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Critical Consensus: Eric Kohn and Peter Knegt On the Oscar Prospects of ‘Anna Karenina,’ ‘Silver Linings Playbook’ and More

Critical Consensus: Eric Kohn and Peter Knegt On the Oscar Prospects of 'Anna Karenina,' 'Silver Linings Playbook' and More

Editor’s note: Critical Consensus is a biweekly feature in which two critics from Indiewire’s Criticwire network discuss new releases with Indiewire’s chief film critic, Eric Kohn. In this installment, Kohn trades e-mails with Indiewire senior editor and resident Oscar prognosticator Peter Knegt (their previous conversation is here).

ERIC KOHN: The last time we hashed out the emerging candidates for this year’s Oscar season, we were really focused on “Life of Pi” and “Argo” as the major frontrunners. Since then, I’ve gotten the sense that a lot of other serious candidates have emerged. I suppose this time we’ll have to pick through them carefully without coming to any hard conclusions. I have to say, now that the U.S. presidential race has come to a conclusion, it’s nice to dig into predictions that matter a whole lot less in the grand scheme of things.

As much as I’d love to see movies worthy of wide acclaim win big in February, solidifying their potential to reach audiences and furthering the careers of the people involved, it’s unlikely that a lot of the movies bound to wind up on my top 10 list next month have a shot in hell. (A world where “Holy Motors” and Jafar Panahi’s “This Is Not a Film” were vying for Best Picture would probably be populated by unicorns and wizards.)

Of course, that doesn’t mean there aren’t movies with Oscar potential that may have already been pushed to the sidelines this year. I’d like to single out one of them opening this week: Joe Wright’s “Anna Karenina.” When I saw this lavish costume drama at the Toronto International Film Festival, I expected a mopey period piece with little to offer beyond the expected turmoil of Leo Tolstoy’s classic. That superficial assumption ignored Wright’s capacity as a visual stylist to inject the material with a greater amount of energy — both in terms of the images and the way they flow together.

Almost exclusively shot on a single sound stage, Wright’s treatment of the material nimbly rejuvenates the familiar story of the titular Russian socialite (Keira Knightley, theatrical to the point where she blends in with the art direction) by veering in and out of a conventional narrative approach. Wright’s extraordinary long takes draw you into the universe of “Anna Karenina” with a seamless approach that a straightforward literary adaptation could never accomplish. It’s a truly cinematic achievement, more attentive to mood than plot, that holds together even when the fundamental story ingredients stagger toward the inevitable tragedy of the concluding act.

While I hesitate to say the movie works as a whole, I would argue that it works as an Oscar movie: It’s a pricey, impressive and mature treatment of a long-respected classic (with stars, no less), yet I haven’t read anyone who has singled it out as a significant Best Picture contender. What gives? Could “Anna Karenina” land the prominent slot that usually goes to a big period drama in a year without “Lincoln” or “Les Misérables”? Or am I missing some key ingredient that has already relegated “Anna Karenina” to a lower plane? Set me straight.

READ MORE: Criticwire Reactions to ‘Anna Karenina’

PETER KNEGT: So far, the narrative of “Anna Karenina” has been a strange one. For what felt like only a few days surrounding its screenings at the Toronto Film Festival, “Karenina” seemed like a viable contender of sorts, at least for stars Keira Knightley and Alicia Vikander as well as its production and costume design. But then the box office in its native UK was underwhelming, and it didn’t have too many other high profile festival screenings, so it sort of dropped off the map. Which isn’t always a bad thing. Sometimes, it’s hard to sustain buzz from September onwards (ask the folks behind “The Master”), and disappearing off the map quickly only to reappear upon release a few months later can be an easier way to go about it.

Joe Wright’s “Atonement” actually had something of a similar path half a decade ago, reemerging as a contender at the last minute after being all but written off by Oscar pundits (though admittedly never to extent “Anna” has been). But I don’t if that’s necessarily what’s going to happen to “Anna.” I actually quite liked the film for similar reasons you did, but reviews overall are far weaker than “Atonement,” and the Brits don’t seem anywhere near as behind it as they were for “Atonement” or for Wright’s “Pride and Prejudice,” his only two films to manage significant Oscar nods.

The British are collectively a powerful voting bloc, but it seems like Tom Hooper’s upcoming “Les Miserables” (a UK production) might be the one they really throw themselves behind. Then again, we haven’t seen that film yet, so maybe if it crashes and burns — although judging from early word, it won’t — “Anna” can take back some homegrown support. But my guess is that it just gets production and costume design nods, and that’s that. It has serious competition: Thanks to The Weinstein Company’s decision to move up the release date of “Silver Linings Playbook” by one week, “Anna” is opening opposite a film that will absolutely manage major Oscar nominations.

EK: Leave it to Weinstein and company to diminish the already minuscule chances of an underdog. Fortunately, I’ll gladly admit that “Silver Linings Playbook” is the serious Best Picture contender from The Weinstein Company that I’m thrilled to endorse. (I didn’t exactly hate “The Artist,” but boy did it squash the potential of its worthy competition.) At any rate, “Silver Linings” finds David O. Russell returning to his comedic roots with a clever, snappy screenplay that he adapted from Matthew Quick’s novel and further brought to life with the dynamic chemistry of his ensemble, particularly through moody turns by Bradley Cooper (who knew?) and Jennifer Lawrence. It’s also a return to form for Robert De Niro, in a supporting role as Cooper’s father and utterly convincing as an obsessive, demanding figure whose kinder sensibilities gradually come to the fore. The movie is also worth celebrating for the way it brings back the tradition of mature, insightful romantic comedies about American everymen, a format that harkens back to the screwball comedies made in the 1930s.

But I bet if we were surveying the 2012 release calendar six to eight months ago for potential Oscar heavyweights and came across the description of this movie, we might not see it as the contender as it has already become. I’m making this assumption based on one word often considered anathema at the Oscars: Comedy.

With the exception of a couple nominations for “Bridesmaids” last year, comedies were largely absent from the nominee list — which is often the case. Now, in my corner of the room — it’s basically an alternate dimension — the era of great romantic comedies hasn’t waned one bit. Both “Silver Linings Playbook” and Lynn Shelton’s “Your Sister’s Sister” already have spots reserved on my top 10 list for 2012. However, I’m curious to see how the ever-cunning Weinstein plans to circumnavigate this usually treacherous path. In a year when other movies deal with weighty issues like slavery (“Lincoln”), god (“Life of Pi”) and politics (“Argo”), how does a character-driven piece about a frustrated substitute teacher getting over his divorce stand out?

READ MORE: Criticwire Reactions to ‘Silver Linings Playbook’

Then again, now that “Skyfall” is being touted as a Best Picture contender, I suppose anything is possible…and even if a comedy winning Best Picture is a surprise within the historical context of the awards, another Weinstein victory would be anything but. What say you?

PK: I wish I shared your thoughts on “Silver Linings.” I wanted to love that film so badly, and for the first 45 minutes or so, I thought I was going to. But it just turned into something a bit too conventional in its second act, and while I certainly didn’t dislike the film — select scenes and Jennifer Lawrence’s performance were fantastic  — it’s not heading anywhere near my top 10. But I know I’m in a minority and I’m all but certain it’s heading for a bunch of major Oscar noms, if not a few wins. I wish I could say the same about “Your Sister’s Sister,” which I absolutely adored. The joyful, authentic mix of comedy and drama won me over in every moment, and if I could magically make any Oscar nomination happen it would be Rosemarie DeWitt for best supporting actress.

But yes, setting my biases aside, I am curious to see how “Silver Linings” plays out. My aforementioned prediction that it’s a surefire bet in large part comes from your observation that it stands out from a very heavy crowd this year. In the past, we’ve seen how this kind of situation ends up — by pushing a lighter, more comedic film to the winner’s circle. See “Shakespeare in Love” in 1998 — another Weinstein film (back in their Miramax days) that took down a Spielberg heavyweight, “Saving Private Ryan.” If this ends up being a “Lincoln” vs. “Silver Linings” duel, expect that comparison to be made. Nevertheless, as far as I’m concerned, “Argo” is still this year’s frontrunner.

That said, there’s still six weeks left in 2012, and some potentially huge films waiting in the wings.

EK: You’re talking about the final chapter of “Twilight,” right? I kid (although if there’s anything that’ll get that young demo the Academy sorely needs to tune into the ceremony to keep it relevant, getting Robert Pattinson onstage is probably near the top of the list). If the Oscars have the potential to help certain movies solidify their reputations, they also encourage a certain amnesiac perspective of the release calendar that finds movies released later in the year more likely to figure prominently in the awards race.

So does that mean Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty,” Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained” and the aforementioned “Les Miz” are serious contenders? I don’t know, but I’m looking forward to seeing all of them. While the fall season might be programmed to conform to the Academy’s whims, it also allows us to sample a lot of ambitious films that, within the context of commercial filmmaking, doesn’t get seen much the rest of the year. For that reason, I’m truly excited about this December’s jam-packed release calendar, and if we have the Oscars to thank for it, then I could care less who actually goes home happy on the big night. Since you’re an Oscar pundit, though, I assume you have to view the situation differently. Realistically speaking, do you think any of these movies have serious potential to shake up the race or are they simply bonuses at the tail-end of a season already too dense for its own good?

PK: Theoretically, they all have potential. The three you mentioned — “Zero,” “Django” and “Les Miz” — join two more possibilities: “Promised Land” and “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.” And who knows, maybe “This is 40” will finally be the Apatow film that crosses over into Oscar territory. Realistically? I’d guess one or two of them, with “Les Miserables” and “Zero Dark Thirty” most likely to succeed. And I must say that while I’m among the first to call awards season fatigue by early January or so, the excitement surrounding so many end-of-year releases with collectively remarkable pedigree (all five of those films come from previous best director nominees, three of them winners) is a pretty fun thing to watch unfold, whether you’re a movie lover or a pundit or whatever.  

Who knows if such a crowded final field will prove problematic for these films, particularly now that Oscar voting stars mid-December. But remember last year the two films everyone was waiting for — “War Horse” and “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” — both managed best picture noms, and this happened without much critical support (it honestly still blows my mind that such mediocre films are best picture nominees). So maybe it’s a good thing not to leave room for backlash, but hopefully a couple of these films will be so good they won’t even warrant it.

But yeah, the real reason there’s no point to having this conversation is because “Breaking Dawn, Part 2” is clearly headed for a clean sweep.

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