Oscar Buzz

Oscar Season Diary #8: ‘American Hustle,’ ‘Her,’ and the War of the Heart

3022037-slide-her-filmWe’re a fatherless culture heading in an unclear direction.

Can we sense, at this point, anyone at the wheel?

We’re overrun with greed, with corruption, with politics and media; we have little time to ponder the individual, or to see the soul behind the person staring back at us in the mirror. Survival is merely moving on to the next superficial stimulus.

Spike Jonze’s Her and David O. Russell’s American Hustle reveal a battle our preoccupation with the media has distracted us from acknowledging: the one within us as individuals. Both films remind us of the power of the heart–listening to it, working to preserve it–and resonate within an Oscar year that champions that very attitude.

The news is cluttered with headlines of a new war every day. From Washington to Syria, we hear about wars of ideals, wars of politics, wars of culture, wars of preference and wars of intellect. Some see bloodshed, and others exist as a momentary annoyance when, for a brief moment, we flip the channel to yet another news story about the deepening split between two roaring factions of our nation’s right and left.

If we’re given a spare moment away from the news tickers, push notifications, blinking lights, emails, and texts, it’s only natural to fall back on our own thoughts, emotions, and affections,  though we seek validation, pleasure, and stimulus from technology, and have grown dependent on it to rile us from the state of simply being able to, well, be.

Simplicity is an increasing rarity: this is the struggle that Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) undergoes on a daily basis in Her.

In the not-so-distant future, he’s a ghostwriter for countless clients who hire him to write personal letters to their loved ones. He spends his days recalling emotions he once knew as a married man, but for other people. He’s now divorced and trudging through the remnants of his soul as the world around him vacuums itself deeper and deeper into an outbreak of isolationist technology separating human from human, soul from soul.

Theodore, swayed by a convincing television ad, purchases a highly advanced operating system to cope with the loneliness. Her name is Samantha, and she’s programmed to adapt to new environments as she experiences them. Theodore is forced to confront his feelings of loneliness as he falls in love with Samantha.

The most intelligent thing about Her‘s script is its consistent urgency propelling Samantha forward as a fully-formed character. She grows, adapts, and forms feelings for herself, but most of all is able to understand that she isn’t human, which perhaps is the most beautiful thing about the film. It’s actually quite tragic in that sense, as Samantha yearns for a human body, but never loses her grip on reality. She knows she will never be human, and never tries to be.

Whereas Samantha can’t attain a sense of humanity, it’s Theo’s that she helps restore. At its core, the interactions between Samantha and Theodore are nothing more than Theodore talking to a version of himself filtered through a complex sequence of data. Samantha can only learn through her interactions with people, and she soon begins to interact with Theodore in a way that subtly holds a mirror to his face. His divorce shattered him, and his feelings of isolation and loneliness forced him into a machine-like state. It’s only thorough his acceptance of his feelings for Samantha that he can be truly happy, and he learns to be a human once again.

The film’s form is highly dependent on its content, and vice versa. There’s a gorgeous visual motif running throughout the film involving Theodore gazing out of enormous windows. Whether he’s on a subway, at work, or at his apartment, his view of the outside world is obscured by a glass shield that he can see the other side of, but can’t quite reach just yet. Without giving anything away, it’s only after he spends time getting to know himself (and Samantha), that he’s able to view what’s on the other side free from obstruction. It’s a beautiful film about the best and worst of technology, how it expands our perspective yet limits it, and how–if you don’t lose touch with your humanity–it can open your eyes instead of distract them from seeing what’s around you.

American Hustle explores these issues in a far less subtle manner. It’s classic David O. Russell spectacle. The film is about everything and it’s about nothing in particular, it’s about sexy people in extravagant costumes and the risky business they get themselves into. But, at its heart, its a story about preserving the all-encompassing, overwhelming impression of love.

Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) tells us of his childhood, one where he helped his family’s window business thrive by throwing rocks through storefront glass. It becomes clear that passion drives his actions, and that he’s not above taking control of his fate, even if it means involving himself in his own hand-spun circle of success.

He meets Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), a beautiful woman struggling to find herself amidst the hustle and bustle of urban life, and the two become inseparable. Their love spans the duration of the film, and its the glue of their affections that holds the entire film together.

american-hustle-amy-adams-1The pair embark on a scam operation together as a means to profit from what they deem to be the “lesser” men of society. They start a loan scam, where they promise to get people with poor credit loans–for a fee of $5,000. They’re eventually caught by FBI agent Richie Di Masso (Bradley Cooper), who lets them off the hook if they agree to help him bag corrupt politicians by (similar to Irving smashing windows so his family’s business could thrive) constructing a series of set-ups where they will accept bribes in exchange for political favors.

Sydney and Irving’s actions might be deplorable, but they’re motivated by the love they have for each other. They want the successful American life everyone is promised from birth, it’s just that they take an alternate route on the way there. Happiness is at the root of their actions. At the end of the day, isn’t that what we all want, whether we achieve it morally or by climbing down rungs tinged with grime?

Irving’s wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), is an essential part of the film’s recipe. Of course Irving is cheating on her with Sydney, and she knows it, though she consistently tries to one-up him instead of laying down and taking her final laps through marriage as a victim. The space she occupies (the home she shares with Irving and her son) becomes a surreal place of mockery, where she has lost her grasp on how to safely parent her child, causing fires, smoking, and regressing to a childlike state herself. The home isn’t a place where happiness lives simply because you paint a smiley face on it by marrying and staying together for the sake of normalcy. A home requires work and, most of all, love. It is not a puzzle that fits together just because you want square A to fit into circle B.

If the fantasy of American life doesn’t fit, you must change it.

American Hustle is a story of selfish people with selfish intentions. Russell’s outlook on the world is that it is simply too self-centered for its own good. Everybody is in the game of life for themselves, and survival becomes a tainted, layered byproduct of manipulation, jealousy, and greed

But, the film celebrates a rebel’s instinctual desire to buck the system of control, to never be confined to a single space, and to never relinquish control of his or her own destiny, and that’s far more “American” than staying inside the lines (or within the confines of your white picket fence dreams). American Hustle celebrates its right to be about so simple an idea in such an intriguing way, that the ambition and pacing of the the film as a whole become synonymous with its characters’ drive to attain freedom on their own terms.

Both Her and American Hustle show the lengths that humans will go to in order to feel something, whether it be success, monetary comfort, love, or otherwise–the desire of the human spirit to regain consciousness of itself so that it can exist in peace is at the root of both films.

Many of the year’s films revolve around these ideas of breaking free from confines. A self-imposed prison (Gravity, Inside Llewyn Davis), unjust incarceration (12 Years a Slave, Prisoners), or an emotional cage in the wreckage of heartbreak (Her, Blue is the Warmest Color), screenplays about regaining a sense of self have overwhelmingly dominated the awards season discussion.

GRAVITYIt’s interesting that, in 2013, the Oscar race is so filled with these films that revolve around characters attempting to regain what was once lost. Gravity’s Ryan Stone has lost faith in humanity and in herself after losing her daughter, and the film systematically constructs a beautiful cinematic metaphor for her emotional and spiritual rebirth that carries the film to its conclusion. 

12 Years a Slave sees Solomon Northrupp kidnapped from his life as a free black man in 1800s America to become a slave in the Deep South. He confronts the evils of racism and travels to the brink of his emotional stamina.

2013 ultimately was a year of battles won. When the Academy itself makes huge changes in an attempt to diversify its image, leadership, and voting base, it’s clear the tides of culture are changing, and victory can be seen for those long seen as inferior.

The year saw three black filmmakers’ names soar through the season as legitimate awards contenders. Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station was an early season favorite in key categories (Best Actor, namely), while Lee Daniels’ The Butler spat in the face of those who deemed “black cinema” (a  general descriptor, I know, but it’s for the sake of the argument, here) an unmarketable venture (it grossed nearly $150 million worldwide). I can’t remember the last time this happened, if it has ever happened in the 86-year history of the Academy Awards.

This year’s Oscars are once again, thanks to the preferential ballot, going to be driven by passionate support for smaller projects that normally wouldn’t catch Academy voters’ eyes in a year where only five Best Picture nominees were allowed.

It seems that the Academy has been attempting to restore the heart into the race, when massive campaigns and PR brainwashing has driven the awards race into an endless domino entity. Usually, we look to the precursors to definitively outline the trajectory of the Oscars. Critics circles positioned their awards earlier in the season, so they could do things like push films like American Hustle into the race with first-out-of-the-gate praise (NYFCC, here’s looking at you).

There’s a passion for the craft and a passion for a vast array of films, as we’ve seen major precursors deviate from what was expected to push what they think is the strongest film of the year. With only one week to go until Oscar nominations, there’s an entire herd heading into a pen that’s usually, this late in the game, largely less crowded. Passion is power, and people seem to be voting with their hearts.

Ultimately, as Theodore is in Her, we’re left alone to look in the mirror in the wake of these films. At the heart of top box-office draws of the year was escapism, which is equivalent to throwing a blanket over our eyes. If we’re consistently entertained by pure spectacle, how do we accept art as something multi-dimensional?

We must champion the great films from this monumental year in cinema, because they do what pure spectacle can’t—they take our hand and give a reflective clarity through the dark.

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Oscar Season Diary #1: Punditry and Responsibility

Steve McQueen, Michael Fassbender

Is it appropriate to use the word “responsiblity,” in this case?

After all, it’s film we’re talking about. Not international tension or foreign policy, right?

In a way, though, is Oscar punditry not unlike a sort of international operation? Filtering the chaos of Toronto, Telluride, and all the guilds and critics’ circles to come into a streamlined, easy-to-digest pill for those non-endowed with the knowledge of such a particular competition? I think of HitFix, IndieWire, Awards Daily; each reports in a personable manner, speaking to readers versus at them. It’s all stuffed with pretension here and there, but we’re used to that. This is Oscar Season, after all.

Awards Season blogging/punditry discourse is, for the most part, a way for the knowledgeable to be at-bat with the rest of their team at the same time, fighting for the same chance to strike the Academy’s pitch. No one asks them to, but that doesn’t stop the sensationalized coverage of this year’s September festivals from forcing their way into casual Oscar discourse.

I think immediately of Alonso Duralde (film critic at The Wrap) and Adam B. Vary (film reporter for Buzzfeed) and their Twitter spat this weekend after the former expressed his distaste with press oversensationalizing the quality of films for the sake of self-starting awards season buzz. Vary insisted the praise–specifically, that for 12 Years a Slave–was genuine, while Mark Harris (writer at Entertainment Weekly) chimed in, adding that those insisting the Best Picture race is already over aren’t doing the film any favors.

I see the side to each point. It seems that though as power and sway is taken away from critics during awards season (did we have the amount of guild awards, SAG awards, and online buzz 20 years ago? I think not) as anyone with access to the internet now wields the power of broadcast. The onslaught of praise for 12 Years a Slave coming out of Telluride and Toronto is almost knowingly self-fulfilling. What Duralde is getting at, I assume, is that the praise seems more like a wank to their individual ability to find the diamond in the rough and pat themselves on the back for doing so. The awards race has transcended mere quality. It’s about buzz, marketing, studio pushes, and (most importantly) making a splash at these game-changing early-season festivals. Voluminous praise spreads like a virus, and soon everyone is on the bandwagon, an individual part of the machine that turns appeal into gold (Blue is the Warmest Color swept Cannes like wildfire in a similar fashion).

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Perhaps the praise is merely that: praise. It’s ridiculous to judge someone’s enthusiasm for a film, especially in an age where art takes a backseat to blockbuster. I’m all for championing films that break the mold of what studios deem marketable, and 12 Years a Slave certainly looks to live up to the hype. But hype can often kill a film’s chances at the Oscars. Jumping the gun and declaring the race over when Toronto hasn’t completed is ludicrous. There were those who latched on to Argo at this point last year, but that did little good. The film, after all, was left out of the Best Director category, and only then did it become the clear frontrunner (or, colossal sympathy vote) for Best Picture. I don’t doubt the quality of Steve McQueen’s much-anticipated followup to Shame, I just hope its chances aren’t killed thanks to foam-mouthed bloggers expending its welcome too soon.

It was almost as if the desire to love 12 Years a Slave preceded it. Like a shaken bottle waiting to be uncapped. The desire to praise something different, something from a filmmaker widely ignored for superior work two years ago. That’s why the praise for films like Gravity and Dallas Buyers Club coming out of Venice, Telluride, and Toronto seems more legitimate, at least in my eyes. Both seem unexpectedly fantastic, and the reviews truly reflected that. You can tell that critics were stunned by their impact. That’s not to say that quality wasn’t expected, it just didn’t have nearly as much chatter surrounding it as the buzzier flicks did. For one, they weren’t shown at Cannes, and Cuaron’s track record has been 0 for 0 for the past seven years. Surprise passion trumps informed expectation.

Alas, Toronto is nearly over, and we still have other contenders (arguably) to sift through (August reviews should begin pouring in shortly, American Hustle and The Wolf of Wall Street have yet to screen anywhere, Saving Mr. Banks and Captain Phillips are making leaps and bounds to the forefront of Oscar discussion), and all of that only leads to the conclusion that we still have three months until nominations are announced. Sensation and accessibility to underqualified, over-shared opinions only leads one of two ways, neither favorable: building buzz (The Artist) or dying a slow death thanks to over-sharing and over-saturation of “it’s a guarantee, so lets talk about something else” (Lincoln).

Though no one asks for their opinion, bloggers an informed voice is often the best candlelight to follow in a sea of darkness. But, for once, it’d be nice to find the footing on my own.

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Current Big 4 predictions after Venice, Toronto, Telluride, and pre-screening buzz:

Best Picture
12 Years a Slave
American Hustle
Gravity
The Wolf of Wall Street
The Butler
Captain Phillips
Nebraska
August: Osage County
Inside Llewyn Davis

Best Director
Martin Scorsese (The Wolf of Wall Street)
David O. Russell (American Hustle)
Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave)
Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity)
Lee Daniels (The Butler)

Best Actor
Bruce Dern (Nebraska)
Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave)
Robert Redford (All is Lost)
Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club)
Tom Hanks (Captain Phillips)

Best Actress
Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine)
Meryl Streep (August: Osage County) – If she remains Lead, which apparently she is
Sandra Bullock (Gravity)
Kate Winslet (Labor Day)
Brie Larson (Short Term 12)

America’s Fear of Sex; “Blue is the Warmest Color” Gets NC-17 Rating

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The soft caress of a lover’s palm; The fire that rages only when your eyes lock; The electric current pulsating through two bodies at once–this is sex. Two are united, and it is beautiful.

Unless, of course, a film that attempts to capture it in full is demonized with an NC-17 rating from the MPAA. Today, Blue is the Warmest Color—the winner of the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival—received the strict rating for “explicit sexual content,” due to what is reportedly a lengthy sex scene involving two women that the author of Blue Angel (the graphic novel Blue is the Warmest Color is based on) compared to a scene of pornography.

What is the difference, then, between pornography and an explicit sex scene? The viewer’s intent, whether that be to get off or simply enjoy a narrative, gives the definition some flexibility. Sure, a sex scene in a film can be titillating, but people don’t watch films the same way they watch porn. We’re looking to fill something emotional with film, and something purely physical with porn.

Some have dubbed the scene “gratuitous” and “unnecessarily long.” I’ve yet to see it, but I have a hard time believing that a sex scene of such length could possibly read as exploitation. If something is emphasized in a narrative film (a general term I’ll use to mean anything other than pornography)—whether it be a single unbroken shot in the vein of Children of Men or a seemingly unending conversation between husband and wife in The Tree of Life—there’s justification in a filmmaker’s insistence to hesitate; to make us watch; to fixate upon some fleeting act we wouldn’t pay any mind to otherwise. If context justifies a 20-minute sex scene, then context justifies a 20-minute sex scene. Plus, I find it increasingly hard to believe that a Cannes jury consisting of Steven Spielberg, Nicole Kidman, Ang Lee, and Christoph Waltz would select a pornographic sexploitation flick for the Palme d’Or.

That’s where the mystery of sex comes into play, at least for the American public. It’s often questionable how films are increasingly violent (not necessarily gory, mind you) yet the MPAA seems to have gone lax, forgiving heaps of violence and consistently punishing nudity for simply existing; a bare breast in film is a bare breast that belongs to an actress. Slapping a film with an R-rating for “exposing” what’s real in turn demonizes the sexuality of a woman (I use the example of female nudity because it’s far more prevalent in American cinema than male nudity) and subconsciously creates a barrier for the audience; it says that this is something that should be guarded, secretive, and ultimately objectified.

Blue Is the Warmest Colour (La Vie d'Adele) film still

For the aggressive American society and its people, sex is simply more mysterious than violence. Conflict is something people associate with on a daily basis. Whether it’s berating a retail employee or arguing with family, the “spectacle of conflict,” as I’ll call it, often leads to the glorification of battle. Violence is a direct product of conflict, and American culture has become desensitized to violence as it’s accepted as an integral part of simply finding a solution. If we don’t get what we want, we automatically victimize ourselves, and instigate conflict to achieve it. We see it on reality television shows week after week. After all, we’ve been force-fed them for well over a decade now, it only makes sense that a younger generation thinks that the appropriate way to solve a conflict is to overturn a table a’la Bravo housewife.

For that, we understand violence for its accessibility, but sex is still vastly mysterious to many people. Especially homosexual sex, which is not an act the “majority” has experienced. Blue is the Warmest Color is a film which depicts lesbian sex—a sexual act far more acceptable to American males than gay sex, mind you. An NC-17 rating carries negative connotations, but hopefully that’s not to say that homosexual sex is automatically more risqué than heterosexual sex in the eyes of the American public, it’s simply othered for no other reason than a lack of relatability.

There’s a great deal of outrage at the MPAA’s decision to bestow the NC-17 rating upon Blue is the Warmest Color, particularly by people who claim that the rating is an infamous kiss of death for a film’s commercial viability—especially going into Oscar season, where such a rating is widely believed to have cost Michael Fassbender a Lead Actor nomination back in 2011 when Shame garnered the actor huge awards buzz. Outside of France, Blue’s country of origin, I don’t believe the commercial viability of the film existed in the first place. The United States, while on a fantastic path toward change and equal rights for its LGBT citizens, harbors a much more hostile social climate than those in Europe. Homosexuality is far more along the lines of “other,” and the difference between an R-rating and NC-17 will likely have little impact on the film’s grosses. I can only speak from experience when I say that films in my hometown of Pittsburgh played Shame when it was released, so if NC-17s are finding their way to C-market cinema screens, we have little to worry about in terms of how much of an audience Blue is the Warmest Color, a film which appeals to those old enough to legally see it, will reach.

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

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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.