Editor's note: Critical Consensus is a biweekly feature in which critics from Indiewire’s Criticwire network discuss new releases with Indiewire’s chief film critic, Eric Kohn. In this installment, Kohn trades e-mails with Indiewire senior editor and resident Oscar prognosticator Peter Knegt (their previous conversation is here).
EK: Well, Peter, we're less than a month from the Oscars, which ordinarily means we've exhausted the subject. But this season has continued to surprise us…I think. With the recent PGA and SAG triumphs for "Argo," Ben Affleck's crowdpleasing espionage tale has once again jumped to the top of many prognosticators' lists after slipping several months ago. To your credit, you never gave up on "Argo" back when people like me assumed that the crowded fall movie season would drown it out. That was almost true: "Argo" isn't a frontrunner in any category except Best Picture. Many other movies have been heralded for the quality of their performances (who doesn't marvel at that Quevanzane-Emmanuelle-Jessica-Jennifer quartet) and the caliber of their direction (from "Lincoln" to "Beasts of the Southern Wild," the directing nominees have enough dazzling visual language to make "Argo" look like a comparatively small screen endeavor). "Zero Dark" was thought to be the smarter movie about American intelligence. Even Quentin Tarantino delivered a grander statement on American history. "Life of Pi" aimed for the cosmic. So it appeared "Argo" just couldn't compete…but it turns out the opposite was true.
What do you think happened here? Did "Argo" actually lose — and then regain — its prominence in awards season? Or has it maintained a frontrunner status that was previously obscured by an unusually dense fall release slate? Or have we been missing crucial pieces in the equation all along and "Beasts" is about to sweep everything? If that happens, I assume Robert Redford will leap onto the stage and accept each award on behalf of the Sundance Institute.
PK: It's definitely turned into a bizarro version of awards season this year. I think "Argo" actually lost and regained prominence a few times over now, as did "Lincoln," "Silver Linings," "Life of Pi" and "Zero Dark Thirty." There were even a few days when "Les Miserables" seemed poised to sweep.
But yes, "Argo" definitely seems like an unlikely frontrunner now. The lack of a best director nomination for Affleck seems like it may have given the film a sentimental boost that makes it poised to become the first film since "Driving Miss Daisy" to win best picture without that nomination. Or not. There are still over four weeks left. Voting hasn't even started. But if Affleck wins the DGA this weekend, it's going to be hard to predict anything else winning best picture.
And I do think it has one other Oscar to look forward to — best film editing. But you're right, beyond those two it's going to be tough for "Argo" to win much. Even winning best picture and just one other Oscar is rare. The last time a film did so was Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Greatest Show on Earth” in 1952. And the only film to win just best picture was 1932's "Grand Hotel"
Yet this is clearly a year for bucking historical trends, which far more interesting than the opposite situation. It's been nice to come off a little break from the mayhem in the gap between the nominations and the awards. Having the former so early this year let Sundance actually be all about Sundance for once, and now we can easily back into a few more weeks of Oscar chatter.
Speaking of Sundance, we both just got back and between us probably saw most of the buzz films that screened there. Which clearly begs the question that I'll let you answer it first: What was this year's "Beasts of the Southern Wild"? Or was there one?
EK: In one sense, there was no "Beasts" at Sundance this year, but it's not the only sense relevant to this discussion. There was no grand, otherworldly vision from a young filmmaker most people have never heard of before. "Beasts" took the festival — and eventually much more than that — by the storm because it was so unlike anything else that usually receives such wide recognition. But it was still surprising to see just how far that carried the movie — from its commercial success to the numerous Oscar nominations it eventually received. While there's nothing from Sundance 2013 bound to become a phenomena on par with "Beasts," plenty of movies hold far more obvious Oscar potential than it ever did, starting with the Grand Jury Prize winner, "Fruitvale." At 26, director Ryan Coogler is actually younger than "Beasts" director Benh Zeitlin by several years, but "Fruitvale" is a confident debut more readily accessible to a wider audience.
"Fruitvale" is an impeccably crafted tearjerker that dramatizes the series of events in the last day in the life of Oscar Grant, a young man who was trying to get his act together when he was unnecessarily shot by a police officer in the early hours of New Years Day, 2009. Michael B. Jordan, to date barely known by moviegoers for his supporting role in last year's "Chronicle," delivers a deeply felt performance as Oscar; the final scenes are incredibly devastating, as one might expect, and thus far more likely to generate positive reactions from moviegoers than "Beasts" did. Unsurprisingly, Oscar-focused The Weinstein Company picked up "Fruitvale" shortly after its Sundance premiere; expect a big campaign to get this one nominations in every major category. On the one hand, I'd say it faces tough prospects because nobody has heard of most of the talent involved; on the other hand, well, look at "Beasts."
Your turn: What Sundance hits might make their way back into the conversation when awards season heats up again next fall?
PK: I'd say "Before Midnight" is Sundance's awards season MVP. "Fruitvale" definitely will be in the conversation, too, but I feel like "Midnight" is the safest bet overall. Back in 2004, Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke and Richard Linklater got a screenplay nomination for "Before Sunset" and if I can't see why that wouldn't repeat for "Midnight." It's just as good if not better, and the achievement it pulls off — basically culminating the greatest trilogy ever in independent American film (though I guess there's not exactly many other examples) — might help it get a couple other nominations. A best actress nomination for Delpy seems like a reasonable suggestion, and best picture and/or best actor for Hawke aren't hard to imagine either.
Though I'd wager the absolute safest bet is that a couple Sundance docs get nominations in the documentary feature category. Four of this year's five best doc nominees were at Sundance last year and I'd wager "Blood Brothers," "Cutie and the Boxer," "Blackfish," "After Tiller," "The Summit," "Dirty Wars" and "We Steal Secrets" are just a few of the possibilities of making next year's cut.
EK: "Before Midnight" was definitely my highlight of Sundance 2013 — and I'm not alone, as its top placement in our annual critics poll demonstrates. Sony Classics is on a role this year at the Oscars, having landed Michael Haneke's "Amour" a ton of major nominations, from Best Director to Actress and Best Picture. "Amour" is a helluva lot more depressing than "Before Midnight," but both movies are ostensibly about a couple in conversation, so I suppose there's hope for this heady form of cinema maintaining a heightened appeal during awards season. It's almost certainly going to make money and maintain a presence as one of the best reviewed movies of the year. I hope that still counts for something.
But I'm more curious about the tougher propositions: IFC Films picked up "Ain't Them Bodies Saints," David Lowery's beautiful neo-western, and while that distributor rarely released U.S. narratives that play big roles in the Oscar race, this one is just stunningly gorgeous enough to warrant some recognition for stars Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara. At the very least, director of photography Bradford Young has a shot at making his way to the podium. Young won the cinematography award at Sundance this year and also shot the competition entry "Mother of George," a compelling tale of marital unrest among residents of a Nigerian community in Brooklyn. The two movies look incredibly different, but they're both profoundly stirring often because of the visual polish, which frequently renders the emotional turmoil of the characters using clever tricks of light, shadows and focus-pulling expertise. If I had one wish for next year's Oscars to pluck an obscure name out of the 2013 Sundance lineup, I think Young would top the list. What tops yours?
PK: I'd definitely be pleased to see Bradford Young make it into the conversation. Or Affleck or Mara or especially a supporting actor nod for Ben Foster for that matter. "Ain't Them Bodies Saints" was one of my favorite films if the festival, probably second only to "Midnight." But those two films aside, if I had to pick one dream scenario, it would be Dane DeHaan getting a supporting actor nomination for playing Lucien Carr in "Kill Your Darlings." It's an incredible, seductive, sinister performance that in a perfect world would be star-making.
But clearly we are getting ahead of ourselves and the idea of considering next year's race before this one is even over is somewhat nauseating.