With its multimillion-dollar campaign ads, crafty consultants, shoot-from-the-lip pundits and grueling “Survivor"-style fight to the finish, is it any wonder the Oscar race often feels like a presidential election campaign? Just as this was the year of the blogger in presidential politics, the Oscar campaign is being dominated by Internet blogmeisters offering sometimes sophisticated, sometimes crackpot predictions about how various awards will play out.
This past week offered a typical Web viewpoint of the emerging Oscar race. If you turned to GoldDerby.com, you could find raves about “The Aviator” from the site’s platoon of spies, with one claiming the film was “a strong contender for every award out there,” saying it offered “superb” performances, starting with Leonardo DiCaprio, “who confirms he could do ‘Hamlet’ if he so chose.”
At Oscarrace.com, there was a link to Net columnist Jeffrey Wells, who offered hosannas for Clint Eastwood’s “Million Dollar Baby,” writing, “Trust me, it’s a multi-Oscar nominee -- Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress.... " Over at Foxnews.com, columnist Roger Friedman gave a rave to “The Aviator” and touted “The Woodsman,” writing, “add the underrated Kevin Bacon to this year’s list of potential Best Actor Oscar nominees.”
What’s fascinating about all these huzzahs is that it will be weeks before any of these films actually arrive in theaters. But the same movie studios that used to weep and wail when Ain’t It Cool News would post early reviews have no complaints about Oscar bloggers jumping the gun with a raft of superlatives about their Oscar contenders. It just goes to show that no one gets upset about people breaking embargoes as long as they write glowing blurbs. In fact, studios often invite bloggers to see key Oscar films before they show the pictures to the mainstream press.
It simply demonstrates what a key role bloggers now play in the insanely competitive Oscar race, where a best picture or best actor nomination is often worth millions, if not tens of millions, in extra box-office grosses for a serious film. The blogs are the leading indicators of early buzz for an Oscar picture: the initial upbeat word-of-mouth on the upcoming Joel Schumacher adaptation of “The Phantom of the Opera” (now quieted by less-than-adulatory reports) was driven by positive blog postings.
The blogs themselves are a mixed bag, some offering sober commentary, others spouting theories that would be right at home at a UFO conspiracy fest. The most cerebral blog is Emanuellevy.com, hosted by Levy, an erudite critic and author whose site recently had a lively dissertation on how a disproportionate amount of Oscar winners played parts in which they suffered from various afflictions, illnesses and disabilities. On the other hand, there’s moviecitynews.com’s David Poland, who recently made the argument that “The Passion of the Christ” would be hurt by the academy’s preponderance of Jewish voters. Poland wrote: “If you start with only 60% of the academy being non-Jewish, with few Jews willing to support the film for awards, you need 37.5% of those non-Jews to vote the film highly. If you figure that half of the non-Jews never saw the film and ... " Well, you get the drift.
While bloggers sometimes trash movies, most of their vituperativeness is directed at each other. Tom O’Neil, who hosts GoldDerby.com, dismisses Poland as “a terrible Oscar forecaster. He said the only movie that could beat ‘Aviator’ was ‘Phantom of the Opera,’ which is ridiculous -- ‘Phantom’ isn’t even a player in the race.” Poland argues that O’Neil’s record as an Oscar seer “is no better than mine”; Poland says he was the first pundit to identify Charlize Theron as a serious best actress contender for “Monster” last year. However, Poland in turn regularly vilifies Friedman, calling him a Miramax “stooge,” a reference to the fact that Friedman unfailingly touts Miramax’s top Oscar hopefuls, rarely mentioning that he has written for Miramax-owned magazines and was a producer of a film Miramax released. In fairness to Friedman, he is perhaps the best showbiz columnist on the Net. Unlike most of his peers, he actually does real reporting, including an expose of the questionable credentials of the people who make up the National Board of Review, whose awards -- due Wednesday -- are nonetheless treated as an important barometer by the media and studios, who will blurb them incessantly in upcoming Oscar ads.
The blogs consistently beat the old media on Oscar scoops. But they also are littered with dubious opinions. As O’Neil puts it: “You should take most of what you read with a grain of salt the size of the Kodak Theatre.”
Which brings us to our annual assessment of the top Oscar best picture contenders. Our predictions are far from infallible, though last year we had the winner, “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King,” in second place at 8 to 1, and in 2002, we picked the winner with “Chicago” at 5 to 1. Here’s a peek at this year’s race:
“Ray” (6 to 1). A rousing film starring best actor favorite Jamie Foxx, “Ray” comes equipped with an academy-friendly dramatic trajectory (see “A Beautiful Mind”): the troubled artist who triumphs over a smorgasbord of obstacles, including blindness, drugs, poverty and prejudice. It can’t hurt with academy liberals that there are more great African American roles in this film than nearly all the other pictures combined.
“Million Dollar Baby” (7 to 1). With academy icon Clint Eastwood directing and giving an elegiac performance as a fight manager who reluctantly trains a woman boxer played by Hilary Swank, this powerful drama has the finely honed craft and packs the emotional wallop voters traditionally value in a best picture.
“Sideways” (8 to 1). Perhaps the year’s best-reviewed picture, it offers breakthrough performances, nuanced direction from Alexander Payne and is getting a huge push from Fox Searchlight. While critics’ favorites rarely carry the day with conservative academy voters, “Lost in Translation” broke that rule last year, as could this superb film.
“Spanglish” (10 to 1). If there ever was an academy favorite, it’s James L. Brooks, who has scored best picture nominations for three films he directed. It still may be a huge leap for the academy to laud a film featuring Adam Sandler, but the crackling dialogue and showy performances make it a serious contender, especially because this comic culture-clash saga of a Mexican maid’s entanglement with a wealthy Westside family will hit home with many industry voters.
“Finding Neverland” (12 to 1). This tale of “Peter Pan” creator J.M. Barrie is essentially about the drama of the creative process, always a favorite theme with academy voters. With another strong performance from Johnny Depp, this deft biopic should resonate with many academyites who value artful filmmaking.
“Kinsey” (14 to 1). If they gave Oscars for the film most mentioned in Op-Ed pieces, this well-reviewed biopic of Alfred Kinsey would win hands down. Populated with respected actors, it has the kind of thought-provoking heft that could earn a nomination, though films that deal with sex in such a frank manner (a la “Quills”) often get a lukewarm reception by the academy.
“The Aviator” (16 to 1). On paper this sprawling biopic about Howard Hughes is right in the academy’s wheelhouse. It’s a star-filled film about a bigger-than-life adventurer who not only changed the shape of aviation but also knew his way around Hollywood. On the other hand, reaction to the film has been wildly mixed, as is the academy’s attitude about directorial giant Martin Scorsese, who came up empty last year with an even more ambitious film (“Gangs of New York”).
“Hotel Rwanda” (18 to 1). An old-fashioned punch-to-the-gut biopic about a hotel manager (Don Cheadle) who saves thousands during a genocidal civil war in 1990s Rwanda, this well-told story has the clout of real-life drama behind it. It also invariably leaves audiences moved and shamed, two qualities that have served as engines to propel Holocaust films to Oscar recognition in the past.
“Closer” (20 to 1). Oscar voters adore director Mike Nichols, who coaxes marvelous performances out of the film’s star cast, but this theater adaptation’s furtive sexual couplings may be too chilly and emotionally raw for many academy types.
“The Incredibles” (25 to 1). Glowingly reviewed, the film is a consummate technical achievement with grown-up artistic themes. Alas, the academy has been stubbornly resistant to past animation triumphs, largely because its mammoth actors’ branch (bigger than the next three biggest branches together) continues to view animated films as greasy kid stuff. It will have to settle for a best animated film nod.
“The Sea Inside,” “The Motorcycle Diaries,” “A Very Long Engagement” and “The House of Flying Daggers” (30 to 1). As soulful and visually arresting as these movies are, they are stigmatized as foreign films, which barely fare better than animated pictures with the academy. Since 1973, only three foreign films have managed a best picture nod; none has won. Someday Oscar voters will acknowledge that many of the best films are made abroad, but don’t count on it this year.
“The Phantom of the Opera” (40 to 1). Sumptuous and theatrical, this will appeal to Andrew Lloyd Webber-ophiles, but it’s unlikely to survive comparisons to acclaimed musicals like “Chicago” or “Moulin Rouge.”
“The Passion of the Christ” (50 to 1). If Wal-Mart shoppers gave Oscars, this would win going away, but the academy is not exactly this film’s core constituency.
“Fahrenheit 9/11" (70 to 1). If ever a movie peaked too early, this is it. Even in Hollywood, no one wants to think about the presidential campaign anymore.
“Alexander” (100 to 1). Put it this way: No way!
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