“Moulin Rouge!” (2001), “Chicago” (2002), “The Phantom of the Opera” (2004), “Dreamgirls” (2006), “Enchanted” (2007), “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” (2007), “Nine” (2009), “Les Misérables” (2012). Between them, 50 oscar nominations, only three of them recognized for Best Picture and only one of them taking the big prize. That's more or less the modern legacy Rob Marshall's “Into the Woods” is looking to enter into, a stage of relative reinvigoration for the musical film genre.
Of course, then there are films like “Burlesque,” “Hairspray,” “Mamma Mia!” and “The Producers,” which were stiffed by the Academy but were remembered in the HFPA's Best Picture – Comedy/Musical category at the Golden Globes. Not to mention others like “Fame,” “Footloose,” “Idlewild,” “Rent” and “Rock of Ages,” which weren't remembered at all come awards season (with “Jersey Boys” and maybe “Annie” likely to meet similar fates).
All of that is to simply illustrate the ups and downs for these films over the course of 15 years. Sometimes they strike, often for below-the-line considerations. Rarely do they fully take off, though, and indeed, I'm expecting “Into the Woods” to stake out that middle ground.
But there are a couple of things worth noting. Obviously, of the serious hopefuls, only “Nine” failed to pick up a Best Picture nomination in the new expanded paradigm. It's fair to assume “Sweeney Todd” and “Dreamgirls” would have made it. But also, in a year so seemingly thin on passion plays, a movie like “Into the Woods” is sure to have its fans, and perhaps enough marking it at the top of their lists to make the cut. But it's no cakewalk.
My thoughts on the film, well, this kind of thing tends to be nails on a chalkboard for me. Even still, it felt a little uninspired. But Meryl Streep is a delight and is clearly having fun. There's something to the idea that she could spark for voters looking for a little spice. (Emily Blunt adds nice flourishes but I'd be surprised if she landed in the Best Actress race, however weak it may be.) The costumes – save the joke of one that was more Johnny Depp's idea than Colleen Atwood's – are amazing and probably on track to win an Oscar, while other design elements like production design and makeup and hairstyling feel relatively safe. The ensemble is likely to be nominated by the Screen Actors Guild. Golden Globe recognition, and maybe a win in the Comedy/Musical category (“Birdman” is the competition), is a given.
So it will be visible. And it will be unique. But will it be loved? That's the question.
“Unbroken” is on the horizon next weekend, but it doesn't sound like it's going to be any sort of game-changer. The only real wave that's been kicked up in this race was by “Selma,” which finds itself in a position to potentially go far. But the Academy still needs to see it, of course, as well as a number of these films. Screeners are landing more and more and the upcoming holidays will be fertile turf for catch-up. What will play well on the small screen?
I should think “Boyhood” will, though it's obviously a long one. The wow factor could be sapped a bit for “Birdman.” “The Imitation Game” will play like gangbusters, much like it did at the official Academy screening last weekend. (That's going to be your frontrunner at the end of next weekend, I'm betting, particularly if it nets a big showing with tomorrow's the Independent Spirit Awards nominations.) “The Theory of Everything” should translate well on screener. So will something like “Whiplash,” assuming voters feel enough incentive to put it in the DVD player (not a lot of box office to push the issue). “Selma” and “American Sniper” will, too. All of that is worth keeping in mind.
Meanwhile, the critics and other precursors will start planting their flags a week from today when members of the New York Film Critics Circle hold their annual vote. The National Board of Review announces the next day and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association speaks up the following weekend. “Boyhood” and “Birdman” appear to be the best bets for that early recognition, the former needing it the most as there isn't a lot of determination on display in phase one of IFC's Oscar campaign (the strategy appears to be wait for the nomination, spend for the win). But “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is still waiting to be saved by some adventurous precursor. Someone could speak up for something from the Sony Classics trio (“Foxcatcher,” “Mr. Turner” and “Whiplash”). Heck, “Citizenfour” might even be an appealing off-the-beaten-path choice. But, again, I figure Richard Linklater and Alejandro González Iñárritu are on deck.
So we'll see how all of that shakes out in due time. Quick and dirty column this week. For now, the Contenders section has been updated.