The Summer and the Oscars

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What will the summer bring?

Ah, summer.  The season when school is out, sun tan is in, and cinephiles like us can look forward to massive studio-produced blockbusters that rake in the big bucks.  These movies don’t usually have a strong presence during the awards season, but that’s slowly changing with the recent expansion of the Best Picture nominees to ten (spurred in part by the snubbing of a big-budget superhero film, I might add) and more ambitious treatments of what we used to call “summer flicks.”  So what major releases for the months of May to August could be seen again at the Oscars, or *gasp* might actually be great movies?

In previous years, the easy answer to that question was almost always Pixar.  They have earned by far more Academy Awards for Best Animated Feature than any other studio, and since the expansion to ten have produced two consecutive Best Picture nominees.  So you would think that once again they’re a sure bet to dominate – both financially and critically – the summer slate of family entertainment…unless of course we’re talking about a sequel to their worst film yet.  For reasons unknown to me, the illustrious studio has decided that their upcoming films should include a sequel to Cars and, for 2013, a prequel to Monsters, Inc., despite neither film being that good in the first place.  But maybe I’m being presumptuous.  After all, both of the Toy Story sequels were outstanding and I don’t even know what Cars 2 is about.  Let’s check the official synopsis…

“Star racecar Lightning McQueen (voice of Owen Wilson) and the incomparable tow truck Mater (voice of Larry the Cable Guy) take their friendship to exciting new places in Cars 2 when they head overseas to compete in the first-ever World Grand Prix to determine the world’s fastest car. But the road to the championship is filled with plenty of potholes, detours and hilarious surprises when Mater gets caught up in an intriguing adventure of his own: international espionage.”

Never mind, we’re in for a letdown.

Well, if Pixar most likely won’t provide the home run that they usually do every year, what about Walt Disney Animation?  They’re trying to revitalize and corner the market on traditional animated films, remember?  Serving as a follow-up to their coming out party The Princess and the Frog is a reboot of the beloved children’s stories of the Hundred Acre Wood in Winnie the Pooh.  Personally, I have a bit of a (read: major) soft spot for 1977 classic The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, and I’m thrilled that they’re going back to adapting the short stories of A. A. Milne for this outing.  The trailer played a little too much of the nostalgia card for my tastes, but if the film itself is even half as charming and memorable as the first Pooh film, who am I to complain?  I suspect that the Academy might also develop affections for it as well if it’s any good.

But enough of this kid’s stuff, some of you might be thinking, tell us about the (young) adult fare!  If that’s the case, then I see one horse that I’d bet all of my Oscar chips on: Super 8.  In the two years we’ve seen “The Ten,” a summer sci-fi actioner has made it to the nominee’s circle both times.  In 2009 it was the surprise viral-marketed hit District 9, and in 2010 it was Christopher Nolan’s dream heist caper Inception.  This year, there is no high concept sci-fi blockbuster that has the hype, ambition or potential that J. J. Abrams’ newest film does.  Remember that Star Trek was seriously talked about as a possible BP contender two years ago, and that was without the backing of Steven Spielberg.  Speaking of him, notice any similarities between Super 8 and a certain beloved classic?  A film that harkens back to the “good old days” of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial might be enough to overcome genre bias among voters and really give it a strong showing during the Oscar season.

A lot of people are predicting that the Academy will take the opportunity to nominate Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 in honor of the entire series, which I don’t buy for a minute.  For one thing, none of the other installments have been nominated for Best Picture, which was something that The Lord of the Rings had going for it when the final part swept seemingly every award during the 2003 season.  Also, even with the expansion to ten, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince couldn’t even beat out films like The friggin’ Blind Side for a Best Picture nomination despite very strong reviews.  Finally, Star Wars is the most successful, most beloved film franchise of all time and its final episode Revenge of the Sith wasn’t even whispered as an Oscar possibility.  Not to mention that I’m getting the impression we’re all a little fatigued from the series and its end is more of a relief than anything.  At best, the final Harry Potter installment could manage several technical wins (since the Academy usually gives those to their favorite Big Awesome Blockbuster as opposed to, you know, the most deserving people).

The other major upcoming releases don’t do much to inspire me.  In the interest of full disclosure, I am totally biased against all upcoming superhero films at this point.  I’m just SICK of the entire genre.  Too much of the same formula over and over and over again, and now that Marvel Studios is cranking out films on their own, you can bet that we’ll be in for several thinly disguised commercials for the upcoming Avengers movie.  So you’ll hear no enthusiasm for Thor, X-Men: First Class, Green Lantern, or Captain America: The First Avenger from me.  I’ll leave that to my colleagues, assuming of course they’re not as done with superheroes as I am.

Which leaves us, what, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger TidesTransformers: Dark of the MoonRise of the Planet of the ApesConan the Barbarian?  Gee, you can just smell the quality filmmaking right through your computer, can’t you?  Okay, okay, Cowboys & Aliens looks fun, but even that could backfire.  Watching the trailer again, it struck me how serious the film appears to take itself, despite its silly premise.  If it turns out to be a humorless trudge to appease fanboys who can’t handle any sort of tongue-and-cheek treatment of their beloved source material whatsoever, we’re in for a disappointment.

The comedy slate as a whole also looks rather dreadful, which may be an odd topic in an “Awards Potential” column, but remember that The Hangover managed to win the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy.  Before you call me an idiot, the possibility of a summer farce getting serious recognition this year is not so far-fetched.  After all, critical darling Judd Apatow is producing Bridesmaids, Friends with Benefits helmer Will Gluck directed Emma Stone to her breakout role, and who can forget the absolutely delightful trailer for Crazy, Stupid, Love?  Also, Oscar heroin Tom Hanks is directing and starring in the dramedy Larry Crowne, which judging from the trailer looks a little too “cute” – is Crowne himself supposed to be autistic or something? – but could be right up the Academy’s alley (Lord knows they were all for being gagged by a spoon dipped in Forrest Gump saccharine seventeen years ago). Any of these films could – and I should emphasize could – bring in more than just a few chuckles.  Or, more likely, the majority of them will make us pine for the days when studios actually knew how to make us laugh.

Okay, I’m sounding like a cynical jerk here, so I’ll end on a good note…the best note, in fact.  I have not forgotten about The Beaver, whose screenplay was recently praised by our own Joey Magidson.  Other limited releases like Another Earth, Beginners, Bellflower, The Future, The Guard, Higher Ground, One Day, Project Nim, and Tabloid are going to hit theaters this season, and at least a few of them promise to be treasures to anyone who makes the effort to find them.  Best of all, the Cannes Film Festival is kicking off in May, and besides boasting one of the strongest competition lineups in recent memory, one of its biggest films is finally hitting U.S. theaters on May 27th.  I am of course referring to The Tree of Life, Terrence Malick’s fifth feature and my personal most anticipated film of the year.  Sure, Malick is not for everyone’s tastes, but the release of a new film from him is always indisputably A Major Event, and I have no doubt that this will be one of the most talked-about films of the year…at least to movie lovers like ourselves!

What say you, readers?  What summer films are you most looking forward to, and which ones do you think will be heavy awards hitters in six to eight months time?