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by Eric Kohn
November 24, 2010 6:28 AM
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Due Date: Who Might Win the Awards Season Blitz -- and Who Should

A scene from Tom Hooper's "The King's Speech."

In the opening shot of Sofia Coppola's "Somewhere," jaded actor Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff) drives his expensive car in one circle after another. A slave to the industry that defines his career, Marco's conundrum is established in a provocative visual metaphor -- he's stuck in an endless loop. As the fall awards season heats up, many of the contenders surely can relate.

That's because a lot of them have been here before. David Fincher, a frontrunner in the burgeoning Oscar race for "The Social Network," went through the chaos of self-promotion two years ago during the campaign for "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button." He never had much of shot at winning it, but that never stopped a distributor with pockets deep enough to fund a vain effort. Darren Aronofsky, whose "Black Swan" has dazzled audience after audience on the festival circuit and will continue to do so when it hits theaters next month, never once landed an Oscar nomination -- but he has certainly been subjected to numerous bids for it, particularly with "Requiem for a Dream" and "The Wrestler."

There's something different about these directors' current shots at the gold, however: This year, they both can lay claim to it. Fincher managed to channel Aaron Sorkin's pulpy, hyperactive screenplay for "The Social Network" into a fluid, manageable drama without sacrificing its grandiose themes. Aronofsky combined high art aesthetics with visceral shocks and psychological depth, yielding the biggest crowdpleaser David Cronenberg never made, but could have. I'm willing to accept either movie's triumph over the evident momentum that has been slowly building for "The King's Speech," Tom Hooper's mushy, feel-good period piece that's fine enough on its own terms but hardly worthy of extended recognition. Even "Speech" defenders (and I realize there are plenty) may have a tough time staging an argument for the quality of the filmmaking, which essentially relies on the sizable talents of leading men Geoffrey Rush and Colin Firth to sustain the experience.

More than that, Hooper -- compared to Fincher and Aronofsky, anyway -- is not overdue for any major accolades. And let's face it: The awards season is all about due dates.

Because the Oscars and their ilk mainly champion fall season movies released by distributors large enough to get them out there, awards campaigns adhere to industrial forces much larger than the specific movies in each year's race. As a result, the awards tend to honor the maker more than the movie, sending a message to both the movie business and consumers everywhere: This person belongs here.

Ironically, most of the directors and movies in play have already been established members of the business by the time they get to the point where it validates their work. Kathryn Bigelow's "The Hurt Locker" was a major accomplishment, but it came on the heels of a 25-year filmography. If we accept that awards often serve to recognize filmmakers for more than just their most recent work, the red carpet shenanigans go down easier. So do the mistakes: "The Departed" didn't quite earn its Best Picture/Director domination in 2007, but Martin Scorsese surely did. Neither "Black Swan" nor "The Social Network" will take the number one slot on my top ten list of movies released in 2010, but I wouldn't mind seeing either of them take the podium, because it's about time Aronofsky and Fincher made it up there.

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A scene from Darren Aronofsky’s "Black Swan"
Ten years ago, Fincher had solidified his reputation as a sharp-eyed filmmaker with the capacity to blend skillful formalism with a dark comic sensibility. (In fact, it might have been interesting to see what he could have done with "Black Swan.") He had not, however, managed to cross over from the "hip" category to the realm of "adult" prestige necessary for Oscar season.

Around this same time, Aronofsky had won an Independent Spirit Award for "Pi," and had yet to prove his competence with anything other than a micro-budet. The same went for Christopher Nolan, this year in the running with "Inception." Nolan's "Memento" generated a massive following in 2000 and even landed him a screenplay nomination, but neither the critical favorite "Insomnia" nor the blockbuster smash "The Dark Knight" seemed to convince a large number of Academy voters that Nolan the director possessed a technique behind the camera worthy of the statue. (In fact, Nolan's abilities are all about technique; if there was an Oscar for best pacing, he'd land it each time out.)

Another familiar face from ten years ago, David O. Russell appears to have an outside shot at the Oscar with his Mark Wahlberg vehicle "The Fighter." Russell has been an outspoken Hollywood talent for years. Like Aronofksy, he won an Independent Spirit Award for Best First Feature, although his came back in 1994 for "Spanking the Monkey." By 2000, Russell's "Three Kings" displayed his penchant for blending familiar entertainment with a satiric edge, and the release of "I Heart Huckabees" four years later further solidified this perception. But Russell has since developed a reputation as a tough guy to work with, and his last feature, "Nailed," faces legal issues involving its distributor and may never see the light of day. If "Fighter" works, Russell could finally take his vengeance on all the people seemingly unable to get along with him.

Next week, the Gotham Awards will kick off the season with the first round of indie awards. They add a few intriguing players to the table. I'm not as crazy about "Blue Valentine" as some people, but it's still an accomplished work of art that director Derek Cianfrance infused with passion and intimacy, not to mention a ten-plus year gestation period. (His last feature, "Brother Tied," went to Sundance in 1998 and barely got a theatrical release.) Another nominee, Debra Granik's "Winter's Bone," places the ingredients of a coming-of-age drama into the context of a classic detective story without cheapening its heavy themes. It may very well dominate the evening, and it should.

In fact, all of these contenders deserve more exposure than "The King's Speech." Of course, we're talking about a Miramax release here, which means the campaign will come hard and fast. But people genuinely like it, so the distributor might not even need to play dirty for the movie to reign supreme for the next several months. Still, if "The King's Speech" wins more than anything else out there, at least it has some healthy competition. The awards seasons is a time when everyone wants to wear the same crown, and more than one person deserves it.

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10 Comments

  • Lila | November 30, 2010 3:27 AMReply

    It seems that releasing a movie far away from the oscar ceremony decreases its chances of being considered

  • Jaime | November 26, 2010 4:47 AMReply

    The King's Speech is grossly overrated. The director tok quasi-historic events and "splashed" them in some sequence without adding any human depth. the human depth that is present is the film is provided by the high quality of the actors.

  • Marcia | November 26, 2010 3:31 AMReply

    I think that the article reflects the quality of the candidate movies accurately. Whether other movies deserve to be considered or not is probably material for another article. I encourage Indie to take this as a hint.

  • Tim Schreier | November 26, 2010 2:57 AMReply

    I have seen a lot of picture shows this year, thus far the three standouts are:
    1) Winter's Bone
    2) Never Let Me Go (Cinematography alone could carry this)
    3) A Prophet

    Others I hope will be considered are:
    1) Get Low
    2) The Kids Are All Right (Best Director and Annette Benning for Supporting Actress)
    3) Howl

    I am looking forward to seeing Black Swan and some Coen Brothers' magic with True Grit. If the Facebook movie sweeps (as I am fairly certain it will) I will know that awards are all about hype and marketing... and that is it... But I can hope for what I consider to be my favorites of the year. I also like the Buffalo Bills to win the Super Bowl and the Chicago Cubs for the World Series...

  • Jonathan Dana | November 26, 2010 1:25 AMReply

    Regardless of which movie and/or director wins, and there are legitimate cases to be made for many, I think it is off the mark, and defensive even, to dismiss the quality of the filmmaking in "The King's Speech with the figurative back of one's hand and no real explanation other than its genre and that perhaps that the actors were too good! I think there will be many fine arguments made for the quality of the production and the excellent brew of subtle elements which together contribute to the electric reaction that King's Speech film has spawned across audiences of all types. Worthy of 'extended recognition'? You bet! As is the work of Messrs. Aronofsky and Fincher. But let's not blindly reconfirm the old canard that "feel-good" (alias, "mushy") movies must play on limited terrain by their very nature. That certainly does no service to the other two fine directors or, quite honestly, to any of us. Thanks.

  • dowrite | November 26, 2010 12:59 AMReply

    Fred, it's the Oscars, not the People's Choice Awards. They aren't supposed to reflect the taste of the viewing public (thank goodness in many cases), regardless of whether they actually reflect and reward a talent's "due" status or a good publicity campaign (though the addition of 5 more Best Picture nomination slots appears now to be just for that unstated purpose even though the public doesn't actually vote on them).

  • bwycke | November 25, 2010 9:12 AMReply

    Aronofsky is long overdue...

  • Tom Snyder | November 25, 2010 7:50 AMReply

    I don't agree with anything this guy says. These movies bore me to death; only Nolan seems up to snuff in the list because at least he makes movies for the average moviegoer too. Even then, INCEPTION is not my favorite blockbuster of the year. WINTER'S BONE is at least a movie that the American heartland can recognize for its truth. Once again, the animated movies have a life that none of the live-action things have managed to create, even THE ILLUSIONIST, whose plot I did not care for but which has characters that breathe and live. In the end, for me it comes down to WINTER'S BONE, TOY STORY 3, DESPICABLE ME, HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON, UNSTOPPABLE, VOYAGE OF THE DAWN TREADER, THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, KNIGHT & DAY, THE SOCIAL NETWORK, SECRETARIAT, SHREK FOREVER AFTER, TANGLED, THE AMERICAN, REMEMBER ME, and GET LOW. Waiting to see TRUE GRIT, TRON LEGACY, GULLIVER'S TRAVELS, THE FIGHTER, COUNTRY STRONG, THE TOURIST and BIUTIFUL.

  • billymulligan | November 25, 2010 2:04 AMReply

    I was hoping Eric would've given his thoughts on Rabbit Hole's chances of swooping in for the kill? (Not sure there's even a chance in hell, but I like his opinions stated thus far). I respect the helloutta Aronofsky & Fincher, but I just can't get behind those two movies going all the way to Best Pic win. I have this nagging sensation the one to take it all is still out there... Or that The Fighter, Kids Are Alright or Rabbit Hole will blast through to grab the top prizes.

  • Fred Nihrenberg | November 25, 2010 1:43 AMReply

    Eric: Way to go! Your analysis is on the mark. Academy awards do not follow popular tastes. I have seen most of the movies in your review and for the most part I agree on your choices. Your observation: "Te Oscars and their ilk mainly champion fall season movies released by distributors large enough to get them out there". I other words the winners do not in general reflect the tastes oft viewing public but rather the pubicity cmpaigns of the studios