It’s been a while since we’ve dug into a full blown Oscar column here at In Contention. This week, with a few more screenings behind us and a modest few on the horizon (“Apocalypto” Thursday, “The Good Shepherd” a week from today), it seems like something is in the air: change.
Perhaps it’s entirely subjective, as my review of “Dreamgirls” last week is admittedly in the minority, but it seems to me the Best Picture frontrunner isn’t the frontrunner at all anymore. It seems to me the race is opening up wider, and with Clint Eastwood’s “Letters from Iwo Jima” leaping into the fray, supposedly to save the hide of “Flags of Our Fathers,” maybe an entry of social importance and relative “prestige” can take the top prize away from a thin and emotionally distancing musical like we almost saw happen in 2002.
I mentioned Friday the widely floated idea that, had Harvey Weinstein not been in the mix on “Chicago,” Roman Polanski’s “The Pianist” would have dropped in and snatched the Best Picture win four years ago. Taking down victories in the adapted screenplay, lead actor and directing categories that night, it seemed things might have been heading that way for the Holocaust drama regardless of campaigns. “Chicago” was criticized in many corners as being a frigid affair – lots of glitz but not a lot of heart. And that’s fair enough, but then it wasn’t the sort of story that necessitated as much. “Dreamgirls” is much more dependant on viewer-character connectivity, and reading even the raves, I don’t see a lot of that going on. Just lots of praise for the showmanship.
Beyond “Dreamgirls,” the only largely agreed upon Best Picture shoo-in this year is Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed.” A hard boiled crime flick with no warm and fuzzy center in sight, the film may very well earn Scorsese his long-deserved Best Director trophy. But a win in the major race? You’d have to go back to “The French Connection” find something so aesthetically abrasive and genre-baked taking the top prize. It seems a stretch.
“The Queen” is considered a good bet for a nomination in many corners as well. One of the best reviewed films of the year, Stephen Frears’s intimate political portrait still seems a bit too small to take the Academy by storm as a Best Picture victor, wooing technical branches alongside assuredly impressed actors and writers.
“Little Miss Sunshine” is one of the most beloved films of the year that sadly won’t be turning up in the Best Director category due to two credited helmers. There's one mark against it. Plus, it’s just too light, even if it does hit the right emotional marks.
A few other films have a clear shot at making it into contention, but seem unlikely to win for various reasons. “Babel,” for instance, is too much of a love/hate affair, while “World Trade Center” doesn’t have the muscle or the wide-spread acclaim to threaten victory. Something else has to step forward.
“Flags of Our Fathers” really is down and out. It has been forgotten into oblivion, despite pretty FYC ads in the trades – a too little too late effort from Paramount marketing. The film also has the whiff of financial failure on it. On top of it all, the release of Eastwood’s sister film has been considered a move to revive hope in that structurally distressed endeavor. No film that needs the help of another studio’s release has the strength to survive something as vicious as an Oscar season.
An idea most seem to be passing over in all of this is that maybe “Letters from Iwo Jima” is the latter season surprise in and of itself – a film that can storm in with its big ideas, emotional resonance and intimate brushstrokes to steal the thunder of all pretenders.
Hardly anyone has seen “Letters” yet, so it is certainly worth admitting the sheer speculation of this column. But the gears are turning. The film opened to some good notices at the Tokyo International Film Festival last week, fit with a big story in the Los Angeles Times. The official website went live over the weekend, and, keep in mind, the film did make the deadline for HFPA consideration. So maybe in two weeks, should it make a dent in the Golden Globe nominations, prognosticators will start taking real notice.
Then again, maybe it will fade away and be a tiny blip on the Oscar landscape that exists as a modest crutch for “Flags” and is merely seen as part of a revered director’s brave creativity in 2006 – nothing more, nothing less. Nothing, regardless, can be certain.
I don’t know about you, but I smell something. I smell a studio oddly skimping on the campaign of a critically hailed gangster flick and steering its determination to something “they” think could steal the whole show. Did I mention Warners’s new awards consultant, Michelle Robertson, comes to the team this year following a healthy awards stint at Focus Features? Focus being a studio that specialized in the intimate and the prestigious for years – a studio that almost stole the whole show from a razzle-dazzle showcase four short years ago.
So yes, I’m out on a limb this week. You’ll find “Letters from Iwo Jima” is predicted across the board, every chart updated in full. That flimsy fifth Best Actor slot seems perfectly suited for Ken Watanabe. Newcomer Kazunari Ninomiya feels like just the sort to stake a last minute claim with his portrayal of Saigo, the apparent fulcrum of the film’s cast. The techs all look just as likely to follow suit. In short, “Letters from Iwo Jima” seems more and more like the real Clint Eastwood film of this one-two punch, the real awards hog. At the end of the day, maybe “Flags of Our Fathers” will be the true “crutch.”
(Please remember, chart rankings are always in order of nomination likelihood, not win likelihood.)
Previous Oscar Columns:
10/23/06 - "Lighten Up"
10/16/06 - "Starting To Get Serious"
10/09/06 - "'Flags' Lands and the Supporting Actresses Need Sustenance"
10/02/06 - "What's in a lead anyway?"
09/18/06 - "Aftermath"
09/11/06 - "It's All Happening."
09/04/06 - "Aw, Canucks."
08/28/06 - "On Your Marks..."
08/14/06 - "Enough Foreplay!"
08/07/06 - "Don't Knock Masturbation; it's Sex with Someone I Love"
07/31/06 - "Old and New, the Oscar Season Approaches"