A few months ago I bemoaned the proliferation of the early awards prognosticators who were already mapping out potential Oscar contenders during the last round of film festival premieres. Now, a week into December, nearly all the big prestige pictures have hit theaters or been screened for critics. The National Board of Review has put out a Top Eleven list of films that has been hotly debated. The Gotham Awards for independent movies have been announced. Some of the smaller awards like the Annies and the Satellites have rolled out their nominee rosters. Critics' circles are starting to put out their picks too.
So I want to take a minute to look at the frontrunners in the Best Picture race. The easiest way to do that it to consider the NBR list, which is usually a good indicator of films that are in serious contention for recognition, though there are always a few oddball picks in there. Here's the list for 2010:
The King’s Speech
The Social Network
Toy Story 3
Also, you can add the films that generated more buzz for being left off the list:
The Kids are All Right
There's still the chance that we'll get a dark horse in there like "Four Lions," "Somewhere," "Made in Dagenham," "Never Let Me Go," "The Way Back," or even "TRON," but their prospects are looking less and less likely as long as the buzz isn't there. Former hopefuls like Tyler Perry's "For Colored Girls" and Edward Zwick's "Love and Other Drugs" have been trashed by the critics. Some like "Fair Game," "Conviction" and "Secretariat" might still squeak out an acting nod or two, but they've been roundly ignored for the most part. We can rule them out. Again, this is why you don't make these predictions in September!
So far I've seen six of the contenders, mostly the same major releases that most people have at this point: Inception, Shutter Island, The Social Network, The Town, Toy Story 3, and Winter's Bone. With that in mind, let's whittle this list down a little. "Hereafter," the latest Clint Eastwood film, only got middling reviews and looks like a legacy pick more than anything else. So much incredulity greeted its inclusion on the NBR list, I doubt any other awards organization will make the same choice. Similarly, but to a lesser extent, Martin Scorsese's "Shutter Island" was a good film that I enjoyed, but it was such a departure form the material Scorsese is usually associated with, that it threw some critics for a loop and it also comes cross as something of a legacy pick. I don't think it has the support to crack the top ten at the Oscars this year.
And here are the rest of your frontrunners in order of likelihood of being nominated:
- "The Social Network" is the current frontrunner, thanks to nabbing the NBR's "Best Picture" prize. For all its newfangled subject matter, it's an old, familiar story of power and fame and betrayal. Yet it's also the film that feels the most timely and emblematic of 2010. With a cast of so many young up-and-comers, it feels like Young Hollywood's big debut. And they're exactly who the Oscars have been looking to in order to appeal to a wider audience, going so far as to turn hosting duties over to Anne Hathaway and James Franco this year.
- "The King's Speech," is close on its heels. It features Academy favorite Colin Firth, who can expect a Best Actor nod, and the kind of sweeping dramatic and historical elements that appeal to the older, more traditional crowd of Oscar voters. Some have characterized this year's race as a battle of the older and younger generations, but considering that all the rest of the potential nominees are all over the board this is wishful thinking. But if that's the narrative that the media is going with, I know who I'm rooting for on principle.
- "Toy Story 3" doesn't have a chance of actually winning a Best Picture Oscar, but it is almost universally loved, it was one of the few bright spots in a disappointing summer, and it's a rare third film in a trilogy that actually lived up to the first and second. The Oscars have a habit of giving awards to filmmakers for their consistent past work, like the borderline embarrassing "Lord of the Rings" sweep in 2004. No one in Hollywood has been more consistent than PIXAR. Also, their marketers are actively campaigning for a win this year, because what have they got to lose?
- "Inception" will be another longshot for a win, but it'll almost certainly grab a nomination. Fanboy rage over the Academy's failure to recognize "The Dark Knight" helped fuel the decision to expand the number of slots for Best Picture nominees from five to ten. This will be the Academy's chance to make it up to Christopher Nolan. It also helps that he pulled off the rare feat of getting a totally original project made, and turning it into one of the biggest blockbuster films of the year. I thought only James Cameron had the power to do that.
- "True Grit" was on every prognosticator's list before we saw a frame of completed film because the Coen brothers are just that good. Early reviews have been promising, and I have it on good word from a friend of a friend who was at a screening on Tuesday that it lives up to expectations. I am totally biased on this one because I've seen every single Coens' film and love these guys to pieces. But in my defense, just about everybody else with any kind of love for American cinema does too. Who else could get away with remaking "True Grit"?
- "127 Hours" and "Black Swan" have been racking up awards and buzz, so I'm going to trust the critics here even though I haven't seen either film yet. We've got two exciting directors, a pair of solid young actors, and material with great potential to cross over to general audiences. Psycho ballerinas? Extreme desert survival? YES! Darren Aronofsky is overdue for some Academy recognition, especially after the snubs for "The Wrestler." Danny Boyle won last year, but consistency is paramount. And his leading man is hosting, which should help nudge the voters.
- "The Kids Are All Right" and "Winter’s Bone" are the big indie contenders this year. "Winter's Bone" just took top honors at the Gotham Awards, and its appearance on the NBR list is a very good sign that it hasn't been forgotten since its summer release. "Kids" was a big contender earlier in the year, but it might get lost in the shuffle with so many other contenders rolling out their campaigns. Its stars, Annette Bening and Julianne Moore, will probably score nominations in the acting categories, but it's chances are significantly lower as to getting a Best Picture nod.
- "The Town" was pretty disappointing, honestly. Jeremy Renner had a great supporting role, but the story was so contrived, and Ben Affleck totally wasted Jon Hamm. It's well-directed and well-acted and I understand why it got all the good notices it did. However, "The Town" isn't anything special, and if it does get a nomination it'll be for competency rather than excellence.
- "The Fighter" picked up an early win for Christian Bale as a supporting actor, and so far the critical response has been good. But frankly, it had a lousy trailer and it's going to draw inevitable comparisons to "The Wrestler." On the other hand, it's a feel-good sports movie about a local hero who makes it big, and everybody loves a winner.
- "Blue Valentine" has been largely off the radar because of its difficult subject matter. However, all the fuss over its recent ratings fight with the MPAA has been a magnet for attention, which means that people are actually seeing the film, and that might be what makes all the difference. Also, "Blue Valentine" has Harvey Weinstein on its side, and he's already proven he's willing to go to bat for it.
- "Another Year" is a film I've heard very little about, which means that it's not generating much buzz. Aimed at an older crowd and directed by the dependable Mike Leigh, this one is going to slip through the cracks unless it steps up its campaign quickly. Somber domestic dramas may have been Oscar mainstays in the past, but these days they're a dying breed.