You may have missed it for the racket produced by the majority of movies currently going boom-boom — or, in the case of "The Lone Ranger," bust-bust — at the multiplex. But with the arrival of Sundance Film Festival sensation "Fruitvale Station" in theaters, the opening bell for Oscar season has sounded, providing welcome news for moviegoers immune to the charms of unnecessary reboots and bloated tent-pole movies.
And though we're still a long way from sending the tux to the dry cleaners to see what they can do about the stain left from Wolfgang Puck's pork belly dumplings, it's never too early to begin crafting an Oscar campaign.
Several recent best picture nominees — "The Tree of Life," "Midnight in Paris," "Inception," "The Kids Are All Right," "Winter's Bone" and, this year, "Beasts of the Southern Wild" — debuted theatrically by early July. The challenge, which "Fruitvale" must now meet, is to keep the movie and its talent in the conversation as the pages of the calendar (but not the leaves ... this is L.A.) turn.
"Fruitvale" dramatizes the last day in the life of Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old ex-con detained and killed by transit policeman on a train platform in Oakland on New Year's Day 2009. It won both the Sundance festival's Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award, as did Benh Zeitlin's boisterous "Beasts" in 2012. Now, backed by the awards-season muscle of the Weinstein Co., the critically acclaimed "Fruitvale" will again try to match "Beasts," which, after an early summer theatrical run, went on to garner four Oscar nominations: picture, director, lead actress and adapted screenplay.
"This will not be the last time you guys walk to a podium," Sundance jury member Tom Rothman told "Fruitvale" writer-director Ryan Coogler in January. That may be true, though at 84 minutes, the powerful, immersive "Fruitvale" might appear a bit slight for some motion picture academy members who equate dramatic heft with running time.
But "Fruitvale" certainly got off to a promising start at the box office, averaging almost $54,000 per screen in limited release, a dazzling number. With its obvious connections to the Trayvon Martin case, the film seems poised to turn into an indie hit, which never hurts when it comes to awards voters.
At the very least, "Fruitvale" and its accomplished lead actor, Michael B. Jordan, seem destined to succeed at the Film Independent Spirit Awards, though even there voters have been more inclined in recent years to reward established filmmakers at the expense of newcomers like Coogler.
With its festival pedigree, "Fruitvale" is the highest-profile awards-season contender to debut this year. But it's far from the only one. Discriminating moviegoers have had to do some serious sifting, but the first half of 2013 provided a fair number of films and performances worthy of being remembered come ballot time. Here are six to file away.
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Actress: Greta Gerwig, "Frances Ha." Academy members, perhaps feeling the pang of self-recognition, don't respond particularly well to kooky characters, which makes Gerwig's lively comic turn in a movie she co-wrote with director Noah Baumbach even more of a long shot for an Oscar. But Spirit voters nominated her for Baumbach's 2010 bittersweet comedy "Greenberg" and should put her at the front of the line for her delightful performance here, arguably a career high point.
Supporting actor: Sam Rockwell, "The Way, Way Back." Academy members also snooze on the funny, but Rockwell's work as the sympathetic mentor in this coming-of-age tale is so special and deeply felt that it's possible they just might ... OK .... we're probably kidding ourselves. But beyond Rockwell's inspired comic riffing, there's that beautiful, loving, end-of-film exchange with young Liam James that leaves audiences in puddles. Distributor Fox Searchlight should sell that and maybe send out a case of sunscreen to critics' group members, who tend to be on the pale side to begin with.
Supporting actor: Matthew McConaughey, "Mud." McConaughey fought his way back into critics' good graces last year through fine work in "Magic Mike," "Bernie" and "Killer Joe." He's even better in "Mud," playing a charismatic fugitive returning home to reclaim the love of his life. Beyond that, the resurgent McConaughey has a starring turn in "Dallas Buyers Club," a fact-based drama about a man who begins smuggling alternative medical treatments after being diagnosed with HIV. McConaughey lost 30 pounds for that role, which, if the film (and history) holds up, almost guarantees him an Oscar nomination. But "Mud" shouldn't be forgotten. If "Dallas" is all that, how about a double-dip: lead and supporting?
Adapted screenplay: "Before Midnight." Since the second entry in Richard Linklater's relationship trilogy, 2004's "Before Sunset," received an Oscar nomination for its screenplay, we're guessing a hard sell won't be necessary. But because this series continues to grow richer — and riskier — with each film, perhaps voters could also be persuaded to extend their kindness, recognizing the movie itself and its fantastic leads, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. The film's improvisatory feel is hard-earned and shouldn't be held against the actors. The emotions they summon run deep and true.
Documentary: "20 Feet From Stardom." This crowd-pleasing tribute to female backup singers has done well critically and, at least for a documentary, commercially. Its stories of artists struggling to stay true to their craft and remain relevant in an industry that puts personality ahead of authenticity should resonate with voters. Recent rule changes that make it easier for popular docs like this to make the final cut also work in its favor. And yes, there's the singing which by itself could carry it to a nomination.
Documentary: "Stories We Tell." Sarah Polley's fearless investigation into the mysteries of her family life might be the year's most intriguing film. Full of warmth and humor and impeccably constructed, it's the latest chapter from a filmmaker ("Away From Her," "Take This Waltz") who has become a remarkably accomplished storyteller. Critics' praise, which began last year at the Toronto International Film Festival, will likely keep this movie in front of voters when groups award their prizes at the end of the year.