It may be Labor Day, but the work at hand is breathing down our necks. So it is that we come to the first weekly Oscar column of the new awards season.
Though to be frank with you, I’m beginning to wonder whether we’ll be able to keep the conversation going, much less interesting on a weekly basis as we push through the last four months of the year. I knew going in to this year that it was going to be a somewhat low-key season, and my own worst fears have been founded in a number of pre-Toronto screenings of films that will be discussed in a week’s time, films leaving me cold, irritated or otherwise just unconvinced.
I don’t sense a lull on the level of 2005 by any means, but I do get the feeling that after two solid years of cinematic goodness, 2008 could just be one of those “rebuilding” years, to steal a sports term and painfully attempt its application here. It’s interesting (and telling) that my two favorite films of the year are a stoner comedy and a superhero adaptation respectively (though the latter obviously has a legion of fans banking on major awards success…more on that later).
The most intriguing component for me is the playground that Toronto will provide for a bevy of independent and genuinely smaller product. The heavy-hitters (or, at the very least, the presumed heavy-hitters) are incomplete and not prepared for fall fest unveiling (aside from “Frost/Nixon,” which has already been seen and seems to be riding a wave of confidence at Universal).
But efforts like Mike Leigh’s “Happy-Go-Lucky,” Jonathan Demme’s “Rachel Getting Married,” Vicente Amorim’s “Good,” Guillermo Arriaga’s “The Burning Plain,” Rian Johnson’s “The Brothers Bloom,” Richard Eyre’s “The Other Man,” etc. — true indies with a fighting chance to turn some heads — won’t have to suffer in the shadows of big studio films angling for the press of an Oscar season starting gun.
Meanwhile, Cannes entries such as Fernando Meirelles’s “Blindness,” Charlie Kaufman’s “Synecdoche, New York,” Matteo Garrone’s “Gomorrah” and Steven Soderbergh’s “Che” get an uninhibited second chance in front of festival audiences. Ditto Clint Eastwood’s “Changeling,” in the case of the New York fest.
Other films will get the opportunity to show their distributors that they may indeed have what it takes to make an Oscar season stand, like Rod Lurie’s “Nothing But the Truth” or Fox Searchlight’s newly (co-)acquired Danny Boyle film “Slumdog Millionaire.”
And then there are the little flicks that really have me intrigued, above and beyond the oh-so-mysterious studio product waiting on the other side of September: Darren Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler,” for instance, or Steve McQueen’s “Hunger,” each of them containing lead actor performances that have a fighting chance without having to contend with the celebrity of Leonardo DiCaprio, Sean Penn, Frank Langella or Brad Pitt while making the Toronto rounds.
It really says something that Spike Lee’s “Miracle of St. Anna” will be the “biggest” film to play the fest. A 147-minute Disney film from a controversial artist trying his hand at a part-hallucinatory World War II landscape. Sounds like an indie to me…but it’s certainly not.
Regardless, a battlefield of potential isn’t enough to satisfy some appetites. The Telluride line-up has left more than a few cold and all eyes, despite the intrigue of a “little” TIFF, are on the stuff that isn’t even in the can yet. And Harvey Weinstein decided to add one more ingredient to the “heavy” mixture, just in case we aren’t paying attention. Tricky.
I’m painted in a similar fashion, of course, considering this week’s top five films in the Best Picture chart are unseen studio efforts. Focus Features’ “Milk” is starting to look, in my view, like the top tier contender, while I’m beginning to warm up to the possibilities of Fox’s “Australia” (Baz Luhrmann having steered clear of neutering his style for the effort and with some at the studio feeling good about a supporting turn from Brandon Walters, an unknown Aborigine child actor).
Paramount Vantage is setting plans in motion for the unveiling of “Defiance” (shhhh), while Sam Mendes is finally getting around to editing “Revolutionary Road” in the wake of numerous side projects. And, of course, “The Soloist” is primed to be the Paramount push of the season if early anxieties over “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” are to be believed.
But I’m certainly not alone in all of this. Not too many are willing to stake a major claim on the Best Picture possibilities of the independent efforts that are largely dominating the landscape this year. Indeed, massive numbers are warming up to the idea that Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” can shatter a mold they really want to liken to that of “The Lord of the Rings” and “Star Wars” (despite obvious situational differences). The whispers on the winds seem to indicate the Academy will want to go big. Or at least bigger.
Which brings us back to the fact that so many of these “big” or “bigger” efforts are still free of critical eye. In some cases, they are even free of publicity eye. So why hang it out there for films of a sort that typically crash and burn due to over-inflated expectations?
Maybe it’s a comfort level thing, sticking with that “on paper” mentality to predict what might come out in the wash. Perhaps its the knowledge that marketing budgets for these films will largely over-shadow the budgets of the smaller hopefuls. Who knows?
But that’s the point of a final prognosticative stab before the curtains go up on a number of these flicks — or otherwise before wide-spread opinions begin to make or break their awards potential. We’re in the final holding pattern of the season, and by this time next week, it’ll be sailing from here.
Whether it’ll be smooth sailing is yet to be seen…
(I won’t be updating the charts next Monday, though there will be a mid-Toronto column. We’ll give them another once-over after the TIFF dust settles.)