oscars 2012: can I buy a frontrunner?

With the halfway point of the year well past, it’s high time I check in with the Oscar world.  Though it seems there are only a few slight contenders released thus far in the Best Picture category, the rest of the release schedule could hit or miss, depending on distribution, critical response and overall fallout/reward-reaping.  I think the late releases show much more legitimate promise than last year’s lineup; then again, legitimate quality isn’t always paramount for voters.  But complaining about Academy choices isn’t the point at all – it’s the unyielding fun that comes from predicting those choices.  And since that feat has become increasingly easy with the onslaught of precursor awards, it’s best to get a jump on it.  So let’s dive in!

First-Half Sleepers, Underdogs and Behemoths: Though the Academy looks to the November/December crowd for many of its nominees by February, the accidental connections that kick off the January through June period (although, let’s be real – we might as well toss the first two or three months of the year, outside Best Animated Feature) yield the occasional BP nominee.  But who to represent that cause for 2012?  There are a couple of obvious choices in the arthouse surprise hits (the Midnight in Paris, or to a lesser extent The Kids Are All Right, slot, if you will) in Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom and John Madden’s The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. The former of the two obviously carries more of the cache thanks to great box office sea legs and general mini-hysteria toward the oddball flick.

And then there are the massive blockbusters with the relatively strong reviews that seem to always incite the instant “will it or won’t it” attitude about its Oscar prospects.  Though there’s something to it, the two highest grossing pictures of all time have managed a BP nod, it’s a fine line.  And that line is The Dark Knight.  So the chances for the likes of The Hunger Games, The Avengers, and The Dark Knight Rises are questionable at best, though I see the middle entry on that list having the most legitimate shot at a nomination.  There will be plenty of technical nods to be had, to be sure, but could Avengers total 2012 dominance factor into the overall necessity of honoring “the best” by year’s end?  And though critical reaction to DKR hasn’t been nearly as strong as for its predecessor, can it squeak by off of a guilt trip?  I’m thinking not quite, but it will depend on the rest of the year’s crop.

Rounding out the early-year releases are the strong festival contenders, namely Beasts of the Southern Wild, which seems to have the seemingly best shot of any film thus far released at a BP nomination, and the moderately successful (both critically and financially) fan favorites, Magic Mike and Brave.  The former is a huge overreach, I’m guessing, considering it’s stripperfied central focus, but it’s tough not to keep it in the conversation considering the cultural impact it seemed to have this year.  And though Brave may not be a “fan favorite” it has fervent fans and decent receipts.  But will the Cars 2 afterglow, or afterdulling as it were, dim its chances of making a top five to 10 of 2012?

Shoot ‘Em Ups and Dress ‘Em Ups: Trends can play a significant role in Hollywood’s ultimate decision, and recent years have taught us the Academy is feeling nostalgic.  And not just for its own yesteryears but for royalty yesteryears.  The King’s Speech and The Artist have taught us some habits are hard to shake.  In the same vein, how will the plethora of gun-toting flicks play for voting audiences, which seem to be tentative toward the sub-genre of late (Gangster Squad is officially out of the conversation now…)?  The likelihood that we’ll see Lawless, Killing Them Softly, and Argo on the final ballot could seem slim at this point, but pedigreed casts and production teams could change all that.  My thought is that the first two land more by way of acting or sound categories, while Ben Affleck’s latest has strong buzz and more than likely the best shot at a Best Picture chance.

The much more likely prospects, arguably the most likely prospects of the whole group, are going to come out of the costume epics and literary adaptations.  The two biggies are probably Les Miserables, which will battle the oft-struggling musical status that has been hit and miss in the past decade, and Hyde Park on Hudson, which in theory should have no trouble racking up a good 10 nods on its way to the eventual win.  But a lot depends on momentum.  And internal sub-genre competition could come from Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina, Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, and Mike Newell’s Great Expectations.  All three scream “bait,” but elements of each seem like they could fail them in the end.  Karenina and Gatsby give artistically liberal vibes from the trailers, which can put off voters, and Great Expectations hasn’t found a surefire release date in the States just yet.

And rounding out the costume epics are the Honest Abe biopic Lincoln, which is the very definition of Oscar bait – multiple honorees in the cast, large-scale time-spanning storytelling, biographical subject and beloved director… and the generic title doesn’t hurt.  Though, we all know that J. Edgar and The Iron Lady struggled last year, so don’t get too hepped up on the Spielberg juice just yet – I have doubts this will deliver when it comes to Oscar.  Speaking of high expectations, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey  should have no trouble racking up the visual and aural nominations, but the lighter source text may not suit itself to the Best Picture lineup – particularly since voters know there will be three consecutive years of it to partake in.  Finally, if royalty and costumes are what they’re after, there’s always foreign offering A Royal Affair, which will struggle with competition in Karenina and Hyde Park, but could find a devoted enough following.

Director Obsessions, Visual Beauties and the Borderline Date Shifters: Some of the most fanatical entries on the release schedule for the year include those courtesy of critical darling directors who’ve assembled notable enough casts to create buzz that will likely come to fruition in the fall and holiday seasons.  The arguable frontrunner in this category is The Master, which is bringing in Oscar favorite Paul Thomas Anderson and relative comeback kid Joaquin Phoenix in what looks to be a harrowing achievement. And courting controversy can often help with more liberal voters.  Rounding out the director-lover’s crowd are Clint Eastwood (Trouble with the Curve), David O. Russell (Silver-Linings Playbook), Michael Haneke (Amour), Kathryn Bigelow (Zero Dark Thirty), and Quentin Tarantino (Django Unchained).  It’s feasible to think that many of these contenders will end up in the lineup, but Eastwood will have to contend with recent ambivalence toward his work, Russell’s film is looking awfully romantic comedy/Jerry Maguire – doesn’t seem very on trend these days, and Bigelow could struggle to finish up in time for release.

Perhaps it’ll be time to go for the spectacle.  Voters did embrace The Tree of Life and Hugo, so it’s feasible that something like Cloud Atlas or Life of Pi could be a serious threat to reach the final seven… or eight… or nine.  Ang Lee’s adaptation looks to be an impressive visual effort, and the Wachowskis seem to have gone all out, from the looks of the trippy yet captivating Cloud Atlas trailer.  All this could be threatened by a few releases that have found dates just yet but could go either way – 2012 or 2013.  Terrence Malick might back-to-back it with To the Wonder, Dustin Hoffman has assembled an awards magnet cast for Quartet, and the Coen Brothers must always be taken seriously, thus the inclusion of Inside Llewyn Davis.

But what of the final list?  At this point, with so many options to choose from, I’m feeling another lineup of nine this time around.  Unless lines are clearly drawn between which ones are surefire all-arounds and which ones have smaller followings, I’m guessing the love will be spread again.  Here’s where I’m at right now, in order of the likelihood they’ll be nominated:

(1) The Master (2) Life of Pi (3) Hyde Park on Hudson (4) Beasts of the Southern Wild (5) Moonrise Kingdom (6) Lincoln (7) Quartet (8) Argo (9) Amour

Where are you at?  Am I missing any major possibilities? And how close do you think the blockbusters will get in the long run?  (I’m guessing not nearly as close as the web would have you believe.)

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