The last two weeks have been a leaf blower to the debris an awards season can accumulate. Individuals with some real say in the ultimate Oscar picture have finally gone on the record, painting a rather clear picture of the industry’s favorite films of 2008.
But before diving into the realities of the various guild announcements, it is probably worth touching upon the gleeful diversions of the Critics’ Choice Awards and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s Golden Globe Awards.
These are the two culminating critics soirees, capping off the annual critical kudos sprint through December and early January. Both proudly declare themselves Oscar harbingers but only one seems to find itself decided from a critical mindset (even if that mindset is still warped by pegging a zeitgeist). The other is, as always, a drunken time amongst industry friends that goes its own way.
But dare I say it, this year the HFPA may have actually raised the bar for the Academy. After years of embarrassing nominations announcements and sometimes bewildering winner choices, the group awarded a slate of contenders last night that stuck out as noble and, shockingly, novel.
Can the Academy’s membership reach out to Mickey Rourke and meet him half way like he has clearly done this season to an industry that has shunned him for so many years? Can they find a way to spread the kudos love while an inevitable “Slumdog” sweep pushes through the evening of February 22?
Moreover, can AMPAS have the balls to follow in the HFPA’s footsteps with a double win for Kate Winslet, arguably deserving this year and a move that would be inarguable as a hell of an apology for years of Oscar losses? The actress joined Sigourney Weaver last night as one of only two actresses to win a pair of Golden Globe awards for film performances in one evening. Your move, Oscar.
Three of the acting categories are absolutely up in the air, arenas rife with the potential for fresh thinking or a complete upset. And a number of craft categories are an open field, waiting to be defined to a membership that needs definition when it comes to the winners’ ballot. You can sense phase II taking shape before it even gets here.
But the past two weeks have given some indication. All of the major guilds — SAG, PGA, WGA and DGA — have spoken up with their list of the year’s best, and the consensus is the same five you’ve seen in the sidebar for a month-and-a-half. And though we were handing the Oscar to “Slumdog Millionaire” way back on November 25, an unpopular opinion at the time to say the least, that possibility has become an inevitability unheard of since “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King,” and that includes last year’s ultimately expected victory for “No Country for Old Men.”
But smart people know this is a two-tiered exercise, and phase II is a different game altogether. This is when a studio like Warner Bros. can switch on the afterburners and really pull the rug out from under a hard-working Fox Searchlight team. When talented artists find their publicity groove and charm the pants off an industry begging for it. When Sean Penn and Mickey Rourke can run out of steam and allow for an old-timer like Clint Eastwood or Frank Langella to slip in the back door.
It’s a funny game.
If “Slumdog” is the clear industry favorite (nods from SAG, WGA, PGA, DGA, ADG and CAS), “The Curious case of Benjamin Button” is shaping up to be the nominations leader and a tech giant. But shut-outs at the Critics’ Choice Awards and the Golden Globes, however irrelevant, are nonetheless intriguing. The film is shaping up as an also-ran despite strong box office and industry respect. An anomaly.
“The Dark Knight” has planted flag after flag at the guilds, yet seems as vulnerable as ever. Despite passion’s effect on that rash tendency to “exhale” after a guild outpouring such as this, one can’t help but consider the effect a massive actor’s branch could still have on a film like “Doubt,” campaigning stronger than ever. And what of “WALL-E,” ineligible in each of the major guild award races for various reasons yet still the most critically acclaimed film of the year? That passion surely stretches into the AMPAS membership in some way.
And let’s not forget the true indie that could, Fox Searchlight’s other stab at Best Picture glory and a film the studio has been serious about from the outset: Darren Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler.” Popping up on a number of AMPAS shortlists and guild announcements this week, the film clearly owns a place on any list of Best Picture hopefuls, no matter how cut-and-dry the race seems to be.
But the strangest whispers I’ve heard concern Clint Eastwood’s “Gran Torino,” opening wide over the weekend to exceptional box office and, some say, the real threat to “The Dark Knight”‘s shifty #5 spot at the moment. The guilds haven’t necessarily reflected that, but then again, they didn’t reflect much on “Letters from Iwo Jima” either.
Such is the season, twisting with excitement even in the apparent grip of inevitability. In 10 days, we’re all going to reload and take aim one more time. What will the target look like then? Who will be the Tommy Lee Jones to add unexpected flavor to the mixture. Who will be the gasp-inducing “Dreamgirls” snub? Or will it all go “according to plan?”
I don’t know if it’s just me, but this is the first season in some time that has become more exciting the closer we get to the nominations announcement. In a year packed with disappointment and leaving at least this viewer for wanting, it’s one of the little things to be cherished.