The Oscar Race: So Far, It's Looking Beastly
If the Oscar eligibility period ended today, the race would be all about a little girl and a little movie.
As the Venice Film Festival kicked off on Wednesday, with Telluride and Toronto waiting in the wings and New York to follow, most of the films that are likely to be in contention for the 85th Academy Awards have yet to be unveiled. The next month should bring a bevy of awards heavyweights, from Paul Thomas Anderson's "The Master" to Ben Affleck's "Argo," Ang Lee's "Life of Pi" to Terrence Malick's "To the Wonder."
And the remainder of the year will see the release of Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained," Kathryn Bigelow's "Zero Dark Thirty," Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln" and many more.
But the first eight months of the year brought few films likely to square off against those at the Dolby Theatre next February. From this perspective, first-time director Benh Zeitlin's lyrical and startling "Beasts of the Southern Wild" looks to have by far the best chance of becoming a serious contender.
And newcomer Quvenzhané Wallis -- who just turned nine, but who was only five when she auditioned for Zeitlin -- will all-but-certainly seize Michel Hazanavicius' 2011 spot as the tongue-twisting name that Oscar-watchers had better learn to pronounce.
(For the record, and for all the presenters who'll be reading it in upcoming months: It's Kwa-VEN-ja-nay.)
"Beasts" took the Sundance Film Festival by storm four days before last year's Oscar nominations were announced, and it remains the only 2012 release that feels like the kind of film Academy voters must come to terms with.
They won't all like it -- it's too ramshackle and weird and indie for the folks who put the likes of "War Horse" and "The Blind Side" on the Best Picture roster in years past -- but it is the kind of exhilarating, bracing work that has already captured a passionate following.
And given the Academy's preferential system of ballot-counting, a small but passionate following will always get better results than ones with broader but more lukewarm support.
Encouraged by reports that "Beasts" drew a good crowd and played well at its official Academy members screening on July 1, I fully expect it to find a spot among this year's Best Picture nominees – and I fully expect its pint-sized leading lady to become the youngest Best Actress nominee in history.
Here's an AMPAS clip from the Q&A with Zeitlin, Wallis and screenwriter Lucy Alibar that followed that screening:
But what of the other films that have been released so far this year? Do any of them have what it takes to sway Oscar voters in the top categories?
Recent history suggests that a few of them should. Last year, three of the eventual nine Best Picture nominees had landed in theaters by the end of August: the May releases "Midnight in Paris" and "The Tree of Life" and the August release "The Help."
Five of the 20 acting nominees had already been onscreen (though that stat was skewed by three acting nods for "The Help"), along with two of the five Best Director contenders, Woody Allen and Terrence Malick.
For this year to yield a similar crop would require not only "Beasts of the Southern Wild" scoring a nomination, but also two other Best Picture nominees coming from a small group that most likely consists of "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel," "Moonrise Kingdom" and "The Dark Knight Rises."