Since we’re already well into October, it’s probably about time we start thinking and talking about the upcoming awards season and specifically the Oscar race. We’re approaching the end of the early fall festival season, which consists of Telluride, Venice, Toronto, the New York Film Festival and the Hamptons Film Festival, and while festivals will continue over the next couple of months with AFI and others, we are already starting to have a good idea how the festivals will have contributed to awards season.
In some ways, the awards season never really starts or ends because even before the Oscar nominations are announced in any given year, the Sundance Film Festival has already started to offer up potential candidates for the following year. That will no longer be the case now that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) announced next year’s nominations will fall on January 10, a week before Sundance begins.
At this year’s Sundance, the big buzz movie seemed to be Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild (Fox Searchlight), starring newcomers Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry, an experimental look at a futuristic Louisiana society that played upon the feelings post-Katrina. It was adored at Sundance–we were mixed on it– and Fox Searchlight quickly scooped it up for distribution. They’ve made $11 million on it so far, which isn’t bad for a very low-budget film and significantly better than last year’s buzz movies Another Earth and Sound of My Voice, and one thinks they could get it into this year’s Oscar race with enough support. People were mostly gushing over the performances by non-actors Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry and suggesting they could get into the lead actress and supporting actor races, but we think it’s more likely to be honored for its screenplay, production design and/or cinematography, all of which sets it apart.
We had our own favorites from Sundance like Josh Radnor’s Liberal Arts (IFC Films), James Ponsoldt’s Smashed (Sony Pictures Classics) and Ben Lewin’s The Sessions (Fox Searchlight), all of which were quickly picked up by distributors at the festival.
The latter is the most interesting one because it features another terrific performance from actor John Hawkes, playing a very different role from his characters in Winter’s Bone (his previous nomination) and last year’s Martha Marcy May Marlene as Bay Area journalist Mark O’Brien, whose polio paralyzed him below the neck. This didn’t stop him from trying to have normal sexual relationships as the film documents him seeking the aide of a sex therapist/surrogate, played by Helen Hunt, who also gives a fantastic performance. In fact, this may be Hunt’s strongest performance since winning an Oscar in 1998 for As Good as It Gets, and if she’s considered for supporting, she’s a shoe-in to get nominated. Hawkes is in an interesting place since portraying paraplegics is normally thought of as Oscar fodder ever since Daniel Day-Lewis won for My Left Foot in 1989. Then again, both Javier Bardem (The Sea Inside) and Mathieu Amalric (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) were ignored for their roles in movies that were generally loved in their respective years but may have had a disadvantage of being foreign language films.
We loved Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s performance in Smashed, partially because it’s so different from everything else we’ve seen from her, but will Oscar voters be as accepting, especially how many times they’ve ignored similar breakout roles, like ignoring Sally Hawkins’ astounding performance in Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky? She should be good for an Indie Spirit nomination for sure.
Unfortunately, the ship sailed long ago on Liberal Arts as IFC Films have pretty much dropped the ball with turning it into the mainstream hit it could and should have been, and even Radnor’s screenplay, which we feel is awards-worthy, is likely to get overlooked.
On the documentary front, Amy Berg’s West of Memphis (Sony Pictures Classics), produced by Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh, looked at the evidence that helped free the West Memphis 3, whose story was documented in three HBO “Paradise Lost” docs by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, the last of them which was just nominated for an Oscar this year. Co-produced by former Death Row inmate Damien Echols, Berg’s doc is far more cinematic than most other, which should give Berg her second Oscar nomination after 2006’s Deliver Us From Evil.
By May, we already had another much-ballyhooed movie from Wes Anderson with his quirky coming-of-age comedy Moonrise Kingdom (Focus Features), which premiered at Cannes. It received rave reviews–again, not from us you may be detecting a trend here–and it was considered to be the greatest thing since digital editing. We don’t think the movie has any great performances, except possibly previous nominees Bill Murray and Frances McDormand, but they’d be considered supporting since they’re smaller roles.
Certainly, both “Moonrise” and “Beasts” have their fans, but it may be tougher for them to win over conservative Oscar voters with their unconventional storytelling and filmmaking, especially the technical departments, so their best bet are screenplay nominations and they’d need a real last-minute groundswell of support to get into the Best Picture race.
Two foreign films that premiered at Cannes have continued their love through other festivals are Michael Haneke’s Amour and Jacques Audiard’s Rust and Bone, both which have received enough praise many feel like they might break into other awards categories. Sony Pictures Classics certainly must have thought so, picking up both of them for distribution out of Cannes. If nothing else, Haneke is guaranteed at least one Oscar nomination since Austria has put Amour up for their selection in the Foreign Language category, which may negate it from being nominated for Best Picture, though how many older voters will embrace a movie that’s all about old people dying? On the other hand, the performances by the two French leads, Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva, two vets who haven’t been seen on screen in years, are both fantastic, possibly too good to ignore even if it may be hard to get them out there. On the other hand, Rust and Bone‘s Marion Cotillard already won an Oscar for her role in La Vie en Rose and this one, in which she plays a hard-partying killer whale trainer who loses her limbs–hey, we didn’t write this!!–offers the type of dramatic fireworks that often gets women nominated in the Lead Actress category. Frankly, we think it’s the best performance of the year so far but having already won an Oscar, the Academy might rather award someone else the gold man.