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This weekend, 20th Century Fox arrived to the 2013 film awards season with a pair of hopefuls that couldn't be more different from the outside. Nevertheless, Brian Percival's "The Book Thief" and Ben Stiller's "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," both of which will be viewed as cloying in some circles, are made with an honesty that could stave off some of the cynicism and register. At the end of the day, though, neither is the slam dunk contender the studio may have hoped for a year after "Life of Pi."
Percival's adaptation of Markus Zusak's young adult novel is a bit of a slog through 125 minutes. It never really surprises you and it never quite becomes something special in the well-worn genre it's exploring, but it serves up emotion that could connect. The film received a standing ovation as the opening night presentation of the Mill Valley Film Festival Thursday night, though worked-up festival reactions should always be held in perspective.
I liked the film, but it never seemed to leap off the screen. There's a flatness to it, and Percival, a "Downton Abbey" alum, doesn't quite find the right moment of lift-off. As the emotional anchor for the story, Geoffrey Rush is perhaps the best shot at major awards attention, though young Sophie Nélisse is a sensation to keep an eye on as she progresses in her career. Emily Watson carves a fun character full of piss and vinegar, and John Williams' score is appropriately delicate (though, for a legend like him, curiously unmemorable). Design elements are all top notch, particularly the set decoration and costumes from Anna B. Sheppard (the go-to WWII outfitter, it seems, after films like "Schindler's List," "The Pianist," "Inglourious Basterds" and "Captain America: The First Avenger").
Stiller's film, meanwhile, is quite uneven and a bit of a shaggy dog. I was touched, however, by its emotional honesty and artistic passion; it's obvious that Stiller poured a lot into it. But the film just feels a bit disheveled. And it's already an affront and a bone of contention for some critics, not that films like "The Blind Side" and "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" haven't found their way through that fog in the past.
Stiller is good in the title role, but it's nothing that can quite dent a competitive Best Actor race full of exemplary performances. Kristen Wiig is well-utilized, but it's not enough of a performance to register (due respect to the difficulty of making the proper object-of-affection impact with such limited screen time). The best part of the movie might just be Sean Penn's brief, soulful cameo performance of a character whose story you'd probably rather be watching unfold (though, funnily enough, that speaks to the theme lurking somewhere inside the film).
Nevertheless, like "The Book Thief," I struggle to see this one figuring in too heavily to the awards landscape. It's simply too good a year for movies to just slide in. Ridley Scott's "The Counselor" is screening here and there finally, but it isn't being positioned as an awards movie by Fox. If some critics take it on as a cause, then the scales could shift, but I think this pair of heart string tuggers (plus the DreamWorks Animation slate) is what Fox really has to work with this year. My guess is "The Book Thief" is the more viable option, but we'll see. It could just be this and that. Or maybe Williams gets his umpteenth Oscar nomination and that's all that happens.
So the Best Picture category continues to take shape. Spike Jonze's "Her" will be the next to join the fray this week as the closing night film of NYFF. Will it give Warner Bros. another strong component to work with? It just might.
And on that, "Gravity" has obviously become the frontrunner this week. The industry impact it has made easily drowns out the handful of negative reactions to the more cliched elements of its story. And that's not to diminish the criticism; we hear you. There's just a bigger picture at work with a film like this and, for their part, I think voters are registering that bigger picture. But "Captain Phillips" is on the way. "12 Years a Slave" will be looking for a second wind from those who didn't catch it in the saturated festival corridor. And "All is Lost" is right around the corner from release, too, eager to make its case beyond just a sure-fire Best Actor nomination for Robert Redford.
It's a good time to love movies. There are some great ones out there. And that's why I have a hard time seeing the Fox slate making much of an impression. Passion will quite possibly be spread too thin this year.
The Contenders section has been tweaked.
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