MCN Columnists
Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar

Considering the Best Picture Oscar Contenders

Published under Oscar Outsider.

How does a Hollywood outsider evaluate the Oscar contenders? I live in Seattle, outside the allure and glare of Tinseltown, and we generally get press screenings a couple weeks after the movie-world hubs of LA and New York; thus, I’ve only seen half the films on the Gurus o’ Gold Best Picture chart so far. And although there’s something to be said for living in LA and having earlier access to screenings, I like it this way. It gives me an interesting perspective on the Oscars charts, and I rather enjoy the delayed gratification of anticipating the slew of (hopefully) good films that come cascading along like so many Christmas gifts in late November and December. Even in Seattle, I do get to see these films earlier than the average moviegoer, but our screenings are still later than the LA and NY press gets them, which can sometimes make me feel like I’m running as fast as I can on a never-ending treadmill of playing catch-up.

As the resident outsider in the Oscar game here, I’ve found it rather interesting to look each week at the Gurus picks that come in each week; those picks generally reflect the Gurus best prognostications as to which films are likely to end up in the running for Oscar gold. Their choices are colored, necessarily, by which films each awards-season pundit liked more than others, but they’re also weighted by an educated guesstimate of what the Academy as a whole is likely to consider when looking at the year’s films. Some weeks, just to throw everyone a loop, we toss in “darkhorse” categories, which allow the Gurus to weigh in on which films or performances they wish were getting more love. And of course, the whole idea of Oscar prediction charts raises the perennial question of whether Oscar prognostication should be about playing a game of “who’s most accurate in reading the minds of the Academy” versus praising the underdogs that need a push, hopefully giving a film you love and believe a boost that might help its shot at Oscar gold, or perhaps stimulating some discussion around which films ought to be more in the running, but aren’t.

The thing is, each of the frontrunners-of-the-moment on the Gurus chart has its own potential problems. Slumdog Millionaire started out back in September looking like it might be a darkhorse and now, given the consistency of positive reviews and the near-certainty of most of the folks who cover the Oscars extensively that it’s a real contender, at this point I consider it to be pretty much a lock for a nomination — but will the news of today’s violence in Mumbai boost interest in the film, hurt it, or have no impact either way? This is also the third year in a row that Fox Searchlight has made a serious Oscar contender out of what otherwise might have fallen by the awards-season wayside as just another light-hearted, fun little indie film; it’s hard to say, at this point, whether the Academy is likely to latch onto Slumdog’s genuine heart and feel-good exuberance, granting it a slot as they did with Juno last year and Little Miss Sunshine the year before, or reject it compared to the other candidates as not serious or artsy enough for Best Picture.

Milk, while it’s a moving, nuanced film bolstered by a remarkable lead performance by Sean Penn and a slew of standout supporting performances, is also a film with a political overtone (particularly in light of Prop 8) and a gay theme; it’s possible either or both of these factors could lead to Milk being passed over for the Best Picture dance card, with the Academy tossing a bone to Sean Penn for Best Actor and possibly to one of the supporting performances, and perhaps to Gus Van Sant for direction. I don’t see Frost/Nixon as a solid lock for a Best Picture slot either at this point; while the focus of the film is on the inner natures and motivations of both David Frost and Richard Nixon, and how their individual drives and ambitions culminated in that fateful interview, it’s also bound to be seen as another film with political overtones. Dated though the events in the film may be, there’s much with regard to current political affairs that still rings very true, and there’s no denying the power of the performances by both Frank Langella and Michael Sheen in the lead roles, but it could, again, be a case where the actors, and perhaps director Ron Howard, end up getting tossed a few bones, while the film overall misses out on a shot at Best Picture.

As for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, whether it ends up being a Fincher-riffic, emotionally low-key drama or a Forrest Gump-esque schmaltz-fest, it would seem right now to be a near-definite lock for one of the Best Picture slots. It’s got David Fincher, one of the most consistently creative, talented directors working today, at the helm, and Fincher’s films have never gotten more than technical noms in the past; the stellar Zodiac was completely overlooked by the Academy, and it may be time for some Academy atonement. By most of the accounts I’ve heard at this point (I’ll be seeing the film very soon myself and am, perhaps, more excited to see this film than I have been any other all year), Brad Pitt‘s performance is outstanding, and he’s only been nommed once before, for Supporting Actor in 12 Monkeys, way back in 1995; it’s time for Pitt to get some Oscar love as well. And though the Academy’s probably not voting based on this, Benjamin Button, more than any other film in the running this year, could really stand to benefit from a box office boost a Best Picture nom could give it, if it’s to have any hope of making back its exorbitant cost.

While all this early crystal-ball Oscar predicting is fun enough, and certainly a way to pass the time between now and Hollywood’s Big Prom Night, it’s way early in the game still, and some of the films that may seem to be locks at the moment could well end up finding themselves wallflowers, while a couple of underdogs slip into the limelight. I’m not counting Rachel Getting Married out of the race just yet; Jonathan Demme’s tense family drama is one of the strongest ensemble pieces of the year, marked by a career-high performance by Anne Hathaway, whose star has been rising for a while now. The Visitor, with a powerful lead turn by Richard Jenkins, doesn’t seem like it’s much in contention for Best Pic consideration right now, but Academy voters checking it out for the first time on their For Your Consideration screeners might just find this underrated and underseen film to be just the underdog to root for. And I absolutely wouldn’t overlook Happy-Go-Lucky at this point in the game, either; the Academy loves director Mike Leigh, having garnered him with numerous noms in the past for Topsy-TurvySecrets and Lies and Vera Drake, and Happy-Go-Lucky, for all its cheery exterior, is a far deeper film when you peer beneath the surface. I also wouldn’t underestimate the considerable charm of Leigh’s lead actress, Sally Hawkins, boosting the film’s shot; her natural warmth and inner light seem to infect everyone who meets her with the glow she radiates, and that just might help Happy-Go-Lucky out in the long run.

Then there’s The Dark Knight, still holding its own on the Gurus chart, which could, quite possibly, mark the entry of a superhero film into Oscar contention, and not just because of Heath Ledger‘s untimely death. Critics mostly praised the film and it’s solidly scripted, darkly dramatic, and boosted by some strong performances not just from Ledger (though he’s gotten most of the attention) but from Christian Bale and Aaron Eckhart as well. I wouldn’t be shocked if The Dark Knight sneaks in there for a Best Pic slot in the end, and if it does, that could shift the balance of things considerably.

Point is, it’s very early in the game yet, and who knows how it will all play out? Some of the films in the top slots on the Gurus chart right now will slip into lower slots as everyone sees the remaining Oscar contenders, and no doubt my own views will shift as well over the next couple weeks, as I see Benjamin Button, Revolutionary RoadDefianceSeven PoundsThe Reader and Gran Torino — all potential contenders (I missed the Australia screenings due to conflicts, but will probably shell out the cash to see it, just for reference, although nothing about that one has me particularly excited about seeing it).

Will the frontrunners ultimately emerge victorious, or will the underdogs sneak in and take one or more of the coveted Best Picture slots — and, perhaps ultimately, the grand prize of Hollywood backpatting? In the weeks to come we’ll all be analyzing and revising our picks, and perhaps, by the end, some of us will hit it right on the money. I’ll be reading the endless slew of Oscar predictions over the coming weeks myself … but in the end, I may find that my trusty Magic-8 Ball is more accurate than any Oscar prognosticator at predicting how the folks whose voices actually count on Oscar night will mark their ballots.

by Kim Voynar

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon