Oscar Preview: Weekend of Oct. 10-12, 2014

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

The Judge

A master of forgettable comedies, director David Dobkins makes his first dramatic film with some heavyweight actors to do the heavy lifting. Starring Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall, a film with this type star power is typically an Oscar contender sight unseen, but after it’s been viewed, those impressions die away quickly.

The story revolves around a self-involved lawyer (Downey Jr.) who returns to his home town where his father (Duvall), a prominent local judge, is put on trial for murder. His estranged son must come to terms with his father’s terminal disappointment and represent him in a case that could put him behind bars with the very men he’s put there in the past.

The narrative seems so predictable that they even put Billy Bob Thornton into the role of prosecutor against whom Downey Jr. will have to argue. Critics have been unimpressed with the film, which kills much of the film’s awards momentum. While major category attention seems unlikely, Duvall’s prominence with the Academy could give him a road into a currently-weak Best Supporting Actor line-up for a 1990’s-style perfunctory Oscar nomination that has no chance of an actual victory.

Kill the Messenger

A better response from critics has met TV producer/director Michael Cuesta’s film about prominent investigative journalist (Jeremy Renner) who digs into a story about the CIA’s involvement in the arming of Contra rebels in Nicaragua.

Renner has already been on Oscar’s radar, so recognizing him won’t seem like a priority to Academy members. Securing some of the weekend’s better reviews won’t help the film play better to Oscar voters, but well-placed critic support could give him a boost. Had the film been more widely praised on the levels of All the President’s Men, it might have been a bigger contender. Right now, Renner has the best shot of the film’s stars, but there’s far too much competition for him to make much of a go of it.

St. Vincent

Theodore Melfi’s festival hit starring Bill Murray, Melissa McCarthy and Naomi Watts has the kind of cast that could help a comedy break through at the Oscars. The film, about a miserable curmudgeon (Murray) who babysits his new neighbor’s (McCarthy) impressionable young son, received largely positive reviews.

The three Oscar nominated actors play roles that, in a better reviewed film, might have been the perfect Oscar bait. Unhappy people redeemed through shared experiences are familiar to and often appreciated by the Academy, but those reviews aren’t helping it. What might assist is a surprise box office triumph for the film. Releasing at the specialty marketplace might help it build word of mouth before an eventual wide expansion.

Even if the film is widely popular, the Academy has a well known aversion to comedy and if even the critics aren’t going to support the film, what chance does it really have with the Vicent’s within the Academy itself? Probably none.

Whiplash

Critics have had nothing but positive things to say about Damien Chazelle’s portrait of a promising young drummer (Miles Teller) struggling to find success under the caring, but brutal tutelage of a passionate music instructor (J.K. Simmons).

If there isn’t a lot from the major studios to champion for major categories, it’s possible Whiplash could make an appearance in the Best Picture race, but the film’s primary hopes rest in the Best Original Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor categories.

Simmons made his feature film debut in 1994. At thirty-nine, his Hollywood acting career began slowly at first, but he quickly became a go-to actor for gruff and humorous portrayals tackling more than 70 roles in the short span of twenty years. His performance in Juno was the first to generate any level of buzz with the Academy, but it was light and never amounted to any real consideration. He’s the kind of actor everyone is familiar with and that could give him a leg-up in the competition if he can get nominated.

The film’s trailer showcases a fiery performance that demands attention. The Academy loves that kind of work and for a familiar, hard-working character actor, that’s sure to give him some bonus points. With added support from critics groups, Simmons is sure to be a front-line runner for a nomination and an Oscar might follow if his competition is weak enough or the preponderance of critics groups give him their prizes. In that case, he might become a juggernaut.

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