Now that the presidential election is behind us, we can finally start obsessing about the really important race — what movies are in contention for best picture?
Some naysayers wonder if winning an Academy Award really has that much impact in terms of box office, prestige or even being remembered a few months later, but no one at the studios seems to be listening, since the battle for Oscar gold continues to be a frenzied, all-consuming process, littering multiplex battlefields with also-rans and subjecting audiences to a year’s worth of “prestige” movies in a six-week period.
Yes, after months of mediocre and uninteresting Hollywood product, here comes the tidal wave of Oscar bait — some of it will be mediocre and not worth the trouble, yes, but many of these titles will wind up being the most ambitious and challenging non-indie American movies of the year. And here’s an alphabetical list of 10 titles — some of which have already opened, others still on the horizon — that seem to be garnering the loudest Oscar buzz:
“Che”: Steven Soderbergh’s ambitious, four-hour-plus biography of Argentine doctor-turned-revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara (featuring a lead performance by Benicio del Toro that’s generating Oscar buzz on its own) gets a full-scale “roadshow” release in New York and Los Angeles this December before opening nationwide as two separate films, “The Argentine” and “Guerilla.” It’s sprawling, ambitious and political, and even though Fidel Castro still lives, the events portrayed in the film are old enough to keep Academy members from being blinded by political controversy. And, hey, it has to be better than the infamous 1969 “Che!” which starred Omar Sharif in the title role and, I keed you not, Jack Palance as Castro.
“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”: Only a handful of Hollywood insiders have actually gotten to see David Fincher’s new film, a romance in which Brad Pitt ages backward and thus can only find happiness with Cate Blanchett when their characters overlap at a midway point. But most of the early audience has been unabashed in their enthusiasm over the movie. If “Button” winds up being just half as gorgeous as the much-talked-about trailer, it’s probably a shoo-in to be shortlisted.
“The Dark Knight”: You scoff. But prior to 2001, would you ever have imagined that a J.R.R. Tolkien adaptation — much less three in a row — would cop a best picture nomination? Let’s also not forget that the Academy is not above going outside of its comfort zone to honor films that made a whole heck of a lot of money. Remember the nomination for “Ghost” in 1990? Or “The Sixth Sense” in 1999? Batman’s a long-shot here, granted, but don’t be too shocked if the caped crusader makes it to the final five.
“Frost/Nixon”: This film and “Doubt” are the two big theatrical adaptations gunning for Oscar attention this season, but after the somewhat subdued response to “Doubt” following its recent debut on the festival circuit, it’s “Frost/Nixon” whose stock seems to be rising. It’s got several things going for it: Strong performances by Frank Langella and Michael Sheen, Oscar fave Ron Howard in the director’s chair and the present-day, real-life exit of an American president whose approval ratings are even lower than Tricky Dick’s were.
“Gran Torino”: Clint Eastwood seems to be in the same position he was in just a few years back, when “Flags of Our Fathers” underwhelmed critics but he still had “Letters from Iwo Jima,” which went on to get a best picture nod, in his quiver. This year, “Changeling” got mixed notices, which puts “Gran Torino” in the spotlight as an Oscar possibility. Eastwood directs himself as a gentleman of a certain age who gets into it with an Asian gang when one of its members tries to steal the titular vintage car from Eastwood’s character. Dirty Harry’s an Oscar perennial, so expect to see him on the red carpet again this year.
“Milk”: California failed to vote down Proposition 8, a toxic initiative that stripped the right of same sex couples to marry from the state constitution, but Academy members may find it cathartic to support Gus Van Sant’s biopic of slain gay rights leader Harvey Milk who, in his lifetime, defeated a similar ballot measure that would have barred gays from teaching in public schools. With angry gays and lesbians recently seen marching on the news every night, the zeitgeist couldn’t be better for this tale of hope and activism.
“The Reader”: Kate Winslet. As a Nazi. They won’t be able to resist.
“Revolutionary Road”: Winslet again, this time reuniting with her “Titanic” co-star Leonardo DiCaprio, under the direction of her husband Sam Mendes, who previously won an Oscar for “American Beauty,” which also dealt with suburban ennui. Add to that a much-loved source novel and some Life-magazine-worthy 1950s period detail, and the voters will be swooning.
“Slumdog Millionaire”: In recent years, the best picture nominees have featured one scrappy upbeat sleeper to lighten things up. And just when it seemed that we weren’t going to have a “Little Miss Sunshine” or “Juno” this year, along comes this charmer that makes you want to use the phrase “feel-good movie” without any irony. Screenwriter Simon Beaufoy previously scored a best picture nod with the similarly triumph-of-the-underdog-ish “The Full Monty.”
“WALL-E”: The Academy’s creation of the best animated film category may well segregate this genre out of the best picture running until the end of time. But “WALL-E,” a dizzying achievement even by Pixar’s high standards, may find itself breaching that wall. Any movie that can engage audiences of all ages without using dialogue for the first hour shouldn’t have any trouble winning over a few Academy voters, after all.