Thursday, September 8, 2011

On the Oscar hopes of Drive and The Tree of Life

Normally I don't start doing this kind of thing until October, after the fall film festival dust has settled, but I've received a lot of questions about the two biggest films released so far this year regarding Oscars, I figured I'd address it. First off, I'm not sure either The Tree of Life or Drive will be major Oscar players, the latter even less so than the former. Here's why.

  The Tree of  Life is with Fox Searchlight, which means they fully intend on launching a full-blown awards campaign for the film. The studio came to the rescue of Terrence Malick's 5th feature when no other studio would touch it with a ten foot pole, and have taken great care of it since. It premiered at Cannes, and Searchlight has been good about keeping the film in theatres all summer long, despite being the antithesis of summer film fare. The question is, will it be a hit with the Academy? My instincts tell me no, since really, the only Malick film that has been a hit at Oscar was his magnum opus, The Thin Red Line, back in 1997. Nominated for 7 oscars, including Picture, Director, Screenplay, and a bevy of craft awards, it took home none, competing with much more mainstream heavy hitters Saving Private Ryan and Shakespeare in Love. Days of Heaven won Best Cinematography, and was nominated for Costume Design, Sound, and Original Score. The New World was nominated for Best Cinematography, but losing to Memoirs of a Geisha.

The Tree of Life will have a tough time for a number of reasons. First, it's Malick's most artsy, experimental film. Second, it's extremely divisive. While the overall reaction within the film community has been positive, it's very much a love it or hate it film. Many academy members respect and admire Malick, which many others refuse to take his work seriously. No doubt the film will land a nomination for Best Cinematography, but what else? My instincts tell me visual effects legend Douglas Trumbull will be nominated for his first work in 30 years for the incredible creation sequence, as it will likely appeal to voters' admiration for using all practical effects, and next to no CGI (sans the dinosaurs). I know for a fact Fox Searchlight intends to campaign Brad Pitt heavily for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, but the veteran actor has a much better shot with Moneyball, and while double nominees often don't go home empty handed (Jamie Foxx in 2007), I have a feeling the actor's branch will want to spread the love and will go for the more mainstream pick, despite which film he may or may not be better in. As far as Picture, Director, and Screenplay go, I'm betting on Picture, simply due to the passion votes it will receive. Detractors can put it at the bottom of their ballots as much as they want, but it's only the number one votes that matter, and Malick's film is sure to get plenty. I'd say Malick right now is sitting in 6th place for Best Director. Again, with more mainstream choices, the academy is likely to be satisfied with a couple of craft nominations and Best Picture. But if other, more likely candidates fall by the wayside, Malick could get in. Just don't expect him to show up at any event. Screenplay is a non-starter, since the film has so very little dialogue. But stranger things have happened, and writers might respect the way Malick writes through the silence. But that's a long shot.

Drive, likewise, doesn't feel at all like something in the Oscar wheelhouse. It's an ultra-violent, slow burner character study in neo-noir trappings. None of Michael Mann's films that inspired Refn's masterwork were ever nominated for any Oscars, and I don't imagine this will be a hit with them either. And that's really because it doesn't fit into any neat category that the AMPAS loves to marginalize films into. It's not a commercial action thriller, but it's also not a pure-arthouse granola piece either. I sense a vibe like I got with The American last year. Refn's film isn't an awards film, and it was never meant to be. It's too violent, too sparse, too restrained, too artsy, too subtle. The only player with any real hope is Albert Brooks, who I will in fact go on record to predict a Supporting Actor nomination for, since he's the most obvious choice, given the eccentric nature of the character. While I think Ryan Gosling yet again gives my favorite performance of the year (so far anyways), he's way too subtle and restrained to get attention. The Academy loves histrionics. Lately they've been getting it right, especially in the Supporting Actor category (since Javier Bardem 4 years ago), but Gosling has way better chances for his turn in The Ides of March. I could maybe see an Editing or Adapted Screenplay nomination happening, but that's it. The film just isn't in the Academy's wheelhouse, plain and simple.

I'd be surprised if either film gained any more traction than that, but stranger things have happened. For now, I'm going to stick with the safe bets until proven otherwise. Questions? Comments? Have at it in the comments section below.


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