On the Oscar prospects of ‘The Tree of Life’

Posted by · 11:59 am · May 22nd, 2011

With “The Tree of Life” winning the Palme d’Or in Cannes today, Oscar talk has already swelled on Twitter (after whispered considerations in the wake of the premiere last week). I’ll be writing about the film again next weekend, when some of you will be able to take a look, but for now, I thought I’d speak on this.

As we mentioned in the podcast Friday, I think Searchlight picking this demanding film up was an admirable move. It’s relationship-building with an important filmmaker (who has another film on the way, mind you). And its best chance at bringing in money was a counter-programming maneuver in the summer.

But I don’t think this was ever considered a major awards threat, to be honest. I can’t imagine anyone watching it and expecting Academy types to embrace it. And I don’t think today’s unexpected award (Guy was hearing the only major fan of the film on the jury was Olivier Assayas) changes things.

The Palme means very little for Oscars. The last winner of the award to get a major breeze in its sails was Roman Polanski’s “The Pianist,” which was already a soft Academy lob. Foreign winners have generated steam for nominations in the Best Foreign Language Film category, but that’s about it, with everything from “Elephant” to “The Wind That Shakes the Barley” failing to translate this niche attention to commendation from a broader group like the Academy. There are possibilities, however.

First and foremost is Emmanuel Lubezki’s lush, naturally-lit cinematography. It has to be a given with that branch, though not likely a huge threat to win (depending).

Next is Brad Pitt’s performance. This could prove to be an unnecessary conundrum and I hope Searchlight wises up and plays the right card from the beginning. Hunter McCracken is the true lead of the field. The story is his, and even with multiple narrators, it’s largely from his perspective. What Pitt does is deliver a robust, powerhouse supporting performance.

Everything is reactionary to it. We don’t get inside his head until a brief interlude late in the game, but beyond all that, there is a real chance to get him some notice in the supporting field, and therefore, bring some more real attention to the film itself. Campaigning him as a lead — especially with “Moneyball” still to come — would be a mistake, in my opinion.

Finally, given the expanded field last year, I think the visual effects could find some love from that branch. I can see the sequences blowing away a lot of frivolous, fakey effects work when the seven finalists have their screening event later in the season. But it could go either way.

I don’t expect much outside of that. It would be great to see an intrepid directors branch spring for Terrence Malick. It would be lovely if the film found enough focused support from the Academy at large to nail down one of the 10 Best Picture slots. And it would be even more delightful if the sound engineers sparked to the impressive mixing and editing on display, particularly in that effects sequence. But I’m extremely doubtful.

As for Best Original Score, I think Alexandre Desplat (who himself was saying early on not to expect huge things from his work in the film) will be disqualified. The original material is great, but it was snipped up and used as Malick saw fit, while classical music takes up most of the soundtrack and will potentially be seen as diluting Desplat’s contribution.

So my takeaway on the film’s Oscar prospects: Best Supporting Actor, Best Cinematography and Best Visual Effects. And I think that would be more than anyone would expect a film like this to receive, so I’d personally see it as a win.

Let’s see where things go from here. There’s a very long road ahead. Time will tell if “The Tree of Life” soon joins the ranks of “The Pianist,” “Secrets & Lies,” “Pulp Fiction,” “The Piano,” “The Mission,” “Missing,” “All That Jazz,” “Apocalypse Now,” “Taxi Driver,” “The Conversation,” “MASH,” “Marty” (the only film to win both the Palme and Best Picture) and “Friendly Persuasion.”

[Photo: Fox Searchlight Pictures]

→ 39 Comments Tags: , , , , , | Filed in: Daily

39 responses so far

  • 1 5-22-2011 at 12:17 pm

    Andrej said...

    What about editing? I’d think that with a story having narratives about childhood, adulthood and, er… universehood, the story progression should be rather tight and coherent to make its desired sense.

  • 2 5-22-2011 at 12:18 pm

    Fitz said...

    Could be the year that Pitt wins an Oscar. Although I thought that the year ‘Jesse James’ came out.

  • 3 5-22-2011 at 12:22 pm

    Maxim said...

    “The Palme means very little for Oscars. The last winner of the award to get a major breeze in its sails was Roman Polanski’s “The Pianist,” which was already a soft Academy lob. ”

    I know you don’t mean it that way but this is rather unfair to both what was a legitimately great directorial achievement/film and the Academy considering it didn’t win Best Picture.

    With that out of the way, do you see any award prospects, however unlikely, for Jessica Chastain, Hunter McCracken and Sean Penn?

  • 4 5-22-2011 at 12:26 pm

    Maxim said...

    Andrej, I’ve only seen a few clips from the movie, granted, but my impression of the editing was that it was as jumbled as you would expect in film that credits five editors.

    Obviously, I’ll need to see the entire film to know if I’m actually right but my initial reaction to how the film was put together was not very positive.

  • 5 5-22-2011 at 12:29 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Andrej: I fear many will not find it tight OR coherent. I appreciate many of the choices made, but I’d be very surprised if the editors branch, largely focused on Best Picture rather than Best Film Editing, went for it.

    Maxim: Indeed, I didn’t mean it that way. The point, which I thought was clear, was that it was a much more accessible film with built-in Academy friendly subject matter appeal, whereas The Tree of Life is anything but.

    Nothing for Penn. At all. Chastain almost as unlikely and fingers crossed for McCracken (but highly unlikely — he will be singled out in reviews, though).

  • 6 5-22-2011 at 12:48 pm

    JJ1 said...

    I feel like this film (and I have no foundation for this comment, haven’t seen it – just pondering) has the potential to go big (tons of noms) or may leave with very few or none, at all. One of those.

    I could almost see it squeezing out pic, dir, sactor, scrnply, cin, art d, sound, score, fx … and people would say “well, of course it had the potential for all of those noms. I’m not surprised. No one had trust in the film, fox searchlight, or the Academy. Duh”. OR … it gets only cinematography.

    It feels like a hit or miss (regarding noms) type of film.

  • 7 5-22-2011 at 1:08 pm

    Andrej said...

    But I think that if it has shots at those three categories it could get a Best Picture nod easily (and probably Best Editing too) if it still has enough relevance by the end of the year, especially if it manages a nod for Pitt.

    Without having seen it I can’t say it’s frontrunning or anything this early in the year, but at least couldn’t it be a lower tier film at this year’s Top 10? Films like A Serious Man and The Blind got in with just one other nod going on for them, while District 9 and 127 Hours got in at Editing and Picture despite their non-starter statuses at said categories.

    Thanks Kris and Maxim for your replies ☺

  • 8 5-22-2011 at 1:18 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    I really don’t think it’ll happen, but it’s difficult to gauge from this far out. We’ll have to see how it goes.

  • 9 5-22-2011 at 1:29 pm

    Brock Landers said...

    While I pretty much entirely agree with you Kris, this notion from some critics/bloggers that the reviews have been a 50/50 split is ridiculous. 90% on RT with a 8.2/10 average rating and 31 reviews. 93 on Metacritic so far as well.

    Critics obviously don’t decide when it comes to the Oscars, but it seems the overblown “boo” talk meant absolutely nothing.

  • 10 5-22-2011 at 1:42 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    I didn’t say it was 50/50. Or are you just bringing the point up because it’s been bothering you?

    In any case, regardless of that, my point is that I find it hard to believe Academy types will find the film appealing.

  • 11 5-22-2011 at 2:11 pm

    Brock Landers said...

    No, no, I wasn’t saying it was you at all, I was just bringing it up as it keeps being thrown around. And I agree, I can’t see the Academy going for it based on what I’ve heard about it, but I don’t think it is quite the divisive film that it has been made out to be. As you have said, a few nominations don’t seem out of the question.

  • 12 5-22-2011 at 2:24 pm

    John said...

    I can see Ttol winning some critics awards at the end of the year, especially NYFC and maybe NSFC. Althought we must remember that Malick won in Cannes in 1978 (for best director for Days of heaven) and won also NSFC and NYFC but wasn’t nominated for the Oscar… Who knows?!

  • 13 5-22-2011 at 2:34 pm

    /3rtfu11 said...

    I hope Moneyball is Pitt’s Brockovich.

  • 14 5-22-2011 at 2:57 pm

    A.J said...

    “The last winner of the award to get a major breeze in its sails was Roman Polanski’s “The Pianist,” which was already a soft Academy lob.”

    Does Pulp Fiction not count?

  • 15 5-22-2011 at 3:05 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    Sure it counts, but The Pianist was eight years after Pulp Fiction.

    Perhaps you’re thinking of The Piano.

  • 16 5-22-2011 at 3:12 pm

    Ella said...

    If it were an unknown actor–instead of Brad Pitt in the role–would people have come away from this screening saying he’s an Oscar possibility? Given that the film is unlikely to be embraced by Academy types?

  • 17 5-22-2011 at 4:57 pm

    Maxim said...

    You are most welcome Andrej :).

    One last thought that I have on this is, I wonder if it would have been more notable if Tree of Life won Malick best director, as opposed to Palme D’Or (or both, of course). Maybe I’m wrong but from where I sit, I’m treating the best director prize is something less political and perhaps, a bigger indicator of personal achievement.

    Oh, well, it will be interesting to see how this thing plays out.

  • 18 5-22-2011 at 7:30 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Ella: Not to cop out, but it can’t be known.

  • 19 5-22-2011 at 8:13 pm

    Ben M. said...

    Yeah, I want to see the film for myself, but I get the sense that the film will be too out there for many in the academy and not a major contender.

    Kris, somewhat off-topic, but what do you think of the oscar chances for Midnight in Paris now that it has opened to great reviews, and got the best limited release PTA in over a year and half (also better than any in Allen’s or Sony Classics’ history by a large margin).

  • 20 5-22-2011 at 9:06 pm

    The Z said...

    While it’s definitely too early to gauge any Oscar potential, I think it’s worth looking at the marketing strategy Fox Searchlight is using:

    With an early Summer release date, “The Tree of Life” has the potentila to have some legs as counter-programming to the “Pirates of Caribbean,” “The Hangover 2,” “X-Men,” and the other early June tent poles.

    This release platforms as means the film will probably be out on DVD/Blu-ray by Christmas — just in time for some AMPAS members to discover it during the chaotic, end-of-year awards hubbub. It’s possible that a “smaller” film like “The Tree of Life” will play better at home and could make a huge impact — rising above the din of “Moneyball” or “Warhorse.”

    That’s not to say that those films won’t be worthy of Oscar attention, but that a quieter, more cerebral film might be able to find a niche.

  • 21 5-22-2011 at 9:24 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    All well and good, Z, though I wouldn’t call The Tree of Life anything less than an experience that is fully benefited on the big screen. Part of its power and purpose is that it quite frankly makes you feel small.

    Ben: I can’t say for sure until I see it, but I am sensing a screenplay nomination very much in the cards.

  • 22 5-22-2011 at 10:22 pm

    Brian Duffield said...

    Malick will always be a threat for that 5th director’s spot, and he’s the rare bird that I could see him winning if he gets nominated and the picture doesn’t.

  • 23 5-23-2011 at 3:37 am

    Glenn said...

    Really? The only directors I could ever see that happening for are the Clint Eastwood types. Mallick’s films are far too divisive to win best director unless the movie is loved. Or, that’s what I’d think anyway.

  • 24 5-23-2011 at 4:26 am

    Mark said...

    The King’s Speech fiasco was the final nail in my Oscar coffin, I couldn’t really care who wins the Oscar anymore. The Academy voters wouldn’t recognise art if it came up and smacked them in the face, which it often does and they still ignore it. The Oscars are about popularity and commerce, whereas Cannes still has a touch of class and is mainly about the art of filmmaking (star-whoring on the red carpet aside).

  • 25 5-23-2011 at 4:26 am

    Mark said...

    The King’s Speech fiasco was the final nail in my Oscar coffin, I couldn’t really care who wins the Oscar anymore. The Academy voters wouldn’t recognise art if it came up and smacked them in the face, which it often does and they still ignore it. The Oscars are about popularity and commerce, whereas Cannes still has a touch of class and is mainly about the art of filmmaking (star-whoring on the red carpet aside).

  • 26 5-23-2011 at 9:49 am

    Maxim said...

    Z, I think you’ll find “Warhorse” quieter and more cerebral than you think. You are picking on the wrong horse here.

  • 27 5-23-2011 at 12:19 pm

    RichardA said...

    I’m thinking “Kevin” and “Drive” will do better than “Tree of Life” by the time awards season gets here.

  • 28 5-23-2011 at 1:44 pm

    DylanS said...

    Kris: Your logic makes perfect sense to me, except for one little thing, which is that Malick has been embraced recently (recent for Malick) by the Academy on a big level with “The Thin Red Line”. I’m just wondering what Makes “The Thin Red Line” an Academy film and “The Tree of Life” not?

  • 29 5-23-2011 at 3:33 pm

    DarkLayers said...

    Kris, I know AMPAS attracts the most interest by far, but does this generic bent also hold for guilds? And how strong is “Tree of Life” for critics?

  • 30 5-23-2011 at 3:53 pm

    julian said...

    I saw the film earlier today…in many respects, a mindblowing experience. The intimate visualization of the sensibility of children is just stunning. McCracken’s performance is simply too good to be ignored. Pitt and Chastain are very good as well, but it’s McCracken’s show.
    The cinematography and direction really ought to be in contention at the oscars as well, and I find that likely too. There should be room for one art-house selection in these categories.
    I hated the new-age/scientology for dummies ending though. How can such a brilliant director with such intuitive flair for his material choose to make such an appalling conclusion to an otherwise astounding movie experience??
    Oh, and I hated the dinosaur sequence as well. Malick is trying to tell the audience that even dinosaurs feel compassion toward one another…what a sham!
    BUT: the 1950s sequences are among the finest and most intuitively graceful cinema I have witnessed. It makes you breathless, humble and thankful that the art of film can still compel and fascinate the way it is achieved here.

  • 31 5-23-2011 at 8:58 pm

    The Z said...


    I hadn’t realized I picked a horse. I was just commenting on the release strategy Searchlight is using since “The Tree of Life” is definitely not typical summer cinema fare.

  • 32 5-23-2011 at 9:50 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Dylan: They are quite different. The Thin Red Line was also his first film in 20 years, so it was even more of an event. Not to mention the names in and behind it.

  • 33 5-23-2011 at 9:53 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    “Malick is trying to tell the audience that even dinosaurs feel compassion toward one another…what a sham!”

    No, he’s making a commentary on evolution, and representing it through an unknowable prism (i.e., how dinosaurs might have behaved in this instance or that). I don’t think it’s a sham at all. I think it’s expressive and thematically relevant.

  • 34 5-23-2011 at 10:27 pm

    The Z said...

    Also — the din about “Warhorse” I was referring to wasn’t the film itself, but it’s buzz. I don’t doubt the film will be thoughtful, but with Spielberg there’ll be a lot of Oscar/awards talk leading up to its release.

    Connotation, not denotation.

  • 35 5-24-2011 at 4:38 am

    JJ1 said...

    Kris, I know you’re not big on ‘numbers’ anymore, but would you say that ToL is a very 3.5 stars out of 4 type of film for you?

  • 36 5-24-2011 at 6:23 am

    Heather said...

    Wouldn’t Jack Fisk as production designer be a likely nominee, even if the recognize a great? He’s done production design or art direction on all of Mallick’s films and has never earned an oscar nom for those, most of David Lynch’s (again no nom) and about to start his 2nd PT Anderson film, earning his sole nom for There Will be Blood – winning the guild prize but not the oscar. And he’s in his 60s after a sterling career, married to oscar winner Sissy Spacek so industry known and friendly. Would seem a natural.

  • 37 5-24-2011 at 7:09 am

    JJ1 said...

    I feel like all the tech people are well-respected enough for nominations (cin, art d, costumes, sound, fx, score), but maybe if the film was released in Nov/Dec, then those nominations be “assured”.

    I almost get a Shutter Island vibe: Scorsese, incredible tech team, good reviews, but too early in the year for a release (and possible anti-horror genre bias). Just speculatin’.

  • 38 5-24-2011 at 9:50 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Heather: It’s not a vast production. The particulars of the design are wonderful, but nuanced. So I don’t think it’ll attract attention, despite Fisk’s handsome career.

    JJ: Can’t say.