The Lists: Top 10 first-half Oscar contenders

Posted by · 8:00 am · July 10th, 2012

It hardly feels like it, but we’re already over a week into the back end of 2012’s release calendar: technically, we’ve seen approximately half the films that will be eligible for awards consideration at the year’s end.

Not that the eventual list of this year’s Academy Award nominations will reflect as much, of course. It’s a well-known law of the awards game that early releases tend to suffer most in the Oscar game, as voters with notoriously short memories forget notable accomplishments from the January-to-June window, while studios, mindful of that fact, barrage them with baity prestige fare in the year’s final quarter. Occasionally, a “Crash,” a “Hurt Locker” or a “Silence of the Lambs” bucks the odds and hangs in for the long haul, but it takes sustained critical and/or public conversation and cunning campaign savvy to do so — the work, as ever in this business, is almost never enough.

This year looks to be particularly cruel to first-half releases. Thanks to lasting festival buzz at Sundance and Cannes, consolidated by glowing reviews upon its theatrical release last month, “Beasts of the Southern Wild” is bound to be in the conversation at the year’s end, but very little else looks like a sure thing.

Some will take that as an indictment of the general quality of 2012 releases to date, but that shouldn’t be the case. Look a little closer, and you’ll see that it’s actually been a varied and invigorating six months at the movies, running the gamut from surprisingly well-reviewed studio tentpoles (“The Avengers,” “The Hunger Games”) to mid-range sleepers (“21 Jump Street,” “Magic Mike”) to classy arthouse fare (“Damsels in Distress,” “Moonrise Kingdom”)… and that’s without even crossing US borders. Many of these may not qualify as Academy-friendly, but that’s not to say they’re any less deserving than any number of upcoming prestige titles.

All in all, there’s a rich enough selection of quality work that Kris and I felt a Top 10 list was in order, highlighting the early-bird films and individuals we’d most like to see acknowledged when awards season rolls around. (Regular readers might recall my annual First-Half FYC series on the same subject — look at this as a taster for that.) Some of them have a chance of sticking around, others are pie-in-the-sky fantasies, but all of them merit consideration.

We settled on one personal favorite in 10 different categories, a brief that still left many worthy names on the sidelines. Honorable mentions include: Sarah Polley’s “Take This Waltz,” with its heartrending performances by Michelle Williams and Seth Rogen; Tom Cruise’s wickedly clever self-parody in “Rock of Ages”; the directorial and editorial poise of “Miss Bala”; Kristin Scott Thomas’s snappy, film-redeeming support in “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen”; Paul Rudd’s ingenious comic pyrotechnics in “Wanderlust”; the stormy, expansive lensing of “The Hunter” and Linda Cardellini’s flinty selflessness in “Return.” Not to mention any number of outstanding foreign-language titles that will never get the respect they deserve, from Russia’s “Elena” to Chile’s “Post Mortem” to Japan’s “I Wish.”

So look on the list below as a mere conversation starter — or rather, a conversation retainer, a reminder not to get too dazzled by the bright lights of the autumn and winter heavyweights. Please share your thoughts — and, of course, your own first-half standouts — in the comments section.

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