Conventional-wisdom says that the Academy simply won’t allow 1996 to repeat itself in 1997, and permit last year’s Oscar dominance by indie and foreign films. This year, one indie likely to succeed in powering its way past Academy members’ efforts to shift Oscar back into its traditional studio fold is Atom Egoyan’s “The Sweet Hereafter.”
No, it doesn’t have the epic scale of many past Oscar winners such as last year’s indie award-sweeper “The English Patient” and this Canadian film veers about as far from the glint of star power as a movie made in North America can — with Britain’s Ian Holm the only name actor in a film stuffed with Egoyan’s regular Canuck ensemble of actors. And if the “feel-good” factor were the final determinant for the highest profile Oscars (which it hasn’t been since the 1960s), then “Hereafter” and its wrenching tale of a small town bus tragedy wouldn’t even be in the calculation. But it is, in the wake of Cannes awards and making its way onto dozens of critics’ polls.
Among all major indie contenders arriving at this time, “Hereafter” has the greatest chance in most major categories, from picture and director, to adapted screenplay (by Egoyan from Russell Banks’ novel), to multiple acting nominees, led by Holm, who must be considered one of the top best actor contenders, and Sarah Polley with the kind of female newcomer performance the Academy traditionally likes, from Tatum O’Neal in “Paper Moon” to Anna Paquin in “The Piano.” Were it not for his outsider status in Hollywood, Mychael Danna and his score — as well as his song sung by Polley —would be a dominant contender in the cliquish music division. Also, Paul Sarossy’s cinematography chances are sweet indeed. The lensers’ branch might be favorably disposed to applaud a picture that uses widescreen images to convey intimate revelations.
Classic Oscar credentials: 0.
Cause celebre: 7 (AIDS; child abuse; The Litigious Society)
Vanity element: 0. (Ian who?)
The David vs. Goliath Syndrome: 10 (Little movie pushes emotional buttons)
The feel-good movie of the year: 1 (Relentless tragedy, with spiritual uplift)
The unavoidable, inexorable buzz: 9 (Among those who’ve seen it, Buzz is loud, loud, loud)
Idiot savants have more Fun: 8 (Paraplegics; accident victims; AIDS)
Timing is everything: 9 (November opening, December rollout: perfect timing)
OQ total: 44