Saturday, July 20, 2013


The first half of the year usually is devoid of Oscar-y titles-- typically a dumping ground for product and the hopeful launch of things big and shiny-- but nonetheless we are well behind the first six months of 2013 and a short time ahead of the fall festival circuit when things start getting wonky.  Are there any takeaways thus far that may have any impact on the 2013 Oscar race?

It's true that Best Picture winners and nominees typically are introduced in the latter part of the calendar year-- since 2000 only three eventual Best Picture winners were released in the first half (The Hurt Locker, Crash, Gladiator) and only a handful of nominees (Up, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Midnight in Paris, Moulin Rouge!, Erin Brockovich) have managed that feat.  Still at this stage of the game when all is mere speculation and all in the movie awards land still feels pure and innocent, it's fun to ponder the playful possibilities.

The only Best Pictures winners since 2000 to be released before July.

Last year, the winner of the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance was a plucky bit of poetry called Beasts of the Southern Wild which managed the nearly unbelievable task of netting four Oscar nominations including Picture and Director-- it became just the third Sundance to Oscar translation in history following Precious (2009) and Winter's Bone (2010.)  This year Sundance bestowed its top prize (as well as the Audience Award) to Fruitvale Station, Ryan Coogler's feature debut about the 2009 BART shooting of Oscar Grant.  The Weinstein Company hopes magic strikes again for the well-received film.  It opened last week in limited release to one of the biggest per-screen averages of the year (third to only Spring Breakers and A Place Beyond the Pines) and may very well enter the zeitgeist due to the sense of urgency bestowed due to the Zimmerman verdict (also last weekend.)  The key, of course, will be the position the great Harvey puts the film in towards the end of the year (remember, he's got a lot of awards potential set to come at the end of the year including August: Osage County, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, Philamena and Grace of Monaco.)
At this point last year Amour won the top prize at Cannes on track to a winter release and a surprise five Oscar nomination including Picture and Director; it seems unlikely that this year's winner- Blue is Warmest Color will follow suit.  The highly sexualized (and controversial) teenage lesbian romantic film will get a fall release from Sundance Selects, but will miss out on being a foreign film entry (at least this year) due to Academy stipulation at any contender must open in its home country before October 1st- Blue will open in its native France shortly after.  It also doesn't seem like the type of Academy-approved foreign crossover at any rate.

The Top Contenders So Far?

The other big (not quite big, but hopeful?) gun from the first half of the year is Richard Linklater's Before Midnight.  Easily the best reviewed American film from the first half of the year, Linklater's third in his wonderful Before trilogy seems to get better over time and also grow in its fanbase.  While the films combined box office numbers wouldn't pay for the craft services on an Avengers films, they have all gone up from and the last film earned a surprise Adapted Screenplay nomination in 2004 meaning that they are at least in a small way on the AMPAS radar.  It won't be easy exactly, even this at this absurdly early stage one can gather that-- the critics will need to rally in a firm way bestowing the film end of the year prizes and high end top ten placements coupled with a smart campaign from distributor Sony Pictures Classics.  Like with Fruitvale Station, Midnight will benefit if a few of the falls more baity projects fail to excite.

Other Prospects: A Place Beyond the Pines and Mud will have their fans but both might be seen as too small or fall victim to the Academy's short term memory at the end of the year.  However both art house success stories in the first part of the year will likely stay in the conversation (or the periphery of such) due to their small, but vocal fanbases.  Frances Ha (my favorite thus far of 2013) will likely be disregarded as too twee, too girly, too hipster for the mainstream.

The directors branch of the Academy recently sent an invitation to Mud director Jeff Nichols for membership, and while getting nominated for that film appears to not have much of a chance in hell, it certainly bodes well for him in the future to have (now) two enormously respected indie projects under his belt.  Other respected craftsmen (and women) to produce well received product so far this year include Noah Baumbach (Frances Ha), Sofia Coppola (The Bling Ring), Derek Cianfrance (A Place Beyond the Pines), Park Chan-wook (Stoker) and Harmony Korine (Spring Breakers)-- all will have their champions, but neither has much of a chance with Oscar.  Richard Linklater (Before Midnight) and Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station) seem the best bets yet again, but their films might be safer considering the five-ten slots allotted-- then again the Directors Branch included both Michael Haneke and Benh Zeitlin last year as a sort of rebellion, so ya never know.

There will rightfully be champions for Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy for Before Midnight for their grand eighteen year creations and if the critics really reward them at the end of the year, it might happen.  It's a big if however.  Same goes for Michael B. Jordan's performance in Fruitvale Station, which has been widely heralded since Sundance-- he seems awfully young however (he only 26) for the typically older-skewing Best Actor field-- the films best awards chance may belong to past winner Octavia Spencer as his grieving mother who appears at this stage of the game perhaps the firmest best for a second supporting actress nomination following her groundswell victory in the category two years ago for The Help.

Matthew McConaughey has been on a wonderful uphill career trajectory in the past year with surprising performances in wide-varying films like Bernie, Magic Mike, Killer Joe and The Paperboy and he earned some of his best notices to date for Mud, however his soft-spoken yet charismatic fugitive in Jeff Nichols' yarn may just be a booster to his bigger turns later in the year in The Wolf of Wall Street and Dallas Buyers Club, which appear more Oscar-y on paper.  And while Greta Gerwig merged a perfect marriage of character with performer in Frances Ha, the idiosyncratic indie will likely be considered too minimalist for the Academy-- hopefully at least the Indie Spirits rightfully reward her.  Other interesting prospects include James Franco for Spring Breakers (too batshit?), Nicole Kidman for Stoker (too batshit x 2), Ryan Gosling for A Place Beyond the Pines (he's relegated to supporting and the film dissipates as it goes one?), Harrison Ford for 42 (too forgotten?), Mads Mikkelsen for The Hunt (too foreign?) and Kristin Scott Thomas for Only God Forgives (the reviews are too horrible?), it will be interesting if any can overcome the first-half hump.

Two legitimate possibilities arrived in the first half of the year in one of the categories that will be nearly impossible to pin down until later.  Both Stories We Tell, Sarah Polley's moving account of her own family's history and 20 Feet From Stardom have passed thus far with stellar reviews and good box office-- both have the necessary pedigree to advance, it will all depend of the latter half offering and the eventual shortlist selections which is always contentious.  It's interesting to note that the Documentary category is now open to all members of the Academy, which leads me to believe that Polley, whose film is quite emotionally accessible, might prevail in the end with a little help from her name recognition.

Animated Feature seems a bit sad so far (Monsters University, The Croods, Turbo, Epic and Despicable Me 2 are the big guns thus far) and frankly depressing...perhaps GKids can unveil some weird artsy animated project to acclaim and snap up a prize-- your time is now.  Foreign film prospects are always difficult to call, especially not knowing ahead of time what film will be selected from each country.  However the big muscular guns of the year so, including Iron Man 3, Man of Steel, Star Trek Into Darkness, Oz: The Great & Powerful and The Great Gatsby should all prevail in one form or another.  Oblivion, Tom Cruise's spring sci-fi non-starter earned nice reviews for its production design and cinematography as well.

What are your thoughts?  Lone-shot hopefuls from the first half of the year?  Discuss in the comments.  

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