Oscar Preview: Weekend of Nov. 1-3, 2013

We had four films release this past weekend with the potential for Oscar nominations.

Ender’s Game

The critics were not enraptured, but audiences seem modestly pleased. The opening weekend should ensure that it’s not immediately discarded as an Oscar contender, but unlike the blockbusters of Michael Bay, Ender’s Game may suffer the same struggles that other Lionsgate properties have in recent years.

As a “young adult” property, Ender’s Game falls into that niche genre that the Academy frequently ignores. While the Twilight franchise isn’t the best example since it wasn’t very beloved by critics, a franchise that was, The Hunger Games also failed to materialize support at the Oscars. While this is ostensibly science fiction, it will be easily dismissed as a tween-targeted picture even if the primary audience is fans of the book on which its based, a group that’s well over 30 at this point.

The film was never going to be a contender in major categories, but it was still thought to be competitive in the creative and tech categories, most notably Best Production Design, Makeup and Hairstyling, Sound Mixing, Sound Editing and Visual Effects, possibly even Original Score. With a decent, but mediocre performance at the box office (compared to other major sci-fi properties), it’s likely the film’s chances fall into two categories: Makeup and Hairstyling and Visual Effects. The former is predominantly for Ben Kingsley’s face makeup as the trailer didn’t suggest much more. That limitation will give the film its best chance in Visual Effects, a category replete with powerful contenders with much larger box offices. Ultimately, I suspect Ender’s Game has done little more than assure an minor interest in a sequel.

Free Birds

Being that this is the first animated feature form visual effects house Reel FX, the film needed big box office numbers and strong critical support to emerge from an already lackluster slate of animated features this year.

Free Birds, focusing on a pair of turkeys going back in time to halt the first and subsequent Thanksgivings was positioned in a dead spot for animated features with several weeks before juggernaut Disney debuted their final chance at Oscar consideration this year. Yet, without an adequate and interesting marketing campaign, the film needed to exceed expectations and impress critics. The critics quickly fell on the negative side and the movie has done abysmal business at the box office.

Succumbing to animated fatigue, families stayed away from the first animated feature to target the Thanksgiving holiday. Although the rest of this year’s slate of Best Animated Feature contenders have largely been unimpressive, there is a stronger case for any number of them to get nominated over this dud turkey.

Dallas Buyers Club

The premise is one that began emerging in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, that of AIDS-centered drama that tried to humanize the condition and bring attention to the plight of millions of Americans. Since then, the portrayals have gotten more personal, but less visible. Philadelphia was the last major picture to deal with the AIDS crisis, perhaps due to broader acceptance and understanding of the issue.

So, when Dallas Buyers Club, a drama about a straight athlete diagnosed with the virus that causes AIDS, began making waves, it seemed like bizarre timing for the film. In spite of that, the film has managed to emerge as a genuine contender for the Oscars, unlike the many similarly-themed films from over two decades ago. The film seems like it’s on its way to potentially tie Philadelphia for most nominations for an AIDS-themed drama.

Matthew McConaughey appears to be assured a nomination for his performance as the athlete while Jared Leto, who plays his cross-dressing associate in the film, is being talked up as a Best Supporting Actor contender. Along with those two nominations, the film may also be angling for nominations in Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay while director Jean-Marc Vallée has far too much competition to make it into the Best Director race. The film also seems like it could pick up a nomination for Best Makeup and Hairstlying like its predecessor. Ultimately, the thick competition this year will need to make room for Dallas Buyers Club and the film will require four nominations to beat out Philadelphia‘s record of 5 nominations, but surpassing its two Oscars seems unlikely.

Diana

It’s an interesting study in Oscar politics each year when the latest and greatest Important Person Biopic (IPB) emerges as a key contender for an actor or actress whose failed to earn nominations or Oscars previously. Just two years ago, we had both Michelle Williams and Meryl Streep angling for Oscars as Marilyn Monroe and Margaret Thatcher respectively. Anthony Hopkins was on the prowl for Hitchcock last year as well, but he didn’t earn the nomination.

So, when we saw that a biopic on the legendary Princess of Wales, Diana, was heading down the pipeline with two-time Oscar nominee Naomi Watts on board as the iconic humanitarian, the temptation to declare Watts as a huge contender was unmistakable. Looking at the past, though, it’s easy for seasoned Oscar prognosticators to keep a kernel of doubt in their minds for these IPB’s.

The first obstacle is script, a poor one can mean the difference between guaranteed rejection (Hyde Park on Hudson) and modest success (The Iron Lady). Regardless of whether the performance is any good or not, if critics don’t like the film, it makes it much harder to win Oscars, unless you’re Meryl Streep who managed to overcome her film’s limitations to win her third Oscar as Thatcher. As critics have slowly turned against Diana and the box office has given a disinterested sigh, it becomes increasingly clear that Diana is going to fail in every category, including Best Actress where Watts still has a glimmer of hope, but that hope is fading fast, though not nearly as fast as the sudden thud experienced upon release of the dismal Hyde Park on Hudson.

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