The Long Shot: Searching for sleepers in the Oscar guessing game
After three peaceful months in which the "O" word was among the furthest things from my mind -- even at Cannes, where unusually few films sparked such speculation -- the distant-but-not-invisible threat of the 2012 awards season entered my consciousness in a number of ways this week.
First, before a screening of the emphatically not Oscar-bound "Rock of Ages" (hey, I don't mean that as a slight), my usual no-trailers policy was involuntarily broken as Warners subjected me to gorgeous glimpses of "The Great Gatsby" and "The Dark Knight Rises"... and as much as the moviegoer in me got excited, I'd be lying if I said my mind didn't wander to their intriguingly uncertain awards prospects. The next day, I had only myself to blame to raising the subject. After seeing Sarah Polley's wonderful "Take This Waltz," due for US release later this month, I foolhardily tweeted that it feels like a viable Oscar play for Michelle Williams -- only to wish I hadn't said anything as numerous followers replied with their skepticism.
Then, as if unwittingly punishing me for these tentative steps, Kris suggested that we finally dust the cobwebs from our Contenders pages and get the 2012 Oscar predictions under way. With the 85th Academy Awards ceremony still, reassuringly, over eight months away, it may seem absurdly early to start drawing up charts, but we're far from the first site to do so. And as I spent the weekend wallowing in names and titles I haven't seen and of which, frankly, I have only the dimmest knowledge, the words "TOO SOON" still flashed in big red capitals in my brain.
As Kris will point out in his introductory column, you can count on a vast number of the predictions to your right being wrong. This or that year-end prestige production will inevitably disappoint; this or that middleweight contender will inevitably have longer legs than we're currently imagining. Until we -- and by "we," I don't just mean those of us in cosseted festival environs -- see the movies, we're doing little more than pinning assorted tails on donkeys.
Even within this distinctly scattershot game, however, there's a range of strategic approaches. Many pundits opt for the tack that a major prestige hopeful is innocent until proven guilty, predicting a nomination in every conceivable category, and waiting for critical, commercial or precursor stumbles to dictate otherwise. It's the safest way to play the game, particularly with the widened Best Picture category allowing films far more room for error: last year, "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" and "War Horse" scraped top nominations despite a tepid reception and significant precursor shut-outs.
While the first year of the enlarged Best Picture field pretty much obeyed the Academy's wish for more populist and genre fare at the expense of more obvious contenders -- hello, "District 9" and "The Blind Side," goodbye, "Invictus" and "Nine" -- the years since have proved it to be more of a safety net for falling Oscar-bait. Following this wisdom, widely presumed frontrunners like "Lincoln" and "Les Misérables" would have to bomb pretty hard with critics and audiences alike not to figure in the final lineup.
Which is not to say, however, that it's necessarily correct to predict them as frontrunners. When drawing up such long-lead prediction lists, I've always favored a different tactic: anticipating upsets as well as inevitabilities, guessing potential underachievers and identifying potential sleepers. It's as spotty a clairvoyant process as any -- I may have struck gold by predicting Oscar success for "The Artist" last summer, but didn't believe in "The King's Speech" for far too long the year before -- but no less enjoyable for it.
Which is why you might notice certain films featuring more prominently in Kris' Contenders pages than in mine. (Like last year, we've split them 50-50, but have swapped some categories to keep us on our toes.) He, sensibly, sees little reason to bet against glittering prestige titles like "Anna Karenina" and "Les Mis" -- but with little more than gut feel to go on, I'm not sure either film will live up to expectations in this regard. Neither of us is right or wrong at this stage: "too obvious" is a phrase that comes up a lot in this game (certainly in mine), but sometimes, as "The King's Speech" taught us after bluffing behind "The Social Network" for most of the season, the most obvious answer is eventually the correct one.
Betting against frontrunners, however, usually requires a reserve team of alternative contenders to field in their place. (Do forgive the tortuously mixed sports metaphor here.) Those can be tricky to pick out -- a sleeper, by definition, isn't easily seen coming -- and while I again got lucky with "The Artist" last year, I have more than enough doomed predictions for the likes of "Made in Dagenham" and "The Informant!" to remind me that most little engines that could, in fact, couldn't.
There's plenty of time yet for the underdog challengers to announce themselves -- after all, in June 2008, "Slumdog Millionaire" was still headed for straight-to-DVD obscurity -- but this year, they're harder to spot than usual. Unlike last year, Cannes didn't launch too many potential Oscar stories -- unless you read Harvey Weinstein downplaying the chances of cheery Aussie export "The Sapphires" as a diversionary tactic. However, ecstatic audience response (and a further brace of trophies) confirmed what Sundance had already announced: that the Searchlight-backed "Beasts of the Southern Wild" is shaping up as a feisty indie contender, with 8-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis (start practicing that name, Mr. Sherak) poised to break an age record in the Best Actress race.
The universally reverent critical response to Palme d'Or winner "Amour," meanwhile, set it up as this year's "A Separation" -- i.e. the foreign-language favorite that brooks no argument. Ironically, that sets it up even more comfortably in the Best Original Screenplay and Best Director categories, both ruled by reasonably cosmopolitan voting branches, than in Best Foreign Language Film, where the question of which country will even submit it remains.
With the familiarly austere "Amour" nonetheless ranking as Michael Haneke's most accessible film to date, foreign-language experts Sony Pictures Classics even have a chance of breaking into Best Picture, a category that has shamefully remained a wholly English-language zone through its three years of expansion. You'll notice its broadly acclaimed leads in our Best Actor and Actress charts, too, though Sony may have a better international hopeful in that area with crossover star Marion Cotillard in "Rust and Bone" -- the film didn't get quite the push it might have hoped for out of Cannes. But her superb performance as a disabled whale trainer will benefit from the typically male focus of most of the supposed big-league studio contenders.
Indeed, Best Actress currently looks the most indie-friendly of the major categories -- a situation already leading some observers to label it a "weak" field, however strong the individual performances in play might be. Sundance has been a generous feeder for this category in recent years -- since 2008, Melissa Leo, Carey Mulligan, Gabourey Sidibe, Annette Bening, Jennifer Lawrence and Michelle Williams have all started their awards trails a year ahead of time at the January fest -- and this year looks to be no different, with Wallis and Helen Hunt (in the retitled "Six Sessions") both having received a significant head start in Utah. (Fingers crossed that Hunt gets to shake off the "one-and-done" disdain that surrounds her unfairly maligned 1997 win for "As Good As It Gets.")
With both Sundance ladies, as well as their respective vehicles, likely to receive a lot of help from Fox Searchlight, my prediction of a third consecutive nomination for Williams in the Magnolia-backed "Take This Waltz," which hasn't amassed a storm of buzz since bowing at Toronto last year, might seem a little optimistic, particularly with seemingly baity work from Keira Knightley and Laura Linney waiting to pounce. (That Williams's performance kicks last year's nominated "My Week With Marilyn" turn into next week is, regrettably, a secondary concern.)
Still, this early stage of the game is the best time to take note of the worthy and potentially Academy-friendly work that we have seen -- with many months yet to get caught up in heavyweight uncertainties, seeing the trees for the forest isn't always a bad thing. I've often been surprised by the staying power of a modest first-half possibility: "Away From Her," say, or last year's Best Actor lurker "A Better Life." A nomination for Liam Neeson in "The Grey?" Absurd, sure -- but given what we know at this point, no less absurd than predicting Best Picture for "Lincoln." Have fun.
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