Kick-starting the Oscar Season

The first two weeks of December officially kick off Hollywood’s long and sometimes unpredictable awards season. As always it was the National Board of Review (NBR) which first released its list of the best in films of the year and it definitely threw in major surprises. To begin with, it actually named Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire as its Best Picture of the year. In a year that is expected to be dominated by big budget, big director, studio backed films; their choice does raise a few eyebrows. In its list of the top ten films of the year, it also named other major surprises like the Coen Brothers’ Burn after Reading and Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight.

Some early critics’ favorite like Clint Eastwood’s Changeling and David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button were included but others including the perceived critics’ darling Revolutionary Road, director Sam Mendes’ big ticket return after American Beauty and The Reader by Stephen “The Hours” Daldry were excluded. Almost surprising as it may seem is the inclusion of Eastwood’s other film Gran Torino, which also won the director-actor a surprise Best Actor trophy. So is Slumdog Millionaire going to be the dark horse in a race expected to be dominated by the biggies? In fact, the NBR gives a lot of space and attention to small- budget independent films that definitely are non-starters where the Oscars are concerned. Films like Defiance and Frost/Nixon are definitely not that would appeal to the Oscar voters or even to many Critics circles, many of whose awards and nominations will be handed out in the coming weeks.

However, the list of surprises does not end here. Anne Hathaway was named Best Actress for her turn as a drug rehab who returns home after 10 years for her sister’s wedding in Jonathan Demme’s Rachel Getting Married. She trounced bookmakers favorites Angelina Jolie (Changeling), perennial Oscar favorite Kate Winslet (Revolutionary Road and The Reader), Oscar veteran Meryl Streep (Doubt) and Oscar nominee Julianne Moore (Blindness). The other surprise was Heath Ledger not being given the Best Supporting Actor prize for The Dark Knight. The award was given to Josh Brolin for Milk. The other big and unexpected winners include Penelope Cruz (Best Supporting Actress) for Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Nick Schenk (Best Original Screenplay) for Gran Torino and the Kazakhstan film Mongol (Best Foreign Language Film) by director Sergei Bodrov, which was nominated for an Academy Award this year. Some of the more orthodox and conventionally expected winners were director David Fincher (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button), documentary Man on Wire, animated classic Wall-E and adapted screenplay for Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire), along with Eric Roth for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. But the confusion among moviegoers and critics came out openly when within a few hours the Washington D. C. Film Critics named their choices of the best in the year. Here Slumdog Millionaire won four top prizes including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay. The evergreen Meryl Streep won Best Actress for her turn as the Principal of a Catholic School who confronts a popular priest on suspicion of abusing a black student in Doubt. She was joined by Mickey Rourke who won a shocking Best Actor trophy for The Wrestler. Other winners were Heath Ledger (The Dark Knight), in his first major trophy in what is expected to be a rich awards season, Rosemarie DeWitt (Best Supporting Actress for Rachel Getting Married), Wall-E (Animated Picture) and Jenny Lumet (Best Original Screenplay for Rachel Getting Married). It may be interesting to note that Doubt, by director John Patrick Stanley was given the prize for the Best Ensemble Cast by both the groups.
For many, it may also be interesting to also see that Indian origin actor Dev Patel was rewarded for his Breakthrough Performance in Slumdog Millionaire by both groups. Even though critics’ awards flag off the Oscar season, many of the critics’ top choices tend to lose steam by the time the Oscar voter’s vote in February. Many of the films also would be affected by publicity and lobbying that generally accompanies most Oscar choices by big studios and artists. Also making a difference would be the choices of the various Guilds who generally influence many Oscar voters. Another factor which may have influenced these early choices is that most of the bookies’ favorite, films like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Revolutionary Road and The Reader have not released commercially yet. So, many critics have not seen these movies. The various critics’ awards are seen as precursors to the Oscars, but the real race starts when the Hollywood Press Association releases their nominations for the Golden Globes later this month. This along with the more influential and high profile critics’ circles give away their prizes later and that will determine which films and performances have the real buzz going into the grand finale in the Kodak Theatre. But, then again, let us not forget that Oscars have continuously thrown up major surprises. Remember Marion Cotillard’s upset win over Julie Christie last year or Crash shocking Brokeback Mountain some years back?

But for now it seems Slumdog Millionaire is poised to become the critics’ darling this year along with The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Both were also richly placed in the Broadcast Film Critics’ Association (BFCA) awards nominations announced yesterday, with 8 and 6 nominations each respectively. Milk, director Gus Van Sant’s drama about Harvey Milk, the gay member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors who was murdered 30 years ago, was a surprise winner with 8 nominations including that for Best Picture, Actor for Sean Penn, Supporting Actor for James Franco and Josh Brolin, Acting Ensemble, Director, Writer for Dustin Lance Black and Composer for Danny Elfman. The other Best Picture nominations include Changeling, Frost/Nixon, Doubt, The Dark Knight, The Reader and Wall-E. This year is one of those years that see a lot of brilliant films but no runaway winner. The BFCA nominee list is almost a testimony of this. As many as six actors have been nominated for the Best Actor and Actress categories each. These include early favorites like Meryl Streep (Doubt), Cate Blanchett (Button), Angelina Jolie (Changeling), Sean Penn (Milk) and Clint Eastwood (Gran Torino) as well as some surprise inclusions like Frank Langella (Frost/Nixon), Melissa Leo (Frozen River), Kate Beckinsale (Nothing But The Truth) and Richard Jenkins (The Visitor). The director nominations have besides Sant, Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire), David Fincher (Button), Ron Howard (Frost/Nixon) and Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight). However, within hours, the Los Angeles Critics’ Association (LAFCA) named Wall-E as their Best Picture followed by The Dark Knight. They were also very impressed with the indie-flick Happy-Go-Lucky which they handsomely rewarded including a Best Actress nod for Sally Hawkins. The big winner in the NBR and DC Critics’ awards Slumdog Millionaire could only win the Best Director and Best Music/Score for A. R. Rahman. The almost utter confusion among critics’ have made this Oscar race very interesting and even though its still very early in the race, I predict it is going to be a very exciting and bumpy ride to the Oscars and the big night may just turn in some huge surprises. These awards have just started a race which may well see the rise of the small budget, independent film against the big studio films which may well become something like the eighties when studios were steamrolled by the small and independent films and film-makers who protested against the rampant corruption and politics in and among the big studios and the ‘great Hollywood star system’. This may also be a season when many emotional and personal sympathies decide many categories. Heath Ledger’s iconic performance along with his tragic death may well influence many voters. Kate Winslet and Leonardo Di Caprio have been nominated multiple times and are widely regarded as benchmark actors in this generation, but have never won. Can this be their year? Will they influence Oscar voters to finally give them the top prize they undoubtedly deserve? Or will Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood score emotional triumphs (Streep has won only twice in 15 nominations and her last was in 1984, Eastwood has never won an acting Oscar) among Academy voters who have immense respect for these two veterans. Or will Blanchett win her long overdue Best Actress trophy. Or can it be someone like Frank Langella, an industry veteran who has never won an Oscar steal an emotional trophy. Well the Academy is known to award prizes where emotion and personal charisma and ‘long overdue’ feeling was strong. Most Oscar watchers cite Martin Scorcese’s win in 2006 for The Departed and that of LOTR: The Return of the King as examples. So in this year when the competition is so close and there is no outright winner, external factors such as this may well rule the choices of many Academy voters. But till then is the long process of deciding on the nominees, which should clear the air on many presumptions and nominations. But then, as of now, the race for the golden boy has just begun…
Anupam Dhar
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