Sunday, January 31, 2010

On your mark, get set...

This is something I’ve been meaning to write about for a few Oscar seasons now, about how wrong it seems for a movie to lose out on Best Picture because of overhype or because people are tired of hearing about it. I definitely agree that it’s surprisingly short-sighted to let the ebbs and flows of your enthusiasm for a film direct a vote that decides something fairly longstanding (if not necessarily that significant in the long run). It’s one of the most infuriating things about the Oscars, but it’s also what makes following the race so fascinating.

Because that’s what it is – a race.

Right now, over a month before the Oscars for this year will take place, the Sundance Film Festival has just closed and given out its awards and people are already starting to look ahead to next year’s Oscars (The Kids Are Alright and Cyrus are supposedly the Oscariest ones, if you want to start next year's scorecard). Last year at Sundance, there was a little movie called Push (later to be called Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire) that blew almost everyone away who saw it. Taking the Special Jury Prize at Sundance, and gaining the attention of Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry who wanted to make sure as many people saw it as possible, it quickly became an early (very early) favorite for Oscar – not only for the devastating performances of Mo’Nique and Gabourey Sidibe, but actual Best Picture buzz. Another Sundance film that got this very early Oscar buzz was An Education, an outstanding film that deserves a spot on any year’s Best Picture list, with a lead performance by Carey Mulligan that most viewers felt sure would earn her a ticket to the Oscars.

Then summer came. The Hurt Locker got a lot of attention from critics, and I remember thinking to myself after I watched it “You know, if it hadn’t come out so early it would definitely be a Best Picture contender.” Next, the Academy dropped a bombshell. The Best Picture field would be widened to ten instead of the traditional five – something that had not been seen in an Oscar race since 1943 (the Casablanca year, incidentally) and something which is widely (nay, universally) seen as amends for the snubbing of The Dark Knight (which I *STILL* don’t see as a terribly spectacular film, other than Ledger’s performance, but whatevs). People started throwing around ridiculous, near-apocalyptic visions of how this would ruin the prestige of the Best Picture brand – including the preposterous notion that The Hangover could actually find itself among The Ten (I can’t wait for the nominations to be announced so people will FINALLY stop saying it – errr, assuming they’re wrong, of course).

A couple of months later was the Toronto Film Festival, where lots of people fell hard for a film called Up in the Air and pronounced it the new frontrunner of the Oscar race. Precious was still in the game, but it had been around since late January and people were ready to talk about new things. Inglourious Basterds had a surprising amount of critical success, but nobody really took it seriously as a Best Picture contender – Best Supporting Actor, sure, and possibly Original Screenplay, but not the Big One. After all, it was no Pulp Fiction (whatever that means, but people said it). Some sci-fi films – not typically Oscar’s favorite genre – got a lot of audience and critical love (two loves rarely bestowed on the same films) and we saw District 9 and Star Trek enter the conversation.

Fall, which is typically when studios trot out their Oscar hopefuls, was surprisingly light on new Oscar buzz. Films like An Education and A Serious Man and The Road, which most critics had already seen on the festival circuit and which therefore had already been in the race awhile, began to trickle into actual theaters. Audiences were seeing these films for the first time, but they had already been chewed through by critics and awards prognosticators for months. The verdict seemed to be that An Education was still in the race, but not enough people saw A Serious Man and The Road was not as impressive (to many) as expected. Soon, Precious made its huge splash at the few theaters where it was available for viewing, and it was looking like a race between Precious and Up in the Air for Best Picture, with The Hurt Locker as a dark horse. The Hurt Locker, which had already left most theaters, had not made a great deal of money. You might think, given how “boring” many Oscar winners might seem, that obscure movies are favored, but a movie that made as little money as The Hurt Locker has not been in a frontrunner position (much less actually been a winner) in many, many years. So money still matters. Precious was getting a lot of attention in November and early December, with the folks orchestrating Up in the Air’s campaign happy (or at least willing) to cede the spotlight for the moment, presumably confident that they would be able to wrest the momentum from Precious later in the season, when it would matter more.

There were still four films, yet to be released or even screened, that Oscar-watchers were keeping an eye on, expecting a few or even all of them to potentially change the landscape of the race – Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones, Eastwood’s Invictus, Rob Marshall’s Nine, and the one whose Oscar chances people mostly half-indulged because the last film its director made (twelve years before) had done rather well for itself - Avatar. For about five minutes, it looked as if none of these films would have any impact on the race at all. The Lovely Bones was savagely (and in my opinion, unfairly) trashed by critics, and was considered out of the race for good – not even an undeserving benefactor of the expanded field of the Ten nominees. Eastwood might have some loyalists, but Invictus was not well received; it might slip in, but only if there was not a lot else to fill out the Ten. Nine was uninspired, too derivative of Marshall’s earlier ingenuity in the genre, and a financial flop. And though it hadn’t yet been seen, no one took Avatar as seriously as they pretended to, and a huge thud was fully expected from Camp Cameron and his weird blue people.

Critics started to give out their awards, and it looked like Up in the Air had indeed benefited (at least with the critics) from the slow and steady start. The Hurt Locker appeared on more critics’ Top 10 lists than any other film of the year; people had definitely not forgotten about it. Precious, however, was losing steam – still a sure thing for the Ten, and even one of what was being called the “top tier” of the Ten (i.e., it would be a Best Picture nominee even if there were only five). But no longer a frontrunner. It had peaked too soon.

Then people saw Avatar. And behold, it was good/not terrible/awesome-beyond-belief-and-don’t-you-want-to-die-because-Pandora-isn’t-real. There was a special screening for the Academy, who ate it up with a spoon, and it was suddenly the frontrunner. The classic December surprise. Golden Globe nominations came out, and no matter what people say about them, they do indeed shape the race, even if the awards themselves don’t amount to much. Between the Globes and the Screen Actors Guild nominations, a summer movie that had been all but counted out started to come up from behind and enter the conversation. Inglourious Basterds.

Meanwhile, other guilds announced their nominations. Eyes were especially fixed on the Directors Guild, who gave weight to the “top tier” theory that placed its nominees’ films - Avatar, The Hurt Locker, Inglourious Basterds, Precious, and Up in the Air - at the front of the Oscar pack. Five more will be on Oscar’s Best Picture list, but it’s widely believed that they’ll just be lucky to be there and won’t stand a chance at actually winning. I disagree rather strongly with that, by the way, because of the new preferential system of voting. But I’ve gone on enough about that already.

Here’s something hilarious (perhaps only to me). There were three big award shows over the course of just over a week recently. The top prize went to different films for each. The Broadcast Film Critics chose The Hurt Locker, the Globes chose Avatar (and The Hangover, but I still say no way it’s in the race), and the Screen Actors Guild went with Inglourious Basterds (which is actually for ensemble cast, but it’s their equivalent of Best Picture). Just a couple days later, the Producers Guild named The Hurt Locker their Best Picture. This was indeed a stunner, because they usually go with a box office hit, but you’d think from the blogs and other prognosticators that Jesus had just raised Lazarus from the dead. Suddenly, The Hurt Locker was “back in the race” – um, when did it leave? It won the BFCA not much more than a freakin’ WEEK ago! I mean, I know it’s a race and the littlest thing can make or break a film’s stride, but the fake drama and OMG surprise is a tad much.

So the Oscar race really is a race, with frontrunners and pulling ahead and surprising up-from-behind finishes. There’s a pacing to it, so that a studio has to be careful that its film doesn’t peak too early and lose its momentum. And yes, if people are sick of hearing about a movie, they are likely to forget all about how they loved it once upon a time.

The acting categories can be even more like this, by the way. In the summer, everyone was talking about how the race would be between Meryl Streep and Carey Mulligan (Gabourey Sidibe, while a shoe-in for a nomination, would be unlikely to win for her first film – it may have happened for Jennifer Hudson on her first film, but she wasn’t nominated as a lead, and that matters). Now, Sandra Bullock is in the mix. For real, in the mix, and it looks very likely that she'll pull a Julia Roberts “everyone loves her, and this is probably her best shot, so let’s just give it to her” victory. I don’t mean that in a flippant way, by the way, but I do think (and I think Sandra is aware of it as well) that all these voting bodies are expressing their love for her as much as that single performance. And at this stage, something as small as an acceptance speech at another award show can affect how Academy members feel about casting their vote for an actor or actress.

Best Actor is another interesting case, of course. After Colin Firth won Best Actor at the Venice Film Festival, it was between him and George Clooney for the win. And then Fox Searchlight went and dropped Crazy Heart into the mix and Jeff Bridges instantly became the man (excuse me, the Dude) to beat.

Interesting how far we can come in a year. Precious and An Education are both still highly respected films, still getting plenty of buzz (as they have all year), but neither of them is a frontrunner. One is on the bottom rung of the “top tier” and one is … probably going to be in the Ten, but who knows. Obviously, opinions inevitably change as people see more films over the course of the year, but – as crazy as it may sound - momentum matters every bit as much as quality.

All that endless piffle to say that the Oscars, while often remembered long after they are given out, are largely a product of their time, the results of months of work done by people who had nothing to do with the actual making of the movies awarded. They’re horses in a race, and if they don’t pace themselves and protect themselves from injury or attack, they’re not going to get the roses. Having an excellent jockey obviously helps as well, as no one rides a horse to victory quite like Harvey Wenstein. Which is perhaps a better reason than any other to take Inglourious Basterds very seriously. ;-)

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