Fruitvale Station

The Beauty of Fibbing, Fiction, and ‘Fruitvale Station’

betcom_fruitvale_station_trailer__tmbRyan Coogler understands fiction.

He’s a master of atmosphere, and a composer of visual harmony. He does what only the most skilled of directors can: he simply takes reality and makes it art.

You can re-interpret, re-envision, and re-invent other media. What that does, however, is make you the authority. You must do what we’re told from a very young age is a cardinal social sin: you must become the fibber when taking on projects with real-world roots, as reality doesn’t nicely fall together with cinematic flow. You must embellish, and you must create.

Coogler understands the delicacy of his situation and takes charge of it with his Fruitvale Station, choosing to weave a cinematic retelling of the controversial events surrounding Oscar Grant, a 22-year old black male who was shot to death by police officers in 2009.

The film contains no preceding titles telling us if the film was “inspired by” or “based on” true events. We know it is, and Coogler knows we know it is. After all, as the circumstances that bolster the film still ring in our collective memory all too painfully.

Accusations of police brutality sparked riots across the country after Grant was killed. Some accused Bay Area Railway Transit police of extreme negligence; of racism; of lacking compassion for their fellow man. The face of law was tainted with seemingly innocent blood.

We can never fully understand the motivations of the officers involved, and events of Grant’s life will forever remain a mystery. We were not with him at the time of his death, nor were we at his side as his the final twenty four hours of his life unfolded.

Coogler crafts a daring interpretation of the final day Grant was able to pick his daughter up from school, have sex with his girlfriend, hug his mother, and plead with his ex-boss for a second chance at a job he’d been fired from. Grant’s life as a human ended in tragedy with real-life reverberations, but Coogler understands the power of fictional affect, and Grant as a character becomes a dynamic canvas for us to feel so much more.

We must never forget that Fruitvale Station is fiction, and that fiction sometimes can be just as powerful as the truth. You can feel the real-world implications of Grant’s death (oppression, anger, injustice) coursing through the film’s veins in its atmosphere, as Coogler takes on his role as the God of his own universe. We see Grant how Coogler wants us to see him–not as he was, but how the film requires us to: in beautifully-framed glimpses against the sunlight, in the quiet moments of his personal turmoil, scenes with surreal beauty we can’t experience in real life.

Fruitvale Station is best when it does what it needs to do as a narrative, as a work of art, and as an entity that’s complimentary to the truth, not substituting itself for the truth. The film does not make Oscar Grant out to be a hero. It does, however, mold a character from shreds of his actual existence.

The film feels impressionistic, but it is not aimless. Coogler weaves a tale of a man without direction, but with massive heart. It’s a mistake to take this as a testament of the real person. None of us knew Oscar Grant, but the film’s greatest strength is that it doesn’t place judgment upon him, nor does it elevate him to heroic status. He’s swamped by a million different things. He’s lazy, he’s lost his job by his own error, and boasts a lengthy criminal history, he does drugs, he cheats on his girlfriend, but he’s also a loving father, an indebted son basking in the light and love of his mother, and chugging along the rails of a life that seeks to reject him as a minority. There’s no evil in that. There’s fault in his actions, but only from the perspective of the rest of us in glass houses. We’re all surrounded by panes of glass; Grant’s just happened to be collecting societal grime, easier to see, and easier to shatter.

The film does become important as a testament to contemporary American culture, not merely as a recreation of “true” events. The circumstances surrounding the real Oscar Grant’s death are ambiguous. Was he resisting arrest? Was the officer rightfully fearful of Grant’s behavior? These are questions that seductive fiction–such as the story of Coogler’s Grant–can give us perspective on. Art forces us to question the world around us, not take it for what it is; there’s no reason a film based on true events should be taken as gospel, and there’s never an inkling that this is how Coogler wants us to see his film.

There’s a scene in Fruitvale Station which sees Oscar Grant step onto the BART train that would serve as his dinghy across the River Styx. From the platform, we see the doors open. Grant is pulled into a mass of people already on the train by his girlfriend, the doors shut, and the train whisks them away. We remain fixed, watching each car pass by, and the faces and bodies it contains blend together in a blur of human mass.

The real Oscar Grant was probably like those people on the subway, blending together as we pass them at breakneck speed on a train or casually on the sidewalk. He was probably the flawed character Coogler paints for us in Fruitvale Station. He was probably the adoring father his daughter most likely knew. We’ll never know, but Coogler insists on celebrating the mystery, making it beautiful, and prodding us to want in.

Fiction embellishes truth, creates image, stages scenes of  beauty, and gives us perspective on the burden of our reality waiting on the other side of the credits.

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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.

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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

’12 Years a Slave’ Leads Spirit Award Nominations

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The gates are open, and the 2014 Film Independent Spirit Award nominations are here. With only a few short weeks to go until we’re in the thick of Oscar season, who reaps the real benefits of a nomination here?

It comes as no surprise that Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave finds its official footings on the Best Picture race here. It leads the pack of Spirit nominations with seven nominations in major categories, including Best Feature, Best Actor, and both Supporting categories. While I find it troubling that films which exceed the Spirit Awards’ “limit” of the $20 million range can still be considered contenders in this race (Silver Linings Playbook did this last year), McQueen’s film is an artistic challenge to traditional historical dramas. The firmness of this film’s grasp over what could be a monumental year for the AMPAS (first female black president, potentially the first black filmmaker to win Best Director) is tightening by the day, and we’re on the brink of having a potentially unstoppable film sweep the rest of the season.

The Coen brothers also find themselves sitting pretty with a multitude of nominations for Inside Llewyn Davis. They are visionaries in the field of independent filmmaking, and can continue to be such thanks to their tried and true ability to turn a profit on their films. There seems to be a slight lack of confidence backing Inside Llewyn Davis on the part of the Oscar pundits, however, though when I feel myself doubting the film’s ability to score with the Academy, I remind myself that both True Grit and A Serious Man (a film that had considerably less buzz behind it going into the Oscar race than Inside Llewyn Davis does) were able to rack up major nominations, and my confidence is restored.

A justifiable, respectable campaign can now be mounted by the team behind Short Term 12, a film that was on the tip of awards season’s tongue but wasn’t a part of a fully-formed sentence until now. The film’s most promising potential for Oscar glory lies within its star, Brie Larson, as her name appears on Oscar pundit shortlists as far back as August and September.

With SAG ballots in the mail and the Spirit Award nominations being the only major precursor to have announced nods so far, Larson’s crawl to the Best Actress category is pacing nicely. Michael B. Jordan’s forgotten path to the Oscars seems somewhat rekindled here, though the recognition for Fruitvale Station was altogether expected at the Spirits. It’s never a bad idea to have your name appear in every trade paper during an awards campaign.

There’s a part of me that believes the Spirit push for Frances Ha will help find a home for the film on Academy ballots, though I’m completely baffled by the lack of love for the film outside of the Best Feature category. Greta Gerwig—the film’s driving force—performs fantastically in front of the camera as well as on the page (she co-wrote the screenplay with director Noah Baumbach). Her drive and charisma coursing through the film’s veins embodies the passionate workmanship we’ve come to associate with Independent cinema, and it’s a shame that her efforts weren’t recognized by an organization priding itself on the “spirit” of DIY moviemaking.

Both All Is Lost and Nebraska gain steam thanks to multiple Spirit nominations, though I believe both already have homes within several key Oscar categories. If anything, the push for Bruce Dern’s nomination in the Best Actor category remains on-track versus getting any significant push, and the same can be said for Redford. The only major Best Actor player yet to be seen by American audiences is Leonardo DiCaprio and his work in The Wolf of Wall Street.

The full list of nominees:

Best Feature:

Frances Ha
Nebraska
All Is Lost
12 Years a Slave
Inside Llewyn Davis

Best Director:

Shane Carruth – Upstream Color
J.C. Chandor – All Is Lost
Steve McQueen – 12 Years a Slave
Jeff Nichols – Mud
Alexander Payne – Nebraska

Best First Feature:

Concussion
Blue Caprice
Fruitvale Station
Una Noche
Wadja

Best Lead Male:

Bruce Dern – Nebraska
Chiwetel Ejiofor – 12 Years a Slave
Oscar Isaac – Inside Llewyn Davis
Michael B. Jordan – Fruitvale Station
Matthew McConaughey – Dallas Buyers Club
Robert Redford – All Is Lost

Best Lead Female:

Cate Blanchett – Blue Jasmine
Julie Delpy – Before Midnight
Gaby Hoffman – Crystal Fairy
Brie Larson – Short Term 12
Shailene Woodley – The Spectacular Now

Best Supporting Female:

Lupita Nyong’o – 12 Years a Slave
Melonie Diaz – Fruitvale Station
Sally Hawkins – Blue Jasmine
Yolanda Ross – Go For Sisters
June Squibb – Nebraska

Best Supporting Male:

Jared Leto – Dallas Buyers Club
Michael Fassbender – 12 Years a Slave
Keith Stanfield – Short Term 12
Will Forte – Nebraska
James Gandolfini – Enough Said

Best Screenplay:

Woody Allen – Blue Jasmine
Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke, and Richard Linklater – Before Midnight
Nicole Holofcener – Enough Said
Scott Neustadter Michael H. Weber  – The Spectacular Now
John Ridley – 12 Years a Slave

Best International Film:

Blue is the Warmest Color
A Touch of Sin
Gloria
The Great Beauty
The Hunt

Best First Screenplay:

Lake Bell – In a World
Joseph Gordon-Levitt – Don Jon
Bob Nelson – Nebraska
Jill Soloway – Afternoon Delight
Michael Starrbury – The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete

Black Cinema and the Oscars; “The Butler” and “Fruitvale Station” as Game-Changers?

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Will 2013 be the Oscar year for black cinema? We can attempt to sift the answer out of the Academy’s track record for failing to recognize influential black cinema; it’s an issue that comes up a few times every Oscar season, and for good reason.

Just ask Spike Lee.

I detest the word “minority” not for its inherent definition, but for its becoming a socially-coded word synonymous with “outcast” or “inferior.”

Minority is small. Minority is defeated. And in a system such as the Academy’s voting process—which sees a membership that’s 94% Caucasian cast ballots to determine the best films of the year—the majority often has unchallenged control of the status quo.

Is this not how democracy works, you say? Sure. But when such a high percentage of one race, age group, and gender (old white men) determines what qualifies as great cinema within an industry in which so many “minorities” have given themselves an independent voice, we often question what is presented to us and deemed worthy. It’s good fun predicting the outcome but, at the end of the day, the system becomes all too predictable thanks to the consistent complexion of the voting base year after year.

The last time the Academy wholeheartedly accepted a film by black filmmakers, about black people, for black audiences, was 2009’s Precious. That’s four calendar years. 2011’s The Help, which received numerous nominations, was crafted primarily by white hands and told from the perspective of a white protagonist. It detailed black issues, albeit coming off more as a product of white guilt (a white woman almost single-handedly combats racism in a small Mississippi town) than a beacon of the black voice that is so often stifled in mainstream Hollywood cinema.

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And then we look at calendar year 1985, when The Color Purple received 11 nominations without notching a single win. Also directed by a white male (Steven Spielberg) The Color Purple was—more distinctly than The Help—a film with a black cast dealing with, for the sake of this argument, “black” issues. Marred by controversy on both sides (NAACP protests against the film’s portrayal of black males, industry backlash when Spielberg was snubbed for a Best Director nomination), The Color Purple stands as a reminder of the inability for the film industry, as progressive a medium it often tends to be, to agree on issues of race and presentation.

Precious was unique in the sense that Mo’Nique, giving one of the most emotionally-arresting performances in any film, was awarded a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for a role in a black film. Her costars are primarily black, her director is black, and the film’s narrative is told from a black perspective—and it’s not pretty. It can’t be glossed over with Jessica Tandy in a Sunday hat. Quite simply, it’s something white Oscar voters tend to shy away from recognizing. Of course other black actors and actresses have won Oscars, but the films which birthed their performances aren’t necessarily “cultural” cinema in the way that Precious featured a black cast, a black director, and a black narrative perspective.

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The Butler, helmed by Precious director Lee Daniels, chronicles the life of a White House butler who served several presidents during his tenure. It comes as an almost accidental metaphor for the Academy itself. An industry built on “alternatives” from the very start and throughout its history (“film is fad, film is not art,” countercultural independent and art films, subculture film movements, etc.), its flagship product is still determined by a gathering of old white men. The film is building immense buzz, especially for Oprah Winfrey’s supporting performance—for which it seems poised to win if things continue as they are. The Butler, however, might come as the first film to be widely recognized by Oscar to feature a black perspective commenting on a white status quo (whether historical or contemporary is irrelevant).

And then we have Fruitvale Station, which falls in-step far more comfortably with a film like Precious, though dealing with contemporary issues of race and power with real-world implications as its protagonist, Oscar Grant (played by Michael B. Jordan, sure to earn a Lead Actor nomination here), existed outside the confines of a fictional text. The film continues to resonate with audiences and critics alike, and will likely be a contender in a few major categories at this year’s Oscars.

That gives us two products of black cinema building Oscar momentum. I don’t think either film has a serious shot to threaten the likes of American Hustle or The Wolf of Wall Street’s chances at winning Best Picture. In a way, I don’t think they were ever in a position to, as films like The Color Purple or Do The Right Thing were crowning achievements of racial discourse within their respective calendar years. Sure, films deemed as the best picture of the year often fade into obscurity not even a year after their crowning (I’m looking at you, Argo), but there’s something so momentarily important—urgent, even—about the importance of what the Oscar ceremony says about our culture and film industry as a whole, and our society is long overdue. Argo was, in the simplest terms, the safest choice out of last year’s crop of Best Picture nominees. It was topical enough (conflict in the Middle East) to be relevant, but a social statue of limitations, if you will, (it chronicles events which took place decades ago), kept it from veering too far into controversial territory. If it’s one thing the Academy has been consistently afraid of over the years, it’s controversy (just ask Kathryn Bigelow). Safe bets prevail over artistic or social radicals. David Lynch was nominated for Best Director for Blue Velvet and Best Picture was only a fraction away from Brokeback Mountain’s grasp, but they were present, no? Inclusion is recognition, but the prize is reserved for films that everyone can sit back and feel comfortable about, and while The Butler and Fruitvale Station are far away from changing the game entirely, the fact that they are even in the Oscar race at all is vital for continued presence of a racial dialogue in mainstream cinema. Oscar winners often fail to capture the immediacy and cultural spirit of their respective years, favoring “safe” or “default” winners over anything slightly controversial—even if that controversy (say, in the case of Zero Dark Thirty or Do The Right Thing) preserves the climate of the society and point in history the film came from.

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If 2013 has taught us anything it’s that the industry is shifting towards more specific audiences than big-budgeted, broadly-appealing blockbusters. Where male-driven-and-targeted pictures like The Lone Ranger, R.I.P.D., White House Down, and Pacific Rim failed to make even close to their supersized budgets back in ticket sales (each cost well over $100 million to produce), films with unique appeal (The Purge, The Conjuring, Now You See Me), a built-in commentary on race or culture (The Butler and Fruitvale Station will earn their budgets back by the end of their runs) or the female-driven “Bridesmaids Effect” (The Heat) surged with audiences. We’re consistently shown that things which challenge the heteronormative standard are popular with audiences; why, then, are we consistently reminded of the opposite when it comes to championing the best films of the year at the Academy Awards?

As the Academy welcomes its first black female president (as well as a diverse range of women and minorities joining its ranks, from Jennifer Lopez to Ava Duvernay), we’re still not at a point where we can call the playing field even. It’s easy to view wins for films such as In the Heat of the Night (white director) or Driving Miss Daisy (white director) as mere apologies for cinematic inequality. We can only hope that, with renewed vision and a healthy dose of time, we will see the type of change that Do The Right Thing could have brought if only it had been so lucky all those years ago.

Mining for Early Oscar Gold

Michael B. Jordan in Fruitvale Station

Michael B. Jordan in Fruitvale Station

Breathe in. Breathe out.

Is it smooth, yet? The air?

Just curious, because I’ve had a hell of a time adjusting to the dust cloud that’s been accumulating on Blu-Ray copies of Argo.

Last year’s recipient of the Best Picture Oscar faded from prominence even faster than the previous year’s The Artist, a gimmicky Academy-pleaser in itself, thanks to a sympathy-based vote to accredit director Ben Affleck with some semblance of relevance as his career transitions from notable star to almost-there-but-not-quite-yet filmmaker. Whereas Argo‘s meritless win leaves a sour taste in my mouth, I’m more than happy to shake the Oscar etch-a-sketch and begin afresh with 2013’s crop of awards season contenders.

This year we welcome new talents to compete with industry mainstays. We harken back to the eras of social icons of years past and adapt their lives for a contemporary audience. We relish in a year that Meryl Streep’s potential to win a fourth Oscar increases dramatically. We revisit previously-published material with a fresh cinematic perspective; but, most importantly, we face another year of submission to The Weinstein Company which, if all tentative release dates remain unchanged, will see six of their distributed films as likely contenders at the next Oscar ceremony.

Here’s a look at a few other industry figures bound for greatness during the 2013 awards season.

It’s going to be a good year for:

Anyone involved with Fruitvale Station

The freshman feature effort from USC graduate Ryan Coogler is one of the buzziest films coming out of 2013’s festival circuit.

Having claimed both the Grand Jury and Audience prizes for a dramatic feature at Sundance as well as sashaying away from Cannes with Best First Film after screening in the Un Certain Regard section, Fruitvale Station is shaping up to be a major contender in at least three major categories.

Coogler’s film, about the real-life events surrounding the murder of Oscar Grant by an Oakland police officer, joins the ranks of other grim Sundance prizewinners like Winter’s Bone, Precious and Frozen River–which each went on to be recognized by the Academy with major nominations (and a few wins) in key categories.

The film hosts the breakout role for star Michael B. Jordan who, after having had minor roles in television (“Friday Night Lights”) and a few pictures (last year’s Chronicle), finally gets the chance to show his dramatic chops off for a wider audience.

Fruitvale Station seems poised to score nominations for Best Picture and Best Actor coupled with building momentum which could potentially push co-star (and Oscar-winner) Octavia Spencer into the Supporting Actress race, which could easily happen as the Weinsteins have acquired the film for distribution.

Besties Naomi Watts & Nicole Kidman…and dead cultural icons

It’s unfair to pit two actresses against each other for the sake of a gendered contest.

In the case of Naomi Watts and Nicole Kidman, however, the challenge will be how to endure the barrage of questions from reporters to the tune of “how does it feel to be nominated against one of your closest friends?” this awards season.

Both actresses are all but sealed into the Lead Actress category for their respective roles in Diana and Grace of Monaco (Watts in the former, Kidman in the latter).

Naomi Watts’ talents have catapulted her far past the point of simply “deserving” an Oscar; she’s one of the most talented and, on the other side of the coin, underrepresented actresses in the industry. Her work in films like Mulholland Drive, Ellie Parker, and The Assasination of Richard Nixon represent just a handful of performances overlooked by the Academy in relatively quiet seasons. She’s gaining status as an underdog, however, as she squeaked into the Lead Actress race last year for her brilliant turn as Maria Bennett in The Impossible, a race within which she was actually being predicted as a potential spoiler after Entertainment Weekly’s annual Oscar issue saw her name mentioned by a majority of anonymous Oscar voters who’d been interviewed a short time before the Oscars.

The Academy favors Lead female performances attached to roles based on real women in positions of political and/or social power; think winners like Helen Mirren in The Queen, Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady, and nominees like Cate Blanchett and her turn as the namesake royal in Elizabeth (and its poorly-received sequel Elizabeth: The Golden Age).

Judging from Diana‘s trailer, the film will focus on the softer side of her notorious public identity which, I’m assuming, gives Watts a chance to show off her emotional depth instead of the usual controlled, stoic coldness that generally comes with these types of roles (as a side note, she’s also got a juicy role coming up in this year’s Adore, also starring Robin Wright).

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Kidman, on the other side of the coin, is far from a being a stranger to the Academy Awards. She’s an Oscar winner and a multiple-time nominee. While she had a buzzy-ish film floating around the perimeter of last year’s awards season (she made it into the Globes categories with The Paperboy), the Weinsteins will make sure that she has a spot amongst this year’s nominees for her turn as Grace Kelly.

The Weinsteins have a great track record for getting their actors nominated in major categories (Jacki Weaver’s spot in the Supporting Actress category was surely bought for her through “campaigning,” as she had no other right to be there), so Kidman’s pre-established Oscar identity is coupled nicely here with a Weinstein push.

It’s also interesting that these two roles are seeing the light of day in 2013 what with the incessant talk about social media, quick-fix fame, celebrity (and personal) accessibility, etc.

Both Princess Diana and Grace Kelly are posterchildren for the obsession with fame and its various aspects of decay. Diana of course died a highly-publicized death after the car she was riding in (manned by a drunk driver) crashed after a cat-and-mouse with paparazzi; Grace would die of a stroke/car crash combo after leaving a life of Hollywood luxury behind to marry a royal from Monaco (thereby becoming a princess). After only six years in the film industry (with one Academy Award under her belt), Kelly became one of the most popular stars of classical Hollywood cinema. In an age of post-internet accessibility, the public is growing increasingly bored with the flash-and-gimmick celebrities of the contemporary industry; Diana and Grace represent the mainstay of stardom and the impact of talent, presence, and prominence which takes on new meaning in an age of meaningless objectification, Facebook, selfies, and events that would later go on to inspire films like The Bling Ring and Spring Breakers.

Look for Watts and Kidman to both be nominated in the Lead Actress category.

Documentaries

Sarah Polley in Stories We Tell

Sarah Polley in Stories We Tell

Not many people can go from playing dumbed-down roles in horror films like Splice to directing emotionally-charged documentaries quite like Sarah Polley.

She killed zombies in Dawn of the Dead (2004) and wrote/directed indie dramas like Take This Waltz, and now she’s taking a stab at a scripted-documentary hybrid with Stories We Tell, which chronicles her life as the product of an extramarital affair.

Polley weaves in staged footage recreating her early life with interviews with her family, piecing together her history funneled through a narrative perspective while maintaining the cinematic resonance of an objective documentary. The documentary is garnering the best reviews of Polley’s career, earning a spot on the Toronto International Film Festival’s Top 10 Canadian films list as well as making a few minor splashes at festivals around the world.

Other notable documentaries releasing in 2013 include the polarizing-yet-provocative We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks and 20 Feet From Stardom.

The Coen Brothers

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On the heels of their True Grit remake, the Joel & Ethan Coen return with Inside Llewyn Davis, which took the Grand Prix Award at Cannes and continues to work the festival circuit until its release smack dab in the middle of Oscar season this December.

Earning rave reviews from critics, the Coens take a step back from some of their darker subject matter and instead draw on inspiration from the folk music scene in the 1960s. The film stars a slew of talented actors from John Goodman and Carey Mulligan to Justin Timberlake and Adam Driver.

The Academy generally loves the Coens, as many of their past films have been nominated for screenwriting. It takes a film like No Country For Old Men, however, for nominations and sentiment to lead to ultimate gold; it is, to date, their only picture to have won the top prize at the Oscars. Inside Llewyn Davis will be nominated in major categories ranging from Best Picture to Best Original Screenplay, not garnering enough momentum to match No Country‘s prestige yet scraping up a few more nominations than 2009’s A Serious Man or 2000’s O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Art Films

Nebraska film still

Before Midnight is currently slaying critics and audiences alike. Nebraska and Only God Forgives are respectively setting festivals and trade papers abuzz with claims of epic quality of script and performance. No, this isn’t the early 90s, it’s 2013, and the art film scene is heating up the pre-awards season circuit already.

While Steven Spielberg and George Lucas are busy predicting the “implosion” of the film industry thanks to big-budget studio productions not just cornering a niche market, but backing the entire market into a corner it can’t escape from (funny Spielberg would say this as a criticism and then proceed to executive produce Transformers 4 set for a 2014 release), a select few art films seem poised for Oscar greatness this year.

Before Midnight seems likely to receive a nomination in the Adapted Screenplay category (Before Sunset received one nine years ago amidst the growing cult status for the series, now three entries in), and Nebraska could sneak into the Lead Actor category (Bruce Dern was named Best Actor at Cannes for this role) while Only God Forgives might afford Kristin Scott Thomas a nomination in the Supporting Actress category if her buzz runs consistent through the end of awards season.

Also circling the Oscars in the art film department is Frances Ha, written by actress Greta Gerwig and filmmaker Noah Baumbach and Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, which stars Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck.

2013 will also be good to:

Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wolf of Wall Street)
Meryl Streep (August: Osage County)
Anyone associated with The Past (Berenice Bejo, Asgard Farhadi)
Horror films (The Conjuring is getting early rave reviews as it screens at festivals, The Purge is one of the sleeper hits of the summer)
Matthew McConaughey (snubbed for Magic Mike, he’ll be rewarded with recognition for either Mud or The Wolf of Wall Street)

…and, of course, the Weinstein’s wallets.