The awards rodeo kicks off

Jan. 13, 2012, 3:00 a.m.
The awards rodeo kicks off
Courtesy of Warner Bros. France

It’s that time of year again. Now that the myriad film critics associations have had their say, it’s the industry’s turn to speak. As the guilds finalize their nominee shortlists, the public turns its attention toward the televised ceremonies and infamous gold statues. The Golden Globes, presented by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, kicks off awards season this Sunday, followed two weeks later by the Screen Actors Guild Awards. On Feb. 12 the British Academy of Film and Television Arts has their big night, to be answered by our own Academy Awards at the end of the month. For the next six weeks Hollywood, even more so than usual, will become an absolute media frenzy surrounding who won, who lost and, thanks to Joan Rivers, who wore what.


For even the most reluctant of viewers, this season’s lack of clear frontrunners is astounding, especially considering that by this time last year, the playing field for the major awards categories (i.e. best picture, acting, writing, direction) had already been narrowed down to an elite group (“Black Swan,” “The Social Network,” “The King’s Speech,” “The Fighter”) plus a few wildcards (“The Kids Are All Right,” “True Grit”). (And in the animated race, Pixar had not yet tarnished their reputation with “Cars 2”). But dark horse or not, all of these esteemed 2010 releases had the same thing going for them: the complete package. Looking at the current list of Golden Globe nominees, it seems that there are few who possess the same consistency as their predecessors.


Let’s start with an overall trend in the Best Actress race: a standout performance in an otherwise lackluster film. Meryl Streep (“The Iron Lady”) and Glenn Close (“Albert Nobbs”), especially, suffer from this syndrome, but the other leading ladies in the mix–Michelle Williams (“My Week With Marilyn”), Tilda Swinton (“We Need to Talk About Kevin”) and Viola Davis (“The Help”) also experience it to a lesser degree.


The awards rodeo kicks off
Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

“The Iron Lady’s” critical reception has been so disappointing that many are drawing comparisons to “J. Edgar,” a film that I personally enjoyed but whose overall panning has all but ruined Leonardo DiCaprio’s shot at recognition for his remarkable performance as the FBI’s founding father. Both Streep and DiCaprio stand to continue receiving well-deserved nominations throughout the season, but because their films were DOA, wins are unlikely. (But with that said “The Iron Lady” seems to be trending higher than “J. Edgar,” so there might be hope for Streep after all).


On the flipside of actors overshadowing their movies, we have movies that managed to achieve overall distinction despite lacking singular performances. Examples include high concept pictures with ensemble casts like Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo,” Steven Spielberg’s “War Horse” and Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris.” Expect these to be serious contenders for categories like art direction and costume design.


Every year, without fail, there are films that get caught in the no man’s land of being great enough to receive recognition, yet too aloof for traditional mainstream tastes. Call it the pity nomination or the passion vote of the minority, but either way these rarely win. The NC-17-rated “Shame” and antagonist-centered “Young Adult” currently occupy the “too controversial” slate, while at the other end of the spectrum “Bridesmaids” and “50/50” are struggling against an age-old tendency to overlook comedy.


“The Descendants,” “The Artist” and, perhaps, “Moneyball,” are among the few that managed to hit all the targets. The critical reception has never wavered, and the films possess writing, acting and direction nearly head and shoulders above the rest. “The Artist,” especially, is one to watch, since it has managed to ride out the hype surprisingly well since its debut in Cannes last May. (In comparison, other Cannes contenders like “The Tree of Life” and “Melancholia” both seem to have fizzled out). For this reason, the Best Actor race will probably boil down to George Clooney (“The Descendants”), Jean Dujardin (“The Artist”) and Brad Pitt (“Moneyball”).


But sometimes it is useful to forget about the movies as a whole and focus on the talent. Fresh faces like Rooney Mara (“The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”) and Shailene Woodley (“The Descendants”) could very well emerge as this year’s equivalent of Jennifer Lawrence (who didn’t win last year for “Winter’s Bone” but, as a red carpet fixture and Best Actress nominee, jumpstarted her career). Other times voters favor established veterans who have not yet won a major award, á la Christopher Plummer, up for Best Supporting Actor for “Beginners,” but occasionally like to reward those making a comeback, like Alexander Payne (director, “The Descendants”).


It goes without saying that predicting awards is never an exact science, but even if you haven’t seen (m)any of the movies, hopefully this rundown provides enough fodder to sound like a credible film buff at the next dinner party.

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