Usually the Oscar race feels a bend in the road right about now, with Toronto making or breaking several titles. There is always the hope that a film will break out there. But Telluride and Venice have already spit out one or two sure bets, and one wonders if there’s anything left in the festival circuit to move the race significantly. The Best Picture category has had only one minor shift since festival season started, and that is the potential ousting of George Clooney’s The Ides of March. While it hasn’t really been definitively ousted, its reception has been lukewarm so far, with what appears to be a solid “B” from festival attendees and others who’ve seen it. The Descendants, on the other hand, is soaring at the moment and seems to have everything a Best Pic contender needs: bravura, unrecognized director, bravura leading role by a white male, and a great story. It is easily one of the best films I’ve seen this year and the only thing that can hurt it now is overhype.
Likewise, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, propelled by what is said to be a brilliant turn by Gary Oldman, seems to have secured a place in the Big Ten. At least for now. When films are elevated above the rest at festivals it gives them a big head start heading into Oscar season. Conversely, a tepid response can sometimes stall an engine that’s impossible to restart. It has to be crazy making for publicists: how to now strategize with so many bloggers and critics seeing and writing about films that have yet to open. Sometimes it feels like an echo chamber, with people talking to each other about a race that exists only in their minds. The public at large isn’t really clued into what’s going on yet. They simply see a movie and decide for themselves whether they like it. That said, the buzz for The Descendants and Tinker, Tailor seems to be strong enough to perhaps trickle down.
As of now, it looks like there are five solid Best Picture contenders:
- Midnight in Paris (broke box-office records for Woody Allen, director’s notoriety, great word of mouth)
- The Help (insane box office, all female cast, sure to land at number 1 for many voters)
- The Artist (beloved by nearly everyone, backed by the Weinsteins, one of the best pics of the year)
- The Descendants (entertaining, relevant, a leap in maturity for its director and star)
- Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (led by Oldman’s brilliant performance, distinguished literary pedigree, British – which never hurts)
Tree of Life still feels like it’s in play, even though it didn’t quite get the kind of acclaim it needed. With number votes happening, it could sneak in there.
Definitely out: W.E., Butter
On the fence: The Ides of March
Potential but nothing yet set: Beginners,Wuthering Heights, Super 8
Yet to be determined: Moneyball, 360 (playing in Toronto), Carnage, Contagion
Still to come? Essentially all of the Big Oscar Movies. And if they ALL come on strong, some of the first solid five could wobble.
- War Horse
- J Edgar (AFI Fest rolls it out)
- Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
- The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
- The Adventures of Tintin: Secret of the Unicorn
- The Iron Lady
- Young Adult
- We Bought a Zoo
Unless there’s an unknown rabbit waiting to be pulled from the hat, that’s mostly it for 2011. This is always the time of year where the lull and predictability makes me nervous. Is there a Million Dollar Baby lurking in the woodpile? Will The Descendants be that Best Picture winner that gets its start in Telluride and just keeps on hitting every mark until year’s end?
Last year, the two most popular films early on were The King’s Speech and The Social Network, with Black Swan and True Grit coming up on the outside in the final stretch pulling votes from those two. Usually by Toronto we have, at the very least, a presumed frontrunner. I guess that would be War Horse, even though no one has seen it. Spielberg, war, British people, Tony award-winning play – who knows what will happen with it. Has there ever been a film everyone thought would win before anyone saw it that actually DID win?
One thing I like about the TBA Oscar movies is that many of them feature women in the lead roles: Young Adult, The Iron Lady, and Dragon Tattoo. That makes it quite an unusual Oscar year for sure, though it’s a niche appeal that might have benefited better from last year’s balloting method rather than this year’s.
We also have at least two serious tearjerkers, with Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and War Horse. They could each join The Descendants as the films most likely to make AMPAS members cry real tears. Extremely Loud has 9/11’s anniversary to pair with it this year, and Tom Hanks. Hopefully it will play out as good as the screenplay is. Adapted screenplay could be the most competitive category running, as is usually the case. How many of the potential Best Pic nominees are original scripts? Young Adult is one, Midnight in Paris, The Artist, Contagion, The Iron Lady, and J. Edgar.
The trick this year will be finding a reason to care. While one could almost make the argument that The King’s Speech really did deserve to win the title, Best Picture of the Year for 2010, there is no one who would have argued that Tom Hooper was destined to win Best Director of the Year — and then he did, from both the DGA and the AMPAS. When something that bizarre occurs, one can only throw up one’s hands and attempt to accept these people for what they really are: they want you to be good, just not better than they are. They want a conventional film with an uplifting ending and characters you care about. The rest is left to the studios and the publicists. For a while there, though, there was no longer an Academy type of film. They were simply awarding great films. For a short while. A brief shining peak. From which there was only one way to go. Back down the mountain.
It’s not even that The King’s Speech isn’t a great film. It’s just that there were much better films in the race last year, specifically The Social Network. My aim here is not to beat a dead horse or continue this ongoing argument but just to say that my expectations for what the Academy can do with this great honor they have built up over the many decades have been significantly lowered. We don’t really have a choice anymore but to accept the generally accepted theory about who and what they are.
That means that this year’s Oscar race will be less interesting because there isn’t the notion that anything can happen. Our anticipation of what happens will necessarily be narrowed to fit the Academy’s limitations. Hopefully, those expectations will then be ripped wide open as the voting evolves. The truth is that it has never really been the best place to look for great films. They award some great films but mostly “pretty good” movies. So let’s keep our eye on the “pretty goods” and reserve the best for our own pleasure. This is perhaps the best reason why one should never let one’s emotions get involved when Oscar watching. A realistic attitude about the love affair is the best protection against heartbreak.