Are the Best Picture surprises over or not?
The always insightful David Poland, of Movie City News fame, (for all you virgins to the awards season scene out there) has pulled out the “great settling” card in his latest column. Coined by Oscar-winner and this year’s show producer Bill Condon, the term refers to the obvious, a point in the race where the big guns are pretty much set and any surprises come at a minimum. In fact, besides Condon’s great “Dreamgirls” being snubbed for the presumed dead “Letters from Iwo Jima” a few years ago (yeah, I said it, get over it haters), there’ve been very few mouth gaping to the floor surprises on nomination morning in recent years.
Was anyone shocked “Walk the Line” didn’t make it in 2006? Not really. Wasn’t the writing on the wall for “Cold Mountain” in 2004? Maybe conventional wisdom said “Catch Me If You Can” or “Adaptation” would sneak in for 2003, but no one was shocked they didn’t. So, keep that in perspective as we peruse this year’s dwindling number of candidates because the “great settling” realistically hasn’t begun yet.
Any discussion has to begin with the three locks for this party (the only thing settled about this year’s race) that you can go to Vegas and put money on ‘em (just don’t sue me if I’m somehow fallible): “Frost/Nixon,” “Slumdog Millionaire” and “The Dark Knight.” The fourth “almost lock, but keep that checkbook closed” nominee is “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” David Fincher’s epic has gotten glowing reviews, but it may be suffering from frontrunner’s syndrome (i.e., “Atonement”). You don’t run into very many people who are really passionate about it. They like it, respect it, but no one loves it. Yet, the only hesitancy from this prognosticator comes from (A) the realistic possibility it significantly underperforms at the box office and (B), do voters, let alone general audiences, find it too emotionally withdrawn? Personally, my gut says it’s in, but it wouldn’t be shocking to see it get passed over.
As for the rest of the candidates, I’ve never believed in “WALL-E.” The Academy created the Best Animated Picture category for a reason and it wasn’t to have debates about whether an animated film should still be up for the traditional Best Picture race. Top ten lists aside; hearing “WALL-E” on Oscar nomination morning would raise just as many eyebrows as hollers of joy from press row.
That brings us to “Revolutionary Road” and “Gran Torino.” Sam Mendes’ drama still has a shot, but it may have hit the Academy at the wrong mindset. It's an accomplished with wonderful performances, but unlike its competitors there is an entertainment value that’s missing. “Torino,” on the other hand, is almost the polar opposite. Cult of Clint aside (and you know who you are), the town has realized Eastwood’s performance drives this movie and not much else. We could spend hours contemplating his how he chose some of the worst actors known to man, but no one needs that pain during these harsh economic times. In any event, both flicks are pretty much "out."
Now, I know what you’re thinking, “This is silly Greg. Everyone knows ‘Milk’ is going to get nominated. It’s your fifth slot.” Oh, really? Are you really so sure? Perhaps this is the big surprise. While the over-acclaimed biopic launched with lots of buzz and critical fanfare (I mean, it’s good, but it’s not that good), you have to wonder if voters are going to start to realize they loved Penn more than the movie itself. And if that occurs, that would open a door to another candidate. In fact, it would open a door to a movie long thought dead. “Doubt.”
The Meryl Streep picture isn’t a critical favorite (it's still more of a play than a movie in my book), but it’s managed to snag key secondary Best Picture nods from the HFPA, SAG (the ensemble equivalent) and more importantly, it’s doing surprisingly well at the box office. While “Frost/Nixon” is the only flick presumed to be invulnerable to the weekend theatrical grosses, “Doubt” is thriving off them…at the right time. It jumped 44% in its second weekend after doubling its screens and considering the art house competition and that “bad” weather (cough, excuses for bad movies, cough), that’s impressive. Moreover, industry peeps are talking about it. And they are talking about it passionately. So, the results of the upcoming holiday box office and the results of the increasing word of mouth will make things much clearer about how legit "Doubt's" Best Picture chances are. In fact, after New Year’s that “great settling” may actually begin to take place.
And have we learned anything else from all this pondering? You betcha. I’ve got to figure out a way to make these posts way shorter!