Sunday, December 8, 2013

AWARDS SEASON: The Survivors

Will Gravity survive the long Oscar race?

It's awards season, can you feel it? Well, the Oscar race has been going strong since August but the actual awards-giving and nominating begins in earnest this week. As you may know, many major critics groups have already had their say (New York Film Critics Circle, Los Angeles Film Critics Association and Boston Society of Film Critics etc.) have already had their say. However, I consider the televised precursors (SAG, Golden Globes, Critics Choice) to be the true start of the season. Those groups will announce their nominees in the next 10 days and we'll then have a better idea of the frontrunners. Read on for my thoughts on the Oscar race as it currently stands, including my first official predictions of the season...

The Oscars are often thought of as a time capsule for a given year, reflecting the social climate through the themes of the various films. Some years don't exactly capture the zeitgeist, but there are many other times where a noticeable theme is apparent in the nominees or just the eventual winner. It makes sense, as directors and screenwriters operate within a social context that often influences the types of films that they make. Especially when it comes to big studio films, there is often a desire to speak to current issues and trends in order to reap the critical and financial rewards (irrespective of actual Oscar wins). Sometimes this fails (The Fifth Estate, W. etc.), while other times it pays off handsomely (The Social Network, Lincoln etc.).

Looking at this year, a running theme has emerged with the prevalence of survival stories in the top contenders. Just look at some of the frontrunners in this year's Oscar race and you'll notice a common narrative of protagonists trying to stay alive (12 Years A Slave, Gravity, Captain Phillips). Of course, one can argue that last year's films similarly dealt with stories of survival (Beasts of the Southern Wild, Amour, Life of Pi, Argo, Les Miserables). However, there are some subtle differences that make for fascinating comparisons. Whereas this year's batch celebrates unexpected heroes, the nominees of 2012 carried with them a heavier sense of loss (think of where you end up in Beasts of the Southern Wild, Amour, Life of Pi and Les Miserables for example). Whether those films were bookended by a happy ending or tragedy, there's no denying that potent feeling of irreversible loss. In retrospect, it's now easy to understand how Argo broke through to defeat that slate. Its famous ending must have been a welcome reprieve for voters.

In contrast, the films of 2013 convey a greater sense of triumph within the roles and their narratives. Characters like Ryan Stone, Solomon Northup and Captain Phillips have moved audiences and critics alike, cementing their films' positions as prime contenders for Oscar glory. Everyone wants to be on the winning team and these films certainly reflect that. What does this say about the current sociocultural climate? Some pundits may say that it relates to a more hopeful outlook on our financial situation. Well, whatever the reason, it would make for an interesting analysis. In the meantime, here's a look at how the Best Picture field is shaping up. Much like their lead characters, these are the 10 Best Picture contenders that seem most likely to "survive" this Oscar race:

1. Gravity
2. 12 Years A Slave
3. American Hustle
4. Nebraska
5. Her
6. The Wolf of Wall Street
7. Saving Mr. Banks
8. Inside Llewyn Davis
9. Captain Phillips
10. Fruitvale Station

Oh how things change. You see, I had prepared that whole preamble about survivalist narratives from weeks ago when the trifecta of 12 Years A Slave, Gravity and Captain Phillips looked like clear leaders for Best Picture. As is the nature of the awards season though, the critics have shaken things up. The Wolf of Wall Street and American Hustle have emerged as formidable threats, both dealing with capitalist greed rather than "life or death" situations. Survivor stories are certainly in vogue throughout various other categories (acting, screenplay etc.) but AMPAS could end up going for something completely different in Best Picture. Still, Gravity and 12 Years A Slave seem the safest bets due to their technological and historical importance respectively. As a result, I'm keeping them as the top 2...for now.

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