People rarely describe Oscar voters as edgy or daring, citing the best-picture victories of “nice” films like “American in Paris” over “Streetcar Named Desire” or “Dances With Wolves” over “Goodfellas.”
This year, however, it’s Oscar gone wild, with the nine best-film contenders bold in subject matter, execution and/or marketing.
While all were distributed by the major studios, seven relied on independent financing to get made. As studios continue to obsess over sequels, prequels and new franchises, filmmakers are forging alternative routes for production on their riskier pictures. And thanks to the deep pockets and artistic sensibilities of hungry new film financiers and producers like Megan Ellison, whose pictures “American Hustle,” “Her” and “The Grandmaster” picked up 17 nominations, 2013 was daring in its bonanza of movie offerings.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences’ Jan. 16 nominations also serve notice on the Hollywood old guard. Not too long ago, veterans Tom Hanks, Robert Redford and Emma Thompson — all shut out this year — would have been assured noms. Things have changed. And voters gave little attention to movies that only a few years ago would have seemed like surefire Oscar fodder, such as “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom,” “Saving Mr. Banks” and “The Book Thief.”
Artistically, each one of this year’s Oscar hopefuls walked a creative tightrope.
Director/co-writer David O. Russell made a number of unconventional choices, enlisting an improvisational film style, casting actors against type (which thesps love, but audiences don’t always) and focusing on a range of colorful hustlers rather than a single sympathetic protag.
The gripping film is produced by Scott Rudin, Michael De Luca and Trigger Street. Director Paul Greengrass and writer Billy Ray agreed it would be boring to have one-dimensional villains, so they ask audiences to feel sympathy for the Somali pirates. It was also daring to have veteran Tom Hanks face off against four Somalis from Minneapolis who were making their film debuts. Another key decision provided production headaches: to eschew studio water tanks and shoot on the Mediterranean near Malta.
Dallas Buyers Club
Cassian Elwes and Truth Entertainment provided an 11th-hour rescue when the Focus Features release began filming without funding in place. The movie, which was shot for less than $5 million, took nearly 20 years to get made and endured 86 studio rejections. Not since 1993’s acclaimed drama “Philadelphia,” for which Hanks won the acting Oscar, has another major theatrical movie dealt with the subject of AIDS.
Warner Bros. believed in this risky movie, one of only two best-pic contenders that were fully financed by a studio. As Sandra Bullock observed at the recent Broadcast Film Critics Assn. kudocast, “It’s a movie that should not have worked, but it did.” Director Alfonso Cuaron imagined sequences using technology that hadn’t even been invented. It’s a VFX-heavy movie that relies on one character — who is female, which in and of itself is risky with the fanboy audience. Rather than focus on visual effects and action, the script injects emotion and lofty ideas about rebirth, a person’s humanity and relationship to the planet.
Spike Jonze film’s unorthodox premise: A man falls in love with his OS-1, the upgraded operating system that’s a fictional variation of Apple’s Siri voice. In the wrong hands, it could have turned into a “Saturday Night Live” sketch or a variation of “Bicentennial Man,” “Simone”
It’s 180 degrees from “Gravity,” but the Alexander Payne picture is the only other nominee fully financed by a studio (in this case, Paramount, with a $13.5 million budget). Risky? It’s a character study of a delusional old man, his fed-up wife and their sad sons. With no marquee names. In black and white.
The picture was produced by BBC Films, Pathe, Baby Cow Prods., British Film Institute and Magnolia Mae Films, with a network of distributors around the globe, including the Weinstein Co. for the U.S. Superficially, it seems old-fashioned and accessible, an odd-couple comedy-drama. But it’s actually a tough sell: a film about a 70-year-old woman centering on faith, religion and guilt, topics that make distribs nervous. The key was Judi Dench, who guarantees prestige — but not necessarily big box office.
12 Years a Slave
Plan B, River Road, New Regency and Film 4 assembled a package for an epic-scale movie made for less than $20 million. There have been only a handful of bigscreen looks at slavery, including “Mandingo” and “Django Unchained,” but with an entirely different tone. Filmmaker Steve McQueen is respected, but his name is not exactly associated with commercial supremacy. The media flap over the Italian poster, which emphasized Brad Pitt and downplayed star Chiwetel Ejiofor, was an example of some distribs’ self-perpetuating myth that black films are a tough sell overseas.
The Wolf of Wall Street
The Martin Scorsese-Leonardo DiCaprio movie was fully financed by Red Granite (Joey McFarland and Riza Aziz), but released by Paramount. This was the year’s most divisive release. Like many of Scorsese’s movies, it’s a morality tale, but some have mistakenly believed the in-your-face comedy celebrates excessive drugs, sex, profanity and dishonesty. It’s an envelope-pushing film disguised as a star vehicle.
Let the voting begin!