Tuesday, August 28, 2012

OSCAR 2012: Borne back ceaselessly into the past

Phillip Seymour Hoffman in "The Master".
It comes with a certain panic that I must inform you all that the fall festival season is set to kick off any moment now with goings on in Venice set to start very soon. The season often comes with something of a ruckus, but this year seems wholly preoccupied with Cannes, at least in the respect that the May festival didn't offer much to blow this year's slate open. Last summer coasted through with the general knowledge that "The Artist" would be a relative frontrunner in the race, and... well, it won. I've spent much time mulling over the events of Cannes this year in attempt to find potential candidates for the races this year, and if we come up short on first half year nominees, it wouldn't be the first time.

That's putting it lightly, since last year had a rather unprecedented three Cannes debuts nominated for Best Picture. Previous year would be lucky to get just one, mostly due to original five nominee ballot, but in the past three years of expanded category, Cannes has had notably little effect in proceedings. If the 2012 awards season takes a similar trait, I wouldn't be thoroughly surprised, though I do expect a few Cannes premieres to infiltrate the Best Picture race this year. The most obvious one, which I previously went on at length about its chances, would be Wes Anderson's independent hit "Moonrise Kingdom". That simply seems like one for the heart, which should appeal to the Academy in the same way "The Artist" did last year.

My much less likely bet, and yet one I feel supremely confident about, is Michael Haneke "Amour", winner of the Palme d'Or this year. It wouldn't be the first time a Palme winner was nominated, which happened for "Taxi Driver", "Apocalypse Now", "The Piano", "Pulp Fiction", "Secrets & Lies", "The Pianist", and last year's "The Tree of Life". It should be noted that none of those were foreign language features, which has been much reason for such films' exclusion in the past. After all, why hand them a nomination in the top race when they've got their own to win? What makes "Amour" notably different is the fact that it may not factor into the foreign language race at all, as Guy Lodge of In Contention speaks for here.

Emmanuelle Riva in "Amour".
Its exclusion there could open the floodgates for a full campaign in several different fields. I'd expect such for Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and Original Screenplay as a bare minimum, which says a lot for how much of a solid bet I see "Amour" to be. There was nary a single despondent word to be had when the film premiered at Cannes, with even those trying to figure something mean to say coming up shorthanded. That kind of passion seems rather likely to translate over to the Academy mindset, in one of those rare occurrences such as "Life is Beautiful" and "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon". Spend some time thinking it over, is it really such a long shot?

That covers the few real candidates amongst the Cannes crowd, which leaves one or two from Sundance which have made quite a strong name for themselves. It's become tiring, or rather infuriating, to talk about "Beasts of the Southern Wild" in relation to the main slate, only because it has taken me so long to find the time to see it. Deeper conversation pending. More unanimously unseen is "The Sessions", set for release in late October and picking up continuous acclaim for John Hawkes' lead performance. It has the general makings of a performance oriented film, which worked well enough for "The Help" last year if you recall. This may make it in under similar circumstances, but it's not quite on the level of cinematic powerhouse that its competitors are existing on.

That aspect of something being a "cinematic powerhouse" does seem more a factor in this year than most. To defer to In Contention for another moment, the election year winners factor Kris Tapley brought up recently also plays strongly into the nominees as well. 2008 had two political drama nominated in "Milk" and "Frost Nixon", an adventurous nostalgia in "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button", and a WW2 Germany set drama called "The Reader". 2004 offered cinematic touchstones of American pioneering ("The Aviator"), the rhythm and blues era ("Ray"), the semi-fantastical pseudo-biography of a famous fantasy writer ("Finding Neverland"), and "Sideways". That last one admittedly doesn't fit the theme of the others, but it is among Alexander Payne's best.

Daniel Day-Lewis in "Lincoln".
Based on the two most recent examples, the year seems rather likely to follow a path rather biographical of the past. That's not a terribly difficult feat, given features like "Lincoln" and "Argo" already have a firm footing in past times of inspiring and impossible breakthroughs. The former seems to be under the assumption of frontrunner status, which is understandable as I am not excluded from those who have been stunned by the simple visage of Daniel Day-Lewis in full makeup. Many are screaming it as a Best Actor lock, but I reserve such things for when we catch the first glimpses of his actual performance. It does make a case for an easy win for Best Makeup and Hairstyling.

In the meantime, "Argo" has been slowly making a name for itself as a not-so-surprising surprise entry into the race. Ben Affleck's been on the rise as a director for years, and such a politically charged and morally admirable piece seems the perfect point of entry for Academy recognition. Paul Thomas Anderson's "The Master" has feet deeper in philosophical renderings than political motivations, but it does continue the theme of American history with placement in post-war 1950s. It's tapping the same vein as "There Will Be Blood" did, so it goes without saying this will be a recurring point of interest at the Oscars this year.

Kathryn Bigelow's "Zero Dark Thirty".
I do believe there will be certain reservations against non-American pieces with historical roots, not to counter my own prediction that "Amour" will earn big nominations. That means the fall of two major contenders people are seeing as automatics in the top race, "Anna Karenina" and "Les Miserables". I have reservations against both pieces, as the former has seemed rather obnoxious based on the glitzy marketing angle. On a less prejudiced note, I just don't think the Academy will go for such a floozy romance drama. My worries regarding "Les Miserables" have nothing to do with the film's material, but more with director Tom Hooper. His style simply lacks a heartbeat that causes his films to come off coldly. That may work for HBO, but the big screen kind of begs something of genuine emotion.

Getting back to a political spectrum, one film that reads like an easy nomination, though a bit topically risky for the Academy's tastes, is "Zero Dark Thirty". Katheryn Bigelow's last film, "The Hurt Locker", focused on America's unhealthy addiction to war and won the top prize in a post-election year. In an election year, I wouldn't expect her chances at that top prize are quite as strong, but all the pieces are in place for it to make its mark in the race. Also a follow-up on the tight 2009 race is Quentin Tarantino with "Django Unchained", but this time he's not seeking to shed some light on a conflicted time. He's going for much more of a straight bad-ass, ridiculous romp of bloodshed and action, like only Tarantino can deliver nowadays. That's great for what I've been hoping from him, but it makes his chances at Oscar rather negligible.

Suraj Sharma in "Life of Pi".
Recently announced for release in time for Oscar qualification is Gus Van Sant's "Promised Land", a bit of a passion project written by Matt Damon. The story of a business man seeking drilling rights to buy from distressed communities seems like exactly the sort of subject to hit with an election year voting audience. It's not so dangerously topical as "Zero Dark Thirty", but it has a certain freshness from its late entry in the race, which could be the deciding factor in how much of an impact it makes. I can see it being what "Milk" was in 2008.

To my mind there are only three candidates left, and they are all set from premieres at the 50th Annual New York Film Festival. I can't claim favoritism just yet, since finances are the only things I am waiting to hear on in relation to whether or not I will be attending this year (i.e. press accreditation pending). I will say the fact I could very likely be seeing them ahead of the rest has me paying somewhat closer attention to them. "Life of Pi", for example, has been attributed for some time as this year's "Hugo", but it also holds similarities to "Slumdog Millionaire" in its story of devastation and survival. It could be the most visually lavish of films nominated this year.

Denzel Washington in "Flight".
What is rather likely to be the surprise of the season, for my money, is Robert Zemeckis' "Flight". True, the man's been out of the game for a while, but films like "Forrest Gump" and "Cast Away" have hit well with the Academy in the past. His latest seems about as American as apple pie, and an inspirational story isn't a bad thing to throw into the works. I may rescind my statement of "The Sessions" as this year's "The Help", because "Flight" holds much stronger chance or that particular role.

That leaves the centerpiece film, "Not Fade Away" from "The Sopranos" creator David Chase. The 60s set coming-of-age drama is very much a wait-and-see type of film, but it's the sort of nostalgia piece that often fits right along the cogs like "Revolutionary Road" very nearly did successfully. Below is my list of ten top candidates, and I would be rather surprised by which of these makes the cut, but I do believe these will be my first and last predictions this awards season. I am more attracted to wishful thinking than aggressive prognostication. Feel free to offer your own thoughts below!

"Beasts of the Southern Wild"
"Life of Pi"
"Promised Land"
"The Master"
"Moonrise Kingdom"
"Zero Dark Thirty"

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