HAMMOND: Can Indies Steal Oscars Again?

Previously in Pete Hammond’s 3-part series:
Woody Allen, Brad Pitt, ‘The Help’ Among Early 2011 Oscar Contenders
Clooney, Clint, And Spielberg Put Major Studios Back Into Oscar Race

After looking last week at the potential awards landscape for the first eight months of 2011, and then at what Oscar-pedigreed films the major studios have in store for fall and holiday slots, it’s time to turn to the independent world, which has become such a key force in the season. For the majors, Oscars are nice but not vital. For the indies, award strategies are key and could mean the difference between a hit film or a miss. With little-pictures-that-could Best Picture triumphs in recent years like Crash, The Hurt Locker and last year’s The King’s Speech, indies have proven that with less money to spend, a savvy campaign and a little luck, the right film at the right time can grab the gold. Ever since the advent of screeners evened the playing field to some extent, it’s been a different ballgame. And the indies use the fall festival circuit (starting next week at Venice, followed by Telluride and Toronto) to start up the awards buzz. Already this year, indies like Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris and Terrence Malick’s Cannes Film Festival winner The Tree of Life are seriously in the hunt for those prized Best Picture slots and, as detailed by the soon-to-be-released contenders from the companies below, they might not be alone among upstart pictures this year.

Here’s a look at what possible award contenders from the indie sector will be coming our way in the last four — and most crucial — months of the year.

The Weinstein Company

With The King’s Speech last year, the Weinsteins scored their first Best Picture triumph since the heady days of Miramax. Can they do it two years in a row with another British bio, The Iron Lady? Just about everyone agrees Meryl Streep’s still-unseen portrait of Margaret Thatcher in this Dec. 16 release will put her in strong contention to finally win that third Oscar, but can the movie score, too? Time will tell, although it would seem to be a better shot in the Actress category.

Harvey Weinstein had a big Cannes triumph with the crowd-pleasing black-and-white French-produced silent picture The Artist (Nov. 23), and it could have the same effect on the Academy audience that it did with the French, thereby leading to one of those Best Picture slots, even though the movie might not have enough “gravitas” to sneak in. The Weinsteins will get a good idea when the film launches in the English-speaking world next week on the fest circuit. Certainly Cannes Best Actor Jean Dujardin is a great bet for a nomination no matter what.

With a busy fall, the company is hoping Michelle Williams and Kenneth Branagh — who play Marilyn Monroe and Laurence Olivier in My Week With Marilyn (Nov. 4) — will land acting kudos along with Ralph Fiennes (who also directed) in the title role of the contemporary Shakespeare adaptation Coriolanus (Dec. 2). As his mother, Vanessa Redgrave is extraordinary in a beefy supporting turn. She should start getting the gowns for the awards circuit ready now.

Awards prospects are anybody’s guess for Madonna’s latest directorial stab, W.E. (Dec. 9), which with its storyline involving Wallis Simpson is certainly different for the pop star. And I hear there is the possibility of a late-season qualifying run for the Jennifer Garner film Butter that has been described as a Capra-esque comedy/drama set in the cutthroat world of competitive butter carving. Fest auds will see this first, and their reaction will probably weigh heavily in Weinstein’s decision to enter that other cutthroat competition.

Focus Features

With a sterling cast including Gary Oldman as British spy George Smiley and newly minted Oscar winner Colin Firth, this latest adaptation of John Le Carre’s novel, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, could be butter itself for Oscar voters. There’s lots of buzz already around Oldman’s performance, which the world will see when it premieres at the Venice Film Festival in early September, followed closely by its Sept. 16 opening in England. American audiences will have to wait much longer as I have just learned Focus has switched its stateside debut from the previously announced date of Nov. 18 to the heart of the holiday (and Oscar) season Dec. 9.

Focus will also have its Sundance winner Pariah entering the fray in December  and is fully committed to campaigning it as well, particularly for its 17-year-old star Adepero Oduye, who plays a Brooklyn high school student who isn’t exactly what she seems, at least to her more conservative parents. Certainly the success of Precious with Academy voters should give Focus hope this can follow a Sundance path to Oscar attention, and definitely Indie Spirits.

Fox Searchlight

The Fox specialty division has enjoyed consistent success with its awards campaigns, landing eight Academy Awards for Slumdog Millionaire and lots of acting awards, most recently Natalie Portman for Black Swan. Searchlight’s two big upcoming fall hopefuls include another Sundance pickup, Martha Marcy May Marlene (Oct. 21), with a breakout performance from Olsen twin sister Elizabeth Olsen, who they hope will be the Jennifer Lawrence of this year. Then Oscar winner Alexander Payne (for Searchlight’s Sideways) is back with the George Clooney Hawaiian-set family drama The Descendants (Nov. 23), which along with Sony’s The Ides of March gives Clooney a one-two punch. Buzz is strong, and we’ll see how it plays in Toronto, and before that almost certainly I would guess in Telluride, where Payne is a favorite and frequent visitor.

Searchlight also finally has Kenneth Lonergan’s (You Can Count on Me) 2006 drama Margaret in a limited opening Sept. 30 after years of legal battles reportedly over an initial three-hour running time. With a cast including Oscar winners and nominees like Anna Paquin, Matt Damon and Mark Ruffalo you don’t want to discount it, but no one seems to be whispering Oscar Oscar on this one.

Sony Pictures Classics

Fall is always prime time for the now-20-year-old SPC, and co-presidents Michael Barker and Tom Bernard seem to be banking on world-class directors to put them back in the Oscar race, where they seem to be every year.

There’s Pedro Almodovar’s creepy but terrific The Skin I Live In (Oct. 14), which should have won him something at Cannes but didn’t (you made a mistake, jury). There’s David Cronenberg’s period drama A Dangerous Method (Dec. 9), a film with tremendous buzz that premieres in Venice on its way to just about every other fall fest. And there’s Roman Polanski’s adaptation of the Tony-winning comedy God of Carnage, now simply renamed Carnage, with a cast including Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, John O’Reilly and Christoph Waltz. With superstar directors like that on your slate, who needs Woody? (Oh wait, they have him, too.)

Another SPC film, Take Shelter, which was a Grand Prize winner during Critics Week in Cannes, comes from director Jeff Nichols, whose only previous feature was Shotgun Stories. But it is just as accomplished as some of the best work from any of SPC’s other directors this year and could figure heavily in the Indie Spirits this year if not beyond.

Summit

With one Best Picture (The Hurt Locker) already in its young history, Summit’s big fall play is of course The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1 (Nov. 18), the beginning of the end for the Twilight series. While not an Oscar contender unless director Bill Condon is a miracle worker, it should figure heavily just like its predecessors did in the Teen Choice, People’s Choice and MTV Movie Awards, if that is any consolation.

But in addition to their summer release A Better Life, Summit could find serious awards traction in the honest, touching and surprisingly funny cancer drama 50/50 (Sept. 30), which offers award-level work from Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Anjelica Huston, among others. It should play well in Toronto and could be on its way to a nice awards-season run if audiences aren’t turned off by the subject matter.

Roadside Attractions

With their first Best Pic nominee Winter’s Bone and Foreign-Language and Best Actor nominee Biutiful, Roadside announced last year it was a major new indie force in the Oscar race (it also won Best Documentary Feature for The Cove two years ago). This year its hopes are pinned on the Sundance pickup Margin Call (Oct. 21), starring some terrific actors including Kevin Spacey and Jeremy Irons in a riveting drama that may hit too close to home for stock market investors. Their ace player, though, could be recent pickup Albert Nobbs, in which Glenn Close reportedly hits it out of the park as a woman who must disguise herself as a man in order to survive in 19th century Ireland. The five-time nominee looks to be back in the race for the first time since 1988, especially if the performance turns out to be as good as the advance buzz among pundits who still haven’t seen it. Toronto is likely their first opportunity.

Lionsgate

Still a true indie, Lionsgate hasn’t been able to replicate its 2005 Best Picture heist with Crash, one of the all-time great Oscar-campaign success stories (although it may have come close with Precious in 2009 winning a couple of Oscars and a Best Pic nom). Last year they made a buy of Rabbit Hole at Toronto and turned it around quickly to get Nicole Kidman a Best Actress nod. Failing that kind of quick step again, their hopes seem to ride on the Sept. 9 release of Warrior, an emotional drama from director Gavin O’Connor set in the world of mixed martial arts that has been getting lots of traction in early screenings. Some are comparing it favorably, even more so, to The Fighter. Whether the distrib finds it profitable enough to go on an all-out campaign remains to be seen, but stars Joel Edgerton and Tom Hardy are great and Nick Nolte as their ne’er-do-well father could land a supporting nod no matter what happens to the film, which will undoubtedly draw strong word-of-mouth.

Film District

Graham King’s new FilmDistrict boasts Peter Schlessel and Bob Berney on its executive team, some early boxoffice successes like Insidious and Soul Surfer, and now could have the stuff for a few Oscar nominations. With its Cannes-winning (Best Director for Nicolas Winding Refn) noir Drive (Sept. 16), Ryan Gosling (who is also in Ides of March) is great, and Albert Brooks is definite supporting fodder as he is uncharacteristically cast as a heavy. Critics will continue to love it, and that could keep it going through the season.

Their other contender comes from Angelina Jolie, who makes her directorial and writing debut with the Bosnian War-set drama In The Land of Blood and Honey, and Berney tells me she is the real deal and says he was very impressed when he saw the film. But we’ll have to wait until Dec. 23 to find out, as the film is not currently set to hit the fest circuit. Certainly Oscar voters have rewarded actors-turned-directors before, from Warren Beatty and Robert Redford to Kevin Costner, Clint Eastwood and Mel Gibson. Could Jolie be the first female acting superstar to pull off a nomination?

Oscilloscope

The boutique company landed a couple of nominations for The Messenger in 2009 and now have their Cannes competition pickup We Need to Talk About Kevin (Dec. 2) to carry their banner this year. Oscar winner Tilda Swinton’s performance was critically praised, although the film deals with heavy subject matter (her son goes on a high school shooting rampage) and got mixed reaction. It won no prizes, although Swinton was certainly deserving. With her serious cred in the Academy’s actors branch, she could turn up in a very competitive Best Actress race.

Magnolia

Magnolia is charging ahead with its beautifully shot end-of-days drama Melancholia even despite the unfortunate Hitler and Nazi rantings of its director Lars von Trier at his Cannes press conference. In spite of his being banned from the festival, the film still went on to win Best Actress there for star Kirsten Dunst, and Magnolia plans at the very least to make sure awards voters remember her and not the words of her director. Magnolia quietly qualified the film already in a one-week run deep in the San  Fernando Valley.

Relativity

When Lionsgate said it couldn’t release the film this year, Relativity came to the rescue of Machine Gun Preacher (Sept. 23) and are planning its Toronto unveiling of the true story of a former drug addict turned Christian who helps save orphans in East Sudan. Relativity is hoping to gain traction for star Gerard Butler’s fine performance in a film that is much more subtle and affecting than its title might indicate.

  1. Still a lot of movies to come this year but don’t recall ever getting this late in the year and not being able to name a handful of “can’t miss” best picture noms. Have seen nothing yet this year I’d bet my life on. Closet thing would be Midnight In Paris.

    1. Midnight in Paris has been out for over three months now, and I hear that this week they’re adding a few hundred screens (to the over-500 level again). This will probably keep it in the malls for at least a week or two past Labor Day, I’d imagine. Midnight might not have the artistic or dramatic gravitas to be front runner favorite for the top awards, but I don’t see how anyone will have forgotten it once awards season comes around. My bet is that it will get lots of nominations in a real grab bag o’ categories.

      It seems to me that a lot of indie films are getting very small releases this year, which must make it mega-tough to generate any sort of award momentum. I wonder if that’s because maybe there are more movies fighting for screens these days? Or if the Box Office is being crueler to the small films than the blockbusters this year (so far)?

      Tree of Life seems like it should get lots of consideration, but I have a feeling that it will be at the mercy of the fates. If something impressively shiny and flashy comes along later this year (Maybe Tinker Tailor? or even Hugo? who knows?), then Tree of Life might very quickly become an also-ran.

  2. The brits aree not liking the “Iron Lady”, they have her talking to her dead hubby while he wears a pink turbin? Why don’t they do a bio about Bill Clinton and show the alleged 1979 rape they say he commited? No, they won’t do that while he’s still alive.

  3. What about Brendan Gleeson in THE GUARD? Surprised SPC isn’t getting the word out about this movie. It played really well to a sold out house when I saw it two weeks ago at the Landmark.

  4. PH is right about WARRIOR. Saw an advanced screening at the Landmark. Hardy is incredible and Edgerton stays with him. Nolte hasn’t been this good since AFFLICTION. Multiple noms if Lionsgate doesn’t botch it.

  5. What about Bill Nighy in the political spy drama, Page Eight? Its yet to be picked up for distributon but written/directed by David Hare (the Reader and the Hour), but Nighy is said to shine.

  6. I saw The Warrior at an advanced screening too. It’s incredible. Better then The Fighter. This generations Rocky and then some. Noms for sure in directing and performances all around.

  7. Does anyone know why In the Land of Blood and Honey isn’t playing the Festival circuit??? I’m dying to hear more about it!

  8. I saw The Guard at the TriBeca Film Fest. It was good, but certainly NOT Oscar-worthy. Try again.

  9. British power bio starring Streep and produced by the Weinsteins? Yawn. All it needs is a WWII flashback to cement its Best Picture gold while the more deserving films get ignored again.

  10. I saw Drive on Thursday – It was absolutely fantastic. Definitely deserves Oscar recognition for Direction, Gosling and a stunning soundtrack.

  11. Didn’t the Weinsteins distribute “Sarah’s key?”. It’s doing great business, I’m surprised they wouldn’t try to push Kristin Scott Thomas for a Best Actress nod, she was very good in it.

  12. I wouldn’t hold my breath on MARGARET. Unless the Academy has changed its rules again, a film must be released within two years of wrapping principal photography in order to be eligible.

  13. Steve McQueen’s SHAME will get the US indies falling over themselves after Venice. Fassbender nails it and it’ll be a lead contender in the UK at the BIFAs and BAFTAs.

  14. As much Oscar bait as Sony Classics has from some legendary auteurs this year, look out for TAKE SHELTER. It blew people away at the Cannes screening I attended. If the Academy has any integrity, Michael Shannon will score a nom. And this may be Jessica Chastain’s best shot of her 7 or so films out this year. She’s exceptional too.

  15. Oh, vomit. Here we go again with Meryl’s annual vanity vehicle where she gets to wow us with her accent and cause pretentious knee-jerk critics to quake in their boots while having spontaneous emissions of Meryl worship.

    Mery’l could fart for two hours in front of a camera and manage to do it with an accent and the critics would fawn.

    1. If Meryl Streep could fart with a British accent you wouldn’t be impressed? You’re fooling yourself.

  16. HAHAHA maybe if hollywood made decent movies again people would care–but that’s a big IF

    a couple years ago..the academy wanted to nominate TEN movies for best picture (to get the more mainstream movies nominated, instead of nominating five movies no one has seen or will want to see)

    now they’re trying all sorts of contortions to get audience interest back in the oscars…WON’T HAPPEN…unless Hollywood makes movies people CARE ABOUT again—hasn’t happened in at least a decade

    here’s pretty much what hollywood shoves down our throats:

    1) Overmarketed, expensive, loud, boring movies starring charimsa challenged “stars”

    2) “indy” movies about hipsters no one gives two shits about, except critics and other movie people in hollywood and manhattan

    add on top of that..the entertainment industry’s outright DISDAIN for half their potential audience..and voila: an antiquated “award” that doesn’t really matter anymore

    hope you enjoy hollywood

  17. Some of the independent films listed here seem to be coming out too early for Oscar buzz.

    If you’re an indie and have an Oscar-worthy film, you better release it in December!!

    Otherwise, your film might not get much consideration.

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