Nervous time for awards hopefuls

Eye on the Oscars: The Contenders II

With clock running out on Oscar nomination ballots, no fewer than 20 films are wringing their hands over multiple potential nods.

Judging the Academy Award hopes for “Amour” depends on whether the Cannes Palme d’Or winner will be marginalized as Austria’s foreign film contender, or whether writer-director Michael Haneke and lead thesps Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva will be in contention in other categories. Its French language might work as a barrier against “Amour” but, on the other hand, its subject matter and eloquence is such that Academy members might well respond fervently.


“Anna Karenina”
Joe Wright’s risk-taking approach to the 140-year-old work by Leo Tolstoy polarized critics and auds, but those who bought in, such as A.O. Scott of the New York Times, bought in all the way. The movie remains in play for picture and director, as well as supporting actor for Jude Law and adapted screenplay for Tom Stoppard. But its best hopes might be in the lead actress performance by Keira Knightley, who is sensitive and nervy all at once.


There still might not be any bigger crowdpleaser in the awards community than “Argo,” which passed the $100 million mark at the box office as November became December. Picture, director (Ben Affleck) and writer (Chris Terrio) noms could come in one hand, with a fistful of acting possibilities (Alan Arkin, Bryan Cranston, John Goodman) in the other.


“Beasts of the Southern Wild”
This most untraditional of contenders has remained an integral player on the awards circuit, with director and co-writer Benh Zeitlin and 9-year-old lead actress Quvenzhane Wallis crisscrossing from one screening or interview touchpoint to the next. Gotham and Indie Spirit awards recognition have helped legitimize their efforts, which date back to the film’s Cannes and Sundance honors. Like Hushpuppy herself, “Beasts” seems determined not to go away.


“The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”
As the calendar turned to November and December, the sterling performances of Judi Dench in “Skyfall” and Maggie Smith in “Quartet” might have stolen a little air the Oscar balloon of springtime’s “Best Exotic” — an ensemble piece that prominently featured the two actresses, born 19 days apart. Nevertheless, the film still caters nicely to the tastes of the more seasoned members of the Academy, with more accessibility than “Amour.”


“The Dark Knight Rises”
Speculation was strong when the year began that the third piece of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy could make a grand Oscar impact in the fashion of Peter Jackson and “Lord of the Rings.” Several reviews backed this notion, but the summertime release finds itself in the position of needing to remind voters of its merits and those of thesps including Christian Bale, Anne Hathaway, Tom Hardy and Michael Caine.


“Django Unchained”
Writer-director Quentin Tarantino’s latest balls-out epic has style galore and super performances to spare from Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Samuel L. Jackson and Kerry Washington. The last major awards contender to screen this year, “Django” is provocative with the underlying substance to back it up. The question now is whether its idiosyncrasies will help or hurt its cause when it comes to awards.


If “Flight” had flopped, its signature plane crash sequence would certainly have come in handy as a metaphor. Instead, the film soared into box office happiness (the $31 million film nearly made back its budget in its first weekend) and awards contention, emphatically so with Denzel Washington’s uncompromising take on antihero Whip Whitaker. Director Robert Zemeckis is looking to reprise his “Forrest Gump” Oscar win, while John Gatins could make his awards debut with his original screenplay.


“The Impossible”
Talk about signature sequences — “The Impossible” had an absolute doozy, a tsunami re-creation spectacularly engineered by director J.A. Bayona and his team. The question of whether the rest of the film (scripted by Sergio G. Sanchez) lives up to that opening act is in the hands of the Academy, which has reason to seriously consider lead actress Naomi Watts, supporting actor Ewan McGregor and even teenage lead actor Tom Holland.


“Les Miserables”
You could hear the people sing the praises of Tom Hooper’s follow-up to Oscar winner “The King’s Speech” from the moment screenings of his musical adaptation began Thanksgiving weekend. A critics’ backlash then began to emerge, but the film still has the potential to penetrate almost every imaginable Academy Awards category: picture, director, adapted screenplay (William Nicholson), lead actor Hugh Jackman and a supporting cast including Anne Hathaway, Eddie Redmayne and Samantha Barks.


“Life of Pi”
Critics — including Richard Corliss, Roger Ebert and Variety’s Justin Chang — deemed that director Ang Lee’s $120 million 3D epic more than lived up to its considerable ambition, and its fast start at the box office ($50 million-plus in its first week worldwide) didn’t hurt matters. David Magee’s script adaptation will be on voters’ minds, though impressive neophyte lead Suraj Sharma could hit a brick wall in the lead actor category.


Daniel Day-Lewis fulfilled the highest expectations with a lead performance that impressed not only the film’s biggest fans but also a coterie of detractors who found it a bit stiff. Nevertheless, overall reaction to Steven Spielberg’s latest has placed it in the inner circle of awards contention, with Day-Lewis, Tommy Lee Jones and New York Film Critics Circle winners Sally Field and scribe Tony Kushner among the year’s strong kudo candidates.


“The Master”
Don’t rule out picture nomination possibilities for this chic summertime pic that stumbled as it struggled to resonate among post-screening auds — only to be buoyed by its top placement on Sight and Sound’s 2012 film rankings. Passion from its supporters remains fervent. Paul Thomas Anderson is in the running for director and original screenplay, and even those scratching their heads over the story were taken by thesps Amy Adams, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix.


“Moonrise Kingdom”
Wes Anderson’s smart and sincere work amid the artifice of his latest created world has already been recognized with five Indie Spirit noms, tied with “Silver Linings Playbook” for the most this year. That revitalized the film’s picture, director and original screenplay hopes, along with those for supporting actor Bruce Willis, who was hardly the only standout in a cast that also included Frances McDormand, Bill Murray and Edward Norton.


“Promised Land”
Strangely, there isn’t an Oscar specifically for making a movie centered on fracking into resonant mainstream entertainment, so “Promised Land” will have to settle for competing in the conventional Academy Awards. Director Gus Van Sant and screenwriter-actors Matt Damon and John Krasinski (along with Hal Holbrook, five years removed from his “Into the Wild” supporting actor nom) delivered intelligent, nuanced and emotional work.


“The Sessions”
The understated but impactful film from writer-director Ben Lewin has been winning fans since Sundance — a blessing and a curse in a long awards season in which voters require constant reinforcement of a film’s bonafides. Nevertheless, you can’t have a conversation about the Oscar noms countdown without involving Lewin and actors John Hawkes, Helen Hunt and, some would say, William H. Macy.


“Silver Linings Playbook”
Will Oscar’s next picture champ be the romantic dramedy from David O. Russell? That’s the fervent hope of those who delighted in the offbeat but winning ways of the “Playbook,” which features four awards candidates on the acting side alone in Bradley Cooper, Robert De Niro, Jacki Weaver and, with the most buzz, Jennifer Lawrence, along with kudo hopes for writer-director Russell.


The James Bond franchise wasn’t exactly conceived for Academy Awards consideration, even if Sean Connery and Co. did their level best in films like “From Russia With Love” and “Goldfinger.” But “Skyfall” arrived this fall as something of a revelation, positioning itself as an Oscar threat for picture, director for Sam Mendes, and thesp honors for Daniel Craig, Judi Dench (in a meaty M role) and Javier Bardem, who instantly took his place in the pantheon of memorable Bond nemeses.


“This Is 40”
“This” might not be the first time writer-director Judd Apatow has deserved Oscar recognition, but it might be the first time he gets it. A film that is as funny about marriage as it is uncompromising, it would be an off-the-wall choice for best picture — though when you think about it, not really so much more off the wall than the more ballyhooed romantic comedy “Silver Linings Playbook.” Leslie Mann and Albert Brooks should also be in the heat of the lead actress and supporting actor races, even if Paul Rudd faces longer odds against a stacked field for lead actor.


“Zero Dark Thirty”
In the initial trailers for “Zero,” lead actress Jessica Chastain had few lines. But when the film screened, Chastain offered a perf that spoke volumes, instantly making her one to watch for Oscar consideration. The same could be said for the picture itself on many fronts, including nods for director Kathryn Bigelow (like the film, a New York Film Critics Circle and National Board of Review winner) and Mark Boal, both Oscar winners for “The Hurt Locker.” Passion for the film could also propel supporting actors Jason Clarke and Jennifer Ehle.

Eye on the Oscars: The Contenders II
Nominations date luster worth fluster? | Nervous time for awards hopefuls | Awards season forget-me-nots | Bevy of contenders in animation race | ‘Searching’ for a documentary champion | ‘Amour’ than a feeling for foreign film hopefuls

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