Off the Carpet: Setting the field with the precursors so far

Posted by · 11:41 am · December 19th, 2011

In just three weeks we’ve gone from zero to a hundred on the circuit as the film awards landscape has been sculpted into a bit of a consensus in these waning moments of 2011. And now that I’ve consolidated all the announcements into an easy-to-navigate post, I can dig in and see what that consensus is.

Michel Hazanavicius’s “The Artist” is considered far and away the frontrunner for Best Picture at the moment by a number of pundits, having won six Best Film prizes from various groups. But would you be shocked to know that “The Descendants” has just as many? And Terence Malick’s “The Tree of Life,” meanwhile, isn’t going away. It has landed four Best Picture honors and today was crowned the year’s best in a survey of critics and pundits at indieWIRE.

As for the directors, it’s Martin Scorsese and Michel Hazanavicius currently eking out the edge with six wins each for “Hugo” and “The Artist” respectively. But Malick isn’t far behind with four of his own. We can tip the scales back in Scorsese and Hazanavicius’s favor a bit, though, as both received BFCA and Golden Globe nominations, while Malick did not.

Lead actor is currently a dead heat between George Clooney (“The Descendants”) and Michael Fassbender (“Shame”), with both receiving five awards and each landing BFCA and Golden Globe nominations. Michael Shannon has managed four wins for his “Take Shelter” performance while Brad Pitt has managed two (both taking into account his roles in two films, “Moneyball” and “The Tree of Life”). The Screen Actors Guild threw a wrench in the works, though, by snubbing Fassbender and adding another consideration, Demián Bichir in “A Better Life,” to the mix.

Leading ladies? It’s been all about Michelle Williams in “My Week with Marilyn” so far, leading me to wonder if she ought to be considered the frontrunner. The actress, who was also nominated by the HFPA, SAG and BFCA, has won a whopping eight prizes so far. Her closest competition is Tilda Swinton with four for her “We Need to Talk About Kevin” performance. Meryl Streep (“The Iron Lady”) has three and Viola Davis (“The Help”) has two. Williams will also win a Golden Globe because Harvey Weinstein shrewdly convinced the HFPA that her film ought to be placed in the comedy/musical category, so expect that to put her in the thick of the Oscar hunt all the more.

Best Supporting Actor has been dominated by Albert Brooks (“Drive”) and Christopher Plummer (“Beginners”). Brooks has the considerable edge with 12 wins to Plummer’s seven, but perhaps crucially, he was snubbed by the Screen Actors Guild. They will compete side-by-side at the BFCA’s Critics’ Choice Movie Awards and the Golden Globes, so it could be a nail-biter all the way through. Despite Brooks’ strong showing on the circuit so far, though, Plummer is considered by most to be the favorite in the category. There has been some love sprinkled for Nick Nolte (“Warrior”) here and Michael Smiley (“Kill List”) there, but it’s pretty much been all about these two.

Things get a little crazy with the supporting actress field, which is deliciously all over the map so far. Currently, “The Descendants” star Shailene Woodley is out in front with five wins to go along with nominations from the BFCA and HFPA. But she was snubbed by SAG. However, the edge really ought to be given to Jessica Chastain, who has six awards. The thing is, they have been spread across her various films. Two of her wins have been catch-all prizes for her body of work, two have be awards for her performance in “The Tree of Life” and one group has spoken up for her work in “Take Shelter.” And yet, the BFCA, HFPA and SAG each nominated her for “The Help,” the one performance that hasn’t received its own award.

Still with me? Complicating matters a bit is Melissa McCarthy, who clearly has a bandwagon for her “Bridesmaids” performance as she’s nailed down three wins and received nominations from the BFCA and SAG. Two other actresses have multiple wins, with Octavia Spencer (“The Help”) and Vanessa Redgrave (“Coriolanus”) winning two apiece. And the rest of the field is spread pretty thin as Bérénice Bejo (“The Artist”), Janet McTeer (“Albert Nobbs”) and even Viola Davis (“The Help,”  considered a lead by most) have one each. Talk about an exciting race!

As for screenplays, which are sometimes split between adapted and original in the precursor circuit, sometimes not, “The Descendants” is on top with eight wins. “Moneyball” isn’t far behind with seven, giving me some hope that it could inch out a win over the former on Oscar night (though probably not). Both are nominated by the BFCA and HFPA, as is “The Artist,” which has three wins to its name. The only other scripts with multiple wins are “Midnight in Paris” (nominated by the BFCA and HFPA) and “50/50” (nominated by the BFCA but snubbed by the HFPA).

And nearly every time a cinematography award has been handed out, it has gone to “The Tree of Life,” which is 14/16 in the field (having lost to “Melancholia” on one occasion and “War Horse” on another). Yet I still expect the Academy to go a different direction in that category.

Which brings me to my point. If last year taught us anything it’s that the precursors can set the table, pour the beverage and place the meal, and the Academy will still crave something else. Why? Because the film awards season is a series of phases. It isn’t typically a runaway train. There are bends in the track and as I intimated this morning and in Friday’s podcast, that appetite can shift as a result of over-saturation.

Meanwhile, not a lot of members have seen “War Horse” yet, or “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close.” Those are two films that could figure into the race in a big way and, most importantly, don’t need the seal of approval from critics as they are inherently populist titles. And “Hugo,” a film that has planted its flag in the season but hasn’t overstayed its welcome or come on too strong, could be biding its time, playing the under-sell.

I still see the Oscar race as “The Artist” vs. “Hugo” vs. “War Horse,” as I have for some time. “The Descendants” is making a go of it and will likely be rewarded for writing, maybe acting, but I don’t see it as a serious Best Picture contender. The critics, after all, were always going to spring for it.

But we’ll see.

Guy and I have run a comb through the Contenders section. The sidebar predictions reflect those changes. Meanwhile, keep up with the ups and downs of the season via The Circuit, your one-stop shop for all the precursor announcements as they land throughout.

For year-round entertainment news and awards season commentary follow @kristapley on Twitter.

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