Off the Carpet: Final thoughts on Oscar season's competitive first phase

Posted by · 10:26 am · January 13th, 2014

We’re in the home stretch with votes being tallied and the line-up of nominees for the 86th annual Academy Awards being readied. We’ll know what’s what on Thursday, bright and early, as will those who find themselves in this very competitive race.

Guy Lodge, Greg Ellwood and I will have a sweeping list of our predictions for you later today and you can parse them at your leisure. (I’m pretty much decided.) But as we gear up for the big reveal, as ever, I have some thoughts…

McConaughey’s perfect storm

Last night’s Best Actor in a Drama Golden Globe Award could have gone a number of ways. Chiwetel Ejiofor was my guess as one of few places the Hollywood Foreign Press Association would award “12 Years a Slave” (they opted to give it Best Picture…and only Best Picture). Robert Redford was a possibility as murmurs circulated that they might want the Hollywood legend on their stage. In the end they did what they usually do: they gave it to a movie star. They gave it to Matthew McConaughey.

Half an hour after McConaughey accepted his award, on the west coast, HBO premiered the new anthology series “True Detective.” Starring McConaughey and pal Woody Harrelson, it’s a dark and atmospheric piece of work that gets its hooks in you immediately and, most certainly, makes you wonder if we won’t see McConaughey back at the Globes next year accepting a TV prize for his haunted performance in the series. But what’s starting to click into place, it seems, is the possibility of McConaughey’s already perfect storm to become that much more, well, perfect.

“True Detective” will air almost every Sunday night for the next eight weeks (taking a break on Super Bowl Sunday, I believe). That puts the finale on March 9, the week after the Oscars. Voters are going to be pretty much reminded on a weekly basis about the range McConaughey exhibits and how much he has truly transformed his career in the last two years. That rushed speech last night may well have been practice, and odds are, he could be accepting an Oscar for Best Actor just before the series ties up all its loose ends.

Leo seizes the day

Speaking of the Best Actor race, that wave of phone calls Leonardo DiCaprio made at the end of the year to, in part, stem the tide of growing bad press around “The Wolf of Wall Street?” It was also smart awards strategy. A nomination for the actor was never a given in this hugely competitive year and, with ballots in hand, he talked to a number of outlets – including this one – at the perfect moment.

Often an Oscar season is all about timing. Remaining top of mind is crucial, particularly when the competition is so thick. And with a category that seems to have one spot up for grabs, at least four actors have an angle on it. Forest Whitaker got the SAG nod and has been very present (and approachable) with tributes throughout the season. Christian Bale got BAFTA and Golden Globe recognition, as did DiCaprio. And Robert Redford appears to be the guy on the outside looking in, with no industry support in the form of BAFTA or SAG recognition and only a Globe bid and a New York film critics win to, for lack of a better phrase, float his boat.

Redford didn’t come out here and play the game. It’s not his bag and, not to speak for him, he likely doesn’t concern himself with Oscar nominations (particularly with a big festival on the horizon). That paves the way, though, and my hunch – as you’ll see in our final predictions, published later today – is that DiCaprio properly seized the moment with a number of ballots still in hand.

Harvey’s best bet

I had my eye on the Best Picture – Drama race last night, which was obviously a close vote. My hunch was that “Gravity” would pull it out, but that in a shocker, “Philomena” – which the HFPA adored – could cause a stir. That didn’t happen and so we don’t get a bunch of “is it headed for an Oscar nod?” headlines today, but nevertheless, there’s that possibility.

I’ve already written about the potential for Harvey Weinstein to miss out on the big category for the first time since 2007. It may well be that “Philomena” was underestimated in favor of the big, starry ensembles of “August: Osage County” and “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” because it seems to be The Weinstein Company’s best bet going into Thursday’s nominations announcement. And with a BAFTA nod in tow, it’s clear there is support across the pond, and that cross-over membership, however minimal, is a huge help in a tight year.

This just goes to show how truly fickle the awards season can be. You can understand why such focus would have been placed on the August release (“The Butler”) and the Toronto festival play (“August”). But sometimes the modest play, which really sings on screener, which stands out for being reserved in the face of other bombast on your slate…sometimes that’s the one.

Expect the unexpected

Three films stand at the top of the industry awards landscape with notices from everything from the Directors Guild of America to the American Cinema Editors. They are “American Hustle,” “Captain Phillips” and “12 Years a Slave,” with “Gravity” just barely a step behind. The dominant players in this season have been established, and you could probably add one of the Paramount movies – “Nebraska” or “The Wolf of Wall Street” – to fill out what would likely be a typical line-up of five Best Picture nominees.

However, while those films represent the cream of the season’s crop, there are others that have been left out of the conversation but nevertheless have support if you ask around. I’m talking about films like “Rush” and “Fruitvale Station” and “Lone Survivor,” all of which could pop up here or there when the nominations are revealed.

The tea leaves are valuable, of course. They give you a clear indication of which way the breeze is blowing. But year in and year out there are things unaccounted for, and that’s just the result of a vast group of 6,000-some odd members and the countless different flights of fancy they may have when they sit down to fill out their ballots. So count on at least a few unexpected choices, perhaps even in the major categories. It wouldn’t be a nominations announcement otherwise.

And with that, there’s precious little left to be said. Again, we’ll have final predictions from the whole HitFix Awards staff later this evening, but if you want to know where I’m leaning, you can find my predictions here. (Which reminds me, don’t forget to chalk up your predictions via HitFix Oscar Picks.)

Additionally, the Contenders section has been updated with final thoughts in every category.

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