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On the Hunt for Best Picture: America Comes Roaring Back

Oh America, what a big beautiful loser you are. Our giant lumbering paradise is so complicated, isn’t it? We can’t really be saved by John Ford movies, Levis, Marilyn Monroe and our precious life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. Every time you turn around there is another evil to be conquered. What other country could celebrate the landing of Curiosity on Mars and hours later absorb a hate-filled shooting in Wisconsin because the shooter was too uneducated to tell the difference between Sikhs and Muslims. Oh America. You great thing, you catastrophe.

You can sometimes interpret history through the lens of Oscar. Some years seem in direct contact with the events of the day, and other years feel like a total disconnect. Movies take us out of reality anyway, don’t they? But if you glance over the 1970s, for instance, you’ll find a much more thoughtful selection of films because the generation who controls the voting at the Academy were younger, more daring voters. Or maybe audiences were smarter. Or maybe film critics had more influence. It’s hard to say why the 1970s still towers over any other decade that came after it. The exception was the two years the Academy decided on ten Best Picture nominees. 2009 and 2010 offered up maybe the best selection of Best Picture contenders since the 1970s. Last year we were back on target with the usual Academy oeuvre, with a few notable exceptions.

The last two years of the Oscar race the films have no particular unifying theme other than a central male figure at a crossroads between failure and success. This trait marks the last two Best Picture winners, dug up from the UK and France, leaving the American film industry wondering what could have gone so terribly wrong that we’re getting beaten in our own back yard. Even with daring films being made by American filmmakers like David Fincher, Martin Scorsese, Darren Aronofsky, and Christopher Nolan (who is half-American) no consensus about a native could be reached within the industry. Perhaps this is because Americans area forever innovating. It is in our DNA. The Europeans, those who’ve taken over our Oscar contest, insignificant though it may seem, are more interested in telling good, traditional stories. And you know how the Academy demographic like good, traditional stories. They like them so much they vote for them, going on eight decades now. But this year, the race already feels soaked in dreams of a better America, or nightmares of an enduring one.

When I look at the three most promising contenders so far, Moonrise Kingdom, Beasts of the Southern Wild and The Dark Knight Rises I see films that celebrate the better things in our country, the revival of a dormant ideal. I also see a common theme, rebellion. In Moonrise Kingdom, the two adolescents escape the trappings of the society that defines them to blaze their own path and redefine who they really are. In Beasts of the Southern Wild, the characters break free of both the structure of civilization and the “help” that’s offered to get them out of their way of life; this has invited all sorts of “commentary.” Neither film is meant to be taken literally — both dwell in the minds of imaginative storytellers and both present a magical realist sense of what defines identity in America.

The Dark Knight Rises, like Beasts of the Southern Wild, has become a lightning rod for people who are loathe to take any film on a symbolic level. But it too has a more vital message underneath the spectacle and it comes when Bruce Wayne disposes of the world of privilege and funnels that back into social welfare. Batman is a rebel protector, himself an American myth. He is the only superhero in 2012 who absorbs how bad things can get. In Christian Bale’s Batman we see someone who really understands the grave nature of the job; saving our world? Practically impossible. By the end of The Dark Knight Rises, Gotham is in ruins. Helping the underprivileged, the film says, is a way to better the world, not by maintaining the status quo.

Still to come are more films that also dwell in those themes — The Master, Django Unchained, Zero Dark Thirty and Lincoln — at least four films offered up by some of this country’s most vibrant filmmakers. The Master, though I haven’t yet seen it, appears to be about the fumbling towards a savior who can “fix things.” Django Unchained will be Tarantino’s furious take on slavery. In typical deconstructionist fashion, Tarantino will rip down our preconceptions and paint the subject with his own neon colors. Of all of the films released this year the one with the most testosterone heading in belongs to a woman. Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal will be on the hunt for Osama Bin Laden. And Lincoln revives the worthy story of our nation’s greatest President. Supposedly, our country is now as divided as it was during Lincoln’s presidency. That makes the film all the more timely. It will be quite something to watch Lincoln under the Obama Presidency. No matter what the wingnuts say, how hysterical their continual rejection of our first black President, nothing can take away the historical significance of his election. That makes Lincoln all the more timely. Lincoln was a Whig, which was like the Republican party back then and they were all thoughtful, educated men. Nothing like the poor representations of that party today. Can you imagine a Rick Santorum back in Lincoln’s day? He would be laughed out of town.

There are promising suspects that take place elsewhere, like Anna Karenina, and Les Miserables. There will be fantasy and spirituality, along the lines of Tree of Life — meditations on existence, like Cloud Atlas and Life of Pi.

Either way, we are only a couple of months away from seeing what our likely Best Picture will be. You have to go back to 2004 to find a Best Picture winner that either didn’t open early in the year, hadn’t screened at Cannes, Telluride or Toronto. That film was Million Dollar Baby, which was ushered in late and hit the sweet spot — sentimental and emotionally sticky and not The Aviator.

But since then, with the blogosphere erupting with prognostication and critics, all of whom get to see movies early anyway, the strategy for releasing films tailor made for the Oscar race (or not) has had to improvise, adapt and overcome.

The Artist – Cannes
The King’s Speech – Telluride
The Hurt Locker – Year prior
Slumdog Millionaire – Telluride
No Country for Old Men – Cannes
The Departed – early release
Crash – early release
Million Dollar Baby – late comer

Telluride has not yet announced what films will be playing there so we can’t yet roll the dice about what film might win Best Picture. Zero Dark Thirty, Lincoln and The Master are all opening relatively soon. By our reckoning, all three could be contenders.

Is there room for a surprise like Million Dollar Baby now? Of course. It’s just a harder maneuver to pull off. There are a lot of prying eyes now. Many more than there used to be and it’s harder to hold a movie from them. But it’s possible a last-minute reveal will be our Best Picture winner but it would be an anomaly. The Globes, the PGA and the DGA all do their voting at the same time (roughly) as the Oscar voters do and thus there isn’t a lot of wiggle room. Those movies have to be seen early — after they pushed back the Oscar date they made it virtually impossible for a last minute movie to scramble a win. Million Dollar Baby being the one exception since then.

But we remain open minded for a surprise or for the Best Picture winner to present itself very soon.

The Frontrunners That Have Been Seen:

Beasts of the Southern Wild – directed by Behn Zeitlin (Fox Searchlight)
Moonrise Kingdom – directed by Wes Anderson (Focus Features)
The Dark Knight Rises – directed by Christopher Nolan (Warner Bros)

Darkhorse: The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel – directed by John Madden – Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Bill Nighy*

Most Promising, Sight Unseen:

Les Miserables – directed by Tom Hooper, starring Hugh Jackman, Amanda Seyfried, Anne Hathaway (Universal)
Lincoln – directed by Steven Spielberg, starring Daniel Day-Lewis (Disney/Touchstone)
Zero Dark Thirty – directed by Kathryn Bigelow (Sony/Columbia)
The Master – directed by Paul Thomas Anderson (Weinstein Co)
Django Unchained – directed by Quentin Tarantino, starring Jamie Foxx, Leonardo DiCaprio, Christoph Waltz (Weinstein Co)
Anna Karenina – directed Joe Wright, with Keira Knightley, Jude Law, Kelly Macdonald, Emily Watson, Olivia Williams.(Focus Features)
Not Fade Away – directed by David Chase with James Gandolfini, Brad Garrett (Paramount Vantage)
Argo – directed by Ben Affleck (Warner Bros)
Flight – Directed by Robert Zemeckis, written by John Gatins, starring Denzel Washington, Melissa Leo (Paramount)
Life of Pi: Directed by Ang Lee (Warner Bros)
The Hobbit – directed by Peter Jackson (Warner Bros)
Cloud Atlas – Directed by Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski, starring Halle Berry, Tom Hanks (Warner Bros)
Hyde Park on Hudson directed by Roger Mitchell, starring Bill Murray and Laura Linney (Focus)

Dark Horse Long Shots: 

Silver Linings Playbook, directed by David O. Russell, starring Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper (Weinstein Co)
The Sessions directed by Ben Lewin – Helen Hunt, John Hawkes
Inside Llewyn Davis – directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
Gravity – directed by Alfonso Cuaron
Amour– directed by Michael Haneke
Rust & Bone – directed by Jacques Audillard
Cosmopolis – directed by David Cronenberg – Robert Pattinson*
Trouble with the Curve – directed by Robert Lorenz – Clint Eastwood, Amy Adams (Warner Bros)
The Impossible – Juan Antonio Bayona – Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor (Summit)
Hysteria – directed by Tanya Wexler – Maggie Gyllenhaal (Sony Pictures Classics)
Won’t Back Down – directed by Daniel Barnz – Viola Davis, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Holly Hunter (Fox)
Therese Raquin – directed by Charles Stratton starring Elizabeth Olsen, Jessica Lange

*Seen, at Cannes or already opened to public.