Oscar Circuit: “If I Had a Magic Lamp…”

Attempting to keep a pulse on the season has presented some challenges as of late for the 2013 Oscars and its predictions.  It can be argued that we don’t have a front runner in any category despite some films having strong showings at festivals.

Best Picture has presented real challenges.  Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln finally had its trailer début and all I could think about was War Horse (2011).  The film didn’t scream high quality and I still believe Spielberg and the film aren’t rewarded unless it stands next to Saving Private Ryan (1998) and Schindler’s List (1993).  The film doesn’t look to be of that caliber.  I’ve dropped Spielberg from the Directing predictions for now until some praising reviews come.  A “secret” screening in New Jersey suggested that the film is good, not great.

Because this year has looked like a question mark thus far, I’ve been saying to some of my colleagues, we could be in store for something unprecedented.  This would be something like Michael Haneke’s Amour winning Best Picture, becoming the first foreign language film ever or Silver Linings Playbook, first dramedy to win the top award since Shakespeare in Love (1998).  I’m not ready to go there yet though.  I don’t know how the Academy will respond to Amour, a film all too real in this stage of their average 62-year aged life.  Perhaps Oscar will listen to the critics for the first time in a while.  This could work well for something like Ben Affleck’s Argo or Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, two films that could be critics’ darlings throughout the season.  What if our Best Picture winner has already been released? 

Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild, a film with a strong grassroots campaign already stirring could get the big push from Fox Searchlight.  Maybe Oscar listens to audiences this year.  The buzz for Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower has been growing louder and could be a massive audience hit given the popularity of the book.  What if Robert Zemeckis’ Flight takes off in a big way with Denzel Washington in the cockpit?  The lines will surely be long for Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained and his films have yet to breakthrough in the top category.  I’ve gone on record saying that Tarantino is not the Academy’s forte despite Oscar nominations for Inglourious Basterds (2009) and a screenplay win for Pulp Fiction (1994).  I chalk up “Basterds” success to the subject.  What predominately Jewish group wouldn’t want to see Hitler shot up for several minutes?  “Fiction,” Tarantino’s best work, hit the season with thunder in the mid-90s.  I don’t think Oscar has felt that way about him since.  Maybe it’s time for a change.

Ang Lee’s Life of Pi had its New York premiere and the reviews have been good, not outstanding.  There are definite admirers of the film given its technical achievement but how much enthusiasm will that translate to given the big problems with the film are its screenplay.

Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty and Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables could shake up the race significantly when they have their big debuts.  A big adaptation like Les Miserables could be all too familiar for an Academy member, and the fact that it’s considered a “tear-jerker,” could have its lovers falling head over heels as its one of the last things they’ll see before their ballots are due.

Late contenders are attempting to make some noise in this latter part of the year.  Gus Van Sant’s Promised Land with Matt Damon and John Krasinski just showed the first trailer.  High-brow political dramas have done well with the Academy before.  Sacha Gervasi’s Hitchcock from Fox Searchlight will be making a play for Oscar in November with Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren in tow.

We tread this ground often, naming off films and contenders but let me give some insight into the predictions and the direction its going:

Last year all pundits could talk about was how many Best Picture nominees there would be.  We ended up with nine and I think we’ll end up within that this year.  Likely eight or nine.  We’ll never have just five, not with the 5% rule, and we’ll probably not have ten, only because it’s too perfect.

Last “Power Hour,” when Scott Feinberg joined us, we spoke about locks and such.  I never like using “lock” in September let alone any other month.  Argo is probably good for a spot but honestly, I think that’s it for now.  The reception of David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook from Toronto got people a little over-zealous about where the film could land.  Is it a Best Picture possibility?  Absolutely but I don’t think it’s nowhere locked in as they say it is yet.  #8 is good spot for it when audiences haven’t seen it yet.

Life of Pi is probably the second most likely candidate up for a spot.  The problem with “Pi,” is when you watch the film, it almost sets itself up for failure.  When the writer says, “a story that will make me believe in God,” it shoots expectations through the roof, at least on my end.  The story, while ambitious, isn’t exceptional by narrative standards.  It’s presented, a bit clunky, and lays in the background of a visual spectacle that Ang Lee creates.  I think many will admire it enough to nominate it but a win, especially given its religious tones, is harder to achieve.

I’ve went heavy on Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, perhaps foolishly but a story centered around Americans and the killing of one of the worst war criminals in history will get many talking.  Bigelow’s a previous nominee and winner teamed up with Mark Boal and an all-star cast.  I’ve still haven’t been cured of my “Chastain-itis,” the disease that makes Jessica Chastain irresistible and eager to nominate.  She’s positioned to win an Oscar in the next year or so.  Joel Edgerton was quite effective in last year’s Warrior, a film that only had co-star Nick Nolte reap the awards.  In “Zero,” Edgerton hopefully has enough gumption and development to stand out.

Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina received mixed reviews from Toronto and members of our own staff.  Knightley is still on the table in a big way but perhaps Jude Law can find some wiggle room into Supporting Actor.  His category is interesting because so many men are vying for spots that any of them could become a frontrunner as soon as the National Board of Review announces their winners.  A lot of us are crossing our fingers for Leonardo DiCaprio trying to capitalize on a villainous role in Tarantino’s Django Unchained.  The film has been so weirdly quiet so far and the expectations are at a all-time low.  Maybe that works in his favor.

Last year, I made my wishes for the season.  These aren’t based on many performances or films I’ve seen rather than a hopeful and exciting yearning for a mysterious season.  Some are personal biases but they’ll be obvious as you read through.

  • Joaquin Phoenix beats the perplexing reaction to The Master
    • Phoenix delivers the best performance of the year or any year beginning with the #2.  It’s been so surprising how much Phoenix’s work as resonated and stuck with me since I’ve seen The Master.  The film’s confusing response may cost him.  Hopefully his construction of an authentic character won’t matter.
  • Hitchcock is nominated for absolutely nothing
    • Haven’t seen it, Hitchcock’s presence in the race has stunk up the place.  It felt short-sided and a last-minute decision, even if they did have a place to sneak Helen Mirren or Anthony Hopkins in.  Fox Searchlight has two decent horses in the form of Beasts of the Southern Wild and The Sessions.  If they wanted to, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is decent enough to have the older members gravitate towards.
  • Flight shows that Denzel Washington still got it.
    • For much of my childhood, I thought Denzel was the greatest actor ever.  I watched Malcolm X (1992) at the age of ten, which I shouldn’t have been, and being in complete awe of what Washington was committing to on-screen.  It’s one of my favorite performances ever.  In Flight, Paramount Pictures promises or believes they have a contender in the film and Denzel.  In the past few years Denzel has produced works like The Book of Eli (2010), The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 (2009), and Déjà Vu (2006), all sub par turns.  Even performances where critics are on board (Unstoppable, 2010, The Great Debaters, 2007, American Gangster, 2007), they still feel like a mirage of his former self.
  • More Foreign Language Performances and International Actors in Oscar Contention
    • The usual suspects are on the table like Marion Cotillard for Rust & Bone and Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Tringnant for Amour.  Considering works like Nina Hoss in Barbara, a performance that’s so much bigger and greater than the film she’s a part of.  I’ve heard great things about Gael Garcia Bernal in Chile’s submission for Foreign Language Film No.  Omar Sy received standout notices in France’s The Intouchables.  Whatever problems I had with Ang Lee’s Life of Pi, Irrfan Kahn is the best performer of the film.  It’s about time he receives some recognition.  I’m sure our readership has more to name.
  • Small films make a splash
    • In other years I’ve made my voice heard on the Academy ignoring little films like Shame (2011), Once (2007), and A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints (2006).  This year Nicholas Jarecki’s Arbitrage has blazed through my cinematic mind like no other.  Very aware the film has no chance at serious awards attention outside of Richard Gere and an Original Screenplay mention, both long shots, the film is worthy of Picture, Director, and Supporting Actor mentions.  Still unknown if it’s making a 2012 début, Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha is a beautiful study of a quirky character that’s creditable.  Greta Gerwig deserves to be in any Best Actress lineup.  At NYFF I loved the documentary Liv & Ingmar, a film that radiates love like no other film this year.
  • Minorities Making Their Marks
    • This is a yearly wish but this year makes no difference.  Dwight Henry is the finest thing about Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild, probably my favorite supporting performance of the year so far.  Attached to him is the little miracle that is Quvenzhane Wallis.  Irrfan Kahn, echoed again, is the standout of Life of Pi.  Chris Rock surprised the socks of me in his first semi-serious role in 2 Days in New York.  Writer Sergio G. Sanchez and Director Juan Antonio Bayona are a great pair that elevate The Impossible to spiritual levels.  Sight unseen I’d love to see Kerry Washington standout in Django Unchained or Michael Pena in End of Watch, a performance praised by many.  Nate Parker is an admirable choice for citation in Arbitrage and/or Rashida Jones for co-writing Celeste & Jesse Forever.
  • Veterans Getting Their Long Overdue Recognition
    • It happens.  Actors that have worked for years, virtually ignored and never rewarded.  On the non-nomination front, John Goodman’s non-invitation to the Oscars is mind-boggling.  This year with Argo, it could be his best shot.  Though not the best film of the year, Kathleen Turner’s performance in The Perfect Family is first-rate.  Some will throw in the likes of Matthew McConaughey in Magic Mike, Richard Gere in Arbitrage, and Hugh Jackman in Les Miserables, actors that are still in serious contention.  Jack Black finally has put something worthy out in Bernie while Scarlett Johansson will be looking to capitalize as “Janet Leigh” in Hitchcock.  With past nominees never rewarded, Joaquin Phoenix, Leonardo DiCaprio, Anne Hathaway, Amy Adams, and Laura Linney are obvious choices.  What about Toni Collette, surprisingly with only one nomination to her credit for Hitchcock or Jesus Henry Christ?  Same goes for David Strathairn for Lincoln and William H. Macy for The Sessions.  Can’t wait to see how that race turns out.

As always, your opinion is more valuable than mine.  This is why we leave the comment section for you.  Check out all the predictions and their respective commentaries.  As well as the update to the Oscar Tracker Page and Golden Globes.