by Jim Keller
Believe it or not, half of the year is behind us. We’ve shed off the colder months, segued into a more moderate climate (some may say unseasonably moderate) and have settled into summer heat. In New York, summer can all but suffocate us in humidity and by the time fall hits, we’re gasping for that first breath of fresh air. It’s also when we can look back at the first half of the year’s film offerings to try and nail down some potential Oscar contenders. By this time last year, we knew Christopher Plummer would more than likely land a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his work in Beginners; Melissa McCarthy’s Oscar-nominated Bridesmaids performance hit like thunder; and we had our first bona fide Best Picture contender in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. But what we didn’t know was that one fateful engine that could, The Help, would establish its place in the Awards race as a serious contender for numerous acting honors as well as Best Picture. So let’s have a look at those films with looming possibilities, the films that have carried us through the first half of the year—the films that just might find enough support to push them into contention.
BEST ANIMATED FEATURE: The Secret World of Arrietty (director: Hiromasa Yonebayashi) U.S. Release: January 21, 2012
FYC: In this Japanimation adaptation of Mary Norton’s famed book, The Borrowers—a children’s book that examines our world from a tiny perspective—comes to life in part, thanks to Hayao Miyazaki’s screenplay. Norton’s characters are imbued with just enough charm and whimsy to avoid saccharine overload as we’re taken along with the ever-curious, rebellious teen, Arrietty Clock (Amy Poehler), as she ventures out from beneath the floor boards into the life of sickly “human bean,” Shawn (David Henrie). Miyazaki’s body of work, which includes his 2003 Best Animated Feature winner, Spirited Away, and 2001’s nominated Howl’s Moving Castle, is comprised of traditional animation that focuses on natural human movements and is often done in watercolors. It’s through this tried and true method that his work stands on its own in a sea of animators clamoring to be the next big thing—often dialing up their process to a futuristic or hypersensitive outcome that risks losing the human experience. Given that Yonebayashi is a long-time collaborator, it stands to reason that his work may follow in Miyazaki’s footsteps and that his premiere outing as a director might see similar critical acclaim.
BEST ACTOR: Liam Neeson (The Grey, directed by Joe Carnahan) U.S. Release: January 27, 2012
FYC: Following a plane crash in Alaska, six oil workers led by a skilled huntsman (Liam Neeson) are unceremoniously hunted by a pack of wolves as they fight to stay alive in the wilderness. Given the subject matter, you might be hard-pressed to find a reason to support the accolades Neeson has received for his performance in the film. But, through his portrayal of Ottway, Neeson marries the tough exterior of a hardened man with the gentle soul of tender heart, which makes him a formidably accessible hero. When you are able to relate your own experience of the world through the eyes of another, a bond is made. The question is, will that bond be strong enough to push Neeson into Academy Awards contention? Of course not, but we’re talking about a man, on the edge of 60, who was nominated for Best Actor in 1993 for Schindler’s List and who has built a career around being the go-to Irish actor for action-packed thrillers (see Batman Begins, Taken, and Unknown, among others.) Further, according to screenrant.com, Open Road studios will re-release the film in October to remind the Academy of Neeson’s performance.
BEST ACTRESS: Jennifer Lawrence (The Hunger Games, directed by Gary Ross) U.S. Release: March 23, 2012
FYC: Based on Suzanne Collins’ book of the same title, Jennifer Lawrence is Katniss Everdeen: a lone wolf plucked from the periphery to represent her district in a Battle Royale-style televised death match in a future world where the Capitol has absolute power over its citizens. In this role, Lawrence creates something beautiful in her character’s terror, a feat not easily achieved. Ultimately, Everdeen’s bravery wins out over her fear and her heart, enabling us to see what this scrappy, intelligent young woman is capable of. Standing in the midst of a $650 million (and rising) global box office grab is nothing to sneeze at. Take this and consider Lawrence’s 2010 Best Actress nomination for Winter’s Bone and you can see why she’s on many critics’ lists at this early stage. Yet, it’s important to realize that being at the top at the six-month mark requires a long and steady march through the latter half—one dotted with performances in films which all but aim for Academy attention. Still, Lawrence has done this march for Winter’s Bone and that didn’t stop her, or the film, which also reaped Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay nominations as well as a Best Supporting Actor nomination for John Hawkes.
BEST ACTRESS: Rachel Weisz (The Deep Blue Sea, directed by Terence Davies) U.S. Release: March 23, 2012
FYC: Set in the 1950s, the film version of Terrence Rattigan’s play tells the story of Hester Collyer (Rachel Weisz), the younger wife of High Court judge Sir William Collyer (Simon Russell Beale). Hester has a passionate affair with Freddie Page (Tom Hiddleston), a former Royal Air Force pilot troubled by war memories, who longs for the fear and excitement of his past life. Since its inception at the Toronto Film Festival last fall, Weisz has enjoyed a steady wave of acclaim for her performance from cheery critics such as those at The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times, while the film itself was nominated that year for Best Film by the London Film Festival. In 2006, Weisz surprised many with her Best Supporting Actress win for The Constant Gardener—a role that helped put her on the map as a serious actress and that led her to roles such as that in the acclaimed film The Whistleblower, which many critics thought she deserved a nomination for. If The Deep Blue Sea can manage to stay in the Academy’s consciousness, she may have a shot, but she’ll need the PR power of her studio to pull it off.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Charlize Theron (Snow White and the Huntsman, directed by Rupert Sanders) U.S. Release: June 1, 2012
FYC: It seems genre films are the trend for the first half of the year and I’ve already noted two performances from separate films that may have a chance come Oscar time (The Grey and The Hunger Games). Enter the third. To be sure, Snow White and the Huntsman is a genre film, as a twist to the famed fairy tale. In this adaptation, the Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth) is enlisted to lure Snow White (Kristen Stewart) into the woods to be killed, but becomes her protector and mentor in a quest to vanquish the evil queen, Ravenna (Charlize Theron). And what an evil queen she is! In the history of evil queens, I can’t recall a portrayal that so exactly encapsulates the beauty, ruthlessness, and cruelty most evil queens perpetuate. While several have captured the basics, Theron has proven a deep character understanding, through which her Ravenna becomes a living, breathing being instead of an on-screen caricature. Despite a Best Actress win for Monster in 2004 and having been nominated again for the same honor in 2006 for North Country, she will have a tough climb to Oscar this time around, as the cards seem stacked against her. For one, there has not been a precedent set for rewarding female villains in genre films geared towards a younger audience. Second, whether anyone cares to admit it or not, Oscar is a political beast and in most cases, acting honors are generally plucked from films with high box-office returns. Finally, given the first two circumstances, the film and Theron’s performance will need a landslide of support from critics, which doesn’t seem to be the case at this stage. Of course, when it comes to Oscar, anything is possible.
BEST ANIMATED FEATURE: Brave (directors: Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman, Steve Purcell) U.S. Release: June 22, 2012
FYC: Speaking of non-existing precedents, have you heard about Disney and Pixar’s latest collaboration, Brave? It’s an animated feature that breaks all the rules as it boasts the first ever female heroine in a Disney film. A wretched curse plagues headstrong Princess Merida (Kelly MacDonald), who must rely on bravery and archery skills to undo it amidst chaos that resulted when she defied an age-old kingdom custom. Unlike Yonebayashi’s work, Pixar Animation Studios has made a name for itself by speaking to the masses and delivering the shiniest, newest toys from its toolkit. For its premiere collaboration with Disney, toys are exactly what they delivered with 1996’s Special Achievement Award winner, Toy Story. The film relied on top of the line animation techniques, the likes of which hadn’t been seen before—the result was astounding. By delivering a new form of animation, the collaborators sent a shockwave through the animation field and forever changed the game. This latest outing suggests more of the same as the trailer delivers more of the finite detail within computer generated animation we have come to expect from the studios. While not organic in the least, the animation created by the two powerhouses is virtually unstoppable. With two very successful sequels to Toy Story created over the course of fifteen years, as well as a steady stream of other films including, among countless others, Monsters, Inc. (Best Animated Feature in 2002), Finding Nemo (Best Animated Feature in 2004), Wall-E (Best Animated Feature in 2008) and Up!, which was nominated for Best Picture and won Best Animated Feature in 2010. The same awards were bestowed upon Toy Story 3. Given the acclaim and honors Disney/Pixar films have enjoyed over the years, it seems that a Best Animated Feature nomination shouldn’t be hard to come by for Brave. However, the very idea of the film being led by a female heroine has the public split. Much like Obama’s election was an American first in 2008, the public will have to decide if it’s ready to receive an animated, female heroine.
BEST PICTURE: Beasts of the Southern Wild (director: Benh Zeitlin) U.S. Release: June 27, 2012
FYC: Following hot on the heels of a Grand Jury Prize win at Sundance, Benh Zeitlin’s premiere feature film also took home the Camera d’Or in the Un Certain Regard category at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, making it the lone Best Picture contender derived from the festival circuit so far this year. The film follows Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), a six-year-old girl who leaves her Delta-community home to seek out her mother while her father lays ill and environmental changes release an army of prehistoric creatures called aurochs. Largely thought of as an allegory for Hurricane Katrina, the film seems to be sweeping over film festivals, obliterating everything in its path—much like its hinted point of origin. This can almost certainly be attributed in part to Wallis’ stunning performance that has already been put on many critics’ Best Actress watch lists. In addition, the film finds strength from Dwight Henry, who portrays Hushpuppy’s father, Wink, and who, like Wallis, is a first-time actor. Beasts has managed to build momentum nearly five months after its Sundance inception, which is certainly a good sign for the film as we head into Oscar.
Among other noteworthy pieces of film this year: Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, which bowed at Cannes and has received mostly positive critical reviews, John Madden’s The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, and performances by Linda Cardellini and Michael Fassbender in Return and Prometheus, respectively.
As we all know, when it comes to Oscar, all bets are off, but a dig through the year’s first half of offerings can help us narrow the scope a bit as we toss them into the Oscar funnel and see what comes out the other end.