Well, the Oscar race will officially kick-in next week when such groups as the New York Film Critics Circle, the National Board of Review, and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association announce their picks as the year’s best. At this point, I think the race for Best Picture is being led by Argo and Lincoln; I expect the long awaited big screen adaptation of Les Misérables (from the ever-popular stage musical incarnation of Victor Hugo’s epic novel) to be a strong contender as well, but that film is still being kept under wraps–for now. The official release date is December 25th, natch, though I’m sure many influential, high profile critics are being treated to screenings for the sole purpose of awards consideration. At this point, I’m not convinced that Oscar winner Ang Lee’s 3D version of Yann Martel’s Life of Pi has what it takes to go the distance though it has its champions. Likewise, Cloud Atlas could sneak into some categories, bur it no longer seems like a major contender. On the other hand, some of us are anxiously awaiting the release of Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, the story about the hunt for Osama Bin Laden–and Bigelow’s follow-up to her 2009 Oscar winner, The Hurt Locker.
Right now, I think the tightest race has to be that of Best Actor. This could very well be the most competitive this category has been since the 2005/06 season when there were 5 legitimate contenders–and, to clarify, no filler: Philip Seymour Hoffman (Capote-w), Terrence Howard (Hustle & Flow), Heath Ledger (Brokeback Mountain), Joaquin Phoenix (Walk the Line), and David Strathairn (Good Night, and Good Luck). Though the Oscar ultimately went to Hoffman, many pundits were of the opinion that any of the other four could have won in less competitive years. In 2008, there was definitely a heated race between two front-runners, Sean Penn (Milk) and Mickey Rourke (The Wrestler), but the rest of the bunch paled in comparison when taking into account ALL the variables: Penn’s transformative performance as Harvey Milk in a timely, fact-based offering (coming out around the time of California’s Prop 8 debacle), and Rourke’s widely heralded comeback in a film by arty/indy fave, Darren Aronofsky. The remaining lineup consisted of Richard Jenkins (in the acclaimed if low-profile The Visitor), Frank Langella (recreating his Tony winning role as President Richard Nixon in Frost/Nixon, a Best Picture nominee that failed to find a huge audience in spite of its major nods), and Brad Pitt (competing against the dazzling aging/anti-aging effects in leading Best Picture nominee The Curious Case of Benjamin Button). One more: last year, the Best Actor race was dominated by a wildly over-hyped front-runner, Jean Dujardin the eventual winner, in the unstoppable Best Picture frontrunner The Artist. Sure, last year saw two genuine movie stars in contention, George Clooney (The Descendants) and, once again, Brad Pitt (Moneyball), but their vehicles were not as well positioned as The Artist in order to dethrone Dujardin–and Pitt actually appeared in two Best Picture contenders (Moneyball AND The Tree of Life); last year’s other nominees, Demián Bichir (A New Life) and Gary Oldman (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) were certainly worthy of their nods; they just could not overcome the obstacle of appearing in lesser-seen, and less publicized, films.
This year, I believe we’ll be enthralled by a real nail-biter of a race. It’s interesting to me that the leading contenders all appear in films that are currently in release at this relatively early stage. That almost never happens. Oldman’s film from last year didn’t go wide until January or so, even though it had played the film festival circuit for weeks and months. Again, this year is no one is waiting on a last minute entry to sweep in and shake things up, as was the case with 2009’s Crazy Heart starring Jeff Bridges, a strong sentimental favorite who, after earning 4 previous nods in the 1970s, ’80s, and early 200os, snatched victory away from George Clooney (Up in the Air) who had generated the most buzz until Bridges’s 11th hour emergence. Here are the actors that I believe are the faves as of this moment:
Unless I don’t totally know my stuff, my guess is that the four actors in the above profiles are the sure-bets; however, there are still at least two more guys duking it out for the fifth slot.
There was early buzz–dating back last winter’s Sundance Fim Festival– for Richard Gere’s outstanding turn in Arbitrage, but a groundswell of killer praise never developed for this well-crafted look at a high-flying wheeler-dealer facing ever-increasing scrutiny about messes he’d rather see buried. (It’s like Wall Street meets Chappaquiddick.) It’s also possible that either Russell Crowe or Hugh Jackman could be nominated for Les Miz. At this point, I can’t see that Jack Black has much chance for Bernie though he might snag a Golden Globe nomination; he was just announced as a Spirit Award contender, so good for him. I love Bernie and Black’s performance in it, but even I can see that his work pales in comparison to the towering performances of Hawkes, DDL, Washington, etc.
On the other hand, the bigger question mark is that confounded Best Actress race. Is there really a front-runner? Sure, there are some likely candidates, such as Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty), Marion Cotillard (Rust and Bone), Jennifer Lawrence (Silver Linings Playbook), Keira Knightley (Anna Karenina), and Naomi Watts (The Impossible). Of these, I think Chastain might still be riding the enormous wave of goodwill she generated last year when she appeared in a half-dozen films, including two Best Picture contenders: The Tree of Life and The Help; she earned a Best Supporting Actress nomination for the latter. Goodwill aside, some early reports indicate that her character in Zero Dark Thirty is on the sketchy side, but I bet the whole thing is still very exciting. Of course, Jennifer Lawrence is certainly well-poised, what with her leading role in the blockbuster known as The Hunger Games. This young woman’s rise has definitely been meteoric. Now 22, she was still in her teens when she filmed Winter’s Bone, the indie darling that garnered raves, played in theaters for weeks and weeks, and earned Lawrence a Best Actress nomination–and was likely the right film at the right time to help her land the role of Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games. Silver Linings Playbook repositions her as a grownup actress, but will the Academy take the bait? I would not rule out the possibility of Helen Hunt as the sex-therapist who teaches John Hawkes about intimacy in The Sessions. Oh sure, I know that the studio releasing the film is positioning Hunt, so to speak, as a supporting player, but Academy members ultimately decide these things. Publicists can only make suggestions. Besides, no less than Susan Sarandon was promoted as a supporting actress for 1981’s Atlantic City, but her peers rightfully nominated her as Best Actress.
Now, about Naomi Watts in The Impossible. This is a fact based story about one white family’s survival in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami in Southeast Asia. The trailer begins with this announcement: “In 2004 Hundreds of Thousands of Lives/Were Suddenly Changed Forever/By the Worst Natural Disaster of Recent Times.” It continues: “From Director J.A. Bayona/One Family’s True Story.” Well, I have to admit that when I saw the trailer for the first time, I was a little stunned. I mean, the images accompanying the message are of a seemingly happy white family (headed by Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor), and I wondered who chose a white family’s experience to be representative of a disaster that affected hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of brown-skinned humans. Oh sure, I get that we’re meant to understand that these people were merely tourists, strangers in a strange land, looking for a little rest and relaxation, and that a tsunami was an unexpected shocker; they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Yes, I guess that makes for a dramatic story, yet it still bothers me because the message implies that the suffering of white tourists is somehow greater than the suffering of the non-white indigenous folk. What’s worse, as I soon learned, is that the real-life couple that Watts and McGregor are portraying isn’t even British. Okay, technically McGregor is from Scotland, and Watts is well-regarded as an Aussie though she was, in fact, born in England. At any rate, these two actors are white, and the people they are playing are…Spanish, meaning not necessarily white. I understand how movie-financing works, so I’m sure that casting non-Spanish actors was a marketing move to make the film more commercial, but I still say such literal whitewashing of the truth is phony, and it stinks. Will I see The Impossible when it comes to Dallas? Yes, probably. I like Watts well enough. I don’t think she earned enough praise for her role as wrongfully exposed CIA operative Valerie Plame in 2010’s Fair Game (in which she was perfectly cast as Plame’s stand-in); moreover, her breakthrough performance (in dual roles?) in David Lynch’s trippy Mulholland Drive still revs my memory–of course, the downside is that to get the full impact of Watts’s particular greatness in the film, one must be willing to sit through the entire movie, and that is easier (much, much, easier) said than done. Talk about impossible.
Thanks for your consideration….