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The State of the Race: You Know More Than You Think

It is always around this time that we feel like we’re trying to find the door in the dark.

There are some knowns and unknowns, opinions and facts. The Oscar race is always evolving. It is not static, but fluid. Publicists must head into it like Marines whose objective is to improvise, adapt and overcome. In their way are a few obstacles. It used to just be the critics, but when the bloggers joined the fray things started to change. Nowhere is this change reflected more vividly than in the direct contract between Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic. Each site has its own problems – Metacritic relies on subjective readings of reviews to come up with what seems like an arbitrary score. Rotten Tomatoes just flips a coin – good or bad. Each seems like a good idea in theory, but with regards to the Oscar race, neither is particularly helpful. Oscar winners can often have a much lower Metacritic score than their competition. The Hurt Locker and No Country for Old Men were both very well reviewed films, without question. But those reviews weren’t the driving force behind their dominance in the race: it was the startling lack of any real competition.

And that’s what you look for in a Best Picture contender — not necessarily how good the movie is, but how much better it is than the competition. How can anyone decide what film is better when we’re all under the thumb of subjectivity? Because it doesn’t matter what one person thinks; it matters what appeals, across the board, to 5,000 plus people; that is, the film the greatest number of people can agree is the best of the year is usually your winner. That is why the Oscar race is tricky; most people think in terms of the film they believe is the best. You then just have to wonder how many other people will agree with you.

Certain critics make the difference with a film’s ultimate future. The jury is still out on some films that failed to reach a consensus opinion – Hereafter was given raves by Ebert and TIME mag but the bloggers were not impressed out of Toronto.¬† Another Year has been getting rave reviews but has yet to open to audiences. Fair Game was beloved at Cannes back in May and prepares to open to the public. Secretatriat is being given a win or lose judgment based on its weekend box office (I don’t buy that — they’re going for the long tail, like The Blind Side).¬† And then there is The Fighter and True Grit; neither has been seen. 127 Hours seems like a safe bet but some think it might be too horrific for voters.

It could drive you crazy if you let it.

But usually when we look back at what we were thinking around this time in previous years, we’re not as far off as we think. I found this article today, wherein I named the films I thought would end up being the Best Pic ten — dated October 29 — granted, I was probably going off of a Gurus of Gold chart. There isn’t one yet for October (although they are compiling it as we speak) – I probably didn’t pull this out of thin air, and it was somehow a consensus prediction. But however I arrived at it, here it stands:

Avatar*
An Education
The Hurt Locker
Inglourious Basterds
Invictus*
The Lovely Bones*
Precious
A Serious Man
Up
Up in the Air

Nevermind that the next sentence I wrote was, “I believe Nine will be a strong contender and will bump one of these titles.”

While that last sentence is a great example of how we can foist upon a film all our wild expectations, the ten films selection was pretty right on, except for two. Those two slots ended up being filled by District 9 and The Blind Side. No way could I have ever predicted The Blind Side, but I should have known better about D9. I loved that movie and I was one of its biggest champions. The Lovely Bones and Invictus both did not get Best Pic nods – at least Invictus got two acting nods. I guess what’s strange to me is that none of these, if I remember right, was a last-minute entry. They were all being written about for months before they ended being nominated.

The Hurt Locker had been kicking around since the previous year even, and that seemed to work for it. Helping it along was the simple fact that it was just a really good movie when you got right down to it. It was lean, perfectly well written, tightly directed – and above all, it had a solid ensemble cast with three strong leading actors. It was also directed by a woman. It was a film that was so good it didn’t matter if it had been directed by a woman; it was still greatly admired across the board, with no condescension in tow. If anyone wants to start the “it’s because she’s a woman” nonsense, I’m still ready for that fight; how many films have been directed by women that get as far and do as well as The Hurt Locker did? Bring it on.

The Hurt Locker won Best Picture because it was the one film most people could agree upon was the best film of the nominated ten.

Now, here we are trying to compile a new top ten list. I just sent in this to Gurus of Gold:

BEST PICTURE
1. The Social Network
2. True Grit*
3. The King’s Speech
4. Inception
5. 127 Hours
6. The Kids Are All Right
7. Toy Story 3
8. The Way Back*
9. Secretariat
10. The Fighter*

There are three question marks here.¬†¬† The Way Back has been seen, but so far it’s gotten mixed reviews. It will be helped along by two key factors – the first is that it’s Peter Weir directing. Remember Master and Commander did not exactly shake the ground when it opened yet it was still nominated in a five picture race.¬†¬† It also is an epic. Or appears to be. Those two things work in its favor, and it doesn’t hurt that Ed Harris is in it.¬† True Grit – it goes without saying. The Coen brothers are masters of the form. They have rarely made a bad film. Even their worst films are still better than most films, period. Sometimes it takes time for audiences to catch up with how good they are, but they eventually do. I’ve finally caught up with Burn After Reading and I now consider it one of their best. The only film I think completely misfires in their canon of work is The Hudsucker Proxy (I don’t count Ladykillers or that other movie).

They hit more than they miss. So much so that they even trump Steven Spielberg in this regard. For a long time Munich was the film I pulled out of my hat to illustrate the faulty logic behind putting a film high on the contenders list before anyone saw it. At any rate, Munich did manage a Best Picture nomination, but before people saw it they were proclaiming it the winner. Step back from that paradigm for a minute and you will see a group of people who have completely lost their minds. Really? Predicting a movie to win that no one has yet seen? But we didn’t learn our lesson with that film. We continued to predict films sight unseen, and are still doing it today. I have three films on my list that I’ve not seen, two that haven’t been seen at all. Even if it is the Coen brothers, there is a potential for epic failure on all levels. Don’t worry, though, no pressure.

The Fighter is another big question mark. We have the trailer. We have Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale. We have David O’Russell, who isn’t exactly Oscar friendly. We just don’t know what will happen. And yet, we make guesses anyway. The reason we do this is because everyone else is doing it. If we all made a rule across the board that we couldn’t predict films until they’d been seen, we might have a better track record. On the other hand, everyone wants to be the person readers dig up in the future to see how early they made that call.

To me, it doesn’t count if the film hasn’t been seen: It is a toss of the dice that has a 50/50 chance of paying off. I guess we all really just love to gamble.

I do still feel that I’m groping around in the dark. I won’t know if those are the ten or not for another few weeks. One thing I do know is that as we approach the end of the year, the shapes in the dark become more well defined. And at some point, at least 9 out of 10 become crystal clear.

Things will start to dramatically shift when the following events occur:

1. The National Board of Review – it’s first out of the gate although it isn’t always dead on. Last year was the first year since I’ve been covering the race that we had a chance to look at the ten nominees for the NBR vs. ten for the Oscar. Here were the NBR nominees and winners. In bold are the films that went on to be nominated. These were announced December 3rd (which shows you how long from now things will kick off in earnest):

Top Eleven Films (In alphabetical order):
An Education
(500) Days Of Summer
The Hurt Locker
Inglourious Basterds
Invictus
The Messenger
A Serious Man
Star Trek
Up
Up In The Air
Where The Wild Things Are

They nailed six out of ten. That isn’t bad and it does reflect where we were earlier in the year.¬† Up in the Air won the NBR, but unfortunately for that film, it peaked way too early. By the time it finally opened there wasn’t a lot of excitement left to float around. That, and it was kind of taken too much for granted. There was no urgency with it.

Shortly thereafter came the Critics Choice nominees on December 14 (what a difference a couple of weeks make – namely, the big elephant that was Avatar stomped into the room):

BEST PICTURE
Avatar
An Education
The Hurt Locker
Inglourious Basterds

Invictus
Nine
Precious
A Serious Man
Up
Up In The Air

They fared slightly better than the NBR with eight out of ten choices. Still missing, District 9 and The Blind Side.

Next came the PGA nominations:

BEST PICTURE
Avatar
An Education
The Hurt Locker
Inglourious Basterds

Invictus
Star Trek
Precious
District 9
Up
Up In The Air

Now, the only two missing were The Blind Side and A Serious Man. So far, no group has gotten closer than eight out of ten, the same basic number I had back on October 29 last year. Eight out of the ten seemed like a safe bet.

If I’ve learned one important thing, though, it’s that a lesson learned last year doesn’t a lesson now make. I feel very strong about these:
The Social Network
The King’s Speech
Inception
Toy Story 3
Another Year

Less certain because I haven’t yet seen them:
The Kids Are All Right
127 Hours
True Grit
The Fighter
The Way Back

Could go either way:
Secretariat

Last minute upset potential:

Winter’s Bone – easily one of the best films of 2010
Let Me In – would take a seriously mounted campaign and an open-minded Academy – strong box office would have helped
The Town - if Secretariat disappoints at the box office, which I can’t imagine it will, The Town could take The Blind Side slot (if there is one)
Black Swan – a complete question mark as to how this will go over. Because it tickled the sweet spot with bloggers says nothing to me. It needs broader support. If it gets it, it’s in in a big way.
Rabbit Hole – if it’s as good as everyone says, it could be a last minute shocker.
Made in Dagenham
Get Low

For ten Best Picture slots, we must think bigger, not smaller. Big movies that made a lot of money? There is one I keep forgetting. It could make a last minute appearance, despite its completely vanishing buzz and that movie is:

Shutter Island

It made over $100 million and would be a good addition to the ten, especially if they’re looking for solid money makers. I think it gets in only if the unseen hopefuls fail.

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