Oscar Preview: Weekend of Sep. 20-22, 2013

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

Prisoners

With a 79% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a 73 from MetaCritic, the word out of Telluride was accurate. The film is good. The problem is that most say it’s bleak or even brutal in its depiction of two couples struggling with the abduction of their children. Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal are getting the strongest notices. Jackman plays one of the fathers who abducted a mentally deficient young man (Paul Dano) suspected of carrying out the abduction and Gyllenhaal is the tortured cop who makes it his mission to track down the missing girls.

Typically, a film with this solid a reception would be a slam dunk Oscar contender, but the year is chock full of such contenders, making it far less assured than in previous years. Add to that the apparent viciousness and you have a film that will have a tough time making inroads with the more squeamish Academy members. Even so, if a few other films that haven’t been screened yet collapse, it could still be a solid 10th-spot nominee, but the film’s best chances come with Jackman in the incredibly tight Best Actor competition, and Gyllenhaal in Supporting Actor, a more wide-open race.

The film could also do well in the screenwriting category where voters are more accepting of darker material. There’s still a lot of competition, but not as much as in higher-tier races. Yet, a film like Zodiac, to which this film has been compared, never made it into the Oscar conversation. It’s entirely possible Prisoners will suffer the same fate.

Rush

Ron Howard’s new film about a 1970’s rivalry between two prominent Formula 1 race car drivers has equally impressive numbers from MetaCritic (74) and Rotten Tomatoes (80%). Additionally, Howard has a much better track record with the Academy than Denis Villaneuve, not counting the Apollo 13 incident.

Howard won the Oscar for his film A Beautiful Mind, a film that divided some critics. It’s populist appeal carried it to a win over a strong slate of pictures in 2001. Howard has been a regular figure at the Academy Awards since Splash in 1984, his first film to get nominated for an Oscar. Throughout the rest of that decade, he mainly stayed a presence in the creative categories with a few prominent above-the-line nominations. It was the aforementioned Apollo 13 that set him on the track of Oscar recognition, his first film ever to be nominated for Best Picture. The legendary snub of the actor-turned-director may have led to his early and questionably rational selection as Best Director in 2001. His subsequent work has also flirted with Oscar, but not at the same level. Rush might change that.

Of-the-moment actor Chris Hemsworth stars as a womanizing, fame-seeking race driver who meets his match in the shrewd, anti-populist competitor played by Daniel Brühl. The trailers are adrenaline-fueled and exciting, suggesting it will be popular with audiences. With critics squarely in his corner, Howard has a chance of reclaiming glory. It’s a period story based on a real life rivalry. Hemsworth has built quite a name for himself and Brühl is suddenly showing up all over the place (also starring in Bill Condon’s The Fifth Estate this year). I doubt the film will crack Best Picture. The competition is too fierce and pot-boilers (Prisoners) are more appealing to Academy voters than sports films. Still, Howard’s experience in campaigning should help the film. If all else fails, nominations in the two sound categories and visual effects are almost assured with cinematography and editing with the same potential.

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