As of this moment, only two films look poised to enter the Best Picture race with a golden ticket. Alexander Payne’s Nebraska and Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station. Already a champ at Sundance, an impressive reception at the Cannes Film Fest, with rave reviews from the critics who matter, and a director who is poised to make film and Oscar history becoming only the second black filmmaker to earn Best Director and Best Picture nominations, Fruitvale Station leads the pack for Best Picture in the pre-Telluride Oscar race.
Three other films right now seem to have what it takes to go all the way but they come with certain caveats. Alexander Payne’s magnificent Nebraska, seen in Cannes, has the stuff for the top nominations. Before Midnight is the best reviewed film of the year and will easy top the critics top ten lists by year’s end. But for the industry monolith that is the PGA/DGA and SAG, Before Midnight will need to count on those voters having seen the other two. It doesn’t quite work as a film on its own because you can’t possible tap in to the frustrations of the two leads without the context of their past.
The other one to keep an eye on is the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis. Whether it also earns a director nod for the Coens will depend on the quality of all its rivals. George Clooney (Monuments Men), Ron Howard (Rush), Paul Greengrass (Captain Phillips), Martin Scorsese (Wolf of Wall Street), John Wells (Osage County), John Lee Hancock (Saving Mr. Banks), David O. Russell (American Hustle), Jean-Marc Vallee (Dallas Buyers Club), Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity), Ridley Scott (The Counselor), Bill Condon (The Fifth Estate), Spike Lee (Old Boy), Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave), Jason Reitman (Labor Day), Woody Allen (Blue Jasmine), Lee Daniels (The Butler), and depending on whether it will be seen in 2013 to qualify for Oscar, Alejandro González Iñárritu (Birdman).
The stories that are likely to crowd around Oscar look to be mostly homespun stories – deep on American themes, and many of them true stories. August: Osage County and Nebraska will be about Americana, family troubles and endurance. Monuments Men, Rush, Captain Phillips, Wolf of Wall Street, Saving Mr. Banks, American Hustle and Dallas Buyers Club are all TRUE STORIES. We’re reflecting back on our American past and trying to make sense of it without an eye on international box office, mercifully. Some of these films will make money overseas and some won’t.
It is also going to be an extraordinarily strong year for actresses, with Meryl Streep, Cate Blanchett, Julia Roberts, Emma Thompson, Sandra Bullock, Kate Winslet, Nicole Kidman, Naomi Watts, Rooney Mara, Amy Adams, Jennifer Lawrence, Octavia Spencer all in strong roles.
This year the Academy will be wanting to change up their demographics. After so much bad press of being a group of elderly white men they have made an effort to broaden their base, inviting many diverse talents in for membership this year. At the same time, several black writer/directors have emerged with films up for consideration.
If you’re a black filmmaker in Hollywood your movie has to crossover to white audiences (sadly). You have to wow the critics, then the ticket-buyers, then the Academy. How do you do that? It isn’t easy. That’s why in 86 years of Oscar history only one film, Lee Daniels’ Precious, has managed a Picture AND Director nomination. One time. In 86 years. [John Singleton received Best Director and Best Screenplay nominations in 1992].
Their biggest missed opportunity was in not rewarding Spike Lee for Do the Right Thing and instead rewarding Driving Miss Daisy, which won without even a director nomination. They haven’t quite made up for that error and one of the reasons for that is “racism fatigue.” Readers on this site, you’ll notice, and many people I’ve spoken with since Do the Right Thing are tired of having the discussion. No one wants to be thought of as a harpy, or a white person constantly trying to alleviate their caked on whitey guilt. But I’ve been at this for fifteen years and it’s been almost twenty years since Do the Right Thing was all but shut out. Not much has changed. So we have to keep bitching, all of us do.
Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station has run the gauntlet and passed with flying colors. His is a film that had a few critics shifting in their seats uncomfortably but most others rose to a standing ovation. It isn’t just that Coogler’s success will right the wrong of the Academy’s white-centric voting for decades. Sure, if you want to be that guy who writes a great review to help an up and coming auteur like Coogler I won’t stop you. Coogler’s film is good. It’s really good. He doesn’t need favors at this point.
The other black filmmakers entering the race will be McQueen, Daniels and Lee. It is an astonishing, breathtaking array of black auteurs — so much so that one might call it a new wave, or a movement. I feel lucky to be living through it.
But it’s early yet. I’ve just booked my Telluride pass and will be attending at the end of August. By the time the festival is over we’ll probably know what film has the stuff to win the monolith triple crown — PGA, DGA and SAG before Oscar finishes off the job. Stay frosty, Oscarwatchers. This is only the beginning.