Virtual Oscars Roundtable

THE HURT LOCKER

I sent out a few questions that have been running around in my head lately. I sent them to people whose ideas I value and who might offer something beyond what I can answer for myself. Every Oscar year is different. Some of them fly by, like last year when Slumdog Millionaire started winning and didn’t stop. Some of them linger on until the very last agonizing moment when it feels like the wrong movie just won. This year feels like there is either something waiting in the wings that will change everything or else we’ll have a replay of Toronto. That was the springboard to kick off our Virtual Oscars Roundtable. We will revisit different subjects as the season progresses.

The participants in this discussion are:

Edward Douglas, Coming Soon
Scott Feinberg, And the Winner Is…
Scott Foundas, The Village Voice
Pete Hammond, The Envelope
Craig Kennedy, Living in Cinema (who wants to be referred to as a “self-professed Oscar outsider.”)
Peter Knegt, Indiewire
Kris Tapley, In Contention
Pete Howell, The Toronto Star
Susan Wloszczyna, USA Today

If you’ve been following the awards race, what could be a major Oscar game changer, something no one is expecting – it could be a film, an actor, a script…this could also be translated as — are there any patterns you’d really like to see shattered right about now?

Edward Douglas: As I said earlier, probably the movies that haven’t been screened. ¬†As you said, Nine.. The Lovely Bones, Invictus and possibly Avatar (if there’s a story and characters rather than just spectacle). I think Brothers is the only one that’s slipping into December very quietly, and I wonder if it has the quality of some of Jim Sheridan‘s previous work, if the script and acting are up to snuff, and if people love it, whether Lionsgate will give it as much attention as Precious. I have this funny feeling that it will have its fans like Susanne Bier’s Things We Lost in the Fire but will get shunted to the side in favor of Precious. ¬†(Interesting note: Bier directed the original Brothers.)

Scott Feinberg: I’m hearing that Nine is still in the editing room, even at this late date, and that many people at The Weinstein Company and representatives of the talent involved have yet to even see any footage of it. Because of its pedigree — source material, studio, and especially its unparalleled cast of stars — we all expect that it’s going to be a major contender. But if — for whatever reasons — the parts do not mesh and the movie is a disappointment, it would shake up just about every category except best supporting actor.

Scott Foundas: Personally–and I by no means count myself as an expert in this field–I don’t see a big game-changer on the horizon, by which I mean some December release that no one’s REALLY talking about just yet (a la There Will Be Blood two years ago) that could turn up and suddenly become a major awards contender. Certainly, there are December releases like Invictus and The Lovely Bones that will likely play a significant role in awards season, but people are already talking about them, sight unseen.

Pete Hammond: Yes, the pattern of holding back “serious” contenders until December and November despite repeated examples (ie Crash) of earlier releases becoming major players. That is always looked at as an aberration rather than an opportunity to play the Oscar game a little more creatively. As for game changers I would love to see Emily Blunt get some deserved respect for the terrific Young Victoria, a movie England largely snubbed but one I think will play well here.

Pete Howell:that weren’t already declared “locks” by every pundit, guild and
association from Tinseltown to Toronto. In other words, a few genuine surprises picked from such overlooked areas as indies, comedies
and genres.

CK: Other than Telluride solidifying Up in the Air as a contender and a couple of titles like The Road getting dinged a little bit (though I wonder if that one is already bouncing back), there didn’t seem to be much movement from the big festivals. There were no big surprises. Nothing that wasn’t already on the radar. Looking ahead, there are a handful of films that many Oscar watchers have penciled in: Invictus, Nine, Lovely Bones and Amelia for example, that no one has seen and they could easily stiff with critics and or the public. I have a suspicion based on nothing factual that Invictus won’t ultimately make it. It’s pure speculation on my part that the Eastwood craze is a little bit over as far as the Academy is concerned. His track record and the weighty subject make it an assumed lock sight unseen, but I’m not feeling it. Of course if it comes out and it’s genuinely terrific, I’ll change my tune. It’s silly to say it won’t get nominated before it comes out, but is it any less silly to say it will?

As for the known quantities that prognosticators are favoring, The Hurt Locker, Up in the Air, An Education and Precious seem solid. As much as I loved A Serious Man, I’m having a hard time seeing it as a nominee. Then again, when the 10 open slots yawn at me, it seems to have as good a shot as any other film. In a 5 movie year I think it might be too quirky and specifically Coenesque to make it, but this year it’s wide open. I know a lot of people are looking at Up, but even with the 10 slots I can’t look past the animation ghetto. Besides that, it’s just not Pixar’s best work. Frankly, it might have some competition in the best animation category as it is.

I’d like to see the lovely Bright Star make it in, but it’s such a delicate film and whatever juice it had seems to be waning. I think Julie & Julia might surprise people and the same with Inglourious Basterds. Both films have hard core groups of pretty passionate fans. Is that enough to put them over despite their detractors? Probably not.

I’ll also be interested to see if Where the Wild Things Are or Fantastic Mr. Fox capture people’s imaginations in a big way. Right now it seems despite all the early bad press, Wild Things is the best poised to break out into a big success whereas Fox is looking increasingly small scale and quirky. I have strong doubts about Wild Things too, but it’s still early enough in the season to engage in a little wishful thinking. I know there have been rumblings about Tree of Life coming out before the end of the year, but I’ll believe that if/when there’s an official announcement. Even if it does come out, it’s not a lock. Terrence Malick’s last picture was criminally misunderstood and overlooked and the scant information about Tree of Life makes it seem even less mainstream.

Avatar
will have its fans but it already feels like a victim of its own hype. On the other hand, the hype bubble might only extend as far as the internet. There’s a whole world of people out there who will ultimately decide if it hits or misses and it might not even be on their radar yet. I suppose the only thing now is to wait for the unreleased films and to watch and see if anything surprising starts getting recognized by critics groups. I’m sure the NBR will pick something weird like Creation and it’ll be back in the running again for 5 minutes until the next batch of awards is announced.

Looking at the release calendar, I can’t see anything coming that hasn’t already had its tires kicked by someone.

Peter Knegt: Brothers. I’m certainly doubtful, but it’s not like the director (Jim Sheridan), the actors (Portman, Gyllenhaal, to lesser extent Maguire), or the material (highly dramatic family conflict) are at all unproven entities. No one’s really predicting it for anything right now (including myself), but it could really alter this year’s landscape if it really scores.

Kris Tapley: I don’t think there’s anything that could come along and be a “game changer” simply because everyone seems to be anticipating everything at the moment. However, there is a possibility that a film already released could have more support than anticipated, like Julie & Julia, which could easily end up in the race for Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay. It’s a small example, but the only one that comes to mind.

Susan Wloszczyna: I think Where the Wild Things Are could sneak into the best picture race if the academy can wrap their minds around a serious family film that is not animated. And while everyone assumes Nine will make it into the top category based mainly on the pedigree of the Weinsteins and Rob Marshall, I think this musical will be a much harder sell than Oscar pundits are assuming. Just consider: Has anyone been dying to see Daniel Day Lewis sing and dance? And name one song from the Broadway show? I have enjoyed and supported the revival of the movie musical since Moulin Rouge! but there are about a 100 other shows I would love to see as a movie before this one. And I am still iffy on Avatar. Not the money side of it, but its potential as awards bait.

What film right now is closest to your heart that you hope will go all the way…?

ED: Probably Inglourious Basterds. It’s a return to form for Tarantino and it’s not a traditional Oscar movie but it’s a great return to form for him as a director, showing his distinctive voice and vision. It’s cartoonish at times sure but the performances and the way it’s paced is just brilliant.

Feinberg: I want to make it categorically clear that my personal desires do not impact my projections in any way. That being said, I really loved The Hurt Locker and An Education and would love to see them both receive the recognition that I believe they deserve. Also, in a fairer world, the documentary Racing Dreams — which I saw at Tribeca and still regard as the best movie of the year, thus far — would have a distributor and be nominated not only for best documentary but also best picture.

SF: Can I cheat and pick two? Although I don’t really think they’re going to need too much help at this point, my two favorite American movies of the year remain, by far, The Hurt Locker and Inglourious Basterds–and while each in its own way might have seemed a relative longshot in a year of only five BP nominees, in a field of 10 it will be nothing less than scandalous if either fails to make the cut. Of course, good box office never hurts where the Academy is concerned, so the fact that The Hurt Locker is seen as a “little movie that could” and Basterds has now passed the $250 million mark worldwide (something I find especially gratifying in light of all the box-office Cassandras who foretold its doom following the premiere in Cannes) also bodes well in their favor. Now, if only people would snap to their sense and realize that Christoph Waltz is a lead actor and not supporting…

PH: Wall-E. ¬†I know it was last year and yes, I know it’s ineligible this year ¬†but those two minor little considerations aside, it deserves Best Picture and I would like to lobby the Academy to come out and admit they made a mistake in not giving it BP of 2008.

Howell: The Hurt Locker

PK: A Prophet. I doubt anything will top it for me this year, and I would beside myself if it managed to find its way to the Academy’s top ten. However, the chances of that happening are very slim to none. ¬†So I’ll take Precious winning the top prize as a more reasonable compromise. Not that I think it deserves it necessarily, but I just feel that having the themes represented in that film (and so authentically) make their way into a best picture winning film would be just, well, precious.

KT: Up in the Air is closest to my heart, but A Serious Man resonates on a more intellectual level, so it’d be different to pick one over the other. Since the Coens have their Oscars, maybe my answer is Up in the Air, which is a huge moment for Jason Reitman.

SW: A Serious Man, which is the Coeniest movie ever and might get lost in the shuffle as it expands to more whitebread regions of the country.

Oscar often leaves behind a film or a performer in the flurry of the last half of the year. Whom or what do you hope isn’t forgotten?

ED: Tom Hardy for Bronson but he doesn’t stand a chance of getting in the race.. he hasn’t even done a single interview. I also think there’s a lot to like about Duncan Jones’ Moon, especially the performance by Sam Rockwell, but I just don’t think Sony Classics will put much behind it over An Education or others.

Feinberg: I’ll feel terrible if Stanley Tucci – perhaps the best character actor of his generation — isn’t recognized with a best supporting actor nomination this year, which would be the first Oscar nod of his illustrious career. Most people are forecasting him for The Lovely Bones, which we’ve yet to see. His role in that film is a pivotal one and I’m sure he’ll be great, but I actually think his performance in Julie & Julia was terrific and he should be getting attention for that! I feel that there are also several other men and women whose outstanding performances aren’t getting — and, unfortunately, won’t get — the attention they deserve, especially Michael Caine for Is Anybody There? and Kristen Stewart — yes, the same one from Twilight and the tabloids — for Adventureland.

PH: Emily Blunt in supporting for Sunshine Cleaning. If they ignore her for ‘Victoria’ this can make up for it.

Howell: Jeremy Renner, who deserves a Best Actor nomination for his stunning work in The Hurt Locker.

PK:
The Hurt Locker. It’s managed to hang in there so far, and I would be ridiculously pleased if the film, Bigelow, Renner and Mackie all managed to continue to stay in play on nomination day.

KT: I’d be really bummed if Jeremy Renner is lost in the Hurt Locker shuffle.

SW: With lagging box office, I fear Bright Star is fading. And I very much wish Jane Campion’s return to form is applauded. I think we need her to keep moviegoers and Hollywood on their toes.

Now that Best Picture has widened to ten, and indie films could be dying on the vine (it has been reported), do you think this is a good moment in Academy history or a bad one?

Feinberg: I think that the expansion to 10 best picture nominees is a good move, but not for the reasons that the Academy does. They believe that adding five more slots will result in a significantly higher number of popular movies (like The Dark Knight or WALL-E) making the cut; I don’t. Rather, I believe that the additional five slots will go to films very much like those that have always made the cut before. Yes, if there had been 10 slots last year, The Dark Knight would have made the cut — because it was good, but more so because it got a lot of attention due to Heath Ledger‘s death — but that will never become a regular occurrence for popcorn films, even if there were 15 spots to play with. Had this rule been in effect last year, the remaining slots would have probably gone to movies like Frozen River and The Visitor, not Iron Man. Why? Because voters have a very set idea of what an Oscar movie does and doesn’t look like, based on precedents that have been reinforced over eight-plus decades. In other words, people who presently believe that Star Trek and/or The Hangover have any real shot at a best picture nod are simply off their rocker. Frankly, I even have my doubts about Up, which nearly everyone else has already labeled a sure-thing. We’ll see.

SF: I think what will prove most interesting about this particular awards season is the way that the 10 slots for Best Picture will become a significant campaigning strategy for many films. Oh, what Harvey Weinstein could have done with this in his heyday! For example, there will almost certainly be one or more Best Picture campaigns for documentary films that will mention the 10 slots and suggest that, surely, this is an occasion on which to include a non-fiction film in the mix. Some foreign-language films may take a similar approach (especially those that fail to make the official foreign-language shortlist), and some animated ones too. And I think that’s all for the best. While I was initially quite skeptical about the Academy’s decision to open the BP field to 10, and still largely feel that it was a decision motivated by concerns about TV ratings and pressure from the big studios (who want to see more popular hits nominated), I feel pretty confident that the change is actually more likely to benefit foreign films and true indie films than it is the big blockbusters. Sure, a popular AND critically acclaimed blockbuster like Star Trek may find its way in there, but I would sooner put my money on something like Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon cracking the final 10 than I would Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.

Having said all of that, I’m not sure I would necessarily classify this as a “good” moment in Academy history. There is a certain sense of panic about the Academy’s recent actions–not just the enlarging of the BP field, but the decision to move the honorary awards off the official telecast and the new loophole that has been created allowing the music branch to omit the Original Song award in certain years. It’s not that those are all bad ideas–as far as I’m concerned, they could abolish the Original Song category altogether–but the fact that those changes were announced in such rapid succession, coming after a 2009 Oscar telecast that was itself significantly retooled…well, it gives the impression that the Academy is worried about its lessening relevance in a world when few if any monolithic institutions command the zeitgeist in the way they once did. It’s been widely reported that the only two Oscar shows of recent vintage that got anywhere near the ratings the Academy regularly enjoyed in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s were the Titanic and Lord of the Rings years, and given that the Oscar show is a huge revenue source for the Academy–easily the biggest single revenue source it has in a year–the Academy has a deeply vested interest in the continued cultural relevance of that show. I’m just not sure if sending Roger Corman and Lauren Bacall off to pick up their honorary Oscars at a separate dinner is the right solution.

And there are, of course, other endemic problems. As you know, I have written at length about the various problems bedeviling the Academy’s foreign-language film category. Well, this year, that category has already been violated before the nominating even begins. Two of the very best foreign films of the year, China’s The City of Life and Death and Israel’s Lebanon (which recently won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival), have both been vetoed by the organizations responsible for choosing the official Oscar submission from their respective countries–and as I also happen to have seen the two films that have been sent in their places, Forever Enthralled from China and Ajami from Israel, I can further attest that this is an utter farce. (Just about equally absurd: Italy’s decision to submit Giuseppe Tornatore‘s roundly reviled Baaria in place of Marco Bellocchio’s excellent Vincere.) As much as the Academy has attempted to refine the actual process of picking the final five foreign-language nominees, as long as they stick to an antiquated and rather patronizing pre-nominating system that relies on the questionable (and often heavily politicized) judgment of these national film-selecting organizations, they are never going to get at the root of the problem.

PH: Great idea but unfortunately 2009 ain’t exactly 1939, is it? There’s enough for ten though. We just have to lower our standards and accept the race for what it’s meant to be, the BEST in any given year, not against any other year.

Howell: I’m definitely warming to the thought that this was a good and necessary decision — but only if the hoped-for surprises of question No. 1 come true.

PK: I’m divided. I think, as many do, that the decision degrades the prestige of being nominated for best picture. But then in another sense, I’ve rarely agreed with the Academy’s decisions anyway, so opening it up to allow a few more chances for smaller and/or more deserving films to get a chance in the spotlight could do a lot of good.

KT: This is a pretty loaded question. I think the decision was a poor one but if it does happen to usher indie films in at just the time when they need exposure, then I guess this “poor” decision couldn’t have come at a better time.

SW: It remains to be seen. But I do consider it an interesting moment, one that at least livens up a so far stagnant year.

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