Oscar Year 2006 can be considered special for several significant reasons. It was the year Helen Mirren broke the trend of relatively young actresses taking home the plum prize for years, Martin Scorsese won for the first time after six nominations for directing, Mexicans and other non-Americans lorded over major categories, and interestingly, no one knew what would win Best Picture until perhaps into the last few awards on Oscar night. Whether or not one agrees with the decisions made by the Academy for the 79th, it cannot be denied that it was, as far as [un]certainty of results went, a very exciting year.
Will Oscar Year 2007 be as vigorous and alive? What will be this year's Pan's Labyrinth or Children of Men or The Departed? Will another film break out from Sundance like Little Miss Sunshine did? Has Mirren started a trend that can be sustained?
Year of the Blockbusters
Whatever the collective quality of film year 2007 will be, there is no doubt that it can potentially be the biggest in terms of box-office receipts. 300 has already started the avalanche of almost certain blockbusters. This month also has, at its end, TMNT, the CGI return of the reptile ninjas. April will be relatively quiet, with only the Rodriguez-Tarantino project Grindhouse being a potentially big draw. The month of May is traditionally when the summer blockbusters start to emerge, and this year seems to take that trend to the extremes; Spider-Man 3, Shrek the Third, and Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End, all behemoth second sequels to behemoth precursors, come out that month. June has Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer and Live Free or Die Hard, which are relatively weak when July is considered: Transformers, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, and The Simpsons Movie. Moviegoers will certainly be happy campers, but not very wealthy ones at the end of that run of hits. And of course, come the end of the year, Beowulf in November and His Dark Materials: The Golden Compass in December will undoubtedly be dominating the box office in their respective months.
How will this translate into Oscar love? Blockbusters have, of course, been awarded with the top prizes in the past (with Titanic and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King being the most notable in the last 10 years), but this crop of summer blockbusters will likely be relegated to the technical categories, the most traditionally friendly of which have been the sound and visual effects departments. It would be difficult to think of these races without nods for Spider-Man 3, Transformers, or Pirates, if not all three. With much more Oscar-friendly release dates, Beowulf and The Golden Compass have more potential to cross over into the major categories, especially considering who have been assembled to work on their production.
Gold for Gold
The Golden Compass and The Golden Age. Can these titles prove auspicious in the films' quest for Oscar gold?
Since the Lord of the Rings trilogy, New Line has not been able to return to Oscar glory in a big way. The company obviously hopes to change that with the adaptation of Philip Pullman's critically acclaimed and well loved first novel, The Golden Compass. The December date and the star power of principal actors Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig certainly help its bid for a Best Picture nod, but it is more likely to be a significant player in all the technical categories. Costume designer Ruth Myers is a two-time nominee. Editor Anne V. Coates has been nominated five times and won on her first nod for no less than Lawrence of Arabia. Though only a recent nominee (last year for The Queen), Alexandre Desplat can get his second nod in a row for scoring Compass. The rich fantastical world of Pullman's creation also opens up possibilities to nominations for art direction, cinematography, makeup, and visual effects. If it proves to be as good as imagined and hoped, a nod for its adapted screenplay is not unlikely, given that between the two of them, screenwriters Tom Stoppard and Chris Weitz have three previous nominations (Stoppard won one for Best Picture winner Shakespeare In Love).
The Golden Age is a sequel of sorts to Elizabeth, a major contender in the 71st Academy Awards with seven nominations and a win for makeup. With significant citations for sequels in series such as The Lord of the Rings and The Godfather, the Academy does not notoriously shy away from a follow up to a previously honored film. While it would be difficult to argue the place of Elizabeth among those two well loved epics, there are considerations that might allow voters to bypass whatever stigma they may have against films labeled as "sequels." As mentioned above, Elizabeth won only one award in 1999. Most notable among its losses was that of Cate Blanchett in the Best Actress category; with a haul of precursor awards and critical praise, she was expected by many to win the award over eventual winner Gwyneth Paltrow. This alone can secure Blanchett a second nomination for the same role, if not a win this time. With most of the Elizabeth nominees having returned to work on The Golden Age, it is likely to be a significant player, particularly in the categories of art direction, cinematography, costume design, makeup, and original score. These are always prime categories for period pieces on royalty, and that genre is the other strength of The Golden Age. The film will not be looked upon easily as a mere sequel for, after all, it simply chronicles events that actually historically occurred after the events portrayed in Elizabeth.
All hail the Queen
The last time that Blanchett's Elizabeth I graced the screens, Judi Dench won an Oscar in the supporting category for portraying the same Elizabeth I in her later years. This year, clashing with The Golden Age for Oscar glory in a war of period royalty films is The Other Boleyn Girl, where Natalie Portman plays Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth's mother. Previous nominee Portman will likely face Blanchett in the Best Actress race, assuming that category confusion (Portman for lead, Scarlett Johansson as Mary Boleyn for supporting, or vice versa?) does not spoil her chances the way it did Leonardo DiCaprio's last year (for The Departed). The Other Boleyn Girl is also the likeliest spoiler for The Golden Age in the technical categories, particularly costume design, where seven-time nominee and two-time winner Sandy Powell is up for the former. Both are potentially lush, intense dramas on British royalty (an even hotter commodity now that Mirren just won), but Boleyn may entice viewers and voters more for its fresher and more controversial theme.
It is too early to determine for certain how the major studios will be playing it out in the 80th Oscars, but right now it seems that the films with most Oscar-friendly themes, cast, and crew are to be found in the last four months of the year, as is usually the case. Aside from The Golden Age (October), The Other Boleyn Girl (October), Beowulf (November), and The Golden Compass (December), we have the following movies to watch for:
In the Valley of Elah is another Paul Haggis project, set to be released in September. It stars Tommy Lee Jones as a career officer in search of a son who went AWOL upon his return from Iraq. Haggis seems to be a staple now in the Oscar races, and the theme seems especially apt for Oscar attention, particularly for an acting nod for Jones.
Tony Gilroy directs George Clooney to a possible second nomination in the September thriller Michael Clayton. Clooney plays a New York attorney whose high profile cases in his 15-year career come back to haunt him. In a year of adaptations (see more on this below), this film has high potential to be honored for its original screenplay. Supporting turns by Tilda Swinton and Oscar-nominee Tom Wilkinson can also get some play, as can music by Oscar regular James Newton Howard.
American Gangster, to be released in November, is a biopic on drug smuggler Frank Lucas directed by Ridley Scott. It stars Denzel Washington as Lucas and Russell Crowe as Det. Richie Roberts. Given these credentials, nominations in the major categories, including adapted screenplay (by scribe Steven Zaillian), are highly likely.
Lions for Lambs is also out in November and is even more crowded with star wattage than American Gangster. Robert Redford, an Oscar winner for Ordinary People, stars and directs no less than Tom Cruise and Meryl Streep in this film about ramifications of the war in Afghanistan. How can this film go wrong?
Love in the Time of Cholera, an adaptation by Ronald Harwood of the beloved Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel, can pick up significant buzz for the film itself, its director (Mike Newell), the screenplay, and its principal actors (most notably Javier Bardem), but only if it works. A great source material is no assurance of success. Regardless of the quality of the film as a whole however, it has great potential in the technical categories.
Proving that November is the month to watch now that the Academy has pushed the Oscars to an earlier date than usual, Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood also comes out then. Daniel Day-Lewis can get serious ink as a Texas prospector in this adaptation, and so can Little Miss Sunshine alum Paul Dano.
Charlie Wilson's War is probably the biggest potential contender for Oscar glory in the horizon, with a 25 December playdate and a cast that includes Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, and Philip Seymour Hoffman, Oscar winners all. It is directed by respected auteur Mike Nichols and adapted by Aaron Sorkin from a book on Texas Congressman Charlie Wilson's dealings in Afghanistan. Like Lions for Lambs, the film seems to have one of the formulae that are unlikely to go wrong (though it still can).
Despite the failure of Dreamgirls to sustain its momentum in the last few stretches of last year's Oscar race, another musical, a much darker one, can achieve what others of its genre have failed to do since the 2002 victory of Chicago. December sees Tim Burton's adaptation of Sweeney Todd, the musical on the barber out for revenge. It stars Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter in plum roles that can land them nominations. Alan Rickman and Sacha Baron Cohen can sneak in for potentially strong supporting turns. With such stalwarts as Dante Ferretti for art direction and Colleen Atwood for costume design, the film can dominate the technical categories even if it is snubbed for the top prizes (a scenario that would be reminiscent of the fate of Dreamgirls).
This short survey of the big Oscar films coming out late this year reveals that high-profile adaptations can dominate the 80th race. Aside from those already mentioned, the Keira Knightley/James McAvoy-starrer Atonement and the Marc Forster-helmed The Kite Runner can get serious Oscar attention.
Last year's trends?
Helen Mirren's victory in the 79th ceremony was significant for actresses over the age of 50, what with the Best Actress category having been dominated by such young women as Gwyneth Paltrow, Charlize Theron, and Hilary Swank. An early look at this year's crop of performances seems to indicate that the 80th will be a return to recent tradition: with potential nominees being as young as Keira Knightley, Natalie Portman, and even controversial Dakota Fanning, and major contenders being Blanchett, Roberts, Bonham Carter and Reese Witherspoon, veterans may be put on the sidelines once more. Right now, the only two who seem capable of getting into the final five are Vanessa Redgrave and Julie Christie. That is, if the early release of their respective films (Evening for Redgrave, Away from Her for Christie) does not significantly cripple their chances. Perhaps, like last year, a film like The Queen can suddenly come out and raise a storm with a central performance by a respected, relatively more mature thespian.
It is too early to know how foreign films will fare in this year's race, if there will be another Pan's Labyrinth getting a haul of nominations. The recent Berlinale film festival raised some buzz on the strong lead performance of Marion Cotillard as singer Edith Piaf in La Mome; if the film is released to a wider audience at a strategic time, then Cotillard and the film itself can gain traction. Perhaps more exciting to most forecasters is to see how Ang Lee's Lust, Caution, a drama in Mandarin, will be received. It stars respected Asian actors Tony Leung Chiu Wai and Joan Chen and is set for a friendly September release by Focus Features, the distributor of Lee's Brokeback Mountain. Asian performances have not been significantly honored by the Academy, so it remains to be seen how Lee's involvement can affect the way this film is received by the voters.
Little Miss Sunshine, until the last moments of last month's Oscars a viable contender for Best Picture, came out of the Sundance Film Festival. Robert Redford's brainchild has increasingly become a hotbed for Oscar-worthy films over the years. This year, some significant nominations can come from the most recent festival. Severe lack of buzz for the film (despite the early controversy) most likely shatters Dakota Fanning's chances of getting a nod for her performance in Hounddog, but it can have a resurgence if it is released to wider audiences this year. The Ten was a well received film, praised for its originality and for the strength of its ensemble, but its chances beyond getting some support for a Best Original Screenplay bid are dim. Catherine Keener for playing criminally insane in An American Crime, Michael Douglas as a mentally unstable dad in King of California, and Samuel L. Jackson as a down-on-his-luck former boxing legend in Resurrecting the Champ can get campaigns started for their performances. But among the actors, never-nominated John Cusack's turn as recent widower due to Iraq in Grace is Gone and brother-sister drama by Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman in The Savages are the most buzzed and have the greatest potential of landing noms.
Whatever the outcome of this year in film, the most recent Oscar ceremonies have taught us that even Academy voters, usually seen as stuffy, traditional conservatives, can be unpredictable. If films this year can still surprise, shock, or scandalize us (for good reasons), and the Academy chooses to honor unexpected films and people (how about one of the summer blockbusters for the major categories?), then the 80th could prove to be the most exciting Oscar year yet. What a way to celebrate 80 years of the best in film that would be!