Last Friday I lined up two hours early, with an early autumn rainstorm crashing down, to catch the New York Film Festival press screening of Life of Pi, because the festival has exactly one press screening for all of their films, and there was no way I was going to miss that one. Even on the surface the movie seemed to tick all the boxes of Oscar season-- based on an acclaimed book (of the same name by Yann Martel), directed by a respected auteur (previous Oscar-winner Ang Lee), and tugging at the heartstrings while also showing off beautiful images (it's about a boy lost at sea). Bingo.
Luckily for me and everyone else huddled in line with me, Life of Pi lived up to nearly all of the expectations. As I wrote in my somewhat breathless review, it "works wonders in its best moments," specifically when tightening in on the fantastical story of teenage Pi (Suraj Sharma) and his unlikely companion on a lifeboat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean-- a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. The movie's frame story and religions overtones hinder it at times, and nothing in the narrative matches the astonishing CGI and 3D used to tell it, but like Martel's book it's likely to be a crowd pleaser, especially for anyone actively seeking out the religious bent.
How will that play for the Oscars? It's easy to imagine Pi filling a kind of War Horse slot, nominated for Best Picture without being expected to win anything, and snagging a few nominations elsewhere (it seems guaranteed for Visual Effects ad Cinematography consideration, and possibly also the sound categories and Mychael Danna's minimalist score). Lee, despite his Oscar pedigree, will have a lot of competition for the five-wide Best Director category, but that's where box office could come into play. If Life of Pi is a big box office hit when it opens in time for the Thanksgiving holiday November 21, it could start looking like an even stronger contender.
It's a pretty thin field out there for new releases with awards potential, though in limited release there's the documentary The House I Live In, which ought to be a Best Documentary contender. There's news about an awards hopeful already out in theaters though. The Screen Actors Guild announced yesterday that Beasts of the Southern Wild, the independently produced Sundance sensation picked up by Fox Searchlight, won't be eligible for the SAG Awards because director Benh Zeitlin didn't hire union actors and relied on non-professional locals, including likely Best Actress nominee Quvenzhane Wallis. No one would argue that the film would be better with professionals, and I'm sure Zeitlin and company have no regrets, but it's unclear how much a lack of SAG eligibility might hurt the film's Oscar chances. SAG's Best Ensemble nominations are often strong precursors of Best Picture favorites, and the momentum of the earlier awards can help push films-- especially smaller ones like Beasts-- over the Oscar finish line. Then again, this one is likely to pop up among critic's awards, so it may be able to do without that help.
Oh, and you might have heard some news out there about a talking teddy bear being hired to host the awards. You can read my arguments in tentative support of Seth MacFarlane over there, and take heart that he's not going to affect the actual awards race one way or another.
Other than that, it's on to the charts, where not much is changing but things are solidifying in a few spots.
I've bumped up Life of Pi to a Likely Contender, though it's hard to know where it stands without having seen some of the other competition arriving. And I should emphasize that I have a lot of faith in Les Miserables, which looks every inch the strong contender-- it's just that, until somebody's seen it, it's hard to promise anything either way. This weekend I'll get a look at both Silver Linings Playbook and Argo for myself, though I doubt I'll have much to add beyond the rapturous consensus already out there.
STILL IN THE RUNNING