Oscar Index: And the Winner is... Old
We've officially crossed the halfway point of this year's Oscar Index -- a bittersweet milestone where the team at Movieline's Institute for the Advanced Study of Kudos Forensics takes a deep breath, orders a stiff drink, and then... orders another eight or so stiff drinks. While they slam their ways over the awards-season hump, join me for a quick run-through of where things stand this week.
[Click the graphs for full-size images.]
The Leading 10:
1. The Artist
2. The Descendants
3. War Horse
5. Midnight in Paris
6. The Help
7. The Tree of Life
8. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
10. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
Outsiders: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 2; Margin Call; Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn; My Week With Marilyn; Shame
The week offered three general themes, starting with technically the most important: The National Board of Review's awards announcement, which shifted a share of The Artist's momentum to Hugo while the moviegoing public kept each throwback healthy at the box office. The Descendants enjoyed a similar phenomenon, earning multiple NBR prizes while rushing off to the best opening of any of Fox Searchlight's recent Oscar darlings -- and there are some serious earners in there, including Black Swan, Slumdog Millionaire and Juno. Secretive institutional accolades aside, that kind of concrete commercial success is without a doubt the most crucial to The Descendants' continued award hopes -- the old "you can't ignore us, we're loved and we're rich" strategy that Searchlight has down to a science and which Harvey Weinstein rediscovered in recent years with the likes of Inglourious Basterds and The King's Speech.
That said, the NBR -- which of late, anyway, has hardly proven an especially reliable Oscar barometer -- joined last week's Gothams, Indie Spirit and New York Film Critics Circle announcements to help advance the second theme: In Pete Hammond's words, "[T]his year is completely, completely wide open. But then you knew that already." But what if it's not wide open? To wit, as Grantland's Oscar oracle Mark Harris suggests while laying out the week's third big theme, what if we've regressed to those dark days of the '80s -- when awards bodies, critics and viewers alike tuck themselves snugly into sepia-colored pods of denial:
I'm all for venerating old movies, and if I'm a bit resistant to the allure of The Artist and Hugo, it may be because they practically grab you by the lapels and order you to feel a childlike sense of wonder, goddammit! But as the plot of a third Best Picture contender, Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris, reminds us explicitly that nostalgia for values you never actually held from an era you yourself didn't live through isn't really nostalgia -- it's sentimentality.
At this point in the Best Picture contest, The Artist's biggest problem is Hugo, Hugo's biggest problem is The Artist, and Midnight in Paris' biggest problem is that these two newer, higher-profile movies are now vying for the "let's go on a magical journey to a more inspirational time" voting demographic that Allen has had to himself for most of 2011. A lot of advertising dollars are being spent on the proposition that this mood, which propelled The King's Speech to a very 1980s-ish win over The Social Network last year, still prevails.
It's a brilliant theory, also enfolding The Tree of Life, The Help, and War Horse. It also underestimates the slick, utterly contemporary aplomb with which The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is about to crash the race. DenbyGate exposed us to the outer reaches of the ugly, scorched-earth frontier where leverage is a finer art than the movies it seeks to benefit. With two skillful shots, Scott Rudin and David Fincher invalidated the voice of the critic vis-à-vis Dragon Tattoo while drawing the entire desperate culture to their sides. And this in a week when it could barely scratch the official awards surface; now it's all anyone wants to see, precisely because of how seriously Team Girl takes its chances to break through. The whole scenario is almost enough to make you wish it were the '80s all over again, if only to drown out the noise. And anyway, when the Academy plans to screen a restoration of the silent, inaugural Best Picture-winner Wings even Maureen Dowd is toasting The Artist on the NYT op-ed page, Rudin et. al. are going to need a better card up their sleeve than the one publicly shaming a movie critic relatively nobody reads.
A few other notes: As Scott Feinberg points out, The Help having done well with women viewers plays into a historically dis-advantageous Oscar trend. The Artist, The Descendants and -- thank God -- Melancholia picked up some juice from smaller organizations from D.C. to Europe. And all anyone could be bothered to say following the debut of the new trailer for Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close was how unpleasant it looks: "Seems like Green Mile made a baby with Old Yeller and then the director decided to fly a plane into it," wrote one astute commentator. Let's hope for "the Daldry"'s sake that this weekend's first screenings can stanch some of that bile.
The Leading 5:
1. Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist
2. Alexander Payne, The Descendants
3. Martin Scorsese, Hugo
4. Steven Spielberg, War Horse
5. David Fincher, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
Outsiders: Woody Allen, Midnight in Paris; Stephen Daldry, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close; Bennett Miller, Moneyball; Tate Taylor, The Help; George Clooney, The Ides of March; Tomas Alfredson, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
Honestly, from where I stand, I can foresee scenarios where any one of these top five guys win it all. But until Spielberg in particular can punch in Hazanavicius, Payne and Scorsese's zeitgeist weight-class with his two-hour plus family epic starring a horse -- especially with Tintin in the multiplex mix as well -- the more general sense in the cognoscenti seems to be to wait and see. Meanwhile Fincher, a two-time Oscar loser who could use a boost in the Academy's directors branch, may have helped his cause by boldly reasserting the relationship between filmmakers and audiences in its purest form. Well done!