With just 10 weeks left in the year, box office matters a lot more than it should in an Oscar race supposedly based on merit. That's especially true with movies that are on the fence. As most of the major festivals have come and gone, the gatekeeping function they serve now gets handed over to local critics and to the moviegoing public.
Last month, I predicted that "Rush" or "Prisoners" could follow in the footsteps of movies like "Braveheart," "Gladiator," and "The Departed" -- that is, unusually well-executed genre movies that ended up winning Best Picture -- if their commercial momentum held up. Alas, it did not. Both movies started out strong but quickly ran out of gas.
On the other hand, "Enough Said," a movie not enough people were talking about as an Oscar contender six weeks ago, now looks to be in the thick of things precisely because it's held up better at the box office than anyone had dreamed. (Well, that, and enormous good will throughout the industry for Julia Louis-Dreyfus and the late James Gandolfini.)
Before September's Toronto Film Festival, "The Fifth Estate" was expected to be a contender, as was its star, the ubiquitous Benedict Cumberbatch. As it turned out, however, Toronto festivalgoers were not that impressed, and neither were the critics who stayed home but finally got to review the movie when it opened last weekend. A strong box office performance might have redeemed it, but since that didn't happen, it's pretty much off the table.
At the other end of the spectrum, the huge box office successes of "Gravity" and "Captain Phillips" will only reassure awards voters inclined to reward those movies and their stars; after all, they don't have to feel like elitist snobs for liking those films, or the lead performances by Sandra Bullock and Tom Hanks, respectively.
Meanwhile, "12 Years a Slave" is finally out in limited release, and reviews seem to confirm what festivalgoers said about it earlier this fall: that it may indeed be the best movie of the year, with awards-worthy performances by leading actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, supporting actor Michael Fassbender, and supporting actress Lupita Nyong'o. (And don't forget director Steve McQueen.)
"All Is Lost" is also finally out in limited release and is confirming the praise it received from festival critics for J.C. Chandor's writing and direction, and Robert Redford's solo performance as a sailor adrift at sea. Both "Lost" and "Slave" did very well in sales on a per-screen basis, and if they can maintain that momentum in wide-release, awards voters will breathe a lot easier about rewarding such uncompromising, difficult films.
The problem with being a front-runner now is peaking too early. Already, we're seeing signs of that with "Captain Phillips," which has inspired some grumbling among the real-life crew members of the hijacked ship over the movie's accuracy. Director Paul Greengrass went on Reddit a few days ago and defended the movie's accuracy unequivocally, but it's not clear whether that will be enough to put those concerns to rest. If it's not, and complaints of inaccuracy continue to dog the movie, they'll hurt its chances in every category. Which would be a shame, not just for Greengrass and star Tom Hanks, but also for Barkhad Abdi, who plays Muse, the chief pirate, and who has emerged as a potential Supporting Actor candidate.
In fact, it's a good strategy to lay low, like "Argo" did last year, while fact-checkers and ethicists were taking potshots at "Lincoln" and "Zero Dark Thirty." "Argo" had its share of stretched facts, too, but it ended up winning Best Picture in part because it was the biggest crowd-pleasing movie with the fewest objections to it, factually or ideologically.
Call it the "Clint Eastwood Strategy," if you like. Eastwood perfected it with "Million Dollar Baby," released in late December after keeping a low profile during production, so that no one had any idea what to expect, and it went on to win a slew of Oscars, including Best Picture. Since then, Eastwood has released other late-in-the-year stealth pictures, with varying degrees of success. Right now, it looks like Martin Scorsese might be trying to do the same thing with "The Wolf of Wall Street," initially scheduled for a November release, but now due at Christmastime. Scorsese has said he and Oscar-winning editor Thelma Schoonmaker need more time to finish the movie, but the delay also helps increase the mystique of the so-far-unseen film, which stars Leonardo DiCaprio.
Like "Wolf," there are still several films that have been seen by almost no one, so they remain wild cards, placed on the list only because of the reputations of their makers. They include David O. Russell's "American Hustle," Spike Jonze's "Her," and Matthew McConaughey's "Dallas Buyers Club." (With "Dallas," it's the actor, not the little-known writers or director, who's been getting most of the advance buzz). So far, none of these films has been shown to enough people to generate a backlash, so they're safely low-profile for now.
Until the recent London Film Festival, "Saving Mr. Banks" was on that list, but now that some critics have seen it, it also merits a short-list position, especially for stars Tom Hanks (as Walt Disney) and Emma Thompson (as "Mary Poppins" author P.L. Travers).
Some movies that premiered at festivals earlier this year still aren't as high on the general buzz radar, though that will change once they open. Those include the Coen brothers' music drama "Inside Llewyn Davis," Alexander Payne's "Nebraska" (with emphasis on Bruce Dern's performance), "Blue Is the Warmest Color" (opening this weekend in limited release), and "Labor Day."
And, of course, there are the contenders that opened earlier in the year, including "Before Midnight" (especially for its adapted screenplay), "Fruitvale Station," "Blue Jasmine" (both star Cate Blanchett and writer/director Woody Allen), and "Lee Daniels' The Butler" (they're still talking about Oprah Winfrey for Best Supporting Actress). Those peaked so early that they'd be in danger of being forgotten, if they hadn't been so strong as to leave such a lasting impression.
One more detail: One way movies stand out as potential award winners is to get their DVD screeners out to critics and Academy members at the end of the year. Usually, awards voters get a flood of these starting in mid-November, but this year, "Mud" (featuring another worthy performance by McConaughey) and "Stories We Tell" (actress/director Sarah Polley's autobiographical film about her slippery family history) are already in voters' mailboxes. Nicely done.