The Nod: Could A Wide-Open Oscar Race Come Down To ‘Creed’ And ‘Star Wars’?

12.04.15 3 years ago 14 Comments

The Nod is a weekly column focused on the current Academy Awards season. It will include an essay that deep-dives into a potential category or contender, as well as an Awards Forecast infographic (see below) that tracks how things are evolving week-to-week in the six major races.

Screenwriter William Goldman once famously wrote that in Hollywood, “nobody knows anything.” That sentiment also seems to be the theme of this year’s best picture race, which, at this admittedly early moment in awards season, feels like an open door through which anything could still walk.

When it comes to predicting the Oscars, the idea that “nobody knows anything” — especially four weeks before Academy members start their nomination process — is a given. But in recent years, the landscape already could be viewed with some clarity well before Christmas. Last year by this time, the best movie of 2014 had already been winnowed down to a battle between Birdman and Boyhood. In 2013, the trophy was called, rightly, by Vulture’s Kyle Buchanan in favor of 12 Years a Slave, nearly six months before the Oscar ceremony. The Artist and The King’s Speech looked pretty locked-in well ahead of time, too, which is why the New York Times’ Carpetbagger column, among other trophy-focused think pieces, has declared this year’s Best Picture race “notable for not having a clear front-runner.”

But wait. Stop the presses, even: Isn’t the front-runner for best picture Spotlight, a film that was granted leader-of-the-pack status earlier this fall by the New York Post, Vanity Fair, and, yes, Vulture’s Kyle Buchanan, in addition to being named best feature earlier this week at the Gotham Independent Film Awards?

Technically, yes. But there seems to be an unwillingness, at least among professional Oscar analyzers, to officially and unabashedly confer front-runner status on Spotlight, in part because it does what it does without fanfare, just like the reporters it so painstakingly depicts. As Aisha Harris at Slate points out, Spotlight is an extremely well-made, solid picture, and one that journalists understandably love. But as Harris writes, “solid doesn’t cut it for making it to the finish line” because Academy members like “to be dazzled.” As refreshingly focused as this throwback to 1976’s All the President’s Men might be, Oscar voters may crave a well-crafted but just plain bigger Hollywood crowd-pleaser.

Enter two movies that may fit that bill and, coincidentally, also hearken back to the ’70s, too: Creed, the immensely satisfying seventh film in the Rocky franchise, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the seventh (yet another lucky number seven!) episode of the Jedi saga that makes the phrase “highly anticipated” sound like the utmost in understatement.

Creed already opened last weekend to deservedly rapturous reviews, so we know what we’re dealing with there: a drama that follows the underdog-getting-in-the-ring template established by the original, 1976 Rocky, but refreshes it with excellent performances from Michael B. Jordan and Sylvester Stallone, under direction by Ryan Coogler that boasts as much swagger as a Muhammad Ali sting-like-a-bee brag. Once the press got a look at this next-gen boxing movie, the Oscar talk commenced immediately. If voters want a Best Picture that comes equipped with the power to induce goosebumps, Creed certainly does the damn trick.

Then there’s The Force Awakens, which no one has seen, save J.J. Abrams, Kathleen Kennedy, presumably a few Abrams/Lucasfilm/Disney insiders, and possibly a remote control BB-8 that rolled into the screening room while no one was looking. Being that it hasn’t screened for press or the public, it is impossible to say whether The Force Awakens has what it takes to become a Best Picture nominee. But given the level of Star Wars love that exists in the culture, and that surely exists among those in the industry who grew up on Luke and Leia the same way the rest of us did, it seems fair to say the following: If The Force Awakens is just plain entertaining and good, it will be perceived as a straight-up masterpiece. I say this as someone who attended a 1999 advance screening of The Phantom Menace that was met with heartfelt applause at the end. If Jar-Jar got that kind of reception, surely J.J. will do even better.

There are other factors that also may increase the best picture odds in favor of both Creed and The Force Awakens.

Diversity. After being criticized for overlooking Selma’s Ava DuVernay and David Oyelowo last year — not to mention a Lead Actress field that looks pretty darn white this year, at least according to The Hollywood Reporter — Academy members may be more determined to celebrate movies that have at least some racial and ethnic diversity. (Hey, I can dream, right?) Creed focuses on Jordan’s Adonis “Donnie” Creed, features strong supporting performances from Tessa Thompson and Phylicia Rashad, and was directed by the African-American Coogler. The faces that populate the film’s gyms and neighborhoods also, more often than not, are black. That’s not why people should nominate Creed; its quality speaks for itself. But being able to acknowledge all that black talent in addition to the film itself is a refreshing bonus.

The Star Wars cast and crew may not quite resemble the United Nations. But with a woman (Daisey Ridley) and a black man (John Boyega) as its central protagonists, The Force Awakens is clearly attempting to create sci-fi for this generation. Again: not reason enough alone to deem it best picture, but a quality some may appreciate.

Precedence. In terms of genre, boxing movies have a long history of winning over Academy voters. Sci-fi is traditionally a harder sell, but, as The Atlantic’s David Sims notes, previous films have broken through Oscar’s space barrier before, including E.T., Gravity and the original Star Wars. There’s also the precedent set by the original movies, both of which were nominated for multiple Oscars, including Best Picture, and, nearly 40 years later, are still inspiring worthy sequels. (For the record, Rocky actually won the best picture Oscar in 1977, beating the news-media-focused All the President’s Men and Network.)

There’s a feeling of nostalgia that could come from seeing Creed or The Force Awakens in the Oscar mix. Supporting one or both films may feel like the equivalent of building a bridge between old Hollywood and new, an idea that may appeal to voters.

Box Office. Major blockbusters rarely win Best Picture, but when they get nominated, it galvanizes the entire race and makes it much more relevant to the mainstream. Just look at the TV ratings to see the correlation: The two Oscar ceremonies viewed by the most Americans (55.2 million and 53.2 million, respectively) were the one in 1998, the year of Titanic, and the one in 1983, the year of E.T.  The Academy expanded the Best Picture field beyond five nominees back in 2009 precisely for that reason: to reflect more films of high quality that also have mass appeal, i.e. make regular people actually interested in the Oscars.

If the point of the Academy Awards, in part, is to re-engage the public’s love of moviegoing, then honoring a great movie that a lot of people saw is a pretty effective way to do that. After a 2014 that yielded dismal overall ticket sales and a 2015 that has improved only marginally so far over last year’s numbers, an Oscar winner that’s actually a massive hit may be especially welcome.

Creed is hardly a juggernaut, but it opened strong and has grossed $44 million so far, according to Box Office Mojo. With continued strong word-of-mouth and the hype of an Oscar push behind it, punching near or over $100 million doesn’t seem out of the question. As for The Force Awakens … I don’t know, I feel like it will probably make a couple bucks?

For real: Episode VII has already surpassed $50 million in advance ticket sales, which is more than the $42.3 million last year’s best picture victor, Birdman, made during its entire theatrical run. Best Picture or not, The Force Awakens will most certainly be 2015’s top grosser. If it puts its mouth where its money is and backs up the hype with a work of great storytelling and artistry, there is no reason to think it doesn’t have a shot at the most coveted of gold men. (Besides C-3PO, that is.)

As I said at the beginning of this column: It’s still early. The doors to the best picture race remain open. Spotlight should not be dismissed by any means, and may wind up winning the whole thing; given how predictable the Academy Awards have been during the past decade, that would neither surprise me nor disappoint me, since Spotlight is terrific. But if the movies have taught all of us anything, surely they have taught us that it’s never a good idea to count out underdog boxers or Jedis just becoming acquainted with the incomparable powers of the Force.

Awards Forecast

An assessment of the ever-changing weather in the Oscar atmosphere, based on pundit chatter and pre-Oscar awards.*

*The Pundit Front parses a consensus of opinion based on leading Oscar trackers, including Kyle Buchanan of Vulture, the expert panel at Gold Derby, Indiewire’s Peter Knegt, Awards Daily and Awards Circuit. Pre-Oscar awards consider recent nominations and/or winners announced by industry and critic organizations that annually recognize achievement in film.

The Pundit Front
Front-runner: Spotlight.
The Best Picture race still feels pretty wide open at this point. But if any movie has a lock on a nomination, it’s this ink-stained investigative journalism drama, which has been embraced by critics as well as Oscar forecasters.

The Awards Front
Front-runner: Spotlight, with a twist.
In the first round of award season prizes, the Gotham Award for best feature went to Spotlight. But the notoriously unconventional National Board of Review went its own way by choosing Mad Max: Fury Road, while the New York Film Critics Circle gave its top honor to Carol. Again: This thing remains wide open.

Other Potential Best Picture Nominees (Depending on Whether The Category Includes Five or As Many as 10 Picks):
The Revenant
The Martian
Bridge of Spies
Inside Out

The Pundit Front
Front-runner: Tom McCarthy, Spotlight
Forecasters agree that what’s true for Best Picture will likely hold true for Best Director, which means McCarthy looks set to earn his first nomination in this category.

The Awards Front
Front-runner: McCarthy … probably.
Gotham went with McCarthy, the National Board of Review chose Ridley Scott, and the New York film critics selected Todd Haynes. Translation: No consensus yet.

Other Potential Best Director Nominees:
Alejandro González Iñárritu, The Revenant
Ridley Scott, The Martian
David O. Russell, Joy
Todd Haynes, Carol or Ryan Coogler, Creed

The Pundit Front
Front-runner: Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant
After the first industry/press screening of this brutal Western, it’s felt like everyone already decided to give the Oscar to DiCaprio and is just waiting for the Academy to confirm.

The Awards Front
Front-runner: Matt Damon, The Martian
Well, everyone but the National Board of Review, which chose Damon as Best Actor. Because the Gotham Awards combine supporting and lead performances into single categories, its voters went with Paul Dano, who is excellent in Love & Mercy, but vying for the Oscar in a supporting role. So is Michael Keaton, whom the NYFCC chose as its Best Lead Actor.

Other Potential Best Actor Nominees:
Michael Fassbender, Steve Jobs
Johnny Depp, Black Mass
Eddie Redmayne, The Danish Girl

The Pundit Front
Front-runner: Brie Larson, Room
Since this wrenching indie-drama debuted on the festival circuit, buzz has suggested Larson is destined for an Academy Award nod.

The Awards Front
Front-runner: Larson.
The National Board of Review backed up that buzz by honoring Larson, though Saoirse Ronan, singled out by the NYFCC for Brooklyn, should not be dismissed. Gotham, with its indie focus, chose Bel Powley from Diary of a Teenage Girl, who probably won’t edge her way into the Oscar race.

Other Potential Best Actress Nominees:
Jennifer Lawrence, Joy
Cate Blanchett, Carol
Charlotte Rampling, 45 Years

The Pundit Front
Front-runner: Mark Ruffalo, Spotlight.
Spotlight is an ensemble piece more than any one actor’s showcase. But Ruffalo delivers the movie’s punch-you-in-the-gut monologue, putting him at or near the top of many pundit lists.

The Awards Front
Front-runner: Sylvester Stallone, Creed … perhaps?
National Board of Review goes Stallone, suggesting Rocky could be this year’s awards-season comeback kid. But then the New York Film Critics Circle went with Mark Rylance, so who knows?

Other Potential Best Supporting Actor Nominees:
Idris Elba, Beasts of No Nation
Tom Hardy, The Revenant
Michael Keaton, Spotlight

The Pundit Front
Front-runner: Rooney Mara, Carol
Mara is as much of a lead as Blanchett, but Oscar nomination politics have put her in the supporting category, where she may face another lead shoehorned into the supporting competition: Alicia Vikander.

The Awards Front
Front-runner: Jennifer Jason Leigh, The Hateful Eight
Tarantino’s bloody Western opus has just started screening, but Leigh has been on the radar of predictors for a while; the National Board of Review voters must have liked what they saw because they honored her here. The NYFCC, however, handed Kristen Stewart her first win of the season for Cloud of Sils Maria, so perhaps she’ll break into the Oscar race, too.

Other Potential Nominees for Best Supporting Actress
Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl
Kate Winslet, Steve Jobs
Jane Fonda, Youth

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