Of the films released so far this year, "Beasts of the Southern Wild" looks like the strongest Oscar contender; "The Dark Knight Rises" faces obstacles
If the Oscar eligibility period ended today, the race would be all about a little girl and a little movie.
As the Venice Film Festival kicked off on Wednesday, with Telluride and Toronto waiting in the wings and New York to follow, most of the films that are likely to be in contention for the 85th Academy Awards have yet to be unveiled. The next month should bring a bevy of awards heavyweights, from Paul Thomas Anderson's "The Master" to Ben Affleck's "Argo," Ang Lee's "Life of Pi" to Terrence Malick's "To the Wonder."
But the first eight months of the year brought few films likely to square off against those at the Dolby Theatre next February. From this perspective, first-time director Benh Zeitlin's lyrical and startling "Beasts of the Southern Wild" looks to have by far the best chance of becoming a serious contender.
And newcomer Quvenzhané Wallis — who just turned nine, but who was only five when she auditioned for Zeitlin — will all-but-certainly seize Michel Hazanavicius' 2011 spot as the tongue-twisting name that Oscar-watchers had better learn to pronounce.
(For the record, and for all the presenters who'll be reading it in upcoming months: It's Kwa-VEN-ja-nay.)
"Beasts" took the Sundance Film Festival by storm four days before last year's Oscar nominations were announced, and it remains the only 2012 release that feels like the kind of film Academy voters must come to terms with.
They won't all like it — it's too ramshackle and weird and indie for the folks who put the likes of "War Horse" and "The Blind Side" on the Best Picture roster in years past — but it is the kind of exhilarating, bracing work that has already captured a passionate following.
And given the Academy's preferential system of ballot-counting, a small but passionate following will always get better results than ones with broader but more lukewarm support.
Encouraged by reports that "Beasts" drew a good crowd and played well at its official Academy members screening on July 1, I fully expect it to find a spot among this year's Best Picture nominees – and I fully expect its pint-sized leading lady to become the youngest Best Actress nominee in history.
Here's an AMPAS clip from the Q&A with Zeitlin, Wallis and screenwriter Lucy Alibar that followed that screening:
But what of the other films that have been released so far this year? Do any of them have what it takes to sway Oscar voters in the top categories?
Recent history suggests that a few of them should. Last year, three of the eventual nine Best Picture nominees had landed in theaters by the end of August: the May releases "Midnight in Paris" and "The Tree of Life" and the August release "The Help."
Five of the 20 acting nominees had already been onscreen (though that stat was skewed by three acting nods for "The Help"), along with two of the five Best Director contenders, Woody Allen and Terrence Malick.
For this year to yield a similar crop would require not only "Beasts of the Southern Wild" scoring a nomination, but also two other Best Picture nominees coming from a small group that most likely consists of "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel," "Moonrise Kingdom" and "The Dark Knight Rises."
The first two are indie hits that won largely positive reviews and proved to have strong staying power at the box office. Both may be longshots that could be overshadowed by the barrage of big fall and winter movies – but if the presumed heavy-hitters prove to be disappointing, as some inevitably will, John Madden's geriatric comedy and Wes Anderson's evocative miniature are well-positioned to sneak into the awards picture.
"The Dark Knight Rises" (left) is in a trickier situation. It is in some ways another piece of exemplary big-budget filmmaking from Christopher Nolan and the follow-up to "The Dark Knight," a movie whose failure to be nominated for Best Picture is widely considered the impetus behind the Academy's 2009 move to increase the total from five to 10 nominees.
But it is also fighting the Academy bias against comic, superhero and action movies, as well as its inescapable tie to the horrific shootings at a midnight screening in Aurora, Colo. It should have strong below-the-line support, though, and its AMPAS supporters could rally around it because of that and give it the first-place votes needed to secure a nomination.
After "Beasts," "Dark Knight," "Marigold" and "Moonrise," no 2012 films really seem likely to contend in the Best Picture race. The French film "The Intouchables" might have the best shot, with the kind of emotional, audience-friendly appeal often attractive to voters – but it would require the Weinstein Company making a concerted push to put the film back in front of voters, at a time when the company will be working a number of higher-profile candidates.
Still, "don't underestimate the Weinstein Oscar prowess" is a rule that Academy-watchers ignore at their own peril, witness the company's two consecutive Best Picture wins with 'The King's Speech' and 'The Artist.'
Elsewhere, Steven Soderberg's "Magic Mike" won over the critics but will no doubt have a harder time with Oscar voters; it's far more likely to land a Best Supporting Actor nomination for Matthew McConaughey (right) than to figure in the Best Picture race.
Similarly, "Hope Springs" is most likely to nudge Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones toward the spotlight, while a number of actors have won raves in smaller movies and might have an outside chance at the kind of surprise nomination won by Demian Bichir in "A Better Life" last year.
(The women may have a better chance of sneaking in, given that Best Actress looks to be a significantly less crowded category than Best Actor this year.)
In some categories, of course, summer releases dominate: Three of the five nominees in the Visual Effects category last year came from summer releases "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2," "Transformers: Dark of the Moon" and "Rise of the Planet of the Apes."
This year, "Dark Knight" and "The Avengers" and "The Amazing Spider-Man" and a number of others have to figure heavily in the tech races – and could the monumentally disappointing "Battleship" or "John Carter" wind up Oscar nominees for sound or visual effects? Stranger things have happened.
But if you're looking for true Best Picture contenders from the first eight months of 2012, it may well be time to keep it small.
Small, fierce and beastly.