With launch of film's fall fest season, imagination hour coming to a close

With Venice, Telluride and Toronto launching film’s fall festival season, imagination hour is quickly coming to a close, and reality is opening for business. For all too many, it’s a deflating reality.

Awards Season 2012 launched the moment the last tuxed and tuckered guests trundled home from the Oscar parties of more than six months ago. But the first half-year is mostly a phantom endeavor,

a centrifuge of speculation revolving around actors and directors, loglines and press drippings, posters and trailers.

Once in a golden moon during those warming months, there comes an honest-to-goodness motion picture to evaluate. But in this bottom-heavy scheduling, these films are compared less against each other than against pics that have yet to be released, screened or, in some cases, even completed.

The unseen films bring to bear this larger-than-life quality, growing from their mystery and their possibility. Take Daniel Day-Lewis as “Lincoln” — I’m sorry, “LINCOLN,” demanding to be written in letters 10 feet tall. Paul Thomas Anderson, Philip Seymour Hoffman and a film inspecting the cult we dare not name — how imposing is that? These are not movies waiting to be seen, they are Everests waiting to be scaled.

Except that it’s often an illusion, because in many of these cases, the “King of the World” moment isn’t around the corner. Instead, many of these films will be taken down to size.

It’s not out of a desire to see failure. Unless there’s a personal reason to do so (and I realize that in this town, people aren’t lacking for ‘em), most folks don’t sit down for a movie looking to find fault. We want to be wowed, and we’re happy to be wowed again and again.

But we know how often that doesn’t happen. We also know that it’s often the loftiest films that can disappoint us. They disappoint in the smallest of ways, by failing to connect the dots here or to be convincing there, by falling short in ways you couldn’t anticipate in pitch or packaging.

Take a couple of examples from this year’s early festivals.

“The Sessions” seems like prime awards bait, offering a showcase of sincerity and triumph of the human spirit, most notably for lead actor John Hawkes as polio-challenged seeker of human interaction Mark O’Brien. For some, such as those who propelled the film to the audience award at Sundance back in January, the film threads the needle perfectly. But all it takes is enough people to find the picture a little too saccharine, or Helen Hunt’s accent the slightest bit affected, and suddenly the film becomes a question mark on the kudos scoreboard.

Another early-season fave, “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” is a homerun of originality and power — or, to others, Maurice Sendak in a Bayou blender. A small film like “Compliance” is a sure-fire Spirit Awards finalist or an credibility-straining farce, depending solely on how the chemistry of the picture and the different minds of the voters mix. The elements can all be there, but the execution might not be. It doesn’t necessarily mean the film is bad — it just means the film isn’t the best.

Most importantly, there’s truly no predicting. You have to see the films to know. Wes Anderson, who can be a polarizing filmmaker, symbolizes the challenge. The thing you heard the most about “Moonrise Kingdom” was that it was finally a film that even the Wes Anderson haters could embrace.

Anyone involved in or interested in the vote (or as we call it here, The Vote) is inherently compelled to force something that should merely be experienced as art into a somewhat distasteful pecking order. The level of competition is too strong to make this an easy task — certainly not a task that allows for decisions to be based solely on the pedigree and promotional material. We enter the theater with visions of the ungodly, but all too often, we leave muttering things like, “Lincoln would never say that.”

On such banalities, best picture candidates rise and fall.

Jon Weisman blogs about awards season at Variety.com/thevote.

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