The Coen Brothers

Without PGA Support, Can ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ Survive?

LLEWYN2013 introduced this interesting Oscar dynamic where, even if a film misses out on what used to be a key Oscar precursor, it’s resuscitated by intense love from another guild or group.

The cycle of pre-Oscar awarding has shifted from recognizing good films to celebrating the ability of the respective guild or group to champion the right film of the year, considering the Academy can no longer use the majority of these precursor awards as springboards for their own nominations (with the new schedule, winners generally aren’t announced during or after Oscar balloting has already commenced).

All we’re doing is dancing around in circles with a different crop of films each time we pass the 360 mark.

The recent highs and lows of Inside Llewyn Davis on the awards circuit couldn’t have more fittingly encapsulated the 2013 awards season.

Within a matter of days, the Coen brothers’ latest offering went without recognition from the Producers Guild of America–a key Best Picture Oscar prognosticator–to nearly sweeping the National Society of Film Critics’ annual awards.

The National Society of Film Critics’ top honors for Best Film were bestowed upon Davis, with other wins in the Directing, Actor, and Cinematography categories, each a category that other Oscar contenders have led across the board since the beginning of the season. Gravity‘s Alfonso Cuaron and 12 Years a Slave‘s Steve McQueen have dominated the Director race, while Chiwetel Ejiofor, Matthew McConaughey, and Bruce Dern have control the discussion on Best Actor.

The PGA turned a cold shoulder to the film (as have general audiences and other Oscar precursors), which undoubtedly hurts its chances (as crossover membership is a legitimate factor here, where it isn’t with the NSFC), considering Oscar ballots aren’t due for another three days. This will work in one of two ways:

1) Academy voters will read the headlines proclaiming “Coens Left Out of PGA Nominations” as a springboard for voting for something else (“If the PGA didn’t vote for it, why should I?” mentality)

or

2) Academy voters will read the headlines proclaiming “Coens Left Out of PGA Nominations” and use it as an opportunity to vote for the film in lieu of something else (my guess is that the film occupies the same space of appeal as something like Her or The Wolf of Wall Street).

Days before Oscar nominations, one thing remains clear: no one has any idea what they’re doing–or where the race is going.

Since 2000, only two films that the National Society of Film Critics have awarded their Best Film award have gone on to win top honors at the Oscars. The difference? The Academy’s preferential ballot allows films the NSFC generally goes for (polarizing, low-profile arty films) to succeed based on passionate enthusiasm. Since films can extend their reach into the Best Picture category like never before, the NSFC’s love for Inside Llewyn Davis (which doesn’t correlate with how Oscar voters will fill out their ballots) does prove that support for the film can be all-encompassing and firm despite typical precursors which are supposed to influence other precursors. This year, everyone seems to be doing their own thing.

On the Academy’s end, they tend to recognize the Coens when they’re doing something different. That might sound like it speaks for every film in the Coens’ library (evolving their style has become key to their recent work), but taking a look at the Coens’ Academy history, it’s not.

Inside-Llewyn-Davis-trailer-1877774A Serious Man rushed the Best Picture category the first year the Academy expanded the Best Picture category to include 10 nomination slots. Undoubtedly the wild card of the group, the film was boosted by staunch Coen supporters. A year after that, True Grit caught the Academy’s eye for being an uncharacteristically showy, genre-confined turn for the duo, and received a staggering 10 nominations without a single victory. 2008’s Burn After Reading, however, was completely left out of the Oscar race because, out of their most recent work, is more reflective of the classic work the Academy fell in love with in the first place (I like to think of it as Fargo-lite).

And then we have No Country For Old Men, perhaps the best work the brothers have done over the course of their entire career. It’s hard to compare anything to Fargo, let alone to an entirely separate work from an entirely separate period in the career of the most dynamic set of directors working today. No Country For Old Men exists as an entirely separate filmmaking fantasy roaming the stratospheres far and above just about every other film made over the last two decades. The film seemed to sweep awards season with the major critics circles (NYFCC, NBR) and key guilds (including PGA, SAG, and DGA) all the way to the Oscar for Best Picture.

Inside Llewyn Davis is perhaps the most drastic departure from their signature style that the Coens have taken in their entire career, and we know people (especially the Academy) aren’t comfortable with having their expectations challenged. It’s a film which starts as a playfully pessimistic peep into the life of a struggling artist but, as it concludes, is a depressing portrait of struggle making the art, not the artist spinning it for himself. It’s showy in a way that we haven’t really seen from the Coens, incorporating an extra-filmically appealing component–its soundtrack–that resonates in ways and places the film can’t. The majority of Academy voters–the guys in the sound department, for example–are going to tick off the more outwardly appealing films instead of the subtly challenging ones such as this.

When there’s a strong push for a Coens film, its almost always strong enough to break through to the Oscar race. Misfires and delvings into more commercially-appealing territory such as The Ladykillers or Intolerable Cruelty lacked even a critical push into the awards race, proving that voting members are actually paying attention to the Coens as directors with a standard of quality that’s tangible and ever-changing. It isn’t just a voting process that rewards the name. The passion for Davis is strong.

The industry as a whole learned its lesson after Fargo fell short of the prize in the 90s: when you go for the Coens, you must go big–and for the right picture–and I’m not sure they’re convinced Inside Llewyn Davis is that film. It’s still alive without PGA support, but this week’s DGA announcement will seal its fate–hopefully for the better.

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.