Off the Carpet: 'Unbroken,' 'Selma,' 'Sniper' in the headlines as Oscar voting begins

Posted by · 8:00 am · December 29th, 2014

And we're truly off. Ballots are in hands. Academy voters, who hopefully spent as much time soaking up the year's offerings through screeners and screenings over the holiday break as they did hitting the slopes, will be putting pencil to paper, finger to keyboard beginning Monday with an 11-day voting window closing on Jan. 8. Let's see what's happening in the lead-up to that stretch…

At the box office, “Unbroken” is all the rage. The film, already riding the coattails of a best-selling book, took advantage of a holiday release frame that had very little in the way of adult drama competition. It was ultimately critic-proof, as audiences are digging it and Academy members may well, too. On the limited release side of things, meanwhile, was “American Sniper,” which sailed to a record $212,000 average from four theaters over the four-day weekend. Each film landed in the “A” Cinemascore range with audiences, A- for “Unbroken,” A+ for “Sniper.”

Also in limited release is Ava DuVernay's “Selma,” handily the most critically acclaimed film to hit theaters over the holiday. But along with it came a scathing op-ed from former Johnson Administration domestic affairs aide Joseph A. Califano Jr. in the pages of The Washington Post, slamming the film for its depiction of Lyndon Johnson toward dramatic ends. Even though the piece awkwardly and sort of hilariously closes with a declaration that “the movie should be ruled out this Christmas and during the ensuing awards season,” I'm not quick to think dirty tricks yet. Films have organic lives after all.

Meanwhile, something worth noting: “The Imitation Game” (also taking fire for story and characterization) was still purring its engine at the box office leading into the holiday. It expanded from 34 screens and about a $3.6 million cume to over 700 screens on Christmas Day, taking in about $8 million on the weekend for a roughly $14 million domestic haul so far. For comparison's sake, “The King's Speech” – which opened in limited release on Thanksgiving weekend in 2010, much as “Imitation” did this year – went from 43 screens and $2.1 million on Dec. 17 to 700 screens and $8.3 million over the Christmas weekend that year.

I mention that only because I got some pushback over the weekend on Twitter, first for noting that the film is playing the classic Harvey long game, which uses awards buzz to catapult box office, and second for suggesting that it's a significant threat to win the Best Picture Oscar. It's not really in my interest one way or the other to falsely promote a competitive race, so put a pin in that problematic point. The fact is anyone paying attention to reactions knows that the film is playing really, really well with voters and is quite strong in this race.

Rival campaigns are of course already taking their shots at “Boyhood” (“He had 12 WHOLE YEARS to make the movie!”) and “Selma” (waiting for this op-ed to get long legs where films like “Mississippi Burning” never really suffered all that much). But I maintain, as I put forth in this space weeks ago, that those three films are leading the Best Picture race at the moment, with “Birdman” and its likely SAG ensemble/Golden Globe – Comedy/Musical wins the spunky dark horse.

So that's the lay of the land as we move into the nominations voting period. How will all of that recent activity affect things? Not too much, really. It's just a bunch of headlines that kind of flicker and pass on by as voters dig into the movies and, really and truly, make up their own minds. There will, however, be a ton of guild announcements over the next few weeks, which will keep the furnace fed. And that “Selma” thing might get a little movement as people stoke the flames. But the film will go wide just before the Oscar nominations are announced. It could be in for a serious haul, though some wonder if a Christmas wide play to compete with “Unbroken” would have been wiser. I'm just glad I don't have to make such decisions.

With that, as voters have ballots in hand – and I realize we've already covered some serious “don't forget about these” territory – I would like to offer some thoughts for any voter out there who might be reading:

1. Spark up a doobie and soak up “Inherent Vice.”
Call up Jeff Bridges, get baked and get lost in it. Don't try to keep up with the plot. Experience it. If you still don't want to vote for it, OK, but try to let it wash over you. It might resonate.

2. Go see “Beyond the Lights.”
STOP! Don't walk over to your screeners. It's not there. Relativity didn't send you one. The film is on its own. There is a single showing in the greater Los Angeles area every night: 9:15pm at the AMC Universal Citywalk. I know, no one wants to go to Shittywalk, but trust me. It deserves the effort. If you're in New York, there's a 5:20pm option every day at the AMC Loews Village 7 around Astor Place, as well as a 9:40pm and a 12:30am every night at the Regal E-Walk on 42nd.

3. Venture out a bit.
You don't have to watch the same films all these awards announcements have corralled for you. Seek out “The Babadook” (wait, strike that – silly VOD rule) or “A Most Wanted Man.” Give “Under the Skin” a try (and maybe ring up Bridges again). Go on a limb with “Cold in July” or “The Rover” or “Blue Ruin.” There's other shit.

I know you guys are nuts, but listen to that “Land Ho!” jam. It's catchy. OH WAIT NEVERMIND YOU CAN'T VOTE FOR THAT EITHER. Well, how about those of you who know it was an injustice to disqualify Antonio Sanchez, write his name in anyway in solidarity.

5. Above all, take it seriously.
Why should I care if you're just voting for your buddy? Or if you're just toeing a company line and bloc voting? Or passing your ballot off to your assistant to fill out? I know everyone has tried to beat it into your head that it's been a “weak” year, but no, it hasn't. There's good stuff out there and it's sort of what you're supposed to do, seek it out and tell the world what's worth watching, what's worth championing, what means something.  So mean something.

The Contenders section has been updated. Happy New Year.

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