The next month of the Oscar campaign — from today until January 13, when nomination balloting closes — is in some ways the most interesting phase of the process. There are no more tea leaves to read, no more wild cards, no more embargoes on the expression of opinion, no more “precursor” awards that could seriously reshape the race. As Hollywood shuts down for a vacation, thousands of Academy voters will watch the contenders — or, more importantly, decide which contenders they feel like watching. And the tectonic shifts that result can be so gradual that you won’t know anything has changed until you realize a couple of weeks from now that a particular movie has somehow lost momentum or pushed forward in the pack.
What a frenetically busy weekend it was in the handing out of shinies and sparklies and mantel-trinkets to chronically underappreciated movie people, who at other times of the year often have to survive for weeks without winning anything. Critics’ groups in Los Angeles, Boston, and San Francisco announced their honorees, as did online critics in New York; conclaves in Detroit and Houston revealed their lists; and the American Film Institute named its 10 best movies. That’s a lot of noise! All of these simultaneously live-tweeted prizelets are microtwitches in the Oscar race, and it’s true that come ballot time, no Oscar voter is going to find himself frozen in indecision, his pen hovering above his ballot as he frets, “But dare I go against Detroit?” However, it’s still possible to pull some larger trendlines from this surge of hyperbolic over-celebration of film achievement. And if it’s not, let’s pretend it is.
Well, that was an interesting couple of days. Deep breath aaaaaand reboot. Welcome to the first day of the rest of your Oscar season, now without the man who was supposed to reinvent the awards ceremony. As potential best supporting actor nominee Albert Brooks brilliantly tweeted yesterday, “Wow, the Brett Ratner produced Oscar show flew by.” And with his unplanned departure, the Academy finds itself back in a very familiar place: right next to the panic button. Panic is what, more often than not, has ruled the organization’s decisions about the show in recent years. Panic is what led them to Ratner in the first place. And while I’d like to believe that panic won’t be the deciding factor in what’s likely to be a short, public, and speculation-heavy hunt for a replacement, old habits die hard.
Very soon, we’ll get down to some hard-core category-crunching in Oscarmetrics — the last two months of 2011 will bring a wealth of serious contenders. And by serious, I mean movies not directed by Roland Emmerich. I know some people are excited by Anonymous, but honestly, if I want to see a director try to take credit away from a writer, my options are hardly limited to specious, unsupportedfringe-lunacy. Begone, thou dissembling idle-headed gudgeon! (If you want to banish this movie, by the way, I highly recommend the Elizabethan Curse Generator.) Meanwhile, let us hasten to the Twitter mailbag and catch up with some queries before the onslaught. Anon!
One of the most pleasurable things about covering any Oscar season is that, as rigged as the contest can sometimes feel in favor of whoever has the most advertising dollars or the slickest road-to-a-win narrative, the movies themselves always reshape the race in surprising ways. For instance: A few months ago, I would have guessed that Rise of the Planet of the Apes would be a likelier candidate for Dan Kois’ RazzieWatch than for any discussion of the Academy Awards. On paper, it looked like an unpromising semi-prequel to a clunky ten-year-old reboot of a played-out franchise. In reality, it turned out to be a near-exemplary summer studio movie — exciting, affecting, smart, and a case study in how to use visual-effects technology in the service of a good script rather than as a substitute for one. Which has led to the most vexing question that the members of the Academy’s acting branch are likely to face this year: What should they do about Andy Serkis, who has won some of the strongest reviews of 2011 for playing a chimpanzee?
There is no official beginning to the fall Oscar race, but if there were, the arrival of Moneyball last week would be the equivalent of the starter pistol. Reviews for the movie — which, appropriately, opened on the first day of autumn — might be falling just a hair short of the zeitgeist-invoking ecstasies that greeted last year’s The Social Network, with which it shares a studio, a producer, a screenwriter, and a willingness to play fast and loose with its source material. But the critical reception has been more than good enough to put the movie on everybody’s long list for best picture, director (Bennett Miller), actor (Brad Pitt), supporting actor (Jonah Hill), and adapted screenplay (Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin), at least until the rest of this year’s contenders open. I say long list, not short list, because right now, there’s no such thing as an Oscars short list. The best a potential nominee can do is to secure a spot atop a big roster of “maybes” and then hope that, over the next three crowded months, five more appealing candidates don’t materialize.