The Oscar Warrior’s Awards Season Preview

Anyone who has written about awards season for more than a few years has eventually come to the realization that it’s not usually a wise idea to don your prediction cap too early in the season. While other prognosticators have been writing endlessly about the possible nominees and winners for months, even before most movies were seen, The Oscar Warrior has been sitting back and biding his time to see how things play out (as well as being busy writing about other things). Now that festival season is over and Thanksgiving has been and gone, we should be able to get a much clearer picture of what’s going to happen in the coming weeks and months leading up to Oscar night on March 7, 2010. With that in mind, we’re finally ready to look at the actual movies and talk briefly about their awards potential, more of a preview of what movies have been released this year with our actual predictions coming out later this month.

The big shocker this year was the decision by the Academy to allow ten films into the Best Picture race, which has created a lot more options, as well as a frenzy as every studio now thinks they have a better chance at getting their movies a nomination. Some have thought the expansion of the category will allow summer genre blockbusters like Star Trek to get in or allow an opening for an animated movie like Up or even a documentary, but it should certainly help avoid the types of snubs we’ve seen in past years as movies like Dreamgirls and The Dark Knight were left out.

The fact is that no movie can even seriously be considered as a Best Picture contender unless it receives nominations in at least two of the three other main categories: acting, direction and screenplay, and in at least one technical category, usually film editing, so that’s one thing to bear in mind when weighing the odds with five extra players in the Best Picture game.

In past years, there’s always been a couple of frontrunners in the acting categories, most of whom have gone onto win it, and there really isn’t a Jamie Foxx in Ray or a Philip Seymour Hoffman in Capote, nor a Helen Mirren or Marion Cotillard or Hilary Swank – well, actually all three of those previous winners have movies this year. Instead, the lead acting categories have four or five names mentioned by everyone and then a couple of dark horse categories and the Lead Actor category is especially full this year, so that might be where we can expect the most surprises. On the other hand, supporting categories are still fairly open with a few movies aiming to fill them up from their ensemble roster, though the Supporting Actor category is surprisingly sparse compared to previous years.

Up until this point, a lot of the mystery and confusion has revolved around what hadn’t been shown or screened, and as of this point, there is only one movie that no one has seen, that being James Cameron’s Avatar. More on that below.

The Early Bird, etc.

There’s something to be said about getting your movie out earlier in the year giving more awards voters time to see your movie. While there have been many big winners that have been released in the first half of the year–Silence of the Lambs and Gladiator are two notable ones–it is sometimes tougher to get people to remember your movie when there is so much being released in November and December.

The movie that can easily claim the earliest awards buzz is Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker (Summit Entertainment), which was nominated for a number of Independent Spirits awards last year, months before it even opened theatrically. In the time since it premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in September 2008, it has built upon its festival buzz and early critical raves to build strong word-of-mouth. Anyone who thinks that the movie was released too early in the year to be taken seriously might want to note that it’s following the exact same trajectory as the 2006 Oscar shocker Crash, which also premiered at Toronto, opening the following summer then winning the Best Picture Oscar over a year after its debut.

In fact, The Hurt Locker was one of the first movies mentioned as a possibility when the Best Picture category was expanded to ten, and while at the time it was considered an underdog, it’s slowly grown into a potential frontrunner. Although at its core it is a war movie, there’s something unique about the way the story of an army bomb squad unfolds that has kept everyone who has seen it riveted to the screen. In the past, Oscar voters have often gone for testosterone-driven fare as their Best Picture, including The Departed, Braveheart and Gladiator, maybe because a good percentage of the Academy are part of the mostly-male technical departments. It would be somewhat ironic if The Hurt Locker follows suit, being that it’s directed by a woman, but there’s little question that Bigelow’s achievements will earn her an Oscar nomination, joining a rare breed of Oscar-nominated women directors, just like it’s very realistic that Mark Boal’s original screenplay gets nominated in a category that’s fairly sparse. The Hurt Locker would have to get some other nominations, such as editing and cinematography, to be taken seriously as a Best Picture winner, but we certainly can see that happening. As far as the cast, both Jeremy Renner and Anthony Mackie were nominated for indie spirits last year, and while most people would think Renner plays a larger part in the movie working so well, he’s potentially facing a lot more competition for a nomination than Mackie would in the supporting category.

Two movies that debuted at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, got everyone talking and seem to be going all the way, are Lee Daniels’ Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire (Lionsgate) and Lone Scherfig’s An Education (Sony Pictures Classics). Both films star young newcomers, one who has never appeared in a movie before and the other one who has been playing smaller supporting roles. Both movies are unconventional coming of age tales that really affect everyone who sees them, mostly due to the performances by their leading ladies.

From its very first screening, British actress Carey Mulligan has blown audiences away with her performance as Jenny, a 16-year-old British schoolgirl who has an affair with a significantly older man (played by Peter Sarsgaard) with the approval of her normally strict father (Alfred Molina). In fact, she’s the one thing most people walking away from the movie will remember, although the positive vibes surrounding the movie should help get it into the Best Picture category as well as get Nick Hornby’s adapted screenplay nominated, and possibly even a supporting nod for Molina.

Precious is a far more difficult movie, dealing with physical and sexual abuse, incest and AIDS, but it also has an inspirational quality that’s helped it win audience awards at many film festivals. Playing the title character is first-time actress Gabby Sidibe, making her debut in a powerful performance that requires very little talking but a lot of emotion from the amount of abuse she endures from her mother. On top of that, the 300 pound actress shows another side in the movie’s fantasy sequences, making it one of the more impressive debuts since Jennifer Hudson won for Dreamgirls a few years back. Even more impressive is the shocking transformation by comedienne Mo’Nique into a monster of a mother who terrorizes and humiliates the teen girl throughout the movie, a performance that’s likely to make her a frontrunner in the supporting category. Other terrific supporting performances include an almost unrecognizable Mariah Carey, and Paula Patton as a teacher who believes in Precious, but the Academy will probably spread the wealth across various movies rather than give too much to this one. Of the two similar movies, Daniels is more likely to get a directing nomination over Danish filmmaker Lone Scherfig, just because Daniels is better known from his years as a producer and talent manager. Because of this, we expect Precious to be a far more serious Oscar contender, likely to win SAG’s ensemble cast award, as well as getting one of the coveted film editing nominations that clinches it.

Another Sundance debut, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a person who doesn’t either like or love is Duncan Jones’ debut Moon (Sony Pictures Classics), which features a fantastic “one man show” from Sam Rockwell. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to be getting as big an awards push by Sony Classics as other movies, maybe because of the sci-fi stigma the Academy seems to have, which we discuss below. Even so, expect this to be on many Top 10 lists and for Jones to get a number of critics’ awards for his debut, but little momentum beyond that.

Also on the indie side, Oren Moverman’s drama The Messenger (Oscilloscope Labs), another Sundance premiere, has been getting a lot of attention for its story about soldiers whose job it is to notify the loved ones of those killed in action. The timely subject matter and the dramatic performances were strong enough to get the movie into the National Board of Review’s ten best list, as well as Woody Harrelson getting a Supporting Actor award for delivering some of his strongest dramatic work to date. Harrelson probably stands a better chance at getting attention at the Golden Globes, from the Screen Actors Guild, and finally from the Academy, because he’s a much more known entity than the film’s lead Ben Foster, and we certainly could see Harrelson receiving his second Oscar nomination becoming a frontrunner at winning “for his body of work,” as they say.

On the larger studio scale, there’s a good chance Quentin Tarantino’s WWII thriller Inglourious Basterds (The Weinstein Company) will end up on many year-end Top 10 lists, but some might wonder whether it might be too violent or whimsical for Oscar voters. With ten slots open for Best Picture, we could see this getting in thanks to the Oscar voters in the technical categories, and Tarantino’s screenplay is certainly original enough to get a nomination in that category. There are many strong performances in the movie but the most memorable one is that of German actor Christoph Waltz as a sadistic SS agent, who steals the movie from much bigger name actors like Brad Pitt and Diane Kruger, and placing him in the supporting category almost guarantees him a nomination.

Another summer movie that got attention was Nora Ephron’s latest Julie & Julia (Sony). It normally wouldn’t be thought of as any sort of “Oscar movie,” but Meryl Streep’s portrayal of French chef Julia Child has really wowed everyone who has seen the movie, and as we know from past years, playing a real person, living or dead, is always a good way of getting awards attention, especially when it’s as convincing as Streep’s take on Child. Even so, we think that Streep’s nomination will probably be it for this one.

Opening around the same time back in August, a new player entered the picture and that was South African filmmaker Neill Blomkamp, whose $30 million sci-fi thriller District 9 (Sony) wowed critics and moviegoers alike. (It achieved a 90% Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes and grossed over $100 million to confirm it.) The problem is that the Academy has never been too kind to the science fiction genre except for in the Visual FX categories, so this will really need a strong push from the technical departments with Production Design being one of the categories that’s certainly in the film’s reach. Newcomer Sharlto Copley’s performance is impressive but he’s not well-known enough to get into the Lead Actor category. The screenplay might have had a chance of getting nominated if it hadn’t been relegated to the already-crowded adapted category – it was based loosely on Blomkamp’s earlier short film. So that leaves a possible technical nod and a highly unlikely chance of getting into the Top 10 Best Pictures.

Film Festival Darlings

Once the summer is over, awards season starts to really pick up as studios and filmmakers vie for placement and recognition at festivals in Telluride, Toronto, Venice, Chicago, L.A. and New York, which is where most Oscar-worthy movies get their debuts with only a few exceptions.

Jason Reitman’s third movie Up in the Air (Paramount) was rushed to have it ready to play at Toronto and the Telluride Film Festivals, a gambit that certainly paid off as the crowd-pleasing dramedy has already received quite a bit of critical acclaim, as well as four awards from the National Board of Review, including its Best Film award, recognition for George Clooney, Anna Kendrick and Reitman’s screenplay. Even though the NBR and the Academy are very different breeds, that’s as good a precursor as any for the Oscars, and the number of critics gushing over the movie helped the movie do very well in limited release this past weekend. Clooney is a shoe-in for another Lead Acting nod, since his performance is as good or better than Michael Clayton, and then one of his two co-stars will get nominated in the Supporting Actress category. While we feel that Vera Farmiga has been sorely neglected over the years for many great performances including The Departed, we think Paramount is pushing the younger actress Anna Kendrick much harder in terms of putting her out there for interviews, etc. so we think that Kendrick will get a nomination. Since Up in the Air is likely to be nominated in the Director and Adapted Screenplay categories, the latter which it’s likely to win, that makes this one of the five serious contenders for best picture this year, but it’s also very much in the same boat as movies like Sideways, Little Miss Sunshine and yes, Juno, which people loved but were hard to take seriously other than in the screenplay category.

Debuting their new movie at the Toronto Film Festival for a third year in a row, the Coen Brothers’ latest A Serious Man (Focus Features) has its fans for sure, although it’s probably more of a critical darling than something the Academy might take seriously. While the performance by the theater actor Michael Stuhlbarg is quite entertaining, he’s at a disadvantage in a crowded file. The movie’s best bet is getting nominated in the Original Screenplay category, a category the Coens have comfortably dominated in previous years, already having won in 1997 for Fargo. Without a lot of strong movies based on original screenplays, they could actually win this one, too. It’s also one of the maybes in terms of getting a Best Picture nomination.

The Coen movie is not to be confused with Tom Ford’s A Single Man (The Weinstein Company), which was picked up by the Weinstein Company at Toronto, mostly for the performance by Colin Firth as a college professor, who turns suicidal after the death of his gay lover of 16 years. Set in ’60s Los Angeles, it’s a beautiful film, and the question is whether the Academy can accept all the homoerotic overtones to nominate it in other categories, like Best Picture, is still undecided. We can look at the Academy’s support for both Brokeback Mountain and last year’s Milk as a promising indicator, but certainly the cinematography is worthy of recognition as is the adapted screenplay, and Julianne Moore’s supporting performance is one of the best things she’s done in years. Even so, this might still be a tougher sell for anyone to put it in their Top 5.

There are similar concerns about John Hillcoat’s adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (The Weinstein Company), a grim movie about a man and his son trying to survive the end of the world. It might not be Oscar voters’ cup of tea, maybe because it’s reminiscent of Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, a critically loved film which only received nominations for cinematography and supporting actor Casey Affleck but little else. One big difference is that this is based on a very popular bestseller, particularly loved by men, including presumably a good portion of the Academy. Besides possibly snagging one of the ten Best Picture nominations, the movie’s best bet would be a second Oscar nomination for Viggo Mortensen, the cinematography, and the adapted screenplay by Joe Penhall, although as mentioned above, the latter would be competing in a very tough category. We’d love to see Robert Duvall receive his seventh Oscar nomination and his first in ten years for his small supporting part as a man that the duo encounter on the road. While some might find it hard to believe that Oscar voters can embrace such a grim film, some might remember that the Coen Brothers’ adaptation of McCarthy’s equally difficult No Country for Old Men swept the Oscars a few years back, so no one should write this one off completely.

Better Late than Never

There’s a long-running superstition during Oscar season that it pays to wait and show your movie last, so it will be fresh in voter’s minds as they’re filling out their ballots. Sure, that’s worked a few times but it also means that early awards voters (like the NBR and some critics’ groups) might not have a chance to see your movie, which is why some of the movies listed below might not be taken very seriously until the Golden Globes announce their nominations. (The Hollywood Foreign Press is one group who is guaranteed to be able to see every movie before everyone else.) Being the last one out of the box has helped in more than a few cases such as with Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby, Chicago and the three “Lord of the Rings” movies, but that phenomenon has changed in recent years. What follows is a list of the movies that had barely been seen by anyone before Thanksgiving.

Rob Marshall’s adaptation of the musical Nine (The Weinstein Company) was one of those, partially because it wasn’t completed but also because Harvey Weinstein probably hoped to replicate the campaign that helped Marshall’s debut musical Chicago won six Oscars out of 13 nominations in 2003, and many feel that his return to musicals was a smart move. Unfortunately, ever since Chicago did so well, there’s been a lot of studios producing musicals and a pretty large stigma surrounding them, especially when Bill Condon’s Dreamgirls was shut out of many of the top categories and lost in the Original Song category despite having three nominations. While critics probably won’t be too kind to the movie, one can’t deny the familiar starpower and their collective Oscars, as well as the fact that the story is about a film director and his circle of acquaintances, something that will be just insidery enough for Oscar voters to appreciate it more. Besides dominating the Golden Globes’ comedy-musical category, we expect the movie to get the most Oscar nominations this year, possibly 13 to 14, including Best Picture, Director, Lead Actor and Actress, Supporting Actress, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Costumes, Original Song, Production Design, Sound Mixing and maybe one or two more. Lead actors Daniel Day-Lewis and Marion Cotillard both give strong performances, but they have the toughest battle because they’re vying for a slot in crowded categories, and they’ve both won Oscars in those categories within the last three years. Likewise, Penelope Cruz, who gives the next strongest performance, also just won in the Supporting category, but she’s just as good in the movie and is the most likely pick of the mostly-female cast to get noticed. Adapted screenplay is also a tough and extremely crowded category, but the fact this one was co-written by the late Anthony Minghella will add just the right sentimental factor for it to get in.

Of course, any year director Clint Eastwood has a movie, which seems like every year, Oscar prognosticators are falling over each other to set it up as an early awards frontrunner, and that’s certainly the case with Invictus, a South African political sports drama that’s likely to get actor Morgan Freeman his fifth nomination for his portrayal of President Nelson Mandela. Not that all the Oscar buzz helped Clint last year when his first movie Changeling received three nominations and its follow-up Gran Torino received none, but Invictus is a far more inspirational crowd-pleasing film, very well crafted, which is going to play up to many of the things that Oscar voters look for in a film. Freeman probably has a slight advantage over his acting competition (see below) because he is playing a known personality rather than a fictional character, although Matt Damon is going to have a harder time convincing voters his performance as the captain of the South African rugby team is worth honoring. Even so, Eastwood should get his fourth directing nomination and a nod for Anthony Peckham’s adapted screenplay should put this in the sight lines of being one of the serious contenders.

After sweeping the Oscars in 2003 with the final chapter of his “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, Peter Jackson went even further into genre with his take on King Kong, but with his adaptation of Alice Seibold’s The Lovely Bones (Paramount), he’s tackling more dramatic fare dealing with a difficult subject matter, the disappearance of a young girl, played by Oscar nominee Saorsie Ronan (Atonement). Reactions to the fantastic movie have been mixed at best, and while it might squeak into the Best Picture category, it has much stronger competition in the directing, screenplay and acting categories. In any other year, Jackson might have received another directing nomination for his work in this, but most Oscar voters probably won’t feel this is up to his work on the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. Even so, the movie’s likely to be worthy of a nomination in the Visual FX category, and we think Stanley Tucci has a good chance at his very first Oscar nomination for playing the film’s pedant antagonist, as opposed to Ronan, who is also quite good but might have trouble getting in, going up against stronger performances from other fresh young actresses.

The most pleasant surprise of this awards season would have to be Scott Cooper’s country music drama Crazy Heart (Fox Searchlight) starring Jeff Bridges as alcoholic country legend Bad Blake, as he drives across country trying to make ends meet. The movie was picked up by Searchlight less than a month ago, maybe hoping to save face this award season after their previous attempt Amelia tanked. Bridges’ haggard performance as the country legend is amazing, on par with Mickey Rourke’s in last year’s The Wrestler, plus Maggie Gyllenhaal gives a moving performance as the younger single woman who gets Bad to change his life. We expect both of them to get nominations, plus the movie has a fantastic soundtrack, so expect at least one of the original songs to get into that tough category. Any other nomination will be icing on the cake, but Bridges is the most likely to give Morgan Freeman a run for Best Actor this year.

The one movie no one has seen except for the Hollywood Foreign Press Association is also the one that could be a last-minute Best Picture spoiler, that being James Cameron’s CG-heavy fantasy film Avatar (20th Century Fox), which will be fighting against the same stigma of all sci-fi genre films regardless of their quality not being taken seriously by the Academy. Of course, there are exceptions, and the biggest exception in terms of fantasy were the “Lord of the Rings” movies from Peter Jackson, and Avatar looks like it has the same epic size and scope. Unfortunately, 20th Century Fox might have shot themselves in the foot by waiting too long.

After debuting at Telluride to raves, Michael Hoffman’s The Last Station, regaling the last days of author Leo Tolstoy and the strained relationship with his wife, bypassed the rest of the festivals, but there’s no denying the fantastic performances by Christopher Plummer and Helen Mirren are the type of dramatic fare Academy’s acting branch loves to honor. While either of them might sneak into the nominations, having just won an Oscar for The Queen might put Mirren at a disadvantage against younger contenders; Plummer, while terrific, would not be able to get into the race unless voters can believe his role as supporting inversely to how Forrest Whitaker was accepted as the lead in The King of Scotland. (In fact, James McAvoy was the lead in both movies, being the young man who enters the world of these famous men.)

Another movie that hasn’t been seen by too many yet (including this writer) is Nancy Meyers’ latest comedy It’s Complicated. While she’s no stranger to awards season having been nominated for her screenplay for Private Benjamin, the best bet for this one is probably a supporting nod for Alec Baldwin, just because he’s been so good in recent years. If that happens, it would be his first Oscar nomination since his supporting nod for The Cooler.

One of the more interesting last-minute entries into Oscar discussions is the football drama The Blind Side, starring Sandra Bullock. What makes it so interesting is that it was never looked anything like an awards movie until just after it opened, when all of a sudden, Bullock was thought of a serious contender for a Best Actress nod. Football movies like Friday Night Lights, We Are Marshall and Remember the Titans all did decent business but were never looked at anything other than entertainment for the masses. Even so, the movie had a huge opening against The Twilight Saga: New Moon and Warner Bros. had screeners in voters’ hands almost immediately afterwards, which was nothing short of genius. That said, they’re certainly not investing as much of their time and awards money into the movie over Invictus, and the movie is the type of conservative Red State fodder, which doesn’t exactly gel with the very liberal entertainment business. With the five leading actresses divided up between two categories, we expect Bullock will get a Golden Globe nomination for sure, but we don’t really see SAG or the Academy following suit, even if it’s one of her stronger non-comedic roles.

Thanks for Playing…

There are two strong performances by likeable actors that are sadly going to be overlooked due to overcrowding in the Best Actor category are Robert De Niro’s performance in Kirk Jones’ Everybody’s Fine (Miramax), which is on par with Richard Jenkins’ performance in The Visitor. Likewise, Scott Hicks’ The Boys are Back received mixed reviews but there’s little denying that Clive Owen gives his best performance since being nominated for an Oscar for Mike Nichols’ Closer.

We won’t even mention Mira Nair’s Amelia (Fox Searchlight), which seemed like a slam dunk a few months ago but got trashed by critics and bombed so badly at the box office that Searchlight didn’t even send out awards screeners. (Which probably helped the decision to pick up and release Crazy Heart.)

(We were hoping to get into some of the many candidates in this year’s animated feature race, but unfortunately, that will have to wait until next time.)

Look for the Oscar Warrior’s first actual predictions sometime later in December, leading up to the Oscar telecast on March 7, 2010.

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