Eye on the Oscars: Best Picture Preview

Award Season Calendar 2012 – 2013
November – December | January – February

Like a kind of pox, Art has been erupting all over the movies. Even a cursory glance at this year’s likely Oscar field puts the wisdom of the Academy in sharp relief: If the best pic category hadn’t been expanded to 10 noms, it would be tough for a standard studio film to get in the game this year.

“I do see it that way (that present-day directors can do daring work),” he says. “But it’s always been that way. I don’t get into any kind of romanticism or ‘Hey, weren’t the ’70s great, and God, it should be more like that.’ I just hate that horseshit. There’s always been great films, always people doing exciting or different things — they come along or they don’t come along. I’m just happy to be part of this group of filmmakers.”

While “Lincoln,” “Argo,” and “The Hobbit” await their expected coronations, the backfield is inhabited by a number of auteurist or eccentric or eclectic films that represent very personal visions and film language and which have also attracted awards season interest. They include Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master”; the Wachowskis’ ambitious collaboration with Tom Tykwer, “Cloud Atlas”; Benh Zeitlin’s “Beasts of the Southern Wild”; Wes Anderson’s “Moonrise Kingdom”; and Rian Johnson’s “Looper.”

Among those yet to open are Ang Lee’s “Life of Pi,” Gus Van Sant’s “Promised Land” and David O. Russell’s “Silver Linings Playbook,” and even a couple of foreign-language contenders — Michael Haneke’s “Amour” and Jacques Audiard’s “Rust & Bone.” Despite a long, lingering fear among cineastes that the barbarians are at the gates (not exactly a news flash), films this season threaten to force film nerds to feel optimistic.

“It’s probably one of the better times for specialty films simply because there are so many different ways to get them into release,” says Sony Classics co-president Tom Bernard. “Besides, there are always a few speciality titles in the mix, which isn’t always good for the TV show.”

But the current mix is notable for a purely personal kind of filmmaking that has risen above any commercial fray — “Life of Pi” perhaps being the prime examplar of a paradoxical best pic season. After having been associated for 20 years with American indie cinema (and films like “The Ice Storm,” and “Brokeback Mountain”), and resisting the call of the studios, Lee made “Pi” for Fox. Everyone had to make a leap of faith, including Lee. “How do you make an auteur film with a lot of money?” he asks, tongue vaguely in cheek. “It’s very difficult.”

Pre-production, “Pi,” based on the bestseller by Yann Martel about an Indian teen castaway facing a spiritual crisis in his fight for survival, was full of unknowns, Lee says, including the cast. There were also innumerable technical questions — the film is in 3D, and there’s a tiger on the boat. In fact, the only real “known” was himself. But the process was made easier, Lee says, thanks to relationships: Tom Rothman, then co-chair and CEO of Fox who greenlit the picture, had distributed Lee’s “The Wedding Banquet” and “Eat Drink Man Woman,” when he was at Samuel Goldwyn. They worked together again on “The Ice Storm,” when Rothman was at Fox Searchlight. Also, Lee says, people across the world of international sales, and with whom he’s had long relationships, had faith in the prospects of “Pi,” and were essential to getting it made.

Like “Pi,” “Cloud Atlas” hails from a novel deemed unfilmable. And (also like “Pi”) at a reported cost of $100 million, few could cite its budget — mostly independently financed — as “modest,” unless you consider the 500-page book’s six interweaving plotlines and time periods, multiple locations and heavy emphasis on special effects.

“It felt like a very large independent film,’ says Tom Hanks, who plays multiple roles in the movie. “Halle’s (Berry, co-star) made ‘X-Men’ and I’ve made the made the ‘Da Vinci’ movies, and a lot of times a city of trucks shows up, and then people figure out what they need. On ‘Cloud Atlas’ there was such a specificity to something like the art direction that no time was wasted. Even when we were shooting an entire day, we shot pretty quickly because (the filmmakers) had worked it out so meticulously and for so long they knew exactly what they need and wanted.”

Rian Johnson, director of “Looper,” who says his rapport with the producer Endgame Entertainment was key to making his slightly futuristic sci-fi shoot’em-up, and doing it in the manner he intended. “There is some pretty dark subject matter in ‘Looper,’ ” he says. “There were times when they came to me and questioned it. And I needed to be questioned. And I needed to defend it. But that’s what a good relationship is about.”

He also stresses that quality does not come down to us vs. them. “It’s a good time right now,” he says. “You look at people like Christopher Nolan and Guillermo del Toro, who are making some of the best work out there, and they’re doing it within the studio system.”

“Beasts of the Southern Wild” benefited from an approach to filmmaking that was as fluid as the storm waters swelling around writer-director Benh Zeitlin’s imperiled Louisiana characters. “We had a story and a cap on the amount of money we could spend,” says Zeitlin (producer Cinereach is nonprofit and couldn’t partner with other financers). “So what we faced was a really long and intensive process of taking the story and fitting it into the resources available rather than the other way around.”

But Zeitlin never felt compromised: “It was about shaping, and the shaping itself was part of the creative process.”

Van Sant, whose anti-fracking drama “Promised Land,” made for $15 million with stars Matt Damon and Frances McDormand, has also been shaping his budgets to fit the realities of the landscape. “I’ve made a lot of my films for less money than people who are considered my peers, and who have been able to find larger homes and larger amounts of money for their projects,” he says. “But my style has been to give a good deal in the budget.” He says when he hasn’t been able to make a film he wanted to make, “it was the result of me not sticking with it, or losing heart, not finding or searching hard enough for financing.”

Haneke used to have similar problems. “I often had to put scripts on the back burner because I couldn’t get financing, but for the last several years I’ve been able to make the films I want to,” says the director of “Amour,” which has been garnering laurels since it won the Palme d’Or at Cannes. “And in the case of the earlier films, I was able to finally make them, including ‘Hour of the Wolf and ‘White Ribbon,’ where there was 10 years between writing the scripts and making the films. Previously, I had put them away in a drawer.”

Anderson, whose “The Master,” about a rising cult guru and his troubled acolyte, made the film under a shroud of mystery — partly due to the story’s parallels to Scientology. Like his previous work, including “There Will Be Blood,” the film pulses with dark undercurrents and a palpable sense of dread. It’s just the kind of uncompromising personal statement that was routinely made by the studios in the ’70s, when production chiefs gave their filmmakers free rein. But Anderson exhibits mixed feelings about the perceived echoes from that glorified period in today’s creative environment.

Eye on the Oscars: Best Picture Preview
Art finds surprising home | Scrappy indies aspire to level playing field | Dramas ripped from headlines | Popcorn epics’ battle for top prize |

Award Season Calendar 2012 – 2013: November – December | January – February

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