MCN Columnists
David Poland

By David Poland

15 Weeks To Oscar: Now There’s A Race

It’s been a very unusual awards season so far. Put aside the NY Film Critics Circle Jerk and the Golden Globes “I Made You… You Made Me” lawsuit and the weirdly slow dance to the season that is now in hyper-drive as many see their plans falling apart. But what has been most unusual is how many good movies are in play, while none of them have really jumped out as the clear frontrunner.

The one Academy-pleaser with all the right angles is The Artist, which finally started moving faster down the tracks, embracing the audience that will vote for it instead of the many critics who can’t seem to accept it as worthy, in the last 3 weeks.

And now, War Horse… which is, like The Artist, a tribute to the history of cinema. But in this case, it’s many flavors of cinema, all of which are designed to rip your heart out of your chest, but which are also much more hard core than I expect many critics to want to accept.

Right now, with two serious potential Best Picture winning films left to show themselves – Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo – the two heart films are really the only two films that can win Best Picture this year.

It’s fascinating, really. This has been one of those years where some very tough, smart movies are in the game. I find this extremely exciting. I think that The Academy could step up to Shame and nominate it for Best Picture. I still feel – though consultants have scared many of the experts out of thinking it’s possible – that the Fincher Dragon Tattoo could be one step tougher than The Departed and win the day. Films from Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, Terrence Malick, and Spielberg (with Tintin) are pushing older directors to new places. And younger directors, like Jason Reitman, Alexander Payne, Steven Soderbergh, Bennett Miller, and Tomas Alfredson are delivering top-of-career films that audience have and will embrace.

But none of the edge seems to have the sticking power, this season (so far), of the heart tuggers.

Michel Hazanavicius has proven, in just four feature films, to be a magician of movie history. The pair of OSS 117 movies are near-perfect satire of genre, pushing against decades of self-serious spy movies, both in France (where OSS 117 was an earnest Bond competitor in its day) and on the stage… world stage.

Jean Dujardin is one of France’s biggest stars… in many ways their George Clooney, though he is comedy-first and also does some dramatic work while GC works in the opposite direction. It’s all the more ironic that Dujardin will compete with Clooney for what is primarily a dramatic role with some great comedic moments, while Clooney’s nomination will be for a movie that is primarily a comedy role with some great dramatic moments.

Steven Spielberg has, on the other hand, a long history of making stars in films that feel like ensemble pieces. War Horse is his 27th film and with the exception of making Hans Solo into Indiana Jones, the two Tom Cruise movies, the three Tom Hanks movies, and Hook, his 17 other movies have starred many familiar actors… but not major box office stars. And again, reflecting on The Artist, it’s interesting that for American audiences Dujardin is a newcomer… allowing us the pleasure of discovery, much as in a Spielberg film.

War Horse, as many have said before, is an ensemble film, perhaps making it the rare Oscar nominee (and potentially, rarer winner) to go without any acting nomination. There are many beautiful performances, but the horse is the one character we spend the whole movie with. Tom Hiddleston, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Niels Arestrup make, perhaps, the most intense appearances… but they are too brief to really register as must-nominates. (And none have the culminating royal feel of Judi Dench’s 3-minute Shakespeare In Love turn.)

But while in the first act, you may think this is just the most beautiful version of National Velvet you ever saw, things change. A lot. It’s a real war movie, with sequences that rival the landing in Saving Private Ryan. (I’d say 10 is about the starting age for this film… with lots of stuff to discuss afterwards.) It’s a subtle coming-of-the-Holocaust movie with the French hiding things in their attics and Germans being, uh, strict. It’s a beautiful trench warfare movie with enough restraint to keep it from being unbearable, but not inauthentic. And it’s a film about survival, more than anything else.

There is nothing that critics hate more than finding themselves emotionally moved by a movie. And Spielberg has taken the brunt of that for years. If a rising director makes us weep, it’s genius. If Spielberg does it, it’s manipulation. Conversely, there are some critics who see everything through Spielberg-colored glasses and the man can do no wrong.

War Horse is for real. It’s a true epic and an instant classic.

The Artist is a real joy. Undeniable. Surprising. An epic pleasure.

It will be interesting to see how this starts to play out… and whether either of the Final Two can change the game, perhaps as the movie that wins on a split between two more classically styled films.

War Horse will have more detractors. The Artist will be questioned for its smaller scale. War Horse will be a bigger box office success, but will be yoked with expectation while modest grosses for The Artist will be hailed as a miracle. Dujardin will charm voters, while Joey the horse will crap on red carpets all over town.

And so the dance begins…

Be Sociable, Share!

16 Responses to “15 Weeks To Oscar: Now There’s A Race”

  1. chris says:

    “There is nothing critics hate more than finding themselves emotionally moved by a movie.” Um, bullshit. Nothing this one loves more.

  2. David Poland says:

    Glad to hear it. Me too. Doesn’t make it untrue as a rule of thumb.

    Nothing brings down the hammer faster – for many critics – than something powerfully emotional.

  3. Glenn says:

    Judi Dench has 8 minutes of screentime, not 3. GET IT RIGHT!


  4. Sam E. says:

    If I had to bet money best pic will probably go to War Horse. However, it’s incredible there’s only been one prestige pic this year that seems to have tanked(J. Edgar) and even there it has a strong potential for noms if not wins in acting categories. I can honestly think though of just as many reasons why almost every film likely to be nominated won’t win as why they could.

  5. Steven Kaye says:

    $135 million worldwide and counting.

  6. movieman says:

    And now, War Horse… which is, like The Artist, a tribute to the history of cinema.

    You could say the same about “Hugo.”

  7. Hallick says:

    “Nothing brings down the hammer faster – for many critics – than something powerfully emotional.”

    Maybe, but one person’s “powerfully emotional” is usually another person’s “emotionally manipulative” until things go vice versa with the next picture down the line. Like comedy, it’s the kind of thing that puts people on one side of the line with movie X and the other side with movie Y.

  8. Ella says:

    “A tribute to the history of cinema”
    HUGO fits that bill and then some. And is a wildly beautiful film. I saw the ARTIST – romantic and fun, but I do not get all the fuss. I have not seen WAR HORSE. But having seen HUGO today, my god, if ever there was a best picture winner, that is it. Absolutely stunning from the first frame to the last.

  9. movielocke says:

    too true on critics.

    Also, I find it hilarious how many Oscar Experts do not realize that they are being EXPERTLY played by the consultants who are masterfully downplaying Dragon Tattoo. The question is, have they downplayed it too much? I say if we hear one or two mischievous rumblings and trickles about Dragon Tattoo next week, then the experts have been played, the praise will expand geometrically week by week from next week, and reach an undeniable fever pitch by the Christmas opening: The Avatar model seems to be clearly in play in terms of letting the skeptical critics “feel” like they discovered and were responsible for discovering some unexpected treasure; then, combined with the Departed/No Country model of getting a dark movie across the finish line, Dragon Tattoo may wind up winning it. Spielberg is too easy for the consultants to take down: it’s simple, you can always make academy audiences feel smart and intellectual and good about themselves by disliking Spielberg+emotion. And if you make someone feel good about themselves to be mean about something, they will cheerfully do your work for you, this is the model against ELAIC as well, expect counter whispers that “it’s too soon” and “of course they would use 9/11, that’s just so easy to go there” sort of teardowns designed to elevate the audience ripping it.

    Meanwhile you can always make an audience feel smart by praising them for being brave and unprecedented and far-sighted and open-minded in embracing something dark. *cue eye roll*

    That’s why the MYTH of the modern academy loving sappy films is so infuriating, look at the last ten years and Million Dollar Baby is maybe the only classic academy movie that actually won. Most of the wins in the last ten years have been of the Silence of the Lambs/Unforgiven style of Academy, not the Terms of Endearment/Amadeus style of the Academy.

  10. movieman says:

    …or TOE/Amadeus/King’s Speech style of the Academy, Movielocke?

  11. movieman says:

    …I think people are reacting to last year’s clearly retrograde choice when circling “The Artist,” “War Horse” and “Descendants” as the leading BP contenders this annum.

  12. chris says:

    That is not “too true on critics.” Sorry, DP — I know you write a lot, so these things happen. But that original comment of yours is sloppy and dismissive. Your “nothing critics hate more than finding themselves emotionally moved” constructions means all or virtually all critics hate emotional movies more than anything else (like bad movies?) and that is demonstrably not true. Is even a lesser charge that lots of critics hate to be moved by movies true? Of Ebert, say? No. Schwarzbaum? No. Rickey? No. Morgenstern? No. Means? No. Maybe what you mean is the New York Times’ critics are suspicious of their emotions, which might be an easier case to try to make but I don’t even think it’s true of them. Most critics watch movies because they hope to be moved by them.

  13. David Poland says:

    Chris – I have been writing this exact same thing for years… and it remains true. Can’t make a much assholier than thou statement than “I know you write a lot, so these things happen.” You disagree, fine. Don’t try to turn it into something other than that.

    What I mean is that a LOT of critics get turned out when they feel weighty human emotions that are hard to intellectualize in films.

    Yes, obviously, there are those who don’t get sucked into that problem.

    “Bad movies” are as subjective as anything else. But I am primarily talking about serious movies with serious intentions that enrage many critics when there is no place to put that emotion. It can be as sappy as Spielberg can be or as harsh as Von Trier.

    We can play macro/micro all day long, but the fact is that many quality films have been wounded by a lot of criticism that knee jerks over the issue of “feeling something” and never quite recovers. And the NYT critics aren’t really a significant part of the problem.

    As for the critics you mention, like them all. And I can point to vulnerable points in some of their work. So they may be happy to cry, but there are other question marks. We ALL have them. Me, for sure. But some issues reach a tipping point where the limitation becomes part of the trend writing. And that is when I am sickened.

    War Horse will be massively popular amongst the entertainment reporter/critic group. I expect it to be in the Top 10 of our MCN List Of Top 10 Lists at the end of the year, which embraces all kinds of critics… and in the mid-50s in the Village Voice poll, which tends to more “serious” critics.

    I guess the punch line to this is that Disney, which is being very precious about how reviews are landing, understands this and wants to avoid a bunch of dismissive “Oh, Steven” reviews from the smarties long before release.

  14. movieman says:

    Hasn’t this post been edited?
    I could’ve sworn there was a reference to a 96 minute run time which seemed wildly off since my DW rep insists that it’s actually 146 minutes long.

  15. chris says:

    It’s not that I’m disagreeing. It’s that any blanket that starts with “Critics hate” is already wrong before you get to what you’re claiming they hate. Not sure why you’re climbing all over me, but I apologize if my attempt to be sympathetic sounded assholic.

  16. Yancy Berns says:

    Dave is 100% right. Even the guy who put “Terms of Endearment” and “Million Dollar Baby” in the “classic Oscar weepies” category seems to imply that those films reached their emotions dishonestly. Bullshit. “Terms of Endearment” is a movie that nails this point of Poland’s about critics and emotion: they work their way backwards, they feel emotion, then try to figure out how they were manipulated, since a critic is supposed to be unfazed by tears or emotion… because those are supposed to be unintellectual qualities… which totally destroys the idea of art-in-film in the first place. Take another look at “Terms” and tell me how it lies, how it’s dishonest, how the sentimentality is cheap… because, while ToE certainly got great reviews, it’s modern-day rep as a shameless, shallow tear jerker couldn’t be less earned. Unless Armond White and his nasties would rather a movie NEVER have a beloved character die on camera, which seems like censorship to me.

Quote Unquotesee all »

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