clooneymomentous

It’s not as difficult these days as it once was to early-predict Best Picture. The thing about the awards race that we can pretty much count on: the fix is in. There was a time when Big Oscar Movies could be very disappointing out of the gate. Not anymore. Somehow movies go all the way even when they aren’t very good.  This is a matter of timing, of less “real” critics on the beat (bloggers are less critical, more easily swayed), and great publicity teams. After all, there wasn’t a single win on Oscar’s stage in the major categories that didn’t have an unbeatable publicist behind it.

Sometimes movies can indeed break out in unexpected ways, and thus, they have their “Oscar story.” You really don’t need me to teach you about the importance of an “Oscar story” because we just lived through one. The comeback of Ben Affleck, his perceived snub, proved as unstoppable as Slumdog Millionaire’s “It was going to go straight to video” meme.  I always figured no one could beat Lincoln’s “Oscar story,” which was actually real but no one cared. One perfectly spun Deadline story after the Golden Globes regarding Bill Clinton was all that was needed to derail that.

But most of the time, they enter the race, and most of those on our radar right now are the kind that don’t really have an Oscar story. When you see them coming from that far away they begin the year as the “defacto frontrunner.” That puts them in the Goliath category as they await this year’s David.  In the Oscar race, quality, preparation and execution has nothing to do with it. You are trying to calculate human emotions.  So we’ll be on the lookout less for the best picture of the year and more on the lookout for the best “Oscar story.”

Let’s get started with this year’s already presumed Oscar movies – I suspect at least three of them will go to Telluride, a couple with go to Cannes, and probably all of them will go to Toronto. If they’re smart they will remember that you have to get your movie out there at or around Toronto if you want to win. You have to pretend to be under the radar — some can do that more easily than others — and you can’t ever look like you think you’re going to win the Oscar.  Even Schindler’s List would have a hard time nowadays. A Slumdog would have beaten a Schindler’s List, I figure.  I shudder to think of the ways the press and social networking would have picked that movie’s “historical accuracy” apart like vultures on a dead squirrel.

WhatCulture has assembled a decent top ten of their Best Picture predictions and we’ll kind of use that as a guide.  I also got some of these titles from this IMDB list of top 30.

The most likely out of the gate appear to be one long sausage fest, as usual:

1. Monuments Men — I have no comment on this, so I will quote What Culture instead:

And now we get to the big sharks of Oscar season. George Clooney and Grant Heslov are fresh off Oscar wins for producing the Best Picture-winning Argo, and are looking to win back-to-back gongs with this film based on the novel The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History by Robert M. Edsel.

This time, however, Clooney could potentially nab four awards, given that he is director, producer, screenwriter and actor, starring alongside Daniel Craig and Cate Blanchett in a film about the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program of WW2, which sought to preserve art before Hitler could destroy it.

It’s a subject “worthy” of the Oscars, and voters will no doubt find its themes of art preservation to be self-reflexive and poignant; shooting starts in just a few short weeks, and I’m expecting big things.

2. Nebraska — Alexander Payne is overdue for a big win, with two screenplay Oscars under his belt and the film that should have won against Million Dollar Baby, Sideways. For Payne, like most great storytellers, he can’t make a movie dumbed down enough for Oscar voters. It seems beyond his ability.  The movie that wins has to illuminate the goodness in people, no matter what. You have to be able to root for the hero who appears to be the underdog triumphing.  But Payne makes movies about the darker, more embarrassing aspects of our nature.  Oscar voters have nowhere to put their “likes” — so either they want to reward Payne himself as their “like” or they want to reward the film’s scrappy underdogs that could.  Nebraska is directed by Payne from an original screenplay. Usually Payne writes the scripts he directs but this time, it’s a screenplay by Bob Nelson.  So whatever happens, Payne can’t win for Screenplay. The plot is “An aging, booze-addled father makes the trip from Montana to Nebraska with his estranged son in order to claim a million dollar Publisher’s Clearing House sweepstakes prize.”

At first glance, Nebraska doesn’t seem to be an “Oscar movie.” But you just never know how things might turn out. The only thing we do know going in is that Payne is overdue to win Director and Picture.

3. Wolf of Wall Street is another big one. It will be the fifth collaboration between Leo DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese and will have a similar problem that Payne’s movie has – is it feelgoodie enough? I sincerely doubt it. But it’s one of a handful I’m anxiously awaiting.  DiCaprio fans will be hoping this is the role that will finally win DiCaprio what they consider is his overdue Oscar. I guess I’d say they never took a look at Peter O’Toole’s Oscar history.  But you never know – maybe this is Leo’s year, considering both The Great Gatsby and Wolf of Wall Street are coming out.  He’s such a wonderful actor and big star — he is the stuff Oscars are made on. So why wouldn’t they reward him?  After awarding the 22-year-old Lawrence for Actress this year they have no reasonable excuse for thus far not awarding DiCaprio.

Scriptshadow has a nicely written script review of the Black List screenplay — which basically heralds it as a “return to form” for Scorsese, meaning he’s back in his comfort zone with mobsters. Only this time the gangsters are banksters.  It sounds more like the Departed to me only without William Monahan’s flourishes.  The Departed remains among my favorites of Scorsese’s films because of Monahan’s script. So I hope this one lives up to that. Either way, who cares what Oscar voters (industry voters because there is no difference now) think — it looks like a good time ride into the darker places.

4.  Inside Llewyn Davis – Joel and Ethan Coen’s movie about the ’60s folk scene. Being that their only Oscar winning Best Picture was the one story that wasn’t an original screenplay I expect this one will be a sweet indulgence for Coen brothers fans — but it’s hard to imagine Academy voters being that cool. You never know, I guess.  They are like Woody Allen — beloved by the Academy so always must be considered for nominations no matter what.  They don’t make movies to win Oscars, which might explain why their movies are so consistently great.

5. Fruitvale – it hit big at Sundance, like Beasts of the Southern Wild did. I can’t wait to see it – here is what Whatculture says:

Fruitvale debuted at last month’s Sundance Film Festival to massive acclaim, scooping the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award for U.S. dramatic film, and will no doubt be hoping that it can repeat the indie success of Beasts of the Southern Wild, which in less than a year went from patent obscurity to being a Best Picture nominee.

Less fantastical and more focused on grit, Fruitvale depicts the final 24 hours in the life of Oscar Grant, a young man who was shot dead by a police officer at an Oakland, California police station.

Early Sundance reviews suggest that the film is an impassioned plea for victim’s rights, boosted by a stellar breakout portrayal from Michael B. Jordan (Chronicle) in the lead role, one critic even comparing him to a young Denzel Washington. Could the young actor scoop a Best Actor nomination? It will take considerable support to get an indie with only one prestige talent attached (Octavia Spencer) to make the big leagues, but I’ll be rooting for it all the way.

6. The Counselor is a screenplay by Cormac McCarthy (written directly for the screen; not adapted from a book), and directed by Ridley Scott, starring Brad Pitt, Michael Fassbender, Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz and Cameron Diaz. O how I wish the Coens were directing it but Ridley Scott ain’t half bad.

Over at ScriptShadow there is a hilarious review of the screenplay:

This script made me want to commit suicide. It was so bleak, it made me want to overdose on heroin while skydiving into an avalanche of naked women.

Bordertown, sex, drugs, violence – of course, they still sort of owe Ridley Scott an Oscar. Something tells me he’ll never get one either but here’s to hoping.

7. Rush — I suppose we can go to Ron Howard town, if the screenwriter is Peter Morgan. They must have something to do with Oscar on their minds if they went that way.  It stars Chris Hemsworth, though, so that makes it seem like it can’t be Oscar-y enough.  I’m willing to keep an open mind.

8.12 Years a Slave – by one of the most prolific and distinguished Oscar-ignored filmmakers, Steve McQueen, stars Brad Pitt, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Quvenzhané Wallis. The plot — based on the 1853 memoir of Solomon Northup — involves “A man living in New York during the mid-1800s who is kidnapped and sold into slavery in the deep south.” There are so many stories to be told about slaves before the end of the Civil War and it’s great to see someone is telling one of those.

9. Foxcatcher, directed by Bennett Miller, “The story of John du Pont, who suffered from paranoid schizophrenia and killed Olympic wrestler David Schultz.” Stars Channing Tatum, Steve Carell, Mark Ruffalo, Sienna Miller.

10. The Great Gatsby – Baz Luhrmann’s epic on the Great American Novel starring DiCaprio and Carey Mulligan. It’s tough to tell how this one will turn out. But we’ll hold its place until we hear otherwise.

11. August: Osage County is kept aloft because it will feature two performances by Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts. But its director, at least so far, doesn’t appear to be a big name enough to push it through into the Best Picture game — but you just never know, right? Remember The Blind Side.  John Wells directed The Company Men.  You know, Streep shoots to the top of the list with this performance and she might win yet another Oscar (which is why Viola Davis should have won last year).

12. Captain Phillips — directed by Paul Greegrass and starring Tom Hanks and Catherine Keener. Hanks has my undying admiration for starring balls-out in Cloud Atlas. I’m a fan for life. So I greatly look forward this one.   It’s “The true story of Captain Richard Phillips and the 2009 hijacking by Somali pirates of the US-flagged MV Maersk Alabama, the first American cargo ship to be hijacked in two hundred years. Screenwriter is Billy Ray (State of Play, Shattered Glass, etc.)

13. Before Midnight — the third installment of the wonderfully unprecedented series of Jesse and Celine. Directed by Richard Linklater and written by Linklater, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy — it seems like this might be one that breaks through Oscar’s barrier. I don’t know how you can’t be impressed by the scope of it, the execution of it and what it has meant to many of us who have grown up alongside these wonderful characters.

14. Trance - it doesn’t look like it’s an “Oscar movie” but since it’s Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire and 127 Hours) it has to be considered.

15. Oldboy – a highly anticipated, sure to be love/hated film by Spike Lee. I’m not expecting the Academy to give Spike Lee his due. Ever. In my lifetime. But that doesn’t mean I won’t anticipate one of his movies.  The plot: “An advertising executive is kidnapped and held hostage for 20 years in solitary confinement. When he is inexplicably released, he embarks on an obsessive mission to discover who orchestrated his punishment, only to find he is still trapped in a web of conspiracy and torment.” OldBoy stars Josh Brolin and Samuel L. Jackson.

16. Stories We Tell — I still don’t know where they’ll put one of the best films I saw last year, Sarah Polley’s Stories we Tell.  But it should be considered, at least, for screenplay.  It’s too much to hope for anything beyond that but I suspect voters will love this film.

17. Untitled David O. Russell Abscam project that reteams Oscar winners Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper with Christian Bale. Russell appears to be barreling towards a big Oscar win. It seems only a matter of time. The plot, “An FBI sting operation in the 1970s called Abscam leads to the conviction of United States Congressmen.”

18. Her – written and directed by Spike Jonze, this is sort of a modern tale of a man who has a relationship with an electronic device.  If anything, it could be a contender for original screenplay but sounds too darkly funny for feelgoody Oscar voters.

19. The Butler - starring Forest Whitaker and directed by Lee Daniels. I hope it’s great. It’s about a black butler who served many presidents.

20. The Bling Ring – directed by Sofia Coppola and should be higher on the list. But the Academy appears to have Coppola-phobia after awarding her Original Screenplay for Lost in Translation. No more “Oscar story” means she is roundly ignored. But perhaps this one might go all the way.

With Cannes coming up in May, I’m sure this list will change a bit. We’ll keep checking in — but for now, this is what jumps out at me from the page.