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Three Indie Summer Hits Vie for Oscars: ‘Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,’ ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’ and ‘Moonrise Kingdom’

Three Indie Summer Hits Vie for Oscars: 'Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,' 'Beasts of the Southern Wild' and 'Moonrise Kingdom'

Several indie movies are looking to make a late-year comeback on the road to the Oscars, most notably three summer hits. Fox Searchlight is pushing Brit import “Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” ($46 million domestic) as well as Sundance sweetheart “Beasts of the Southern Wild” ($11 million) and Focus Features is touting Wes Anderson’s Cannes entry “Moonrise Kingdom” ($45 million). (See how the Gurus ‘O Gold place the films here.)

“Marigold” is already on DVD (September 18); Searchlight will be pushing the film, which boasts obvious appeal to the senior-skewing Academy, as well as the cast’s two popular and respected Oscar perennials– with six nominations apiece–Judi Dench for Best Actress (one win) and Maggie Smith for supporting (two wins). Their shots depend on the competition.

The other two films have the benefit of upcoming Blu-ray and DVD releases (“Moonrise Kingdom” is October 17, “Beasts” on December 4) to push the promo wheels forward and bring the films back into Academy voters’ consciousness, and both will benefit from inclusion on year-end critics ten-best lists and awards voting.

You’d think that as critic and audience pleasers these pictures would be Oscar naturals. But in some ways they’re not. “Beasts” is a brilliantly original and hugely moving tour-de-force from New Orleans newcomer Benh Zeitlin, but it’s a scruffy low-budget effort whose cast and crew are unknown to the Academy; the actors are mostly non-pros. As well as it played for film festivals and art house audiences, the movie did not wow at the Academy screening. Remember, these sophisticated craftspeople are used to gauging studio-level production value, screenplay structure and cinematography–not homemade video effects like the film’s titular Aurochs.

Part of the problem: this week the Screen Actors Guild declared that “Beasts of the Southern Wild” was ineligible for its awards because Wallis had never worked professionally before the film; SAG-AFTRA decided that the production did not meet the guild’s terms for eligibility.  Dwight Henry, who was working as a baker before playing Wallis’s father in “Beasts” was also ruled ineligible. But many other films, from “Pollock” to “Savages,” have risen above this impediment.

I do believe that backed by a Searchlight campaign, actors will appreciate the performance by 9-year-old Quvenzhane Wallis, who is a winning personality. But “Beasts” has a far better chance at winning Indie Spirit awards than Oscars.

In many ways the more polished “Moonrise Kingdom” has a far better shot, especially for production design and original screenplay. Director Anderson is a respected quantity; he and Owen Wilson were nominated for original screenplay for “The Royal Tenenbaums” and Anderson scored an animated feature nomination for “Fantastic Mr. Fox.”

One could easily see SAG nominating his well-known cast for its ensemble award, the equivalent of Best Picture. But therein lies the rub: his two leads are relative unknowns and none of his terrific supporting cast, from Frances McDormand and Bill Murray to Edward Norton and Bruce Willis, pops out enough to warrant a supporting actor nomination. Actors will like the movie. But without acting candidates it’s tougher to get where you need to go. If there are more than five nominees for best picture, this well-liked gem should squeak in.

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