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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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.