Every year, as the awards season gets underway, a few trends emerge on the road to Oscar. But almost always, there are a handful of big budget studio movies that audiences love, critics love and eventually, the Academy loves.
Not so this year. In just a few weeks the Academy will announce its Oscar nominations and, if things go as expected, it will be one of the first years in a long while that there hasn’t been a crowd pleaser in the bunch.
This year, it seems as though the critics are dictating which films will win all of the awards.
Usually, there is one critics’ darling that dominates all of the critics’ awards (Los Angeles Film Critics, New York Film Critics, etc.). It was Sideways last year, American Splendor the previous year, Mulholland Drive, Far From Heaven and on and on.
The film critics love them but the Academy only mildly tolerates them, giving them a nomination here or there, or in the case of Sideways, nominating it for all of the top awards but giving it only screenplay for the win while its biggest awards went to its biggest star, Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby.
This year, however, the only film in the Oscar race that remotely resembles a crowd pleaser is James Mangold’s “Walk the Line,” starring Reese Witherspoon and Joaquin Phoenix playing June and Johnny Carter Cash. But Mangold failed to get a Directors Guild Nomination, the most important pre-Oscar nomination. In its place, Steven Spielberg’s Munich, which seems to be taking hits from all sides, and has failed to even register on any other radar. But a DGA nod is like having the queen in a chess game. So Spielberg, and possibly Munich, is in. In fact, history proves that even when the directors of the film fail to get an Oscar nod, their film does. So Munich’s chances are even better than Spielberg’s. But these are the only two “big” movies that have a shot. Every other slot is taken up by a movie that is also in the running at the Independent Spirit Awards.
None of this was the norm until Harvey Weinstein and Miramax came along and forever changed the Oscar race. Now though the Weinsteins and Miramax are mostly out of the picture, their legacy lives on. Indie isn’t really indie anymore anyway – all of the “indie” companies are really just offshoots of bigger studios – i.e. Focus Features is part of Universal. The real indie films are still in art houses and on the fringes of the awards scene.
Nonetheless, the films that are strongest today are those modeled after Miramax – good script, challenging material, art house fare, multiple awards, big bucks made but appearing to be independent of the big studios.
Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain is, by all accounts, the critics’ darling this year. It is also nominated for Independent Spirit Awards, and has won countless other critics awards, including the Critics Choice. When the Directors Guild released its five nominees this year Ang Lee was one of the names. But so was George Clooney for Good Night and Good Luck and newcomer Bennett Miller, whose first film is Capote, which seems to also be headed for the Oscars. Also named, Paul Haggis for Crash, the only film that seems likely to topple Brokeback and Steven Spielberg for Munich, still in the race.
All of this begs the question, WHAT IS GOING ON? The most popular films this year aren’t Oscar-friendly – The 40 Year-Old Virgin (which did get a Writers Guild nomination last week) and the other films intended for Oscar didn’t hit the way they were expected to – Memoirs of a Geisha, Munich, The New World, The Producers, Rent – all fell flat. At one point it seemed as though King Kong would be the one big, expensive movie to make the cut but its box office was outshined by The Chronicles of Narnia.
Even the “For Your Consideration Ads” planted in the trades by the studios don’t seem to have any effect this year and those films that are doing the best hardly took any ads out at all. Memoirs of a Geisha and Cinderella Man were dominating the trade ads but neither seems like it has a shot at a Best Picture nod.
It seems that voters are sticking to what worked, even if it wasn’t a money maker, even if it wasn’t a big studio picture. Perhaps there is a little bit of snubbing going on as well – a message being sent that says, “We will award those we believe truly deserve the awards.” We like this mini revolution.
What remains to be seen is whether or not the award attention to bring these smaller movies out to the rest of America or whether the rest of America will simply tune out the movies and the Oscars, and it will be the lowest rated telecast in recent history. Then again, it will be worth tuning in if, for no other reason than to see Jon Stewart stick it to the man.