Many factors go into earning a spot in Oscar’s best picture race: awards, festival recognition, box office, release pattern, hype, prestige, and typically what starts it all off: simply being liked a whole lot. This year’s nine nominees showed that when you secure a majority of these, a nod isn’t far behind.
“The Artist” covered virtually all of this ground, starting with its underdog status at Cannes (where star Jean Dujardin won for lead actor), before building its base through word of mouth, critical accolades and award season honors that spoke as much to a collective love for the movies as an appreciation for the film’s inherent “Artist”-ry.
“The Tree of Life,” meanwhile, launched from its Palme D’Or-winning Cannes debut as the year’s top cinephile entry. If “The Artist” trafficked in agreeable nostalgia, Terrence Malick’s mood-setting ambiguity, surreal flights and visual mastery evoked memories of the ’60s and ’70s, when arguing about the art of film animated the culture. That conversation about “Tree” simply managed to continue all year long, aided at the end by ubiquity on awards-season and top-10 honor rolls.
Crowd-pleasing blockbusters were mostly left out of the running this year, save for “The Help,” a late-summer hit that satisfied the Academy’s longstanding love for entertaining, character-driven history lessons bolstered by memorable portrayals.
Garnering the best acting notices of his career, George Clooney combined with past Oscar-winner Alexander Payne to give “The Descendants” an initial kudos glow out of Telluride that stayed strong through the holiday season, with a Golden Globe drama win and critics trophies from Los Angeles and several other metropolitan and regional groups.
Taking advantage of fall’s adult-themed terrain, another mixing of marquee talent — “Moneyball” — knocked it out of the park with reviewer acclaim for its smarts (Aaron Sorkin and Steve Zaillian writing, Bennett Miller directing) and stars (Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill) and slid into Oscar’s home base pretty smoothly. Meanwhile, Woody Allen, meanwhile, saw his biggest grosser to date in “Midnight in Paris,” which played for months and served to remind critics, audiences and Academy voters of the prolific filmmaker’s occasional ability to spin romance, nostalgia and easygoing wit into something memorable.
Indeed, prestige has its own power, so when past best-picture winners Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg put out movies late in the year, attention is paid. Scorsese’s gorgeous 3D wind-up toy “Hugo” quickly established itself as a technical marvel, an admirable change of pace and a paean to early cinema with personal meaning for the director. Spielberg revisited territory that’s served him well in Oscar years past — the world in conflict — for “War Horse.” Though it didn’t rack up very many pre-Oscar awards, it’s performed well at the box office, and reps the kind of sumptuously imagined, epically heartwrenching undertaking that regularly woos the Academy.
The biggest question mark among the nominees was Stephen Daldry’s “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close,” a hotly hyped adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel that arrived late to the kudos race as something of a mystery, but seemingly didn’t stir up the kind of buzz that would have kept it alive. Its showing, then, indicates the power of an under-the-wire release with big names (Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock), a hot-button theme (9/11), and a nakedly emotional tone.