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How Has Spike Jonze's 'Her' Changed the Oscar Race? Peter Knegt and Eric Kohn Revisit Awards Season Buzz

Indiewire By Peter Knegt and Eric Kohn | Indiewire October 16, 2013 at 10:48AM

With Oscar season in full swing, Indiewire chief film critic Eric Kohn and senior writer Peter Knegt revisit the buzz after tipping their toes in the water last month.
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WB Joaquin Phoenix in "Her."

With Oscar season in full swing, Indiewire chief film critic Eric Kohn and senior writer Peter Knegt revisit the buzz after debating the field last month. In the following e-mail exchanges, they address several issues. Among them: Has Spike Jonze's "Her" shaken up the list of frontrunners? Why don't the right foreign language film contenders get nominated? And why aren't we more excited about the Indie Spirit Awards? Read on and decide for yourself.

ERIC KOHN: No hiding from it now: I guess we're now in the throes of Oscar season. Like the imminent cold of winter, it's one of those times of year you can anticipate as much as you want and still not fully know what to expect. Plus, no matter how clearly it's mapped out on the calendar, the damn thing sneaks up on you. One moment I'm relaxing at the cozy cinephile-friendly Telluride Film Festival, the next moment it has transformed into the platform that launched perceptions of "12 Years a Slave" and "Gravity" duking it out for best picture.

And, lo, Oscar season continues to evolve. Just when we felt like we had a handle on the awards fervor, anticipating the possibilities of "American Hustle" and "Saving Mr. Banks" complicating the race if not dramatically shaking it up, here comes Spike Jonze's "Her." The movie made its world premiere at New York Film Festival and turned out to be really, really good -- maybe even the director's best work, and certainly one of star Joaquin Phoenix's best performances. This gentle near-future love story about a man who falls head over heels for his operating system (smartly embodied by invisible Scarlett Johansson) isn't just one of those whimsical instances of creative storytelling that makes somebody like me play fantasy Oscars and pretend it has a shot. It's a seriously compelling and thoughtful narrative that's both intelligently attuned to the impact of technology on our most intimate selves and a totally accessible, delicate love story.

It also strikes me as an ideal crowd pleaser alternative to the otherwise bleak field of awards contenders. I love "12 Years a Slave" and find "Gravity" to be a wonderfully visceral experience, but while both leave you reeling in various ways, "Her" provides an ebullient alternative without compromising its brainier aspects. Maybe it's too light for major awards season traction, but I would imagine Phoenix has a definite shot at best actor while Jonze seems like he's a lock for Best Original Screenplay and even best director. Plus, there's talk of Johansson landing a supporting actress nomination for her voice acting, which would be unprecedented.

Now look into your crystal ball and tell me: How likely is it that these events will occur? Are there far too many surprises still in store to make any strong determinations? Or did this race really solidify back in Telluride? I tried asking these questions to Siri but she just googled them and your name came up. Enlighten me.

PETER KNEGT: I'm not sure if I can offer much more than Siri. But on that note, the first thing that popped into my head Oscar-wise when it came to "Her" was indeed Scarlett Johansson's titular, voice-only performance as a fictional version of where Siri herself could be headed. Best supporting actress is a bit of weak field, Johansson is overdue, and hey, if Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo can get traction for wordless performances (as Robert Redford is likely to do this year), why not the opposite?

But tell that to Ellen DeGeneres ("Finding Nemo"), Eddie Murphy ("Mulan") and Robin Williams ("Aladdin"), who all prompted many to say that they were deserving of accomplishing the same result in previous years. That's to say nothing of Andy Serkis, whose motion capture work in the "Lord of the Rings" films also got an Oscar push to no avail. I guess all I'm saying is that Johansson is a possibility, but to do so she'd have to overcome a very specific stigma.

But yes: "Her" itself could definitely factor in. And it sure does help that it stands out so much as one of the very few original (as in not about a historical event or real-life figure) studio titles in the mix this year. In that regard, it's basically just "Her" and  "Gravity" (which are oddly both being released by Warner Brothers), and they are extremely different films. "Her" will not be an Oscar movie on the level of "Gravity," but depending on how the Academy responds to it, it could get a couple nominations for sure (I'd even say Spike Jonze is the frontrunner for original screenplay this point).

I guess it also depends on the final four -- "Saving Mr. Banks," "American Hustle," "The Monuments Men" and (maybe?) "The Wolf of Wall Street." While I do believe a sizable portion of this race is solidified (it's going to take a lot to break into the "Gravity" vs. "12 Years a Slave" narrative that is rock solid right now), there's still room for a shakeup. It's still six weeks until the December onslaught of critics awards (not to mention SAG and Golden Globe nominations) make thing a lot clearer. Though next week we do already have the official kickoff with the Gotham Award nominations...

"A Touch of Sin."

EK: I'm always more excited about the outcome of the Gothams and the Spirits than the Oscars because they cast such wider nets and at least allow for the possibility of providing more complicated representations of the year in cinema. But Oscar season presents other problems now. This year, I'm more worried about the foreign language films not getting the traction they deserve. It was a small miracle -- or maybe just the shrewd distribution veterans at Sony Pictures Classics -- that helped "Amour" find its way into the Best Picture category last year. But it's starting to look unlikely that such a trick could work this time around. "Blue is the Warmest Color," like "Amour" a Palme d'Or-winning film, opens next week and certainly deserves singling out. But the movie was disqualified for foreign language consideration due to its release date in France. I know you're fan of Abdellatif Kechiche's lesbian coming of age drama and we share enthusiasm for the movie's lead performances from Adele Exarchoupolos and Lea Seydoux, but it seems unlikely that this one could actually find its way into major categories at the big event next year. Not only that, but Jia Zhangke's remarkable anthology narrative "A Touch of Sin" -- which Kino Lorber released earlier this month -- wasn't selected as China's submission due to the darker aspects of the country depicted in the film. I haven't seen "The Lunchbox" but hear that it's another drama worthy of this discussion and not up for consideration. Meanwhile, Iran has selected "The Past," a wonderful drama from last year's winner for "A Separation" that actually takes place...in Paris.

What can be done to improve one of the few areas of this commercial industry that actually manages to bring non-American cinema to wider attention? It's hard enough with just five slots, which makes it especially frustrating when they're not filled properly. Blue is going to be my color if this situation isn't sorted out soon. Should Academy members revolt?

PK: The foreign language film category situation has been a decades-long issue that I can't see becoming the ideal situation any time soon (or ever). And say the Academy did change the system so countries not longer had the power of submission. What then? I highly doubt the Academy membership -- who have been the culprit in this category's injustice perhaps more than the countries themselves -- would really take that situation and make it a particularly more ideal batch of nominees.  If "A Touch of Sin" had been submitted,it probably wouldn't have been nominated anyway. I realize that's a very pessimistic and defeatist way of looking at it, but like most Academy categories, I've basically accepted it as being greatly flawed. And look forward to the increasingly frequent times they get it right anyway -- like "Amour" last year, or "A Separation" the year before. And while it's true this year it's a shame films like "Sin" or "Blue Is The Warmest Color" and another Cannes favorite -- Japan's "Like Father, Like Son" (which was bizarrely snubbed by the country in favor of "The Great Passage") -- haven't made the cut, I have high hopes some deserving films will make it in there anyway. These include "Gloria," "The Hunt," "The Great Beauty" and, despite the oddness of it being a film being set in Paris and representing Iran, "The Past."

But who knows, maybe "Blue is the Warmest Color" can make it into actress category or at least the best adapted screenplay one. It's extremely unlikely, I'll admit, perhaps especially given what happened with "Amour" last year feeling like something of an anomaly that happens once a decade or so. Or maybe it was a sign that the Academy membership is more willing to embrace a more complicated representation of cinema. We still don't know how this year will shape up in the end, but I actually felt like last year was a pretty impressive achievement in just that -- at least for the Academy, especially coming off of a year when "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close" and "War Horse" made the best picture lineup.  So maybe we're not giving them enough credit: I for one thought it was the Spirit Awards that messed things up more significantly than the Oscars did back in February.

EK: You'll get no qualms from me about that. I confronted the issue with the Spirits head-on last year when "Silver Linings Playbook" beat out contenders made for a fraction of its budget. I imagine -- or maybe I just hope -- that the top Spirits' prize won't go to a quirky, indie-like movie made on a big budget like "Her" -- because that's just not where it belongs -- but I have a feeling something along those lines may indeed sneak in there. In the meantime, I'd rather focus on the flip side of the equation: the legitimately small scale productions that manage to get smuggled into the big ceremony. Setting aside the odds of an "Amour"-like invasion of European arthouse cinema, I'd love to see a screenplay nomination for "Short Term 12" or an acknowledgement of Brie Larson's tremendous performance in that movie, though I realize these might be pipe dreams at this point. But I imagine they're a touch more realistic than, say, hoping for Amy Seimetz to nab a best actress nod for "Upstream Color" or "Leviathan" finding its way to the documentary category. The only truly subversive possibility is James Franco's Alien battling into the best supporting actor turf. Forgetting for a moment about our most outlandish hopes, what's the outsider you'd most like to see invade Oscar season?

PK: The Spirits need be to be very careful going forward. After back to back years of Harvey-machine b.s. ("The Artist" and then "Silver Linings" sweeping when they really shouldn't have even qualified), it better not be the "August: Osage County" awards this year. Or the "Her" awards. Though with the latter's studio distributor and budget I can't imagine it sneaking past the rules. However, stranger things have happened at the Spirits.

As for indie spirit at the Oscars, there's definitely a few long shots to hope for, like the "Short Term 12" screenplay. Or the Franco spot: A24 sure is pulling for it. I'd certainly be happy with either, but my dream is that "Before Midnight" ends up making a wave or two. I think Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke's screenplay is actually a pretty safe bet for a nomination, but I'd love to see Delpy get a best actress nomination. And Hawke and Linklater in their solo categories, for that matter. I was just so blown away by that film and the series it culminated. I hope the Academy can recognize what an achievement it was.

This article is related to: Awards, Oscar, Spike Jonze, Her, Scarlett Johansson, Joaquin Phoenix, Blue is the Warmest Color, Amour, 12 Years a Slave, Gravity, A Touch of Sin, Short Term 12, Brie Larson, James Franco, Before Midnight, Gotham Awards, Spirit Awards