The Palm Springs Film Festival, which takes place next month, has been gradually spilling their list of honorees over the last few weeks, with Naomi Watts, Helen Hunt and Robert Zemeckis all booked in to be celebrated for their achievements this year. Though I was only yesterday discussing the individual value of smaller awards, naming Zemeckis their Director of the Year is about as far as the festival strays from the Oscar conversation with their picks -- every year, the timing of Palm Springs makes it a handy stop on the campaign trail for awards hopefuls.
That'll certainly be the case for the festival's latest two selections: "Argo" will receive the Ensemble Performance Award, while Sally Field, currently riding high in the Best Supporting Actress race for "Lincoln," is to be honored with a Career Achievement Award. Both will be presented at the festival's awards ceremony on January 5 -- days before the Oscar nominations are announced, presumably with good news for Field and "Argo" alike.
Previous winners of the Ensemble Performance award include "The Social Network," "Revolutionary Road," "Hairspray" and "Babel." As such, the honor doesn't carry much clout in itself, but it's welcome recognition for "Argo," a genuinely ensemble-driven machine, and comes at a time when awards buzz for Ben Affleck's popular thriller, once labelled the Best Picture frontrunner in many quarters, has dipped ever so slightly.
I still think it's a formidable contender for the top prize; other pundits have moved on to more recent prestige releases, most of which have lived up to expectations. Among them, of course, is NBR and NYFCC champ "Zero Dark Thirty," which may just be stealing voters' appetites for classy political thrillers from Affleck's film. Still, while many expected "Argo" to do better with the National Board of Review -- it landed in their Top 10, but received no individual awards -- that runner-up finish in the New York critics' Best Picture vote is not to be dismissed.
That this straightforward $100 million grosser could find that much support within a comparatively highbrow critics' group points to its broad appeal, with plentiful Guild citations -- including a nomination for SAG's own ensemble award -- sure to come. Meanwhile, it might even benefit "Argo" to step out of the spotlight for a while at the start of the season, as the film once in danger of overhype now builds appealing underdog status against prestige giants like "Les Mis" and "Lincoln."
The career award for Field, meanwhile, is a further indication of just how warmly the industry is receiving the two-time Oscar winner this year after a long period away from the big screen -- and a cannily balanced return in both "The Amazing Spider-Man" and "Lincoln." The "you like me" jokes are played out by now, but people really do like her, and her narrative as this season's comeback nominee is firmly in place.
Whether it'll result in a win as another question, but as her surprise NYFCC win earlier this week proved, the widespread goodwill both for the actress and her film probably makes her Anne Hathaway's chief challenger right now. I can't quite imagine Academy voters feeling that both Field and Daniel Day-Lewis need third Oscars this year (coincidentally, Steven Spielberg is also shooting for a third Best Director Oscar), but the potential for consolatory career honors along the track means the actress could get plenty of podium time over the next few months.