October 23, 2013

OSCARLAND: The Battle Between Good and Evil Begins


Over the weekend, this year’s Oscarland acquired its first helping of Conventional Wisdom, thanks to the initial release of 12 YEARS A SLAVE (Fox Searchlight) in theatres and the unveiling of SAVING MR. BANKS (Disney) at the London Film Festival and to selected critics.  That Wisdom may very well change a dozen times between now and the end of the year, let alone by the announcement of the nominees in January or the actual awards in March–but it’s getting some traction.

The narrative is both simple and familiar.  For 12 Years, substitute Brokeback Mountain or The Social Network, uncompromising, cutting-edge works of cinema art beloved by critics.  Saving Mr. Banks then becomes the new Crash, The King’s Speech, The Artist or Argo–high-class, easily digestible, Academy-friendly and, to their foes, sentimental treacle.  Of course, this scenario wouldn’t look to play out well for 12 Years, since its analogues are always beaten by those of Mr. Banks–but 12 Years partisans seem to be hoping that the historical weight (and really, the sheer unpleasantness) of 12 Years will figure into the calculation, and Academy members will fear being excoriated if they duck their duty.  It’s only a matter of time until the 12 Years-istas pull out the heavy artillery rhetoric of calling Mr. Banks and its fans “middle brow.”

I haven’t seen Saving Mr. Banks, so I’m in no position to compare it to its forebears, or for that matter to 12 Years A Slave.  (For the record, I was ardent for Brokeback and Social Network in their respective years.)  The reviews for Mr. Banks thus far have been favorable yet also a bit patronizing, the kind of distinction that might not show up in a Rotten Tomatoes comparison (where 12 Years is currently at 95% positive, while Mr. Banks–with only 7 reviews–is at 100%).  But it’s clear when Variety notes that Mr. Banks “is the unapologetically retro valentine Disney himself might have made,” or the Hollywood Reporter points out that it’s “cunningly effective, if rather on-the-nose.”  Compare that to the NY Times on 12 Years a Slave, which starts with the proclamation that it “isn’t the first movie about slavery in the United States–but it may be the one that finally makes it impossible for the American cinema to continue selling the ugly lies it’s been hawking for more than a century.”

On the box office side, 12 Years A Slave got off to a strong but not overwhelming start in its initial weekend at 19 theatres, with an average a bit below $50K that put it below several of the year’s other elite limited releases like Blue Jasmine, Fruitvale Station and Enough Said, while the consensus is that Saving Mr. Banks may be exactly the kind of foonote-to-history story that audiences will embrace when it opens in December.  This weekend 12 Years expands to 100+ theatres, which will tell us a lot more about whether audiences are going to marginalize it or not as a film they may admire in the abstract but don’t necessarily want to see.  The next we hear of Mr. Banks will be on November 7, when it opens the AFI Film Festival in LA.

The other Oscarland news of the week is that yet another scheduled major release has postponed itself into 2014, this time George Clooney’s MONUMENTS MEN (Sony).  The word is that the film simply couldn’t be finished in time for its December opening, because of the visual effects needed for the period setting, and that’s not at all far-fetched–although Clooney, in his interviews, has also noted that December is going to be hugely competitive with Oscar contenders, and since Monuments is just a popcorn movie, albeit one crammed with A-list players, it didn’t need to be surrounded by them.  It joins Foxcatcher, The Immigrant, and Grace of Monaco as one-time potential Oscar contenders who have bowed out.  (It’s been reported that while Martin Scorsese’s WOLF OF WALL STREET (Paramount) won’t make its original November 15 release date, it will be finished in time to open on Christmas Day–but the studio hasn’t confirmed that yet.)

It had initially appeared that this weekend’s opening THE COUNSELOR (20th) would be in the Oscar conversation, with its line-up of director Ridley Scott and actors Michael Fassbender, Penelope Cruz, Javier Bardem and Brad Pitt, but Fox’s decision to hold back all reviews until a few hours before its 10PM opening tomorrow suggests strongly that won’t be the case.  Cannes Film Festival Palm D’Or winner BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR (IFC) is ineligible for the Best Foreign Film Oscar it might have won, due to the arcane rules of the Foreign Film category, but if its director and cast can stop clawing at each other long enough to campaign (the director now appears to be threatening to sue star Lea Seydoux for slander after her statements about how awful he was to work with), it could potentially be in the running in those categories.



About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."