The air in Los Angeles turned cold just as November arrived and with it the AFI Fest, the season’s last gasp before the film critics start tallying up the year’s successes. A Most Violent Year will get its world premiere, finally. The JC Chandor film, like the rest of the last remainders will get a chance to be showcased and reviewed before voting.
The New York Film Critics will be the first out of the gate, just one day ahead of the National Board of Review. For the past two years the New York Film Critics have pronounced a film that hadn’t yet been seen widely by other critics or bloggers Best Picture of the Year, thus launching it into the Best Picture race. They did this with Zero Dark Thirty in 2012 and with American Hustle in 2013.
Both films were shortly thereafter dismantled. Zero Dark Thirty was attacked by Glenn Greenwald and Andrew Sullivan (who attacked it before seeing it then retracted it) – which turned into a firestorm of controversy making a film that was as high as you can get heading into Oscar voting to one that barely survived a Best Picture nomination. It only won an Oscar for Best Sound Editing, which is a bit of a disgrace for such a deserving film.
American Hustle was riding high for a while there until people started figuring out that its plot made no sense and there wasn’t much there there except flash and style. But oh what flash and oh what style! That perception floated it for a while but come Oscar night the film won not a single Oscar.
It is always a risky gamble opening a late-breaking film. You have to have big clout, like Martin Scorsese or David O. Russell or Kathryn Bigelow clout. You have to be a movie people will put right on top of the screener pile to make it in the last stretch. It worked out pretty well for The Wolf of Wall Street but that was because it took Martin Scorsese himself, and a few fierce advocates for the film to help bypass the growing (albeit flaccid) controversy that it glamorized rich assholes, when in fact, it did anything but. But Oscar voters went for it big time with 5 major nominations but in the end it, too, would go home empty-handed.
We’ve not had a film rally towards any major wins to open late since Clint Eastwood did it back it in 2004 with Million Dollar Baby, a full decade ago and a world away from how the Oscars are decided now.
This year, there are two big names dropping in at the last minute, Clint Eastwood with American Sniper and Angelina Jolie with Unbroken. Their places are already being held in line in case their films live up to the hype. Jolie is such a big star she will have no trouble getting people to attend screenings of her film, as long as she’s there to talk about it. Perhaps that’s why no one is seeing Unbroken until the end of this month. The film will have to be all that and a bag of chips to launch into the Oscar race. On the other hand, her star-power alone could launch it sight unseen by voters eager to have Jolie (and Pitt) at their awards show.
Selma will show footage at AFI. The Homesman, Foxcatcher and Birdman will get another chance to whip up buzz and excitement to a weary awards-watching community. Like Mark Harris is always saying, Oscar voters haven’t even considered voting yet. They’re just wandering around town living their lives, making plans to fly out of town for the holidays, maybe bring a pile of screeners with them. The screener pile usually settles things as those who write about the Oscars have helped get people to maybe be interested in watching the films they at least know they’re supposed to watch. Even then it’s difficult to get them to watch anything that doesn’t look like the kind of movie you’d want to sit down with the family in front a crackling fire, the cooked goose digesting happily in the stomach, brandy warming the cockles of the heart. And on goes the movie to make the holiday picture complete.
That voters must watch films over the holiday break could explain, more than anything else, why the films are so uplifting and feel-goody every year with increasing frequency. The feel-bad films or the “I don’t know what I’m supposed to feel” films don’t get chosen and the ones that make us all look a lot better than we deserve get anointed with awards, as if high achievement ever had anything to do with it.
The pundits continue to stack up the films, ordered by what they think “they” will do. The highest achievements in film will be rounded down to the lowest common denominator of films that still look like real movies with real actors, real dialogue, real sets, real cinematography, real music.
But really, November looks a lot like September and October except for one key party crasher: David Fincher’s pitch black satire, which breezes into the party like the mystery guest whose dress is a little too tight, shows a little too much leg and is the most welcome guest at the party if not the most respectable. The party guests drift in her direction knowing that at the end of the day she’ll emerge as the most popular but they won’t offer her a place at the table. Her clothes are wrong. Her makeup is a little garish. And what was she doing when she disappeared down the hall for those suspicious five minutes and was she WIPING HER MOUTH as she exited one of the rooms?
Gone Girl is the kind of film people will be talking about for years to come, adding to Fincher’s growing body of groundbreaking, exceptional work. He’s not only one of America’s finest directors but he’s a daring upstart working within the studio system. This time, his film is about to earn $160 million and become one of the highest grossing films of the year. If the high profile pundits are right and it isn’t among the nominated films of the year, that only further promotes the notion that it’s Telluride and Toronto or bust for Oscar movies, unless American Sniper and Unbroken do what those same pundits are betting they will: be good enough to woo voters.
The AFI Fest will be the last thing to alter the Best Picture race. So much rides on the month of November. Unbroken, amid nearly insurmountable hype, waits to be seen all the way at the tail end of November, the 30th, when presumably Angelina Jolie will be done shooting her current film with Brad Pitt and can do Q&As. Jolie is their most powerful weapon, of course, and must be here. Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper is also being touted as one of the last of the game-changers.
My own impression of how the race is going differs dramatically from that of In Contention’s Kris Tapley or Hollywood Reporter’s Scott Feinberg or Fandango’s Dave Karger. All of them are discounting the nomination of Fincher’s record breaking Gone Girl. Everything I know about the Oscars, though, tells me that what I think is the “film of the year” will not go unnoticed. To me it’s an easy call. But people will say that’s because I’m biased. I’m the Social Network girl who has interviewed Fincher and therefore I can’t possibly be objective.
Like Gone Girl, Interstellar is divisive. With the exception of a handful of movies by Frank Capra, arguably Steven Spielberg and David Lean, the best films are divisive. Less divisive is Birdman, which is hitting people in much more familiar territory than either Gone Girl or Interstellar. There are some films that seemed to be “liked” across the board and they are your likely “best” of the year, even though we can all pretty much say with a fair amount of confidence that, in this case, best mean “most agreeable overall.” You’re never going to make history or generate controversy or alight a generation by being “most agreeable over all” but you’re going to win Oscars, that much we know for sure.
With an even ten nomination slots, these films would have no problem being honored as among the best of the year. When you’re talking about five slots things get a little more tricky. In that case, five choices by Oscar voters will reward LOVE over LIKE. That probably bodes better for Interstellar and Birdman than it does Gone Girl or Foxcatcher which are just too icy to love unless you’re a cold-hearted soulless person like me.
Where box office helps Gone Girl — potentially earning $160 million with a $60 million budget, a rousing success by anyone’s definition, especially old-time Oscar watchers who remember when Hollywood rewarded those kinds of successes of non-super hero or effects driven films. Box office always matters when you’re talking that kind of money. Oscar bloggers who are paying attention will recognize that.
With Interstellar, box office could be the thing to sink it. It has to make money. LOTS of money. Oscar voters don’t really reward what people consider failures. It is expected that it will make money, even though it’s a three hour movie and will not open at number one (because Big Hero 6 will). It’s the kind of spectacle movie theaters were made for. You can’t watch this thing at home. Like Titanic, it has to be seen to be believed. If it had a simpleton plot or was as easy to understand as Titanic you might have been looking at a film that could have topped Titanic — but Interstellar is not so easy to understand and will likely confound movie goers who aren’t jazzed by the visuals.
Without considering the opinions of my colleagues, my own predictions for Best Picture right now feel fairly solid:
1. Boyhood – Richard Linklater’s 12-year saga of growing up that caps his brilliant career up to now. It is the other film, besides Birdman and Gone Girl, that everyone is talking about. It has the number one spot because it does what no other film ever has done. It is the only one of its kind and it’s a brilliantly executed, moving, unforgettable work of art.
2. The Theory of Everything – Gets the edge on The Imitation Game and Birdman because of its subject matter. That it’s about a marriage, a love story and eventually becoming about an appreciation of the brilliant Mr. Hawking only adds to its power. It is the charm of Eddie Redmayne as Hawking that carries this Little Movie That Could, entering the Oscar race with the advantage of not being thought of as the frontrunner.
3. The Imitation Game – Will give Theory a run for its money and will be one of the only films with a gay protagonist to potentially win the top prize.
4. Birdman – A film about actors that is a dressing down of the silly game played for fame and recognition. It is an ode of failure and creative struggle. Virtuoso filmmaking by Inarritu and brilliant ensemble of actors that plays like theater in the round on screen.
5. Gone Girl – Fincher’s highest grossing film about the trappings of narcissism, sucking us in amid economic collapse all around us. A dark vision of our modern world that turns out to be a funny, entertaining film – the least traditionally heavy in the lineup, but perhaps the most disturbing.
If this was a five picture race, these would be your five. But since they give more room now for the rest of them, we’ll presume we get four more choices, bringing in a total of nine nominees:
6. Whiplash – A neatly woven fable of sorts about success and criticism. It seems to be universally loved across the board.
7. Interstellar – Flawed by admired. Those who love it really really love it.
8. Mr. Turner – Still hanging in there because it seems tailor made for British voters. And it’s Mike Leigh.
9. Foxcatcher – One of the best films of the year, more well liked overall by critics than Gone Girl but perhaps too ice cold for voters.
10. The Grand Budapest Hotel – Might this finally be Wes Anderson’s moment to be recognized by an Academy that has mostly dismissed his work?
Since the AFI is the first big list that heralds the top ten films of the year, I think it’s time to predict how they might go.
Submissions had to be received by October 30, one of the earliest deadlines for awards season. It is unclear whether or not all the late-breaking films will be seen by the voting committee by the time they vote. I don’t know how it works, whether films have to be screened by October 30 or just entered and then screened later.
Here is how the awards calendar will go:
And how the AFI has gone in the past:
|2013||AFI Top Ten||Oscars|
|12 Years a Slave||12 Years a Slave|
|American Hustle||American Hustle|
|Captain Phillips||Captain Phillips|
|The Wolf of Wall Street||The Wolf of Wall Street|
|Dallas Buyers Club|
|Inside Llewyn Davis|
|Saving Mr. Banks|
|Beasts of the Southern Wild||Beasts of the Southern Wild|
|Django Unchained||Django Unchained|
|Les Miserables||Les Miserables|
|Life of Pi||Life of Pi|
|Silver Linings Playbook||Silver Linings Playbook|
|Zero Dark Thirty||Zero Dark Thirty|
|The Dark Knight Rises|
|2011||The Descendants||The Descendants|
|The Help||The Help|
|Midnight in Paris||Midnight in Paris|
|Tree of Life||Tree of Life|
|War Horse||War Horse|
|(The Artist-special award)||The Artist|
|The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo|
|2010||127 Hours||127 Hours|
|Black Swan||Black Swan|
|The Fighter||The Fighter|
|The Kids Are All Right||The Kids Are All Right|
|The Social Network||The Social Network|
|Toy Story 3||Toy Story 3|
|True Grit||True Grit|
|Winter’s Bone||Winter’s Bone|
|(The King’s Speech special award)||The King’s Speech|
|2009||A Serious Man||A Serious Man|
|The Hurt locker||The Hurt locker|
|Up in the Air||Up in the Air|
|The Blind Side|
|A Single Man|
But I figure we’re talking about:
The Imitation Game
The Theory of Everything
The Grand Budapest Hotel
I added in the last two titles though I expect those two could be replaced by titles we haven’t seen yet. Had they been seen already American Sniper, A Most Violent Year, Unbroken, Big Eyes and Selma would all seem AFI friendly titles but there is just no way of knowing. There have been rumblings about test screenings but those are meaningless. Holding back screening a film by this point is a curious strategy. I understand that some would like to bypass all Oscar blogging and chatter and just take their movies straight to voters. That can sometimes work if the film is not critic heavy (The Blind Side) but it can also backfire if the film needs advocacy. The main reason to get your movie out there early is to get in line for the National Board of Review and the Golden Globes.
These films are hoping, it must be assumed, to bypass critics and get those nominations anyway. When that happens, if the movie is bad or panned by critics, it makes the awards body that nominated the film look silly. If it turns out to be a great movie they get all the credit for being among the first to notice the film.