Fools gold rush?

Wild prognostications plus late openers leave kudos questions

Best reviewed films of the year so far:

Good Night, and Good Luck
17 Pro

Howl’s Moving Castle
17 Pro, 1 Mixed

Wallace & Gromit
16 Pro, 1 Mixed

Paradise Now
16 Pro, 1 Mixed

16 Pro, 2 Mixed

March of the Penguins
16 Pro, 2 Mixed

Red Eye
12 Pro, 3 Mixed

The Constant Gardener
16 Pro, 1 Con, 1 Mixed

A History of Violence
15 Pro, 1 Con, 1 Mixed

Up & Down
12 Pro, 1 Con, 2 Mixed

The Sisterhood … Traveling Pants
11 Pro, 1 Con, 3 Mixed

Results are culled from Variety‘s 2005 Crix’ Picks charts, which tally reviewers’ responses in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago to four films a week. Cutoff is a maximum of 1 con, 3 mixed.

Ah, sweet November. Football hits its stride, the holidays are just around the corner, the weather turns cool and award season heats up. Right now everyone who is anyone is making room on their mantle for a Globe, a critics’ kudo, a guild honor or — dare they dream — an Oscar. Psychologically, the town’s full of potential winners, particularly because many of the likely nominated films haven’t opened yet. Hopes always run high when no one can tell you your picture stinks.

Around this time last year, eventual picture victor “Million Dollar Baby” was just a glint in Warner’s eye, and other big nominees, such as “The Aviator,” were still in post. Two years ago, the Big Kahuna, the final chapter of “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, was still weeks away from its unveiling. Three years ago, top kudo champs “Chicago” and “The Pianist” were prepping for late-December entries, too.

You get the picture. Like most everything else in Hollywood, the 2005 award race is still in development. With that comes a lot of dubious prognosticating on the Wild Wild Web about many films no one has seen or, in the case of the pundits’ presumed front-runner — Steven Spielberg’s “Munich” — are still in production.

Sony Pictures Classics co-prexy Michael Barker — whose hopefuls include “Capote,” “Breakfast on Pluto” and Tommy Lee Jones’ Cannes success “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada,” plus a few foreign entries — thinks we’re far from knowing anything for sure. “This is going to be a year where there are a lot of surprises in that last month. There are so many pictures opening in December being touted as potentially award caliber, it’s just not going to be clear until we see them. Some years are a lot easier to forecast, not this one,” he says.

With the late-year glut in mind, Barker made some of the first moves in this year’s kudo race, placing trade ads early and sending out screeners for SPC’s August release “Junebug.” He felt his Sundance pickup would be lost otherwise, particularly among studio contenders from such Oscar champs as Spielberg, Woody Allen (“Match Point”), Sam Mendes (“Jarhead”), Ron Howard (“Cinderella Man”) and Peter Jackson (“King Kong”).

Of course, there’s also James Mangold’s “Walk the Line,” Terrence Malick’s “The New World,” Rob Marshall’s “Memoirs of a Geisha,” David Cronenberg’s “A History of Violence,” Susan Stroman’s “The Producers,” Stephen Gaghan’s “Syriana,” Niki Caro’s “North Country” and Tom Bezucha’s “The Family Stone.”

Then on the indie front there are critics’ darlings such as “Good Night, and Good Luck”; “Capote”; “Brokeback Mountain”; the Academy-friendly “Pride & Prejudice”; and the Academy-friendlier “Mrs. Henderson Presents,” toplining Judi Dench.

Although the first eight months of the year provided few serious contenders, a number of titles keep resurfacing in chatter around town. Along with, “Cinderella Man,” they include late-August entry “The Constant Gardner,” from “City of God” helmer Fernando Meirelles, and “Crash,” helmed by “Million Dollar Baby” scribe Paul Haggis.

“Crash” has quite an uphill climb, due to its spring debut, but that doesn’t seem to worry distrib Lions Gate. “It’s certainly going to be as competitive a year as we’ve seen in a while. But the Academy history books are filled with nominees and winners of films that were released early in the year,” says Lions Gate releasing prexy Tom Ortenberg, whose game plan includes making sure the movie is seen by as many award voters as possible and spending more than usual on his campaign.

“The biggest challenge is to get your movie seen,” he says. “If you do that, most other things will fall into place.”

Competition for attention marks most every kudo category. The lead actor race seems to be picking up where last year’s contest ended. Following Jamie Foxx’s winning turn as Ray Charles and continuing a biopic trend are no less than eight major candidates portraying real people, including such front-running contenders as Philip Seymour Hoffman in “Capote”; Joaquin Phoenix, who channels Johnny Cash in “Walk the Line”; David Strathairn’s Edward R. Murrow in “Good Night, and Good Luck.” If he can stay off the phone until votes are in, don’t count out early entry Russell Crowe, who will receive renewed notice due to “Cinderella Man’s” November re-release and December DVD unveiling, complete with a heavy TV ad campaign.

Real-to-reel contenders in yet-to-open pics include “Munich’s” Eric Bana and Colin Farell as John Smith in “The New World.” This is not to diminish other more fictional possibilities such as “Brokeback Mountain’s” Heath Ledger; Ralph Fiennes in “The Constant Gardner”; Viggo Mortensen in “A History of Violence”; and Cannes actor honoree Tommy Lee Jones, directing himself for the first time.

The lead actress list is filling up quickly as well, with speculation circling around “North Country’s” Charlize Theron; Reese Witherspoon in “Walk the Line”; recent Emmy winner Felicity Huffman playing a desperate transvestite in indie “Transamerica”; Dench toplining “Mrs. Henderson Presents”; and Ziyi Zhang. of the upcoming and yet unseen “Memoirs of a Geisha.” Despite the flop of actioner “Domino,” Keira Knightley is being compared to a young Audrey Hepburn in early reviews of “Pride & Prejudice,” and could contend for Oscar’s heart in a newcomer slot.

The crafts categories are also crowded with possibility, such as Jackson’s 800-pound gorilla pic; Spielberg’s summer smash “War of the Worlds”; George Lucas’ last hurrah in the “Star Wars” galaxy, “Revenge of the Sith”; Chris Nolan’s “Batman Begins”; and Mike Newell’s “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.” Other potential nominees include Disney’s franchise launch “The Chronicles of Narnia,” Robert Rodriguez’s stylish “Sin City,” Tim Burton’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and Lasse Hallstrom’s comedic costumer “Casanova.”

Unlike in the last few years, there don’t seem to be many foreign-language, docu or animated entries threatening to dominate their particular categories. Pics with such ambitions, including last year’s “The Incredibles” and “Farenheit 9/11,” demonstrated that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences is still full of traditional thinkers. Even those resilient penguins would be a long shot for a march to the podium for any major category.

But, as noted, dreamers are everywhere in November. If it doesn’t work out, there’s always next year. Just ask the producers of “All the King’s Men.”

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