2013 film awards

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.

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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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Tomorrow – What to Expect from the Screen Actors Guild

SAG
If we’re judging the race thus far by say of the critics circles, Her, Spike Jonze’s fourth feature film, emerges as the clear underdog-that-could. Though the New York Film Critics Circle shied away from recognizing it in major categories, the Los Angeles Film Critics and the National Board of Review named it their top film of the year.

Gravity also regained its footing in the race, snagging attention amid the slew of announcements this past week from the likes of the Online Film Critics Society, and circles from St. Louis, San Diego, Detroit, and Washington D.C.

Now that a few of the visible critics circles have nominated, it’s time for the major players to step into the game.

Tomorrow, the first major guild announces its nominees, and if there’s one group with a hefty influence over Academy members (largely due to heavy crossover membership), it’s the Screen Actors Guild.

Of the past 10 calendar years, SAG has awarded its top ensemble honor (the stand-in for a Best Film award) to the eventual Best Picture winner 6 times. Of the four major acting categories, the Oscar winner has been present in the SAG nomination categories 100% of the time, with the SAG-to-Oscar winner ratio playing out as follows:

SAGChart

Green = Oscar Nominee

The SAG Awards are an influential Oscar precursor, though they still seem to be in their adolescent phase as a young guild. They’ve got a hard time carving out an identity for themselves, as crossover membership into the Academy is large. SAG has the largest voting base of any Oscar pre-cursor (over 165,000), only a few thousand of which are on the nomination committee (I believe it’s around 2,000). All members are allowed to vote on winners, which usually tends to result in safe choices.

On the surface, you’d think that actors–of all industry members–would be the most willing to recognize names existing “outside” the traditional race each calendar year, but they prove to be a major Oscar litmus test time and time again. Though we consistently push for the Academy to diversify its ranks, the SAG represents a huge portion of the industry and, in turn, a more dynamic voice. If the Screen Actors Guild seeks its own identity, a real wrench could be thrown into the race if they elected to announce nominations first (imagine the reverberations felt from the Film Independent Spirit nominations to the critics circles). The NYFCC’s decision to announce their awards earlier than the other circles this year may have an impact on SAG nominations, as American Hustle had found surprising footing with the circle as SAG nomination ballots were still out (in fact, the deadline was just yesterday).

If there ever were a year for the SAG to go rogue, however, 2013 would be it. The awards race is still young, though there seems to be an expansion of possibilities versus huddling around potential winners as each precursor announces their nominations and/or wins.

The critics have proven that expectations are a dangerous thing to harbor this year, as early momentum tipped in the favor of American Hustle thanks to the NYFCC, though latter buzz settled on the likes of Gravity12 Years a Slave, and Her, though Steve McQueen’s sophomore film has yet to see forge its expected clear path to victory. This is where Gravity will struggle, though, as its cast consists of two people, though Bullock will surely receive a nomination (she’s an industry savior, a woman who can drive box-office by name alone).

So, the potential for biggest surprises tomorrow? What we won’t see nominated versus what we will see. Since the acting categories are so crowded this year (at least 5-6 “locks” in each), it’ll be entirely unsurprising to see big names knocked out of the race in favor of those on the outskirts of the race. Brie Larson or Adele Exarchopoulos instead of Emma Thompson or Meryl Streep (actors don’t take kindly to their own being mistreated, and Adele’s potential nomination could come as a compensatory nod for the disturbing reports surrounding the production of Blue is the Warmest Color) is an entirely possible scenario, as is Forest Whitaker taking the place of any of the current leading men.

THE BUTLER
Tomorrow morning, if we go by statistics, we’ll hear the name of our eventual Oscar winner read aloud as one of the nominees, though we’ll also likely see films like Nebraska and The Butler get a much-needed shove into the ring.

SAG has a soft passion for Alexander Payne’s films (Sideways won the Ensemble award, About Schmidt received multiple nomiations, as did The Descendants), and Nebraska will be no exception. This is Will Forte’s chance to break through an already-crowded category, and Bruce Dern’s to add more high-profile recognition after his win at Cannes.

The scope of The Butler‘s underestimated reach into the industry could be felt immensely tomorrow, as the film is a true ensemble starring major Hollywood players with lengthy roots and loyal connections (Jane Fonda, Oprah Winfrey, John Cusack, Robin Williams) strong enough to push it into at least two major categories. Recognition for Best Ensemble, Actor, and Supporting Actress absolutely aren’t out of the question.

Is this year’s diversity of recognition fallout from last year’s Academy balloting date changes (circles and guilds trying to compensate and maintain relevance), or is the vast openness of the race merely indicative of a great year for film with so many choices that critics and guilds can’t come to a consensus? Are we actually witnessing a growing appreciation for individual opinion and a separation from the traditional “flow” of Oscar Season, where the Academy is looking less to the typical precursors to do the work for them?

Check back here for a live update of the SAG nominees as they’re announced tomorrow morning at 9:00 AM EST (6:00 AM PST) on TNT.

Who needs SAG recognition to remain a powerful contender:

Tom Hanks – Captain Phillips
Brie Larson – Short Term 12
Will Forte – Nebraska
Oscar Isaac – Inside Llewyn Davis
Joaquin Phoenix – Her
Adele Exarchopoulos – Blue is the Warmest Color
Kate Winslet – Labor Day
Jake Gyllenhaal – Prisoners
Julia Roberts – August: Osage County
Margo Martindale – August: Osage County

Predictions:

SAGPredix

NYFCC Announces Winners: ‘American Hustle’ Shifts the Race

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The New York Film Critics Circle announced its full list of winners for the 2013 calendar year, pushing the awards season floodgates wide open.  The NYFCC tends to influence major categories at the Oscars, including Best Picture, where its crowning of American Hustle as the year’s best film throws a speed bump onto the road we all thought had been laid out in front of 12 Years a Slave.

Influencing SAG voters seems likely as well for the NYFCC, as SAG ballots aren’t due until December 9th. With Redford’s win only complicating the Best Actor race (Bruce Dern has one major win at Cannes, Redford takes the crown here) even further, it primarily functions as blow to Chiwetel Ejiofor’s chances at the Oscars. Either a larger push from the SAG will happen as a result of Redford’s win, or Redford will steamroll through to the SAG Awards and conquer the field.

Ejiofor needs as much steam as he can get, as 12 Years a Slave‘s predicted domination of the Oscar precursors seems less likely now that the NYFCC has declared a clear affinity for American Hustle, giving the film wins for Best Picture, Jennifer Lawrence, and for Screenplay. That’s not a fluke win here or there; these are formidable wins in huge categories. This push means something more so than the Spirit, Gotham, and Satellite awards do.

american-hustle

Underestimating David O. Russell’s ability to play the Oscar game was a dangerous thing for the pundits to do. Even without the Weinstein push, American Hustle has gone from questionable outsider to a solid third or fourth place in the race for Best Picture, possibly even nudging Gravity out of the way for second place.

Gravity needs to start winning at the precursors if its Best Picture chances are to remain alive. Not winning for Cinematography here (it lost to Inside Llewyn Davis, a formidable and worthy competitor in the category) could be huge, as the film’s best chances outside of the major categories were thought to have been in the techs. It’s a film people largely remember for three things: Bullock’s performance, the visual effects, and Emmanuel Lubezki’s camerawork. Its Best Picture chances merely resulted from its overwhelming success with critics and audiences. Perhaps the precursor awards are merely pulling us back to earth, as the film’s script is somewhat weaker than the rest of this year’s offerings. It’ll still rank among the year’s best films in the Best Picture race, and I fully expect the HFPA to eat it up.

It’s a shame that the tide from the Hustle wave seems to be turning so quickly away from Lupita Nyong’o and Oprah Winfrey for their terrific performances in 12 Years a Slave and The Butler, but–as with Sandra Bullock and her win for The Blind Side–Jennifer Lawrence’s bankability, likeability, and unstoppable star-power have catapulted her into a career position most actors don’t attain after a few decades let alone after only two years. I’m afraid that peaking this early could spell trouble for Lawrence’s later career, however, as two Oscars in a row might start to precede the quality of her work, leading to astronomical expectations for an actress whose appeal largely thrives on her unpredictable, unhinged nature both in interviews and within her films. It seems that the film’s other performances aren’t getting as much recognition as Lawrence, however, as Silver Linings Playbook‘s appeal was deeply rooted in its cast. Without the Weinsteins on board to push for Oscar nominations in each category, the film’s success could be determined by the SAG and if it recognizes the entire cast (or just Lawrence and Amy Adams). If that happens, it could mean lights out for 12 Years a Slave as a whole.

Cate Blanchett continues on the path to Best Actress glory, and Sarah Polley also collects a nice little push for Stories We Tell in the documentary category (the shortlist was revealed today, and the film is on it), as does Steve McQueen for his win for directing 12 Years a Slave. He becomes the first black filmmaker to win Best Director at the NYFCC Awards, and it seems unlikely that the Oscar story will be any different. The only question remains is whether or not American Hustle is simply finding a one-time home with the New York Film Critics Circle, or if this is a much broader portent of glory to come for David O. Russell.

UPDATE: Via Vulture (http://www.vulture.com/2013/12/american-hustle-tops-ny-film-critics-awards.html):

‘According to our critic David Edelstein, who is one of the NYFCC’s members, the final vote for Best Picture resulted in a rare tie-breaker. NYFCC by-laws prevent the actual numbers from being released, but Edelstein said there was a strong American Hustle camp and a strong 12 Years a Slave camp (reflected in McQueen’s best director win), and that the vote was remarkably close, with some members expressing “visible dismay” when the final number was tallied.’

If this is true now–this early in the race–the push for American Hustle is only going to get stronger. I think this year is heading into Brokeback Mountain/Crash territory between American Hustle and 12 Years a Slave. This just proves that there’s immediate passion and urgency behind Russell’s work, and that’s ever-powerful in today’s Oscar races. I just had a discussion with Sasha Stone on Twitter about it, and she seems to think AH exists “within a vacuum,” because there’s no reviews and such, which is an entirely valid point. People’s affections for Russell are clear, though, and he’sl has proven that people feel immediate affection that lasts in short, powerful bursts year after year. It pushed Silver Linings Playbook to Oscar glory, and it could do the same for American Hustle. 

The complete list of winners (UPDATED AS OF 3:26 PM):

Best Film: American Hustle

Best Actress: Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine

Best Actor: Robert Redford, All is Lost

Best Director: Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave

Best Supporting Actress: Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle

Best Supporting Actor: Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club

Best Screenplay: American Hustle

Best Cinematography: Bruno Delbonnel, Inside Llewyn Davis

Best Foreign Language FilmBlue is the Warmest Color

Best Animated Film: The Wind Rises

Best Nonfiction Film (Documentary)Stories We Tell

Best First Film: Fruitvale Station

Special Award: Frederick Wiseman