I love the Oscar race. I hate the Oscar race. And yet, the season is upon us.
We have to start the year by remembering what the Oscar race is and what it isn’t. What it isn’t: a reliable barometer for the greatness or quality of high artistic achievement. The Oscars themselves are supposed to be that. But there is way too emotion involved for that to be the case. Greatness does not always rely on emotion. Sometimes greatness is in the absence of emotion. Sometimes greatness is a way of seeing ourselves as we really are. Greatness, sometimes, is truth.
What the Oscar race is? A competition to woo a consensus. The critics, though they really chafe against this notion, are themselves a consensus. They get together and they vote on the year’s best. Much of the time they will never admit to wanting to influence the Oscar race. But somehow, it is impossible to completely opt out of the process when you yourself are a voting consensus pitting films and performances against one another. There isn’t that much of a difference between the critics awards and the Oscars except the number of people that make up that consensus.
The Oscar race can do great things for movies. And it can do horrible things to movies. It can completely transform careers. It can make you and it can break you. It can sully a perfectly fine film so that by the end the poor thing is limping along with a broken heel, a torn and tattered dress, mascara smeared under the eyes — wrecked, ruined until time wipes away the dirt and tears and remembers how good it all really was before it was pummeled by the awards machine.
It is therefore necessary to always have two conversations simultaneously. “What is going to happen at this year’s Oscars” and “Have you seen this really great film?” In a perfect world those two conversations merge and the awards race backs the best films and people flock to those films because they have been given the golden seal of approval by the industry and the critics. In a perfect world no one is sullied. There are no losers and the winners are just happy to be there.
Already I’m thrilled with some of the films I have seen so far this year — one I can’t really admit to having seen (I’ll never tell), a few I saw in Cannes (Foxcatcher, Mr. Turner, The Homesman) and one I’ve just seen that came out of Sundance, Boyhood. So many great films are on the horizon. The New York Film Fest, Venice, Telluride, Toronto — by the time those festivals close Best Picture will likely be mostly sewn up.
Why, you might wonder, is that so? Around 2003 the Academy decided to shift its date back one month. In so doing, and eventually, the Oscar race would change in dramatic ways. The biggest change was that the public was effectively shut out of the awards race. Where the Oscars used to see their biggest contenders released at the end of the year, now releasing a film that late means you likely don’t get in at all. The Oscar race is mostly finished by the time many of these films ever even hit theaters. It turns out that a lot of the Oscar movies are popular with audiences, like Gravity, like Argo, like Inception, like The Social Network, like The King’s Speech, like the Wolf of Wall Street, like American Hustle. Sometimes they aren’t popular with audiences. Sometimes audiences never see them at all until they arrive on VOD. It doesn’t matter what the public thinks because the awards are mostly decided behind closed doors, with industry voters picking their favorites almost at the exact same time, give or take a week or two.
What do we look for in determining what movies will go all the way, even if we haven’t seen them? We go by filmmakers and subject matter, mostly. But we also go by which publicist is handling the film. They tend to know if they have a strong contender — that is what makes them good at their jobs. So if one of them says “you need to see this movie” chances are it’s going to be a strong player in the race. Also, these strategists and publicists will work tirelessly to make sure their films are seen and paid attention to. The team behind Boyhood, for instance, is one of the best in the business. Ditto for The Theory of Everything, American Sniper, The Homesman, Foxcatcher, The Imitation Game, Birdman, Into the Woods, etc. Nothing is ever 100% certain, of course.
That brings us to the snake eating its own tail process of predicting films that haven’t been seen. These films are essentially herded into a smaller group that the voters then decide from. The bloggers and critics do the early separating — so in a way it is a self-fulfilling prophecy: we predict the films that then end up in the race because we predicted them to be in the race. Either way, the two biggest groups are Tom O’Neil’s Gold Derby and David Poland’s Gurus of Gold.
The Gurus of Gold has changed slightly over the past few years, with two or three members shifting positions. To that end, comparing years prior is not an exact science. But there are some things we know for sure. First, let’s look backwards in time.
In 2012, the early Gurus had all nine of the ultimate nominees on their preliminary list, without rankings:
1. Zero Dark Thirty
2. Les Miserables
4. Moonrise Kingdom
5. Beasts of the Southern Wild
7. Anna Karenina
8. The Master
9. Life of Pi
10. Django Unchained
12. Silver Linings Playbook
13. Cloud Atlas
14. Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
The year previously, 2011, the gurus chart around this time was:
1. War Horse (sight unseen)
2. The Ides of March (sight unseen)
3. The Artist (seen at Cannes.)
4. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (sight unseen)
5. The Descendants (not yet seen? Telluride.)
6. Midnight in Paris (seen)
7. J. Edgar (sight unseen)
8. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (maybe seen in the UK?)
9. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (not seen)
10. Tree of Life (seen at Cannes)
Missing: The Help, Hugo, Moneyball
The Help was one of those underestimated films that must fly under and over the radar of bloggers and critics because it’s never going be their kind of movie. Hugo was a New York Film fest entry and Moneyball also came kind of late and seemed to need some advocating to get off the ground.
1. Inception (seen)
2. The King’s Speech (seen)
3. Toy Story 3 (seen)
4. The Kids Are All Right (seen, Sundance)
5. The Social Network (seen)
6. Black Swan (not seen)
7. True Grit (not seen)
8. Another Year (seen, Cannes)
9. 127 Hours (not seen)
10. Winter’s Bone (seen, Sundance)
Missing from this, The Fighter.
The Hurt Locker (seen)
Invictus (not seen)
Nine (not seen)
Up in the Air (not seen)
An Education (seen)
The Lovely Bones (not seen)
Bright Star (I actually did add this to my list but too late perhaps)
A Serious Man (seen, I think)
The Road (not seen)
Amelia (not seen)
Capitalism: A Love Story (seen)
Avatar (not seen)
The Informant! (seen)
Inglourious Basterds (not seen I think)
Julie & Julia (seen)
District 9 (seen)
Where the Wild Things Are (seen)
Star Trek (seen)
The Tree of Life (seen at Cannes)
500 Days of Summer (seen)
The Fantastic Mr. Fox (seen)
Missing: The Blind Side
That was an “under the radar” movie.
My own prediction of how last year was going to go looked like this:
Wolf of Wall Street
Saving Mr. Banks
12 Years a Slave
Inside Llewyn Davis
I personally had six out of nine predicted. I also added the following titles as maybes:
Dallas Buyers Club
All is Lost
Sum total of seven out of nine predicted heading into the season.
The Gurus 15 from last year looked like this:
That’s seven out of nine predicted. If you drill down a little further on their list you find Dallas Buyers Club on there as well, with myself, Nathaniel Rogers and Pete Hammond all putting our faith in it.
That brings us to today, pre-Telluride, as all of these aforementioned lists were. David Fincher’s Gone Girl which has been seen by a few people and already has a vibrating hum of buzz — not for being an “Oscar movie” necessarily but for being a really great fucking movie. Sometimes that is enough to overcome the softies in the industry looking for feel good fare, sometimes it isn’t. Either way, Gone Girl topping the list shows that expectations are high.
Gone Girl (seen by some, priority placement at NYFF, like Social Network)
Birdman (seen by some, early buzz)
Boyhood (seen, the highest reviewed film of the year)
Foxcatcher (seen at Cannes)
Fury (unseen, test screened)
Inherent Vice (seen by some, high placement at NYFF)
The Theory of Everything (not seen)
The Imitation Game (seen by some, smattering of good buzz)
The Grand Budapest Hotel (seen)
Into the Woods (not seen)
American Sniper (not seen)
Big eyes (seen by some)
A Most Violent Year (not seen)
Mr Turner (seen at Cannes)
Exodus (not seen)
Men, Women & Children (not seen)
St. Vincent (not seen)
Rosewater (not seen, I don’t think)
Trash (seen by some)
It annoys me slightly that Gone Girl has to be the film with its ass hanging out this early on. That means expectations are going to shoot up and that makes it ripe for attacks. The idea with the Oscar race is to sneak past the alien mom without her seeing you — you tiptoe gingerly by — because once she spots you it’s time to bring out Ripley’s pulse rifle and flame thrower.
But that genie can’t be put back into the bottle once the wheels are set in motion. And a great film can’t be made ungreat because it awakened the monster. The film is still the film. The perceptions around it are the only things that change as fast as ripples on the water’s surface once the wind picks up.
Tomorrow I pack up the car and drive two days to Telluride, Colorado. And thus, the adventure begins.