“The King’s Speech” and “The Social Network” proved their mettle, “Black Swan” and “127 Hours” stirred up passions, “The Tree of Life” is officially out of the running, and “The Conspirator” and “Conviction” dinted their Oscar chances.
With the first round of fall showcases behind us — Venice, Toronto and Telluride — and the New York Film Festival set to unveil The Social Network" on Friday — the Oscar picture is clearer.
But there’s still room for lots of movement, for favorites to fade and dark horses to come out of nowhere.
Last year at this point, for instance, “Up in the Air” and “Precious” had the most momentum, “Avatar” seemed as likely to be a flop as a phenomenon, nobody expected anything from “The Blind Side,” and “The Hurt Locker” was considered a critics’ movie that’d be happy just to get a nomination.
This season is an exhausting one, and looking good in September is no guarantee that you’ll be around in February. (Let’s check back then with the currently-undefeated Tampa Bay Buccaneers.) But for now, this is how the race stacks up for me:
1. "The King's Speech"
Strengths: The Weinstein Company release plays exceptionally well for a mainstream audience, as witnessed by its People’s Choice Award at Toronto. It’s set in the days before World War II, a conflict long beloved by Oscar voters. It’ll get support from the actors branch, since it’s a film that soars on the strength of performances from Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush and Helena Bonham Carter. And it’s daring enough, in a quiet way, to not turn off the younger members.
Weaknesses: Its subject matter may be a bit dry to get a major boxoffice boost. If the voters are looking for something adventurous (“No Country for Old Men,” “Slumdog Millionaire”), this might seem a bit old-fashioned. It could fall into the “it’s a performance movie” ghetto. But most of all, nobody wants to be the frontrunner this far out – least of all Harvey Weinstein, who perfected the art of slipping into the race late in the game.
2. "The Social Network"
Strengths: Smart and sharp and solid, “The Social Network” is a mainstream move from a director, David Fincher, who is well-admired but has usually been a bit too risky for the Academy’s tastes. (See: “Fight Club,” “Se7en,” “Zodiac.”) It captures the tenor of its time, and goes beyond its ostensible subject – the creation of Facebook, and the lawsuits that ensued – to be about something more universal: the quest for connection, whether that’s in person or online.
Weaknesses: Does it make enough of an emotional connection? Perhaps not. The movie ends in a nicely understated manner, with a tinge of regret rather than any big Lessons Learned – but sublety and understatement is hardly the way to win votes of the people who named “Crash” Best Picture. In addition, there’s enough controversy over the movie’s accuracy to fuel a backlash even more heated than the ones we saw over “A Beautiful Mind” and “The Hurt Locker.” (Then again, the attacks on those films didn’t work.)
3. "Black Swan"
Strengths: Passion – the people who love it, love it. (I’m one of them.) Darren Aronofsky’s grand, extravagant backstage melodrama about the madness that envelopes a ballet dancer is one of the most daring, the most dazzling and the craziest movies released this year; it has raw ambition and reckless abandon, which could make it stand out from the rest of the pack. And it’s about a tortured artist and the pain of pursuing art, which could appeal to a body of filmmakers. The voting process ensures that you need passion to get a nomination, and “Black Swan” will have it.
Weaknesses: Its problem will probably come in the final voting, when you need to fashion a consensus of sorts to actually win. This is not a consensus-building kind of movie, but a divisive one that might scare off the people who don’t love it.
4. "The Fighter"
Strengths: David O. Russell’s boxing drama may be the biggest threat among the films that have yet to be widely seen. I’ve heard both ways about it – that it’ll be a contender mostly in acting categories, particularly for Christian Bale’s supporting performance, and that it delivers in a way that’ll put it squarely in the Best Picture race. Russell can be a thorny director, but “Three Kings” was terrific, and if he delivers with the kind of tough, inspirational sports movie that this might be, he could, um, be a contender.
Weaknesses: Russell is not the best-liked director in town. Most of his movies “I Heart Huckabees,” “Flirting with Disaster”) are a bit arty and esoteric for the Academy. And if “The Fighter” pushes him toward sports-movie clichés, he could end up losing the folks who’ve liked him in the past.
5. "127 Hours"
Strengths: Danny Boyle is an imaginative, innovative director, who uses every trick in the book to enliven the true story of Aron Ralston, the hiker who spent five days trapped in a crevice and unable to move, until he cut off his own forearm to escape. The film was one of the most talked-about entries at both Telluride and Toronto: it’s clearly not for the faint-of-heart, but Boyle’s style of virtuoso filmmaking is almost impossible for the Academy to ignore, particularly since James Franco is likely to be in the thick of the Best Actor race.
Weaknesses: The scene that makes people cringe, or faint, could be a tough sell among some elements at the Academy. Like “Black Swan,” it’s probably a film that’ll find it tough to form a consensus. And Danny Boyle won the big prize only two years ago, with “Slumdog Millionaire.” If you figure that the Best Picture/Best Director connection will likely hold, it’s worth noting that only four directors in history have won twice in three years, and nobody’s done it since 1950.
THE NEXT TIER
This is a comfortable place to be – and at the moment, I’d say it’s occupied, among films that have already screened, by “Inception” (right), “The Kids Are All Right,” “Another Year,” “Toy Story 3” and “Made in Dagenham.”
Clint Eastwood’s “Hereafter” didn’t tear up Toronto, but it had its adherents and could appeal to the Academy. “Secretariat” is reportedly a big crowd-pleaser, and the kind of movie for which the 10 nominations were designed. “Biutiful” could sneak in: it might be too dark for mainstream voters, but it’s a tough, haunting piece of work that’ll stick with, and inspire passion in others. “Get Low” has a shot, “Blue Valentine” a longer shot.
Robert Redford’s “The Conspirator,” which initially seemed a good possibility, picked up distribution at Toronto, but Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions won't be releasing it until spring 2011, taking it out of the awards picture. (In addition, it’s an old-fashioned film with a young cast — Justin Long as a Civil War hero? — and didn’t inspire many raves.) Neither did Tony Goldwyn’s “Conviction” and John Curran’s “Stone.”
Mark Romanek’s “Never Let Me Go” is one of my favorite films of the year, but it has run up against a serious divide: viewers either tune it out because they can’t get past the fact that its characters don’t rail against their plight, or they accept that and find that plight unbearably moving. Sadly, too many viewers seem to fall in the former camp.
The buzz of late is that Ben Affleck’s “The Town” is suddenly an Oscar contender, by virtue of positive reviews, its good box office and a boffo Academy screening over the weekend. I have trouble thinking of it as much more than “The Departed” lite, but if other contenders fall by the wayside – as they always do this time of year – Affleck might be positioned to step in.
THE GREAT UNKNOWNS
“True Grit” is the biggest. With the Coen Brothers and Jeff Bridges, it seems to have an unstoppable pedigree – but the Coens are just as capable of “Burn After Reading” as “No Country for Old Men.” James L, Brooks’ “How Do You Know” and Ed Zwick’s “Love and Other Drugs” are similarly risky predictions; they might be critical and commercial hits, or they might flop on both levels.