The Hidden ContendersNovember 03, 2008
If this was a normal year, multiplexes would be awash in potential Oscar contenders and pundits would be speculating about which of these prestige motion pictures would make the cut.
2008 is not a normal year.
Thus far, the slate is largely bare of possible Oscar nominees. Aside from Rachel Getting Married, which will likely at least give Anne Hathaway a shot at the gold, things are pretty barren. So barren, in fact, that many prognosticators are beginning to seriously consider The Dark Knight's possible candidacy. Three months ago, that might have seemed like a fanboy's wet dream. Now, it's getting real consideration. Admittedly, The Dark Knight is a great film (for my money, the best of the year thus far), but is the Academy ready to nominate a comic book movie for Best Picture? It's beginning to look that way.
Typically, once trick or treating is done, there are already some serious contenders in theaters, with more waiting in the wings. By the time U.S. dinner tables are piled high with turkey and fixins, about 50% of the Oscar would-be's are available for public consumption. Not this year. Aside from the aforementioned feel-bad matrimonial motion picture, it's a barren playing field. High School Musical 3? Saw V? Zack and Miri Make a Porno? Regardless of the relative merits (or lack thereof), these films are not Oscar bait. A few potential high-profile films have been launched - Miracle at St. Anna, The Duchess, Changeling, Body of Lies - and it's hard to imagine any of these generating much Oscar buzz. They either failed commercially, were greeted with disdain by a majority of critics, or both.
To call November "lackluster" would be to greatly understate matters. Even the most optimistic prognosticator could only find two possible Oscar films in the penultimate month's releases: Slumdog Millionaire and Australia. The month will be dominated by Bond, vampires, and animated animals, but none of those seem likely to target a gold statuette. Admittedly, things look better in December, but not as good as they once appeared. Two potential candidates - The Soloist and The Road - have been exiled to next year. Many more will get the kind of limited release that ignores the existence of movie-goers outside of New York and Los Angeles. Get ready for reviews of The Wrestler, The Brothers Bloom, Nothing But the Truth, Revolutionary Road, and Defiance, but don't expect to see the movies until early 2009.
There are two points to be made. The first is that this dilution of late year prestige titles could result in one of the thinnest Oscar races in recent history. Typically, there are between 12 and 15 movies with legitimate Oscar claims. In 2008, there could be fewer, which would limit suspense and interest in the nominations. And, considering how poorly the 2008 ceremony did in the ratings, that's the last thing Hollywood needs. (The cynic might argue that The Dark Knight has to be nominated, if only to provide a title that casual movie-goers might be familiar with.)
The more worrisome thing, at least for those who love the 2-3 month end-of-the-year window when movies aren't all geared toward 13-year-old boys, is that we're being cheated. This year, the good stuff is being held back until December and, even then, the cup doesn't exactly runneth over. A perusal of the 20+ movies slated to arrive in December shows some bright spots but not enough to blot out the specter of the looming January winter.
For me, Toronto normally signals the beginning of the Oscar race. I head north, see a bunch of great movies, then come home and wait a few weeks for the multiplexes to catch up. This year, Toronto's cupboard was a little on the bare side (at least insofar as high profile Oscar contenders were concerned), and that has contributed to an uninspired October and November. The studios don't mind, though, because the less prestigious fare has continued to bring in dollars at the box office, reinforcing the belief that movie theaters are gradually turning their backs on adults and titles that primarily appeal to older, more sophisticated viewers. There has always been a balance in Hollywood between art and commerce. Over the past couple of years, the Almighty Dollar has begun to win the war. Now, there are an increasing number of movies churned out exclusively because they will make money.
Those who love movies have two choices: make peace with this new paradigm or begin exploring the past via DVDs. There's merit to both approaches. But, based on the evidence at hand, one thing has become increasingly apparent: the era of the prestige Oscar contender may not have many rounds remaining.
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