Friday, December 26, 2014


Hazy Outlook

This year's best picture Oscar race is predictably unpredictable.

Marlon Brando once uttered one of the most famous lines in movie history, “I coulda been a contender,” from one of the most beloved best picture winners, 1954’s On the Waterfront. The film was a shoo-in to sweep the Oscars, and it did. This year, however, there are a boatload of movies that might be saying “I coulda been a contender” but are lost and drifting in one of the most wide-open best picture races in memory, certainly since the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences decided to allow a maximum of 10 nominees instead of just five for the biggest prize in the industry. Some say it’s just not a very good year, and that’s why it appears as if there are numerous contenders but no obvious choice. Others just have their favorites, which are all over the place. One prominent Academy voter who has seen just about everything told me, “There’s great acting, great writing, but I am still waiting for that one movie to just blow me away. So far it hasn’t happened.” Sometimes it takes awhile for a film to gain momentum. After all, on the just-announced list of the American Film Institute’s Top Movies of the Year, four don’t open until Christmas Day. For the first time, the AFI even expanded the list from 10 to 11 films due to a tie. That indicates there are lots of opinions about what constitutes the year’s so-called “best.” With this appearing to be anybody’s game as of press time, let’s look at a rundown—in order of which films I think have the best chances to grab one of those major slots—or not.

“There are a boatload of movies that might be saying “I coulda been a contender” but are lost and drifting in one of the most wide-open best picture races in memory.”
This indie is clearly the critics darling, swooping up several major—and minor—critics groups awards and nominations from precursor organizations, including a Golden Globe best pic nom. Although the buzz is definitely there, and the majority of pundits who try to predict these things have lined up behind it, there are still many Academy members who haven’t even seen the movie—even though it has been in release since July. This is the kind of small film with a great backstory that could win it all, but often for a movie of this size it is better to sneak up from behind than be the pace horse. And you don’t want to overhype it to the point that it can’t possibly live up to advance word. Still, this IFC Films production is in it for the long haul.

The Imitation Game
This heartbreaking and compelling saga of Alan Turing, the genius who cracked the Nazis’ Enigma codes during World War II, looks to be another King’s Speech for The Weinstein Company. Likewise, TWC is playing it steady as it goes. A Golden Globe nom and the Audience Award at Toronto have been the film’s biggest triumphs to date but, like King’s Speech, it might have to wait until the all-important guild awards to really start showing its stuff.

Like Boyhood, this Globe-nominated dark comedy is doing very well with the critics groups and has strong support from those I spoke with in the Academy. The story of a washed-up movie superhero trying a comeback on Broadway should—and does—resonate with the elite showbiz crowd, but is it too inside baseball?

The Theory of Everything
Lots of love for this one came out of its Academy screening, but it seems as if most of the Oscar talk revolves around its stars, Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones, rather than the film itself. But this Stephen Hawking biopic definitely hits the right notes and could easily make the nomination cut.

Selma is a late entrant to the Oscar race and just got a Golden Globe nom.
Ever since its smash AFI Fest debut, this story of Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous voting rights march has been received rapturously in screenings and just got a Globe nom. Just a year after the Academy gave production company Plan B’s 12 Years a Slave its best picture prize, are voters ready to give the same team—which now includes Oprah Winfrey—another Oscar for this stirring, and beautifully directed film from Ava DuVernay?

From the moment it was announced that Angelina Jolie would be directing this story of WWII and Olympic hero Louis Zamperini, six decades in development, pundits predicted it would be the one to beat. Questions about whether it is too violent and difficult to watch dampened the enthusiasm of some who have it still in the race, just further down. Its superb, old-fashioned movie craftsmanship could seal the deal for a film that is the kind of cinematic achievement that has won Oscars in the past. That’s a plus.

Into the Woods
Musicals have been a tough sell when it comes to the best picture race. The last to win was 2002’s Chicago, from the same director, Rob Marshall. The film has Stephen Sondheim’s blessing and was written by James Lapine, who also wrote the original Broadway production 27 years ago, so this might be time for Oscar to sing a different tune. The film’s rapturous response at early industry screenings might mean it’s a real sleeper.

American Sniper
Although his past few films haven’t made the best pic cut, four-time Oscar winner Clint Eastwood has directed his best work since Million Dollar Baby and Letters from Iwo Jima with Sniper, a riveting true story of the military’s most successful marksman. Don’t count out 84-year-old Clint’s film quite yet.

Christopher Nolan is the reason the Academy expanded the best picture race in the first place, to make way for such films as his The Dark Knight and Inception. The latter made the cut, and there’s no reason to believe the ambitious Interstellar won’t do the same despite mixed response. This is Nolan’s most personal and emotional blockbuster to date and that should count for a lot.

One of the year’s most unexpected contenders, Nightcrawler is written and directed by Dan Gilroy.
Definitely the most unexpected contender, this film—written and directed by Dan Gilroy—is a dead-on look at local news and what passes for journalistic integrity these days. It also contains a brilliant performance from Jake Gyllenhaal that is a landmark turn for the star.

Sundance winners don’t always translate into Oscar winners, but this one—about a drumming student and his maniacal teacher, portrayed by supporting actor front-runner J.K. Simmons—hits the mark and makes an indelible impression. Although it is a tiny indie, it’s got a passionate base in the Academy—perhaps enough to put it in a key spot to grab a nomination with the big boys.

A sensation at Cannes, this weird, true-life crime story revolving around John DuPont and the Olympic freestyle wrestling squad whose training he funded was a sensation in Cannes’ Official Competition. But has its sheen worn off since then? With tremendous performances across the board, the film could make itself the hot thing again and easily—and deservedly—grab a slot.

A Most Violent Year
Although distributor A24 Films is tiny, it has a big contender in this 1980s drama, which is reminiscent of something Sidney Lumet might’ve done in his prime. Could writer-director J.C. Chandor—Oscar-nominated for his original screenplay Margin Call—have a winner with this one, which got three wins from the National Board of Review, including best picture? Can the film be the little engine that could in this year’s race?

Bubbling under this top list of contenders could be surprise spoilers in Wild, Gone Girl, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Judge, Mr. Turner, Big Eyes, Fury and Inherent Vice. Any one of these could trump a front-runner and re-make this race altogether. It is that kind of year where anything can happen. Ain’t it grand?


A New Direction

Helmers wonder if some best picture nominees just direct themselves.

December 26, 2014
The age-old question people ask every year is, “How can you have a best picture nominee without also nominating its director?” It’s a good question, but the disconnect happens all the time. There is a great disparity between the 6,000 Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences members, who all vote for best picture, and the much clubbier directors branch, which numbers less than 400. This is the category where the heartbreak really happens on the morning those nominations are announced. Who can forget the shock when it was Behn Zeitlin (Beasts of the Southern Wild) and not Ben Affleck (Argo) who landed one of those prized five directing noms? Argo was a favorite to win best picture, which it eventually did, but how could that be without its director at least being nominated by that branch? The backlash might have worked in Affleck’s favor, as well as that of the movie, because both swept the remainder of awards that year, including the Directors Guild of America Award for Affleck over Ang Lee, who eventually won the Oscar for steering Life of Pi.

Of course, this was not an isolated case, and there also are several instances when a split occurs, most recently last year, when Alfonso Cuaron took the directing Oscar but 12 Years a Slave took best picture. The disparity between director and picture has gotten even more pronounced—and controversial—since the Academy decided to increase the number of films that could be nominated for best picture from five to a possibility of 10. In that scenario, up to five directors automatically are relegated to having to endure the, “So, did your movie direct itself?” line of questioning. I know of a few Oscar voters who have even gone to the Board of Governors and tried to rectify this situation by expanding the possible number of directing nominees. No go, at least so far.

So with this year’s five best director slots history could be made with the very real possibility that two women, Angelina Jolie for Unbroken and Ava DuVernay (right, top photo) for Selma, could find themselves facing off against each other. That would be a significant breakthrough. Only four women have ever been nominated in this category, and only one has won—Kathryn Bigelow in 2009 for The Hurt Locker. For DuVernay, it would be doubly impressive because the number of African-American directors who have been nominated in the category is actually one smaller than the number of women. As for Jolie, who did a Herculean job behind the camera on Unbroken, the bigger question regarding a nomination, other than the fact she is female, is that she is an Oscar-winning acting superstar. Just ask Affleck where that got him, despite past thespian winners in the category, such as Kevin Costner, Warren Beatty, Robert Redford, Woody Allen and Clint Eastwood.

Speaking of two-time best director winner Eastwood (Unforgiven, Million Dollar Baby), he has his best Oscar shot in recent years with the harrowing American Sniper. At 84, he again would be the oldest nominee in the category, breaking his own record set 10 years ago. And it certainly would be deserved because Sniper isn’t even his only film released in 2014—Jersey Boys came out in June.

For his unique and admired Boyhood, a movie shot over the course of 12 years, Richard Linklater already is a critics group darling and promises to be formidable in the category. His only drawback might be that directors could resent the fact he had a dozen years to make his masterpiece, when some of them get less than 30 days. But the achievement is monumental, as was that of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, whose Birdman was indeed filmed in 30 days. Inarritu’s purely technical feat in his art of directing is that the film appears to have been shot completely in one take, a trick he accomplished with the aid of ace cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. Inarritu and Linklater are the most likely pair to be duking it out for the final prize, unless Oscar wants to go British again this year. The real sleeper here is The Imitation Game, a very British story that ironically was written and produced by Americans and directed by Norwegian Morten Tyldum, making his English-language debut. With Harvey Weinstein putting all his eggs in this basket, Tyldum could benefit just as Tom Hooper did for 2010’s The King’s Speech. Don’t count him out. Academy members seem to love the film. Another English film, The Theory of Everything also is beloved by voters and could find its helmer, James Marsh—an Oscar winner for his documentary feature Man on Wire—swept in on the goodwill for that film. Another Brit also in the mix for the very American film Interstellar is Christopher Nolan, who the directors branch seems to have something against. How can you explain three DGA noms for Memento, The Dark Knight and Inception but repeated snubs for all three by his peers in the Academy? Will Interstellar break the Nolan curse? It is hard to deny that his achievement on this emotionally powerful and intelligent sci-fi epic is not prodigious, but critical reaction has been mixed so that could hurt.

Solid favorites of the directors branch who were past nominees could be back, including Cannes Film Festival best director winner Bennett Miller for his searing work on Foxcatcher, Mike Leigh for Mr. Turner and David Fincher for Gone Girl. The latter’s box office success could overcome the genre bias of the thriller form, but Fincher has barely campaigned. Leigh is an Academy favorite with seven previous nominations, but most were for writing. He could be the dark horse here. Miller has a mixed track record. Both of his previous films, Capote and Moneyball, were best picture nominees, but only the former landed him a nom. Then there’s Rob Marshall. He took the DGA Award for Chicago in 2002 and was primed for an Oscar win, but even though the musical became the first in 34 years to win best picture, he lost to Roman Polanski. Into the Woods, Marshall’s new musical, is winning early raves and could surprise people by deservedly putting him back in this race. No one has won for a musical since Carol Reed did in 1968 for Oliver!

On the eclectic side of things, two Andersons—Wes Anderson with The Grand Budapest Hotel and Paul Thomas Anderson with Inherent Vice—fit the bill. Mixed reaction to P.T.A.’s Thomas Pynchon adaptation and an early March release date for Budapest might doom each director’s chances, perhaps opening the door for three newcomers to the category: Whiplash’s Damien Chazelle, A Most Violent Year’s J.C. Chandor and Nightcrawler’s Dan Gilroy. All three films are gaining increasing buzz around the Academy. I also would throw out Jean-Marc Vallee’s name as a possibility for the near-impossible task of turning Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild into a memorable motion picture.
Occasionally, the quirky directors branch turns to foreign-language films to fill a slot and deny more obvious contenders. If that’s the case this year, look to Argentina’s Damian Szifron for the rapturously received comedy Wild Tales or Poland’s Pawel Pawlikowski for the popular black-and-white art film, Ida.

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