Friday, 1 July 2011

'War Horse' and next year's awards season

The first trailer for Steven Spielberg's adaptation of Michael Morpurgo's award winning novel 'War Horse' (also a hit West End play) made its debut last week. I obviously haven't seen it yet and, to be honest, it looks like sentimental mush (co-written by Richard Curtis), but I fancy it's the year's first serious Oscar contender. Consider the facts: it marks the return of a prestigious (perhaps the most renowned living) director; it looks glossy and replete with period detail; and it's a war film - and don't forget that both of Spielberg's Best Director wins have been for war films ('Schindler's List' and 'Saving Private Ryan').

This logic is certainly reductive and open to criticism. After all, 'Empire of the Sun' didn't even garner the director a nomination. Yet I'm confident, however it turns out, 'War Horse' will at least be nominated for the major prizes next February. Part of the reason is that there is almost nothing else.

Seeing as it's still the summer of 2011 it may seem a little premature to start going on about the Oscars of 2012. Yet it struck me the other day that we've had something of a lightweight year so far in terms of potential Academy Award winners. There have been plenty of good films, but then again something like Golden Bear winning Iranian drama 'A Separation' (released in the UK today) is not likely to contend for Best Picture, being foreign language and having limited commercial appeal.

You know an Oscar film when you see one and we've arguably not had many of them yet in 2011. This might not be a surprise, after all many of the big hitters won't be released until the winter. For instance, this time last year 'The King's Speech' had not yet even played Toronto and 'The Social Network' was still just that "film about Facebook" everyone dismissed out of hand.

Yet this time last year, of the ten Best Picture nominees, 'Winter's Bone' and 'Toy Story 3' had already been released, whilst 'Inception' and 'The Kid's Are All Right' would be out within weeks.

I talked this over with some journalists last week and a few people mentioned 'Source Code' as this year's smart blockbuster breakthrough in the mould of 'District 9' or 'Inception'. But whilst that film was well received and did decent business, it grossed half as much as the former and around an eighth of the latter. Oscar movies have to do outstanding business. In this respect the awards are as much about industry as they are art. What exactly is this summer's huge critically acclaimed blockbuster? There isn't one.

As for the animated vote, Pixar's 'Cars 2' is currently generating middling scores from critics and I can't see the likes of 'Rio', 'Rango' or 'Kung Fu Panda 2' making an impact with voters. Especially as a modified nomination process means that next year's field may be back down to five films, with any other films (up to ten) having to receive 5% of the total votes to be nominated.

So, aside from 'War Horse', what else could be generating awards buzz this winter? Well, Lynn Ramsey's 'We Need to Talk about Kevin' (above) was certainly the talk of Cannes Film Festival. It depends how widely it is distributed, but if the Academy gets wind of it that could garner a nomination at least. Woody Allen is no stranger to Oscar nominations and 'Midnight is Paris' is pretty good and has been one of his best received films of the last decade in the usually indifferent US. Meanwhile, Terrence Malick's Palm d'Or winning 'Tree of Life' is presumably a certainty for a few nominations if not a contender for the top prize. I'd bet against Lars Von Trier and 'Melancholia' being invited at this point.

Right now though, I'd hesitate to bet against Spielberg and his 'War Horse'.

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