Wednesday, August 8, 2012

OSCAR 2012: Pre-Fall films spark enduring interest

It's been a particularly dry patch at the theaters, given that it's been more than a month since wide release yielded any particular gems. The last new release I caught in theaters was "The Dark Knight Rises", and somehow that just didn't light a fire for the end of summer. Even a handful of my most anticipated films of this month are already falling from grace. "The Bourne Legacy" seems to be receiving a universal yawn from critics wondering how this story couldn't have booted up into an entirely new franchise. I caught a preview for "ParaNorman" recently that entirely doused my interest in the film, which seems to be trading heavily in hollow and substance-less wit rather than genuine magic.

So I've taken the time to revisit some rather positive cinematic revelations of the recent past, and it's beginning to show how much of a splash these films could make in the awards season conversation. We're bound to see one or two films not meet expectations, but on the most part the fall slate is seeming to have a pretty massive hold on the Academy's interest. "Argo", "Les Miserables", "Life of Pi", "Lincoln", and "The Master" remain prominent figures on the schedules, and we'll see rises and falls depending on how those play with audiences and critics. But there are more than a few films from this first half of the year that I suspect will figure into the conversation more than they have been.

One that I think people are oddly underestimating is Wes Anderson's "Moonrise Kingdom", a commonly loved and near-universally praised film that launched the Cannes Film Festival. Sounds a lot like "Midnight in Paris", don't you think? It even has the favor of being my brother's favorite film of the year, and given where his interests often lie ("Midnight in Paris", "The Illusionist", "Inglourious Basterds"), I have to give him an equal stake in this. The guy is rarely without reason in his picks, and "Moonrise Kingdom" is a film that's converting even the most ardent of Wes Anderson non-believers, like myself. It seems like the utterly winning film that strikes across the board.

Best Picture and original screenplay seems an obvious, but it will be difficult to make his mark in the already packed director's race. I haven't a doubt that's one of the strongest elements in his latest film, but it's a matter of space rather than quality. Techs like art direction and original score are a given, but I'd make the case for Makeup and Hairstyling, as well as the specific work on costume design. Performances are a long shot, I feel, with Bruce Willis maybe being the strongest bet of the group.  He's not had a nomination in his career, and with this hitting same year as "Looper", he could gain favor as having a late-career boom in quality. I'd preach for Kara Hayward, but with Quvenzhane Wallis stealing the youngster-buzz vote, I don't think she's going to have as many supporters in her corner.

Talking of 6-year-old "force of nature" Quvenzhane Wallis, without having seen "Beasts of the Southern Wild", it has clearly gained a great deal of favor out of Sundance and its summer screenings. I can't be certain of the differing credentials in terms of performance, technical achievements, or below-the-line achievements, but word tells me it's got strong chances on original score, art direction, and cinematography, along with potent chances for adapted screenplay, Wallis' lead performance, and the top prize as well. A lot more will be informed by first-hand experience, but for now I can only give solid estimates.

"Magic Mike" is the third major player which I suspect will be a much bigger hit with the Academy than initial expectations might lead one to believe. The Academy is far from unfriendly with Soderbergh, giving him two director nominations in a single year for "Erin Brockovich" and "Traffic", and an unfortunate split that led to "Gladiator" winning that year. Shame on the Academy, but since then he's been very much doing his own thing. Going from individual project to project has benefited him much better than the Academy eye can notice, but the guy's been in the works for a slight return to Academy graces. I'd place a bet this could potentially be it.

It's not without its hassles. In general, "Magic Mike" has had some trouble with moviegoers not being able to look past the "male stripper movie" aspect, which does it no favors behind selling it instantly to crowds. Not that Rotten Tomatoes is a reputable source, because it absolutely isn't, but the film currently sits at 79% on the tomatometer (ugh, how is that even a word?). That's not a dealbreaker in the slightest, with "War Horse" (77%), "The Help" (76%), and "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close" (47%) all hitting below that and still being nominated. If it gets enough favor going for it, this may be a surprise on the ballot. I can see Soderbergh making director a third time, a Best Picture nod in line, perhaps a supporting nod for Matthew McConaughey, and just maybe lead for Channing Tatum. Throw in some editing and cinematography acknowledgments, and how impossible could this be? I'll place significant bets on it happening. Just tell me where to do it.

That's as far as you'll get with Best Picture options, but there are plenty of lower tier categories to be snatched up. "Brave" seems sold on an animated feature nod, though clearly not a win for Pixar this year. "Prometheus", "Avengers", and "The Dark Knight Rises" will all be in the cards for visual effects nods, but I hold out hope for "Men in Black 3" to leave them in the dust. "Jiro Dreams of Sushi" could find its way into the documentary race rather easily, or not. "Mirror Mirror", in my mind, is sold for a costume design nod to the late Eiko Ishioka. And never count Michelle Williams out of the discussion, especially for such a deceptively sweet, semi-unsympathetic lead performance in "Take This Waltz".

I'm not buying the "Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" love, so consider that it for my current guesses. I won't give the signal to launch missiles on full-on predictions until after Telluride, Toronto, and Venice have their say on the destination this year's awards season will take. Give another week or so and I'll chime in again on what's yet to come in the year. Until then I'm keeping my eye out less for awards potential and more for genuine cinematic trophies. We can't always be indulging in the interests of others.

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