Off the Carpet: When to strike

Posted by · 6:14 pm · September 25th, 2012

For films that don’t have deep pockets or any number of other elements stacked up against them in an awards season — genre bias, early-year release, etc. — muscling into the conversation at the end of the year can be tough. You use what’s at your disposal, of course, and you seize the moment when you can. And make no mistake, there’s always a moment to be seized. Because an Oscar season isn’t a preordained thing. It’s constantly shifting, giving slack, taking it in, ebbing, flowing.

This year, for instance, there is softness in the lead actress category to be capitalized upon. Of course, it seems like there is always a fair share of complaints to be lodged against a minimal amount of Best Actress contenders in a given season, but often enough (in my opinion), we have a strong field. And nevertheless, I think that blame lies first and foremost with a dearth of quality female roles than it does a dearth of quality female performances. So you get something like “Hitchcock” showing up with Helen Mirren in tow, or the possibility of multiple foreign nominees (which means, thankfully, they’re getting a look as a result of wanting elsewhere), or you see a campaign excited about the possibilities of a Sundancer like Mary Elizabeth Winstead in “Smashed.” The doors crack a bit and whoever wedges in a foot gets the shot.

This year, there are a number of films that are either coming back around or daring to dare when they might have otherwise played it conservatively. Richard Linklater’s “Bernie,” for instance, has stuck around long enough with enough of a critical stamp of approval that Millennium has stepped it up for the writer/director and particularly star Jack Black. I’d say it’s valid, as Black gives one of his best performances to date in the film. The two will be in New York next week to get the motor going on the east coast.

“Arbitrage” is another film that has kept interest up for quite a while — since Sundance — and finally started its theatrical roll-out this month. Richard Gere has and will continue to grace his share of tastemakers in the coming weeks on both coasts as Roadside Attractions gives it a go with the company’s most viable contender. Hey, sticking with it helped Javier Bardem get there for “Biutiful” (as it did for Demián Bichir in last year’s “A Better Life” from Summit Entertainment).

Speaking of Summit, that little pair is well-liked enough that breathing wind into the campaign sails makes some sense. Naomi Watts is already off to a good start (particularly given the competition) in “The Impossible,” while “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” is well-liked by even the biggest grouches and could be seen as something unexpectedly relatable (despite what my Oscar Talk colleague Anne Thompson might think, sight-unseen).

A film like “End of Watch” you wouldn’t expect to land in an awards hunt, but Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña’s names are mentioned enough to make it real. Meanwhile, Open Road is making good on its promise to bring around a campaign for Joe Carnahan’s brilliant “The Grey.” No re-release seems to be in the cards, but it’s not really necessary. Bringing the film back to voters via screenings and Q&As is enough. But will it stick this time around?

Then there are the new additions, like the aforementioned “Hitchcock,” and Gus Van Sant’s “Promised Land.” You don’t make moves like that this late in the game if you don’t think you have something to work with. Some have argued the commercial implications more than the awards prospects, and indeed, that’s obviously part of the equation, too. It is, ultimately, a symbiotic relationship (among the two elements — awards and box office — that should matter least). I dare say if Relativity had found a way to release “Out of the Furnace” this year, they may have dropped a bomb on the acting races.

And that’s what’s so interesting, to me, about an awards season. Every year is different. I may have made this point before, but it’s all about the environment into which a film is released. If it was “Million Dollar Baby” that had waited for 2005 rather than “Cinderella Man” (pre-telephone), it might have been a different story than “Marty vs. Clint.”

So what else could use a little primping to get it out into the spotlight with the big guns, anyway? Well, I mentioned “Smashed,” which I just caught up with, and it’s a perfect place to start. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is amazing in the film and deserves the goodwill of a campaign. Judging from some of the internal rhetoric, it looks like she’ll get it.

Sticking with Sony Classics, how about “Damsels in Distress,” which our own Guy Lodge singled out for its writing in our list of the top Oscar contenders of the first half of the year? “The Intouchables” from The Weinstein Company? It made decent money and is a foreign film selection to boot. That can be an interesting combination. Rachel Weisz sure does have her “Deep Blue Sea” fans.

The point is, there’s always hope for films that can generate passion. I’m in love with “The Grey,” for instance, and I imagine others are, too. Tapping that base can be a powerful thing, and if you’ve got talent just as hungry for it, big things can happen. Just ask Terrence Howard, Sandra Bullock, Melissa Leo, Tommy Lee Jones and the aforementioned Bardem and Bichir.

A day later than normal on this but that gave Greg a chance to start catching up with his portion of the Contenders pages. So check out what we’re all thinking there.

Also, one more piece of business: the rest of our weekly package will start to roll out this week. Guy’s column, The Long Shot,” kicks off tomorrow, while Gerard will launch the seventh season (wow) of “Tech Support” next week. Meanwhile, Greg’s “Contender Countdown” pieces, when available, will drop on Tuesdays.

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