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AWARDS WATCH ’08 | Back and Forth: Buzzing Best Picture, Underdogs

AWARDS WATCH '08 | Back and Forth: Buzzing Best Picture, Underdogs

Continuing this year’s awards season coverage in indieWIRE, editor-in-chief Eugene Hernandez and assistant editor Peter Knegt chatted yesterday via instant message about the ever-evolving race. Topics for this installment include a look at emerging best picture contenders, from “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button to “Milk,” and potential dark horses that might play a larger role in this race than people are expecting.

Eugene Hernandez: Where do we start, so much to catch up with. How about a snapshot of best picture before we dig a bit deeper…

Peter Knegt: Well it seems like the whispers are getting more and more informed. It’s still murky territory overall, but I’d say we can narrow down the list to 10 or so possibilities: “Australia,” “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” “The Dark Knight,” “Frost/Nixon,” “Gran Torino,” “Milk,” “The Reader,” “Revolutionary Road,” “Slumdog Millionaire,” “The Wrestler.”

EH: I saw “Milk” a second time this morning and feel strongly that it is even more resonant in a post-election/Prop 8 context. It’s a leading contender for best picture as far as I am concerned. And the reactions from the other folks in the screening room seemed quite positive.

PK: I agree. It has all of the elements of a real contender, and its release within a storm of activism that remarkably parallels its story is going to make it all the more potent. I’d also suggest it’s a lock for Sean Penn, the screenplay and maybe one of the supporting actors.

EH: On second viewing I’d say Josh Brolin is a stronger contender, but this time around I was also noticing Emile Hirsch‘s performance even more. Purely anectdotal, but a few other folks highlighted Hirsch as we were leaving the screening.

In terms of other best picture contenders we have to talk about Benjamin Button for a moment. Did you see Anne Thompson‘s posting of an anonymous review of the film yesterday. It’s caused quite a stir. Karina Longworth followed up by noting that she recently saw the film and offering an interesting bit of insight.

PK: I did. And some of the commenters accused it of being a studio plant, but I doubt that’s Anne Thompson’s style. Even so, though, I think this is the type of film people really want to love. And early, positive buzz like what is coming from Thompson is reminiscent of “Dreamgirls” and “Sweeney Todd,” which had similar initial “reviews” that heralded them as the film to watch for. But this kind of thing can perhaps only hurt it if it doesn’t lead up to the hype.

EH: I will admit that I too saw the movie earlier this week (and was also asked not to write about it). But, I feel I can talk about it briefly, clarifying that I am not a critic and won’t pretend to be.

While I feel that “Benjamin Button” is, on first viewing, hardly a lock for best picture, the attention that will justifiably be paid to its considerable technological achievements could sweep it into the higher profile categories. (“Forrest Gump” was popular with the Academy and there are some parallel’s here). But, as I was telling a friend today, for a much more striking and beautiful marriage of technology and ideas, I’d encourage folks to watch “Wall-E” again.

A scene from Sam Mendes’ “Revolutionary Road.” Image courtesy of Paramount Vantage.

PK: Oh, “Wall-E.” Still my favorite film of the year so far. And it’s a shame its best picture chances are all but non-existent. MoMA is screening it in their “The Contenders” series and people should really go see it again on a big screen. But we can at least take solace in the fact that it is all but assured the best animated feature award. I can’t see any of its competitors really taking it on, though I am curious what might come of the other two slots? Do you think “Waltz With Bashir” is in?

EH: Bashir feels solid. Regent is making a push for Tatia Rosenthal‘s “$9.99” for that third slot, but it’s a competitive spot. Feels a bit too soon to tell.

PK: But back to “Button.” I agree, it is almost certain to get tons of artistic and technical nods, and maybe that will help it in overall. But remember when “Dreamgirls” got the most overall nods but no best picture? I don’t know, that’s where my guess is going at this very moment. But of all the developing responses, this is the one I’m most, uh, curious about. That and maybe “Revolutionary Road.”

EH: Yes, we’ll know a lot more after people start seeing “Revoultionary Road,” and “Australia”…

PK: These are the year’s true remaining mysteries. At least in terms of films I think have the potential to really go the distance. But so far, bad buzz surrounding Luhrmann’s “final cut” and race to the editing finishing line doesn’t necessarily bode well. But soon we’ll know for sure.

There are some films people have seen, though. “Doubt” and “Frost/Nixon” being two of the more notable ones. It definitely seems like “Frost” is getting significantly warmer responses stateside than it did when it premiered in England. It looks like it could end up a serious contender, particularly for Frank Langella‘s performance as Nixon. “Doubt,” on the other hand, does not look like a best picture nominee. And while it will still likely grab a few acting nods, I just wonder if this will really be Meryl Streep‘s third Oscar winning performance, as a lot of people have been suggesting since this year’s race began. Some of the film’s criticisms have actually been directed at Streep herself.

EH: I am going to see the movie for myself next week, very curious. We’ll see. There are certainly some strong alternatives in that category.

So, as you mentioned earier, “Wall E” is clearly an underdog at this point, and there are so many others in numerous categories. What are some of the underdog nominees that you think deserve a little boost right now? Or dark horses that could surprise us soon?

A scene from Matteo Garrone’s “Gomorrah.” Image courtesy of IFC Films.

PK: Well, recent word that IFC is putting “Gomorrah” in the race for categories beyond Foreign Language Film is definitely something to consider. The Academy has a history of surprising us with foreign films in big categories. If “City of God” can take nods for director, screenplay, editing and cinematography, I can’t see why this couldn’t too. Especially if some of the Hollywood big guns crash and burn.

EH: Not to mention the incredible story surrouding the death threats against Roberto Saviano, the writer of “Gomorrah”. It’s a really powerful film for which Martin Scorsese gave a powerful introduction in New York last month during the New York Film Festival.

PK: Definitely. Saviano’s story is going to draw attention to the film itself, which I can’t imagine voters won’t be impressed by. I also wouldn’t be surprised if UK import “Hunger” ends up getting some dark horse discussion once critic’s awards start coming out. Regarding director Steve McQueen and actor Michael Fassbender, specifically.

And there are some American films I think might play into the race more than people think as well. Lately I’ve been thinking I might be underestimating “The Wrestler.”

EH: I have a feeling that “The Wrestler” will catch a lot of people by surprise and secure some serious attention in multiple categories. The idea of this iconic American going astray and trying to find his way back into the good graces of society feels really relevant right now.

PK: For sure. It’s the classic sort of story that has historically done very well with the Academy, and I think critic’s awards might be kind to it here and there as well.

Although, I wonder about Rourke. People might be resistant to rewarding him. And his recent criticism for making homophobic comments weren’t exactly well-timed. The thought of him competing with Sean Penn for playing Harvey Milk is kind of horrifying with that consideration in mind.

EH: I feel like overall the next couple of weeks will bring some clarity. There are a steady stream of guild screenings, Q & A’s, Peggy Siegal events, Variety screenings and previews that will likely set the course a bit.

The push is on for “Doubt” right now from Miramax, Fox Searchlight‘s “Slumdog” has been getting the treatment all week in NYC with receptions and special screenings, “Frost/Nixon” from Universal is in town all weekend and has a premiere on Monday, Yari is pushing “Nothing But the Truth” this week and had a good screening this week, and Focus Features‘ “Milk” has its premiere in NYC on Tuesday. And right after Thanksgiving, we’ll have the Gotham Awards to talk about.

PK: It’s exciting. From this point on, it’s going to be a pretty much constant evolution to whatever this race is destined toward.

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