October 16, 2013



Like presidential politics, the Oscar race doesn’t really stop anymore; one campaign gets underway before the last has even ended.  Argo had yet to collect its statuettes in February before we were already hearing about the awards chances for movies screened at Sundance the month before, especially when Oscar savant Harvey Weinstein bought the distribution rights to FRUITVALE STATION, a title still in the mix 10 months later.  Only a few weeks after the Oscars, Cannes announced its film festival line-up, and NEBRASKA, ALL IS LOST and INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS were added to the mix, joined by BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR when the latter actually won the festival’s grand prize.

The “season,” as it were, continued through the summer with openings of BLUE JASMINE, THE BUTLER and the aforementioned Fruitvale Station, and it hit high gear with the August/September/October quadruple-whammy of the Venice, Tellluride, Toronto and NY film festivals, all of them loaded with potential contenders.  Among the titles to benefit from festival exposure and accolades:  GRAVITY, CAPTAIN PHILLIPS, DALLAS BUYERS CLUB, PHILOMENA, and PRISONERS.  (Some that didn’t seem to make the cut, in one way or another:  AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY, THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY and MANDELA:  LONG WALK TO FREEDOM.)

The Oscarland train can be boarded at any time, so let’s take our seats now, with a civilized 10 weeks left in the calendar year.  This happens to be an important week in Oscarland, with news to come of two mega-contenders, the arrival of an acting race front-runner, and a couple of likely also-rans.

Most crucially, this is the weekend that we’ll finally start to learn whether 12 YEARS A SLAVE is really this year’s Schindler’s List.  Steven Spielberg’s Holocaust epic was such a potent mix of important subject matter, critical praise and, to a surprising extent, popular success–it made almost $100M 20 years ago, when that number still meant something–that it marched through awards season without any serious challenge.  (For posterity’s sake, the other Best Picture nominees that year were The Piano, In the Name Of the Father, The Fugitive and The Remains Of the Day.)  We already know, after its triumphant film festival season, that 12 Years will have the first two factors–either famously or infamously, Kyle Buchanan at Vulture wrote on September 6: “Suspend the betting, close the books and notify the engraver:  I’ve just seen what will surely be this year’s Best Picture winner.”   It will certainly receive plenty of nominations.  But will mainstream audiences want to endure its 132 minutes of almost unrelieved misery and violence, stamping it once and for all as the film to beat?  Or will box office disappointment send voters looking for something less horrific?  12 Years begins an 18-theatre platform run on Thursday night, and expectations will be high.  (So will the fury of the film’s partisans if ticketbuyers don’t show up.)

Over the weekend, we’ll also get our first word of SAVING MR. BANKS, Disney’s Oscar title this season, when it premieres at the London Film Festival.  From all accounts, Mr. Banks is the polar opposite of 12 Years A Slave, a warm, audience-friendly, Academy-hugging story about the tumultuous making of beloved classic Mary Poppins, staring Emma Thompson as the prickly author P.L. Travers and no less than Tom Hanks in a supporting role as Walt Disney himself.  (Hanks, of course, will also be very much in the leading category for his extraordinary work in Captain Phillips.)  The question it faces, logically enough, is the opposite of the one 12 Years has to answer:  is it too much of a lightweight to be a serious competitor to the somber slavery drama, or can it be this year’s Argo to the other film’s Lincoln?

Robert Redford’s much-vaunted solo performance in All Is Lost, as a sailor desperately trying to stay alive on the open sea, will almost certainly make him a frontrunner for his first Best Actor Oscar (he did win Best Director for Ordinary People in 1980), alongside fellow 77-year old Bruce Dern for Nebraska, as well as Hanks in Captain Phillips, Matthew McConaughey for Dallas Buyers Club and Chiwetel Ejiofor for 12 Years.  J.C. Chandor’s film, however, opening in limited release this weekend, may find itself hurt by its thematic similarity to Gravity, now an almost sure-thing Best Picture nominee–although unlikely to win in non-technical categories–a much more conventionally entertaining (and gigantically successful) survival thriller.

Also hitting theatres are a pair of films that were once considered potential Oscar contenders, but seem to have been relegated to “better luck next time” territory.  The bigger one is THE FIFTH ESTATE, the Julian Assange/WikiLeaks story, starring critical favorite Benedict Cumberbatch and Rush (thinking of faded contenders) co-star Daniel Bruhl.  All those elements, plus director Bill Condon, of Dreamgirls and Kinsey (and, OK, of the last two Twilight movies) seemed to guarantee serious consideration, but the response to its opening night unveiling at Toronto was lukewarm at best, and Disney (which distributes DreamWorks productions) is concentrating on Mr. Banks instead.  Another soft film festival title is KILL YOUR DARLINGS, a fascinating true-life story about a murder that occurred within a Columbia University circle that included the young Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac, but despite the presence of Daniel Radcliffe (in a very un-Hogwarts-like turn), Jack Huston, Dane DeHaan, Ben Foster and Elisabeth Olsen, it stirred little excitement at Sundance or Toronto.


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."