Oscar Index: They Shoot Horses, Don't They?

What a week at Movieline's Institute for the Advanced Study of Kudos Forensics, where the pundits' hustle harmonized with the guilds' bustle to create a heavy-duty wake-up call for some otherwise dormant awards-season underdogs. They also telegraphed danger for a few juggernauts once thought unassailable. What does it all mean as we head into the Critics Choice and Golden Globe Awards weekend? To the Index!

The Leading 10:
1. The Artist
2. The Descendants
3. Midnight in Paris
4. The Help
5. Hugo
6. War Horse
7. Moneyball
8. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
9. The Tree of Life
10. Bridesmaids

Outsiders: The Ides of March; Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; Drive

The awards race always begins to feel a little more real around this time every year, when the New York Film Critics Circle and National Board of Review officially hand out their hardware, the guilds weigh in with their reliably precursory nominations, and the black-ops Oscar mercenaries hired to cut the competitions' throats are finally turned loose by their monied studio masters. No such barbarism will be necessary, apparently, for the foes of War Horse, which the Directors Guild, Writers Guild, American Society of Cinematographers and Art Directors Guild -- all containing valuable membership overlap with the Academy -- each ignored in their respective nomination announcements over the last week.

It was the bitchslap heard 'round Hollywood -- or at least around the awards punditocracy, where experts hastened to digest what on Earth happened to the mighty-turned-slight-y Steven Spielberg epic. "My own oft-repeated view is fact that anyone with a smidgen of taste or perspective knew from the get-go that Spielberg's film didn't have the internals that would make it go all the way," wrote Jeffrey Wells. Sasha Stone posed a related theory: "All of the Oscar bluster around it was self-generated inside the bubble movie writers inhabit. As the presumed defacto frontrunner there was simply no way it could win -- the hype destroys even the best of films." Steve Pond was sanguine-ish: "The film is still a likely Oscar nominee, but it would no longer seem as much of a surprise if Spielberg himself was overlooked by the Academy's Directors Branch."

Grantland's Oscar oracle Mark Harris, meanwhile, lumped War Horse in with The Tree of Life to gauge two ever-deflating awards bubbles:

I would characterize both movies as “down but not out” — with a grim reminder that that’s usually exactly what one says just before, “Okay, they’re out.” I’ve been saying from the beginning that passion rather than consensus will power Terrence Malick’s movie toward a Best Picture nomination, but the fact that it went 0-for-3 with the writers, directors, and producers is not encouraging. I can offer a series of valid rationales — writing was always a long shot, the DGA’s large votership of rank-and-filers is generally inhospitable to art films, and the producers just don’t get it. Still, the hill it has to climb is getting awfully steep. War Horse at least managed to score a Producers Guild nomination.

Fair enough. But understanding the first law of Oscar thermodynamics -- that energy can be neither created nor destroyed but merely transferred to the campaign of a more palatable movie -- as we do, it was hardly surprising to witness the rapid ascent of such guild favorites as The Descendants, Midnight in Paris and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

The latter pair in particular enjoyed excellent showings this week, with Dragon Tattoo going four-for-four with the aforementioned guilds (too bad it can't carry the momentum into Thursday's Critics Choice Movie Awards and Sunday's Golden Globes, both of which largely overlooked the thriller) and Midnight in Paris drawing at least one persuasive argument that it would not only contend on Oscar night, but in fact has a terrific chance to win. Invoking Annie Hall, The Silence of the Lambs, Gladiator, and other erstwhile Best Picture winners that bucked the convention of a fall release date, Gold Derby's Tom Brueggemann went way in depth to explain why Woody Allen's May flower may come up smelling like a rose next month. A sample:

None of these films was the obvious winner when they were released. Each had to withstand competition from highly touted late-year entries to prevail under the old "most votes wins" system. Under this method of counting, Midnight in Paris, Hugo and The Artist might split the votes. Each is a period piece centered on creative types in the 1920s and 30s; these somewhat stylized yet smart entertainments appeal to older members. However, under preferential voting, the chances of one of these three winning increases with the one most likely to prevail having the most top-of-the-list support and fewest detractors -- i.e., Midnight in Paris.

There's a lot more worthy reading where that came from; Brueggemann's piece is easily the most sensible, thought-provoking awards analysis I've read all week.

Anyway, speaking of The Artist, all the guild recognition and forthcoming Hollywood love this weekend couldn't stop some commentators to from sniffing a backlash. No sooner did Tom O'Neil and Rotten Tomatoes editor Matt Atchity surmise that a fade might be near than The Guardian's Joe Utichi spotlighted the silent film's thriving subculture of foes. "[A]s the road to the Oscars winds ever on," he wrote, "it seems this year's awards favorite, The Artist, isn't immune to a spirited blogger backlash that sounds ever louder as the film's five-star reviews continue to decorate its myriad campaign ads."

And then there was Kim Novak Rapegate, the most tastelessly, transparently obvious smear job since someone delivered the L.A. Times mass quantities of weak ammo against The Hurt Locker two years ago. "Today, actress Kim Novak -- a noted recluse so out of the Hollywood loop that I doubt most people under 50 know her name -- took a full page ad in Variety," wrote Roger Friedman, citing Novak's instantly infamous "protest" that The Artist's brief use of music from Vertigo had "violated" her "body of work." Friedman, himself a noted Harvey Weinstein ally/mouthpiece, continued in the front-runner's defense: "It’s hard to believe that Novak was so motivated by The Artist soundtrack -– so full of original melodies and inventive work–that she called up Variety and read them a credit card number."

Who's behind it? Who knows? However, for those keeping score at home, you'll note that this would mark the second time in as many months that the subject of rape has entered this year's awards conversation; previously, David Fincher alleged that Dragon Tattoo contained "too much anal rape" to merit Oscar consideration, which we're finding now is not the case. And Dragon Tattoo producer Scott Rudin essentially hates Weinstein, so... Coincidence? You'll have plenty of time to think it over while I apply a few bottles of Purell.

The Leading 5:
1. Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist
2. Alexander Payne, The Descendants
3. Woody Allen, Midnight in Paris
4. Martin Scorsese, Hugo
5. Steven Spielberg, War Horse

Outsiders: David Fincher, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo; Bennett Miller, Moneyball; Tate Taylor, The Help; Nicolas Winding Refn, Drive

Thanks for playing last week, Tate Taylor! The prognosis of the upstart Help director -- whose Oscar hopes went from meteoric to crater-rific within about 60 seconds of the DGA nominations announcement -- received perhaps the best read from Mark Harris:

[F]ilmmakers who get DGA nominations but not Oscar nominations tend to have won DGA hearts with crowd-pleasing studio films: Gary Ross for Seabiscuit, James L. Brooks for As Good As It Gets, Frank Darabont for The Green Mile. Between them, Cameron Crowe, Christopher Nolan, and Rob Reiner have eight DGA nominations -— and zero Best Director Oscar nominations. By contrast, here’s a partial list of the directors who, over the last 15 years, failed to score with the DGA but were nominated for Oscars anyway: Stephen Daldry, Paul Greengrass, Mike Leigh, Pedro Almodovar, Fernando Meirelles, Atom Egoyan, David Lynch. Populists and hitmakers need not apply; even when Clint Eastwood pulled off this feat, it was for Letters From Iwo Jima.

This would seem to be very bad news for Tate Taylor -- a prototypical DGA nominee if ever there was one[.]

The thing is, Harris wrote that in the context of assessing Fincher and Allen's Oscar chances, particularly vis-à-vis those of Spielberg. Oh, yeah -- that guy. Remember him? The slumping titan who epitomizes Michael Cieply's terrific estimation of how 2011-12 "could be remembered less for its winners than for a large array of high-profile contenders who will be struggling — right up until the Oscar nominations are announced later this month — to avoid embarrassment"? Personally, I can't envision Spielberg shut out of this category; guilds are helpful precursors, but they tend to have biases that the Academy doesn't share. (To wit, noted Scott Feinberg: "My hunch is that the DGA's demographics worked in [Fincher's] favor, in the sense that the majority of the DGA's roughly 13,500 members primarily work not in film but in TV, the medium in which Fincher first made his name by shooting some extraordinary commercials and music videos.") But again, it's just objectively true that multiple precursors can add up to one collective impact for better or worse. This is either the time for Spielberg's faction in the Academy to commence rallying or for everyone to just resolve to wait for Lincoln later this year. Or maybe DreamWorks buys a really, really big table this weekend at the Beverly Hilton and the HFPA whips War Horse back to a sprint. We'll find out soon enough.

The Leading 5:
1. (tie) Meryl Streep, The Iron Lady
1. (tie) Viola Davis, The Help
3. Michelle Williams, My Week With Marilyn
4. Tilda Swinton, We Need to Talk About Kevin
5. Rooney Mara, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

Outsiders: Glenn Close, Albert Nobbs; Charlize Theron, Young Adult; Elizabeth Olsen, Martha Marcy May Marlene

If a rising tide indeed lifts all boats, then Mara and even Close -- whose film finally made some official Oscar headway in the Makeup category -- are finding themselves resting a little higher this week. But it hardly matters in light of what's happening at the tippy-top of the Index, where Streep and Davis are riding their respective waves virtually hand-in-hand. Take their appearances at this week's NY Film Critics Circle Awards gala, where Davis actually presented Streep with the organization's Best Actress honors: "It’s a testament to her that she’d do this in this year, which is her year," Streep acknowledged in her acceptance speech. Streep's acceptance speech! Thank God we can proceed with class in at least one category here.

Well, class and complete and utter confusion, anyway. "[T]here will be questions regarding this race until Oscar Sunday," wrote Gregory Ellwood -- accurately.

The Leading 5:
1. Jean Dujardin, The Artist
2. Brad Pitt, Moneyball
3. George Clooney, The Descendants
4. Michael Fassbender, Shame
5. Gary Oldman, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Outsiders: Leonardo DiCaprio, J. Edgar; Demián Bichir, A Better Life; Michael Shannon, Take Shelter; Ryan Gosling, The Ides of March

Dujardin has always been vulnerable here, but never more than this week: Despite a swell showing of his own at Monday's NYFCC Awards, it was Pitt who took home the evening's Best Actor prize. Then last night George Clooney walked off with the hardware at the National Board of Review fete. Yet both Americans remain the continuing focus of respectful if not gaga Oscar speculation -- their films are not the ones where even the animals have awards-season devotees; they're not the front-runners being targeted in suspicious drive-by smears (though I guess just wait until Harvey dusts off Art Howe for another fusillade of thwacks at the veracity of Moneyball). And, looking elsewhere, they're not the ones attempting to move the needle with insights into their challenging work (e.g Fassbender) or finding sustained, timely pockets of support from around the awards commentariat (e.g. Shannon and DiCaprio).

Whatever. What I'm trying to say is that unsettled years are always notoriously hard on the Hollywood establishment (Adrien Brody over Jack Nicholson and Nicolas Cage in 2003 comes to mind, and let's not even get started on Roberto Benigni in 1999), and there's no real evidence to indicate that 2012 will turn out any differently. Yet.

The Leading 5:
1. Octavia Spencer, The Help
2. Jessica Chastain, The Help
3. Bérénice Bejo,
The Artist
4. Shailene Woodley, The Descendants
5. Melissa McCarthy, Bridesmaids

Outsiders: Janet McTeer, Albert Nobbs; Vanessa Redgrave, Coriolanus; Jessica Chastain, The Tree of Life; Jessica Chastain, Take Shelter

If you thought Chastain was in every screen product over the seven or eight months, wait until you see her prolific TV appearances for early 2012. She's everywhere! The only downside is for the film's chances in this category; if she and Spencer cancel each other out, then you could easily see any of the contenders sneak in for first. Back to Gregory Ellwood for the lowdown:

The double Help nods put the entire field in play. Multiple nominations have happened 12 times since 1980 in this category alone, but a winner between the two has only occurred four times (Melissa Leo for The Fighter, Jessica Lange for Tootsie, Dianne Wiest for Bullets Over Broadway and Catherine Zeta-Jones for Chicago,). And if Spencer doesn't win? Well, if McCarthy makes the cut she might be halfway to EGOT in less than a year (never say never people). Or, more likely, Bejo pulls off a Roberto Benigni and gives The Artist an unexpected acting honor.

Gah, not that name again. Anyway, Spencer and her "frisky energy" are a hit on the talk-show circuit! Consider it handled.

The Leading 5:
1. Christopher Plummer, Beginners
2. Albert Brooks, Drive
3. Jonah Hill, Moneyball
4. Kenneth Branagh, My Week With Marilyn
5. Nick Nolte, Warrior

Outsiders: Andy Serkis, Rise of the Planet of the Apes; Max von Sydow, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close; Armie Hammer, J. Edgar; Corey Stoll, Midnight in Paris; Ben Kingsley, Hugo

Congratulations to Andy Serkis for breaking through the pack for his first Oscar index appearance of the season. That's what you get when you do roughly 12 interviews for every one done by your closest competitor. (Stoll is no slouch on this front, either.) Nevertheless, it's still an uphill climb through the performance-capture weeds to nomination day -- and is it me, or is Albert Brooks auditioning for an Oscar speech? Take these bits from the NYFCC Awards:

“I know the pressure’s on,” Brooks said early in the evening, standing in a crush of people at the Manhattan club Crimson. “But I’m up for it.” [...]

Whether it’s any sort of prediction of what the rest of the year will bring, it really doesn’t matter. As Brooks said, happily clutching his prize, “This is not the People’s Choice. This is the real thing.”

Humble yet vaguely elitist, openly hungry yet tongue-in-cheek? It's kind of perfect! I never thought I'd say it, but -- gasp! -- a certain Canadian octogenarian awards favorite might want to keep an eye on this whippersnapper.

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  • Reed says:

    1) Your analysis' are spot on. You're too witty for your own good!
    2) Bummed to see Charlize so low on your chart. Surprised to see Mara above Close given the whole narrative Close has been leaning on to garner her a 6th nomination. I noticed Theron isn't campaigning much. I thought she was brilliant in Young Adult but it's going to be a hard sell considering how uptight the Academy tends to be ha... maybe that's not the right word... safe? All I know is that she deserves to be nominated.
    3) Chastain seems to have the edge on Spencer. I would really like to see her win.
    4) Do the Critics Choice nominations have any bearing on Oscar noms?

    • S.T. VanAirsdale says:

      1. Thank you, Reed!
      2. Theron's imminent oversight will suck, but I think Mara's likely nomination will kinda make up for it in at least a cosmic-Oscar-justice sense. You're right about the narrative that Close is leaning on, except that she's really leaning on it. If that movie or her performance had any less mojo right now, it'd be rolling backwards. Into a swamp.
      3. Me too! It could happen, or they could split it and then you'll see someone like Bejo sneak in. It's anybody's game!
      4. They are, in fact, a historically sound precursor to the Oscar noms. We address that a bit here.

      • Reed says:

        Thanks for answering my question! I don't think Mara will make up for it though because I thought she was good, but I thought Noomi Rapace was brilliant and since she wasn't nominated, I don't see why Mara is getting all this heat. Still holding out hope for Theron and Dunst/Olsen (those are longshots, I know but I'm hoping the Academy decides to really change things up! One can dream...)

        • j'accuse! says:

          I hate to break it to ya manfriend, but Oscar buzz is rarely predicated upon principles of pure artistry, fairness, or justice of any kind. I mean...DGAs and The Tree of Life for instance.

        • S.T. VanAirsdale says:

          I hear you, but it's apples and oranges. One's a successful foreign-language film released by a small distributor with no awards budget, the other is an even more successful English-language film released by a major studio and with everyone from David Fincher to Scott Rudin singing the star's praises. That's just part of conversation reflected in the Index.

          I'd love Dunst to be nominated almost more than anything, but it's just not gonna happen. They got too late a start on her campaign and the competition's just too stiff. Another time!

  • Devin says:

    Nice to see Rooney Mara has gained some ground. War Horse is still the only major Best Picture possibility I haven't seen, and I can't help but wonder if the Academy feels the same trepidation toward it that I do. As in we all kind of know what we're going to get. So maybe the lack of enthusiasm isn't such a big surprise.

    • S.T. VanAirsdale says:

      Ultimately the War Horse consensus appears to be that it's minor Spielberg -- which it is and it isn't: The screenwriting and acting and general mood of the thing is not what I'd call inspired. But in pure filmmaking terms, parts of it are as accomplished as anything the guy's ever made. Unfortunately the Academy has long shown a preference for schmaltz over skill, and by both letting it down spiritually and failing to even win the guilds' hearts on the artistic front, Spielberg will have to settle for Oscar also-ran at best. But! Like I said! There is always Lincoln.

  • blizzard bound says:

    About Best Supporting Actor: I'd pick Kenneth Branagh over Plummer in Beginners. I guess it was just me, but I thought Beginners was very uneven in tone -- it felt like every character was acting in a different movie. I was disappointed.

    Whereas with My Week with Marilyn, I thought Branagh nailed it as Olivier. And how perfect for him (the Olivier heir apparent) to play Olivier. I swear sometimes he looked exactly like Olivier. It was uncanny.

    I (maybe?) like this movie more than the critics. It's one of those compact jewel movies, nicely structured, and Michelle Williams did such a beautiful job. It was a fairytale, but there are more than a few scenes from that movie that have stayed with me. Dark and light.

    And on a very separate note, S.T., I recently saw "THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON'T THEY?" based on your frequent enthusiastic endorsements. My god. That is not a movie someone should watch in the current economy. That is one brutal movie.

    • S.T. VanAirsdale says:

      I couldn't agree with you more regarding both Beginners and Marilyn. We can't go conflating quality and "Oscar-worthiness," though, since the two have never necessarily co-existed as awards-season properties. It's basically who's "due," who "wants it," and who's gonna pay for it.

      I wish I could take credit for recommending TSHDT?, but I've actually never seen it! I couldn't endorse it if I wanted to, but consider yourself having just persuaded me to have a look. Brutal = bliss.

      • blizzard bound says:

        Gah, I could swear it was you. Seriously, though, if you are feeling the least bit depressed, don't watch that movie. It's bleak. I watched it during the holidays and nearly slit my throat.

  • Ben Y says:

    Hi Stu, another stellar breakdown, I'm totally addicted. I think you've switched Nick and Kenneth in your leading 5 list though. Keep up the great work and I consider Uggie worthy of a lifetime achievement Oscar by now.

    • S.T. VanAirsdale says:

      Ooof, you're right! Thanks for the heads-up, it's corrected. And thanks as well for the kind words! Much, much appreciated.

  • So sad that Patton Oswalt is out of the conversation. His performance in Young Adult was certainly worthy of some recognition.

    Maybe not Brooks-level, but still.

    • S.T. VanAirsdale says:

      Yeah, I agree. It's not like the guy wasn't out there showing his face or talking about the film, either. I think it's just an all-around ball-drop for the producers and Paramount; Oswalt, Theron, and the whole creative team should been in the conversation since Day 1.

      • I realize Paramount's on top of the world right now, couldn't they have spent a little more on campaigning on more than just Theron and Cody? (Whom I both love and did terrific work in this one).

        Sadly it seems like this and Win Win are going to be the afterthoughts, even though they're up there in quality (and tonally, a bit) with Descendants.

        I can take a small bit of solace in knowing that at least Serkis is back in the conversation, however brief it may last.

        • blizzard bound says:

          Win Win = SO GOOD. I loved the script. What will it take for Thomas McCarthy to get some love? He consistently makes such nuanced films.

          Plus: Bobby Cannavale's skinny legs. (Honestly, I love me some Bobby Cannavale. That guy has got it going on.)

          Also, Amy Ryan, who is fast becoming one of my heroes. Always so authentic. Love the tattoo scene.

          • S.T. VanAirsdale says:

            McCarthy's definitely got a shot in screenplay. Searchlight has had his back most of this season; I like his chances to grab a fifth or even fourth spot.

        • AD says:

          @Winchester- I don't think Paramount even did much for Theron and Cody. So Oswalt was like their 35th priority. It's pretty sad, I agree. I think they expected Theron to surge ahead based on her goodwill and her stature within the industry but they might have forgotten that Young Adult is a tough sell, no matter how accomplished and stellar the performances are. It's frustrating seeing how they spent all this time and money on Hugo and Tintin. Look at Harvey, he has Michelle Williams at every event and throws dinners and luncheons in her honor every day of the week! Haha. Paramount should have had Theron and Oswalt out there... campaigning like crazy. They deserve to be nominated.

  • Mark says:

    Streep should be the frontrunner based on her media storm (Kennedy, Golden Bear, 60 Minutes, Vogue, Newsweek)..Her film is getting major box office in the few theatres it is playing indicating a box office bonanza when it goes wide up to the Oscars. Don't penalize Streep just because she was gracious enough to say it is Davis' year (she is just a nice person). In reality, it's Streep's year and she is expected to win Critics Choice and Globe Drama to cement her as the one to beat come Oscar night.

    • S.T. VanAirsdale says:

      Thanks, Mark. The Oscar Index has loooong had Streep as the frontrunner due in part to exactly the conditions you mention (see here and here, to cite but a few examples). I didn't mean to suggest that Streep is literally conceding anything to Davis, but the fact remains that among Academy voters, The Help is a more respected movie than Iron Lady (with a longer tail as well), Davis's character is more sympathetic than Margaret Thatcher (which apparently matters around the Academy water cooler), and it's Davis -- not Streep -- talking Oscar with George Clooney in this week's EW. We'll see about tonight's awards and the Globes on Sunday, but as of this writing -- perception-wise, anyway -- they're dead even.

  • AS says:

    I think Close will ultimately edge Rooney Mara out, seeing as how SAG totally snubbed her. I think Theron is pretty much out at this point as well.

  • j'accuse! says:

    Not entirely pleased with where some of this is heading (you know what I mean), but I can't fault your analysis.

    Btw, what the hell was up w/ that Ron Paul/Darth Vader comment thread? I feel like I'm flashing back to 2008. Am I going to have to stay off the internet until the election is over to avoid that crowd?

    • S.T. VanAirsdale says:

      God bless ya, j'accuse. I often have a tough time swallowing this stuff myself. C'est la awards-season.

      And WHO KNOWS re the Ron Paul thread. I'm thisclose to throwing a blanket on that particular blaze; I love a good ramble away from the straight movie beat, but come on.

      • Right? That was bananas! I want to make a comment about how J'accuse will only have to wait until the end of the next primary for them to stop, but something tells me they will never stop.

        Like a terminator.

        (Maybe he should use THAT theme?)

  • Drew says:

    I hate how tight the Best Actor race is. Leo, who is in the Exact same position as Streep (great performance in a mediocre film), is getting squeezed out of a nomination while Streep remains a frontrunner. Crazy. But, Oldman absolutely deserves a nomination as well!
    And don't even get me started on Michael Shannon, who gave the best performance of the year in my opinion (I haven't seen Shame or A Better Life). Can we just give this category 7 nominations and 2 winners this year?

  • blizzard bound says:

    Haha! 😀 This.

  • Scott Anderson says:

    I think Streep will get it with her graciousness and the fact that it's been almost 30 years since her last win. Personally, I want Charlize in the category, because she was brilliant and I the Michelle Williams should win the award, because she is so good in so many films and she took my breath away.

  • [...] Golden Globe acceptance speech last weekend. But is her skin-baring the key to getting that coveted Oscar nomination? Behold the press-shy Williams with a pseudo-Marilyn bedroom coif, selling sex with the vulnerable [...]

  • John says:

    Great to know Gary Oldman's still in the hunt for that elusive Oscar nomination of his! I was worried after both him and Tinker Tailor received little love from recent awards.

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