It is undeniably the season of survival. With Gravity and Captain Phillips dominating the weekend box office and both 12 Years A Slave and All Is Lost on their way to theaters this weekend, audiences have many opportunities to see famous actors struggling onscreen against impossible odds, whether versus pirates or space or the open sea or slavery. I'll leave it to pundits braver than I am to decide which of those threats is the most terrifying.
I'll also leave it to others to examine why this trend is occurring, though I suspect it's coincidence more than anything-- each film took years to make and was assembled for vastly different reasons, and the main thing they have in common is being a showcase for phenomenal, confrontational acting. You can give yourself a headache trying to decide who's more deserving of Best Actor between Robert Redford, Tom Hanks and Chiwetel Ejiofor, much less determine why they're all busy beating the odds this fall. Does it matter why survival stories aren't just being made, but cleaning up at the box office? Sure. But for the purposes of the Oscar season, all that matters is that there's great work being done, and it's becoming increasingly difficult to see how it will all get rewarded.
What's the Academy voter's dilemma, of course, is the moviegoers' gain, and an already strong fall movie season only got better over the weekend, when Spike Jonze's Her premiered at the New York Film Festival to warm reviews. It enters Joaquin Phoenix into what's already a brutally crowded Best Actor race (see there of those four films above), and has more than a few people hoping for a possible Best Supporting Actress nomination for Scarlett Johannson. Voicing the computer Samantha Johansson never actually appears onscreen, but her sultry, warm and thoroughly human performance is the heart of the film, and the rapport she builds with Phoenix-- even though they were never even on set together-- is significant. Vocal performances have earned Oscar buzz in the past to no avail, but hey, Her is a movie all about crossing boundaries, so why not keep the conversation going?
Also making headlines in the supporting category, across the gender divide, is Michael Fassbender, whose unblinkingly cruel performance as a slaveowner in 12 Years A Slave is a major highlight in a film that's full of them. Talking to GQ Fassbender said he had no plans to participate in yet another Oscar campaign, after pressing the flesh for Shame for months in 2011. "I won't put myself through that kind of situation again," he told them, before accurately describing the process of actually campaigning for a shiny gold statue. ""It's just a grind. And I'm not a politician. I'm an actor." Will this hurt Fassbender's chances of actually getting the nomination? It could-- the Academy Awards are theoretically about rewarding talent, but it really helps if you're willing to glad-hand and work for it. But if 12 Years A Slave remains the critical powerhouse it is now, Fassbender ought to be able to get that nomination anyway, swept in by the force of a movie that can't be ignored. The winning part is a whole other question we'll have to get to once the nominations are out there.
Among this week's releases is a would-be awards contender that already feels dead in the water, The Fifth Estate, which could have been Benedict Cumberbatch's Best Actor bid if the movie weren't so bad. There's also Kill Your Darlings, which has attention-getting performances from Daniel Radcliffe and Dane DeHaan but thus far hasn't made nearly enough noise to be a serious factor in the race (given that it's a first movie and a delicate one at that, that's fine). Next week brings us yet another Fassbender movie, The Counselor, and even though it's got Ridley Scott directing and a whole slew of Oscar winners in its cast, the marketing and complete lack of press screenings suggests this isn't really an awards player. And after that we're in November, where Matthew McConaughey will come back into the conversation with Dallas Buyers Club and the Best Actor race will really start looking ugly.
Below, the charts, where a few things are falling by the wayside but for the most part the strong contenders remain firmly in place.
I've bumped Rush down to Outside Chance, based on its fairly low profile since it opened in September, and removed The Fifth Estate entirely-- the lack of a critical re-consideration after its Toronto premiere indicates everyone would rather be rid of it. And while The Weinstein Company prepares to push along with August: Osage County, I'm wondering about the fate of Lee Daniels' The Butler-- is it laying low after a press-heavy summer to keep us from getting sick of it, or has it fallen away entirely?
STILL IN THE RUNNING