The Big Boys
By Robert Hamer
And so the summer flies by, and we Oscar prognosticators can steel ourselves for the “real” contenders to roll out over the fall and winter months. But as we look forward to how this season shapes up, what can we take from this year’s summer slate? What interesting events happened the last three months as far as the big, massive blockbusters go?
One trend that is not unusual or noteworthy is the number of sequels and remakes that hit us in that time. It does amaze me how seemingly every August some pundit will declare “The Summer of Sequels” or some such nonsense as if franchise pictures haven’t plagued the multiplexes at this time every year for the past decade. True, seven of the ten highest-grossing films of the year domestically were part of franchises (nine of you count The Avengers preludes), but that’s commonplace in this era of shareholder cinema.
Now, there was a good deal of interesting trends that are worthy of note. If I could label this summer as any one thing, it would be “The Season of the 3D Swindle.” I found the reaction to such a ridiculous phenomenon this year quite interesting. Despite becoming increasingly clear to more people that 3D demands viewers pay more money for a lower quality picture, a record three films utilizing the technology hit the billion-dollar mark: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, and Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. Yet several other films saw a decline in the percentage of their shares coming from their 3D locations, including Cars 2 and Kung Fu Panda 2. Even the heavy hitters’ takes from 3D tickets were relatively unimpressive. I do hope this signals a change in the winds for the technology, but with famous directors like Martin Scorsese and Ridley Scott championing the process, the format will likely go through a true test of staying power or die hard within the next five years.
Speaking of audience disinterest, it appeared as though I was not the only person who banned themselves from superhero films. Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger did fine enough, I suppose, but Marvel Studios has to be feeling somewhat nervous that they couldn’t produce a single Iron Man-sized hit among their commercials for their upcoming superhero mega-ensemble extravaganza arriving – sorry, “assembling” – in 2012.
The Oscar favorite of the summer, Super 8, also failed to ignite nearly the passion that we believed it would. What several pundits (myself included) had pegged as a sure-fire sci-fi classic to be embraced by audiences only did so-so business and mostly garnered reviews that could be accurately summed up as, “Meh, it was okay I guess.” I’ll have more to say on just how and why J. J. Abrams’ latest crashed and burned in the awards race much later in the season, but needless to say anyone still betting on a Best Picture nomination would do well to pull their chips out now.
Yet another disappointment was Pixar’s Cars 2. Its box office was fine, but the critical reaction was unprecedentedly brutal. Don’t feel bad for the film, though; it deserved every negative review and then some. How dare John Lasseter and Ben Queen make a cynical cash-grab movie, sticking the most irritating character of their studio’s history front-and-center and expect people to be fine with that? If there is one good thing to come out of Pixar’s first widely acknowledged failure, is that it finally shakes up the Best Animated Feature race for the first time in at least five years. Now that the chance of Pixar’s latest to even be nominated in that category has dropped, seeing another animation team take the trophy is very likely, and I for one welcome the uncertainty.
But the summer isn’t all animated adventures and explosions. We can’t forget the comedies. Perhaps the most inspiring success story on that front is Bridesmaids. I must admit, I did not flip for the female-driven comedy the way my colleagues did, but there’s no denying the joy of seeing it become such a hit, propelling Kristen Wiig to stardom and hopefully allowing other comediennes to shine in Hollywood films. Crazy Stupid Love had a ton of potential, and was mostly entertaining, but unfortunately didn’t quite make the leap to greatness and probably won’t make a ton of Oscar headway. In fact, the only comedy that should be taken seriously at this point is Woody Allen’s surprise hit Midnight in Paris, but Joey can elaborate more on that. As for The Hangover: Part II, Bad Teacher, and Friends with Benefits…better left forgotten.
When it comes to big hits, practically nothing can touch the extraordinary success of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2. Shattering several box office records and vaulting to the all-time top ten moneymakers, the final installment of the Potter franchise also received the best reviews of the series, and Warner Bros. is reportedly pulling out all the stops for an awards campaign. Personally, I just don’t see it happening on a major scale. Beyond the usual reasons – genre bias, franchise bias, blockbuster bias, the new Best Picture rule changes, past snubs of previous installments, etc. – my theory is that the demand for Oscar recognition is coming not from the film’s actual quality so much as a decade-long buildup of goodwill from an enormous fanbase, which is entirely understandable. Indeed, how can a fan not feel the need to campaign for a Best Picture nomination to have Hollywood “validate” a series so near and dear to them? But I do not think there will be enough Potter fans among Academy membership to give it the requisite 5% of #1 votes to vault it to the nominees’ circle, especially since the major Oscar contenders haven’t even rolled out yet. And make no mistake, #1 votes on Academy ballots will not come from anyone else but fans. I find it unlikely that even non-devotees who really liked the film will choose it as their best of a given year, and I sense that an even greater majority will feel the same tepid enjoyment of a passable film as I did.
As far as viable Best Picture possibilities go, I believe The Help cannot be ignored at this point. If its rapturous audience reception and financial success doesn’t convince one to at least keep it on the radar, then its historically awards-friendly subject matter would have to seal the deal. Despite my issues with the film (highlighted last week), I cannot deny the emotional wallop it socks to its audience or its glossy, guilt-alleviating treatment of racial politics not dissimilar from Driving Miss Daisy or Crash. Reports have emerged that claim a (rightful) Best Actress campaign for Viola Davis and a Supporting Actress push for Octavia Spencer is getting under way. Seeing as how popular Mrs. Davis has become, it’s entirely possible that we’re looking at the second African-American Best Actress champ.
A bigger, possibly the biggest, question mark in the Oscar race is my favorite film of the year so far: The Tree of Life. Like all of Terrence Malick’s works, it has received a somewhat divided response from audiences, yet his grand, restless and aspiring culmination of nearly every question he has posed throughout his filmography has firmly planted itself in the collective cinephile consciousness. Even now I see essays and webcast debates on the various interpretations of his opus in a way that I have never seen before in the world of avant-garde cinema. While it did not exactly light up the box office, a domestic gross just short of $13 million is pretty damn good considering its limited mainstream appeal. I also sense it gathering stream as a very possible critical darling by the end of the year, and while it’s hardly a “sure bet,” I believe that at least 5% of Academy voters will feel an intense passion for its beauty and intellectually stimulating ideas and it will squeak in.
Overall, this was a fairly disappointing last three months as far as “major” movies go, although it thankfully didn’t reach the absolute lows of the summer of ’09. Luckily, my colleague Joey found some buried treasure hidden in the indie circuit.
The Little Guy
By Joey Magidson
On the other side of the coin, each and every summer always has its fair share of small treats…namely the independent releases that come out and try to give an alternative to explosions and teams of 7 screenwriters trying desperately to push a franchise forward. This year saw Oscar quality indies as usual, but it failed to really put out a full force Best Picture contender, outside of Midnight in Paris, if you’re so inclined to include it in the fray (more on it in a bit). If we start with the summer season beginning in May, there were in the neighborhood of 50 independent flicks that entered into theaters. We’ll leave off The Tree of Life since Robert already mentioned it and Red State since it technically still hasn’t entered into its release period, but I think there are some noteworthy films to discuss.
First you have to mention the high quality works that just won’t be able to make any kind of dent in the awards season race. That conversation has to start with my 2 favorite films of 2011…Bellflower and The Beaver. The former was never going to have any shot due to its limited appeal (though I’d die happy if it managed an Original Screenplay nod for newcomer Evan Glodell), but the latter was rife with potential. Had it not crashed and burned spectacularly in terms of audiences overtly ignoring it, I found it worthy of nominations across the board. That being said, Mel Gibson is still Mel Gibson, so it was likely wishful thinking even at the start. Joining these two magnificent works in the “thanks for playing” pile is Mark Ruffalo’s directorial debut Sympathy for Delicious, Will Ferrell’s excellent turn in Everything Must Go, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s gonzo work in Hesher, and other films like Submarine, Beautiful Boy, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Terri, The Trip, Attack the Block, The Future, and Another Earth, to name a handful. They’ll all have to cross their fingers for Spirit Awards attention, if that.
This brings us to what indie films the summer has propelled to greater attention. First up has to be Mike Mills’ movie Beginners. This terrific little flick has thrust Christopher Plummer squarely into the Best Supporting Actor race (with some considering him the one to beat), and Melanie Laurent for Supporting Actress, Mills for Original Screenplay, and the film itself for Best Picture have to be considered chances worth pursuing by Focus Features. Can it make a dent in the race? I think it can, but it certainly won’t be an easy road ahead.
There’s also some attention being paid to A Better Life, though not as much as was previously expected. Demian Bichir was thought to be a big contender for Best Actor, but the film is struggling to keep itself in the game. Summit could help him out with a push as the year goes on, but of all the films and artists I’m talking about, I’m least confident in this one coming to be.
Documentary fans got a few contenders for the Oscars this summer, with Senna, Life in a Day, Page One, and Project Nim attempting to stake a claim to those elusive slots. All have their ardent defenders, so it’ll be very interesting to see how this pans out. If I had to guess, Life in a Day, Page One, and Project Nim will be the ones to make it all the way to the finish line, but we shall see soon enough.
The Guard could push Brendan Gleeson and/or its screenplay for heavy consideration, though I’d say Gleeson will have to settle for another Golden Globe nod. Kristen Scott Thomas is also in the hunt with Sarah’s Key, but frankly…I just don’t see it. Neither of these films quite caught on like they needed to, to differing degrees.
What does that leave us with? Midnight in Paris, of course. Critics and filmgoers responded enthusiastically to Woody Allen’s latest, and with it still expanding into more screens as the fall comes, it will definitely still be on the minds of Academy members when they begin to vote. I could see the movie find a half dozen nominations if they really want to honor it. The biggest issue will be if it was really “loved” by enough people or just “really liked”. At this point…I’m betting on love.
Don’t think that it was all high quality cinema this summer on the independent slate though…Passion Play did come out too, after all!