Oscar Preview: Weekend of Dec. 21-23, 2012

We had three films releasing this weekend with the potential for Oscar nominations.

Amour

Michael Haneke’s latest Oscar import may be his most successful with the Academy to date. The White Ribbon picked up two Oscar nominations three years ago. Its nominations for Cinematography and Foreign Language Film were not honored with statuettes by the Academy, but the film was feted a number of times by various critics groups. Almost the same attention is being paid to Amour, a stark look at aging that has been met with career-high accolades as a director. So, it’s not very surprising that the film has been talked about for a number of prominent categories.

The most mentioned Best Actress where legendary French thespian Emmanuelle Riva has picked a number of precursor prizes for her lead role in the film. Although she has been working steadily for the past five decades, American audiences are significantly less familiar with her than with the stiff competition she faces. With names like Helen Mirren, Jennifer Lawrence, Jessica Chastain, Naomi Watts, Marion Cotillard and Rachel Weisz all in the mix along with newcomer Quvenzhané Wallis and longshots Maggie Smith and Michelle Williams, the competition is some of the strongest we’ve seen in the category in a long time. In spite of failures to place at the Golden Globe Awards or the Screen Actors Guild, her chances have diminished, but she still remains firmly in the hunt.

All but absent from recent conversations, her co-star Jean-Louis Trintignant is a much more widely recognized name, but even he faces a slate of more familiar names in the Best Actor race. With no major awards attention, he’s likely to be ignored by the Academy in favor of a fairly solid slate of six or seven names. The film is among the nine films competition for five Best Foreign Language Film slots and I think this is the one category we can be assured Amour will make an appearance in. It’s also very likely to be cited for Best Original Screenplay. If enough Academy members see the film and aren’t put off by its lack of sentimentality, the film could even be a Best Picture nominee and Haneke could be the lone foreign language director among the more finicky choices by the directors branch.

The Impossible

Juan Antonio Bayona (credited onscreen as J.A. Bayona) had an acclaimed debut at the helm of 2007 Spanish horror film The Orphanage. With his first film in five years, Bayona is proving to be one of the most fascinating imports with his English language feature The Impossible about a devastating tsunami that tears apart a vacationing family. The grim and graphic exploration of fear, doubt and hope in the face of tragedy has earned strong notices, but may have released too late in the game to be very competitive.

The film’s sole Oscar hopes lie with perennial Oscar contender Naomi Watts who hasn’t been seen in the Best Actress race in eight years. She’s turned up in a number of precursor nomination lists to the surprise of a lot of Oscar watchers. Her performance is harrowing and might play well with Academy voters who seem to be drawn to that type of strength and vulnerability. While she’s far from being a slam dunk, if enough voters catch her film, they could be swept into her corner for at least a nomination, but unlikely for a win.

Ewan McGregor was discussed briefly early in the season as a possible Best Supporting Actor nominee, but that chatter has largely died and while the film would have been a noteworthy Best Visual Effects nominee, it didn’t make the Academy’s shortlist. It’s also not on the Makeup & Hairstyling list, meaning its chances at a nomination dwindle to Watts, McGregor and long shot mentions for Best Editing and Best Cinematography. Best Original Screenplay is also a distant possibility, but without Watts in the hunt, the film won’t likely figure there either.

Zero Dark Thirty

Quickly racking up a boatload of precursor prizes for Best Picture, Kathryn Bigelow’s follow-up to her historic winning film The Hurt Locker has all the earmarks of a frontrunner…and all before general audiences have a chance to see it. Following the manhunt to track down Osama bin Laden, the film will likely have more resonance with U.S. audiences than it will worldwide, but that won’t hinder its Oscar prospects.

The film is guaranteed slots in at least half a dozen categories and could figure in a few more. Best Picture and Best Director seem to be locks at present, as are Best Actress for last year’s breakout star Jessica Chastain, Best Original Screenplay, Best Editing and Best Cinematography. Add in the possibility of a nod for Alexandre Desplat’s score and the Sound Mixing and Sound Editing categories and you have a sizable haul.

The true test of how popular the film is with the Academy is if it can pull along Jason Clarke for Best Supporting Actor. He hasn’t gotten a lot of love from the precursors, but there is some buzz for him as a dark horse nominee. If his name appears on Oscar Nomination Morning, then the film is very likely to have a big night at the Oscars. If not, it still has a good shot at being crowned, but so far, the standard whisper campaigns have turned into an all-out P.R. war about cinematic ethics and the politics of torture. Senators have already called the film misleading and a high ranking official with the C.I.A. has written a letter singling out its factual shortcomings.

This will probably have three effects. The first is that box office will finally perk up for films dealing with the Gulf War. Until now, everything that’s been released about that period of near-history has been poisonous at the box office. This kind of media attention will only pique curiosities and send a number of people to the theater to check it out for themselves. The second boon is that if the film is a large enough success and people genuinely like the film, the Academy would look foolish for not recognizing it. The last result is that Academy members, not liking to be cajoled into voting one way or another may turn on the negative attacks and reward the film anyway. With all the likely positive results of the purported negativity, it’s almost as if this “potentially damaging” whisper campaign was started by the producers themselves.

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