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DISPATCH FROM AWARDS SEASON | “Atonement” Has High Hopes, “Grace” Spotlighted; Critics Prepare to We

DISPATCH FROM AWARDS SEASON | "Atonement" Has High Hopes, "Grace" Spotlighted; Critics Prepare to We

With December well under way, awards season is about to enter a new phase as east and west coast critics groups prepare to weigh in with choices that will intensify the increasingly competitive race for end of the year attention. A year ago, must-read awards season blogger David Carr referred to the “Manhattan mentionocracy,” which he described as, “a heaving mass of critics, reporters, film geeks and gossip columnists” who are part of the spectator sport that is the race for Oscar. Bloggers and prognosticators may have a lot to chew on in just a few days once the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the New York Film Critics Circle gather to vote for the best of the year in film.

Oscar watchers will be studying the critics prizes early next week because last year, the New York critics picked “United 93” as their top movie of the year, boosting its end of year awarness on its way to the first Academy Award nomination — for best director — for filmmaker Paul Greengrass. Fellow NY winners Martin Scorsese (best director), Helen Mirren (best actress), Forest Whitaker (best actor), and the doc “Deliver Us From Evil” (best documentary) would also become fixtures in the awards season derby. Meanwhile in Los Angeles, the critics honored “Letters from Iwo Jima” as best picture, ahead of its Oscar nomination for the same prize. Also honored were Greengrass (best director), Mirren (best actress), Whitaker (best actor, shared with Sacha Baron Cohen), along with the ultimate Oscar winners “The Lives of Others” (best foreign language film) and “An Inconvenient Truth” (best director).

This year, as the Oscar race takes shape, will the winners of the critics awards next week actually emerge as front-runners? The race is hardly as wide open as it was before screenings began for “Sweeney Todd,” notes sage Oscar prognosticator David Poland of The Hot Blog. “My guess at this point is that what NY and LA do will be fairly meaningless, except in small categories, like Supporting Acting… though choices like Amy Ryan (“Gone Baby Gone”) and Casey Affleck (“The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford”) have already been mainstreamed. The options for the critics groups are too obvious to change much.” But, he added, “If both NY and LA voted, say, Ellen Page (“Juno”) for best actress, that would lock her in. If both groups do anything to anyone who is on the edge, it matters. But if they each make somewhat quirky choices, like say, Marisa Tomei (“Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead”) and Saoirse Ronan (“Atonement”), who are already in the mainstream thinking to some degree, it’s a very, very gentle push.

“Atonement” In Focus

Joe Wright‘s “Atonement,” atop the latest Gurus o’ Gold weekly Oscar prognostication alongside “No Country For Old Men,” grabbed the spotlight from the Coen’s with a special screening in New York City earlier this week, ahead of its proper premiere at the Academy in Los Angeles next week. Calling the film an “unwrapped gift,” Focus Features CEO James Schamus introduced producers Paul Webster and Tim Bevan as well as screenwriter Christopher Hampton and a hysterical Wright who introduced two of the film’s main actors, Keira Knightley (“Pride & Prejudice”) and James McAvoy (“The Last King of Scotland”).

“What a classy crowd,” Wright said, introducing Monday’s screening. “This has been a long journey, and an important one for me personally. I’ve been incredibly blessed to work with such creative people.” Wright gave special thanks to his leads, as well as Hampton who wrote the screenplay based on the novel by Ian McEwan. The story centers on fledgling writer Briony Tallis, as a 13-year-old, who irrevocably changes the course of several lives when she accuses her older sister’s (Knightley) lover (McAvoy) of a crime he did not commit.

Wright had the audience in chuckles recounting a minor cultural divide between Americans and British audiences over the “C-word.” Apparently some brass at Universal suggested he go for the word “vagina” instead, but rejected the idea because it wouldn’t have the same impact… “If any of you are sensitive to that word, you’ve been warned,” he said to laughs.

Following the screening, the crowd which included the film’s stars as well as a very eclectic mix of celebs such as R.E.M. singer Michael Stipe, “Sex and the City”‘s Chris Noth and Jason Lewis, “Heroes”‘ Masi Oka and fashion designer Rachel Roy among others braved the freezing temperatures (well, not everybody walked) for the sumptuous after-party at Balthasar in SoHo.

At the party, Wright told indieWIRE that the notion of “happy endings” had attracted him to the project, which was shot in the Summer of ’06. McAvoy, standing next to the director added, “This is the best script I’ve ever read,” adding, “It was all good fun.”

“Grace” Emerges

Among the lower profile “underdogs” of awards season thus far is Sundance ’07 acquisition “Grace is Gone,” a passion project shepherded by John Cusack and producer Grace Loh (who produced the film with Plum Pictures). Nabbed by The Weinstein Company back in Park City, the film stirred very early awards talk back in Utah for Cusack’s lead performance. TWC and leading awards season event hostess Peggy Siegal stoked buzz for the film at a Manhattan media and Academy member lunch in honor of Cusack on Thursday.

John Cusack talks about “Grace is Gone” at a lunch in Manhattan on Thursday. Photo by Eugene Hernandez/indieWIRE

Weinstein was spotted by some making a quick cameo appearance at the luncheon, leaving the spotlight to Cusack and Loh, seated at the center table with an array of journalists from Vanity Fair, Variety, and indieWIRE, among others. At nearby tables were a mix of Academy members or boldfaced names ranging from Albert Maysles to Kathie Lee Gifford.

“I have very strong feelings about the war,” explained John Cusack, who portrayed a conservative character in the film, but he added, “I hope the film will transcend my own opinions.” He said that he was stirred to make the movie after seeing that images of fallen soldiers were being kept off of American television screens. “We can’t really grasp the amount of suffering on both sides,” Cusack noted, concluding, “From a sense of outrage, we wanted to make someting to transcend the usual partisan bickering.”

After making some remarks to the crowd, Cusack took his seat. Then, pondering his comments, retrieved the microphone to speak again. He had failed to mention that fhe film also got recent a boost from Clint Eastwood, who agreed to compose a score for the movie, the first time he has made music for a film other than his own. Plugging Eastwood’s music and songs from Sheryl Crow and Carole Bayer Sager, Cusack seemed a bit sheepish about his campaigning, quipping, “I wish Harvey was here, because he is much better at this than I am.” Sitting for another moment, he then got up and began to work the room, shaking hands and greeting well-wishers.

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