Early Oscar Talk

By Alan Mattli

Summer is gone, the big blockbusters’ cinema runs are gradually coming to an end, and American critics are gearing up for the season of highbrow movie entertainment, which will find its culmination 24 February, 2013, with the 85th Academy Awards. So why would one want to take a look at possible contenders as early as late September? Even the reviewing body’s awards aren’t due for another two months. Well, the beginning of the year’s fourth quarter is always a highly interesting period for people following the Oscar race because there are important decisions being made, essential questions asked around this time of year. So if you want to keep abreast of the most hopeful candidates – and, come winter time, make an informed choice at the box office –, this rough and by no means definitive article is for you. But beware: there is no guarantee for anything because a) it’s only September after all, and b) it’s the Academy, stupid.

WHAT IS THE TONE OF THIS YEAR’S CINEMA?

The Academy likes its annual themes, even if those seem governed by chance alone. In the last decade, there was a string of “Dark Oscars”, starting with Clint Eastwood’s boxing drama Million Dollar Baby, which, to many people’s surprise, emerged as the night’s big winner with four wins – Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor. What followed was three years of dark, brooding subject matters battling it out: Crash won in 2006, beating the odds-on favourites Brokeback Mountain, Capote, Good Night, and Good Luck, and Munich. 2007 saw the triumph of The Departed against, among others, the World War II drama Letters from Iwo Jima and Alejandro González Iñárritu multi-narrative kaleidoscope Babel. The apotheosis of this dark theme was finally reached in 2008 when overall winner No Country for Old Men faced off against such films as Atonement, There Will Be Blood, Sweeney Todd, Michael Clayton, In the Valley of Elah, Eastern Promises, or Gone Baby Gone.

This was followed by one more year when seriousness and darkness prevailed. While 2009 saw an overwhelming sweep from feel-good Slumdog Millionaire, in 2010, the gritty war drama The Hurt Locker came out on top after having trailed smash hit Avatar in several awards in the run-up to Hollywood’s big night. However, it didn’t last. Both in 2011 and 2012, lightheartedness trumped more serious works. The King’s Speech and The Artist, both infinitely charming but also hardly substantial movies, beat the superior, more sophisticated contenders like The Social Network or The Descendants.

So what about 2012, then? It seems as if Hollywood is making another turn towards heavy, sometimes maybe even overly heavy, drama. With works by directors like Paul Thomas Anderson, Kathryn Bigelow, or Ben Affleck in the race, this year’s Oscar edition’s subjects revolve around personal tragedies, war, and political schemes. Expect comedy to play a minor role come Award Season.

LEGITIMATE CONTENDERS

One must always keep in mind that by late September, the bulk of Academy Award contenders have not yet premiered, let alone have been released to the general public. So commenting on the Oscars at this stage is always as much a guessing game as it is a judging of certain movies’ quality. But since the Academy regularly adheres to its patterns, the guessing usually is a fairly straightforward exercise.

However, there have been several films this year that have already been released and have received rave reviews. One of them is The Master by Paul Thomas Anderson (opens in Switzerland on 14 February, 2013), acclaimed director of Boogie Nights, Magnolia, and There Will Be Blood. Starring Joaquin Phoenix in his first “real” screen role in four years, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Amy Adams, inspired by L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology, the film follows a cult master (Hoffman) and a disillusioned World War II veteran (Phoenix), who becomes his most fervent follower.

Not only has Anderson been a darling of critics and the Academy for years now, his movies have lost too many times for him not to be a serious contender this time around. The fact that The Master already opened might turn out to be catastrophic because the most hopeful candidates usually open within the last 45 days before the nomination deadline (31 December). Still, with countless ardent reviews, an Oscar-seasoned cast, and his reputation for being the most talented young director working in Hollywood today, Anderson’s latest work is sure to be a major player in a few months’ time.

Apart from The Master, there aren’t many movies appealing to Academy voters that have garnered as much critical praise. The only real competitor at the moment, it seems, is Beasts of the Southern Wild (opens in Switzerland on 20 December), the big winner of this year’s Sundance Festival. Although it was already released in June, the story of a little girl from the Mississippi delta still stands tall as 2012’s most acclaimed indie feature that has overcome most of its impediments so far: the critical reception has been enthusiastic in spite of director Benh Zeitlin being a debutant; it made more than ten million dollars at the box office despite its enigmatic nature; and its lobbyists’ have pulled of the feat of establishing six-year-old lead actress Quvenzhané Wallis as a contender for an Oscar nomination.

Finally, there is Argo (opens in Switzerland on 8 November), Ben Affleck’s latest thriller, to be reckoned with. While Affleck’s brother Casey has become one of Hollywood’s more popular actors over the last few years, Ben has made himself a name as a director of highbrow dramas: both Gone Baby Gone and The Town have been met with nearly universal critical praise. Technically, Argo, which was co-produced by George Clooney and Grant Heslov, has not yet been widely released but it was shown at the Telluride Film Festival in August and has since generated many a rave review. In terms of the Academy, it is certain to be of importance, not only because of its venerable cast (Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, John Goodman) but also due to its subject matter: Argo is set during the 1979 Tehran hostage crisis.

With movies like this to choose from, it is unlikely that Academy voters will embrace any of the more successful summer blockbusters. The Hunger Games opened in March and carries a – undeserved – “kids’ stuff” stigma; The Avengers is a Marvel adaptation, which never play too well with The Elders of the Oscars. The most promising movie in that respect is The Dark Knight Rises, not least because of the omission of The Dark Knight from the 2009 Best Picture roster. However, it is widely accepted that Christopher Nolan’s last installment of his Batman trilogy is the weakest of the three and its perceived Ayn Randian overtones may not go down well with the liberal Academy. Seeing how
The Dark Knight Rises will fare this Award Season will be very interesting.

CONTENDERS BY NAME

Playing the Oscar guessing game has its limitations. For instance, more often than not, one can only make viable predictions about not-yet-released films made by established directors or starring established actors, which always leaves a margin of error as well as surprise (see below). This leads to almost every Clint Eastwood movie being seen as an early favourite, only to drop out later on because the critical response was only lukewarm – this happened to Hereafter and J. Edgar.

This year, the contenders by name boil down to five films that seem like front runners and which cannot be excluded from a serious discussion about this autumn’s coming attractions. Most obviously, there is Lincoln (Swiss release to be announced), Steven Spielberg’s latest historical war epic, starring double Oscar winner Daniel Day-Lewis (My Left Foot, There Will Be Blood) in the title role, covering the last years in the life of the 16th President of the United States. Despite its having been announced roughly two years ago and having been an 2013 Oscar front runner for just as long, the film’s ad campagin could overcome the enthusiasm problems it faced after such a long start-up period. It may face stronger competition as was originally thought, so there might not be room in all the acting categories for the movie’s tremendous supporting cast (Sally Field, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Jackie Earle Hayley, Tommy Lee Jones, David Strathairn), but if it opens to similarly enthustiastic reviews as, say, The Master, we might be looking a rejuvenated favourite and a possible candidate for a sweep. Whether Daniel Day-Lewis is able to add another Academy Award to his formidable collection remains to be seen as his most dangerous opponent is not only another legendary U.S. president but also an established actor who has yet to win: the chances for Bill Murray as Franklin D. Roosevelt in Hyde Park on Hudson (opens in Switzerland on 31 January, 2013) are, luckily, intact.

One of the past decade’s biggest Oscar upsets was the snubbing of Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain as Best Picture in favour of Crash. Lee won the Best Director award that year but many critics felt – and still feel – that his career needs a resounding win to be considered complete. Enter Life of Pi (opens in Switzerland on 26 December), Lee’s first film since 2009’s Taking Woodstock. There was a brief period this summer when this adaptation of Yann Martel’s 2001 novel looked like the “dark horse” for Best Picture. The enthusiasm has died down a bit since but considering the success of Slumdog Millionaire, this story about a teenage boy and his friendship with a Bengal tiger is far from being a hopeless candidate.

Another director snubbed several times by the Academy in spite of emerging as an enormous talent over the last few years is David O. Russell (The Fighter), whose new film is shaping up to be a possible upset in February. Silver Linings Playbook (opens in Switzerland on 1 January, 2013) sports a cleverly mixed cast of acclaimed thespians (Robert De Niro, Jacki Weaver) and new breakout talents such as Bradley Cooper (The Hangover) or Jennifer Lawrence (Winter’s Bone, The Hunger Games), who is currently regarded as the odds-on favourite for the Best Actress Oscar. In many people’s view, Russell, who also wrote the screenplay adapting Matthew Quick’s novel about a man held in a neural facility, is finally due for at least some Academy recognition.

This year also sees the release of the first post-Oscar win features of two recent Best Director and Best Picture winners. Kathryn Bigelow (Point Break, Strange Days) teamed up with screenwriter Mark Boal again, with whom she concocted The Hurt Locker, to tell the story of the decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden, which ended on 2 May, 2011, with the Navy SEALs storming his private compound in Pakistan, in Zero Dark Thirty (opens in Switzerland on 10 January, 2013). Its fictionalised but very topical subject matter might help the film win an Oscar or two. Is it a serious Best Picture contender? As of now, no, but back in 2008, The Hurt Locker wasn’t either at this point.

The other recent Oscar winner re-entering the movie business is Tom Hooper, whose The King’s Speech emerged as the big winner of the 2011 Oscars. In his new film, he caters to an old Acdemy favourite, the musical, by reiminagining Victor Hugo’s classic Les Misérables (opens in Switzerland on 21 February, 2013). In a year of releases like The Master or Zero Dark Thirty, the notion of a cinematic operetta might seem unlikely but honouring Hooper’s new project could just turn out to be another one of the Academy’s regresses to Hollywood’s Golden Age, comparable to The Artist earlier this year. Les Misérables sports an arresting cast of mainstream actors – Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway, Russell Crowe, Amanda Seyfried, Sacha Baron Cohen –, which could serve as a counterbalance to the more “sophisticated” competitors by the likes of Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, or Daniel Day-Lewis.

There are of course other contenders that seem likely to become important in a few months. There is a lot of award-related buzz around the new adaptation of Anna Karenina (opens in Switzerland on 6 December) directed by Joe Wright (Atonement); some people even see Keira Knightley as a favourite for Best Actress. Moreover, the point has been raised that Michael Haneke’s Amour, the likely winner for Best Foreign Language Film, has had a strong enough impact on American critics that it will be a possible Best Picture nominee. These, however, aren’t as easy to predict as the ones mentioned above, and it is doubtful that either of these movies will emerge as particularly strong players.

ARE THERE ANY PREDICTABLE SURPRISES?

The phrase “predictable surprise” is a classic oxymoron. But in this case, the contradiction in terms is apt, as there are a few movies that look like they could appeal to Academy voters but would, should they be nominated for Best Picture, still be considered an upset. One of these is Amour but in spite of all the buzz, this seems like too much of an outsider. As of now, this category features just two contenders.

The first one is The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (opens in Switzerland on 13 December), the first of three films in Peter Jackson’s new saga set in Middle-earth, based on J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. The critical reaction to the announcement that there will be three films instead of two, as was originally reported, was mostly negative, so part one will be met with a largely skeptical view. On the other hand, though, after his Picture/Director/Screenplay triple triumph in 2004 for The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Jackson is sure to be fondly remembered by the Academy. Still, a nomination in a major category would certainly be a huge surprise.

A more likely surprise would be the inclusion of Wes Anderson’s delightful, quirky coming-of-age love story Moonrise Kingdom. Anderson has been nominated twice, once for screenplay (The Royal Tennenbaums), once for Best Animated Feature (Fantastic Mr. Fox), which might seem like a lot but is actually not overly impressive considering that he has been one of the stars of American indie cinema for about 15 years now. Moonrise Kingdom, however, does have the credentials to garner a few nods in some categories. Best Picture is certainly a possibility, as is Best Original Screenplay. It would be surprising, yes, but not entirely baffling.

ARE THERE ANY INDIVIDUALS TO LOOK OUT FOR?

There are years in which the Academy has its favourites among the actors and actresses of Hollywood and it is not unheard of that this results in multiple nominations for someone; as has happened in 2008 when Cate Blanchett was up for Best Leading Actress (Elizabeth: The Golden Age) as well as Supporting (I’m Not There). Last year, Jessica Chastain found herself in this position; she may not have received multiple Oscar nominations but she was awarded several critics’ awards for her work in The Help, Take Shelter, and The Tree of Life. In 2012, it might be an old and a comparably young star’s turn.

The career of Maggie Smith, aged 77, is on a late high. After her battle with breast cancer she gave a much-noted performance in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 and has since moved on to more glory. She won an Emmy for her role in the TV series Downton Abbey and received much praise for her involvement in John Madden’s dramedy The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Some commentators would be inclined to list this film among the potential surprises, given its subject matter and the average age of the Academy voter, but it’s probably too much of a long shot, even if it was a huge hit in the U.S. Still, if Madden’s film can get at least one Oscar nod, it will be for Maggie Smith. But then again, she is already a two-time Oscar winner (1970 and 1979). Furthermore, she stars in Dustin Hoffman’s official directing debut, Quartet, which, should it get a wide release, might also be able to gain the Academy’s attention.

On the other end of the age and career spectrum, there is Amy Adams, in a spot very similar to Jessica Chastain’s in 2011. Although she already has three Oscar nominations under her belt (Junebug, Doubt, The Fighter) – at only 38 –, she can almost count on being nominated for her performance in The Master. The other two movies she has out – Robert Lorenz’s Trouble with the Curve, where she stars alongside Clint Eastwood, and Walter Salles’ On the Road – are less hopeful, award-wise, but if there should be excess enthusiasm, everything seems possible. However, her collaboration with Paul Thomas Anderson should suffice to secure her that little golden statuette this time around.

ANY PREDICTIONS?

It is much easier to predict actual movies than to try the same thing with acting categories, especially if some of the contenders haven’t even premiered yet. For instance, a lot of people are betting on Leonardo DiCaptio finally getting his Oscar this year – as they are every year, to be honest – for his performance in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. This may very well end up being true but it is dangerous to make this kind of prediction because apart from a poster and a fairly mediocre trailer, in which DiCaprio features only twice, nothing much is known about the movie. The only two categories I feel at least somewhat confident predicting are Best Picture and Best Director. Favourites for the acting categories already exist of course – Philip Seymour Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix, and Amy Adams for The Master; Daniel Day-Lewis for Lincoln; Bill Murray for Hyde Park on Hudson; Anthony Hopkins for the newly-announced Hitchcock; Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, and Robert De Niro for Silver Linings Playbook; John Hawkes for The Sessions; Anne Hathaway for Les Misérables; Matthew McConaughey for Magic Mike; Keira Knightley for Anna Karenina; Marion Cotillard for Jacques Audiard’s De rouille et d’os – but, obviously, these are too numerous and vague right now.

Best Picture Prediciton

  • Argo
  • Beasts of the Southern Wild
  • Life of Pi
  • Lincoln
  • The Master
  • Silver Linings Playbook

Possible Additions: The Dark Knight Rises, Les Misérables, Moonrise Kingdom, Zero Dark Thirty

Best Director Prediction

  • Ben Affleck – Argo
  • Paul Thomas Anderson – The Master
  • Ang Lee – Life of Pi
  • David O. Russell – Silver Linings Playbook
  • Steven Spielberg – Lincoln

Alternatives: Benh Zeitlin (Beasts of the Southern Wild) for Steven Spielberg, partly because of Spielberg’s existing track record and the Academy’s knack for honouring relative newcomers in this category.

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