Sundance, Cannes yielded some promising films

The year hits its midpoint on June 30, so we should be halfway through the 2012 awards race, right?

Wrong.

Majors and indies traditionally backload kudos hopefuls in the final quarter. However, there have been recent exceptions. Summit’s “The Hurt Locker” opened in June. And by this point last year, three of the nine best-picture Oscar nominees had been seen, all at Cannes: “Midnight in Paris,” “The Tree of Life” and eventual best-picture winner “The Artist.”

That impressive showing set many hearts aflutter, as pundits scoured this year’s Sundance, Berlin and Cannes for the next “Artist”-ic hopeful. The fests did yield some promising films, including Sundance’s “Beasts of the Southern Wild” and “The Sessions” (formerly “The Surrogate”), both from Fox Searchlight, and Cannes’ “Amour” (Sony Pictures Classics).

But in general, it’s been slim pickins, as the kudos race hasshown little energy in the first six months.

However, don’t underestimate “The Avengers.” Awards voters cast ballots for movies they’ve seen, and it seems like everybody in the world has seen the Disney-Marvel megahit.

The expansion of the Oscar and PGA races to more than five nominees also could help that film. The best-pic nomination shutout for 2008’s “The Dark Knight” — back when the Oscars named only five contenders — still hangs like a cloud over the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences and other awards orgs.

Kudos voters will have to get over some preconceptions. They often disdain popcorn movies, but as one Variety staffer observed at the time, “Dark Knight” is to superhero movies what “The Godfather” and “Bonnie and Clyde” were to gangster films: using the genre but taking it to a whole other level. So it’ll be interesting to see the fate of “Avengers,” Warner Bros.’ imminent Christopher Nolan follow-up, “The Dark Knight Rises” and the Sony-MGM “Skyfall,” the next 007 installment, which boasts especially impressive credentials (Sam Mendes, John Logan, et al.).

Being widely seen by voters could be a boon to these pics. At the opposite end of the spectrum, there was work in the first six months that needs to be seen more. The Norwegian thriller “Headhunters” (Magnolia) and Millennium’s “Bernie” (with Jack Black and Shirley MacLaine) were terrif, so one hopes they will be viewed (and remembered) by year-end.

The January-June period also saw pics that won over critics and auds, including Fox Searchlight’s “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”; Open Road’s Liam Neeson drama “The Grey”; Weinstein Co.’s “The Intouchables”; and CBS Films’ “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen.”

There was spectacular below-the-line work on display in “Dark Shadows” (WB), “Prometheus” (Fox), “Battleship” (Universal), “Men in Black 3″ (Sony), “Act of Valor” (Relativity), “Mirror Mirror” (Relativity), “Snow White and the Huntsman” (U), “Wrath of the Titans” (WB) and “John Carter” (Disney). Many of these were blasted by critics and/or audiences (sometimes unfairly), but BTL voters may give them deserved recognition.

There were additional fest films worth considering.

•Sundance: “Arbitrage” (Roadside Attractions), “Smashed” (Sony Classics), “Compliance” (Magnolia), “Keep the Lights On” (Music Box) and “Shadow Dancer” (ATO Pictures).

•Berlin: Magnolia’s Danish period piece starring Mads Mikkelsen, “A Royal Affair.”

•Cannes: “Moonrise Kingdom” (Focus); “On the Road” (IFC); “The Hunt” (which won the best-actor prize for Mikkelsen, though Magnolia hasn’t firmed its domestic opening date); “Rust and Bone” (SPC); and Weinstein Co.’s “Killing Them Softly,” “Lawless” and “The Sapphires” (starring Chris O’Dowd).

Some of these seem like possible contenders, others seem unlikely. As usual, the year is skewed toward the second half. The list includes:

•July: “Ruby Sparks” (Searchlight) and “The Amazing Spider-Man” (Sony).

•August: “Hope Springs” (Sony, Meryl Streep); “The Bourne Legacy” (Universal).

•September: “Won’t Back Down” (Fox, Viola Davis and Maggie Gyllenhaal take on the education system); “Trouble With the Curve” (WB, helming debut of Robert Lorenz and starring Clint Eastwood); “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” (Lionsgate-Summit’s film from Stephen Chbosky); “End of Watch” (Open Road, Jake Gyllenhaal); and WB’s “Gangster Squad” (Sean Penn, Ryan Gosling)

•October: “Not Fade Away” (Paramount Vantage, David Chase); “Cloud Atlas” (WB, Tom Tykwer and the Wachowski siblings direct a starry cast); “Argo,” WB’s Ben Affleck fact-based political thriller; and TWC’s “The Master” (Paul Thomas Anderson and Philip Seymour Hoffman reunite).

•November: “Seven Psychopaths” (CBS Films’ pic from Martin McDonagh); Focus’ “Anna Karenina” (Keira Knightley and Joe Wright); “Flight” (Paramount, Robert Zemeckis and Denzel Washington); and TWC’s “The Silver Linings Playbook” (David O. Russell, Robert De Niro).

•December: “Hyde Park on Hudson” (Focus, with Bill Murray as FDR), Fox’s Ang Lee 3D pic “The Life of Pi”; WB’s Baz Luhrmann 3D “The Great Gatsby”; the untitled Kathryn Bigelow-Mark Boal film (Sony); “Les Miserables” (Universal); “The Hobbit” (WB distribs the New Line-MGM pic); and “Django Unchained” (TWC, Quentin Tarantino)

The DreamWorks-Disney “Lincoln,” directed by Steven Spielberg, will open in the fourth quarter; also undated is “The Impossible” (Lionsgate-Summit’s pic, starring Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor, about a family hit by the 2004 tsunami in Thailand).

Two possible year-end openers: Searchlight’s “Hitchcock,” about the filmmaker, his wife and the making of “Psycho”; and Focus’ “Promised Land” (Gus Van Sant reuniting with Matt Damon).

As always, there are questions. Last year, several films got caught in the crossfire between accelerated voting schedules and last-minute polishing by the filmmakers. Which films will be affected this year?

Another question: Why are toons evenly spread throughout the year but “serious” films aren’t? So far, we’ve seen “Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax” (U), “Pirates! Band of Misfits” (Ardman/Sony Pictures Animation), “Madagascar 3″ (DreamWorks Animation) and “Brave” (Pixar-Disney); upcoming are “Ice Age: Continental Drift” (Fox), “Paranorman” (Focus), “Hotel Transylvania” (Sony), “Frankenweenie” (Disney), “The Rise of the Guardians” (DWA) and “Wreck-It Ralph” (Disney-Pixar).

But the biggest questions don’t center on contenders. BAFTA announced this week a change in its voting procedures (Variety, June 26). AMPAS and other orgs are moving toward electronic voting, so the subject of an earlier kudocast will again be debated. There are pros and cons, but let’s go out on a limb here and declare absolutely that the problem of TV ratings will not be solved by a date change. Those are two separate discussions, not as intertwined as some folks think.

But these are topics for another day. Meanwhile, happy hunting, everybody.

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