Oscar Race: A Fight for Survival, On and Off Screen

Toughen up, folks! Life is getting harder, with one obstacle after another, but hang in there because you can do it.

That’s the message of many awards contenders, that center on a person coping with a long series of challenges.

The Imitation Game,” “The Theory of Everything,” “Rosewater,” “Selma,” “Unbroken,” “Wild,” “Fury,” “Whiplash” and even “Birdman” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel” offer tales of personal triumphs against overwhelming odds. Movies reflect the times, so it’s no surprise that the theme is prevalent. Survival against the odds has been around since at least the Book of Job, but it’s gained resonance in the past few years. Aside from the recession and the shifting sands created by ever-changing technology, the news is filled with Ebola, Isis, Gaza, strident politicians, wife-beating athletes, child-beating athletes. So people want reassurance that they can survive.

Bilbo and his cohorts are under siege from multiple opponents (as the title indicates) in “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies.” The heroes in two biblical films, “Noah” and the upcoming “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” not only have to handle personal demons and external challenges, but they are also having mano-a-mano conflicts with a mercurial and punishing God.

And you think you’re having a tough day?

The theme pops up in unexpected ways this year. Jake Gyllenhaal’s character in “Nightcrawler” gets resistance from everyone as he pursues his goal of becoming the best in a field that’s new to him. Since his aim is to be the best bottom-feeding video paparazzo in Los Angeles, the audience never loves the character, but his determination is fascinating, even admirable.

The triumph-over-adversity also explains one of the year’s other recurring motifs in awards films: Great roles for actors. The lead-actor race is overcrowded, thanks to savvy writers and directors who portray multi-dimensional characters as they struggle to survive.

But, of course, not every Oscar contender deals with this directly.

The two protagonists in “Gone Girl” are trying to survive the media and each other. The characters in “Big Eyes” and “Mr. Turner” need to overcome personal and creative hurdles. Channing Tatum in “Foxcatcher” has to deal with wealth, power and class, as embodied by one creepy rich guy (Steve Carell). And the lead character in “Boyhood” (Ellar Coltrane) is battling with one of the scariest things in the world: Growing up.

The protagonists in “American Sniper,” “The Gambler,” “Interstellar,” “Into the Woods,” “A Most Violent Year” and “Still Alice” have their own struggles. Most of these are year-end bows that have not been widely seen, which brings up another recurring theme: The uncertainty of the race, which is causing some pundits to bank heavily on the unseen films.

Last year at this time, several films seemed sure for Oscar best-picture nominations, if not the win. By late October, Alfonso Cuaron, Cate Blanchett, Matthew McConaughey, Lupita Nyong’o and Jared Leto seemed like front-runners.
As it turned out, they all entered the winners circle. This year, there’s no consensus on any of those races.

And the best picture derby is similarly mysterious. Several films seem like shoo-ins for a nomination, but a win? No guarantees at this point.

Every year, strong contenders in September have cooled by December (look at last year’s “Prisoners,” “Rush” and “Lee Daniels’ The Butler”). And nominations that seem like safe bets (Tom Hanks, Robert Redford) end up as no-shows.
In a serious year, “Top Five,” “Guardians of the Galaxy,” “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” and several animated features could score attention from Golden Globes and even Oscar. But will they?

As we said before: Toughen up, but hang in there. Because dreams do come true — for some contenders, anyway.

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