Digging for gold in 2012's first quarter

Posted by · 5:34 pm · April 2nd, 2012

So, the first quarter of the release calendar is complete. If it doesn’t exactly feel that way, that’s because we tend to spend the first two months of every year fixating on the previous year’s movies still in the hunt for Oscar glory, giving short shrift to the freshly released right under our noses. For Oscar-watchers, at least, there’s a reason for that, though you can debate the chicken-or-egg root of it all: first-quarter films don’t tend to feature much in the awards race nearly a year later.

With voters’ memories notoriously short, studios rarely risk releasing top-category awards material this early in the year. You have to go back to 2000 to find a Best Picture nominee that hit theaters before April: “Erin Brockovich,” which rather impressively locked up an Oscar for Julia Roberts over a year in advance. Last year, only two eventual Oscar nominees — in any category — opened in the first quarter, though one of them eventually proved an above-the-line winner: “Rango” took Best Animated Feature, while fellow March baby “Jane Eyre” snagged a Costume Design nod. The year before, the animation and design were also the kindest fields to the first quarter: “Alice in Wonderland” and “The Wolfman” won in craft categories, while “How to Train Your Dragon” scored a nod in the toon race.

Slim pickings, certainly. Still, if we follow that pattern, it would appear that we’ve already seen at least one future Oscar nominee in theaters. And for those who care to suss out what it is, animation and design once more seem to be the safest areas to consider.

Right now, the only film worth considering as a potential winner in any category is last Friday’s release “Mirror Mirror.” My review was far from the only one to wax lyrical over the late Eiko Ishioka’s astonishing costume design work in Tarsem Singh’s lavishly stylized fairytale adaptation, which, however avant-garde, is in a more Academy-friendly corsets-and-ruffles vein than last year’s similarly inventive but overlooked Tarsem-Ishioka collaboration “Immortals.”

The memorably off-the-wall splendor of the “Mirror Mirror” threads — combined with peer sentiment for Ishioka herself, a revered former Oscar champ who fought through terminal cancer to complete her final film assignment — should ensure a posthumous nod, if not the statuette itself. Amazingly enough, despite the director’s reputation as a visual stylist, it’d be the first production or costume design mention for a Tarsem film; if it breaks that wall, it wouldn’t be entirely surprising to see another regular collaborator, Tom Foden, land an Art Direction nod for his remarkable work in the same film. (Meanwhile, you know Julia Roberts is notching up another Golden Globe bid.) Of course it’d help if box office was in the “Alice in Wonderland” stratosphere, but the first of this year’s Snow White riffs should perform just respectably enough to stay on the radar. 

With domestic box office closing in on $200 million, we’ll likely be considering “The Lorax” as a possibility in the Best Animated Feature race all the way until the end of the year, even if reviews for the dayglo Dr. Seuss haven’t been ecstatic. Of course, 2008’s similarly scheduled Seuss pic “Horton Hears a Who!” was buried by Oscar time, despite stronger critical notices and only a slightly less formidable gross. With some voters in the hard-to-please animators’ branch likely to view its craft as insufficiently refined, “The Lorax” could be headed for a similar fate, but it depends on both the eventual number of nominees in this year’s field and the overall quality of the 2012 animation slate. (Meanwhile, Studio Ghibli’s gorgeous “The Secret World of Arrietty,” which I briefly highlighted last year, is a lower-profile candidate for a nom, but not necessarily a weaker one.)

The film that recent had no trouble breezing past “The Lorax” for the title of 2012’s highest grosser so far is a little teen-oriented fantasy called “The Hunger Games.” Perhaps you’ve heard of it. With better-than-expected reviews bolstering its cast-iron pop phenomenon status, the film will surely remain one of the industry stories of 2012, but it’s hard to see it making much of an impression on the Academy crowd: if the grey-haired voting majority never quite warmed up to a franchise as widely beloved, favorably reviewed and studded with tony actors as “Harry Potter” over 10 years, there’s little reason to think this darker, more difficult and more roughly crafted youth property will do the trick, even with a recent Best Actress nominee socking it in the lead. Chalk it up as a remote possibility for Costume Design and Makeup nods, at best.   

Beyond that, we begins to enter the realm of wishful thinking and the odd bit of barrel-scraping. I’ve already written a paean to Rachel Weisz, whose luminous, career-best performance in “The Deep Blue Sea” is more than worthy of an Oscar nomination — it’d be a pretty stunning year for Best Actress category if the Academy somehow found five superior performances. But boutique distributor Music Box is largely untested in this realm; they’ll campaign, but getting voters to see and remember Terence Davies’s delicate chamber piece will be a mighty challenge. (While we’re about it, Simon Russell Beale deserves a Supporting Actor push for the film too, but let’s not try our luck.) 

In some parallel universe, I’d love to imagine that failed foreign Oscar submissions like “Miss Bala,” “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia” and (as if) “The Turin Horse” will pick up a few compensatory nods a year later, a la “City of God,” but that’s unadulterated fantasy. So is a Best Actress nomination for Linda Cardellini in “Return” (which I recently discussed here), or an equally deserving Best Actor bid for Neil Maskell in “Kill List.” And I’m not just dreaming about arthouse invisibles: two of my favorite performances of the 2012 so far come from Channing Tatum in “21 Jump Street” and Paul Rudd in “Wanderlust.” I hardly need to explain why those guys won’t cross the Academy radar, though I’ll bet anything they’ll wind up nominating some dreary biopic impression a lot less accomplished than either of those fizzy comic turns.

Meanwhile, few titles seem less likely to land on the Oscar list next year than my favorite film to hit U.S. theaters in 2012’s first quarter: Australian debut director Justin Kurzel’s shattering true-crime drama “The Snowtown Murders.” (I reviewed it last year under its rather more elegant international title “Snowtown” — it also appeared on my 2011 Top 20 list.) In a just world, neophyte actress Louise Harris — unshakeable as a straw-eyed deadbeat mom who could eat Jacki Weaver for breakfast — would be the Best Supporting Actress contender to beat.

That my pick of the release calendar so far is a 2011 film in my mind — if I were to pick from films that actually bowed in 2012, “Mirror Mirror” would probably take my gold medal — is perhaps indicative of why the first quarter gets so little respect in the long run. But hey, dig around. What films and individuals have you marked with a mental Post-It note?  

For more views on movies, awards season and other pursuits, follow @GuyLodge on Twitter. 

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