While Academy members are receiving and filling out their ballots, around the same time, beginning December 30, SAG voters will decide on their final winners. Many of the acting races feel wide open. We assume Best Actor will be Colin Firth, at last, winning for not just his entire career but for his extraordinary work in the very popular film, The King’s Speech. But Jesse Eisenberg could upset in what is the most talked about, or second most, performance of the year. He’s likable in the same way Hannibal Lecter was likable: we admire those who can slice and dice with mere words. It is a deceptively complex performance, one that must be viewed several times to fully appreciate. But Firth has it in so many ways, the least of which his body of work, general good nature, and extremely likable character.
The actors will be filling out their Oscar nomination choices at the same time they’re choosing their winners for the SAG awards. All of the actors in the Academy’s acting branch will be SAG members, therefore we have to assume that those who are jotting down their nominees and their choices for winners maybe have a good idea already how the acting races will go. That can be a crazy making prospect.
I kind of figure, even though it’s been said that Phase II is a different game, that voters already know who and what their favorites are as we speak. The reason for this is that in this last phase of the race the choices seem a lot more limited. Why is that? They seem limited because, at this rate, very few films in the Best Picture race have managed to have staying power even in the few month leading up to the race. As is usually the case, the films with the highest of expectations out of the gate are the ones that have sort of fallen away. The good ones have been audience tested, critic tested, have already started winning awards. There is no Blind Side pushing through from the outside, or it doesn’t seem so. Is there a surprise money maker of that calibre?
This is always the phase of the race that makes Oscar watchers feel most hopeful of the possibilities. What might happen, what could happen is almost always more exciting than what does happen. Once the nominations are announced, there is always a bit of a let down for what was ignored. Seasoned Oscar watching vets will know that it’s never about getting everything you want, but rather, getting the one thing.
We already know which films have all of the heat right now. Heat is a detectable thing. If it isn’t there, no amount of pleading or publicity can put it into voters’ minds. But what of the titles and performances that have drifted through the cracks, all but undetected by critics and pundits who, except for the LA Film Critics, play in the same league as the bigger awards shows? Let’s go through a few of them for the hell of it.
Another Year – I don’t know how it happened that Another Year has gotten the short shrift this year. Was a time when a Mike Leigh film really had some serious pull with the precursors. It could still turn out that it pops up surprisingly here at the end, but so far it isn’t looking likely. The problem with it seems to be that it had its big push way back in May, when it was the highlight of the Cannes Film Fest. It hasn’t ever equaled that moment, partly because all of the same people who would be writing about it now already wrote about it then. So the excitement has worn off. The only time people write about it is when they’re trying to make people remember it. It’s unfortunate because of all of the Mike Leigh movies I’ve seen (most or all), this is one of the best. It’s right up there with Vera Drake and Secrets & Lies. Head up by a bravura performance by Lesley Manville, easily one of the best of the year, male or female, and it has Ruth Sheen and Jim Broadbent, both of whom are great.
The Town – I know that there is still a good chance the film will get in, and honestly, it’s a tough call in an eleven-title race for ten slots. Something is going to get left off and it isn’t going to be pretty. We don’t know yet which title is iffy. We will be finding out very soon. The PGA will illuminate it somewhat, and really, they’re the last nominating body that offers up ten. The DGA will give us five. The WGA divides them up. With only 8 out of 10 matching last year, we can’t be totally sure a title left off the PGA’s list won’t then turn up on Oscar’s. I figure that if The Town is going to show up anywhere it will be amid the PGA. Why did I like it so much? For a mainstream Hollywood film it was incredibly entertaining, well written and well acted. It’s one of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve had watching a movie all year. It also made nearly $100 mil. That ought to give it a leg up, one would think. But you just never know.
Shutter Island – Of course, a meteoritic score of 63 isn’t going to get you very far in the Oscar race. The Fighter has a 78 and even that seems low. True Grit has an 80. But compare that to The Social Network’s score of 95, or Toy Story 3’s score of 92, or Winter’s Bone score of 90. And from thence, downward. There isn’t another Oscar contender with as low a score of Shutter Island. And yet, the movie made over $100 mil, was directed by Martin Scorsese and starred Leonardo DiCaprio. People, The Blind Side was nominated for Best Picture and its score was 53.
How to Train Your Dragon – while its true that Pixar has a hold on the Academy, and the world it would seem, but Dragon made enough money, was an original story, and is clearly one of the best films of 2010 and yet, because it isn’t Pixar, no one takes it as seriously as a Best Picture nominee. Yes, you can’t deny that Toy Story 3 is the year’s highest grossing film. That is something to consider. But Dragon made $217, nothing to sneeze at. It hits Metacritic at an unfair 74, along with The Town, and Inception.
Inside Job – while it’s true that we feel like we’re in a groove right now with the one animated film breaking the tradition of having just live action films in the Best Pic ten, it is not outside the realm of possibility that a foreign language or documentary film could make the jump out of their respective ghettos. It didn’t happen last year but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen. There are several documentaries this year that might theoretically make the leap, like Waiting for Superman or Inside Job. Of all of the docs we’ve seen in recent years do well with the Academy, though, the two that would seem to have been big enough and popular enough to have made the cut would have been March of the Penguins and An Inconvenient Truth. Of course, Fahrenheit 9/11 and Bowling for Columbine perhaps. In fact, the whole Hoops Dreams scandal could have been “fixed” with the Best Pic ten. The whole of the Academy gets to pick Best Picture, not just the persnickety doc committee.
The Ghost Writer – it’s still worth remembering the Roman Polanski film. Even if it had gotten a 90+ Metacritic rating and made over $100 mil at the box office, a Polanski film right now is still a tempest in a teapot. We just don’t know how the rabid public would respond to such a thing. Still, the cinematography, score and perhaps a supporting nod for Olivia Williams should be out of the realm of consideration.
Marion Cotillard in Inception – what a great piece of acting by Ms. Cotillard. No, there probably isn’t a space for her in the already crowded field of supporting actresses, but she has such magnetism in Inception she almost sets off a series of earthquakes every time she’s on screen. But she plays so many different aspects of the character at once – she must play both the real person, the wife of Cobb, and the crazy person, his manifestation of her. Cotillard pulls it off and becomes 2010’s one true femme fatale.
Sissy Spacek in Get Low – Robert Duvall keeps getting recognized, but one of the most brilliant things about the film is Spacek’s portrait of the lonely sister. It is such a deeply moving performance, so real and effecting, Because the film came out so early in the year, it’s more difficult to keep it fresh in voters’ minds. But Spacek is one of the best, in this and in everything she does.
Lesley Manville – it cannot be stressed enough how great Manville is in Another Year. It’s hard to believe she keeps getting ignored, even if there aren’t enough spots for all of the great female performances this year. We can’t keep begging for all of them. It’s like the Titanic: there simply aren’t enough boats. But Manville’s was a cut above, an expert bit of acting you don’t see much in films. It is deceptively chaotic, this flitting about she does. But when it turns dark, then menacing, and finally tragic, it is one of the most intelligently drawn characters of the year.
Justin Timberlake, Armie Hammer for The Social Network. Sure, Andrew Garfield gives close to a lead performance and is the heart and soul of the film, therefore should be at the top of the list. But Timberlake is one of the best things about the movie, as is the dual-performing Hammer (who, by the way, if you’ve noticed, is always eating something Henry VIII might have feasted upon). Timberlake as Sean Parker is the driving force of evil in The Social Network, one of the many who shoots high and falls fast. No, he won’t get nominated, but he should.
Barbara Hershey and Winona Ryder from Black Swan. Yes, Mila Kunis is very good as the darker half to Natalie Portman’s black swan, but Hershey is playing against type in a vanity-free performance. While Jackie Weaver and Melissa Leo are getting lots of attention for their work as evil mothers, Hershey is being ignored. There is so much going on there, with sadness, anger, envy – all under the surface. She is the perfect explanation for why Nina is the way she is. Also turning in great work, playing against type is Ryder as the former prima ballerina. While it’s true that there can only be so many nominees, and the majority tend to rally around one contender, it’s worth remembering the other dark-haired wonders in the film.
Matt Damon in True Grit and Hereafter – how is it that year after year Damon delivers one great performance after another and yet is routinely ignored? His work in Hereafter is so understated, and his performance in True Grit is the opposite: he plays a buffoon. He did the same thing last year with two performances and again was ignored. If he gets chosen for anything this year, voters might find some love for him as the Texas Ranger LaBouef, one of the best things about True Grit.
Mark Wahlberg in The Fighter – while Christian Bale, Melissa Leo and Amy Adams are getting appropriate attention for their work, Wahlberg isn’t particularly. His is a quiet, more understated performance but he nails his character. He also has transformed his body from fighter fit, to fat, and back to fighter fit. Surely that’s worth some recognition. Again, not enough spots for all of the great performances this year, but if you love The Fighter you can’t help but acknowledge Wahlberg, who is the heart and soul of the thing.
Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling for Blue Valentine – while it seems like they’ve gotten the attention so far, there is no guarantee they’ll make the final cut. These actors lived their roles, changed for their roles, waiting and transformed themselves for them. You will find more reality of character than in these two. If anyone deserves to be acknowledged with an Oscar nomination, it is the two of them.
Javier Bardem in Biutiful – With only five slots, Bardem is the one who is continually ignored. Part of that is the general response to the film, and the rest of it is the lack of desire to see the film because it’s “too depressing.” Films that are “too depressing” will always move to the bottom of the screener pile. I found Bardem’s work to be a career high in a long career of already brilliant performances. He’s worth mentioning here because he, of all of them, continues to slip through the cracks.
What are your choices?