to be a 2 and a 3 movie. This is where I think it can’t cut it. I don’t see members putting it high on their ballots. Not with films like Midnight in Paris, The Artist, The Descendants — these films are going to crowd the top of the ballot.

Theoretically I agree with the “attention must paid” notion. But I don’t know where it goes from there.

The Descendants
Box office: too soon to know
Metacritic score: 84
Scores of 90-100: 17 (might have the most 100s)
Rotten Tomatoes: 90

In another of the “strong men also cry” films from 2011, it’s not to appreciate the pitch-perfect mastery at play in The Descendants, Alexander Payne’s unapologetically sincere love story. It’s easy to hold back sloppy emotions, to pretend that because you show them it makes you somehow weaker. The tenderness evident in this film stripped away snark and cynicism to dissolve us down to our primal emotions — fear of death, need for love — was surprising coming from Payne. Again, how any critic can judge this film harshly is one of the mysteries I’ll never understand, except to say that we all have different ideas of what makes a great film great. The Descendants is a film I will watch repeatedly, like Sideways, which is a film I’ve seen so many times I sometimes think whole cells in my body carry around particles from it.

The Descendants seems to have everything it takes to not just be nominated for Best Picture but to win. And it could be the frontrunner as we speak, especially if most of the Oscar peeps turn out to be right. Payne is certainly one of the most celebrated directors never to have won an Oscar. And yet, what if another movie comes along that hits stronger? That ending isn’t written yet.

Box office: too soon to know
Metacritic score: 84
Scores of 90-100: 11 (still waiting on a few reviews)
Rotten Tomatoes: 96

Again, but for a couple of middling to negative-ish reviews, Hugo would be your high-scorer. That Martin Scorsese made a movie that moves people to tears all the while digging into 3-D technology is, to my mind, a gift. How anyone could complain about this film boggles my mind and yet they do complain. Not only do they complain but they nitpick. Hugo is, to me, one of the great films of this past year. But it’s a family film, too. And perhaps the nitpicking will worm its way into the Academy.

The Help
Box office: $168 million
Rotten Tomatoes: 75
Metacritic score: 62
Scores of 90-100: 2

The critics didn’t like this one but the public did. Hopefully it will go a long way towards convincing studios that films with women in the lead can make a lot of money. That a black woman, in that big cast of white actresses, is being discussed to actually win Best Actress is one of the exceptional things about this year that most people don’t seem to be noticing. I think because people generally bristle at the notion of the “affirmative action” Oscars. That argument only works if you think Viola Davis is the frontrunner because she’s black, but it’s much more than that. She’s the frontrunner because she is the only female who might be nominated for Best Actress who is in a film that might be nominated for Best Picture. The only Best Actress contender in a Best Picture contender. The only one. The Help is full of great performances and is, hopefully, a film Academy members will vote for despite it not having cool street cred.

Midnight in Paris
Box office: 55 million – the highest grossing Woody Allen film of all time.
Metacritic Score: 81
User score: 7.9
Metacritic scores of 90-100: 9
Rotten Tomatoes score: 93

It is the time to celebrate Woody Allen once again. With the American Masters series and the upcoming documentary, and Midnight in Paris being the most profitable and beloved Woody Allen movie to come out in a very long time, it’s hard to imagine it being forgotten by year’s end. I also think Woody Allen will probably be nominated for Best Director. Midnight in Paris is an easy watch. It doesn’t ask you to do much but sit back and enjoy the show. And that could go a long way in a year with so many films that want more from you than that.

The Tree of Life:
Metacritic Score: 85
Metacritic scores of 90-100:21 (the most)
Rotten Tomatoes: 84
Box office: $13 million

Oh, The Tree of Life. I still think this one is kicking around the conversation. I don’t know if it will make the Best Picture cut – it might. The power of Malick and all. But something tells me Sean Penn’s negative comments about the screenplay might have altered perception ever so slightly. You won’t see a film more ambitious, more thoroughly realized about the life of a baby boomer than The Tree of Life, which is one of the reasons it could hit big with Academy members. It does strike a chord when it strikes a chord and those who love it really really really love it. In the realm of “films that don’t make any sense” you have Harry Potter on the one hand and The Tree of Life on the other. One made a lot of money, one made a little money. One is wholly original. One is the end of a very long, very beloved series. Again, let it be said that if there were ten nominees both of these films might stand a better chance. As it stands now, it’s still a mystery.

Other films not counted out yet:
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (RT score: 97)
Margin Call (RT score: 85)
The Ides of March (RT score: 85)

We’re flying blind. Destination unknown. In a couple of weeks the picture will become a little more clear as to what films are going to be favorited the various groups, which films will unite voters and which films will split them apart.