Editor's note: Critical Consensus is a biweekly feature in which two 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).
ERIC KOHN: The last time we hashed out the emerging candidates for this year's Oscar season, we were really focused on "Life of Pi" and "Argo" as the major frontrunners. Since then, I've gotten the sense that a lot of other serious candidates have emerged. I suppose this time we'll have to pick through them carefully without coming to any hard conclusions. I have to say, now that the U.S. presidential race has come to a conclusion, it's nice to dig into predictions that matter a whole lot less in the grand scheme of things.
As much as I'd love to see movies worthy of wide acclaim win big in February, solidifying their potential to reach audiences and furthering the careers of the people involved, it's unlikely that a lot of the movies bound to wind up on my top 10 list next month have a shot in hell. (A world where "Holy Motors" and Jafar Panahi's "This Is Not a Film" were vying for Best Picture would probably be populated by unicorns and wizards.)
Of course, that doesn't mean there aren't movies with Oscar potential that may have already been pushed to the sidelines this year. I'd like to single out one of them opening this week: Joe Wright's "Anna Karenina." When I saw this lavish costume drama at the Toronto International Film Festival, I expected a mopey period piece with little to offer beyond the expected turmoil of Leo Tolstoy's classic. That superficial assumption ignored Wright's capacity as a visual stylist to inject the material with a greater amount of energy -- both in terms of the images and the way they flow together.
"While I hesitate to say the movie works as a whole, I would argue that it works as an Oscar movie."
Almost exclusively shot on a single sound stage, Wright's treatment of the material nimbly rejuvenates the familiar story of the titular Russian socialite (Keira Knightley, theatrical to the point where she blends in with the art direction) by veering in and out of a conventional narrative approach. Wright's extraordinary long takes draw you into the universe of "Anna Karenina" with a seamless approach that a straightforward literary adaptation could never accomplish. It's a truly cinematic achievement, more attentive to mood than plot, that holds together even when the fundamental story ingredients stagger toward the inevitable tragedy of the concluding act.
While I hesitate to say the movie works as a whole, I would argue that it works as an Oscar movie: It's a pricey, impressive and mature treatment of a long-respected classic (with stars, no less), yet I haven't read anyone who has singled it out as a significant Best Picture contender. What gives? Could "Anna Karenina" land the prominent slot that usually goes to a big period drama in a year without "Lincoln" or "Les Misérables"? Or am I missing some key ingredient that has already relegated "Anna Karenina" to a lower plane? Set me straight.
READ MORE: Criticwire Reactions to 'Anna Karenina'
PETER KNEGT: So far, the narrative of "Anna Karenina" has been a strange one. For what felt like only a few days surrounding its screenings at the Toronto Film Festival, "Karenina" seemed like a viable contender of sorts, at least for stars Keira Knightley and Alicia Vikander as well as its production and costume design. But then the box office in its native UK was underwhelming, and it didn't have too many other high profile festival screenings, so it sort of dropped off the map. Which isn't always a bad thing. Sometimes, it's hard to sustain buzz from September onwards (ask the folks behind "The Master"), and disappearing off the map quickly only to reappear upon release a few months later can be an easier way to go about it.
"The British are collectively a powerful voting bloc."
Joe Wright's "Atonement" actually had something of a similar path half a decade ago, reemerging as a contender at the last minute after being all but written off by Oscar pundits (though admittedly never to extent "Anna" has been). But I don't if that's necessarily what's going to happen to "Anna." I actually quite liked the film for similar reasons you did, but reviews overall are far weaker than "Atonement," and the Brits don't seem anywhere near as behind it as they were for "Atonement" or for Wright's "Pride and Prejudice," his only two films to manage significant Oscar nods.
The British are collectively a powerful voting bloc, but it seems like Tom Hooper's upcoming "Les Miserables" (a UK production) might be the one they really throw themselves behind. Then again, we haven't seen that film yet, so maybe if it crashes and burns -- although judging from early word, it won't -- "Anna" can take back some homegrown support. But my guess is that it just gets production and costume design nods, and that's that. It has serious competition: Thanks to The Weinstein Company's decision to move up the release date of "Silver Linings Playbook" by one week, "Anna" is opening opposite a film that will absolutely manage major Oscar nominations.