Cinema Chatter – Guesswork

Part of what enamors me about the whole concept of Oscar prognostication is the mystery of it all. It’s trying to separate between your own taste and those of a larger voting body. It’s attempting to understand the perspective of studios in terms of pushing one actor over another. There’s nothing artistic about the process; if anything, it strips the artistry of filmmaking to a science. The science can become repetitive and mind-numbing; at my recent prescreening of Young Adult, director Jason Reitman expressed fatigue when dealing with the press and pundits. After the disappointing performance of Up in the Air following a long festival campaign to push the film, it’s no wonder he has opted to pursue smaller individual venues to get the word out. It works for me; Young Adult is one of the year’s best films, and the whole experience of having him, writer Diablo Cody, and actor Patton Oswalt to do Q&A was terrific.

Just a year after Reitman’s Up in the Air fiasco, director David Fincher went all out on a press campaign for The Social Network. The film was critically lauded and looked to have had its Best Picture and Best Director wins sealed; that is until the Producers Guild of America awarded The King’s Speech instead. Things went south fast for The Social Network, so it’s no wonder Fincher has opted against any sort of awards campaign on his part for The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.

But as you can see on the updated sidebar, I’m thinking the film is going to play big. Like the Coens’ True Grit, I’m getting a sense that it’ll be the sort of late player that doesn’t have a wider buzz circulating around it until after its release. And perhaps this is a bold statement, but I’m thinking the film will be a larger commercial player than any of Spielberg’s films in the December timeframe.

Part of what makes this whole prognosticating thing a snap is that I’m working with historical data. When you have someone like Meryl Streep, who’s been nominated 16 times since 1979, it’s going to be likely that she’ll be nominated again given the weight of her role in The Iron Lady. Sight unseen, you’re taking a logical bet. Similarly, Steven Spielberg’s one-two punch with War Horse and The Adventures of Tintin lead me to believe that he’ll secure a nomination (for the former, though it’s not out of the question for the latter) for either Best Picture and/or Best Director. Numbers are on your side.

There are plenty of curveballs to throw you off though; there are typically one or two first-time nominees who enter the field. From there, you’re basing your information on others expectations, adding up praise and subtracting dismissals. One can attempt to create a formula to the whole affair, but then, there are those odd-ball nominations that simply come out of nowhere and can’t be justified (Tommy Lee Jones for In The Valley of Elah for one).

But as we wait for the upcoming New York Film Critics Circle to outline what will certainly alleviate confusion as to who are “contenders” (which will be followed by the National Board of Review’s top films), it’s all guesswork. And well, it’s the best time for this sort of thing; it’s probably the closest any Oscar pundit gets to actually implementing their own cinematic taste into the proceedings.

So for now, here’s my first stab at predicting the 2012 Academy Awards. It’ll be lots of fun to see how off I am come February 26.

Best Picture: The Artist

Best Director: Terrence Malick, The Tree of Life

Best Actor: George Clooney, The Descendants

Best Actress: Viola Davis, The Help

Best Supporting Actor: Brad Pitt, The Tree of Life

Best Supporting Actress: Vanessa Redgrave, Coriolanus

Best Writing (Adapted): The Descendants (Nat Faxon, Alexander Payne, Jim Rash)

Best Writing (Original): The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius)

Best Art Direction: Hugo

Best Cinematography: The Tree of Life

Best Costume Design: The Artist

Best Film Editing: The Artist

Best Makeup: The Iron Lady

Best Music (Original Score): War Horse

Best Music (Original Song): The Muppets 

Best Sound Editing: War Horse

Best Sound Mixing: The Adventures of Tintin

Best Visual Effects: Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Best Animated Feature: The Adventures of Tintin

Best Documentary Feature: Tabloid

Best Foreign Language Film: A Separation 

 

The Descendants (Alexander Payne, 2011)

There’s a slightness to The Descendants that I was simply never able to grow accustom to. It starts off fine enough; the opening act is rich in narration that, while it’s not usually my thing, works astonishingly well as both a form of exposition and a mine for emotional resonance. But as the picture unfolds, and as the narrative conflict becomes apparent, The Descendants begins to buckle. It remains surprisingly stagnant for prolonged stretches, wherein the weight of the conflict and the weight of the narrative diminish. What the film does have going for it is its absolutely stellar sense of culture – taking place in Hawaii, the film uses the locale as both a beautiful visual backdrop and as a way to develop and strip away contradictions. The Descendants is a film that is very aware of its setting and attempts to deconstruct preconceived notions of what it means to be there.

What preoccupies the proceedings in The Descendants is Matt King’s (George Clooney) emotional balancing act in coping with his wife’s betrayal and death. Discovering that his comatose wife had cheated on him, Matt deals with the matter by trying to find the man who she had fallen in love with. Aided by his two daughters and their friend, Matt travels from island to island searching for the man; meanwhile, he is bestowed with the responsibility of being a trustee who has been burdened with the decision of selling off land that his ancestors had owned that is now worth millions.

Perhaps what I found most grating about The Descendants is its rather simplistic method of fleshing out characters. Outside of George Clooney and Shailene Woodley’s characters, everyone begins as a caricature of sorts. Robert Forester’s disgruntled father, Nick Krause’s oafish comic relief, Amara Miller’s rebelling child, etc. all start off as one-dimensional characters. And almost systematically, they are all given their moment to justify their existence in the film. It’s not so much a subtle transformation but rather a clear scene that allows one character to jump from one image to another. There’s a lack of organic growth here from the supporting cast, and it’s especially noticeable as the film reaches its stagnant stretches.

What makes the film work is the banter between George Clooney and Shailene Woodley; they have a chemistry together that makes an exchange between the two shifts from antagonism to love in a split-second. Their relationship makes the most effective use of Payne’s direction, in that his lax nature allows the two to bubble from a simmer to a boil as the stakes begin to get more serious. They have the sort of dysfunctional father-daughter dynamic that comes across as naturalistic and genuine. And while the two have plenty of moments together to reflect on their situation, it’s the sort of thing that just makes you crave for more. Like Sideways, The Descendants is effective in its closing act, offering emotional closure in a subtle, low-key way. But it’s a hike to make it there; The Descendants’ sluggish middle stretch and way with characters hinders for my appreciation for it as a whole.

Rating: 5/10

Thursday Ten: The Chicago International Film Festival

The 47th Annual Chicago International Film Festival opens today until the 20th.  Punctuated by a tagline of What the World is Watching, one has to wonder why, oh, why their opening film is The Last Rites of Joe May. Starring Chicago theater actor Dennis Farina, the film really has no place opening an international film festival, particularly one with such a rich history. As New York City vies for screening the many yet-to-be-seen films of the year (rumor has it that J. Edgar or Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close could have a special screening), Chicago‘s minimalist approach is a bit disheartening.

But I don’t mean to say that I’m not excited for the festival – because I’m utterly jubilant. My excitement stems from watching a lot of the Cannes, Toronto, and Telluride holdovers that I currently have slated for my festival schedule. And it’s perhaps the most stacked in terms of prolific directors – I’ll be viewing films by Werner Herzog, Lars von Trier, Lynne Ramsay, and the Dardenne Brothers. And I’ll be treated with a discussion with one of my favorite actors, John C. Reilly.

To start off what will be a new weekly column here on Chicago Cinema Circuit, I’ll delve into the ten screenings I’ll be watching at the Chicago International Film Festival.

A Dangerous Method (David Cronenberg)

David Cronenberg is simply one of those directors that I am drawn to, as the mere prospect of a new project is enough to get me interested in his work. Starring rising star Michael Fassbender and acting collaborator Viggo Mortenson, A Dangerous Method looks to be the sort of Cronenberg feature that meshes the cerebral elements of his recent films (A History of Violence, Eastern Promises) with his more explicit older work, particularly Crash and Dead Ringers.

Buzz on the film has been fairly muted – it is a Cronenberg after all, and one can understand how it could make people uncomfortable. Such quiet praise has only gotten me more amped for the film.

The Descendants (Alexander Payne)

I’d be lying if I said that I really believed this film would amount to a hill of beans. Ever since the trailer dropped, I suspected the film would be a trite exercise that subscribes to typical indie clichés. And I can’t say that I wholeheartedly reject that notion just yet. But The Descendants has received some of the very best critical reviews out of the festival circuit, and being a rookie Oscar prognosticator, I simply could not resist the temptation to see it for myself. If I’m going to make an argument to or for it, I really need to see it and dive into that conversation.

Into the Abyss (Werner Herzog)

You know it’s quite the year when you get a double dose of craziness in the form of two Herzog documentaries. His early year 3-D feature, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, is one of my favorite films of the year, but the sheer grounded reality of Into the Abyss has gotten me quite excited. The topical nature of the film is of obvious interest, particularly given the recent release of the West Memphis Three and the film Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, the philosophy and ethics behind the death penalty are once again contemporary.

The Kid With A Bike (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne)

The brutal and simplistic way in which the Dardennes approach their subject matter always makes for a rousing experience. I have yet seen a film by the two that I have not found extraordinary. They are simply two of the most underrated writer/directors going at the moment. The Kid with the Bike was awarded the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival and continued the duo's streak of walking out of that festival with a reward under their belt – unfortunate that their films have yet to catch on with the American public. And even more unfortunate is that the film was not selected by the Belgium film committee to compete at this year’s Oscars. But as it stands, the Dardennes will continue on. As some critics have noted, The Kid with the Bike is more of the same from the brothers – that’s fine by me.

Melancholia (Lars von Trier)

I’ll be starting out my festival experience with Lars von Trier’s latest. I had seen Antichrist at the 2009 Chicago Film Festival and had a fantastic time (not only was the film utterly explosive, Willem Dafoe happened to be in attendance as well). It’s been unfortunate that Melancholia has been a bit drowned out by Lars von Trier’s rather disheartening remarks at the Cannes Film Festival. Despite his gaffe, Kirstin Dunst managed to score a Best Actress win at the festival. Melancholia has had a rough festival run since, but the quality of the film is considered remarkably high – it’s the controversy surrounding the director that has hurt its chances as an Oscar contender. Trier is a director that I am very high on and have come to expect great things from; Melancholia looks to continue his thread of cinematic excellence.

Shorts 2: Pen and Paper

I tend to be drawn by animated short films. With films that include a reimagining of Bill Plympton’s Guard Dog short and a variety of foreign shorts, I’m hoping to catch some early possible entries into next year’s Best Animated Shorts category. Oh, and to have fun too. These films always tend to tell very simple but narratively astute stories that it’s hard not to get wrapped up in the genuine sense of glee that so many animated shorts display.

Sleeping Beauty (Julia Leigh)

A film presented by one of my favorite female directors, Jane Campion, Sleeping Beauty bares such a striking visual sense from its trailer that I immediately knew that the film would be on my “too see” list. Its response at Cannes was fairly negative, though Guy Lodge of Incontention gave a glowing review that certainly maintained my elation. It has been a while since I even heard about the film, but to seeing it slated for the Chicago International Film Festival has renewed my interest in the film.

Turn Me On, Dammit! (Jannicke Systad Jacobsen)

While it’s not my most anticipated film, Turn Me On, Dammit! has an interesting premise. It’s fairly typical in terms of what you get out of American indie comedies, particularly those based on teenage sexuality. But to see it played out in a foreign context will hopefully take the material in a new direction. And if there’s one way that the film festival can live up to its motto, it can be to introduce the Chicago audience to a subject matter that is familiar to them, but handled in a different way.

We Need to Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsay)

My most anticipated film. Having read Lionel Shriver’s novel, I am intriguing to see how the talented Lynne Ramsay handles the incredibly difficult material. Adapting Shriver’s novel is a task upon itself, but given everything that I’ve seen so far in clips of the film, there’s definitely an eerie sense that is realized in the film that is apparent throughout the novel. It certainly seems like the film will work. The film also happens to star two of my favorite actors, Tilda Swinton and John C. Reilly. The fact that Reilly will be in attendance just seals the deal.

Without (Mark Jackson)

Perhaps the dark horse of my viewings, Without doesn’t really have a whole lot of buzz behind it. But its premise is so intriguing that I’d have to think that, if properly executed, the film could be a tremendous success. First time director Mark Jackson will certainly have his work cut out for him, but if his lead actress, Joslyn Jensen delivers with such difficult material  (it is about a young woman who becomes a caretaker to an old man on  a remote island), we could see something truly revelatory.

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.