Now that the fall season has officially started and Oscar buzz has commenced, Indiewire chief film critic Eric Kohn and senior writer Peter Knegt have decided to jump into the fray. In the following e-mail exchanges, they address several issues. Among them: Has “12 Years a Slave” already secured Best Picture before its release date? Can anything beat “20 Feet From Stardom” in the documentary category? And what, if any, surprises are in store? Most importantly, why should anyone care? Read on and decide for yourself.
ERIC KOHN: When it comes to Oscar chatter, I can never tell if it’s never too late or always too soon. As a critic, I’m predisposed to thinking that it’s just not worth the effort. The whole apparatus — or so the conventional thinking goes — has been rigged to favor productions with the most marketing dollars thrown behind them.
So far, it looks like the hype machine is being driven by Rupert Murdoch’s bank account, as Fox Searchlight hopeful “12 Years a Slave” has gathered enough deafening buzz to suggest that it has already secured its Best Picture win. Let the deep sighs commence.
My cynicism comes from a sincere place: I’m definitely keyed into the usual crotchety/hip-to-the-underground mentality about this whole dog and pony show. If I had my way, the Best Picture field would center on a close call between “Computer Chess,” “Upstream Color,” “Spring Breakers” and Dan Sallitt’s “The Unspeakable Act,” all 2013 theatrical releases that under no conditions will make their way into the real Best Picture race. And maybe “Before Midnight,” by contrast a popular favorite, could dominate the lesser categories.
OK, so that’s a bit extreme. Here’s the reality: I love “12 Years a Slave,” think that it’s the apex of director Steve McQueen’s career and unquestionably the best movie about slavery ever made. It’s also the rare situation where a movie made by an out-and-out formalist who uses a cinephile-friendly bag of tricks like long takes and complex sound design has the potential to leave an emotional dent on pretty much everybody. Chiwetel Ejiofor’s performance is some next level stuff. I’m thrilled about the prospects of this movie going all the way to the Kodak Theater and cleaning up in a couple months.
And among the current candidates that have screened publicly and are considered serious frontrunners, I’m definitely behind this one more than anything else. “Gravity” is a great ride and a major technological accomplishment, but even so, its gadgetry seems relatively facile when compared with the fusion of art and ideas on display in “12 Years a Slave.” I saw McQueen’s movie at Telluride and willingly contributed to that aforementioned hype machine because, dammit, how often does this race really involve movies you love more than anything else out there? I mean, I thought “Argo” was fine, “Lincoln” was okay, but there’s something to be said for movies made with greater ambition than pure entertainment value or an adherence to classical modes of storytelling, really unique stuff that actually breaks through the dense crap surrounding this industry and manages to dominate it — even it only gets there for a brief moment.
To wit: If the Oscar buzz was centering around “Rush” more than “12 Years a Slave,” I’d be reticent to embrace this year’s race. “Rush” is one of those not-bad but pretty conventional biopics that could get tiresome as a talking point over the next few months. “12 Years a Slave” deserves a prolonged role in the spotlight. It might even be revelatory.
So what do you think? Am I jumping the shark like all the other lemmings churning out awards season content or is there something to be said for the ridiculous volume of Oscar hype being heaped on this movie right now? Could those anticipated fall season movies yet to screen for critics and audiences — “Saving Mr. Banks,” “Foxcatcher,” “Her,” “The Wolf of Wall Street” and “American Hustle” chief among them — really shake things up, or have we arrived at the rare situation where the game is done and over with before it even revs up its engine? Set me straight.
PETER KNEGT: If you’re jumping the shark, you’re not alone. I also enter the six month madness awards season with a lot of cynicism. Maybe if it had the time frame of an actual season it’d be easier for me to keep the necessary mentality that it’s all just a game that’s really fun to watch. But I tend to fall in and out of that, particularly when the season is led by films I’m not particularly enthusiastic about (“King’s Speech,” “The Artist” and “Argo” have made this the case three years in a row). So that’s why it’s so, so refreshing to have a (current) frontrunner that I’d probably vote for myself.
I was totally bowled over by “12 Years a Slave” and it looks to me like the rare case where a sentimental or politically-motivated vote will go toward a film that, you know, actually deserves it. There is clearly a lot of time to left and a lot of films to see, but it’s hard to deny the narrative this year of decent (“Lee Daniels’ The Butler”) to good (“Fruitvale Station”) to downright brilliant (“12 Years a Slave”) films with important black stories being directed by actual black filmmakers. Which I say only because so many times over the years, films with major black characters have been huge Oscar contenders (“Driving Miss Daisy” and “Crash” being the obvious two), but they were representationally problematic ones directed by white dudes. If this is the year of the black filmmaker, Steve McQueen is a remarkable one — who is wholly deserving of what’s about to come his way.
Or not. Saying anything will win Best Picture before September is over is a disservice to anyone who cares about this kind of stuff and to the film itself (it’s always helpful to be an underdog at the beginning). And besides the dozen or so films we haven’t seen yet, there’s plenty for “12 Years” to contend with that has already screened, especially “Gravity” — and, to lesser extents, “Inside Llewyn Davis” and “Captain Phillips.” I’ll happily wager that all four of them will be Best Picture nominees. It’s a pretty impressive quartet: McQueen, Alfonso Cuarón, the Coens and Paul Greengrass. A Best Picture race even critics can approve of! Or maybe I should be ending that sentence for you with a question mark.
EK: No, you’re right to be emphatic: We have legitimate reasons to be enthusiastic about this round. On paper, however, it doesn’t sound like anything new. What’s interesting about almost all of the contenders you mentioned — with the exception of “Gravity,” of course — is that they’re either inspired or based on true stories. That might end up being even more of a trend for the fall season crop than the proverbial “survival narratives” theme that has already been highlighted numerous times. I do have to wonder if movies like “Fruitvale Station” and “Captain Phillips,” both effectively made but not on the same caliber of filmmaking as some of the other contenders, would even enter into this discussion if they didn’t have some sort of non-fiction basis. When a story is real, it commands a certain importance in the national conversation, which is why it’s sort of ironic that in the actual non-fiction Oscar category — the documentary section, of course — it’s starting to look it won’t be the biggest issue-driven movie that takes home the prize.
Last year, the enjoyable music-mystery doc “Searching for Sugar Man” triumphed over weightier movies like “How to Survive a Plague” and “5 Broken Cameras” — which, by the way, featured much more powerful, effective filmmaking to fit their content. This year is looking like a rerun, with another crowdpleasing music doc, “20 Feet From Stardom,” poised to beat out a stunning achievement of non-fiction storytelling like “The Act of Killing.” Joshua Oppenheimer’s unorthodox approach to unraveling the evils behind the Indonesian genocide is an unparalleled accomplishment that assails viewers with its up close look at retired gangsters boasting of their exploits. Is the truth just too much for the Academy? Or, conversely, now that the entire branch can vote in this category, might the masses see the light and realize that a simple, fun movie isn’t as deserving as a major one? In some ways, this category invites a lot more speculation than its bigger brethren. What say you?
PK: The rule change happened for the first time last year, though it wasn’t changed until January so most campaigns were unaware of it until the final stretch. This year they’ll be aware from the get-go, and I suspect that’ll make it even easier for more mainstream, crowdpleasers (like “Sugar Man” was last year) to take this category. “20 Feet From Stardom” is certainly the 2013 answer to “Sugar Man,” so it’s definitely the frontrunner. However, “Stories We Tell,” “Blackfish,” “Tim’s Vermeer,” “After Tiller” and, yes, “Act of Killing” will definitely have their share of passionate supporters. I think this could be a very interesting year for that category — Sarah Polley versus Penn & Teller? — though it seems likely that the more challenging films are going to have a tough time going for the win.
But yes, it definitely appears that films inspired or based on true stories will dominate this year. That’s pretty much commonplace (two of the last three Best Picture winners have fallen into this category), but this year it’s even more so than usual. My current predictions for best picture have nine films that are at least loosely based on true stories, and just one that isn’t. The latter of which is, yep, “Gravity.” Which might bode well for it since it could stand out being the lone exception to the rule.
EK: I know I said it wasn’t my favorite of the crop, but that’s mainly because of “12 Years.” Look, if a special effects action-adventure that’s also a charming, thoughtful two-hander beats out the current favorite, well, there are worse things that can happen (let’s not contemplate them quite yet). I’d love to see “Gravity” keep its momentum going because it’s such an unorthodox spin on the blockbuster formula, and the jittery, sensorial experience it offers up might be the closest that a lot of viewer come to enduring the effects of abstract experimental cinema. That is a significant achievement.
But in spite of our enthusiasm, there’s not a whole lot that’s experimental about this year’s race. As you pointed out, the doc rule change took place last year. The Best Picture field expanded to a maximum of 10 candidates several years earlier. And all the major candidates for Best Picture are studio movies with stars — lest we forget, Brad Pitt was instrumental in bringing “12 Years a Slave” to fruition. So let’s end this conversation with a cliffhanger: If so much is certain early on and several aspects of the race remain unchanged from previous editions, where can we look for surprises? My guess is that you’re going to bring up the Best Actress race, but like everything we’re talking about here, that’s just a hunch.
PK: You got me! Yeah, right now the category I’m most fascinated by this year is best actress. It’s not even October and there are four performances that seem like almost sure-things: Meryl Streep in “August: Osage County,” Cate Blanchett in “Blue Jasmine,” Judi Dench in “Philomena” and — coming back to “Gravity” — Sandra Bullock. I’m heading into serious Oscar nerd territory, but the fascinating thing is not only that all four of them have already won, but that most of the women most likely to join them have already won, too: Julia Roberts (also for “August”), Kate Winslet (“Labor Day”), Emma Thompson (“Saving Mr. Banks”) and Nicole Kidman (“Grace of Monaco”). Last year, the Best Supporting Actor race offered a first time situation where every single nominee had already won, and it seems like we could be heading there again.
That could result in a showdown battle of some of the greatest living actresses. My hunch, however, is that Amy Adams — who has been nominated four times for supporting actress but never won (or been nominated for lead) blows us all away in “American Hustle” at the last minute and wins. But then again, has the lead actress Oscar ever been won two years in a row for two different films directed by the same person (in this case, David O. Russell)? It could be a feast of fun firsts for Oscar nerds this year!