Even though one can’t take anything for granted at this state of the race, it’s impossible to deny real buzz. Right now, two films have it – 127 Hours and The King’s Speech, both films seem to hit just the right notes to emerge victorious through the heat of the Telluride/Venice/Toronto mash-up. Watching the buzz and commentary out of Toronto has given me much to mull over about the role films now play in our lives. By “our” I mean the small pocket of people who care whether a film is a hit or miss. In truth, most people are busy living their lives or watching Jersey Shore to care. They get some trickle-down that can be overheard at Starbucks, “I heard that movie was bad.” “I heard that sucked.” “I heard that was going to win an Oscar.” It’s always fun to imagine what life was like before Oscarwatch.com, er, awardsdaily.com.
It’s heartbreaking, I won’t lie, to watch films dismissed in 140 characters, often the same characters. I can’t psychoanalyze the tweeters, or the bloggers, most of whom are working very hard to give their readers a slice of the Toronto Film Fest, and an idea of what to expect with these movies. But the Oscar game is a serious one. Careers are made and lost on this race. Maybe that ain’t worth the price of tea in China – it certainly isn’t going to give shelter to Haitians or feed the poor. Movies, though, can bring relief. They can bring entertainment, humor, insight, understanding — and all of these things ARE worth something. So why does the Oscar race matter, other than the obvious reasons? Because the Oscars still draw the spotlight to films they think are worthy of it. Maybe no one had heard of The Hurt Locker before last March. But they sure have heard about it now. Maybe no one will ever sit down and watch A Serious Man or District 9 or An Education, but they know the titles.
We who cover this beat, though, we don’t have the luxury of stumbling upon a movie Oscar recommended. We predict them, for better or worse, and therefore we are in the position to judge them early. This can sometimes rob us of an emotional experience. Certainly, critics must be one-step removed in order to write a thoughtful piece about a film they hopefully have the knowledge and experience to judge in the first place. All opinions are not rendered the same in the end. Otherwise, test screening reactions would amount to Oscar buzz. They don’t.
This year has brought out imaginative and daring projects by mainstream Hollywood directors who are taking a chance with risky material. Eastwood, love or hate his movie, is taking a leap, trying something new in the final phase of his career. Christopher Nolan rolled the dice and brought a wholly original work to the big screen. And Robert Redford, god love him, is taking chances with his own risky historical message movie. They are out front, proving that you don’t have to have bankable this or that, appealing to 12 year-old boys to make meaningful films. Did they make the same kind of splash that 127 Hours or the King’s Speech have? Well, other than Inception, no. Does that mean they are out of the Oscar race? Not from where I sit.
I can’t take the word of people who have made their short careers on criticizing Oscar’s choices and separating their own opinions for the “middling” choices of the Best Picture race. Those people can determine how the Spirit Awards turn out, and maybe predict the major critics awards, but Oscar? Not even close to being on the same wavelength.
There are films that will always appeal across the board — and it doesn’t matter if you’re a 12 year-old girl, a 30-something Peter Pan or a 70 year-old woman – you will respond to the film. Those are the ones that will always dominate the Best Picture race.
And so it comes to pass that the Best Picture race begins to shape up.
This is how I see Oscar season drilling down. Our Tree of Life, if you will:
National Board of Review – kicks things off. It doesn’t matter who they are or what people like David Poland think of them. They matter. It used to be that almost all five of the NBoR’s choices ended up in the Best Pic race. In keeping with that, they only had five out of ten of the films that ultimately made it into Oscar’s Best Pic.
The critics awards proper – the New York Film Critics and the LA Film Critics – beware if they choose the same film. There are wild card years but for the most part, they still set the tone.
The Golden Globes/Critics Choice – these aren’t really critic awards.¬† Anyone can join the BFCA. And the Globes are a strange assemblage of foreign journalists. Still, they get and give ink to contenders that sometimes matters and sometimes doesn’t. A chance to speak publicly is always a good thing for a contender. Unless they’re Jim Cameron.
The guild awards – they blend public opinion with critics. Basically, if it’s only a critics darling, it usually won’t make the leap to the guild awards phase. It has to be somewhat of a crowdpleaser and/or have some big-ass talent involved (and an aggressive publicity team behind it).
By the time the guild awards have finished up, almost everyone is tired of the awards race already. They’ve already seen the same people win over and over again – thus, a strange phenomenon begins to take place. They start picking things just because they’re sick of the same people winning, whether they deserve it or not. That sometimes has an impact on the Oscar nominations (The Blind Side), and sometimes it doesn’t (Slumdog Millionaire). Either way, the Oscars are still considered the Big Show, no matter how spent and used up we all feel when they finally roll around.
Here we are, in the thick of the festival phase. The New York Film Critics, the National Board of Review and the LA Film Critics are already mulling over this year’s selections. A few of them have had their opinions heard but most have kept quiet. The bloggers are shouting from the rooftops how much they hated Hereafter and The Conspirator, but the film critics are mostly quiet, preferring instead to write their thoughts in a full review form.
And those are what count more.
Nonetheless, the Best Picture race cannot help but form itself. It’s like making butter. You churn it around long enough and the fat must separate from the whey.
Forces to be reckoned with:
1. 127 Hours. Danny Boyle’s second slam dunk is causing tears, standing ovations and, on occasion, seizures.
2. The King’s Speech – another film most seem to agree is one of the better films they’re seeing, and this is an across-the-board reaction.
3. The Social Network – early word is good.¬† Really good.
4. Inception – still one of the most imaginative studio films ever released, and a solid money maker.
It is also worth mentioning that we now have two strong Best Actor contenders in Colin Firth and James Franco.
Holding their place in line:
5. Toy Story 3
6. The Kids Are All Right
7. Another Year
Seen but mixed reactions – still in play:
2. The Conspirator
Wild cards that might upset the apple cart, expected to do well but not yet seen:
1. True Grit
2. The Fighter
3. Love and Other Drugs
4. How Do You Know
Possible for the Blind Side slot:
1. For Colored Girls
Complete wild cards:
1. Black Swan
2. Blue Valentine
3. Next Three Days
4. The Tourist
5. How to Train Your Dragon
6. Winter’s Bone
7. The Tempest
8. Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps
9. Fair Game
10. Inside Job
12. Barney’s Version
13. Never Let Me Go