From 'Lincoln' to 'Skyfall': Why This Year's Best Picture Race Has Something for Everyone
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.