Oscar Preview: Weekend of Dec. 25-27, 2015

We had two films release this past weekend (see note) with the potential for Oscar nominations.

(NOTE: I screwed up last week. I posted my thoughts on the releases of Dec. 25-27, 2015 rather than Dec. 18-20, 2015. I’ve added a note to that post referencing the error. This post will, instead, focus on those releases I should have done last week.)

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

In 1977, George Lucas took his vision of a galaxy far, far away and brought it to the big screen in a spectacular and rousing fashion, becoming one of history’s most popular franchises and ushering in an era of overzealous merchandising that is almost an industry unto itself. Thirty-eight years later, Lucas’ vision has ended up in the hands of another director and is already revitalizing the franchise’s box office dominance, but will it be able to replicate the original’s Oscar successes.

With ten competitive Oscar nominations, Star Wars was an unusual entity, one of the few science fiction films to clean-up at the Oscars. From its ten nods, it went home with six Oscars along with a special achievement for Sound Effects. Those six awards were all in creative and tech categories: Original Score, Film Editing, Art Direction, Costume Design (this one is the most surprising of the wins), Sound and Visual Effects. It’s where the film lost that has some Oscar prognosticators in a tizzy trying to decide if the new incarnation will ultimately dominate the Oscar race.

The film was also nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor and Best Original Screenplay. These above-the-line categories weren’t likely to go in the film’s favor. They were still the purview of “serious” pictures at the time and with so many critical favorites doing battle for victory, it’s little surprise the film lost three of those categories to Woody Allen’s Annie Hall. The fourth going to Jason Robards in Julia.

The key to the film’s chances may lie in how the other films in the franchise performed. After all, today is wholly different than 38 years prior. The second film, released three years later in 1980, The Empire Strikes Back, received three competitive nominations for Original Score, Art Direction and Sound, winning for Sound and a special award for Visual Effects. This in spite of a strong reception from critics. That film is often seen as an improvement over the original in many minds.

Three more years later, Return of the Jedi received one extra nomination over its predecessor earning nods in the same categories as before along with the then-relatively new Sound Effects Editing category. The only Oscar it won was a special award for the film’s Visual Effects, before the category became a full fledged category later that decade.

16 years after the last Star Wars film was released, George Lucas finally felt his vision had the right level of technical support to have the first three films in the series made. Episode I – The Phantom Menace, Episode II – Attack of the Clones and Episode III – Revenge of the Sith were released three years apart starting in 1999. They weren’t well received by critics or audiences and resulted in what many thought would be the nail in the coffin of the Star Wars universe.

Doing on-par business with the Oscars in 1999, The Phantom Menace secured the tech triumvirate of Sound, Sound Effects and Visual Effects nominations. It won nothing. 2002’s Attack of the Clones received a single nod for Visual Effects and lost. Finally, 2005’s Revenge of the Sith ended up with one nomination as well, but this time in a category the franchise had never been recognized in: Best Makeup. It was the first film that hadn’t been mentioned in or received a special award for Best Visual Effects.

What does that mean for the new film? Clearly the Academy doesn’t feel they owe the massive success of the franchise any Oscars. However, with the bad taste of the prequel trilogy being washed clean from the mouths of voters, it’s entirely possible the new film earns significantly more mentions that the most recent two efforts. Will it get more than the Sound Mixing, Sound Editing and Visual Effects trio? That’s very likely. John Williams’ iconic score is back and will likely be nominated. The film could easily earn recognition in Production Design and Costume Design with the latter being the more difficult get. Best Makeup is out of the question. It didn’t make the top seven. The film could get nominations in Film Editing or Cinematography, but both seem very unlikely at this juncture. So, we’re looking at between four and six nominations in below-the-line categories.

What of Best Picture? It’s true the film has done significantly better with critics than it has in three decades. However, that might not be enough. The film didn’t screen for many in advance, meaning critics had to wait until the week of release to give their reviews. This was long after most organizations had voted. The Broadcast Film Critics Association tried to rectify this and vote the film a Best Picture nomination in arrears bringing their category total to 11, but this has been met with derision across the blogosphere and even in the trades. That kind of negative publicity might hinder the film’s chances more than help them.

It will surely appear on the Producers Guild list of best films, but if it doesn’t, it’s chances are likely dead. If it performs well in other guild nominations, we could see enough of a trend to push it towards recognition, but will enough people honestly rank the film their #1 choice on the ballots? At least enough for the film to avoid getting shunted out of the Best Picture list? I’m guessing it won’t. That’s a lot of Yes votes and as much as the film is a part of the fabric of our collective cinematic consciousness, it just doesn’t seem like the kind of film that voters looking to recognize “serious” films will go out of their way to recognize. Lest we forget Abrams’ PGA nomination for Star Trek that was completely shut out by the Academy, it’s imperative to remember that the Academy trends older and more traditional. Could it get nominated? I wouldn’t bet entirely against it, but I also wouldn’t bet for it either.

Son of Saul

Having wasted a whole ton of typing on Star Wars: The Force Awakens, I feel bad that I’m not going to have as much to say about Son of Saul. Hungary’s official entry to the Academy Awards for the Best Foreign Language Film award is set in 1944 at Auschwitz as a prisoner forced to burn the corpses of the dead and trying to survive in the horrendous setting in which he finds himself.

The Holocaust drama has been performing incredibly well on the Precursor circuit. To date, the film has received a total of 16 nominations, three more than its nearest competitor. It has been named runner-up three times and has been named the best by twelve groups, 9 more than any other film. That level of support suggests the film should perform well at the Oscars. Add in the film’s theme and you have the kind of movie the Academy once loved to recognize at every turn.

The question is not whether it will be nominated for Best Foreign Language Film. It will. It’s not if the film will win the Oscar in that category. It most likely will. It’s whether or not the film can find support outside of the category. It’s quite possible. On occasion, the Academy branches out to foreign language properties to give them awards in other categories. While the regularity of the 1970’s hasn’t been seen in recent years, it’s often enough to suggest that a Best Original screenplay nomination is highly possible; a Best Picture nomination is possible, but doubtful; and a Best Actor nomination is a distant possibility. If it gets nominated in any of these three categories, wins aren’t very likely.

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