HAMMOND: Woody Allen, Brad Pitt, 'The Help' & Cast Among Early 2011 Leading Oscar Contenders; Can They Hang On?

OK, I’ll say it: If the Oscars were held today (nearly two-thirds of the way through 2011) Woody Allen could have another Best Picture winner. Of course the 84th Academy Awards aren’t being held yet and we are still four and a half months away from the end of eligibility. But as I embark on the fall season beginning with the Venice + Telluride + Toronto film festivals it’s time to take a look at where things stand and where things are going. First up in this series of posts: Is there anything released so far in 2011 with a realistic chance to ultimately win Best Picture? Or at the very least earn a nomination? Remember, new rules say from 5 to 10 films could be nominated, meaning each nominee can’t get there without receiving at least 300 first place votes in the nominating process. Conventional wisdom is that films released in the first 8 months of the year are at a tremendous disadvantage to those coming out in the fall and holiday season. Last year no eventual winner in the top 8 categories was released before October — and 7 of those winners came out on or after Thanksgiving. Then again some recent Best Pic winners like The Hurt Locker (2010) and Crash (2005) came from the first half of their respective years. Other classic Best Pic champs like Patton, The Godfather, The Silence Of The Lambs, Gladiator, Braveheart, and yes, Woody Allen’s first Best Picture, Annie Hall (1977), were all released in the first 5 months of their respective years so it would be foolish to downgrade the chances of movies we’ve already seen this year. Or would it? Indeed 4 of last time’s 10 Best Picture nominees were released in June and July.

But other than animated films like Rango and Rio there were no solid Best Pic possibilities until we hit the Cannes Film Festival in May. Slowly simmering Best Picture talk was sparked by the fest opener, Allen’s rapturously received Midnight In Paris and Terrence Malick’s Palme d’Or winner The Tree Of Life which both went on to later May domestic releases. The Allen film has become his most financially successful film ever and it will hit the $50 million benchmark this weekend. Its official Academy screening was packed to the rafters (“the best turnout I have seen in years”, according to one member) and was extremely well received. “I liked it but some members I know got mad at me because I didn’t love it,” another voter told me. “I haven’t seen anything that’s gotten that kind of response.”

One awards consultant with no connection to Sony Pictures Classics or Allen’s film asked. “Who would have thought Midnight In Paris would be the first film cemented [for a nomination]?” But some contend that it is just too lightweight to go the distance and will fade. Still, to get those ever-more-crucial first-place votes, a film has to have a passionate uber-enthusiastic following. And the vibe I am currently getting from numerous members is that Woody hit this one out of the park. And let’s face it: with Woody’s career tally of 21 nominations and 3 wins, the Academy is friendly territory for him, at least when he’s on his game. His last directing nod was in 1994 for Bullets Over Broadway. His most recent writing nod was 6 years ago for the drama Match Point. With SPC planning a major campaign, nominations are not out of the question for Picture, Directing, Supporting Actress (Marion Cotillard) and one is already locked for Original Screenplay.

Fox Searchlight’s The Tree Of Life has experienced a more divided reaction from some voters. But those who are passionate about Malick are really passionate. Others, not so much. An actors branch member: “I think Brad Pitt’s great, really wonderful. I think that section — I call it the mushroom trip — lost a lot of people when I saw it at the Academy. It was about 2/3s full and there weren’t many walkouts. But lukewarm applause.” Despite split verdicts like that it can’t be discounted, even though Malick’s only previous Best Picture nomination came from 1998’s The Thin Red Line and the last Palme d’Or winner to take Oscar’s top award was Marty back in 1955. A lot will depend on how Fox Searchlight campaigns the film. The savvy company could position it as too important and groundbreaking to ignore. Filmmakers admire Malick for being able to get his own vision on screen, and don’t forget the Cannes jury that awarded it the top prize included Academy members like Jude Law, Uma Thurman, and Robert De Niro (who praised the film for its obvious ambition).

Older members in particular may prefer Dreamworks’ The Help which drew an estimated 95% capacity house at its AMPAS screening last weekend and “massive” applause for Viola Davis  and other members of the ensemble cast. It’s the kind of entertaining yet socially conscious movie that the Academy has fallen for in past decades and there may be a taste for that again. “If it got a Best Picture nomination I would not be sorry at all,”  said one normally hard-to-please member in attendance. A recent SAG nominating committee screening at the Arclight in Hollywood featured a Q&A with the six principal female stars who drew multiple standing ovations. A Dreamworks source told me they hadn’t planned on dealing with Oscar talk too early, just hoping to open the film successfully. (They did with $35 million in the first five days.) But the response has moved up their timetable. Expect a major campaign with hoped-for nods including Davis as Best Actress and Octavia Spencer for Best Supporting Actress, and a SAG Cast nomination would seem to be in reach. If the film continues its strong box office run, then comparisons to The Blind Side which scored a Best Pic nod and a Best Actress win for Sandra Bullock two years ago will be inevitable. Of course that was when the Acad had to nominate 10 pictures. Despite a 74% fresh score at Rotten Tomatoes, critics groups will probably not be of much help. But when the Academy embraces something with its heart as it did Blind Side and reigning Best Pic winner The King’s Speech, all bets are off.

Among summer blockbusters with Best Picture aspirations, Warner Bros will launch an aggressive campaign for the final franchise film, Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows Part 2 with hopes of landing a Best Picture nod as recognition of the critical and box office success of the entire series (a la Lord of the Rings although the comparisons aren’t really that apt). And Paramount is plotting a campaign for J.J. Abrams and Steven Spielberg’s Super 8, with the studio planning to remind voters of the warm feelings the film generated “even though it opened waaaaay back in June”. Due to its themes it could have strong appeal to filmmakers — it’s sort of E.T. meets Day For Night meets Aliens, all Oscar winners — even though most pundits will probably write off its chances when more serious fare opens. Two years ago, the August release District 9 won a rare sci-fi Best Pic nomination (again there were a required 10). The studio is also hoping to gain attention for supporting actress Elle Fanning and has already started on a pre-nominations screening series for Academy and the Guilds.

20th Century Fox might seriously be thinking about mounting a Supporting Actor campaign on behalf of Andy Serkis who plays lead ape Caesar in the smash Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes. But many in the acting branch and SAG still openly fear the effects of the performance capture process which blends CGI with actors’ movements to create a character. Some critics have been openly calling for a Serkis nomination but some actors are wary it could be the beginning of the end for the profession. So it’s a long shot. The role actually requires great talent, and Serkis would be an inspired choice. The film played to about 70% capacity at its official AMPAS screening on Saturday night and was well-received I am told by an impartial Academy member who was there.

More likely actors will go with 81-year-old Christopher Plummer’s touching performance as a man who comes out of the closet right near the end of his life in the June release Beginners. He would seem to be a lock on a supporting nod. And hopefully voters won’t forget Mexican star Demian Bichir’s great work in June’s A Better Life or Rachel Weisz in the current The Whistleblower — even though both indie films failed to ignite at the box office in any major way. The Weinstein Company’s Sarah’s Key could also draw attention, particularly for the overdue Kristin Scott Thomas.

Areas with bountiful candidates to choose from in the first eight months of 2011’s film crop are Animated Feature (led by Rango and Rio), Documentary Feature (Buck, Senna, Page One: Inside The New York Times, Project Nim and Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams) and of course the Visual Effects category always friendly to summer blockbusters has now been expanded to 5 nominees.

The bigger challenge for films with a January through August birthdate will be staying front of mind when the real competitive onslaught begins next month.

Coming up: A look at the Fall and Holiday contenders from the Major Studios and Independents.

    1. Charlie Day’s performance in Horrible bosses should be seriously considered — it was absolutely hilarious — if they can nominate robert downey jr for tropic thunder and oscar winners kevin kline and alan arkin — they can certainly include Charlie Day. Comedy performances need to be taken more seriously. Anyone who has watched this hit movie — and did not know who charlie day was — said — who is that guy. It is oscar worthy.

      I hope Viola Davis wins best actress and Leonardo Dicaprio finally gets best actor.

      1. Why? Leo hasn’t shown any real chops.
        Ol’pumpkinhead acted exactly the same in both of his movies last year “Inception” and “Shutter Island.”
        He’s not a man. He still sounds like a kid who just
        came out of the arcade.

  1. Tree of Life was the best thing to happen to cinema this year. It’s transcendent and renewed my faith in what movies are capable of doing. If it’s not nominated for Best Pic, it will be a travesty.

    1. Agreed. It is the only “mainstream” artistic film to take heavy narrative chances this year. Everything is churned out in “verse-chorus-verse” fashion, and it’s good to see an American film that colors outside the lines.

      And Pitt was astonishingly good in it.

      We need more films that throw our senses a curve-ball. It keeps us evolving.

    2. I’ve seen all of Malick’s films and loved them all to different degrees. The first two were masterpieces. There is no other director like him… Tarkovsky and Kubrick are of the same vein, I guess but you wouldn’t confuse their work with his.

      Tree Of Life was possibly brilliant…. and had I not fallen asleep I would witnessed all that brilliance, but alas…. The pace did me in. Jeez, I could’ve read Darwin’s reimagined version of the bible and still had time for dinner and cocktails maybe even a quick bit of nookie, and then looked up and finally seen Sean Penn on the screen (looking his most emotionally constipated BTW) at the end of the movie.

      No matter how brilliant an artist is he’s still got to hold my interest if I’m supposed to sit still for 3 hours and watch his stuff. Damn, that movie was slow.

      But yeah, I ain’t mad at you for liking it…. Malick is still one of the best directors of all time but if The Tree Of Life is nominated for best picture… it will be a travesty.

    3. Nominating Tree of Life for best pic (especially if it were to win) is a great way for the Academy to reinforce the perception of the public that the Academy is completely out of touch with what general audiences enjoy.

      1. That’s why they have the “People’s Choice” awards! The whole point is to award real artistic achievement and not box office, if only the Academy actually did that instead of trying to get ratings for the broadcast. The Tree of Life is easily the best film released so far this year.

        1. Sorry, waiting for DVD to see “Tree of Life.” From all indications, I’m going to need a fast-forward button.

          1. if you’re going to see it at all, definitely see it in the theatre. it won’t make sense on a tv screen.

      2. The Academy should be out of touch, to some degree, with general audiences.

        General audiences made Transformers 3 one of the biggest movies of the year, had Bad Teacher hitting pretty much $100M, etc.. Their taste and eye for quality, quite frankly, often fails miserably.

  2. If Keaton can win for Annie Hall and Roberts can get nominated for Pretty Woman, why can’t Wiig for her equally winning, if more subtle take on the female lead?

  3. a little early to think about this. But since you brought it up. I thought Midnight in Paris was fine, but thin and ultimately a tad annoying. Inez (rchel Mcadams) was all over the place. First, she was fine, but then a total shrew just to make us not hate gil (owen) for falling for adriana (cotillard). And also smart in the beginning and then dumb for the whole earring incident. when gil says the line, something to the effect, I like this older paris because they understand when a man falls in love with two women, I can’t help but think of woody married to mia and sleeping with soon yi. No, woody, it isn’t cute, funny, romantic, heroic or sympathetic to be sleeping with two women, not even if you manipulate the plot so as soon as you fall for the other woman, your wife turns into a stupid shrew.

    The more i think about it the more i get annoyed. Do women really like this?

    1. we’ve heard it all before from you… time to get on with your life… everyone else has

      must drive you crazy it’s such a big hit

    2. I liked Midnight, but had the same issue(s) with McAdams’ character. I thought it was pretty lazy writing and unfortunate because if she had been more well rounded/if Owen’s character actually had a real choice to make… Paris or my wife (who is a good person I actually love) the film would have been so much stronger.

      Instead of A it was more like a B/B+. A fun time at the movies but not a Best Picture nominee.

    3. We all know it’s an easy device to have the wife/girlfriend/boyfriend/partner/whatever as a shrew if we want our main guy to fall for someone else. It’s so much easier than dealign with the subtleties of mismatched relationships. Woody clearly didn’t spend a lot of time figuring that one out. But who cares? Woody ain’t the first and he sure won’t be the last.

      As creepy as he is…. He still makes some good movies.

      I liked the movie… it’s not a masterpiece but it’s good. If it gets nominated for best pic then that says more either about the academy or about the movies coming down the pike because in a pretty good year for film this wouldn’t get considered…. Are they doing 10 film nominees again? If so then it will probably get a spot. If it’s still 5 then I doubt it.

    4. Woody never married Mia and never actually lived with her. But that’s no excuse for his bad behavior.

      1. Woody is a saint compaired to some hollywood pukes when it comes to womanizing.

        Woody could also care less about Hollywood, and if the film wins, he wouldn’t show up to collect the award anyway.

  4. For reference, can someone tell me how many seats there usually are in AMPAS screenings? I’ve been to a few Guild screenings, but only in NY, where some of the studio theaters are maybe 50-60 seats.

    I hope a campaign is made for Corey Stoll in Midnight in Paris. His Hemingway was my favorite part.

    1. 1012 seats @ the (beautiful) Samuel Goldwyn Theater at the Academy’s hq in Beverly Hills — according to the Publicists Guild Directory.

  5. Andy Serkis deserves a nomination. There would have been no movie without him. Every thought, facial expression, every FEELING went into that character. The most moving performance I have seen all year.

    1. Apes was the best movie I saw this year, and it wasn’t because I was trapped under a piano and didn’t go to the theater. Some of the acting sucked, but not Andy Serkis, and it was about something. The script was thoughtful, even if the pace was slow. Midnight in Paris was well made and properly paced, but it was like cotton candy for intellectual white people: fast consumed, little remembered.

      Demian Bichir was incredible in A Better Life, too. But then I don’t have a vote.

    2. Even if the Academy gets over it’s prejudice against CGI- enhanced acting (and they’d BETTER, because the issue is clearly going to keep coming up), they’ll STILL cheat Andy Serkis by giving him only a “supporting” nod. Seriously, does anybody think he ISN’T the star of the film?

  6. I think Corey Stall who played Hemingway in paris should definitely get a nomination, more so that cotillard.

    and bates as Stein was a breath of fresh air but ultimately a very tiny part.

    Too bad real comedies aren’t eligible because Bridesmaids was so terrific.

  7. There is now a distinct separation of Independent and Mainstream Movie ! My preference is for ‘Midnight in Paris’ and ‘Tree of Life’ , but I think we will see Michael Bay’s ‘Transformers’ and David Yates ‘Harry Potter’ finales take most of the awards !

  8. really unfortunate that the Oscars have to be somewhat political and put all their current weight behind Midnight in Paris, instead of a fresh, innovative and overall remarkable film like Bellflower. Hope that one gets an Academy screening. Cinematography and directing would be a lock in an ideal world.

  9. Seriously how come noone has mentioned Daniel Radcliffe getting a Best Actor nod. I think he deserves the nod for recognition of the entire series. While the Deathly Hallows Part 2 was not the best in thes series, Radcliffe’s performance in the last film was quite wonderful.

  10. Just saw The Help earlier today (the theater was almost 3/4 full, I’ve never seen such a crowd on an early Tuesday evening). Surely it won’t get much in the way of nominations outside of acting, particularly for Viola Davis? The main antagonist is an OTT cartoon character, basically, to re-assure the audience there’s no way *they’re* as racist as her. Plus, with the new Best Picture rules, how many voters are going to rank it #1?

    Good to see Emma Stone continue on her rise to big fame, though.

  11. Rachel Weisz’s performance in “The Whistleblower” is the best female performance of the year. As for male, the jury is still out.

  12. Midnight in Paris is the best film I’ve seen this year so far. Would love for it to get a nom for Best pic.

    The Help was disappointing to me, but Viola Davis was excellent and worthy.

  13. Source Code? Source Code is definitely a Best Pic nod. Come on don’t forget about it, I liked it better than Midnight in Paris. Anyone disagree?

    She deserves every award known to man, she is the soul of acting!!
    Breathtaking heart and craft, astounding beautiful work!!!

    Hollywood heed this call, put her in everything!!! She is our
    Helen Mirren, she can do anything and everything, at any age —
    lets celebrate this amazing artist!!!

    1. AGREED! Viola Davis is long overdue for recognition. Meryl Streep said as much in her Golden Globes speech a few years ago.

  15. Even if Midnight In Paris wins Best Picture we all know Steven Spielberg will be Best Director. How do I know well Spielberg has won with “Saving Private Ryan” (war film), “Schindler’s List” (film about war), so his next film “War Horse” is a war film that is British. That’s spells Best Pic right, King Speech?

  16. If the Academy had any balls they’d nominate THE DEVIL’S DOUBLE. Best Picture, Director, and Best Actor. Dominic Cooper gives BY FAR the best performance of 2011.

  17. Saw a preview screening for “50/50” today. If there isn’t Best Actor buzz for Joseph Gordon-Levitt, there will be.

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