Oscar Season Diary #7: Passion and Transformation

Gravity-Movie-Space-2013-640x360We spend so much time arguing about movies. 2013 is no exception, as one of the most intensely scattered races in recent memory has brought showers of praise–and an equal amount of detraction–upon a vast array of potential frontrunners.

Tomorrow, the Academy’s 6,000 members begin the nomination process, which should provide a bit of clarity by the time their selections are made public on January 16th.

As last year proved, the Academy encounters another difficult task thanks to the date change. Without the usual nominations from the DGA or PGA to use as a springboard, Academy members must again this year do two things they’ve never been much good at; see every film in contention and make up their own minds.

The film purist in me holds on to the idea that the sacred art of quality cinema is what leads Oscar voters to make the right choice. Year after year, that’s proven to be nothing more than a fantasy we go out of our way to believe will prevail when, 90% of the time, we’re slapped in the face with the exact opposite.

There’s an affection for longevity of career and for persistence that runs in-line with Academy voting. It’s at the root of all praise, regardless if it’s capped off with a golden statue at a fancy, televised ceremony, but thanks to the preferential ballot the Academy has used for the past few years, affection can now be wielded as a champion’s sword.

Last year, we saw Beasts of the Southern Wild and Amour garner critical nominations in key categories over seasonal favorites such as Ben Affleck and Kathryn Bigelow. We all know how that one turned out.

2013’s frontrunners tout themes about passion or attaining the ideal (Her, Inside Llewyn Davis, American Hustle) or trying to regain it (12 Years a Slave, Gravity). These are films with intense emotional pull and drive, things that people very easily latch on to. With these 5 films heading into the Oscar nomination process as frontrunners, it’s not difficult to see the full affect of the Academy’s decision to up the cap of Best Picture nominees to 10.

With the old 5-nominee standard of yesteryear, you’d never see more than two films heading into mid-season runs at the head of the pack. This year, we have five, perhaps six. If anything, the expanded category has inspired more passion for individual projects from wider nets of people in all corners of the industry.

Gravity and Her tied for the LAFCA Best Film award, American Hustle stampeded into the race with a major early Best Film from the NYFCC, and 12 Years a Slave continues to rack up multiple, consistent nominations and wins in major categories with each of the critics circles and industry guilds.

In a continued ripple felt throughout Oscar season, each guild, each critics circle, and each Oscar blogger is out to prove one thing in the midst of the Academy’s shift to earlier voting deadlines: that they, solely, are to be trusted as prognosticator.

So who, then, does a film need to impress?

With scattered results, it seems that each precursor award thus far has only served to bolster the frontrunners’ positions as, well, frontrunners. Impressing the overall Academy is absolutely vital to scoring a Best Picture nomination.

The Wrap predicts that some 549 votes are needed to secure a nomination in this category. Films with general or overly emotional/passion-based appeal succeed on this system (even those that are divisive, like Amour and Beasts of the Southern Wild). For acting, directing, and technical categories, smaller nominating branches choose nominees, the largest being the directors and the actors, which makes the SAG and DGA Awards perhaps the most indicative of Academy voting behavior.

Let’s take a look at how past Best Picture front-runners have fared with precursors, and how they’ve fared in key categories that usually indicate an impending Best Picture win (Directing, Editing, and Screenplay):

PastWinnerPastWinnerTechUntitled(Frontrunner Key Category Ranking is projected position based on my opinion on their likelihood of winning)

It’s important to note that this year there is not a single film from 2013 which casts its net of appeal over all categories or precursors. Each have taken a top award somewhere. Gravity is hampered by its lack of an ensemble or strong script, while Her lacks push in the screenplay department as well. Gravity does lead the race in two key non-Best Picture categories, however, as its looming presence as a technical masterpiece (game-changer, some have said) will propel it to wins for Best Film Editing and Best Director.

Taking the burden of too-early over-ecstatic praise unto its shoulders from 12 Years a Slave, Gravity is victimized only by the sheer praise it received upon release that seems to have exhausted itself to the point of becoming one-note. People were rightly ecstatic about it for all the reasons it would become one of the most interesting Best Picture winner in history, but the praise got ahead of itself.

If it were to win Best Picture, Gravity would be the first female-centered film to win in nearly 10 years. It would also become the first “science fiction” (note: I don’t consider it science fiction, but the trade headlines have been labeling it that since its release, so I’ll side with the inevitable, here) film to win the top prize. These would be two precedents that would solidify the Academy’s attempt to diversify its membership.

Its close competition, American Hustle, teeters on the edge of the director race, though Russell’s film follows the hugely-successful Silver Linings Playbook. Hustle appeals to actors thanks to its huge ensemble cast–it garnered a SAG ensemble nomination as well as a nomination in each individual category–but, none of those performers are frontrunners. Best Picture is extremely hard to attain without a strong performance-based award (another reason Argo was such a glaring anomaly last year), and Hustle‘s luck fate will be determined by the SAG and HFPA and if they choose to push Jennifer Lawrence ahead of Lupita Nyong’o.

12 Years a Slave seems like, on paper, the safest choice for Best Picture at this point. Though, with reports coming from Academy screenings for The Wolf Of Wall Street of older members recoiling viciously in shock and disgust, one begs to question the Academy’s ability to handle powerful, disturbing material as in 12 Years a Slave.

Black films tend to have the least amount of luck when it comes to the Best Picture race. The Color Purple most notably garnered a staggering eleven nominations without a single win. Older voters might have appreciated the film if it were a straightforward, Americanized version of slavery, but the film is an intensely challenging, artful refocusing of the historical drama. It’s clear that there’s a push for this film, but it remains to be seen if the Academy will bite. If they’re going based on historical sentiment, they will. If they’re going based on the actual content of the film, it won’t be hard to understand if they don’t.

Each film has its strengths, but other weakness which would mar its chances in any other year. Where one film falls short, another is there to pick up the slack in a different category and vice versa.

new-images-from-the-hobbit-american-hustle-and-the-monuments-men-142354-a-1375953418-470-75
What will ultimately propel a film ahead of the others? Unless Gravity pulls an upset and adorns Sandra Bullock’s performance with its Best Female Actor award, I think we’ll have another Director/Picture split this year. American Hustle is the film to beat, if only for David O. Russell’s persistence. American Hustle is picking up steam (and substantial box-office) as the season rolls along, and that indicates only one thing: passion.

There’s a huge, generally-appealing blanket of passion for Russell’s recent work that transcends any rules or formulas used to predict the Oscars. Silver Linings Playbook was popular enough to receive surprise acting nominations in all four categories, and American Hustle will be Russell’s restitution. It’s lighter, prettier, and settles far more traditionally than 12 Years a Slave does, and Gravity simply lacks the push from the actors that Hustle has on its side.

It’s hard to get at what exactly is driving the Oscar race this season. Pundits and bloggers each seem to be skirting around the issue while being afraid to say it, but everyone is talking about everything and nothing with the 2013 Oscar race. No one really knows which way the race is headed.

It’s clear that a genuine love for championing artists, their visions, and the pure impact of their work is making its way back to the forefront of the Oscar discussion. The race is now justifiably a multi-perspective arena where every voice does matter. While Argo‘s win was insufferable because of the quality of the film, it gave the Oscars a voice, one that said–while their opinion may be juvenile at times–it’s getting back to being its own. I hope the trend continues, that these past two years have not been flukes, and that next year we don’t regress back to the campaign-and-steamroll process.

You can’t predict the heart, and the Academy might have finally found a way to let voters follow good old individual passion as its pulled along in front of their faces, seeping back into the race.

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