Buzz is a Bitch: Best Picture 2011-2012

Best Picture Contenders

As I bought tickets for the Chicago International Film Festival today, I found myself prioritizing films based on their buzz, neglecting smaller pictures that may sound good but won’t be in the awards conversation for the year. It comes to a point where you have to embrace the hysteria around Oscar prognostication and take part in the conversation to the fullest extent possible.

Fortunately for me, the Oscar conversation seems to be taking place outside of the festival realm. It gives me greater reign to actually look at films with little to no shot of entering the conversation due to lack of distribution or obscurity. But for films that have been garnering traction over the past few months at Toronto, Telluride, Cannes, and Venice, there’s a sense that it’s simply not enough. Whereas films like The King’s Speech or Slumdog Millionaire had an irresistible-force aura to their festival runs, no film really stands out over the festival circuit to lay claim to the prior two films’ crown. The Ides of March debuted at the Venice Film Festival and had its fair share of acclaim, but hardly the sort of fanatic diehard reception that a Best Picture nominee typically receives, let alone a potential winner. Steven McQueen’s Shame seems to be an actor’s showcase for Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan, but its appeal as a Best Picture contender is strictly contained to the art-house crowd. Madonna’s W.E. was a bust. Roman Polanski’s Carnage has failed to impress.

What were left from the festival rubble are Alexander Payne’s The Descendants, Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and Michel Hazanaviccius’ The Artist. The three films are anchored by strong leading male performances, and while they are at this point, likely nominees, neither is on solid footing.

The Artist

The Artist debuted at the Cannes Film Festival and has garnered universal praise. The film will undoubtedly garner enough passion votes to secure a nomination come the big day, but I sense a backlash forming. This is largely in part due to where it stands in the minds of the voters – as new films enter the conversation by the week (Moneyball this week, 50/50 next, etc) there seems to be a decline in the film’s staying power with audiences. The fact that it did not win the Audience Award at Toronto (an award that was bestowed on Best Picture nominees and winners like The King’s Speech, Precious, and Slumdog Millionaire) does not bode well for The Artist’s standing. And given that the film may come across as gimmicky for its own sake, its positioning is nowhere near as secure as one is led to believe. But then again, The Weinsteins are behind the film, so I’m probably just imagining it all.

The Descendants fits a specific pedigree of indie filmmaking that tend to get nominated once a year (Little Miss Sunshine, Juno, The Kids are All Right), but it has already been acknowledged as a lesser effort from those who saw it at Telluride. It’s still riding a wave, but I have reserved expectations on its potential once it gets a wider release. Its comedic roots aren’t going to do it any favors, nor will the fact that Payne has already been recognized (albeit, in the Adapted Screenplay category). There is typically a time when individuals get recognized for their efforts – this was the case with Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart, Sandra Bullock in The Blind Side,  the Coens for No Country for Old Men – it’s not meant to dismiss the accomplishments of the individual performance or direction, but rather it serves as a lifetime achievement award. Simply put, Alexander Payne’s time doesn’t seem to be just now.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy has the benefit of a British contingent to bolster its chances and has a good awards-story in Gary Oldman getting a role that will finally get him recognized with a nomination.  It, for all intensive purposes, achieves a particular role of what to expect in a “Best Picture” nominee, and from there, I’d say it’s in better position than The Descendants  The buzz for the film seems to have run stagnant for the past few weeks since its debut at Venice, which I take as a positive – I doubt Focus Features would to bust their load from the onset. Instead, there seems to be a conscious effort to keep Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy in a quiet buzz period, before releasing it to a wider audience come December.

The Festival Darlings

  1. “The Artist”
  2. “The Descendants”
  3. “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy”

Alt: “The Ides of March”

Then we have the summer crop. The summer gave us some concrete possibilities of other nominees with Tate Taylor’s The Help, Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, and Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life leading the charge. I’d wager all three movies have the potential to make it to the end of the race, as they all tend to rouse a sort of passion vote that is a requirement in meeting the 5% (of first-place votes) needed for a nomination in the category. This works particularly well for The Tree of Life, as its polarizing status won’t necessarily do it any harm come the end of the race – there are those who love it and hate it, and only those who love it will be acknowledged come nomination time. Amongst outside contenders, the only one that bares any possibility seems to be the final addition to the Harry Potter franchise – given its critical acclaim, there’s a sense that the film could sneak in for a nomination. I think not – unlike The Lord of the Rings franchise, none of the previous Potter incarnations have garnered above-the-line awards recognition. I sincerely doubt that will change.

Summer Hold-Overs

  1. “The Help”
  2. “Midnight in Paris”
  3. “The Tree of Life”

Alt: “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2”

War Horse

So we have six. This leaves us with the possibility of yet another four. Here’s where things get particularly tricky as we explore a great deal of unknowns. The general consensus has placed Steven Spielberg’s War Horse as the one to beat, and quite honestly, it’s not hard to see why. It’s a period piece, set against the backdrop of a war, with Spielberg at its helm. I talked about it being someone’s time earlier in this piece, and if anything, this season seems to be geared toward rewarding Spielberg yet again – his time seems to be here yet again.

Remaining amongst the unknowns include Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar. I’m hesitant to lobby for Eastwood’s place in the Academy’s circle, particularly given that he has been largely shut out of the larger awards for the past few years with Invictus, Changling, and Gran Torino. But then again, so has Woody Allen, and Midnight in Paris was a return to form, so it’s hard to make such blanket statements with no word on the actual quality of the film.

Jason Reitman’s Young Adult is bypassing the festival circuit entirely, leaving one to question where the film stands at all. It’s written by Diablo Cody, which begs more questions than answers. Reitman’s previous two films have garnered directorial and Best Picture nominations, which lends itself to the same logic that has people believing that Stephen Daldry’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is a lock for a nomination. My take: neither film will make much of an impact come nomination time, but if there’s one that might, I’d go with Reitman’s film.

A big question mark that remains in the Oscar season and one that I sense could truly make a play that pundits are ignoring, is Martin Scorsese’s Hugo. The trailer displays incredible detail in the craft department, though there certainly seems to be a nostalgic essence to the film that could resonate with voters. Again, like with War Horse, J. Edgar, Young Adult, and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, we’re in a wait and see mode with these films, but the possibility definitely seems there.

The Unknowns

  1. “War Horse”
  2. “J. Edgar”
  3. “Hugo”
  4. “Young Adult”
  5. “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close”

And that concludes my first column of what I hope will be a weekly column that looks at the Oscar race. In the meantime, the site will be going through periodic updates as I attempt to create a more interactive and in-depth Academy Award interface. The focus of the site will still remain on my reviewing of the films I see (with a new post coming soon) but hopefully I’ll be able to supplement that with my own obsessive thoughts on the Oscar race.

Where We Stand – The Best of 2011 So Far.

I really couldn’t help myself. As the movie season shifts focus from typical summer-fare to Oscar-hopefuls, my excitement has reached borderline hysteria. With the Venice Film Festival and Telluride Film Festival in the books, and with the Toronto International Film Festival underway, I decided to reflect on the best films of 2011 so far.  If anything, I hope to highlight films that will be lost (or perhaps rediscovered) once we’re in the thick of the awards season.

10.     Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Werner Herzog)

An example of guerrilla filmmaking, seasoned German director Werner Herzog muses over the images found in the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc cave. His film sports the most impressive use of 3D that I’ve seen thus far, wherein the images of the cave are brought to the forefront. With Herzog’s unconventional narration and wry humor, Cave of Forgotten Dreams stands as one of the many fantastic documentaries to be released this year.

Awards Prospects: Minimal. Despite being lauded by the critics, the film has been lost in the conversation. Not even within the documentary branch does the film seem to be garnering much attention. It has had a relatively impressive box office run though, so it’s not entirely out of the race for Best Documentary. But with fellow German director, Wim Wenders garnering buzz for his 3D dance documentary, Pina, it may simply be too late in the game to make a play.

9.     Jane Eyre (Cary Fukunaga)

A wonderfully atmospheric adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s novel, Cary Fukanaga’s Jane Eyre resonates as the sort of film anchored by a strong sense of directorial prowess and strong performances. Starring fresh faces in Michael Fassbender and Mia Washikowska, Jane Eyre is elevated outside of overwrought melodrama and into a film of attuned emotional longing.

Awards Prospects: Minimal. The Adapted Screenplay field is a bit too crowded this year for Jane Eyre to make a play. While Michael Fassbender’s stock is quickly rising, his performances in Shame and A Dangerous Method will be fresher in the Academy’s mind. And given the subtlety of his work in Jane Eyre, it’s doubtful that he’ll get any recognition for the role. The quietness of the whole picture will pose problems for Mia Washikowska too. Its best play will be in Costume Design, but even that’s doubtful.

 8.     Beginners (Mike Mills)

What Mills achieves with Beginners is bringing forth a sense of cosmic unity between past and present, wherein the actions of our parents affect the way we view relationships. I was a bit resistant to the idea, perhaps as a result of watching The Tree of Life prior (which deals with similar content). But as I reflect on the film, I gather that Mills really did want to contain the film to the specific people that we saw, and brought forth this sense of cosmic unity as a way to bridge a gap between this biographical sketch of his life and the audience.

Awards Prospects: Moderate. Christopher Plummer is a frontrunner for Best Supporting-Actor and deservingly so. His role as an aging father relishing in his sexual reawakening had a mark of poignancy that certainly deserves recognition. I could potentially see Beginners getting some notice in the writing branch, particularly if Focus Features doesn’t intend to put all its eggs in one basket with Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Unfortunately, strong lead performances from both Ewan McGregor and Melanie Laurent will go unrewarded.

 7.     Super 8 (J.J. Abrams)

It still befuddles me to think of how much I enjoyed this piece of summer fluff. While acknowledging Super 8 as such may seem a tad dismissive, it really shouldn’t be read as derogatory – J.J. Abrams successfully blended what has become typical summer-fare with impeccable direction and a tendency to actually focus on characters over CGI-carnage. That focus on character makes all the difference, as Super 8 feels less like something of the now and more like something of the then – a yearning for a bygone era when summer films had a heart.

Awards Prospects: Moderate. Well, it will likely get nominated in the sound categories. I’m convinced that Michael Giacchino will be in play for Original Score as well, particularly given that John Williams will be splitting votes for his work in War Horse and The Adventures of Tin Tin. But amongst the major awards, it really doesn’t seem like the film will get a whole lot of play. There’s not a whole lot of buzz for it at the moment, as it seems to have fallen out of favor amongst the summer films as Harry Potter and Rise of the Planet of the Apes stole some of its thunder.

 6.     Rango (Gore Verbinski)

In a mish-mash of genres, Rango provided one of the most genuinely bizarre and engrossing blends of genre as of late. Here we see a chameleon named Rango (voiced by Johnny Depp) trek through a path of self-discovery. Forced to forge a new identity in a small town, the chameleon takes the role of sheriff and hero, despite his neurotic tendencies. Rango’s strengths rest in its appreciation for Western iconography and films like Chinatown and McCabe & Mrs. Miller – a combination that lends itself to a wholly unique experience.

Awards Prospects: High. Given that 2011 is the year that Pixar gave us Cars 2, the Best Animated Film category is truly Rango’s for the taking. And rightfully so – after benchmark years in animation, both Pixar and Dreamworks dropped the ball with their dreadful rehashes. I suspect Rango could enter the field with surprise nominations in Best Original Score, Best Original Screenplay, and even both Sound categories

 5.     Senna (Asif Kapadia)

Composed of archival footage, Senna tells the story of Formula-1 race car driver Ayrton Senna. Knowledge of his career and significance aren’t prerequisites to appreciating the film – in fact, you might be better off not knowing anything about him. This largely stems from the approach Asif Kapadia takes in constructing his film – he details Senna’s life from his inception as a driver to his eventual death. But there’s an intimacy to it all. As you leave the track, you see footage of Aryton as he muses over his life – the film has a voyeuristic quality to it that can be incredibly engrossing.

Awards Prospects: Minimal. The film might not even be eligible for awards contention given its reliance on archival footage. So right there it enters a field of problems. I highly doubt the film will get a nod as a result. It also deviates from traditional notions of documentary filmmaking, despite being a very linear and emotionally driven construct. In a perfect world, Senna would get some recognition for editing, as thousands of hours of footage had to be shaped into constructing this beautiful film. It won’t happen.

 4.     The Interrupters (Steve James)

The Interrupters is a film that touches closes to home; or rather a film that serves to deconstruct my home. Living on the northside of Chicago, the problems of the southside are often topics of discussion when detailing the perverse and dangerous. What Steve James has successfully done in this documentary is place the audience in the reality of the southside, James burrows deep into the psyche of those in the midst of the violence while maintaining whatever semblance of humanity one can have in such a situation.

Awards Prospects: Minimal. Its only category will be Best Documentary, and it’s an uphill climb for a film of this type. But there aren’t really any guarantees just yet in the field, outside perhaps Errol Morris’ Tabloid (which just missed my ten). The subject matter unfortunately feels too specific to a landscape – it might isolate other viewers from really appreciating the magnitude of what James achieves. And given that Hoop Dreams didn’t even get a nomination back in 1994, James’ prospects don’t look all too good.

3.     Contagion (Steven Soderbergh)

 

In Soderbergh’s best film since Solaris (2002), he immerses the audience in absolute fear. We start with Day2 and the sound of a cough. With the utmost precision and intellect, Soderbergh proceeds in spectacular fashion as the world is engulfed in disease and misinformation. Beyond simple genre definitions of horror or thriller, Contagion exceeds as an exercise in meticulousness filmmaking from director at his very best.

Awards Prospects: Minimal. While critically admired, Contagion certainly hasn’t gotten uniform raves. The performances in the film are a bit too subtle to really register with voters. Soderbergh’s direction and visual sense aren’t showy enough to garner attention. If the film manages to have legs, then perhaps it can remain in the conversation. After all, that’s all it took for The Town to maintain its buzz. But then again, when it came down to it The Town didn’t make it to the end of the race.

 2.     The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick)

Elegant and ethereal, Malick manages to redirect and negotiate the very language of film. Very much a stream of consciousness, The Tree of Life operates under the idea of fragmented memories. But before all that, we see the grander scope of the film, where we see sequences of creation, dinosaurs, life, and death. The sheer scope and magnitude of The Tree of Life makes for an experience unlike anything you’ve seen before.

Awards Prospects: Moderate.  Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography is a lock for a nomination and is our likely winner. From there it gets tricky. The new Academy voting rules makes me believe that the film will indeed get nominated for Best Picture – there are likely enough voters out there to secure 5% of top votes. But that leaves to question – what about Terrence Malick? It’s hard to figure that the film will be rewarded but not the craftsman behind it. And given that many consider him to be the premier auteur working today (and still un-awarded by the Academy); I’m thinking he just might be able to get into the select five directors as well.

The recent word is that Fox Searchlight is going to be pushing Brad Pitt for Supporting Actor. It’s a wise choice, and honestly, of all the actors to potentially double-dip, I can see Pitt getting nominations for Lead Actor in Moneyball  and Supporting Actor in The Tree of Life.

While it seems like the film may be a major player, it all depends on a lot of ifs. More so than any other film on this list, The Tree of Life is the sort of polarizing film that makes prognosticating its awards prospects difficult.

 1.     Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen)

While The Tree of Life may be more ambitious in scope, and Contagion more viscerally palpable, there’s just something to be said about the absolute wonder that Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris achieves. There’s truly a magic to the film – wherein the audience is not so much transported through time and space, but transported by emotions and yearning. There’s such a nostalgic resonance to so much of Midnight in Paris, that it’s hard not to appreciate the film on its most basic level – as a film of pure and simple pleasures.

Awards Prospects: High. With A Dangerous Method and The Skin I Live In drawing only reserved praise, Sony Pictures Classic has already campaigned heavily in favor for Midnight in Paris. It does help that the film has been consistently making a million dollars for well over 15 weeks – it has become the highest grossing Woody Allen film to date. At this point, I’d wager the film is a lock for Best Picture. Best Director is still in the cards, but given that Allen has not been nominated in the category for well over a decade, it may be time to once again embrace one of Hollywood’s most esteemed directors.

Original Screenplay is a lock for a nomination as well, and depending on how well The Artist is received by both the public and critics, I sense that Midnight in Paris will take the category as well. From there it really depends on how much of the film the Academy is willing to embrace – lead actor for Owen Wilson seems a bit too farfetched at this, particularly given that we have not seen a lot of heavily rumored performances yet (Leonardo DiCaprio in J. Edgar for example). Its genre type will be Midnight in Paris’ biggest obstacle – it certainly has the tools to become a nominated film, but to take it all the way to victory is another story.

Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen, 2011)

Nostalgia is the subjective term that Midnight in Paris operates under and the singular obsession that Gil (Owen Wilson), the Woody Allen-type character, mulls over. He’s writing a novel, his first, and struggles with where to go with it. Gil’s career as a Hollywood-screenwriter has given him financial security, but he questions the quality of his work. Perhaps the eternal Woody Allen question that seems to plague him routinely is – will my work survive? Allen has noted in interviews that he does not expect as such, but conceivably, Midnight in Paris presents his first attempt at addressing the circumstances in which he believes as such.

Gil and his fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams) travel to Paris with Inez’s parents. The excursion provokes Gil’s admiration for the city, wherein he confesses that he wished to live in Paris during the jazz age – a golden age of cultural significance. Inez, the frustrating realist that she is, finds it difficult to grasp how someone could be so wrapped up in a period of time outside of the present. Her character is one that looks at the present, often treating Gil as if he were nothing more than a means  - she wants him to keep working and to accumulate wealth, unaware of the emotional work that is required of Gil in the process.

Things only get more difficult between the two when they encounter the pedantic Paul (Michael Sheen), an old friend of Inez. Paul and his mate take Inez and Gil out to dinner – the outing tests Gil’s limits of tolerating pseudo-intellectualism, as Paul tends to offer his opinion on culture at every turn, typically beginning his sentences with a “correct me if I’m wrong…”. Gil eventually disconnects from the group, and wanders the streets of Paris by night. Like a fairy tale, the clock strikes 12 and a mysterious car invites him for a ride. Shrugging at the consequences, Gil is transported to a party unlike one he has ever attended – Cole Porter sits at the piano as Zelda and Scott ask about his writing. Ok, something’s not right here. The Fitzgerald’s take Gil barhopping throughout Paris, where he encounters Ernest Hemingway with the promise of showing his manuscript to Gertrude Stein. Things are definitely as they were before, and while Gil is aware of the stark change in his surroundings, he accepts them. While most films that deal with time travel tend to reflect on the greater meanings behind the transportation from time A to time B, Midnight in Paris bypasses all the sci-fi riff-raff, instead just presenting the situation as is, with only light jabs at the consequences of the altering the time-space continuum.

What Allen achieves in Midnight in Paris is no simple feat – he catapults the audience into a world of utter delight. Midnight in Paris frames The City of Light as intoxicatingly beautiful. It’s impossible not to yearn to be there, to follow the path that the lovely Adrianna (Mario Cotillard) and Gil take as they stroll the brick road, discussing their misplacement in the world. At some point, Gil encounters a situation where he needs to accept his place, or reject it entirely – it’s the sort of moment that recalls Allen’s endings to his best films, from Manhattan to Broadway Danny Rose. Midnight in Paris not only achieves an ending that stands up to Allen’s greatest films, its overall quality places it among his very best.

Rating: 9/10