Oscar Index: We Need to Talk About Spielberg
Welcome back to Oscar Index, your infallible weekly dispatch from Movieline's Institute for the Advanced Study of Kudos Forensics. This installment welcomes a few new faces to the mix -- and not a minute too soon, either, as the race attains a strange, stagnant calm before the storm. Let's investigate!
[Click the graphs for full-size images.]
The Leading 10:
1. The Descendants
2. War Horse
3. The Artist
4. The Help
5. Midnight in Paris
7. J. Edgar
8. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
9. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
10. The Ides of March
Outsiders: My Week With Marilyn; The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn; Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; Shame; Margin Call; The Tree of Life; Hugo
OK, so make that a strange, sort of stagnant calm. One week after War Horse fell off the world-beating hype pace it had sustained for a month, jockey Steven Spielberg busted out his awards-narrative riding crop with the help of the The New York Times. The paper, which couldn't secure an interview with the filmmaker/producer (he was reportedly busy shooting Lincoln, cough cough plug plug), nevertheless bolstered "Spielberg the Artist"'s double (or triple) shot of Oscar juice:
In 1987 Mr. Spielberg won his first Oscar, an honorary Irving G. Thalberg award. After some ferocious campaigns, three more Academy Awards would follow, for Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan. Those helped fill the mantel but have left him short of the recognition given Walt Disney, with his 26 statuettes, or even Billy Wilder, with 7, and Francis Ford Coppola, with 6.
Lately Mr. Spielberg has been working as if he intends to close the gap. By most measures he appears busier than at any time in his professional life. If Lincoln is released by DreamWorks and Walt Disney Studios in late 2012, he will have directed three major films in the span of a year.
Interview or not, the implication is clear: Spielberg wants it. It's been a long time since Private Ryan, and between War Horse and The Adventures of Tintin -- the former of which has ostensible "heartland strategy" screenings lined up this week, and the latter of which makes it to the States next week as AFI Fest's closing-night film -- it's time to reclaim his rightful Oscar-night supremacy.
It's a nice story. It's just not... charming. Sniff as some will at The Artist or The Descendants, both films and their principals know that earnest goodwill generally outweighs the last word in the awards economy. Thus The Descendants' ongoing offensive, led this week by George Clooney and Alexander Payne themselves in a special screening in Los Angeles. The punditocracy responded in kind, with Gregory Ellwood noting that "[a] few major critics groups wins could put it far out of reach from its competitors" and Jeffrey Wells citing a "filmmaker friend" who has early faith that it'll "go all the way." The latest Gurus o' Gold poll, meanwhile, has Descendants and Artist stacked fairly comfortably in first and second place.
But look out for Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, which, along with Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and even the recent British Independent Film Award nominee Shame, is also surging gradually among the cognoscenti. And perhaps my favorite bit of awards-season forecasting this week belongs to Grantland's Mark Harris, who went to bat for the sublime Margin Call as the darkest of horses to have a berth in the race:
Can the Oscar race accommodate an accident -- a movie that shakes things up just because it's unexpectedly excellent? One film is about to test that question: the coolheaded, remarkably well-executed financial thriller Margin Call. When the movie played at Sundance last January, it got just-okay buzz -- typical for a festival that historically overhypes the quirky-dysfunctional-romantic-comedic but undersells movies that are dark, urbane (or just urban), and tough-minded. It was acquired by Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions, which -- aside from Winter's Bone last year -- has not been a major awards player.
Nine months later, Margin Call opened just as Occupy Wall Street was igniting; suddenly, it looks like the most on-point American movie of the season. This one caught the Oscar blogosphere napping, and the wake-up call came not only in the form of higher-than-expected grosses but in raves from the likes of the New Yorker ("One of the strongest American films of the year"), the New York Times ("An extraordinary feat of filmmaking" with direction that is "downright awe-inspiring"), and the Los Angeles Times ("Margin Call will open your eyes"). They're not wrong: Writer-director J.C. Chandor has made the year's most impressive American debut. [...] (And SAG voters, who tend to use their "Best Ensemble" award as a lame substitute for a Best Picture prize, should see this movie as a reminder of how valuable real ensemble acting can be.)
See, that's the trick: Hit the actors -- hard. Screeners! Parties! Pizzas! The required 5 percent of first-place votes may seem unthinkable at the moment, but there is indeed a compelling case to be made for Margin Call as the most socially relevant, most thought-provoking and, sure, most entertaining picture of the year. If there were any justice, it would be perceived as this year's whip-smart counterpart to The Social Network. Of course, there is no justice in awards season, but still: Why not Margin Call? Think about it.
The Leading 5:
1. Alexander Payne, The Descendants
2. Steven Spielberg, War Horse
3. Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist
4. David Fincher, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
5. Woody Allen, Midnight in Paris
Outsiders: Clint Eastwood, J. Edgar; Stephen Daldry, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close; George Clooney, The Ides of March; Bennett Miller, Moneyball; Tomas Alfredson, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
Haters notwithstanding, we see the Spielberg/War Horse correction affecting the Director race as well as Picture -- not unlike Dragon Tattoo's Fincher bump. But Woody Allen's ascension reflects a surprising hardiness among observers here, there and everywhere (OK, mostly everywhere) who seem to believe that his late-career triumph can overcome his utter disregard for the Academy Awards as a whole. Fair enough, but can't we give that slot to Bennett Miller or Nicolas Winding Refn or something? OK, never mind.