The Oscar Dossier: 2011/12

18 Feb

Okay, y’all, the Academy Awards are coming: next Sunday (02/26/2012) on ABC-TV. Please check your local listings for times and channels. (I will be updating/correcting this massive entry over the next two days, but it’s pretty much ready to go…for your consideration.)

KEY: BFCA (Broadcast Film Critics Association); DFW (Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics); DGA (Directors Guild of America); GG (Golden Globe); LAFC (Los Angeles Film Critics); NBR (National Board of Review); NSFC (National Society of Film Critics); NYFC (New York Film Critics); OFCS (Online Film Critics Society); PGA (Producers Guild of America); SAG (Screen Actors Guild); WGA (Writers Guild of America); USC (Friends of the University of Southern California Scripter Award)

BEST PICTURE: 

The Artist – BFCA, GG for Musical or Comedy PGA | SAG nom for Best Ensemble | The year’s second most nominated film is, for all practical purposes, a mostly comic, silent black and white French film set in Hollywood during the transition from silents to talkies. To clarify, the movie was indeed filmed in Hollywood, and its cast includes such veterans as James Cromwell, John Goodman, Beth Grant, Malcom McDowell, and Penelope Ann Miller. The Artist has been nominated for 10 Oscars, including Best Actor (Jean Dujardin) and Best Supporting Actress (Bérénice Bejo).

The Descendants – DFW, GG for Drama| PGA nom, SAG nom for Best Ensemble| George Clooney stars in this sometimes painful slice of life about a wealthy Hawaiian (of both Anglo and royal native lineage) who finds out that his comatose wife had been cheating on him prior to the boating accident that effectively destroyed her life; a subplot involves Clooney’s attorney character in the midst of a land deal that will affect his whole family’s incredible fortune. The supporting cast includes Shailene Woodley, Robert Forster, Beau Bridges, Matthew Lillard and the incomparable Judy Greer. The Descendants has been nominated for 5 Academy Awards including Best Actor (Clooney) and Best Director (Alexander Payne).

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close – Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock play key roles in this adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel about a young boy—possibly afflicted by Asperger’s Syndrome—who goes on a quest to find the meaning of a key he finds in his father’s belongings—after the father dies during the 9/11 attacks. Produced with a great deal of fanfare by Scott Rudin, the movie was largely expected to be a big hit and a major Oscar contender, but it has been a tough sell. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close has been nominated for 2 Academy Awards, including Best Supporting Actor (Max von Sydow).

The Help – BFCA  NBR & SAG awards for Best Ensemble | PGA and GG noms| The great big smash hit, based on the massive, phenomenally best selling novel by Kathryn Stockett, tells the story of African-American women living in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960s and the realities of being maids and cooks as they raise white people’s children. Their stories form the basis of a book compiled by a fledgling (white) journalist, played by Emma Stone, who’s returned from college and doesn’t like much of what she sees in her own home and among her friends. The novelist, the director-screenwriter (Tate Taylor) and one of the pivotal actresses (Octavia Spencer) have all been friends for years and years. The Help has been nominated for 3 Academy Awards, including Best Actress (Viola Davis) and Best Supporting Actress (Spencer). [Since I posted this originally, The Help has won the NAACP Image Award for Best Film.]

Hugo – NBR | GG and PGA noms | This is the year’s most nominated film, and though parts of it look strangely animated with images too sharply focused to be real,  in that Polar Express kind of way, it is more live action than not. It’s also in 3-D. Hugo begins as a whimsical children’s adventure but midway though it turns into something else, and that is Martin Scorsese’s infomercial for film conservation and the works of influential French silent film director Georges Méliès. Scorsese not only pays tribute to Méliès, he also works in allusions to Harold Lloyd’s silent classic Safety Last.  The cast includes Asa Butterfield, Sacha Baron Cohen, Jude Law, Christopher Lee,  Chloe Grace Moretz, Emily Mortimer, and Ben Kingsley (as Méliès). Hugo has been nominated for 11 Academy Awards including Best Director (Martin Scorsese), Best Cinematography (Robert Richardson), and Best Art Direction (Dante Ferretti and Francesca Lo Schiavo).

Midnight in Paris – PGA nom, GG nom for Musical or Comedy, SAG nom for Best Ensemble| Woody Allen’s fortieth, or thereabouts, feature film (not including shorts or TV work) is a bit of magical realism in which a nostalgia-prone Hollywood screenwriter (Owen Wilson) on vacation in Paris escapes the conflicts of his daily life each night by retreating to the Paris of the 1920s via a phantom limousine. The cast includes Kathy Bates as Gertrude Stein, Adrien Brody as Salvador Dali, and Corey Stoll as Ernest Hemingway. This is Allen’s biggest ever box office hit. It’s still playing in some theaters even though it opened in June and came out on DVD in December. Midnight in Paris has been nominated for 4 Academy Awards, including Best Director, Best Original Screenplay (both Allen) and Best Art Direction.

Moneyball – GG nom for Drama, PGA nom |  Like Bull Durham, this is a baseball movie that is about something other than winning a big game. Instead, this is the true story of  Oakland Athletics (Oakland A’s) manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) who attempts to move his team away from one business model based on huge salaries and instead learns to approach the game in an analytical and/or holistic manner that rewards “runs” over “hits.” I think I explained it correctly. Anyway, the idea is to put the love of the game back into the game, and it makes a difference for his comparatively under-financed team. I thought I would hate it, or that I wouldn’t be able to keep up with it, but I was pleasantly surprised.  Moneyball has been nominated for 6 Academy Awards including Best Actor (Pitt) and Best Supporting Actor (Jonah Hill).

The Tree of Life – OFC | Prestigious Golden Palm for Best Picture at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival | The eternal struggle between grace and nature is portrayed in Terrence Malick’s portrait of a seemingly typical Eisenhower era family in small town Texas. Dad loves his children and works hard to be a good provider, but he often fails to connect with his sons as well as their mom/his wife  does, and the oldest child’s affections are torn as he struggles to make sense of his own identity. The Tree of Life has been nominated for 3 Academy Awards, including Best Director (Terrence Malick) and Best Cinematography (Emmanuel Lubezki).

War Horse – GG nom for Drama, PGA nom | Director Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 children’s novel tells the saga of a rugged horse in Devon, England, that is put into service and changes owners a handful of times during the course of World War I. The cast includes Jeremy Irvine, David Thewlis, Emily Watson and Benedict Cumberbatch (also seen in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy). Last year, the stage adaptation of War Horse by Nick Stafford won several Tony awards, including Best Play. I like War Horse, but there’s something strangely retrograde about it. It’s as if it is a WWII era movie about WWI rather than a 21st century movie about WWI.  War Horse has been nominated for 6 Academy Awards including Best Cinematography (Janusz Kaminski) and Best Original Score (John Williams).

I’m happy to see so many of my favorite movies in the running for Best Picture: I enjoyed The Help (above) because it is a welcome and wonderful showcase for such actress as (l to r) Octavia Spencer, Viola Davis, and Emma Stone. I love The Tree of Life because it is at once novelistic, richly visual, and extremely personal for Texas based director Terrence Malick. I am a fan of Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris because Allen starts with a nifty premise and just runs with it. More importantly,  he trusts that his audience is smart enough to go along for the ride without having to connect all the dots and belabor the point. Plus, as usual, he makes his job look easy by casting the best possible actors. I expected to hate Moneyball, but I liked it because it is an inspiring real-life story with more on its mind than “winning.”  I would celebrate a Best Picture victory by any of these films.  Incredibly, even though The Help has only three nominations and does not have the all important corresponding Best Director nod (for Tate Taylor), it might very well be the film with the most momentum thanks to its recent SAG award for Best Ensemble. In an Entertainment Weekly readers poll, it tied for second place with Hugo, right behind the first place finish for The Artist.

… Typically, the movie with the most nominations wins Best Picture—not always, of course, but probably more often than not. In spite of all the awe over Martin Scorsese’s 3-D fantasy, Hugo doesn’t seem to be generating the heat of a winner. That’s probably because it’s a box office flop. Filmed for a rumored 170 million, Hugo has only grossed approximately 62 million domestically (as of this writing). It’s one thing for the Academy to honor a significant though little seen movie like The Hurt Locker, but not a whopping folly like this. Of the remaining 8, the four that also have nominated directors stand the best chance, and those are The Artist, The Descendants, Midnight in Paris, and The Tree of Life. As much as I worship The Tree of Life, the fact that it only has three nominations indicates that it has limited  appeal among Academy voters. Considering that it was glossed over for both the PGA and DGA prizes, its inclusion here is a miracle. Best to not try to make it more than that. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Midnight in Paris were to win, and why not? It’s just about perfect moviemaking, and audiences by and large love it. Plus, the Academy loves a comeback. On the other hand, Woody Allen has always been a bit too idiosyncratic for mainstream tastes, and even this movie’s popularity is relative. That noted, this is probably down to the wire between The Descendants and The Artist.  I honestly believe that The Descendants is the best representation of solidly middle-of-the road “domestic” moviemaking, which is more or less the way the Academy typically votes. I like The Descendants, but I don’t love it. I think it takes an interesting turn, or two, in its last act that is truly inspired–but I wish it didn’t take so long to get there.  It’s based on a book, but I see it more as a short story, and I don’t see that people truly love it.  I do not know a single person who has seen it that has actually raved about it, and it has yet to crack 100 mill at the box office–even with all of Clooney’s star power.

On the other hand, the Weinstein brothers have so relentlessly hyped their candidate, The Artist, that it’s hard to know for sure whether audiences and Academy members really love it, or if we’ve all been bamboozled. I vote for the latter, but, then, remember, when the Weinsteins were running Miramax, they managed to convince Academy members that Shakespeare in Love was a better film than Saving Private Ryan. No small feat, that. (For the record, I had problems with both films.) Last year, the Weinsteins’ The King’s Speech was a legitimate crowd pleasing hit that even overzealous tub-thumping could not overwhelm.  That might not necessarily be the case this year; however, the fact that The Artist scored an impressive 10 nominations, including two performance nods, indicates widespread support.

The possible spoiler in of this is The Help. No, it does not boast a nominated director, but the movie is massively popular, the biggest hit in the bunch, and its SAG award for Best Ensemble is telling. I don’t think The Help is brilliant filmmaking, but I do think it is brilliant in the way that it touches people, and that might be enough. (I also think that its stellar performances elevate the material; I was a bit mystified by the book.) Most people who see The Help react from a sheerly emotional standpoint, and no one has to explain why. The viewers just react the way they react, and that might be all it takes. Plus, always remember this tidbit that I read years ago: Academy members have liberal politics and conservative tastes, per Driving Miss Daisy (1989). Yes, history tells us that movies with nominated directors are much better positioned to win Best Picture than those without nominated directors, but The Help has incredible momentum (besides the SAG award and the robust ticket sales, it’s poised to win two of four acting prizes), and it’s about something other than other movies, per The Artist and Hugo.

BEST ACTRESS:

Glenn Close (Albert Nobbs) – GG and SAG noms | This is Close’s 6th nomination. She earned her first for her film debut, playing mother to Robin Williams’s titular character in The World According to Garp (1982). She has two more Best Supporting Actress nominations (The Big Chill, 1983; The Natural, 1984), and two Best Actress nominations (Fatal Attraction, 1987; Dangerous Liaisons, 1988). It seems odd, now, that Close lost the Oscar for Fatal Attraction to Cher in Moonstruck, but the controversy surrounding Close’s movie was so great back in the day that it obscured her heartfelt, courageous performance. I’m still not sure it works as seamlessly as it should, but its impact is undeniable. Until Albert Nobbs, Close has been seen more regularly in award winning TV work, such as Damages. Close’s current nominated perf, portraying a proper 19th century Irish hotel butler (or rather a woman pretending to be such), is a dream project. She played the role in a play back in the 80s, and she co-produced and co-wrote the adaptation. Even with all the period finery, the Irish accent, and the cross-dressing aspect, the role is not as colorful and showy as one might expect. Close’s Albert Nobbs knows that the success of his masquerade is linked to his ability to be unobtrusive in the course of his work, and Close plays the part in a style reminiscent of an earnest acting class demonstration.

Viola Davis (The Help) – BFCA, SAG| GG nom for Drama | This is Davis’s second Oscar nomination. Three years ago she was nominated as Best Supporting Actress for Doubt, which starred her current fellow nominee Meryl Streep. Davis’s resume includes two Tonys for plays written by the late August Wilson: Best Featured Actress in a Play (King Hedley, 2001) and Best Actress in a Leading Role (Fences, 2010). Besides her principal role in The Help, she can be seen in a supporting role in a second Best Picture nominee, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. [Since my original post, Davis has also won the NAACP Image Award for Best Actress.]

Rooney Mara (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) – GG nom for Drama | Last year, Mara was seen briefly in David Fincher’s The Social Network as the pretty college student who basically dumps Mark Zuckerberg early in the film, thereby setting into motion the creation of what we now know as Facebook. A year later, Mara is back in Fincher’s American translation of Stieg Larsson’s international best seller—already adapted for TV and movies in Sweden–about a severely damaged computer hacker who gets lured into solving a 40 year old mystery.

Meryl Streep (The Iron Lady) – NYFC, GG for Drama | SAG Nom | Okay, here we go again: Streep is the most nominated performer in Academy history. She has two Oscars already, starting with Best Supporting Actress for Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) followed by Sophie’s Choice (1982). Okay, that’s two down and fifteen to go. She boasts an additional pair of nominations for Best Supporting Actress (The Deer Hunter, 1978; Adaptation, 2002). How many does that leave? Twelve, all for Best Actress, not counting the current one, and they are – The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981), Silkwood (1983), Out of Africa (1985), Ironweed (1987), A Cry in the Dark (1988), Postcards from the Edge (1990), The Bridges of Madison County (1995), One True Thing (1998), Music of the Heart (1999), The Devil Wears Prada (2006), Doubt (2008), and Julie and Julia (2009). Among her many other awards is an Emmy for Angels in America (2003). The Weinsteins have really been pushing Streep’s latest though it’s not a huge hit. The actress was recently on the cover of Vogue, and that has to be a coup. You know what else is a coup? Streep is a recent Kennedy Honors recipient, and that might make another Oscar seem like small potatoes.

Michelle Williams (My Week with Marilyn) – DFW, GG for Musical or Comedy | SAG nom | Williams is a previous Best Supporting Actress nominee for 2005’s Brokeback Mountain. She was nominated in this category just last year for Blue Valentine. Marilyn Monroe herself was never nominated for an Oscar even though she did wonderful work in The Seven Year Itch (1955), Bus Stop (1956), Some Like It Hot (1959), and, yes, even The Prince and the Showgirl (1957), the movie Williams’s Marilyn is shown making in this current film. For The Prince and the Showgirl, Monroe was nominated for a British Academy Award and actually won the Italian equivalent. She was expected in many quarters to earn an Oscar nomination for Bus Stop but had to settle for a Golden Globe nomination instead; she actually won a Golden Globe for Some Like It Hot. If Monroe had Bob and Harvey Weinstein in her corner back in the day the way Michelle Williams has currently, she might have gotten an Oscar of her own.

Viola Davis (above) in The Help. Does she win by a whisper? I think so, and good for her. I’m not saying Meryl Streep isn’t formidable competition, but I do think because Meryl is almost always at the top of her game, she has to make audiences fall in love with her all over again, like we did in the last 70s and early 1980s,  in order to win a third Oscar, and I’m not sure playing Iron Lady Margaret Thatcher is  the best way to do that.  Audiences are responding to Davis’s performance so enthusiastically because they like seeing the changes that her character undergoes throughout the film.

..It’s probably safe to say that Williams and Mara are mainly in this race to round out the ballot. I don’t think anyone expects either of them to win. Certainly, Mara deserves credit for taking a difficult—even unlikeable—character, one that has already been played to international acclaim by another actress (Noomi Rapace), and making it her own. Even so, her dark and twisted mystery isn’t going to be for everyone’s taste—no matter how powerful the actress’s performance. Plus, it hasn’t exactly turned out to be the blockbuster originally anticipated. Williams’s nod is not about anything except the wish fulfillment of Bob and Harvey Weinstein. Williams’s slot would be better filled by Charlize Theron (Young Adult), or, possibly, Emma Stone (The Help). No, the real race is between Close, Davis, and Streep, but prospects for Close fade with each and every day. Yes, this is her 6th nomination, and, yes, this is her dream project of many, many, years, but it seems that if sentiment, “body of work,” and a great back-story were all it took to snare a top trophy, the evidence of that would already be apparent via a Golden Globe or a SAG award, but none of that has happened. Close’s movie, despite her best intentions, is more odd than anything else, and it probably doesn’t help that her nominated co-star pretty much blows Close off the screen. This one is most likely a fight to the finish between Streep and Davis. Yes, Streep is absolutely brilliant as former British Primer Minister Margaret Thatcher, and, yes, Streep is on her 17th nomination, and, yes, it has been almost 30 years since she won her second Oscar  (for Sophie’s Choice), so many insiders believe she is due, but her movie is even more bewildering than Close’s, and by that I mean that the structure is haphazard, and even the filmmakers don’t seem to have too much affection for the so-called Iron Lady. It’s as though the filmmakers believe that Thatcher only ever existed so that Streep could play her and win another Oscar. Plus, Thatcher was and is as conservative as Hollywood tends to be liberal, so it’s unlikely anyone will jump at the chance to do anything that appears to lionize the onetime leader; therefore, I think Davis wins by a whisper. Her role is not as flashy as Streep’s, but it is every bit as skillfully and thoughtfully rendered. Plus, and this is important, Davis’s film is arguably the most liked film in the bunch: not only is it a huge, huge moneymaker/crowd-pleaser, it is also the only Best Picture nominee in the bunch. In contrast, three of last year’s Best Actress nominees, including winner Natalie Portman (Black Swan) appeared in Best Pic contenders. Hmmm…I won’t complain too loudly if Streep wins because, again, she’s brilliant in the film. Likewise, I also don’t know if Davis winning an Oscar for playing a maid is necessarily the most progressive thing in 2012, but I like what I like, and that’s what I think will be the key to a win by Davis, and I don’t mean that voters will like her the way they liked Sally Field back in the day. Instead, it’s about responding to a movie—not a person—in such a way that doesn’t need to be explained.

BEST ACTOR:

Demián Bichir (A Better Life) –  SAG nom | This Mexican superstar is a first time Oscar nominee though he has 6 Ariel nominations (the Oscar equivalent) to his credit back home. He actually won for 1994’s ‘Til Death; in 1997, he competed for both Best Actor (Cilantro y perejil) and Best Supporting Actor (Luces de la noche). His American credits include a stint on TV’s Weeds and a role as Fidel Castro in Steven Soderbergh’s Che. Bichir’s  nominated film, directed by Chris Weitz (About a Boy),  is a contemporary variation on Vittorio De Sica’s 1948 Italian neorealist classic The Bicycle Thief about an already desperate man whose livelihood is jeopardized when the vehicle he needs to do his job is, well, stolen. In Weitz and Bichir’s update—based on a story by Roger L. Simon—an illegal alien working as a gardener in L.A. thinks his prospects are on the upswing only to find that his truck has been, well, you know. In both films, the lead characters are fathers who enlist the help of their sons. The main difference is that Bichir’s character has the added obstacle of not being able to turn to the authorities. In spite of the obvious similarities, the movie works, and much of the credit belongs to its sense of veracity, of which Bichir is an essential element. There’s nothing actorish about this performance at all. Bichir is also currently in the race for an Independent Spirit Award.

George Clooney (The Descendants)  – BFCA, DFW, NBR, GG for Drama| SAG nom | Clooney already has an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor (Syriana, 2005). This is his third Best Actor nomination. The others are for Michael Clayton (2007) and Up in the Air (2009). He also boasts a pair of nominations for directing and co-writing Good Night, and Good Luck (2005). Clooney is also nominated this year for co-writing The Ides of March, a drama of political intrigue only partly inspired by William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (which he also directed and plays a secondary onscreen role to Ryan Gosling).

If I were voting, I’d go with either Bichir or Pitt. Bichir’s performance has an authentic slice of life quality while Pitt’s portrayal works in a thoroughly winning “movie star” kind of way. Originally, this trophy seemed destined for George Clooney, but my guess is that Academy voters will not feel any joy giving an Oscar to a guy who already seems to have everything–including an Oscar. Oldman’s pic is too dark, and it’s really an ensemble piece, which leaves only Dujardin’s much ballyhooed feat of silent acting. Dujardin (above) has all the support of the Brothers Weinstein, but I fear the backlash from honoring Dujardin will equal the cries of outrage and disgust that began right after the Academy awarded Best Actor to Italy’s Roberto Benigni for 1998’s Life is Beautiful, a movie also hyped by the Weinsteins. Everyone loved Life is Beautiful, including me, until the Weinsteins’ relentless push began to overshadow the film itself. Today, people sneer at the mention of it as an example of campaign zealotry gone stupid, so be careful what you wish for…

Jean Dujardin (The Artist) – GG for Musical or Comedy, SAG award | French native Dujardin won last year’s Best Actor prize at the Cannes Film Festival for The Artist; he also earned a César award (the French answer to the Academy award) for OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies, directed by Michael Hazanavicius (the director of The Artist). Since I began writing this article, Dujardin has also claimed the British Academy Award.

Gary Oldman (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) – DFW | In his quite prolific career, Oldman has played everyone from Sid Vicious and Lee Harvey Oswald to Count Dracula and Ludwig van Beethoven–in addition to Harry Potter‘s Sirius Black. Though Oldman has never been nominated for an Oscar, he landed a SAG nom for 2000’s The Contender. In England, where he was born and raised, he’s been honored for his work in Sid and Nancy (1986) and Nil by Mouth (1997); the latter was his directorial debut, based on his life growing up in working class London, and he won a pair of British Academy Awards for writing the screenplay and co-producing. Oldman’s current nominated role is that of John Le Carre’s aging, enigmatic, master spy who intends to sniff out a double agent in dank and dreary Cold War era England.

Brad Pitt (Moneyball) –  NYFC | GG and SAG noms | Pitt was up for Best Actor three years ago for playing the title character in the gimmicky, aging-in-reverse fantasy epic The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, from the short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald. His only other acting nomination is for his supporting role in 1995’s Twelve Monkeys. Pitt isn’t just the star of this Best Picture nominee, he’s also one of the film’s producers, which might give him a bit of an edge; moreover, the role of real-life Oakland As general manager Billy Beane does for Pitt what Bull Durham did for Kevin Costner and what Jerry Maguire did for Tom Cruise, allowing the actor to be both a regular guy and a movie star all at once. Plus, even though Pitt’s official nomination is for Moneyball, he scores big bonus points for also starring in another Best Picture nominee, The Tree of Life, and for serving as a producer of that film as well though he’s not one of the three producers whose names appear on the final ballot.

… Gary Oldman has done everything right this Oscar season, making the rounds of all the talk shows and ingratiating himself as he tries to rehabilitate his image as a rather difficult chap. Plus, he’s landed a role that helps him break free of the bad guys he perfected–before he began playing them in his sleep. That noted, I don’t think he has much of a chance here. Part of the reason is that, as good as Oldman is, his film is very much an ensemble piece, and it is just not a showcase the way that many Oscar nominated vehicles often are. If I were voting, it would be a toss-up between Bichir and Pitt, but I think the Academy’s gesture of international goodwill is more likely to extend to France’s Dujardin than to Mexico’s Bichir. Yes, Clooney’s character goes through some big emotional changes, and, yes, he is about as well connected as a Hollywood insider can be, but his performance here feels a little forced, and he already has an Oscar, albeit a supporting one, so I’m not sure that the Academy will experience as much joy rewarding him a second time when they can instead take great delight in a win for Dujardin, who works hard to create a character without the benefit of actual dialogue.

BEST DIRECTOR:

Woody Allen (Midnight in Paris) – DGA and GG noms | This is Woody Allen’s 7th nod in this category. He actually won for his first nominated effort: Annie Hall (1977). The rest of the bunch includes Interiors (1978), Broadway Danny Rose (1984), Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), and Bullets Over Broadway (1994).

Michel Hazanavicius (The Artist) – DGA BFCA NYFC | GG nom | While Malick’s The Tree of Life took the top prize at Cannes, Hazanavicius actually claimed the fest’s Best Director award. He’s an Oscar triple threat this year, having been nominated for writing, directing, and co-editing The Artist. He and leading actor Jean Dujardin frequently collaborate back home.

Terrence Malick (The Tree of Life) – LAFC NSFC OFCS | Malick is undoubtedly the most enigmatic American director. He is rarely photographed, rarely gives interviews, and he has only directed five feature films since 1973. He has only been nominated in this category once before now, and that was for 1998’s The Thin Red Line; however, his movies have twice won big at Cannes: once for The Tree of Life and once for 1978’s incomparably beautiful Days of Heaven. He produced 2004’s Undertow for David Gordon Green.

Alexander Payne (The Descendants) – DFW | DGA nom | This is Payne’s first nomination since 2004’s Sideways. To clarify, this is his first full length film since then as well. He is one of 20 directors credited on 2006’s Paris je’taime; he also co-wrote 2007’s I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry (which advanced the career of nobody involved) and produced 2011’s Cedar Rapids. His other credits include Election (1999)  and Citizen Ruth (1996). He received a Best Adapted Screenplay nomination for the former while the latter, which I have written about extensively on this blog, is in a class by itself. Payne is also one of the producers of The Descendants and is nominated for co-writing it as well.

Martin Scorsese (Hugo) – NBR GG | DGA Nom | Like Allen, this is Scorsese’s 7th nomination in this category. He won 5 years ago for The Departed. His other nominations include Raging Bull (1980), The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), Goodfellas (1990), The Gangs of New York (2002), and The Aviator (2004). Who can believe he wasn’t nominated for Taxi Driver (1976) even though the film itself was a Best Picture contender? When he won for The Departed, there was a feeling that he was way overdue for his own competitive Oscar, but that was then. This is now.

I’ll positively swoon if a win by Terrence Malick comes to pass, but that seems like quite a long shot. To me, Allen’s film best represents what a director working at the peak of his/her power can do. There’s nothing flashy about Midnight in Paris, but Allen’s economy as a filmmaker, his unfailing work ethic, his smooth professionalism, his knack for knowing exactly where to place the camera, and his generosity with actors, approaches perfection without drawing attention to itself, but that might not be the surest route to the winner’s circle.

…It’s tempting to think that just because Hazanavicius has the DGA prize, he’s a shoo-in for the Oscar. I don’t think it’s as easy as that, but I think Hazanavicius still has an edge. Here’s why: remember that the Academy’s largest voting bloc is the actors branch; therefore, one way to think about how voters approach this category is to consider how many performers a director guides (or guided) to Oscar nominations. In this field, three of the movies (Hugo, Midnight in Paris, and The Tree of Life) have exactly 0 acting nominations, which gives the edge to Payne and Hazanavicius, but the latter’s film has two acting nominees in contrast to only one for Payne’s The Descendants. Another thing to consider is “degree of difficulty.” Sure, Scorsese’s 3-D fantasy is a marvelous technical achievement, but it’s also a little cold—and, as sad as this is to report, a box office flop, so what’s the achievement? Plus, I could never reconcile Scorsese’s choice to have his actors speak with English—not American–accents even though the characters are all French. What’s up with that? Why not finesse the illusion just a little by having them speak English with French accents? On the other hand, The Artist also presents an obvious technical challenge or two, and people are by and large responding to the movie though it is still playing in a relatively limited number of theaters. I also think the fact that Hazanavicius is nominated for his work in two other categories, including Best Editing, speaks well for him.  Malick’s ambitious film is the work of a true visionary and worthy of all awards that come its way.  I’m glad his peers saw fit to recognize him, but his film, like Scorsese’s,  also carries the whiff of a box office under-performer.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS:

Bérénice Bejo (The Artist) –  GG and SAG noms | Bejo’s role is similar to the roles played by Janet Gaynor/Judy Garland/Barbra Streisand in all those versions of A Star is Born, or even Debbie Reynolds in Singin’ in the Rain: a sassy ingénue who is taken under the wing of a male film star whose career is in transition and/or decline.  This French actress once appeared in A Knight’s Tale starring the late Heath Ledger. In a stunning coincidence, Bejo was once nominated for the French César Award  in the category of “Most Promising Young Actress” for her role in a film entitled, yes, Most Promising Actress. Yep.

Jessica Chastain (The Help) – LAFC, NFCS, NYFC, OFCS | GG & SAG noms | A year ago, almost nobody outside the Hollywood circuit had any idea that Jessica Chastain was a force with which to be reckoned. What a difference a year makes. In 2011, this California native appeared in six feature films, including two Best Picture nominees (The Help and the Tree of Life) and an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus. Most of the awards she has won this season have been for multiple performances rather than one exclusively, save for the Globe and SAG nominations, which have been specifically for her role as The Help’s sassy, big hearted, high society upstart from the wrong side of the tracks–and that would be “Sugarditch, Mississippi.”

Melissa McCarthy (Bridesmaids) – SAG Nom | Before winning an Emmy last year for her leading role in the sitcom Mike and Molly, McCarthy had regular secondary roles in such series as The Gilmore Girls, Samantha Who?, and even voiceover work in Kim Possible. Her filmography includes gigs in such varied films as Charlie’s Angels, White Oleander, The Life of David Gale, and The Backup Plan. McCarthy’s go-for-broke performance as Bridesmaids‘s mouthy, hot-to-trot neofeminist was an instant Best Supporting Actress contender—and audience favorite–from the moment the movie was released last spring, and her movie is an even bigger box office hit than Chastain and Spencer’s.

Janet McTeer (Albert Nobbs) – Globe and SAG nominations | It’s been awhile since the strapping 6’1” English actress has graced a major American motion picture. She earned a Best Actress Oscar nomination—and a Golden Globe—for playing a hard-knocks single mom in 1999’s Tumbleweeds. A year later, she was beyond compare as an early 20th century musicologist exploring Appalachian culture in Songcatcher. Rent it. Watch it. Do it now. McTeer is currently working opposite Daniel Radcliffe in The Woman in Black. She also boasts a Tony (for a revival of Ibsen’s The Doll House) as well as another nomination for playing Mary Stuart. Her character in Albert Nobbs is something of a kindered spirit to the lead character, only bigger and livelier. She looks like k.d. lang back in the day. Unlike Close, McTeer is also in the running for an Independent Spirit Award.

Jessica Chastain and Octavia Spencer (above) are so good in their scenes together in The Help that it is almost a shame that they cannot share the award.  What I like the most is that these two women take care of each other. Even though they have an employer-employee relationship, it is not all one-sided.  That aside, Spencer has the most audience pleasing role, and she plays it to the hilt, winningly so. Still, if I had my way, this whole category would be nothing but actresses from The Help. (Sorry, Janet McTeer.)  Besides Chastain and Spencer, I’d include Bryce Dallas Howard, Allison Janney, and Sissy Spacek, which  still doesn’t leave room for Mary Steenburgen and Cicely Tyson.

Octavia Spencer (The Help) –  BFCA GG and SAG awards | Before The Help, Octavia Spencer’s career was all over the map. For example, in 2010, she played “Madame Nora – Pet Psychic” in Dinner for Schmucks (2010) with Steve Carrell, Paul Rudd, and Zach Galifianakis. She also had a stint on TV’s Ugly Betty. Her first onscreen role was in A Time to Kill (1996). The scene stealing role of feisty, yet still vulnerable, Minny Jackson in The Help was reportedly written with Spencer in mind. [Since I first wrote this, Spencer has been named the year’s Best Supporting Actress at the NAACP Image Awards as well as the British Academy Awards]

…First things first: all of these women deserve to be here; however, I think all eyes are on the two women from The Help. Jessica Chastain and Octavia Spencer are so good in their scenes together that it’s a shame they can’t share the Oscar. As it is, one will win, and the other will go home empty-handed. Chastain has certainly had an amazing year, and an Oscar would certainly be the crowning Cinderella moment, but Spencer is the one with the audience pleasing role, and she clearly knows it, so she plays it for all it’s worth. My guess is the Academy will honor Spencer for making the most of her moment to shine–another kind of Cinderella moment–while saving future accolades for Chastain since she’s clearly in demand and destined for a prolific career.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR:

Kenneth Branagh (My Week with Marilyn) –  GG and SAG noms | This is Branagh’s fifth nomination. He was heralded as the second coming of Laurence Olivier when, at a mere 28 years old, he garnered Oscar nods for both directing and acting in an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry V (1989). He later earned recognition for directing the live action short film Swan Song and for his work as a scriptwriter on the most scrupulous ever big screen adaptation of Hamlet (1996). Now, coincidentally, he’s back in the race for actually playing Laurence Olivier in My Week with Marilyn. I guess his next role will actually be playing Shakespeare. Besides his success in front of the camera, Branagh also helmed last year’s blockbuster treatment of comic super hero Thor (#1 at the box office for two weeks in May).

Jonah Hill (Moneyball)  GG and SAG noms | This 28 year old actor has the distinction of being both the youngest thesp in the bunch as well as the lone Oscar rookie. All of the other nominees are 50 or older and have been nominated at least once prior to this current race.  Hill just might have novelty in his favor. Plus, he’s playing against type. He first made a name for himself by appearing in such frat boy type comedies as Knocked Up, Superbad, and Funny People.  His role in Moneyball is a composite of three people, and it shows him as a mild mannered numbers cruncher who holds what might be the key to success for Brad Pitt’s team, the Oakland A’s. Hill and Pitt are a great onscreen duo. To see how far this actor is willing to go with a role, I recommend the seriously dark comedy, Cyrus with Marisa Tomei and John C. Reilly. His The Sitter, from Richardson’s David Gordon Green, recently tanked. He’ll soon be seen in a big screen treatment of the old 21 Jump Street TV show.

Nick Nolte (Warrior) SAG nominee | Nolte was previously nominated for Best Actor for 1991’s The Prince of Tide (for which he won the Golden Globe) and 1998’s Affliction (for which James Coburn won Best Supporting Actor). The plot of Warrior, in which Nolte is a kickboxing coach and father caught in the middle of his grown sons’ sibling rivalry, rings superficially similar to 2010’s The Fighter, which helped Christian Bale snag the trophy for this category last year—and Bale’s movie was a huge hit; Nolte’s less so.

Since I began writing this dossier, Plummer (above) has added a British Academy Award to his trophy case. Actually, I’m all about Christopher Plummer (above) winning an Oscar for Beginners, and I have been ever since I saw it over the summer. If he wins, I’ll probably stop bitching about how he was overlooked as even an Oscar nominee for his brilliant, and award winning, performance as 60 Minutes journalist Mike Wallace in 1999’s The Insider. That’s partly because I have something  new to bitch about in this category, and that is that Corey Stoll’s much heralded, robustly deadpan performance as Ernest Hemingway in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris failed to make the final five. Sad face.

Christopher Plummer (Beginners) – BFCA, DFW, LAFC, NBR, OFCS, GG, and SAG | Winning an Oscar for Beginners might very well be the one thing in Christopher Plummer’s career that forever upstages his work in the classic 1965 blockbuster The Sound of Music. Of course, there have been many highs—as well as a few lows—in the decades between the two films. Among the highlights are a Canadian Genie Award for playing Sherlock Holmes in Murder by Decree (1979), two Tonys (Cyrano, 1974; Barrymore, 1997), and a couple of Emmys (the lead in the mini-series based on Arthur Hailey’s The Moneychangers, and the voiceovers for the animated series based on Madeline). Of course, Plummer was just nominated in this same category two years ago for playing Leo Tolstoy in The Last Station. His current role almost defies description: a gay man who comes out of the closet rather late in life only to face a terminal illness. Believe me, it’s not as horrible as it sounds—and I didn’t just ruin it for you because all of this is made abundantly clear in the first few seconds of the trailer. The story is really about how Plummer’s grown son (Ewan McGregor), having survived a household anchored by a loveless marriage, learns how to love by watching his dad claim his own life against overwhelming odds. The semi-autobiographical script was inspired by writer-director Mike Mills’s own relationship with his dad. PS: Oh yeah,  Plummer also has a key role in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, so it’s been a good year for him.

Max van Sydow (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close) – The Swedish born octogenarian famously played chess with the Grim Reaper in Ingmar Bergman’s classic, The Seventh Seal (1957). He also worked with Bergman on Wild Strawberries and Through a Glass Darkly, among others. In 1965, he played Jesus in director George Stevens’s The Greatest Story Ever Told. His only previous Oscar nomination is for Denmark’s Pelle the Conqueror (1988), for which he won the European Film Award as well as the leading film awards for both Sweden and France. He co-starred opposite Liv Ullman in Swedish director Jan Troell’s The Emigrants, which earned a 1972/73 Academy nod for Best Picture in addition to a Best Actress nod for Ullman. Some of his most famous American films include Hawaii (1966), The Exorcist (1973), Three Days of the Condor (1975), Voyage of the Damned (1976), Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), Snow Falling on Cedars (1999), and Minority Report (2002). He and Plummer co-starred in 1984’s Dreamscape.

…Okay, is there any award that Christopher Plummer has not already won? I would say he is the safest bet among any of the acting nominees. Not only is he going into the final stretch with the lion’s share of pre-Oscar prizes, his previous main competition, Albert Brooks in Drive, is out of the race. Try to forget the fact that Plummer is also a strong sentimental favorite and that his role is a little maudlin and/or politically correct. The performance really is as good as all these other awards seem to suggest. After all, Beginners came out more than a half a year ago (in early June), yet the critics are still praising Plummer these many months later. There has to be a reason, right? I think Nolte, who’s been close to winning an Oscar on two other occasions, would be a bigger threat if his film had not been such a bust at the box office. As it is, there’s not much of an achievement. I also support Jonah Hill’s nomination for Moneyball. I liked seeing him play a likable character rather than the gross snarky juvenile frat boy types he’s played in the past. Being the young guy in school of well-seasoned vets might be his trump card, but that seems a bit of a stretch at this point in the year of Plummer.

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY:

The Descendants by Alexander Payne w/Nat Faxon & Jim Rash (based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemming) – WGA nom and USC nom [Update: The Descendants was announced as the USC Scripter award winner on Saturday, February 18th; it also won honors from the WGA on Sunday, February 19th.]

Hugo by John Logan (based on the book The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick) – WGA nom

The Ides of March by George Clooney, Grant Heslov and Beau Willimon (based on Willimon’s Farragut North)

Moneyball by Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin w/Stan Chervin (based on the book by Michael Lewis) – WGA and USC noms

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by Bridget O’Connor and Peter StraughanUSC nom | British Academy Award

…This is the one category in which The Descendants is likely to win.  It will be a nice consolation prize for Payne, who won in this same category for 2004’s Sideways.  Of course, the team of Steve Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin is formidable: Sorkin won last year for The Social Network, and Zaillian boasts a win for 1993’s Schindler’s List (and nominations for  1990’s Awakenings and 2002’s Gangs of New York); meanwhile Heslov and Clooney previously collaborated on, and received nominations for, 2005’s Good Night and Good Luck. Logan is a previous nominee for The Aviator (2004) and Gladiator, which won the 2000 Oscar for Best Picture.

Since I loved Moneyball, I’d be thrilled if Zailian and Sorkin won, but I’d also cheer a victory for the writers of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy just because they took a dense and complex text and managed to make something relatively easy to follow by playing around with the chronology and scraping away some of Le Carre’s frequently tedious prose. On the downside: O’Connor, Straughan’s longtime love, passed away before the film was released.

Woody Allen’s 15 nods for Best Original Screenplay make him Oscar’s most nominated scribe (w = win): 1. Annie Hall (1977) w, 2. Interiors (1978) 3. Manhattan (1979) 4. Broadway Danny Rose (1984) 5. The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) 6. Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) w, 7. Radio Days (1987) 8. Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) 9. Alice (1990) 10. Husbands and Wives (1992) 11. Bullets Over Broadway (1994) 12. Mighty Aphrodite (1995) 13. Deconstructing Harry (1997) 14. Match Point (2005), and  15. Midnight in Paris (2011). With 11 nominations and 3 wins (for The Lost Weekend, Sunset Boulevard, and The Apartment), Billy Wilder is the Academy’s second most nominated screenwriter.

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY:

The Artist by Michel Hazanavicius (ineligible for WGA award)

Bridesmaids by Annie Mumolo & Kristen Wiig – WGA nom

Margin Call by J.C. Chandor

Midnight in Paris by Woody Allen – WGA nom

A Separation by Asghar Farhadi

…I’m glad J.C. Chandor earned a nod for Margin Call, but it’s not a movie that I realistically imagine watching again though I might be tempted, thanks to some of the wonderful performances (Zack Qunito, Kevin Spacey, and Jeremy Irons).  Also, as much as I love Kristen Wiig (as well as Melissa McCarthy and Maya Rudolph), I think there is even less chance that I would be willing to sit through Bridesmaids again. I’m happy that Bridesmaids was such a huge success for all those involved, but I don’t think it’s a movie for the ages.  Some people might argue that it will be hard for Hazanavicius to snag an Oscar for the screenplay of a silent film, but what’s so big about that? First of all, all movies have to have a blueprint of some sort, and that’s  all a screenplay is: a blueprint. Plus, it wouldn’t be unprecedented. The 1956 Oscar in this category was awarded to, yes, a silent French film entitled The Red Balloon (Albert Lamorisse)–and it wasn’t even a full feature-length film, clocking in at a mere 34 minutes. My problem with The Artist is that it isn’t that original as it liberally cribs from a whole host of movies including A Star is Born, Singin’ in the Rain, and Citizen Kane, among others. Okay, sure, Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris looks to the past for inspiration but only as a means to an end, and not as an end to itself. Speaking of Allen, not only is he Oscar’s most nominated screenwriter, he’s a two-time winner; moreover, he’s a two-time winner (Annie Hall, 1977; Hannah and Her Sisters, 1986)  whose victories have come in years in which his nominated efforts were also up for Best Picture. With that in mind, I think he’s the writer to beat. [Since I first posted this, Allen had won Best Original Screenplay honors from the Writers Guild of America.] Also, keep in mind that since Allen does absolutely no campaigning, and doesn’t even show up to accept awards, a win for him means people are generally moved by the work; no more, no less. I know some people are rooting for A Separation, but I think that film is full-well destined to win Best Foreign Language film, so I don’t think there’s a rush to honor it in this category as well.

ODDS and ENDS…

Will the 5th time be the charm for The Tree of Life’s Emmanuel Lubezki? He’s a two time ASC winner, whose four previous Oscar nominations are for  Children of Men (2006), The New World (2005; also for director Terrence Malick), Sleepy Hollow (1999), and A Little Princess (1995). In the case of the latter, I would have scrapped that nomination in favor of the same year’s A Walk in the Clouds. His filmography also includes the landmark Mexican film Like Water for Chocolate (1992). Someone please give this man an Oscar, already.

Best Cinematography won’t exactly be a cakewalk for The Tree of Life‘s Emmanuel Lubezki, but he’s well positioned, having recently won the prestigious American Society of Cinematographers award, but hold on because just five years ago, Lubezki won the ASC award for Children of Men. Everyone thought he had the edge for the Oscar, but he lost to Pan’s Labyrinth (Guillermo Navarro). This is Lubezki’s 5th Oscar nomination, and I’ve been waiting for him to win ever since the Academy nominated him for  1995’s A Little Princess while ignoring his A Walk in the Clouds from the same year.  Even so, this is a category full of masters, including Janusz Kaminski (War Horse) and Robert Richardson (Hugo). The former already has Oscars for Schindler’s List (1993) and Saving Private Ryan (1998), and a few other nominations besides, while the latter is a previous two-time winner for  J.F.K. (1991) and The Aviator (2004). He boasts several additional nominations as well, including 1999’s breathtaking Snow Falling on Cedars. Richardson’s startlingly crisp 3-D imagery in Hugo might be a selling point–even though something about the images look oddly, coldly, inhuman. The other nominees are The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Jeff Cronenweth) and The Artist (Guillaume Schiffman). The former is the son of legendary Jordan Cronenweth and was nominated last year for The Social Network; meanwhile, so, okay, where’s the nod for Darius Khondji’s gloriously burnished work in Midnight in Paris?

In the category of Best Art Direction, the Hugo team of Dante Ferretti and Francesca Lo Schiavo are poised to win their third collective Oscar for their massive Paris train station which is the film’s main setting. These two have won most of this year’s prizes so far, and, again, they are frequent nominees with two previous wins: 2007’s Sweeney Todd and Scorsese’s 2004 Howard Hughes biopic, The Aviator.  This might very well be the Academy’s best shot at showing some love for Scorsese’s dream project, but if The Artist wins, hold on to your hats for a flat-out sweep. A lot of people expected the drab coldly functional sets of the, uhm Cold War spy thriller, Tinker Tailor Solider Spy to score a nod here. Didn’t happen, but Midnight in Paris is in the race, and it was actually filmed in Paris instead of a recreation (got that, Marty?), so that’s cool.

Best Visual Effects: It seems inconceivable that the incredibly popular Harry Potter movies have amassed a handful of nominations over the past decade without taking home a single trophy, so this is the Academy’s last chance (unless there’s an upset for Best Art Direction), but right now it seems like the fanboys are all in a frenzy over Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which looks to have the best chance of snagging the award in this category IF the fanboys are to be believed.

In Rango, Johnny Depp voices the title character, a chameleon who takes on the role of sheriff in a lawless town. If Rango wins the Oscar for Best Feature Length Animated Film, it will be a first for Paramount Pictures in this category, which has been dominated by Disney-Pixar and Dreamworks.

Best Animated Feature Film: I have a confession, and that is that I somehow managed to miss all the nominees in this category even though I had every intention of seeing both Puss in Boots and Rango. Where does the time go? Here’s what I know: the talent behind Rango includes superstar Johnny Depp and  director Gore Verbinski, the latter of whom helped the former transition from quirky indie actor to full fledged movie icon status (and Oscar nominee) with all those Pirates of the Caribbean movies. Rango was the big winner at the recent “Annie” awards (specifically for animated films–if the name doesn’t speak for itself), and Depp won a People’c Choice award for his voiceover work. Actually, Rango has pretty much dominated this category among the preOscar prizes (such as BFCA DFW, LAFC, NBR, etc.). The only film to have given it a run is Spielberg’s The Adevntures of Tintin, which isn’t even up for this award.  Two of the films (A Cat in Paris and Chico and Rita) are foreign entries (France and Spain respectively) that have been scarcely seen outside of Academy screening rooms and/or the East/West coasts, so its hard to gauge how audiences are responding. The fifth nominee is Kung Fu Panda 2, which seems a bit of a long-shot unless Academy members feel guilty for not choosing it over Wall-E three years ago. Not likely.

For a printable Oscar checklist, please click on the link, and then scroll down just a bit to the list of Best Picture nominees where there is a place to open a “Printable List” as a pdf:

http://oscar.go.com/nominees

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One Response to “The Oscar Dossier: 2011/12”

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  1. Melanie Pruit, looks at this year’s Oscars « Musea Zine - 19 February 2012

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