Welcome to 2011, and the point of the awards season where everyone-- not just the Oscar obsessives-- perks up and starts paying attention to who's taking home which statues. In the two weeks around Christmas and New Year's, when Oscar Eye took some time off, there was a lot going on behind the scenes-- Academy voters received their ballots and settled in with the stacks of screeners they had received, a few more critic's groups and guilds handed out their awards, and the conversation around Best Picture seemed to solidify with remarkable speed. When it comes to the acting categories there are still a lot of questions-- and we'll get into those next week-- but at this point nearly every Oscar writer is agreeing on the same 8 or 9 films to get in for Best Picture, with a handful of outliers jockeying for those last spots.
So what are the films? And why does everyone seem to agree in such lockstep about what they'll be? Your answer is mostly in the precursor awards, ranging from critic's groups to the Writers and Screen Actors Guilds to the Golden Globes, which don't just give a sense of how people in the industry feel-- when it comes to the guilds-- but keep the movies in the public's attention-- that's mostly up to the critics. From the The Social Network dominating nearly every critic's award and top 10 list to True Grit tearing up the box office, there are small shifts that say a lot about where films might wind up in the final pecking order.
To get started with the new year of Oscar writing and get you up to speed, I've run down the 13 significant contenders for Best Picture, in order of how likely they are to get a nomination and why I ranked them there. Next week we'll get into the acting races, many of which are even more interesting, and the week after that it'll be time for final predictions-- can you believe the nominations go out on the 25th? I'll also have the charts afterwards, of course, with some brief discussion about the actors. But first, the pictures.
2. THE KING'S SPEECH. It's the one film anyone tries to paint as a contender against The Social Network, boasting equally sterling reviews and a slightly smaller armload of prizes, plus the kind of automatic prestige that Oscar has typically (though less so in the last few years) adored. The question isn't really that The King's Speech will be nominated-- it could easily come away with the highest tally of nominations overall-- but if it can win anything beyond Colin Firth's very likely Best Actor statue. Still, it's a very, very strong also-ran to the Social Network machine.
3. THE FIGHTER. Pick your boxing metaphor: it's the scrapper no one expected who rose to the top and knocked out the competition, dominated the ring, etc. etc. David O. Russell's film is a critical and commercial success, and beyond just being in the thick of the top 10 lists and critic's awards, it's supporting actors Melissa Leo and Christian Bale have been walking away with nearly every prize they're up, keeping the film even more firmly in the conversation. Most importantly, people seem to just truly love it, meaning there's some plausible scenario in which it vaults over The Social Network and The King's Speech to take it all. Not likely, but plausible.
4. TOY STORY 3. There are a lot of skeptics who see the movie being vulnerable, since there are pockets that think The Illusionist or How to Train Your Dragon or even Tangled is a better animated film, and it's not eligible for various precursor awards like the Writers Guild or Directors Guild prizes. But I still think Pixar has a lock on their own slot so long as there's a Best Picture 10 and they keep making such high quality films. The fact that Toy Story 3 is the highest grossing film of the year doesn't hurt things.
5. TRUE GRIT. When I wrote the last column back in December I was increasingly worried about this movie's chances, but then the magic of box office stepped in, turning True Grit into the Coens' highest-grossing film yet and prompting articles like the one in today's New York Times proclaiming it the Best Picture frontrunner. I don't think that's likely at all, and I'm not even sure what the movie could actually win beyond Roger Deakins for Best Cinematography and maybe Hailee Steinfeld swooping n as Best Supporting Actress, but True Grit should settle comfortably in the Best Picture 10.
7. INCEPTION. It's still the movie of the year in many senses, with that iconic score and stunning visual effects and that darn brilliant Christopher Nolan behind the scenes making it all happen. There are plenty of people who will argue that the Best Picture 10 was created specifically because The Dark Knight missed out, and if Inception is similarly snubbed the Academy will never hear the end of it. But then again, it's not cleaning up in the precursors the way it might need to-- no Ensemble acting nomination from the Screen Actors Guild, no Best Picture prizes for critics, and little attention in general for much beyond the score and the effects. It still seems like a logical choice for the Academy to honor as a blockbuster with brains, but what the Internet wants and what the Academy wants, as Dark Knight supporters well know, can often diverge at the last minute.
8. THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT. It was deemed an Oscar contender way back at Sundance last January, and even though the heat for Annette Bening's Best Actress campaign seems to have cooled-- does anyone really think she can beat Natalie Portman at this point-- it still seems like a very likely Best Picture contender, if only for being the only comedy on the list. And yet, it still strikes me as vulnerable-- it's a simple looking movie, without the dynamic cinematography or bombastic scores found in many of the films on this list, and we can't forget this is still the same Academy that couldn't bring themselves to award Brokeback Mountain Best Picture partly thanks to the gay content. I wouldn't say any of those concerns are enough to doom the film, but… if there's going to be a high-profile snub, this is the first one I would expect to see happen.
9. WINTER'S BONE. It's the "little indie that could" of this category, a micro-budget film that's been largely coasting on the power of its lead performance from Jennifer Lawrence-- who is a likely but not guaranteed Best Actress nominee-- and critics buzzing that "you have to see this movie." But it could have picked up some serious steam with critic's awards and missed out as everyone went gaga for Natalie Portman instead, and now it's facing a tenuous 9th or 10th slot that could easily be snatched away by bigger, more widely seen films. Their best hope is that their screeners were watched by a lot of Academy voters over the holidays-- a pretty likely scenario, actually-- and that quality can trump noise in this specific instance.
10. THE TOWN. Without anyone really noticing, The Town was a serious box office hit this fall, grossing $92 million (just short of The Social Network's tally) and confirming Ben Affleck's status as a director actually worth watching. And while the movie has been really quiet in the precursors, not even popping up among the Golden Globes' 5 Best Drama nominees, it comes from the same studio (Warner Bros.) that made The Blind Side a Best Picture nominee last year. Not only that but Jeremy Renner snagged a surprise SAG Award nomination, meaning people really are remembering this film. It's keeping quiet but gaining steam, a great position to be in to swoop in at the last minute and score.
11. 127 HOURS. I never saw this coming earlier in the fall, when all anybody seemed able to talk about was who passed out when James Franco cut off his arm, but 127 Hours has paired box office indifference-- just $10.5 million so far and no major wide expansion-- with, quite simply, peaking too early. Everyone wants to reward James Franco for his performance, and he'll very likely be nominated, but the fact that Danny Boyle won Best Picture just two years ago paired with some very vocal naysayers have made it easy for this one to slip through as critics champion their other favorites. It's easy to imagine Franco standing alone-- or almost alone-- for his film come Oscar night.
12. ANOTHER YEAR. Mike Leigh's warmly received film only opened on December 31, but doesn't seem to be benefiting from some last-minute visibility boost, particularly with star Lesley Manville still not snagging the kind of precursor attention she really, really needed. The one theory left that gets the film into the Top 10 is that it's about older people, and the elder-skewing demographics of the Academy could make this a bigger hit among them than it has been anywhere else. The movie also gets a little credit for consistently hanging on in its under-the-radar spot, experiencing no crash-and-burn of publicity like 127 Hours did, but it still seems a little too small and under-appreciated to sneak in at the last minute.
13. BLUE VALENTINE. Yes, the Weinsteins won their appeal to give the film an R-rating, and yes, Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling are seemingly everywhere doing interviews right now, but this strikes me as the classic tiny indie that's rewarded for its performances but ignored in favor of larger, less gritty and heartbreaking movies overall. It doesn't have the epic scope of Winter's Bone or the crowdpleasing qualities of The Kids Are All Right or The King's Speech, and given how relatively young and new to the scene director Derek Cianfrance is, it would be easy to pass over the film in favor of what he does next. You can't underestimate the Weinstein magic in bumping up films that might not otherwise have a shot, but Blue Valentine, for all its qualities, is still hard to imagine in that final lineup.
OK, on to the charts! Check back next week for actor talk and whatever else might have changed in the meantime.
See above for this entire conversation.
This category will probably become a lot clearer net Monday, when the Directors Guild announces their five nominees with a list that, very very often, matches directly with what the Academy chooses. Beyond the fact that Fincher is a favorite to win, no one seems to know much of anything-- some think Aronofsky and Nolan are locks, some think Debra Granik or Lisa Cholodenko could sneak in somehow, some still put faith in Danny Boyle. I'm sticking with the predictions I made before, despite True Grit's success, though the one possible change I see is the Coens jumping in and taking someone's spot-- maybe poor Christopher Nolan's?
At this point the prize feels very much like Portman's to lose, and as much as things feel settled, there's a lot of room for chaos in the fifth slot-- Rabbit Hole is underperforming so Kidman could be vulnerable, it's possible no one is watching Winter's Bone, and there's always Manville lurking to upset the apple cart. Hell, Hilary Swank scored a SAG nomination-- anything can happen!
I'm still rooting hard for Matt Damon to make his way in here, and with True Grit gaining steam. Still, he has to make his way past either Andrew Garfield or Jeremy Renner, and maybe even John Hawkes coming up around the outside. There's a lot of room for change in those final two slots ,and I know already that settling on a final five and trying to pretend I actually know what I'm talking about is going to be a giant pain.
This category is so very flexible, but it's not so much about who's in the category as who thinks will win. First Melissa Leo was snapping up all the critic's votes, then Hailee Steinfeld charmed a nation, then everyone started talking about how good Mila Kunis's work was in Black Swan, and hey, everybody loves it when a pretty girl wins. At this point that fifth spot seems up for grabs between Kunis and Weaver, though I'm rooting for some weird scenario in which Bonham-Carter somehow falls out and they both get in. She still seems like a lock to me, but that doesn't mean we can't wish for such things.