Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Early Oscar Predictions Part One: The Sure(r) Bets

Now that the major film festivals are over, awards season can start firing on all cylinders. A number of movies are already being fingered as likely best picture nominee contenders, even when people haven't even seen them! I will provide updates as and when the landscape changes, but take this initial 2 part post (which will also be the most comprehensive) as an Oscar mini-guide written by a dummy, more than a set of predictions…

First things first: stuff to know about the Academy Awards 2011

Eddie Murphy is hosting. Say what!? In light of the fact that he has not made a decent movie in years, people may react in horror. But, 2 things: (1) he is a truly great comedian. If you have watched Raw, you will know what I mean; and (2) comedians make the best awards show hosts (Ricky Gervais, Billy Crystal and Chris Rock v the Hathaway-Franco massacre). So, count me in.

Brett Ratner is producing. If you don't know who he is, he is the crap director of movies like Rush Hour and X-Men: The Last Stand. However, those movies were major box office successes, and commentators are generally happy with this choice. The Oscars don’t need a Lars Von Trier, they need a director who can please the masses, and Brett Ratner probably can (hey, they should go big and get Michael Bay next time).

The rules have changed. Yes, two years ago they changed the number of best picture nominees from 5 to 10, a change I liked very much but that was not universally accepted. Then of course they had the complicated preferential voting system, where you list your 5 favourites in order of priority and the contenders fall out one by one until only the winner is left. Now the process adds a new twist: the number of best picture nominees will not be fixed, but can be anywhere between 5 and 10 movies. How this is calculated is based on the number of nomination votes a movie gets. Basically, it needs to get a certain percentage of votes to be nominated. So, depending on the strength of the field, the number of nominees can change. This is complex and no more of it shall be written here.

Criteria (according to which Oscar potency is measured)

1. The Pundits / Experts / Gurus of Gold

Being a total amateur at this game, my number one guide will always be the views of those who know what they are talking about, think they know what they are talking about, or at least do this for a living. Okay - not always - until I know what I am talking about too. The experts I look to are the ones whose stuff I read: Brad Brevet (Ropeofsilicon), Sasha Stone (Awardsdaily), Guy Lodge (Incontention) Steve Pond (The Wrap) and a few more of the so-called "gurus of gold".

BUT - I will form my own views too, which is why I have the categories below. Of course, they are also all dependant on the views of others, but that's what the Oscars are about! It's the Academy that votes, not me. So I may want The Loved Ones to win best picture, but that will never happen. It's a game, to guess what other people will think. Quite stupid really, but fun…

2. The Critics

There has been a lot of debate as to whether or not critics mean anything in the Oscar race, and a few of the so-called experts have bumped their heads really hard by relying too heavy on what critics thought (see for the example the header at Awardsdaily... "the trick is not minding"). Take The Social Network last year. It was the critics' darling, having won almost every single critics award. In fact, going into the Oscars, it had won the most accolades of any movie before it. But it lost to The King's Speech, much to my dismay.

On the other hand, it can't be denied that the critics are a very important factor. However, they are not the determining factor.

3. The Unbearable Lightness of "Buzz"

The power of buzz is almighty.  It is the determining criterion of Oscar success. Those Academy members are like sheep - once a movie gains momentum in the Oscar race and builds that buzz, then they are too shit scared to vote for anything else. Most of the time it is the "buzz film " that ends up taking the top prize. It's like the Academy members are too scared too have voted for the losing film at the end of the day.

Two things spring to mind here. One, what the hell is a Best Picture Oscar then anyway? If it's an award given by a bunch of sheep that vote with the masses, who gives a stuff? Yes, perhaps, but winning an Oscar does massive things for a career. So, if you want to see more from your favourite - back them to the end! If they win, they get more work and freedom of choice. Or they get ruined. Second, buzz is actually made up of all the elements listed here, in particular the previous one and the next one. But it also includes another intangible which emerges after stirring all of the above together and adding some heat. It's hard to explain, but you know it when you see it (which is what one South African judge said about porn). The last 2 years delivered winners with serious buzz… both The King's Speech and The Hurt Locker (the previous year) had so much heat they were, in the eternally wise words of Tom-Cruise-as-Les-Grossman: "scorched earth motherfucker"! But I (and some of them experts) persisted in my belief in The Social Network (I knew Black Swan was too awesome for the Academy) and Inglourious Basterds. We know what happened: the trick is not minding (ah, so, the point emerges). Oh well, enough of that. As the date looms nearer, the buzz rings clearer.

 4. Who is driving the Campaign Wagon?

Basically, if the Weinstein Company (ie Harvey Scissorhands) is in charge of distribution, you have a serious contender. Harvey Weinstein is a shameless schmoozer of Academy members and other big hitters, and a bully of those who get in the big man's way. In fact, the feats he has achieved have become legendary. He even got Shakespeare In Love to beat Saving Private Ryan!

Other distributors have different tactics, some have more money, some have less, but essentially, he who runs your campaign largely determines your fate. Another reason why the Oscars are by no means an indication of which movies are truly the best, but also why they are so much fun to predict.

5. The Cast and Crew (ie the ones that really count)

Let's face it; some people are like catnip to the Academy (if the Academy were all cats). Clint Eastwood, Martin Scorsese (although he only has one Oscar, he always gets their attention), Steven Spielberg, Meryl Streep, George Clooney, Daniel Day Lewis, Tom Hanks etcetera. Big names count.

6. Content / Subject Matter / Whatever

This should not matter but it does. Some movies are Academy fodder and others are not. The Academy is a notoriously conservative and stifled bunch, and also quite old on average. They love inspirational stories, stories based on the truth, on history, with some Anglo Americana thrown in for good measure; nothing too heavy, nothing overly weird. So, a movie pudding about the King of England and his speech therapist is going to go down well, whereas a psychological thriller about a ballerina losing her shit will not. This year sees some contenders that fit so neatly into the comfort zone of the Academy, it actually pisses me off. 

7. My humble opinion

Of course, that's what inCamera is all about!  Narcissism.

The Sure Bets

The following films are more than just likely to be nominated for Best Picture next year. These deals are pretty much sealed. The winner may not be in there, but nominees? For sure! Oh, and of course, these have already been released in the US or screened at some of the major festivals (Venice, Telluride, Toronto). So people have seen them.

The Descendants

Dir: Alexander Payne; With: George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Judy Greer

This is Alexander Payne's first film since best picture nominee Sideways back in 2004, and is a dramedy about a land baron who tries to re-connect with his two daughters after his wife suffers a boating accident. Importantly, it stars George Clooney who, as mentioned above, is adored by the Academy and who apparently delivers another Oscar-calibre performance. It also stars Judy Greer (I love her - she's always a crazy) and newcomer Shailene Woodley, who is also said to be brilliant.

It premiered at Telluride Film Festival in September, and has received the expected positive reviews (it's sitting pretty at 93% on Rottentomatoes). However, the reviews themselves don't seem that fantastic - so the real Academy appeal must lie in Clooney, Payne the writing and the performances. And indeed it seems to be the case because most pundits are saying it is guaranteed a nomination. Unlike other highly anticipated films like Carnage, A Dangerous Method and The Ides of March, The Descendants seems to have struck a chord with the critics and has almost universal appeal. My money is on a nomination, but not a win - it will be the The Kids Are All Right from last year or the Up in the Air from the year before. Here is the trailer. See if you agree.

Dir: Bennett Miller; With: Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, Robin Wright, Philip Seymour Hoffman

The words "Brad Pitt", "baseball" and "based on a true story" can do a whole lot for a movie's Oscar chances. And then you get the fact that it is the sophomore feature of Bennett Miller, whose debut was Capote, a fantastic film that won Phillip Seymour Hoffman a best actor Oscar, and received 4 other nominations, including best picture, director and adapted screenplay. And then there is the fact that Miller is collaborating with Hoffman again in this one. Oh, and did I forget to mention that the screenplay was written by Oscar winners and writing powerhouses Steve Zaillan (Schindler's List, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo) and Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network)?

In a nutshell, Moneyball, which tells the story of Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane's successful attempt to put together a baseball club on a budget by employing computer-generated analysis to draft his players, has all the right ingredients. But not only that, audiences love it (8.2 on IMDB) and critics too (94% on Rottentomatoes and 88 on Metacritic, with only 2 negative reviews). The ratings are similar to those received by the King's Speech last year. But does Moneyball have what it takes to go all the way? I don't know. It is being distributed by Columbia Pictures, and they are capable of throwing some weight behind a movie. But they also have The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo on their slate this year. Either it's too early to tell, or I am not brave enough to make a call. We will have to wait for that "buzz".

The Help

Dir: Tate Taylor; With: Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Jessica Chastain, Bryce Dallas Howard and Allison Janney.  

What helps The Help is that it has a bit of history. Based on the bestselling novel by Kathryn Stockett, it tells the story of an aspiring author during the civil rights movement who decides to write a book detailing the African American Maid's point of view on the white families they work for, and their hardships they go through on a day to day basis. However, probably the main criticism has been that the film glosses over its racial themes. So no, history does not help The Help.
No, The Help is one of those movies which is carried almost entirely by the strength of its performances. In this case, a mammoth female cast who each deliver an Oscar calibre performance. I would say that we are looking at multiple acting nominations here. Best actress for Viola Davis and best supporting actress for Jessica Chastain, Octavia Spencer and Bryce Dallas Howard. The strong ensemble could lead to a Screen Actors Guild win, which in turn means a lot for the Oscars. Why? Because by far the largest portion of the Academy are actors. But, there is always a but: I don't think it has what it takes to win. It performed wonders at the Box Office ($156 million in the US, on a budget of $25 million), which often helps, but critics have not been unanimous, and it scores only 74% on Rottentomatoes. I have seen it and loved it, and I think it should be nominated. But win? Nah, not me. I like the darker stuff.

The Artist

Dir: Michael Hazanavicius; With: John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Missi Pyle, Malcolm Macdowell 

"Hollywood, 1927: As silent movie star George Valentin wonders if the arrival of talking pictures will cause him to fade into oblivion, he sparks with Peppy Miller, a young dancer set for a big break." Yes, it is a silent French movie, and ever since it premiered at Cannes in May this year, critics have been in a tizzy. It's on 100% on Rottentomatoes (admittedly with only a few reviews), and the reviews are great.

What makes this one interesting is that it is so different, it's almost impossible to compare to the others. I think that what the critics have to say means quite a lot here: they praise it for being a film for anyone that truly loves film, and for beautifully illustrating the allure of Golden Age Hollywood stardom. Considering the Academy, presumably lovers of film, and many of them aging (and probably nostalgic for the days of old), I think they will really like this one.

Lastly, we have the Weinstein Company backing it this year, and looking at what's on their slate, it is likely that they will put most of their resources behind this one. That, combined with the fact that the Oscar campaign rules have been relaxed, could make this a contender to win best picture come 2012. A silent French film; now wouldn't that be something!

At first this film didn't interest me at all, but watch the trailer and try not to fall in love with it already.

The "Sure Bets", even though nobody has even seen 'em.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Dir: Stephen Daldry; With: Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock, Thomas Horn, James Gandolfini, John Goodman, Viola Davis, Max Von Sydow, Jeffrey Wright. 

 This is the fourth film from Stephen Daldry. His previous 3 are Billy Elliot, The Hours and The Reader. He was nominated for best director for all 3 those movies, and the last 2 were nominated for best picture. Not only that, all 3 scored best adapted screenplay nominations and at least one nomination in an acting category (with 2 wins). This is therefore one British director who is not to be trifled with. When he comes, he comes with the thunder!

Now, add the credentials above to a movie starring 2 of the most beloved actors in the business: Sandra Bullock and Tom Hanks, as well as one of the best supporting casts imaginable. In fact, not only is the supporting cast brilliant on paper, but most of those actors are shit hot right now: John Goodman is in raved-about The Artist (above), Viola Davis is looking like a best actress front runner for her performance in The Help, and the criminally underrated Jeffrey Wright is in The Ides of March.

Finally, although it is based on a novel (a bestseller I might add), the story is rooted in a true event. And not just any true event: 9/11, in the 10th anniversary year to boot! 9/11 is an event scorched into the memory of the world in general and America in particular, and I get shivers down my spine every time I see those planes crash into the WTC. This film looks like it will finally give us what we wanted in a 9/11 film, namely the story around the periphery of the tragedy. Not the firemen, the cops and the passengers on a doomed flight, but those whose lives were touched in other, indirect ways. From what I see in the trailer, it looks like story of intersecting lives and paths touched by 9/11, and that is, in my view, the only way to properly do the event justice on screen. Don't you think the academy has been waiting for the right moment to honour a 9/11 film? I do.

So, it is not surprising that this one is attracting a lot of talk before anyone has even seen it. Time will tell.

War Horse

Dir: Steven Spielberg; With: Tom Hiddleston, Benedict Cumberbatch, Emily Watson, David Thewliss, Jeremy Irvine

 A Steven Spielberg period picture about a boy and his horse is what many consider to be ideal Oscar material. I agree, but I must admit I am voting against this one. I don't know, it just doesn't appeal to me. Hopefully the film proves me wrong when it is released this Christmas. I think it has been touted as a major contender because of the director and the subject matter (a pre-WWII story based on both a novel and a play), but at this stage it is impossible to say.

Admittedly the cinematography looks beautiful, and I do like the cast very much. But the old school sweeping John Williams score, the tired Gone With The Wind-esque poster and the entire premise don't appeal to me at all. So, I won't say any more about this until I have something more to say.

And that's all for now… check in soon to see The Likely Contenders and The Dark Horses, and to find out why J Edgar is not mentioned above...

1 comment:

  1. I think we should up the betting stakes for these Oscars :) Great post!


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