Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Oscar Bait: October 29, 2013

A Ranking of the Year's Most Enticing Awards Bait

When you’ve been married or in a relationship for any considerable length of time, you begin to see patterns in your significant other, and if you pay attention it’s not very difficult to learn tricks and rules to either (1) make the other person feel better when they are down in the dumps, or (2) get yourself out of a jam (e.g., they are just plain pissed off at you).

Recently, I was able to put the knowledge gained through my seven years of marriage to good use.  My wife called me on her way home one evening, pretty upset about the way her day had gone.  After getting off the phone, I dialed up the no-fail holy triumvirate for making a wife feel better that most husbands should know about: frozen pizza, red wine, and ice cream.  It achieved the intended effect in spades, and I came out looking like some sort of wife-whisperer.  The idea is simple enough, but knowing how and when to use it is the real challenge.

The same idea can be applied to the Oscars.  The idea of “Oscar Bait” is pretty well established in the film community, and for good reason: over its extensive history, the Academy Awards have gravitated towards the same types of films over and over, year after year.  As someone who has been following the awards since as long as I can remember, I feel I’ve learned a few rules that I can apply. So in an effort to really parse out the awards season this year solely through the lens of Oscar Bait, I’m introducing this column which I hope to write periodically, hopefully around 10 times or so throughout the movie awards season.

For my first rankings, I’m going to break down the Best Picture race as it stands here at the end of October.


(1) "12 Years a Slave"

Oscar Bait Level: Schindler’s List

Steve McQueen’s Slave, which I still have one more agonizing week before getting to see, is off the charts in Oscar Bait and currently stands as an overwhelming favorite in this year’s race.  Historical drama? Check.  Based on a true story? Check.  Social Commentary? Check. White-guilt inducing? Check.  Solid cast? Check. Critically acclaimed? Check.

The only check mark that it doesn’t automatically receive is for a pedigreed director.  Although McQueen is very well-respected in the film community (having received much acclaim for his first two smaller films, Hunger and Shame), he is not exactly “in the club” as far as the Academy goes.  However, with only two black directors EVER having been nominated for Best Director at the Oscars (two! Freaking two!), and with neither winning, I think the Academy might just see this as an opportunity to remedy that. 

(2) "American Hustle"

Oscar Bait Level: L.A. Confidential

Weighing in at #2 on the current rankings is David O. Russell’s crime thriller starring former collaborators Christian Bale, Jennifer Lawrence, Amy Adams and Bradley Cooper (all having received Oscar noms and/or wins under Russell’s direction in the past).  The crime genre hasn’t fared extremely well with the Academy in the past, with films like Goodfellas and L.A. Confidential falling prey to historical romances Dances with Wolves and Titanic, respectively, despite the general consensus being that the former-mentioned films should have won.  What this film does have going for it over 12 Years a Slave is a director in Russell that is now comfortably in the club, having received an astounding 15 Oscar nominations and 3 wins for his prior two films. 

(3) "Gravity"

Oscar Bait Level: Life of Pi

Clocking in at the third slot on the list is this Sandra Bullock survival vehicle that dominated the box office for three straight weeks.  I don’t think the Academy is actively anti-special effects driven films, or even slow to recognize them – I simply think that they want to wait for the right film to be recognized for whatever new technology is in question.  As 3D movies go, Life of Pi, Hugo and Avatar all did very well for themselves at the Oscars, with a remarkable showing of 31 nominations and 12 wins between the three films – and arguably all three were probably the runner-up for Best Picture in their given years.  I think the Academy would be very receptive to awarding an effects-driven film, and Gravity could be that very film: it’s anchored by an emotional star-performance by Sandra Bullock (performances were something the prior three films lacked, with zero nominations in the acting categories between them), and the film itself is based more in reality than the other three.  Its path to beating out 12 Years a Slave is paved by Cuaron’s massive directorial achievement as well as Bullock’s possible lead actress win (although I really don’t think she can beat Cate Blanchett, but I’ll save that for a future installment of the column).

(4) "Saving Mr. Banks"

Oscar Bait Level: Babe

The first of two Tom Hanks films on the list, this film about the making of Mary Poppins is certainly in the mix for Best Picture as of this moment.  It doesn’t have the pedigree of the first three films on this list, but a few things give it an advantage over them; it’s the only feel-good film, it opens right in the heart of the holiday season (Dec. 20th) giving it a chance for massive box-office success, it stars one of the most recognizable names in Hollywood (Hanks) playing one of the most beloved names in film history (Walt Disney), and it is about the making of one of the most ubiquitous films of all time.  Make us feel warm and fuzzy, and keep tugging those heart strings all the way to the Kodak Theater and it could just walk away with the year’s top prize. 

(5) "Captain Phillips"

Oscar Bait Level: The Conversation

I don’t think Captain Phillips can win this year’s top prize, but I do think it will be pervasive in this year’s movie awards season.  I think Paul Greengrass, a respected filmmaker, has an outside shot at a Best Director win while Tom Hanks has a very nice shot at a Best Actor win.  Two of Greengrass’s past films have done quite well with the Oscars despite being quite a bit less “baity” than Phillips -- United 93 scored Greengrass an Oscar nomination for Best Director and Best Editing while The Bourne Ultimatum somehow won the Oscar for Best Editing in ’07 (over titans No Country For Old Men and There Will be Blood, no less) as well as the awards for Best Sound Editing AND Best Sound Mixing, an impressive haul for a mainstream action-spy film.  Take that foundation and apply it to Captain Phillips, which has current socio-political commentary, and features the best Hanks performance possibly since Cast Away, and you can see why this will be a strong contender for many awards throughout the season.