If you want a good laugh, take a look at early Oscar predictions of any given year. It doesn’t matter who you look at, they’ll look ridiculous. Not only are some of the forecasted contenders mediocre at best, but it seems obvious, looking back, that of course such films wouldn’t make any headway in the awards season. And make no mistake, they always pop up. Last year it was Hereafter and Love and Other Drugs, before that we had Nine and Invictus, and so on.
This year probably had some of the most surprising nominees and omissions of any Oscar year in recent memory, with films well outside of their wheelhouse actually making it in (yep, I was the biggest Tree of Life skeptic on the site), and of course that left several early frontrunners in the dust, most of the time deservedly. So which “serious contenders” fell flat on release, and what can we learn from them?
Perhaps the silliest bandwagon we all jumped on was Super 8. Predicted as a Best Picture nominee not only by three of us – including me – but also fellow film blogger Nathaniel Rogers, I attribute the high expectations of this film to its killer trailer, which sold it as this generation’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. While it had its fans among my colleagues, I must come out against it and express zero surprise at its lack of headway in the Oscar race. It certainly wants to be loved; it mimics more Spielbergian touches than you can shake a tripod at. But whereas Spielberg’s science fiction films had a depth and sophistication underlying their whiz-bang entertainment value, J.J. Abrams can only swoon and lazily gesture at emotional catharsis while expecting his audience to fill in the blanks. Yes, it’s handsomely-mounted. Yes, the child actors were very good. But with such a mess of a story, weirdly emphasizing plot points before later revealing them to be unimportant in the long run (Joe’s dead mother subplot is ultimately tangential to his development) or hitting us with characters who strive to do things without any apparent motivation, no amount of nostalgic affection could save Abrams’ frustratingly half-baked mash-up of older, better movies without actually understanding what made them great. Beyond that, it was just silly of us to assume that a science fiction film would be such an Oscar player simply on E.T. vibes. Ironically, this ended up being the first of a tidal wave of movies writing love letters to themselves in 2011, yet it’s the only one that completely fizzled.
Another longshot-in-hindsight film that I must also sheepishly admit to hitching my wagon to was David Cronenberg’s period piece A Dangerous Method. Mostly due to wishful thinking, I had held on to the belief that this would be the Academy’s opportunity to honor a perpetually-snubbed auteur and not feel icky while doing so. I also had held on to the logic that since it was so obviously an “actor’s movie,” a huge branch of the Academy would embrace it. Yet it sadly ended up being too kinky for the staid Academy and too restrained for Cronenberg fans. To my regret, I was one of those fans who expressed serious disappointment that maybe was a little too harsh. In a bit of a downbeat cap to David Cronenberg Week, I lamented in my mixed review of his psychoanalytic period piece that, “I do wonder if over time I’ll even remember having seen it.” Yet against all odds, I remember quite a bit about the film’s kinky little details in the months since, especially after reconsidering the film in light of Joseph’s excellent take on it. But this piece isn’t about me; it’s about the Academy, and a film that takes an obscure, cerebral subject explored by an uneven play is of course not the kind of film that the Academy would go for (and, to give credit where credit is due, Joey was the first of us to predict a complete shut-out for the film). Still, it’s a little odd that there wasn’t a little more momentum for Knightley’s oh-yes-I-just-went-there performance. So many instances of flat, uninspired overacting getting recognized by Oscar and they shun an over-the-top performance that’s genuinely memorable? It would have at least made for one hell of an Oscar clip…
However, if you’ll permit me some smugness, I have to take this opportunity to brag about a flameout that I alone saw months in advance. I was the only pundit on Awards Circuit – maybe one of the only pundits anywhere – that never once believed J. Edgar would be nominated for Best Picture (though I did begrudgingly predict DiCaprio would be at least cited for Best Actor at one point), and with that prediction being absolutely, positively, 100% correct, can we all please stop automatically assigning the newest Eastwood film frontrunner status? Pundits have done that with his last three films and they’ve all failed to make the cut, and that was with a ten-wide Best Picture field. Just as I argued at the beginning of the season, if a film seems too good – or in this case, Oscar-friendly – to be true, it probably is. The film’s poor quality certainly didn’t help its case, either. With his latest strikeout, Eastwood is simply not the awards darling that we’ve assigned to him, not anymore, and we should keep J. Edgar’s shutout in mind when thinking of how his remake of A Star is Born will factor into the Oscar race.
Actually, now that we’re on the subject, what do we make of what was widely considered the frontrunner? Yes, War Horse did get nominated for Best Picture, but Spielberg was not cited for his direction, and the rest of its five nods were crafts. Critics didn’t hate it, box office was fine (if not quite spectacular) and had its own share of, shall we say, passionate fans ready to declare it a masterpiece before even having seen it. Perhaps the rule of thumb that I used in betting against J. Edgar could also be applied to a lesser degree with Spielberg’s film. The Academy doesn’t seem to want to conform to their stereotype anymore. Even the one feel-good winner they had in the past five years doesn’t fit into the model of a typical Academy darling.
So here we are instead with Woody Allen’s lightly nostalgic rom-com, Alexander Payne’s “tender” mortality drama, Martin Scorsese’s children’s spectacle, Michel Hazanavicius’ silent film, and – shockingly – Terrence Malick’s trippy, elliptical family chronicle among the Academy’s favorites. To be fair, The Descendants was also considered an early contender, but the point is that the end of the Oscar race always (and thankfully) ends up being very different from how it began, and us pundits can only scratch our heads and mutter “better luck next time” in our own pre-season bets.