With August approaching, and the summer movie season beginning to wind down a bit, it’s the time of year when speculation about the upcoming awards season begins to mount an increasing momentum — a momentum that’s no doubt been put into recent motion by the festival-lineup announcements coming out of both Toronto and Venice. By giving us a concrete slate of films to look forward to, the tendency to brainstorm future possibilities is all the more reasonable. Whereas Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder was previously but a lofty wish, it’s now a living, breathing, existing thing that will be seen within a matter of months — and no, I don’t quite know how Malick brought himself to complete it, either.
There are other films we could play this game with — Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines, Brian De Palma’s Passion — but each of them would amount to the same sight-unseen hypotheticals. Not that that would be a pointless exercise, mind you, but with nearly seven full months of cinematic output behind us, now is as good a time as any to put our antsy anticipation on pause and take stock of the things we’ve already seen. And, spookily enough, the first portion of this year’s race to Oscar bears a strikingly strong resemblance to the one that came before it.
The Academy’s most recent Best Picture lineup, to exemplify, included two early-year releases: Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, which debuted stateside on May 27 after winning the Palme d’Or, and Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, which also premiered on the Croisette, and whose stateside run began on June 10. And in Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom and Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild, we have two 2012 releases who’ve shown a parallel trajectory — Anderson’s film, like Allen’s before it, opened up Cannes with a lively spring, and carried that wave of support into a theatrical run that has garnered some of the best critical and commercial notices of Anderson’s career.
Zeitlin’s film, meanwhile, is not only reminiscent of Malick in its artistic construction, but in its route of distribution as well. Of course, whereas Malick’s film came out of the gate by winning Cannes, Zeitlin’s struck lightning a good deal earlier, opting for a Sundance debut, and an eventual top-prize victory. But Beasts of the Southern Wild was nothing if not a fixture on the Croisette as well — though the film’s Sundance run reaped hefty official recognition, it’s a film that had its share of noisy detractors, and it wasn’t really until Cannes gifted the film with the Caméra d’Or (for best first feature film) that Beasts developed from Park City passion play to bona-fide universal hit.
However, as was the case with The Tree of Life, Zeitlin’s film is an unusual one, and no matter how strongly it’s celebrated in critical circles, its potential for Academy certification will always have something of a question mark surrounding it. The same could even be said of Anderson, who’s far from a beloved-by-everyone taste in his own right. In live-action terms, he’s only been nominated once — for his original script job on The Royal Tenenbaums — and, crossover success or not, it remains to be seen if Moonrise Kingdom will finally garner Anderson some Academy attention beyond the Best Original Screenplay realm.
A film that trumps both Beasts and Moonrise in terms of expectations, scale, and audience is Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises, which has a nice Oscar-friendly story going for it — the year after Nolan’s The Dark Knight was snubbed in the top category, the Academy shuffled up their Best Picture rules, and it’s since been inferred that the move was largely a response to Nolan’s Batman Begins sequel being left on the outside looking in.
As convincing a story as that may be on paper, however, it’s clear as ever, now having seen the film, that The Dark Knight Rises is more than a few galaxies away from the Academy wheelhouse. And it doesn’t help that most people agree it’s a good deal inferior to its predecessor. Whereas The Dark Knight, bleak as it was, had Heath Ledger’s intoxicating Joker to rope in skeptical Academy viewers, The Dark Knight Rises is without an element of that kind — something undeniable that could reach out to the customary Academy voter and convince them to consider the film when filling out the prime categories on their ballots.
Elsewhere, there are other, smaller films that could play a role in the conversation as the year continues to churn. There’s John Madden’s The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, which, formula-ridden as it is, is full of traits that are bound to cut straight to the heart of most Academy members. There’s also Richard Linklater’s Bernie, which features an astute and rather impressive performance from Jack Black. Pixar’s Brave is another one — as miscalculated as I think the film’s narrative is, its female-driven originality has prompted a measure of respect.
I’ll end with what’s been the year’s biggest surprise for me so far, and that’s Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike. In the midst of an admirable career revival, Matthew McConaughey’s crafty turn as a dance-company manager has turned in to a real possibility, as has Reid Carolin’s sharp original screenplay. Whether or not these Magic Mike potentials will be realized is yet to be seen, but it’s a story that we’d be smart to keep in mind as the season goes about its business — sometimes the quiet comedy-drama about a stuck-in-mud male stripper is what demands a part in the conversation, and not those studio adaptations we’ve been hearing about for months.
Predictions will continue to be updated in the sidebar over the next week. Click here to find links to all categories.