— Which films will contend at next year's Oscar ceremony? Most of them probably haven't hit the theaters yet — or if they have, they're more likely to have shown for a week or two at your local art house than at the big downtown multiplex.
Summer isn't exactly "Citizen Kane" season. For studios, the high temperatures means moviegoers will cram into theaters just to cool off, and often won’t give a damn about the quality of what’s on the big screen. The strategy has worked.
Just look at the year’s box office. Four of the top five moneymaking films of the year — "Toy Story 3," "Iron Man 2," "The Twilight Saga: Eclipse" and "Shrek Forever After" — all came out during the summer movie season, and all except for the beloved "Toy Story 3" received mixed reviews.
Thankfully, the makers of intelligent indie films fully realize they have little or no chance to launch a box office hit, so they concentrate on quality and hope they’re recognized come awards season.
With the exception of No. 1-rated “Toy Story 3," Rotten Tomatoes' top five list is all about indies, including "Restrepo," "Exit Through the Gift Shop," "The Kids Are All Right" and "Winter’s Bone." All will likely make waves at the Independent Spirit Awards, but will Oscar come calling? Since last year's expansion to 10 best picture nominees, the chances are certainly brighter for a smaller film to make waves than it was only a few years ago.
Of the leading indie films, "The Kids Are All Right," starring Annette Bening and Julianne Moore as a lesbian couple and Mark Ruffalo as their sperm donor, has perhaps the best shot at an Oscar nomination. The film, which came out in late July, is the best-known of the non-"Toy Story" offerings on Rotten Tomatoes' top five list.
The date of release as well as current events and politics can affect which films are nominated. A year ago, Paramount decided it couldn’t afford an Oscar campaign for Martin Scorsese’s "Shutter Island" and pushed it back until February. While the box office was a solid $127 million, chances are voters aren’t going to remember it later on this year when marking their ballots.
The case is likely the same for Roman Polanski’s "The Ghost Writer," which received many favorable reviews. Despite that, politics will very likely play a part in the film's consideration. Even left-leaning Hollywood might not want to be seen praising Polanski, who nearly had to come back to the U.S. to face charges of having sex with a 13-year-old girl in 1977.
It's a tough year so far
“I would say that this has certainly not been a banner year so far for (studio) movies to make that long leap from pre-fall release to award-season consideration,” said Los Angeles Times film critic Robert Abele. “Even the early 2010 releases of films by Scorsese and Polanski — who got solid notices and even in Scorsese’s case, good box office — probably won’t last in voters’ minds once the prestige onslaught hits.”
Animated films have been making impressions for years, though they often get segregated in the animation category. Last year, when Oscar branched out its best pictures nominees to 10, animated "Up" made the cut. Despite the proven box office power and filmmaking skills of Pixar, it was the first film of theirs to be nominated for best picture. The only other toon to be nominated for best picture was Disney’s 1991 gem "Beauty and the Beast."
Will the Academy get 'Inception'?
As for other awards possibilities, "Inception" is clearly the thinking man’s movie and has a devout fan base. Like "Toy Story 3, director Chris Nolan’s dream-stealing thriller is an example of when high-quality moviemaking meets wide commercial appeal. Sure, sci-fi flicks often have a hard time gaining any kind of awards traction, but last year's "District 9" received four Oscar nominations, including best picture.
The bigger question, however, is how mind-bending "Inception" will play with older Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences members. There have been some reports that some Academy voters had a difficult time deciphering the complicated plot and left theaters scratching their heads. It remains to be seen how that might affect the film’s chance for a nomination.
“Definitely count ‘Inception’ and ‘The Kids Are All Right’ as contenders,” Abele said. “Factor in that many thought (Nolan's) ‘The Dark Knight’ should have gotten a best picture nomination, plus “Inception’s” status as a non-sequel, non-comic book-inspired summer hit with smarts, and it looks good for Nolan. As for ‘Kids,’ it’s a huge critical hit, and it’s got a handful of Oscar-worthy performances from established names, so its chances of being remembered are good, too.”
But now that September is quickly approaching and films for the Toronto Film Festival — the annual launching point for awards season — are about to unspool, the real Oscar contenders are lining up to make their cases.
One film already making waves is “The Social Network,” director David Fincher's look at the creation of Facebook, due out Oct. 1. Based on a book by Ben Mezrich and adapted by one of television’s finest writers, “The West Wing’s” Aaron Sorkin, the movie will take a wildly popular subject matter and should give it Fincher's own idealized spin. It's trailer is already one of the most talked-about of the fall.
And then there’s the Coen brothers. Having won a few years back with “No Country for Old Men,” the filmmakers are re-creating the 1969 John Wayne movie “True Grit.” With Jeff Bridges in the Wayne role, and Matt Damon and Josh Brolin co-starring, this one will certainly create plenty of awards chatter. It's due out on Christmas Day.
But no bigger Hollywood icon than Clint Eastwood could also make his presence known if his thriller “Hereafter” — written by two-time nominee Peter Morgan — catches on with critics and audiences. The Eastwood-directed film, which tells three parallel stories about death, is scheduled to hit theaters Oct. 22.
No matter the season, have no fear that there will be a slew of worthy Oscar nominees by the time the holidays arrive. If Oscar teaches us anything, it's that great movies often sneak up on us, arriving during the most unexpected times.