Could Oscar finally be ready to place his Best Picture prestige on some genuine movie blockbusters for a welcome change? Sounds far-fetched but read on, but first a little explanation for this pipe dream of mine.
With the close of June today we are now at the halfway mark in the eligibility period for the 90th Academy Awards. Of course, the first six months in an Oscar race is akin to horses heading toward the gates at the Kentucky Derby. Oscar season doesn’t get underway in earnest until the Fall Festival trifecta of Venice, Telluride and Toronto in early September. Whatever serious contenders come before are generally (but not always) regarded as long shots in a contest where October-December releasing is considered crucial to your chances.
Last season the earliest opening date for one of the nine eventual Best Picture nominees was August 11 for Hell Or High Water, and that was the outlier. Seven of the other nominees were all released in November and December, and the now-infamous Best Picture winner Moonlight got a jump start on October 10. On a sane planet where predicting Oscars used to be easy before the Academy started inviting the rest of the world to get heavily invested in the process (witness this week’s announcement of 774 new members), you could count on certain predictable patterns. No more.
But one thing remains relatively safe to predict: no film released between January and June will likely be a Best Picture nominee. Only two films opening before May in this millennium have even landed a Best Picture nomination (March releases Erin Brockovich in 2000 and The Grand Budapest Hotel in 2014), though there are occasional exceptions of May or June openings triumphing as Best Picture such as Gladiator, Crash, The Hurt Locker, Braveheart. But it’s rare, and getting rarer, as studios and distributors just don’t want to take the risk of losing awards momentum by going so early in the year.
A quick glance at some of the titles released so far this year points to a few specialty releases that probably have shots in some categories. Last week’s release of Sundance smash The Big Sick could even find its way into the Best Picture conversation, especially since deep-pocketed Amazon plans a large campaign and is dribbling it out slowly to build buzz across the entire summer. With 97% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, critical support will be crucial to keeping it alive when the tsunami of Fall contenders start landing.
On another front I am reliably told (by its producers) the year’s top grossing feature ($1.2 billion or so), Disney’s live action take on Beauty And The Beast which opened in March, is also going to launch a serious campaign, targeting the Golden Globes Musical/Comedy category for starters. With mixed critical reviews (71% on RT) and the general nature of the way winds are blowing at the Academy, landing a Best Picture slot is uphill (craft nods and a best song slot are very possible).
Beyond those two films are movies from 2017’s first half that could generate acting nominations, and certainly deserve to be remembered, including Sally Hawkins and Ethan Hawke from Maudie, Salma Hayek and John Lithgow both sensational in the provocative Beatriz At Dinner, Richard Gere in perhaps the finest role of his still un-Oscar nominated career in Norman, Rachel Weisz in My Cousin Rachel, Laura Linney in the under-performing The Dinner, Kirsten Dunst for her theatrics in Sofia Coppola’s atmospheric The Beguiled, and a great Sam Elliott turn as a fading actor in The Hero. You can also throw in much of the cast of the aforementioned Big Sick, particularly in supporting for Holly Hunter and Ray Romano.
These are all deserving choices and personally I would add James McAvoy from the January thriller Split, in which he pulled off a character with 24 distinct personalities, or feel-good family movies Gifted with Chris Evans and Octavia Spencer or the inspiring Megan Leavey with Kate Mara, but don’t count on it since their distributors probably won’t spend on a campaign, a must these days. Let me also give a shout out to Christopher Plummer, absolutely superb in A24’s WW2 thriller The Exception. In any normal world he would be a slam dunk for another Supporting Actor bid (he won for Beginners), but because it hit Direct TV before theatrical it is a long shot at best. Co-star Janet McTeer equally deserves recognition for this excellent but under the awards radar film.
But it is in the genres that snobbish Academy voters generally ignore where we could really see the race shook up.
Yes, I dare to say you have legitimate Best Picture possibilities with a comic book superhero movie, a film starring Wolverine and some warring Apes in their 9th cinematic incarnation, and a micro-budgeted horror film from Blumhouse. No, I am not on crack but thanks for your concern. I realize more than anyone the long odds for these genre films but Wonder Woman, Logan, War For The Planet Of The Apes and Get Out have all surpassed expectations and have taken their genre roots into uncharted territory with a genuine shot at Best Picture nominations from an organization trying to redefine itself. Wouldn’t that be something?
You recall that the Academy in 2009 changed its Best Picture category and upped the number of nominees from five to a possible ten in order to make room for just this kind of critically acclaimed blockbuster movie most often ignored by Oscar voters largely I think because of genre. So-called popcorn movies should be relegated to the crafts, the assumption goes for the typical Oscar voter, and not much more. But with the success of Mad Max: Fury Road nabbing 10 nominations including Best Picture, and winning six of them (for a May 2015 release no less!), perhaps things could be changing . It can really be put to the test this year if any, or even all, of these deserving movies break through.
No comic book film has ever been nominated for Best Picture (Deadpool was the latest to launch a failed campaign last season), but Wonder Woman (92% RT fresh score) seemed to instantly land in the zeitgeist and the cultural conversation in addition to being a kickass popular entertainment. Gravitas, box office, and the biggest film ever from a female director (Patty Jenkins) can do wonders in changing Oscar voters minds, or so I hope. Brand new Academy member Gal Gadot deserves some consideration too. The Academy has a big opportunity to make a statement here, while at the same time jump starting their slouching TV ratings with some crowd-friendly fare for a change.
Then there is the case of Logan (93% RT), a March release from Fox and Marvel that turned our expectations of an X Men movie on its head. This final Wolverine spin off was smart enough to change its name, sign on director and co-writer James Mangold, and take the whole series from which it sprung up several notches for an elegiac look at once-invincible characters approaching their sunsets. It deserves to be compared to great westerns like Shane more than to previous installments of a franchise that never got recognition from the Academy. Patrick Stewart merits a supporting nomination, and I imagine Hugh Jackman’s final turn in this role will only add to his chances for his December musical from the same studio, The Greatest Showman.
I include Matt Reeves’ War For The Planet Of The Apes on this list of first-halfers even though it doesn’t open until July 14. Fox has extensively screened it already, and it has a 96% fresh score on Rotten Tomatoes from over 50 critics , so it’s out there in force already. As the final part of an Apes trilogy that started with Rise, and then Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes, this series is long overdue for some Oscar love and this is the movie that will lift it to a whole other level. The filmmaking is world class and breathtaking, and it is the perfect example of taking something you only thought you knew, and launching it into the stratosphere. If there was any justice Andy Serkis, as wise leader Caesar, would be recognized as well but actors continue to fear the performance capture process, a real shame.
Finally, did you wonder if you would live to see the day a micro-budgeted horror movie like director Jordan Peele’s February release Get Out (a whopping 99% RT Fresh score) could seriously make a run for Best Picture? But that is the fact for this wildly successful box office hit which takes a genre almost never recognized by the Academy and gives it real meaning and a strong message about the prevalence of racism in our society. It’s a powerhouse from Jason Blum, the producer best known for quickie moneymakers like the Paranormal Activity and The Purge series. He is now taking it up a notch, several notches in fact, while still making the studio a boatload of money. At the recent Produced By conference, no less a Get Out fan than Norman Lear moderated a session with Peele and basically fawned over the movie, a very good sign from a 94 year old Academy voter.
Despite the attributes of a few art house and indie entries, the real story at Oscar 2017’s halftime could be the surprising return of the crowd pleasing blockbuster. Of course we have seen this movie before and it always ends the same. If that happens this time around, chalk it up as a lost opportunity for the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences – & Money, as Mel Brooks so famously put it in his 1969 Oscar acceptance speech for The Producers.