Here we are at the precipice of this year's award season. The New York Film Critics announces its awards on Monday, December 3 and the National Board of Review send out its party invitations with its list on December 5. "Phase One" is about to begin, and it's a bit like having your own DeLorean. You know the one I mean. Like any great time-travel film there are paradoxes -- the "what ifs?" -- and consequences. Does one decision affect another with positive or negative impact? Take it in context with how this period progresses.
The first ones out of the gate are the film critics. It can be argued whether or not they have any direct influence on the way voting moves forward within the guilds and those who ask their secretaries to fill out ballots, but there is no debate when it comes to serving as a guideline. Do they predict the future? In many cases, yes. It is the rare film, performance or achievement that can survive being ignored during this time. Can we plant the seed that will cause the necessary chain reaction? Truth is we have come not to simply influence but to look at films that need or could use a push (some small, some big) if they are to compete for the biggest and best golden statue out there. Like the keys in a budding Excellent Adventure, if we just say we'll do something - will they magically appear?
BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD
Let us hope that Ang Lee's Life of Pi has not stolen any of the thunder from this Sundance sensation that went on to be the best limited release success story of 2012. Raise your hand if you thought we would be comparing what is the better kid-on-a-raft-with-mythical-creatures-on-the-side movie. The answer is easy and voters should make their case for Benh Zeitlin's movie.
Quvenzhané Wallis has pretty much affirmed her place alongside the best child performances in cinema history, and it will be fun to see which celebrity just out of bed has to read her name among the Best Actress nominees on January 10. Dwight Henry is an easier name to pronounce, but without some steady play throughout December he may find himself too far behind the back part of the Supporting Actor category with names like Alan Arkin (Argo), Robert De Niro (Silver Linings Playbook) and even the well-liked John Goodman, who many would love to see recognized for either part of his one-two supporting punch in Argo and Flight (Tommy Lee Jones and Philip Seymour Hoffman should be your category leaders).
It would be shocking if the film didn't just sweep the Independent Spirit Awards, which Fox Searchlight has pretty much owned. (Five of the last eight Best Picture winners there were Searchlight's, and four of them were nominated for the same Oscar.) Zeitlin's adaptation also still looks solid, but a N.Y./L.A. victory for Henry could go a long way and either for Wallis could just about solidify her status.
If voters don't want to flood the category (so to speak) with watery survival tales then J.A. Bayona's dramatization of the 2004 Thailand tsunami may be an unfortunate casualty. Dividing lines have already been drawn between people who were significantly affected by the powerful story and those who just want to dismiss it as a Nancy Grace/save-the-white-people movie. Ignorance and predisposition aside, there should be no argument about Naomi Watts' performance as the mother we follow down the rising waters to reconnect with her son.
Speculation was there that she could have been the direct challenger to Jennifer Lawrence (Silver Linings Playbook) for the Best Actress victory until Jessica Chastain has now emerged as a counter offer to voters for Zero Dark Thirty. Watts can be a very solid number three in the rankings if the critics can create some further buzz with a nomination here and an occasional win there before the film is even released in theaters. Word of praise as well for Summit who are not playing any games with the nomination process, smartly recognizing that the tremendous work of young Tom Holland in the film's lead male performance and Ewan McGregor (also very good) as the supporting player. Category swapping is getting out of control this year and it is up to each observer to use their eyes and their heads rather than what is written on the back of their screener case.
It may not have been seen by many outside of the film festivals and those who dialed it up On Demand, but few films sparked as great a conversation as Craig Zobel's this year. It's tale of not questioning authority even under the most absurd of circumstances created terror, outrage, dark humor and true unsettlement upon conclusion. There needs to be more talk about Zobel in the Original Screenplay category, and if we're talking performances, please remember than Ann Dowd is unquestionably the lead in the film.
It's nice (if illogical and borderline immoral) to play category shift when a studio feels it has a better shot for a nomination. But if we're to believe last weekend's screenings, Anne Hathaway has already been delivered the Supporting Actress Oscar for Les Miserables, so consider the other Ann where she belongs -- as Best Actress. Hell, give Pat Healy some consideration too for Supporting Actor here. Don't ignore this film.
To tighten up those two categories even further, if we're talking about screenplays that challenged the notion of originality by putting their own spin on familiar turf, Rian Johnson's work here is worthy of multiple looks. A film whose pleasures are greatly enhanced upon second viewing when you can allow both the parallels and the humanity to shine through, Looper is the best science-fiction film since Inception. Assuming that The Master is still good for a run in the Original Screenplay category and that Moonrise Kingdom seems poised to get its token nod here, there is still plenty of room for Looper to be given serious consideration.
Django Unchained is still a mystery. Flight may be remembered more for Denzel than anyone else's exceptional work. Why not Looper? And why not Emily Blunt for Supporting Actress while we're at it. Her role gets to the true heart of the film and it's a tricky performance that asks an audience to settle into her story once we have already spent an hour running around with Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis. It is a category that may have been decided already, but Anne Hathaway still has to run against four slots.
Though it seemed implausible back in September, Paul Thomas Anderson's latest acclaimed work (calling it divisive is a foregone conclusion) may be on the outside looking in. Especially if it can't find much love from the one group of movie lovers prone to shower him in praise. Of its many nominations, There Will Be Blood in 2008 only won Best Actor (in the major categories) which followed a similar victory for Actor and runner-up finishes in New York. (Do not be surprised if both shower Day-Lewis with some Lincoln love this year.)
Right now, though, the Best Actor race is so loaded (i.e. Day-Lewis, Denzel Washington, John Hawkes) that a snub won't even feel like much of a snub. Just no room left at the inn. Joaquin Phoenix seemed like an easy top-three pick months ago, then he badmouthed awards (but soon recanted) and names like Hugh Jackman and Bradley Cooper have gained more traction. Even though a colead, Philip Seymour Hoffman should be getting better odds in the Supporting Actor category and Amy Adams should still be firmly cemented in the light Supporting Actress race. Though a steady presence throughout the critic's awards would certainly help.
It was hailed (some would say over-hailed) at Sundance this year. Less reactionary minds held back on its chances as a major Oscar player, but all were pretty unanimous in the praise for John Hawkes' performance as the polio-stricken virgin looking to cure one of those ills. You did just read how crowded that Best Actor race is though, right? It might all depend just how badly they want to fit in Cooper or dump Phoenix. If neither picks up enough positive or negative traction, Hawkes could be the odd man out.
Again, Helen Hunt may have less trouble finding room in Supporting Actress, but that is because it's another case of a lead performer this year migrating for greener pastures. (She has her own storyline, people!) Hunt is right on the edge of both categories, but if you have to nominate her, critics, do the proper thing and put her in the right category and give another an opportunity.
THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER
Like how about Emma Watson? This is more of the kind of Hail Mary shot you may have been expecting here. John Hawkes and Joaquin Phoenix need just a little push, and consistency when a performance like Watson's needs to be remembered and ultimately respected enough to not just knee-jerk a spot for someone from The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.
Watson was amazing in this film; the dream girl that was not just a wild, quirk machine but a fully rounded human being with the same insecurities as most of us in high school. This is a film that struck a chord in a lot of critics from a certain generation and it would be interesting to see a flowchart of every review to see if we could match up who were the nerds, who were the jocks, and who were just the overall d**ks. You want a screenplay adaptation with a real emotional core you can believe in? Then remember Stephen Chbosky and forget about Life of Pi.
From one generation to the next, and from love's beginning to the very end. All the amour coming out of Cannes and subsequent film festivals for Michael Haneke's latest is really nothing new to awards season. 2001's The Piano Teacher wins Best Actor and Actress from Cannes plus the Grand Jury Prize, then it manages a second and third place finish from L.A. and N.Y. for Isabelle Huppert. No Oscar nominations. 2005's Cache wins Best Director for Haneke at Cannes then Best Foreign Film from L.A. and Chicago. No Oscar nominations. 2010's The White Ribbon finally wins the Palme d'Or at Cannes, then Foreign Film in Chicago and cinematography awards from L.A. and N.Y. Result? Nominations for Foreign Film and Cinematography at the Oscars, but no wins.
Emmanuelle Riva is going to need more of a presence than just the big three cities to break through in this race. Marion Cotillard (La Vie En Rose), Penelope Cruz (Volver) and Catalina Sandino Moreno (Maria Full of Grace) were all soaking up nods amongst the critic awards on the road to their Oscar nominations for foreign-language performances. Cotillard is already being lauded for the Nicholas Sparks-esque Rust and Bone, and there hasn't been a double foreign nominee for different films since 1966 when we all remember the great Anouk Aimee/Ida Kaminska showdown for A Man and a Woman and The Shop on Main Street. Right? (Adriana Barraza and Rinko Kikuchi were both nominated in 2006 for Babel, not entirely a foreign-language film.)
Riva has the showier role as the afflicted here, but Jean-Louis Trintignant deserves at least as much praise as the emotionally suffering husband. It's much easier to hype Riva in the more open category though. Los Angeles Film Critics have awarded a foreign-language actress three years running (and four of five back to Cotillard.) If they go that route again, it would need to be the beginning of Riva's award run or it could quickly be the end.
Anthony Hopkins' name has been getting casually thrown into the conversation for Best Actor since the first trailer dropped, but it seemed clear even then that Helen Mirren might have the best shot at a nomination. Nothing against Hopkins' portrayal of the titular master of suspense, but how many references have we made regarding the crowded nature of his category? Lawrence and Chastain may be the only sure locks for Actress at this point, and Wallis and Watts get their share of the flood votes. Cotillard and Riva go for the overseas votes, while Mirren is not likely to get a lot of victories with those names out there but is going to need a lot of nominations from critics to stay in this conversation.
THE DARK KNIGHT RISES
Remember how outraged we all were when Christopher Nolan's film was snubbed in favor of The Reader? Remember how the very next year the rules changed all of a sudden to allow 10 nominees for Best Picture? Animated films started getting nominated, and Inception got nominated (though the directorial nod still eludes Nolan). Yet, the masterful conclusion to Nolan's trilogy is not being met with the same kind of love and respect that accompanied The Return of the King back in 2003. Wonder how its Oscar chances would be talked about if it were released in November?
Let us not rewrite history on the reception of Rises either. It's 87% rating at Rotten Tomatoes makes it the 10th best-reviewed wide release of 2012; a top-10 list that also includes Argo, Lincoln and (eventually) Silver Linings Playbook. Its worst crime seems to be that it's not quite to the level of The Dark Knight, though its ambition, scale and social relevance certainly exceeds most everything in this year's award race aside from maybe Lincoln and Les Miserables. This is not some fanboy talking -- you can find them in the corner breaking down Dredd.
The Dark Knight Rises is a significant work of art and while The Avengers may have brought some (OK, a lot) of the fun back to comic book movies, the resonance of Nolan's accomplishment with this trilogy is going to be felt in future adaptations. Any nomination for either Best Picture, Director or Screenplay at the Oscars might seem like tokens for the '08 snubs, though they would be well-deserved. At the moment it is unlikely any of that will happen, so we ask each of the critics in every city out there to take a long hard look at the possibilities on their ballot. And if it comes down to The Dark Knight Rises vs. Life of Pi, just ask yourself the all-important question: What story do you prefer?