If it's the first week of Dec. it means almost every contending film has been seen by at least someone you know in this town -- except for "Avatar" of course. James Cameron's epic Sci-Fi extravaganza aside, there are no secrets anymore. Academy members are getting their screeners, the HFPA may even know who they expect to win a Golden Globe let alone get nominated and studios are weighing the pluses and minuses of "going for it" during these strange economic times. Two films with some strong pedigree that are still very much in the mix after being screened before the Thanksgiving holiday are Clint Eastwood's "Invictus" and Peter Jackson's "The Lovely Bones."
Along with "Up in the Air," "Precious" and "The Hurt Locker," "Invictus" is probably one of the few films that can win it all. Critical reaction will be mixed, but the picture plays to audiences and should be embraced by Academy members. In fact, this pundit found it to be Eastwood's most entertaining movie in years. Call it sacrilegious Eastwood fans, but "Mystic River" and "Million Dollar Baby" were clearly overrated, "Gran Torino" and "Changeling" bordered on B-movie camp and "Flags of Our Fathers" had screenplay issues no one could ignore. "Letters From Iwo Jima" was a strong artistic achievement, but it's not so impressive when stacked up against Eastwood's true classic, "Unforgiven." "Invictus" may not be in that former winner's class, but it's damn good movie tha features an absolutely fantastic performance by Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela. Freeman is so good that when a photo of the real Mandela appears during the credits it was jarring because I forgot how little Freeman looks like the iconic South African leader. The "Dollar Baby" star is a lock for a Best Actor nomination and certainly has a shot to win. As South African rugby star Francois Pienaar, Damon is definitely in a supporting role (there was some confusion for a while whether it was a co-lead) and his buff physical transformation makes his on the field exploits entirely believable. The role itself isn't that difficult, but the context and Damon's 180 degree turn from his performance in "The Informant!" feels like it could equal a Best Supporting Actor nomination in this odd season. As for the film itself, it focuses much more on Mandela's difficult first year in office than you'd think from the trailer and has obvious but not heavy handed parallels to Obama's initial few months in office. Eastwood and Freeman make Mandela, whom many consider a living saint, a real person who suffered deep loneliness after his ascension to elected office and had strained relationships with his family. It's a fascinating portrait of a man who is willing to sacrifice whatever political clout he has to save his country from a polarizing divide (does that sound familiar?). What may haunt its Oscar hopes and diminish it with some critics is that so much of the third act takes place on the rugby field. For a sports fan, it's exciting to see Eastwood handle a game so few Americans know (including this writer), but still make the stakes of each play crystal clear.
On he other hand, a film that has divided many more audiences is Jackson's "Lovely Bones." For the longest time, the scuttlebutt was that the adaptation of Alice Sebold's novel was just a really good commercial thriller that wasn't in the Oscar hunt. Those long ago reports may have been based on earlier cuts from the film, because those who are moved and impressed by "Bones" really, really are. Then again, "Bones" may be the most polarizing film during the season because for every guild member that comes out crying at the end there is another who can't get past the over-hyped CG (ridiculous in my opinion). As HitFix's own Drew McWeeny pointed out in his review, "Bones" restores your confidence in Jackson's talent as a filmmaker due to his ability to craft a powerful and complex story between the real world and an artificial one. He's assisted by a captivating performance by Saoirse Ronan as the story's protagonist Susie Salmon and a "is that really him?" turn by Stanley Tucci as Susie's killer. What makes the film so special though are Jackson's impressive personal touches and patience during certain key moments. One particular scene finds Susie's sister Lindsey (Rose McIver) searching Tucci's character's home for evidence proving he killed her only to have him make a surprise return. This scenario isn't anything new in the history of cinema, but Jackson plays the tension like a maestro and had the audience I was sitting in at the edge of its seat. Still, the dramatic split of love and dislike between those who have seen it certainly have it on the cusp of the ten at this stage of the race.
Perfectly timed to make a wide ranging Oscar splash is another Paramount Picture release, "Up in the Air." No one wants to have the dreaded label of frontrunner, but talk to any other studio consultant in town and they'll admit the Jason Reitman dramedy has all the pieces to be a true consensus builder among the Academy. Baring any dramatic developments and with the assistance of a key year-end award or two, by the middle of January the attention may be more focused on the much tighter acting races that that little old Best Picture race.
With that in mind, here's a rundown of Awards Campaigns latest predictions on the state of the race to the Gurus of Gold and The Envelope's Buzzmeter polls. We've expanded to include a number of major categories for your enjoyment. At the least, it's certainly a good birds eye view of the season so far.
1. "Up in the Air"
Ready to take off as the new consensus builder...
Still could win it all, even though reviews may be mixed.
Lionsgate is starting the campaign in earnest, but it's not feeling the winner's heat yet.
4. "The Hurt Locker"
Are they going to go for it or not? We're betting the latter.
Disney/Pixar doesn't want to hear this, but the nod is the win here.
6. "An Education"
Needs critic's support and lots of screener love to solidify the nod, because the small box office is disconcerting at this point.
7. "Inglourious Basterds"
Would be stunning if it didn't get in, it's just hard to see the critic and audience favorite winning it all.
The starpower of the lovely ladies make the nod.
9. "A Serious Man"
On the cusp #1, but expected end of year critical support gives Focus something to campaign around.
10. "The Lovely Bones"
On the cusp #2, but if the polarizing thriller has enough members who truly love it (increasingly likely) it could outweigh those that do not.
1. Kathryn Bigelow, "The Hurt Locker"
History is waiting.
2. Jason Reitman, "Up in the Air"
Could spoil it for Bigelow. Is his screenplay better than his direction?
3. Lee Daniels, "Precious"
Nomination is the reward, especially considering Daniels long history in this town.
4. Quintin Tarantino, "Inglourious Basterds"
You could argue he deserves it more than anyone else.
5. Clint Eastwood, "Invictus"
Too hard for his Academy fanbase not to push him in here.
1. Jeff Bridges, "Crazy Heart"
Not the frontrunner now, but should pull ahead after the "Crazy Heart" screener plays through the holidays. Can he keep it up though?
2. George Clooney, "Up in the Air"
In the pole position right now, but his very shaded and subtle performance may actually keep him from winning. Plus, he already has one.
3. Morgan Freeman, "Invictus"
Fantastic performance, if the movie is embraced he has a shot.
4. Colin Firth, "A Single Man"
First nod for Firth, hopefully not the last.
5. Jeremy Renner, "The Hurt Locker"
The nomination would definitely be the win for Renner. He'll need to work for it though as there are a number of other candidates battling for this slot.
1. Carey Mulligan, "An Education"
The front runner if Streep and Mirren don't fight for it.
2. Meryl Streep, "Julie and Julia"
If she really wants it, a third could be hers.
3. Helen Mirren, "The Last Station"
Charismatic performance could be a surprise winner when all is said and done.
4. Gabby Sidibe, "Precious"
Hard to see her winning Oscar, but she could surprise with SAG and some critics groups.
5. Saoirse Ronan, "The Lovely Bones"
Like Renner with the gents, she's fighting off a number of other contenders, but the movie's fans should slip her in. Maybe.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
1. Mo'Nique, "Precious"
Hers unless she screws it up. Which is entirely possible.
2. Marion Cotillard, "Nine"
Hands down the best performance in the movie.
3. Julianne Moore - A Single Man
One of the best American actresses of our generation will receive her fifth nomination...without a win.
4. Penelope Cruz, "Nine"
Slowly becoming the new Tom Hanks, but with only one win
5. Anna Kendrick, "Up in the Air"
Could rise and win it all depending on Mo'Nique and how the movie is embraced.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
1. Christoph Walsh, "Inglourious Basterds"
A deserving winner, but nowhere near a lock.
2. Stanley Tucci, "The Lovely Bones"
Another great American actor (an character actor) who might be rewarded for his years of service to the art form.
3. Alfred Molina, "An Education"
It's about time, part 1.
4. Christopher Plummer, "The Last Station"
I's about time, part 2. (but not to win)
5. Matt Damon,"Invictus"
On the fence with this one, but think he'll pull it off.
BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
1. "500 Days of Summer"
Don't say I didn't tell you so.
2. "The Hurt Locker"
The film's best chance for a win besides director.
Could win, but probably not.
4. "A Serious Man"
Pedigree of the Coens and a weak, weak category.
5. "In the Loop"
Perhaps a little suggestion with this one.
BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
1. "Up in the Air"
If Reitman is anything he's a stellar screenwriter.
Only wins if it's going all the way for the top prize.
3. "An Education"
A fine adaptation.
Gut, rare that Eastwood's best picture nods don't get a screenplay.
5. "The Lovely Bones"
Some may fault the CG, but no one is complaining about the fine screenplay.
What do you think of the Oscar race so far? Does "Invictus" and "Lovely Bones" have a shot to get nominated for Best Picture? Share your thoughts below.
For constant updates on awards season and entertainment news follow Gregory Ellwood on Twitter at Twitter.com/HitFixGregory