The 88th Academy Awards will take place on Feb. 28, 93 days from today.


The calm before the storm

In the three weeks since the last Reel, there has been a lot of news but not a lot of answers. The Oscar race is still a bit murky, flirting with a number of films without settling on a frontrunner. But beginning next week, top critics and industry awards and nominations will be announced, which will place all of the other news in perspective and begin to frame the narratives of the films suddenly surging or suddenly on the decline. Five to look out for are:

  • National Board of Review (December 1): The NBR was founded in 1909 and began handing out awards to the top 10 films of the year in 1930. Its selections often kick off the race, though they are not necessarily the most well known for mirroring those of the Academy Awards. Last year, the NBR gave its top prizes to A Most Violent Year for film, Clint Eastwood in American Sniper for director, Oscar Isaac in A Most Violent Year and Michael Keaton in Birdman for actor, Julianne Moore in Still Alice for actress, Edward Norton in Birdman for supporting actor and Jessica Chastain in A Most Violent Year for supporting actress. (Only one Oscar winner was in this group.)
  • New York Film Critics Circle (December 2): The NYFCC Awards are the oldest (and probably most prestigious) set of awards given by film critics in the country. The NYFCC is composed of over 30 film critics from New York. Last year, it gave its top prizes to Boyhood, Richard Linklater in Boyhood, Timothy Spall in Mr. Turner, Marion Cotillard in Two Days, One Night and The Immigrant, J.K. Simmons in Whiplash and Patricia Arquette in Boyhood. (Two Oscar winners here.)
  • American Film Institute (December 7): The AFI is a 50-year old organization dedicated to preserving the legacy of American film heritage but more often prone to releasing Top 10 lists of “Best Courtroom Drama.” Each year, they also select 10 films “deemed culturally and artistically representative of the year’s most significant achievements in the art of the moving image.” Last year’s selections included six of the eight eventual Best Picture nominees (sorry Grand Budapest Hotel and Theory of Everything).
  • Screen Actors’ Guild (nominations December 9): Stealing from my description last year, SAG “represents more than 160,000 actors, announcers, broadcasters, journalists, dancers, DJs, news writers, news editors, program hosts, puppeteers, recording artists, singers, stunt performers, voiceover artists and other media professionals.” (Puppeteers?) While this is considerably larger than the Academy’s Actors Branch (the largest Academy branch, with about 1200 members), its members actually vote in the Oscars, giving it somewhat more legitimacy as a predictor. Seventeen of the 20 acting nominees last year scored invitations to the Oscars; the only ones missing were Bradley Cooper in American Sniper, Marion Cotillard in Two Days, One Night and Laura Dern in Wild. The SAG film ensemble award doesn’t have a direct Academy Award equivalent, but it is reasonably influential in guiding the actors branch toward a particular set of movie. This interesting Hollywood Reporter article outlines 20 possibilities this year.
  • Golden Globe (nominations December 10): Again stealing, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, which gives out the Golden Globes, represents about 90 people, and while its award show is lavish, alcohol-soaked and remarkably well-watched, its membership is a bit of a joke. According to Peter Howell, “current HFPA members include real-estate agents, car salesmen, showbiz publicists, hairdressers and even a few journalists. All that is required to maintain membership is permanent residence in Southern California (so much for ‘foreign’) and a mere four published articles per year, often in obscure publications that aren’t freely disclosed.” They are notorious for nominating big stars regardless of the movie quality (such as Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp for the 2010 film The Tourist, which has a “top critics” Rotten Tomatoes score of 9%) and break their awards into the sometimes-arbitrary distinction of “Drama” and “Comedy or Musical.” Still, a nomination or win at the Golden Globes may provide a film with the publicity it needs to be seen by genuine Academy members. Last year, the same three actors from SAG were left out, and only American Sniper, Whiplash and the directors for The Imitation Game and Foxcatcher went on to receive Oscar nominations without Golden Globe nods. There’s been a host of recent news about the Globes, from the unveiling of the new-old host Ricky Gervais (here’s the “look we can be crude too” poster) to the announcement that Denzel Washington is winning an award to complaints that The Martian or Joy are not really comedies. But the main news that may impact the Academy Awards race is the fact that Rooney Mara and Alicia Vikander, who are campaigning for Best Supporting Actress rather than Best Actress despite equal screen time with their co-leads, have been called out and forced to race in the lead categories. It’s unclear whether this will be duplicated at the Oscars.

(Others to pay attention to are the Los Angeles Film Critics and the Critics’ Choice, but I can’t find out when either of them are taking place this year.)

No frontrunners
Given all the chaos that’s about to ensue, you would imagine that we have some indication for how the various races will play out. We largely don’t. Earlier this month, the Hollywood Reporter put out a list of 45 films in the Oscar race, and there are exactly five films on the list that I have not heard discussed for some major category or another. Do you go for the films that are best reviewed? (This ranking has the top five so far as Anomalisa, Carol, Inside Out, Spotlight and 45 Years.) Do you go for the films with the most box office success? (For domestic gross, the top six are Jurassic World, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Inside Out, Furious 7, Minions and The Martian.) Or do you go for the impalpable metric of “Oscar buzz”?
All of the major races have some degree of uncertainty, largely stemming from the number of late-release films this year. While Joy and The Hateful Eight (to be released on Christmas) still have not been seen, three other Christmas movies – The Revenant, The Big Short and Concussion – have very recently been screened for critics or Oscar voters.

  • The Revenant: Reviews for The Revenant (first screened on Monday) have been embargoed until December 4, but snippets from these three articles hint that it is a major threat in a number of races. Leonardo DiCaprio, who really wants an Oscar now, is apparently incredible in a largely wordless, physical performance that leaves co-star Tom Hardy with ample opportunity to set himself up as a supporting actor possibility. Emmanuel Lubezki may be the first lenser in history to win three consecutive Oscars, coming off of back-to-back wins for Gravity and Birdman. The film itself is described as “long…gorgeous and gruesome,” and will find many fans and, likely, a Best Picture nomination – but it does not seem universally liked enough to be poised for a win.
  • The Big Short: Based off of a book by Michael Lewis (whose previous two adaptations, The Blind Side and Moneyball, each earned a Best Picture nomination) and directed by the guy who directed Anchorman, The Big Short tackles the fascinating subject of subprime mortgages, CDOs and Wall Street corruption. It’s decidedly a weird topic for a film – I would highly recommend reading Lewis’ own take on the adaptation. (“One problem I distinctly did NOT worry about when I wrote The Big Short was how to write it so that it would become a movie. Who’d make a movie about credit-default swaps?”) Reviews have been positive, but Oscar predictions (for picture, actor for Steve Carell and supporting actor for Christian Bale) have been more tempered. “It’s an entertaining movie about an important subject, made by impressive people — but it’s not an easy sell,” writes Scott Feinberg. “The Big Short is a gigantic mess – but in kind of a good way, in an interesting way, in a smart way,” adds Sasha Stone. Don’t count it out yet, but it needs a boost in the next few weeks.
  • Concussion: Looking at the early reviews, it does not seem that Concussion will be a big Best Picture contender. (Scott Feinberg has it 17th on his predictions list.) But Will Smith, who plays the real-life doctor “who came to the conclusion that ex-NFL players were dying because of head traumas,” has made his presence felt in the Best Actor race. With “a believable Nigerian accent and that old familiar twinkle,” many see him as a likely nominee and (depending on the rising and falling of DiCaprio and Johnny Depp) a potential winner.

Three other films have debuted, coming in with wildly different expectations and results. Most straightforwardly, Carol played Cannes months ago and did not disappoint at its release last weekend, prompting discussions of possibilities in picture, director, actress and supporting actress. The Mr. & Mrs. Smith sequel By the Sea spectacularly underdelivered with poor box office, reviews calling it “self-indulgent” and discussions about whether it will kill the trend of “favor” movies in Hollywood. But the underdog Rocky spin-off Creed has come from nowhere with great reviews (RT 94%) and an anticipated high box office to join the conversations about supporting actor and even picture. (Vanity Fair published an article last week called “Creed: The Oscar Contender We Should Have Seen Coming.”) It may not amount to anything, but it’s far more than anyone predicted several months back.

The acting races are also a bit up in the air. Sasha Stone called Best Actor the “toughest category to call” and it’s easy to see why – DiCaprio, Carell and Smith are in Christmas movies, Depp is in a film with less-than-stellar reviews, Matt Damon is in a sci-fi movie, Eddie Redmayne won last year, Michael Fassbender leads the underperforming Steve Jobs (even the director thinks it went “wide too soon”), Tom Hanks is Tom Hanks, Michael Caine has European Film Award nominations and standing ovations but not much else and Ian McKellan is old, distinguished, overdue and actively campaigning for himself. Who you choose for your Fave 5 has never been so difficult. Best Actress seems to be centered around former pop star Brie Larson in Room, Jennifer Lawrence in Joy, Cate Blanchett in Carol and Saoirse Ronan in Brooklyn. But choosing the fifth is not straightforward in the slightest. Add to the fact that actors and actresses from the supporting races may find themselves categorized as having lead roles due to category fraud (I’m looking at you, Rooney Mara in Carol and Alicia Vikander in The Danish Girl) and you have a very confusing race.
Early awards

Over the past few weeks, the Film Independent Spirit Awards nominations have been announced and the Palm Springs and Santa Barbara film festivals have trickled out the winners of their various prizes. These give a somewhat niche view of how the various movies and actors are doing, but I’ll quickly go through it anyway.

  • Indie Spirit Awards: Nominations came out yesterday for this year’s top English-language productions of a small-scale. With so many films ineligible, and so many big films this year, their main purpose for 2015 may be generating news for the winners rather than really informing predictions. (Last year, on the other hand, the Indie Spirit Awards gave their top prizes to Birdman, Julianne Moore, Patricia Arquette and J.K. Simmons, who all won their respective prizes at the Academy Awards.) This year, Carol received six nominations (including both Blanchett and Mara for lead) and Spotlight took five (including the Robert Altman Award, “which, since 2008, has gone to a single film in recognition of its director, casting director and ensemble”). Also getting major boosts are Anomalisa, an animated film giving Inside Out a run for its money with four noms, and Beasts of No Nation, which tied Carol for most nominations despite being created by Netflix. (This article weighs the chances of the film, which has strong reviews and word of mouth but poor box office revenues.) The only film that may have been hurt was Room, which only saw love for Larson but not the picture, but the film was “reportedly approved late in the process, which may have hurt its overall performance” and sort of nullifies any bigger conclusions to draw from it.
  • Palm Springs: The goal of the Palm Springs Film Fest is to give some sort of award to everyone, and everyone plays along because they think that this exposure and publicity will get them more, real awards in the future. Last year, winners were Selma, The Imitation Game, Boyhood director Richard Linklater, Birdman director Alejandro G. Inarritu, Reese Witherspoon, Eddie Redmayne, Juliane Moore, J.K. Simmons, David Oyelowo, Rosamund Pike and Robert Duvall. (The only one in the crew that did not get an Oscar nom at least was Oyelowo, who was the major snub of the year.) This year, the love is similarly thrown around: Johnny Depp, Cate Blanchett, Saoirse Ronan, Brie Larson and Spotlight director Tom McCarthy each have won some sort of award; the links do a good job at listing previous winners and why this award sort of may matter.
  • Santa Barbara: For me, this is indistinguishable from Palm Springs. Both are sunny California cities that give out too many awards. Last year, SBIFF awarded Michael Keaton, Steve Carell, Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette, Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, Jennifer Aniston, Jenny Slate, Logan Lerman, Ellar Coltrane, Chadwick Boseman, Rosamund Pike, J.K. Simmons and David Oyelowo. This year, they have so far announced awards for Johnny Depp; Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams and Mark Ruffalo from Spotlight; and “virtuosos” Elizabeth Banks, Paul Dano, Joel Edgerton and Jacob Tremblay.

Once bigger awards begin to be announced in the coming weeks, these will fade into the background – until the awards shows themselves, when the stars will get to dress up, give speeches about how thankful they are and prove that they deserve an Oscar.

Spotlight on Honorary Oscars
Earlier this month, Spike Lee, Gena Rowlands and Debbie Reynolds were honored by the Academy. Reynolds had to miss out on the ceremony due to health, but Lee used his speech to be critical of the lack of diversity in the Academy and Hollywood in general. “This industry is so far behind sports, it’s ridiculous,” he said. “It’s easier to be president of the United States as a black person than be head of a studio. Honest.”

Also present were this year’s contenders, including Cate Blanchett who bluntly told a group she was taking photos with “Say ‘Cheers’ — or ‘Vote for me!’” Some potential nominees, such as Blanchett and Jane Fonda, were there as a tribute to the night’s honorees, but according to the Hollywood Reporter, “there really is only one reason the others were there — including some of the community’s most reserved (Carol‘s Rooney Mara) and reclusive (Black Mass‘ Johnny Depp) members. And that was self-promotion, facilitated by distributors, which fly in talent specifically for this event and countless others scheduled around it throughout the weekend, and publicists, who are seated with the talent inside the room in order to make the necessary introductions.” It was a night to vaguely honor the past, grow a bit self-critical and gladhand the Academy voters.


Spotlight on Star Wars

Easily the most anticipated movie of the year is Star Wars: The Force Awakens, coming out December 18. It is sure to make a ton of money and seems tentatively poised for good reviews as well. (Of the eight films Star Wars director J.J. Abrams produced or directed over the last decade, only two – Morning Glory and Mission Impossible III – failed to win the Rotten Tomatoes “certified fresh” rating. Star Trek and Star Trek Into Darkness had 95% and 87% RT scores, respectively.) One of the biggest unknowns is whether the film will make any imprint on the Academy Awards beyond the technical categories.

Sci-fi films have not always been passed over by the Oscars. The proof? Look at the first Star Wars. The 1977 classic had 10 nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director, and six wins, not to mention a special award for “alien, creature and robot voices.” The other five films in the franchise had a total of 12 nominations and one win. See the below chart stolen from Wikipedia.

Inline image 1

Force Awakens is a big question mark right now, though I wouldn’t consider it a likely nominee. The Hollywood Reporter reported a bit on this – apparently George Lucas is so meh about the Academy Awards that he almost didn’t go to the Oscars the year Star Wars was actually a Best Picture nominee.


Other News

  • Must read of the week –  women in Hollywood: Maureen Dowd covers the lack of gender diversity in the film industry in an excellent New York Times Magazine article. You really have to read the whole thing yourself, but these stats were fascinating: “From 2007 through 2014, according to Smith’s research, women made up only 30.2 percent of speaking or named characters in the 100 top-grossing fictional films. But the most wildly lopsided numbers have to do with who is behind the lens. In both 2013 and 2014, women were only 1.9 percent of the directors for the 100 top-grossing films. Excluding their art-house divisions, the six major studios released only three movies last year with a female director.” Pretty scary stuff.
  • Get animated: The 16 possibilities for Best Animated Feature were unveiled earlier this month. They include Pixar’s Inside Out and The Good Dinosaur, critical darling Anomalisa and the somehow-people-liked Shaun the Sheep Movie.
  • But why, Shia? Shia LaBeouf watched all of his movies in a row as some sort of bizarre interactive artistic experience. Yes, even Transformers: Dark of the Moon. Photo evidence.
  • Actors talking: A couple of articles came out recently featuring actors talking about their work. Here is a Hollywood Reporter roundtable of Jennifer Lawrence, Carey Mulligan, Cate Blanchett, Jane Fonda, Brie Larson, Helen Mirren, Charlotte Rampling and Kate Winslet speaking, amongst other things, “on pay gap, sex scenes and the price of speaking frankly.” Here is a collection of 20 secrets for getting lost in character (with a personal favorite being Ian McKellen talking about how when he played Hamlet in London, some critics told him, “We can’t see Hamlet again — I’m sorry. There have been 10 Hamlets this year already; we can’t see another.”) Here are producers’ woes while filming.
  • Almost no Spotlight: According to the Hollywood Reporter, DreamWorks nearly derailed the movie that some consider a Best Picture frontrunner because “no one wants to watch a priest molesting a kid.”
  • Making the Cold War personal: Steven Spielberg, who is soon to be honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, recounts how Bridge of Spies is one of the most personal films he made. Spielberg used a scene from his childhood involving a bathtub to highlight the fear and uncertainty of the 1960s, and gave Tom Hanks lines that his father said to reassure him when he was younger.
  • Mandatory JLaw links: Jennifer Lawrence was ranked as the most valuable star of 2015, followed by Robert Downey, Jr., Leonardo DiCaprio, Bradley Cooper and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. (The next woman is Sandra Bullock at number 8.) Vulture uses domestic and foreign box-office numbers, critical love, social-media chatter, Twitter mentions, Oscar success and likability ratings to determine this annual list; interestingly, Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt dropped out of the top 10 this year. This is all I have to say about this topic.
  • Dum DUM DUM DUM DUM DUM: Colin Welland, the guy who wrote Chariots of Fire, died. In his obituary, there was a sad addendum about another movie he wanted to write, about an English father and son who developed rail travel in the 19th century. “I took ‘Rocket’ to America immediately after ‘Chariots of Fire’ had come out,” Welland said “‘We want another Chariots of Fire,’ I was told. ‘It is another ‘Chariots of Fire,’ I said. ‘Men against the establishment. Robert Stephenson couldn’t read and write, yet he was the greatest engineer of his generation. He had the world against him, yet he fought through. It is another ‘Chariots of Fire.’ But they wanted another film about runners.”
  • Harry Potter awards: David Heyman, the producer of the Harry Potter franchise, Gravity, Paddington and The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, will be honored with the David O. Selznick Achievement Award from the PGA this January. According to the statement, “With Harry Potter, David Heyman set the standard for contemporary franchise filmmaking, demonstrating an unerring ability to translate a cherished literary universe to the screen, with all of its depth, humor and heart intact … His work has consistently elevated our profession and our industry; in his hands, the movie screen offers the same satisfactions as the literature that often inspires his stories.”

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