THE LONG SHOT: Follow the leader

Posted by · 3:56 pm · December 16th, 2010

[Updated Oscar predictions here.]

Hey, have you heard of this movie called “The Social Network?” You should probably check it out. It’s about Facebook and stuff and it’s supposed to be really good. So good, in fact, that it’s managed to tame the single most argumentative species in the animal kigdom, The Lesser Spotted Film Critic, into silent agreement. Of the 12 American critics’ groups to dish out awards so far, 11 have given their top honor to the film. (“Winter’s Bone,” you say? Get with the program, San Diego.)

The enthusiasm for the film, of course, extends beyond the sometimes soundproof critics’ chamber, as less distinguished media collectives like the HFPA and the BFCA have voiced their approval – while this morning, give or take a Supporting Actor snub, the film passed its first industry award test with two key Screen Actors’ Guild bids. Expect the Directors’, Producers’, Writers’ and Editors’ Guilds to follow suit in the New Year.

So, we can basically tie a ribbon around Oscar’s neck and hand him over to Scott Rudin and David Fincher now, can’t we? After all, against all its on-paper disadvantages, “The Hurt Locker” was in a similar position this time last year, and it didn’t budge, did it? (Indeed, it didn’t even unite the critics’ groups to this extent – of the 12 awarding bodies I mentioned above, only five selected Kathryn Bigelow’s Iraq actioner last year.) Scarcely anyone has a word to say against the film, so let’s sit back and let the sweep wash over us, right?

Well, maybe so and maybe no. For every Oscar filly that starts strong out the gate and doesn’t let up, there’s another that exhausts itself early or trips itself up. Look back to 2004, when “Sideways” entered the season as the scrappy spoiler to the coolly received “The Aviator,” taking the lion’s share of critics’ honors, the SAG ensemble award and even the top prize from the notoriously Oscar-minded Broadcast Film Critics. It wound up, of course, winning a single writing gong from the Academy.

Where did it go wrong? Well, nowhere, really: Academy voters merely took a shine to a more late-breaking alternative from a beloved veteran filmmaker, and neither “Sideways” nor “The Aviator” could compete with “Million Dollar Baby”’s impeccable timing. The following year, of course, saw an even tardier switchback in the race, as “Crash” benefited from a saturated media and precursor blitz for “Brokeback Mountain” that likely left more conservative voters feeling smothered.

So, why are some frontrunners punished by the Academy for taking too much, too soon, while others (including the last three Best Picture champs) permitted to stay the course as they greedily hog the precursor circuit? What makes a backlash? The answer, as obvious as this sounds, lies in how much voters personally like the film in question, how much they feel they’re being made to like it, and what alternatives they have if the latter feeling begins to chafe at them.

While many blog readers (and, indeed, writers) are quick to grow bored of a single film’s steamroll through the season—whether or not it’s a film they liked in the first place—Academy members evidently aren’t quite so restless: when they love a film, they’re content to let it cruise all the way to the Oscar podium. “Slumdog Millionaire” engendered that kind of devotion with its sentimental underdog status; to a similar extent, the David-versus-Goliath story of a “Hurt Locker” triumph was so irresistible that even members not completely besotted with the film could feel good about voting for it.

“Brokeback Mountain” was a nervier proposition: a film many voters perhaps respected more than they liked, and therefore vulnerable to a more broadly emotive issue movie like “Crash.” “No Country for Old Men,” a chilly bit of despairing Americana, hardly made a play for voters’ hearts, but benefited from a lack of palpably warmer heavyweight alternatives. If a “Million Dollar Baby” had entered the scene late in 2007, the outcome may have been rather different.

What manner of frontrunner is “The Social Network,” then – one the Academy can wholeheartedly embrace, or one they might feel strongarmed into voting for? It’s impossible to say until the Guild awards start giving us some notion of where industry affections lie, but several pundits have raised concerns about the film being too emotionally muted, too youth-oriented, too cool for the big win. As a story that is to a large extent about media platforming and infighting, it’s understandable that the film has struck a nerve with journalists, but will artists find it quite as relatable?

If the answer to that question is ‘no,’ voters don’t want for alternatives this year. “The King’s Speech,” a statelier, more sentimental bit of prestige bait, is a soft lob to audiences who find Fincher’s film a little too snippy, and has duly been tagged by many pundits as the film to beat since its unveiling three months ago. But that film, too, is vulnerable to a backlash: too stuffy, too irrelevant, too old, say some.

Should that meme takes hold, I wonder whether voters might find a workable compromise in “The Fighter,” a feelgood underdog biopic with a direct emotional punch that also happens to be a terrific slab of American auteur filmmaking, far more aggressive and eccentric than anything its pre-release publicity led us to expect. More chipper than “The Social Network” without feeling lightweight, more hip than “The King’s Speech” without feeling aloof, it ticks an awful lot of boxes – and robust nomination hauls from SAG and the Golden Globes this week suggest that Hollywood is feeling the love. Rather like Micky Ward’s fight strategy in the movie, “The Fighter” could do a lot worse than hang back and wait for its opponents to tire — or perhaps for others to tire of them.

→ 39 Comments Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Filed in: The Long Shot

39 responses so far

  • 1 12-16-2010 at 4:15 pm

    billybil said...

    I like this thinking. Of course, I have not yet seen either KING’S SPEECH or THE FIGHTER so I won’t make a stand yet but there is a certain appeal in what you’re describing. If what you say about THE FIGHTER is true, my gut tells me it certainly could take Best Pic.

  • 2 12-16-2010 at 4:16 pm

    Aaron said...

    Sorry Guy, but I don’t think it’s going to happen for Another Year or Lesley Manville. Neither seem to have any heat at all. I’ve yet to see the film so I can’t say if I think that’s good or bad but I think it’s true.

  • 3 12-16-2010 at 4:26 pm

    Matthew Starr said...

    Nice work comparing The Fighter’s campaign to Ward’s “strategy” in the ring. Although it really was not a strategy as Ward really just was not talented enough to compete with these guys he just had more heart and stamina.

    Digressing but anyway if Million Dollar Baby came out in 07 and beat No Country, There Will Be Blood and Michael Clayton it would have been the most pathetic moment in Academy history. Worse than Crash over Brokeback, hell worse than Ordinary People over Raging Bull. Beating Sideways was bad enough.

  • 4 12-16-2010 at 4:40 pm

    Matt King said...

    I never cared for “Sideways,” but I didn’t care for “Million Dollar Baby” either. But seriously, other than the performances, what’s to like about “Sideways”? I’m honestly asking, I don’t understand it. It seems like a movie that is so blatant in its metaphors and so lacking in subtlety.

  • 5 12-16-2010 at 4:51 pm

    forts said...

    The Social Network feels all wrong for Best Picture to me… It’s not the best film of the year (the most important issue), there’s no real female component in the film (at least Hurt Locker had Bigelow), and it’s too irrelevant to many in the Academy. I feel like Fincher will take Best Director while King’s Speech, Fighter, True Grit or (gasp) Toy Story 3 will nab Best Picture

  • 6 12-16-2010 at 5:18 pm

    Michael said...

    Best Alternative: Vote for Black Swan instead!!!!

    Great column Guy! I cannot wait until I finally see The Fighter this Saturday and The Kings Speech after Christmas so that I can feel informed enough to weigh in, but right now I’d much rather the race be between The Social Network and The Fighter and it is kinda frustrating that it doesn’t seem to be shaping up into that. But we will see early next year. I am really curious how The King’s Speech will do at the box office b/c I have a feeling that it is going to be a lot quieter compared to The Fighter which feels like it is about to explode this weekend.

  • 7 12-16-2010 at 6:17 pm

    marcelo said...

    blake edwards??

  • 8 12-16-2010 at 6:37 pm

    Brock Landers said...

    Great article Guy. As for the predictions, however, there is no way True Grit gets snubbed that badly. Absolutely no way.

  • 9 12-16-2010 at 6:38 pm

    matsunaga said...

    Here’s hoping it’s The King’s Speech…

    If Black Swan continues its momentum thru precursors and guilds, then it will be a beautiful come from behind… It’s worthy of tech nominations, and just when we thought it will just be Portman all the way, here’s Kunis also gaining momentum from HFPA and SAGs… So it also has a good ensemble…

    The Social Network is not bad… Very well made, but I just don’t think it’s good enough to be the “Best Picture”… If Fincher won’t win for Best Diector then I’m hoping it goes to Aronofsky…

    It’s just bad we’re missing Weir in the race… I hope they just push “The Way Back” for next year….

  • 10 12-16-2010 at 7:17 pm

    Carlo said...

    Another boxing movie? Hope not!

  • 11 12-16-2010 at 7:21 pm

    DylanS said...

    How is “Million Dollar Baby” a warm alternative!?! Not exactly a feel good movie.

  • 12 12-16-2010 at 7:26 pm

    The Dude said...

    @ Matt King

    This is part of why “Sideways” is one of my all-time favorite movies. Yes, there are certain metaphors (particularly involving wine and aging) that are very pronounced and obvious, but there is also a host of metaphors and themes that are more subtly dealt with. Watching the movie with commentary really opened up my eyes to just how much dedication and work went into the screenplay that seemed so simple at face-value. It’s one of the few movies I’ve seen that actually gets better with each viewing. And the performances are to die for.

    But this just may be me being overly enthusiastic. As I said, it’s one of my all-time faves. Maybe I’m alone in this opinion.

  • 13 12-16-2010 at 7:32 pm

    Silencio said...

    Dylan, maybe it’s not “feel good” but it’s def a “feel” movie, which The Aviator was not.

  • 14 12-16-2010 at 7:45 pm

    Robin said...

    I’ve been thinking this for a while now. ‘The Fighter’ feels like the movie that will come home strongest during the voting period. Strong enough to unseat the frontrunner? Depends how far out in front TSN really is. If The Fighter takes the SAG as I expect then that positions it nicely as the Crash like “counter vote”.

  • 15 12-16-2010 at 8:16 pm

    Chasey McGrady said...

    A Breakdown for Forts:

    “It’s not the best film of the year (the most important issue)…”

    Opinion. A lot of people feel inclined to disagree.

    “…there’s no real female component in the film (at least Hurt Locker had Bigelow)”

    Obviously didn’t matter with recent wins such as No Country for Old Men and The Departed (the female roles and those films amounted about as much as Rooney Mara’s character in TSN).

    “…and it’s too irrelevant to many in the Academy.”

    …and Slumdog Millionaire and The Departed were? Your claim doesn’t make any sense because you are not actually in the Academy.

  • 16 12-16-2010 at 8:52 pm

    Matthew Starr said...

    Why does a film have to have metaphors to be good?

    Sideways was a great script and brilliantly acted. I guess it depends on whether or not you are interested in the characters when it comes down to it.

  • 17 12-16-2010 at 9:11 pm

    Matt King said...

    Yeah, I think I should probably give “Sideways” another shot. I watched it years ago, and I was given the Sideways DVD last year as a gift.

    Also, Guy, when is your top 10 going to be posted? Don’t mean to sound impatient, just wondering.

  • 18 12-16-2010 at 9:51 pm

    Lucky said...

    Has any film ever won so many critics awards? what about Slumdog Millionaire? that one seemed to win something every day, literally

  • 19 12-16-2010 at 10:45 pm

    Matthew Starr said...

    Ok so we know one group performing at the Oscars…

  • 20 12-16-2010 at 11:07 pm

    Speaking English said...

    ***what about Slumdog Millionaire? that one seemed to win something every day, literally***

    Not at all. 2008 was very divided between “WALL-E” and “Milk” before it became the “Slumdog” show.

  • 21 12-17-2010 at 1:00 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Matsunaga: Sorry, it’s a bit too late to suddenly push “The Way Back” for next year. It’s in this year’s race, and that’s all there is to it.

    DylanS: “Warm” does not equal “feelgood.” “Million Dollar Baby” made grown men cry — that was its Oscar ticket.

    Matt King (with that name, I don’t suppose you star in a certain popular British sitcom, do you?): My Top 10 will go up next week. Tuesday, probably.

    Lucky: “Slumdog” didn’t actually win Best Picture awards from any of the critical majors. The biggest one it got was Boston, in a tie with “WALL-E.”

  • 22 12-17-2010 at 1:29 am

    julian said...

    I fear that your analysis is spot on, guy. I actually voiced the exact same opinion in late november and it’s getting more and more likely as weeks go by. The Fighter is definitely a big contender. I mean, it’s got wahlberg, leo, bale and adams ALL being likely nominees…four possible acting (and three of them are locks at this point)! AND it’s going to do very well box office-wise…TSN is still my favorite to win, but I wouldn’t be to surprised if The Fighter grabs the big prize at the end…

  • 23 12-17-2010 at 1:34 am

    Jonathan Spuij said...

    The lack of support (yes!) for the actors of The Social Network is worrying and perhaps the biggest sign on the wall. But the Acadamey can be such a different beast all together, so…

  • 24 12-17-2010 at 3:20 am

    Loyal said...

    Why are we still even talking about another film winning Best Picture? I mean, it makes for fun blogs I guess but the writings been on the wall for quite some time now.

    Forget Rocky winning over Network ever happened, this isn’t 1976 and The Fighter isn’t receiving 10 nominations.

    The King’s Speech isn’t the 11th hour late December surprise that Million Dollar Baby was so cross that off as well.

    Black Swan with it’s cunninglingus and masturbatory excellence will never ever ever in a billion years win Best Picture over anything, let alone The Social Network.

    True Grit, like Inception, seems content on just being invited to the party (unless some major guild wins say otherwise).

    I understand the reluctance to write any more about The Social Network (I submit a reader question about it to Oscar Talk) but it is what it is.

    Why don’t we all just watch The Tree of Life trailer instead. Before we know it, it’ll be February 27th and this national nightmare will be over.

  • 25 12-17-2010 at 3:24 am

    Lucky said...

    Oops, I stand corrected then. But has any movie recently won as many top prizes as TSN is winning?

  • 26 12-17-2010 at 4:18 am

    ninja said...

    I don`t know anyone in real life who cares to talk about Social Network. Unlike bloggers and critics who obsess about this movie like they did about what`s-its-face that won previous year that nobody cared for then or now, people who saw it said it was OK and moved on. I`m sorry but watercooler thing it ain`t. It`s a good movie but staying power? Citizen Kane? Lol. I`m not against its win but I`m pulling for Black Swan or Inception upset in BP and BD. I`ll be glad if Jesse won BA (or Franco), though.

    That said, Pixar loonies can stuff it but TS3 ain`t winning BP. 99% of BP winners (1% would be Driving Miss Daisy) have director nominated and TS3 director ain`t getting in. Nobody ever considered him for a nod anyway, not that he wouldn`t deserve it, just that animated picture directors don`t get in Top 5. Also, TS3 is the last in trilogy so what? It wasn`t made 3 movies back to back like LOTR which was a big thing back then and helped soften AMPAS to the last movie`s win. TS3 is in no way achievement like that and I`m not even LOTR fan past the first movie which should`ve won and is by far the best of the series and one of the decade`s best. TS3 not even close.

  • 27 12-17-2010 at 5:25 am

    Glenn said...

    I’m usually right on board with your predictions, Guy, but no Nicole Kidman? What brought about that sudden theory?

  • 28 12-17-2010 at 5:30 am

    TJ W said...

    I think you’re dead-on with the supporting categories.

  • 29 12-17-2010 at 5:42 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Glenn: Just a fear that voters might take her for granted, and the superstition that if I predict the worst-case scenario, it probably won’t happen.

  • 30 12-17-2010 at 6:28 am

    JJ1 said...

    THAT’S just it! (what Ninja said above).

    I have a large group of friends and we all enjoy going to the movies. Most of them saw ‘The Social Network’. Most of them liked or reallllly liked it. But it’s over. It’s long over.

    They’re not caring about Golden Globes noms, SAG noms, they have lives. And they won’t even bring up TSN again til Oscar noms, and say, ‘Oh yeah, TSN, good movie, I bet that wins. So, what’s for dinner?’

    And again, I consider this a smart, fun, lively group, who loves going to the movies a couple times a month.

    I don’t see many people “talking” about movies, at all.

    This is about ‘The Social Network’, but that can apply to most movies in contention. I would say the only 2 movies with a higher “buzz/discuss them” quotient would be ‘Inception’ (the talk of the Summer), and now ‘Black Swan’ (ooooh, have you seen Black Swan, looks great/creepy, there’s female on female action in it, etc.).

    But it really only is the critics/actors/voting bodies/industry people/bloggers/peeps like us on great sites like this that analyze awards potential like maniacs. No one else remotely cares.

  • 31 12-17-2010 at 6:44 am

    red_wine said...

    I just spent time googling and doing research and this is what I came up with.

    2010 represents the most dire Critic Award Season Ever. There has never been such a rape or plunder of critic awards rivaling what Social Network has done.

    Here are the statistics of the Win leader followed by runner-up for 12 award bodies
    (I’ve counted all the critic award announced uptil now which are atleast 8 years old, including the NBR since there is nothing left to distinguish between NBR and most critic awards now)
    2010 Social Network 11 (Winter’s Bone 1)
    2009 Hurt Locker 5 (Up In The Air 3)
    2008 Slumdog 4.5 (Milk 3)
    2007 No Country 8 (There Will Be Blood 1.5)
    2006 Letters From Iwo Jima/Departed tie 3 (Queen/United tie 2)
    2005 Brokeback 6 (6 films with 1)
    2004 Sideways 7 (5 films with 1)
    2003 ROTK 5 (Lost In Translation 3)

  • 32 12-17-2010 at 6:50 am

    red_wine said...

    Just look at 2010, Social Network has lost JUST ONE Best Picture!!! Closest is No Country with 8. 2006 is the most divisive.

    But an important thing to note here is, even in other “somewhat sweeps” like No Country and Sideways, they were winning Picture but there was plenty of variety in Director and Screenplay.

    Social Network is not only sweeping Best Picture but also Best Director and Best Screenplay EVERYWHERE save at 1-2 places.

    Social Network is officially the sweepiest, winningest movie ever in the critic award season, it far out-strips any other movie in history in unanimous approval and this is the most single-minded the critics have EVER been.

  • 33 12-17-2010 at 7:08 am

    PaulH said...

    Jane of AwardsDaily posted this about how the film festival circuit has played an immense role this year, besides the deadening, maddening scorched-earth run of The Social Network. Lemmings one and all, they’ve ordained that Fincher is “due”.

    “It’s like indies have taken over. Not that some of them aren’t award worthy but just because some film has little known actors, a small budget and plays in an art house (or a festival) doesn’t make it great. Why have the Indie Spirit awards anymore? They’re the Oscars now. Imagine “The Godfather,” “Kramer v. Kramer” or “Reds” trying to get in today.”

  • 34 12-17-2010 at 7:17 am

    red_wine said...

    Guy, Cahiers Du Cinema have also revealed their (surprisingly US friendly) Top 10 of the year.

  • 35 12-17-2010 at 7:18 am

    JJ1 said...

    And while I LOVE the occasional riveting indie work — I am a “Big” movie person, by nature. I’ll take my Aviators, Departeds, Benjamin Buttons, Iwo Jimas, Atonements, Return of the Kings, Minority Reports anytime over a ‘good’ indie.

    I’m probably in the small camp that is sad that indies are taking-over the Oscars. It certainly seems like a transition or eventual changing of the guard; unless said “Big” movie(s) is too incredible to ignore.

  • 36 12-17-2010 at 7:22 am

    Keil Shults said...

    I’m anxious to see The Fighter (hope to do so this weekend), but I doubt it will be better or more personally enjoyable for me than The Social Network. The same can probably be said for The King’s Speech, which I have also yet to see.

    But looking back at some of the examples you listed, it’s clear that Sideways SHOULD have beaten Million Dollar Baby. And Broke back Mountain (along with many others that year) SHOULD have beaten Crash. So yeah, there’s still plenty of time left for something to come along and steal The Social Network’s thunder. But that won’t mean it’s the better film.

    And for all this talk of “critical accolades” and “best-reviewed film of the year,” I happen to love the film. I almost never get to see movies more than once in theaters anymore, but I saw this one twice and look forward to it hitting Blu-ray in January.

    I will admit that I haven’t encountered a film this year that really floored me or deeply connected with me, but I’m also wondering if I’m capable of being that hugely affected by new movies anymore. In my teens and early 20’s I would get obsessed with certain movies, seeing them 3, 5, or even 10 times in a theater, and then many more times once they hit home video. I saw Boogie Nights 7 times on the big screen, got a bootleg video copy, had the poster on my dorm wall, owned both volumes of the soundtrack, bought a t-shirt, and even had the script as well. Nothing even close to that happens now.

    I would watch movies alone in my apartment and feel very emotionally invested. Ghost World was a huge thing for me in 2001, possibly because I felt like while I was a lot like Seymour, I also completely understood Enid’s uncertainty regarding her place in the world, not to mention her future. The scene with her listening to “A Smile and a Ribbon,” by Patience and Prudence, while staring sadly at the Computer Station t-shirt cut deeply every time I saw it. And the scene where Seymour is growing frustrated in his car, watching the mother with her kids and the stroller slowly cross the street, screaming out, “Jesus, have some more kids, why don’t ya?!”….well, that was so me. It’s like Clowes, Zwigoff and Buscemi had been spying on my depressed bachelor lifestyle for months and finally put their version of it up on the big screen.

    But over the past 5 or 6 years, I haven’t felt nearly that close to a movie, even the ones that have made my #1 pick for their respective years. 2004 gave me Sideways, Eternal Sunshine and Before Sunset, all of which greatly affected me, but even those didn’t have quite the same impact on me overall. Maybe it was because I finally had a serious relationship with a woman who truly loved me? Maybe it was because I was getting older? Possibly both. In the years since, I’ve loved plenty of movies (No Country, Zodiac, There Will Be Blood, Ratatouille…oh wait, that’s all 2007). But seriously, despite all the films I’ve enjoyed since…

    Crap, now that I really think about it…

    Meeting my wife is what made movies have less an effect on me.

    The films I loved deeply before I met her are still very important to me, but it’s hard to get that invested in new films. Then again, maybe they just rarely make ’em like they used to. Who knows?

  • 37 12-17-2010 at 8:15 am

    BrianA said...

    @Keil, (#36)

    I really like your perspective on how you find it more difficult to connect with movies on the same level you did when you were younger. I find that to be true too, though occassionally a film will break through to that level. The last movie I saw multiple times in a theatre was Brokeback. Before that, I can’t even recall. But back in my college days (mid-to-late ’80’s), there were movies I saw half a dozen times in a theatre. It wasn’t the best time to be a movie lover, and I’m too embarrased to say the title of the movie I saw more than any other, but it’s theme song was titled “Man in Motion.”

    As for the main premise of this thread, I am persuaded by Sasha Stone’s argument that the only way anything will beat TSN is if it somehow becomes a two-way race. As long as we have multiple possibilities beyond TSN, nothing will achieve the critical mass necessary to bring down the frontrunner. (And I’d be perfectly fine with TSN riding all the way.)

    I could see The Fighter or The King’s Speech becoming that other film in a two-way race, but as long as they are both in serious contention, they will cancel each other out, gaining ground with different Academy contingents but not getting broad enough support to take the prize.

    Sorry, but I just don’t see True Grit, Black Swan, or anything else becoming that second film in a two-way race.

  • 38 12-17-2010 at 8:16 am

    BrianA said...

    Wow. I really need to watch the run-on sentences!

  • 39 12-17-2010 at 11:10 am

    Matt King said...

    Way back at Guy: Thanks for letting me know, looking forward to the list. And no, I’m not that Matt King. I do need to get caught up with Peep Show though. I have seen the first series I think, and I’m a big Mitchell and Webb fan, but I don’t have it here in Canada. At least not on any of the channels I have.