This story first appeared in the Nov. 23 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Deciding on the list of best picture Oscar nominees isn't as simple as picking from an old-fashioned Chinese menu. It's not just a matter of ordering up one stately costume picture from column A, one quirky independent character study from column B. Some years, in fact, the eventual best picture nominees have all had more in common than not. Back in 1999, for example, the Academy's taste ran toward Americana, with a lineup that included eventual winner American Beauty alongside The Cider House Rules and The Green Mile. Five years later, both the industry and Oscar voters seemed to tilt in favor of biopics with a nominees list that encompassed The Aviator (Howard Hughes), Finding Neverland (Peter Pan author J. M. Barrie) and Ray (Ray Charles).
But the new best picture voting procedures -- introduced in 2009 then refined last year --have opened up the possibilities of the category. Now that there can be as many as 10 movies nominated, there's more room for a whole range of genres, from such rigorous specialty films as 2010's Winter's Bone and 2011's The Tree of Life to four-quadrant crowd-pleasers including 2009's futuristic Avatar and 2010's animated Toy Story 3.
And that means there should be room for different types of films, something for every taste. So take your seat at the awards-season table as we sample the dishes. Bon appetit!
Oscar time is when smaller movies often have outsize impact. Made for just $1.8 million, Benh Zeitlin's Beasts of the Southern Wild, another of this year's Sundance breakouts, has been a hit on the festival circuit, weaving a spell with its magical realist tale of the resilient human spirit. Equally idiosyncratic, Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom, which was unveiled at Cannes, looks at young love as it encounters an adult world populated by a cast of eccentrics that includes Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Bruce Willis, Frances McDormand and Tilda Swinton. In On the Road, Jack Kerouac's famous 1957 novel that helped define the Beat Generation by celebrating the rejection of postwar conformity comes to life under the guiding hand of director Walter Salles. Sam Riley, Garrett Hedlund, Kristen Stewart, Kirsten Dunst and Amy Adams head the cast of free-spirited drifters. Moving forward in time into the early '60s, The Sopranos creator David Chase adopts a kinder, gentler tone in Not Fade Away. Set in Chase's home turf of New Jersey, it revolves around a group of kids putting together a band, as one of their dads, played by James Gandolfini, watches their efforts take shape -- all scored to a soundtrack assembled by Steven Van Zandt. Set in the early '90s and filmed in Pittsburgh, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, based on the novel by Stephen Chbosky, who also directed, revolves around three high school students. Logan Lerman plays a self-effacing loner who's taken in by an older brother and sister, played by Ezra Miller and Emma Watson, in the coming-of-age dramedy.
Sure, the Academy often has given pure entertainments short shrift in the past, but maybe not this year. Director Christopher Nolan, denied a best pic nom for 2008's The Dark Knight, returned this year with The Dark Knight Rises, concluding his comic book-derived opus with a grand, operatic finale. The siblings Wachowski, along with Tom Tykwer, conducted a veritable symphony in Cloud Atlas, juggling six storylines across space and time. A bunch of Marvel superheroes teamed up in Joss Whedon's The Avengers, producing the year's biggest hit, grossing $1.5 billion worldwide. A new screen franchise got under way as Gary Ross directed the first installment of The Hunger Games, with Jennifer Lawrence at the center of the action. A 50-year-old franchise got a major face-lift in Sam Mendes' Skyfall. With Daniel Craig renewing his license to kill for the third time, the movie immediately began setting records. Peter Jackson is looking to see whether he can capture the gold ring again when The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey opens in 3D -- and at 48 frames per second -- on Dec. 14. And some day, Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained, set in the pre-Civil War era, might play on a double bill with Lincoln, but its trailers promise a rousing spaghetti Western set in the Deep South, with Jamie Foxx and Leonardo DiCaprio fully enjoying themselves.
Even before it was known as Les Miz, Les Miserables was the title of the classic 19th century novel by Victor Hugo about class struggle in France. It then became the long-running 1980s musical, and now, with The King's Speech director Tom Hooper at the helm, it's arriving on the big screen on Christmas Day. With Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway and even Russell Crowe all singing their hearts out -- and doing it live-f0r-camera without resorting to a prerecorded music track -- the movie musical is hoping that audiences throughout the world will be singing its tune. Based on the equally famous and frequently filmed novel by Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina is, of course, all about adultery and the toll it takes on those tempted to indulge. But director Joe Wright and his frequent cinematic muse Keira Knightley, who plays the title role, have taken a new tack: This Anna Karenina is at first presented as a stage play that gradually dissolves into the lush drawing rooms of 19th century Russian high society. Director Ang Lee, whose extremely varied résumé ranges from the highflying martial arts of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon to the laconic love story of Brokeback Mountain, also is trying something new. His Life of Pi, based on the 2001 novel by Yann Martel about a young Indian boy cast adrift on the open sea with no company except for a tiger, is the first film he has ever shot in 3D. And he took full advantage of the new technology to tell his story.
(MOSTLY) TRUE TALES
Inevitably, there will be arguments about their factual accuracy, but Lincoln, based on Doris Kearns Goodwin's 2005 book Team of Rivals, hews closely to the historical record as Steven Spielberg re-creates the final months in the life of Abraham Lincoln. Another president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, as embodied by Bill Murray, shows up in Roger Michell's Hyde Park on Hudson. Flash forward to more modern times: Ben Affleck's Argo, which already has become a popular hit, grossing more than $85 million domestically, opens amid the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979 before exploring the little-known story of how the CIA and Hollywood joined forces to help six U.S. embassy officials escape. Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal, the Oscar-winning team behind The Hurt Locker, tell an even more contemporary tale, focusing on the successful hunt for Osama bin Laden in Zero Dark Thirty. Meanwhile, back in Hollywood, Sacha Gervasi's Hitchcock examines the relationship between Alfred Hitchcock, played by Anthony Hopkins, and wife Alma, portrayed by Helen Mirren, as together they go Psycho.
Academy members often vote with their hearts, and nothing stirs the heart like a good three-hanky movie. The Sessions, directed by Ben Lewin, won the hearts of moviegoers when it debuted at January's Sundance Film Festival under the title of The Surrogate. Helen Hunt plays the sex surrogate in question who helps a man, played by John Hawkes, who breathes with the support of an iron lung, determined to lose his virginity. Rust and Bone was unveiled at May's Cannes Film Festival, where sniffles could be heard throughout the Grand Theatre Lumiere. In the drama directed by Jacques Audiard, French actress Marion Cotillard and Belgium's Matthias Schoenaerts star as two damaged souls -- she's a Sea World-type trainer who loses her legs to a killer whale, and he's an unemployed boxer -- who discover their mutual need for each other. Juan Antonio Bayona's The Impossible triggers a tsunami of tears as a family headed by Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts struggle to survive a natural disaster. In Amour, which captured the Palme d'Or at Cannes, Michael Haneke offers a rigorous look at the toll that aging takes on a long-married Parisian couple played by French acting legends Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant. Before tragedy strikes, the director offers a few glimpses of their loving life together -- a sweeter couple would be hard to imagine -- and then illness begins to take its inevitable toll.
No title had Toronto International Film Festival-goers in a state of collective giddiness more than Paul Thomas Anderson's long-awaited sixth feature The Master, which kick-started awards season with a bang. The chronicle of a troubled World War II Navy man, played by Joaquin Phoenix, who gets caught in a web spun by Philip Seymour Hoffman's charismatic leader of a Scientology-esque religion, was greeted by reviews ranging from admiring to puzzled and shattered art house records when it opened before then settling down with a gross of about $16 million. Elsewhere in Toronto, director David Ayer turned the cop drama on its ear with End of Watch, a cliche-free examination of the fraternal bond between two beat cops in South Central Los Angeles, played by Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena. Each actor delivers a stirring performance not previously seen on their résumés. Technically, it's not about the convicted Bernie Madoff, but Nicholas Jarecki's debut feature, Arbitrage, serves as a disturbing and authentic encore to the Wall Street financier's crimes. In the darkest role of his career, Richard Gere reinvents the white-collar criminal prototype as Robert Miller, a slick but troubled hedge-fund manager desperate to complete the sale of his empire at the cost of his lover, family and professional honor.
For those who prefer their character studies coated with sweetly wry Anglo charm (and gorgeous canary-hued set design), director John Madden's The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel offers up -- in a single swoop -- some of the most charming performances of the year. Academy favorites Judi Dench, Tom Wilkinson and Maggie Smith round out a cast of silver-haired Brits who find love and renewed life at a charming retreat in Jaipur, India. (Smith also shows up in a retirement home full of other British acting stars in Dustin Hoffman's Quartet.)
Speaking of cinema luminaries on the other side of 80, Clint Eastwood makes his first appearance in nearly 20 years in a film he didn't direct himself: Robert Lorenz's Trouble With the Curve, which sees him playing tired baseball scout Gus Lobel, who's losing his sight and his professional edge. Joining him is Amy Adams as his plucky daughter accompanying him on one last scouting trip. Denzel Washington, who has two Oscars to his credit, is no stranger to awards season but should have a reservation this year for Robert Zemeckis' Flight, playing swaggery airline pilot Whip Whitaker, whose heroic measures save the lives of dozens of passengers but make public his lifelong, self-destructive addiction to alcohol. And director David O. Russell is back in the race after an audacious swing at best picture in 2010 with The Fighter, returning to his low-budget dramedy roots with Silver Linings Playbook. With punchy performances by Bradley Cooper as a mentally ill former teacher and Jennifer Lawrence as a cop's widow battling her own demons, the film melds family drama, heartbreak and, yes, even a spirited dance number to create just the kind of spoiler that can make the battle for best picture the most deliciously unpredictable of the year.