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Oscar Watching: Tell Me Something I Don’t Know

This week’s title might come across as rude, but how much of the last week actually affected the Oscar race? It seems we may have already reached that dreaded point where events and precursors point to conclusions we’ve already figured for ourselves. It’s only a matter of time before people predict that Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike wins best picture just because they want to raise the eyebrows of those who keep up with this sort of thing. Argo feels like the front-runner to take several prizes on Oscar night including picture and director. But let’s discuss the week at hand as I await a film (or something) to shake up the lead status of Ben Affleck’s thriller.

I might as well break the news to you bluntly: the weekend’s new wide releases, Alex Cross and Paranormal Activity 4, won’t be in the conversation. I’m holding out hope that some awards group recognizes Cicely Tyson’s awesome albeit brief work in the former – an awful film, by the way – but I could have told you that both films would sit out of the Oscar race months ago. The independent Oscar hopefuls from last weekend, Middle of Nowhere and Smashed, struggle to find a decent audience. Again, I can’t say I’m surprised. Ben Lewin’s The Sessions debuted at four locations over the weekend with a strong per-theater average. John Hawkes and Helen Hunt remain viable contenders in actor and supporting actress, while Lewin might sneak into adapted screenplay and William H. Macy might be a supporting actor contender. Of course, we knew all of this already; the box office just confirms it.

David Siegel and Jaqueline Siegel in Queen of Versailles

Documentary feature contenders like Central Park Five, The Invisible War, and Queen of Versailles scored top nods at the International Documentary Association Awards. But as Guy Lodge of In Contention notes, 2011’s Undefeated took the documentary feature Oscar without recognition from this group, and last year’s Nostalgia for the Light nabbed top honors from the IDA last year and failed to make the documentary feature longlist. Does this change much? Not really.

Jack Black as Bernie Tiede in Bernie

There were also the Gotham Award nods, which recognized indie Oscar contenders like Beasts of the Southern Wild and Silver Linings Playbook. Richard Linklater’s Bernie, which sits as a long-shot possibility for Jack Black to finally score attention, is also in the fray. However, these nominations’ correlation with the eventual Oscar bids is inconsistent at best and nonexistent at worst. It’s like trying to predict the Grammy Awards by looking at the MTV Video Music Awards: you might find something that works, but it’s a wasteful exercise on the whole. I’m speaking from experience.

Marion Cotillard as Stéphanie in De rouille et d'Os (Rust and Bone)

Jacques Audiard’s De rouille et d’Os (Rust and Bone) won the BFI London Film Festival’s prize for best film. We’ve been chatting that one up for quite some time, namely as a potential Oscar vehicle for Marion Cotillard’s work as an amputee and trainer of killer whales. But how much does this change the outcome of the season? The fest loves Audiard – the director won best film for Un prophete (A Prophet), making him a two-time winner of the prize in its four years of existence. If we’re talking about a foreign-language film crossing over into significant Oscar consideration, it’ll probably be Michael Haneke’s Amour (Love). No revelation there.

Joaquin Phoenix as Freddie Quell in The Master

The most significant “shift” in the race took place when Joaquin Phoenix recently criticized the Oscar season. In an instant his best actor hopes for The Master faded. Well, that’s what some believe. He made the statement in question during an interview with, as coincidence would have it, Interview Magazine:

“I’m just saying that I think it’s bullshit. I think it’s total, utter bullshit, and I don’t want to be a part of it. I don’t believe in it. It’s a carrot, but it’s the worst-tasting carrot I’ve ever tasted in my whole life. I don’t want this carrot. It’s totally subjective. Pitting people against each other . . . It’s the stupidest thing in the whole world. It was one of the most uncomfortable periods of my life when Walk the Line was going through all the awards stuff and all that. I never want to have that experience again. I don’t know how to explain it—and it’s not like I’m in this place where I think I’m just above it—but I just don’t ever want to get comfortable with that part of things.”

Does this hurt Phoenix? Does this help him? Who knows? Maybe it’s just an elaborate stunt for voters to believe that he’s so invested in the devil-may-care character he plays in The Master, or perhaps he’s pulling a Kirk Lazarus and won’t step out of character until after the DVD commentary is finished.

While we can’t say for sure what happens, I don’t see how this affects his chances one way or the other. It sounds silly, but men can get away with criticizing the awards process and not participating in the charade of awards season. Several have already cited Marlon Brando and George C. Scott as prime examples. The former refused the trophy he won for his timeless work in The Godfather, and the latter refused both of his nominations and still won on his second bid for Patton. Mo’Nique won best supporting actress without joining in on much of the campaigning festivities, but she also gave a performance that few believe to be anything other than extraordinary and won in a weak field. Before I get into an essay regarding the gender politics of Hollywood – and I almost went there – let’s just say that Phoenix is still a viable contender for best actor. Only major snubs from big awards groups will convince me otherwise.

Halle Berry as Luisa Rey in Cloud Atlas

For the sake of throwing some kind of conflict into the column, let’s talk about Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski, and Lana Wachowski’s ambitious fantasy/period/sci-fi epic Cloud Atlas, which hits this weekend. I’ve plugged the film as a major contender since May, and it garnered a phenomenal reaction at the Toronto International Film Festival – a reported 15-minute standing ovation.

The fight for legitimate awards credibility is far from over, though, as it might face some problems thanks to the critics. Metacritic currently ranks Cloud Atlas at 41/100, but the film pulls a 71% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. My memory fails to recall a time when such a massive point difference between both sites’ aggregations of one film’s reviews existed, but such a low rating on Metacritic makes the case for Oscar a difficult one. I suspect the numbers there will be up by a significant margin by this time next week. They need to be if there’s any hope for the film beyond the crafts races.

Cloud Atlas’ fortune with mainstream audiences also remains to be seen, and that might be a major problem. For a film like this to be an Oscar hit, it’ll also have to be a box-office hit. But will audiences turn out to see a movie this extreme and ambitious that isn’t directed by James Cameron? This isn’t the kind of film that can Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close its way into the picture race – it’s not obvious Oscar bait and its directors are divisive talents who have never been embraced by Oscar voters.

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The Author

Donovan Warren

Donovan Warren

Donovan Warren loves the wonderful world of film and all that comes with it. He specifically loves long takes, fabulous actresses, and keeping up with the Oscar season - even when it's far too early to make sense of anything.