The Early Oscar Contenders

The early contenders for this year’s awards season have emerged with films about King George V, Facebook and a mountain climber amongst the front runners.

How does a film end up winning an Oscar? In simple terms, Academy voters see a bunch of films in a given year and then vote for the pictures and performances they like best.

But the road to Oscar recognition is obviously a larger and more complicated affair. It really begins when a studio or production company greenlights a project which they think could have a shot at awards recognition.

Once completed, films are often ‘positioned’ for a run at a major film festival in order to gauge buzz, critical reaction and its chances in the autumn awards season.

Things really come in to focus in late August and early September when Oscar hopefuls screen at Telluride, Venice and Toronto.

Telluride in Colorado is the smallest of the festivals but eagerly watched for buzz (Slumdog Millionaire began its run to Oscar glory there back in 2008).

Venice is the second largest European festival and often a launchpad for contenders, whilst Toronto is the most important festival in North America.

Aside being a big marketplace where independent films are acquired, Toronto is also where many Oscar hopefuls are deemed worthy by the buzz from critics and audiences. Out of these festivals a general picture of what films have heat gradually emerges.

The other factor to bear in mind at this point is the cost of a campaign: consultants, marketing, screenings and parties for voters can get expensive, so the studios want to be sure they have at least a shot at getting nominated.

The dynamic slightly changed last year when the Academy increased the Best Picture slots from five to ten. This was intended to include more commercial fare, but also means that more left field choices can sneak in to.

So with the proviso that things can always change, who are the big winners in this first phase of the awards race?

THE EARLY FRONTRUNNERS

The King’s Speech (Dir. Tom Hooper): This historical drama about King George VI (Colin Firth) and speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) went down a storm at Telluride and Toronto. Directed by Tom Hooper (who previously directed The Damned United and the HBO series John Adams), it got great reviews, won the People’s Choice Award and seems like it will appeal to traditional Oscar voters and a broader audience. The Weinstein Company will be hoping the word-of-mouth continues

The Social Network (Dir. David Fincher): It might seem an unlikely subject for an Oscar hopeful, but the creation of Facebook by Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) and resulting conflicts that followed has been scoring rave early reviews. The talent behind the camera (Fincher, producer Scott Rudin and writer Aaron Sorkin) is A-grade and it has already led to a flurry of articles about the film, Facebook and how close it is to the truth. Whether it will prove a turn off for older voters remains to be seen.

127 Hours (Dir. Danny Boyle): After the success of Slumdog Millionaire, Danny Boyle has attempted another challenging subject: the story of  of Aron Ralston, the American mountain climber who was trapped by a boulder in Utah in 2003. Re-teaming with the key players behind his previous film – screenwriter Simon Beaufoy, producer Christian Colson and DP Anthony Dod Mantle – it made an impact at Telluride and Toronto despite the tough subject matter.

ALSO IN THE RUNNING

The Kids Are Alright (Dir. Lisa Cholodenko): This comedy-drama about a lesbian couple (played by Julianne Moore and Annette Bening), who each gave birth to a child using the same anonymous sperm donor, opened in the summer to universal critical acclaim. Moore and Benning seem dead certs in the acting categories and it would seem likely to get a Best Picture slot too.

Another Year (Dir. Mike Leigh): After a very positive reception at Cannes the latest drama from Mike Leigh explores a collection of friends and families over the course of the year. To some  US viewers it might seem like parochial material, but it could repeat the crossover success of Secrets and Lies, which scored multiple nominations back in 1996-97.

Black Swan (Dir. Darren Aronofsky): This psychological drama about a New York ballerina (Natalie Portman) under intense pressure was very well received at Venice and Cannes, with many tipping Portman for Best Actress. Like The Wrestler, some have expressed the concern that it is too dark and modern for Oscar voters but with ten slots seems like it could make an impact in the major categories.

Never Let Me Go (Dir. Mark Romanek): This adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel about three young people (Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield and Keira Knightley) leaving a mysterious boarding school seemed like a heavyweight going in to Telluride and Toronto. However, the decidedly mixed reactions to the film will have given Fox Searchlight pause for thought. That said, they might ride out the storm and see how things go over the next month or two.

Made in Dagenham (Dir. Nigel Cole): Based on the real life tale of striking female workers at the Ford plant in Dagenham, this British drama might emerge as a plucky underdog that makes a serious point with charm and wit (like The Full Monty did back in 1997). Starring Sally Hawkins, Miranda Richardson and Bob Hoskins it was well received in Toronto and seems likely to feature in the broader race.

Toy Story 3 (Dir. Lee Unkrich): One of the outcomes of expanding the slots for Best Picture was that a heavyweight animated film would likely feature in the category as well as in the dedicated slot for animation. Last year Pixar’s Up bagged it and given the enormous critical and commercial love for the final Toy Story film, this is a dead cert to get a Best Picture nomination.

Inception (Dir. Christopher Nolan): Some speculated that the exclusion of The Dark Knight from the Best Picture nominations in 2008 was a factor in it rising to ten and Christopher Nolan’s latest film seems highly likely to feature this year. It got great reviews, made a lot of money for an original blockbuster and is almost certain to feature in the screenplay and technical categories.

POSSIBLE LATE RUNNERS

True Grit (Dir. The Coen Brothers): Adapted from the Charles Portis novel (previously filmed in 1969 with John Wayne), this promises to be a more faithful adaptation from the Coen Brothers. The story involves a 14-year old girl (Hailee Steinfeld) who persuades a drunken lawman (Jeff Bridges) to pursue the man who murdered her father. With Matt Damon and Josh Brolin rounding out a stellar array of acting talent, this could feature if the Coen Brothers deliver the goods. It doesn’t open until Christmas Day, so will presumably start screening in the next month or two.

The Fighter (Dir. David O’Russell): This boxing drama about a fighter named “Irish” Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) and his older brother Dickie (Christian Bale) has an alarmingly conventional trailer. But if the talent, which includes Amy Adams in a supporting role, is on form then this could have a shot, and provide some kind of redemption for O’Russell after the bizarre situation surrounding his unfinished film Nailed.

As ever, there are bound to be surprises over the next few months as the different guilds and critics associations vote for their favourites.

Once the marketing campaigns and further reactions really bed in, the overall picture will change. But first impressions can also linger until the end of the awards season.

The nominations are announced on Tuesday 25th January and Oscar night is on Sunday 27th February.

> The 83rd Academy Awards at Wikipedia
> Awards Daily
> In Contention
> Gold Derby at The LA Times
> Pete Hammond at Deadline
> Oscar Coverage at The Wrap
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