By Peter Knegt | Indiewire July 20, 2009 at 5:59AM
It's been nearly two months since indieWIRE checked in with the awards race in our post-Cannes search for clues. Usually, the period that follows Cannes is an awards-related dead zone. As Hollywood rolls out summer fare, awards prognosticators await the fall, perhaps making ill-fated suggestions that the latest Pixar film might get a best picture nomination, or that the Academy's disdain for well-reviewed superhero movies might finally reach its end. But this year, things have become uncharacteristically event-filled.
It all started with the out-of-nowhere news that the Academy would increase it's best picture count from five to ten. A historic moment for any Oscar geek in itself, the decision also quickly trickled into this year's developing race. All of a sudden, suggestions that the latest Pixar film might get a best picture nomination, or that the Academy's disdain for well-reviewed superhero movies (if Captain Kirk or Harry Potter could be defined as such) might finally reach its end didn't seem so ill-fated. Beloved and financially potent, "Up" seems like a very strong bet to make Oscar's top ten at this point, and while it's still a stretch to say the same of "Star Trek" or "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince," it's certainly not the impossibility it would have been any other year.
But perhaps the biggest news to hit this year's race emerged from an even more unlikely place: An action-packed Iraq War thriller directed by a woman. Coming off a well-received run in the festival circuit, most expected Kathryn Bigelow's "The Hurt Locker" would find some good reviews and perhaps even make a bit of money. But "Locker" didn't just find good reviews, it found ecstatic ones. The Summit Entertainment release has a 93 score on Metacritic, including perfect scores from folks like The New York Times (A.O. Scott called it "the best nondocumentary American feature made yet about the war in Iraq") and The Los Angeles Times (Kenneth Turan said it's "the kind of unqualified triumph that's been long expected from director Kathryn Bigelow"). And while judging its promising $2.2 million-and-counting box office - after four weeks and without going over 100 screens - is still premature, "Locker" is certainly exceeding financial expectations thus far. It will expand to 200 screens this Friday).
So what does this all mean for Oscar? Well, it's still July - so nothing that can be said with any real certainty. But it definitely bodes well. Reviews like those suggest the film should have a great chance at placing high on scores of top ten lists, and making good with critic's group's awards (as for the Spirit Awards - it was actually already nominated for a few last year). And its two historically un-friendly Oscar traits - being directed by a woman and being set in Iraq - might actually be this bomb squad thriller's secret weapon.
Historically, the Academy loves war-related films, from "Gone With The Wind," "Platoon" and "Schindler's List" to recent best picture nominees like "Letters From Iwo Jima," "The Pianist," and, in a sense, "The Reader." But while the Civil War, World War II and Vietnam have a good dozen best picture statuettes between them, the ongoing Iraq War hasn't found a major nomination outside Tommy Lee Jones' performance in "In The Valley of Elah." But, with the Obama administration working toward the U.S.'s withdrawal of troops, and "The Hurt Locker"'s box office suggesting audiences might be ready to view cinematic representations of Iraq, perhaps the Academy is up for continuing their tradition.
In fact, "The Hurt Locker" could just be one of many potential Oscar contenders with Iraq-related narratives. Paul Greengrass's Matt Damon-starring "Green Zone," a thriller that takes place in the Green Zone in Iraq before the surge by the United States, is slated for release before year's end. Oren Moverman's "The Messenger," about an American soldier who becomes involved with a widow of an officer who died in Iraq, screened to warm notices at Sundance and was recently picked up by Oscilloscope with an awards campaign in mind. While the former has yet to be seen and the latter is being released by a small distributor that has yet to prove a formidable awards season player, you never know how things might play out.
One trend that seems more and more certain to recieve some serious attention come Oscar time, though, is also "Hurt Locker"-related. If Kathryn Bigelow were to be nominated for best director, she would become only the fourth woman - and second American woman - ever to receive that honor. If "The Hurt Locker" were to be nominated for best picture, it would become only the seventh best picture directed (or co-directed) by a woman. And for the first time ever, she could have some female competition. Back in indieWIRE's post-Cannes awards check-in, we noted the first inclinations of this fantastic potential. Jane Campion (one of the previous three female director nominees) seems to be in good shape for contention after the Cannes screenings of her "Bright Star," and Lone Scherfig's “An Education” was still enjoying the promise that met it at the Sundance Film Festival.
Both "Star" and "Education" - set for release in September and October, respectively - continue to seem like likely fixtures in the awards race. And they could possibly be joined by a few as-yet-unseen female-helmed films, from Mira Nair's "Amelia" to Julie Taymor's "The Tempest" to Nancy Meyer's as-yet-untitled but promisingly cast (Meryl Streep, Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin!) new film. That makes for six strong female-directed possibilities - not to mention a slew of female-centric possibilities like Rob Marshall's "Nine" and Lee Daniels's "Precious" (oddly enough, both directed by gay men) - in these unchartered ten best picture-nominee waters. And wouldn't that make good on the Academy's suggestion that the fattened shortlist would "broaden the possibilities" of Oscar?
At this point, it would be surprising if five films that have already screened either theatrically or in festivals -- "The Hurt Locker," "Bright Star," "An Education," "Precious" and "Up" -- did not end up serious contenders for Oscar's top ten. That would make for half the list being filled with three female directed-films, a film directed by an African-American (which has never made the shortlist), and an animated film (which has happened just once in 1991's "Beauty and the Beast"). And who knows what the dozens of as-yet-unscreened films might bring to the table. If Kathryn Bigelow's ex-husband James Cameron's long-awaited "Avatar" lives up to its hype, Oscar could have the first-ever divorced couple competing for best director.