Passing the giant Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps billboard at the Pico Blvd entrance to 20th Century Fox, I noticed the words “Academy Award” prominently mentioned no less than five times. Academy Award Winner Michael Douglas. Academy Award Nominee Josh Brolin. Academy Award Winner Susan Sarandon. Academy Award Nominee Frank Langella. Academy Award Nominee Carey Mulligan. Not so subtly, making an early bid like this to find any way to associate the Academy Awards and an opening movie this time of year can be a smart marketing strategy. It’s a way to establish a new film as a contender amid the endless glut of generally still-sight-unseen Oscar wannabes.
With that in mind, I continue my rundown of award hopefuls. I started last week with an assessment of Oscar chances for the films that had just appeared at any or all of the three Fall Film Festivals in Venice, Telluride, and Toronto. I began that list with Friday’s New York Film Festival opener The Social Network. Now comes, in order of scheduled release date, the trickier proposition of forecasting the awards status of films that weren’t unveiled at a Fall Fest but will be opening before the end of the year:
WALL STREET: MONEY NEVER SLEEPS (Twentieth Century Fox – 9/24) On paper, with its timely theme, this is exactly the kind of popular drama with an Oscar-heavy cast and director that the 10 Best Picture nominations would tend to favor. Well-received in Cannes last May, it still hasn’t generated the kind of serious buzz which fall fest entries like Social Network, The King’s Speech, and Black Swan all managed. Oscar Chance: Bearish, since sequels rarely compete and Oliver Stone’s 1987 original received just a single nomination — and won Best Actor for Michael Douglas. His bigger-than-life Gekko remains its best chance to jump in the race, particularly with goodwill for the actor running high due to his cancer and memories of his acclaimed work in the indie Solitary Man still fresh from earlier this year. Never-nominated Eli Wallach, 95, might have had a shot for his small but indelible role. But he’s already getting an Honorary Oscar in November.
NOWHERE BOY (The Weinstein Co – 10/8) This story of the young John Lennon opened last Christmas in England and has already hit British Airways and Blu-ray but is craftily timed for U.S. release the day before what would have been the musician’s 70th birthday. Oscar Chance: Both female co-stars Kristin Scott Thomas and Anne-Marie Duff were BAFTA nominees last season and might have a long shot in the Supporting Actress category if Weinstein does any sort of serious campaign for this.
SECRETARIAT (Walt Disney Pictures – 10/8) This emotion stirring crowd-pleasing story of the 1973 Triple Crown winner and the woman who wouldn’t give up on him could appeal to the same feel-good contingent that made The Blind Side such a player last year. Oscar Chance: Diane Lane and John Malkovich could figure in acting races. While sound, cinematography, music, and Best Picture nominations are not out of the question. If 2003’s Seabiscuit, which landed 7 nominations including the big one back when there were only five slots, could do it, then it should be a breeze for this horse. But Disney has to campaign just as aggressively as Universal did back then.
COMPANY MEN (The Weinstein Co – 10/22) There hasn’t been a whole lot of buzz on this John Wells written and directed title since it debuted to mixed reviews in Sundance. But this of-the-moment drama about the effect of corporate downsizing on three men has a strong cast that includes past Oscar winners Ben Affleck, Tommy Lee Jones, and Chris Cooper. Oscar Chance: A longshot that needs to step up its awards game or risk downsizing to also-ran status against stiff competition.
WELCOME TO THE RILEYS (Samuel Goldwyn – 10/29) Fine acting from James Gandolfini, Melissa Leo, and Kristen Stewart highlight this drama about the effect that a young runaway has on a married couple. Oscar Chance: This quiet and effective drama was a Sundance success. But it’s likely to be more prominent at the Spirits than the Oscars.
FAIR GAME (Summit – 11/5) The hot button Valerie Plame/CIA leak story gets the cinematic treatment from director Doug Liman. It played well to critics in competition at Cannes in May but has been dormant on the Fall Festival circuit. Oscar Chance: It has two stars, Sean Penn and Naomi Watts, who are usually Academy bait. But so far neither is generating much heat in the highly competitive lead actor and actress races. Perhaps that will change when the film gets its second shot at glory just after election day. Of course, Penn already has a couple of Oscars.
FOR COLORED GIRLS (Lionsgate – 11/5) Except for the trailer, no one’s really yet seen this Tyler Perry adaptation of Ntozake Shange’s 1975 play with the longer title For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When The Rainbow Is Enuf. But apparently Lionsgate has enuf confidence to push the release right up to the start date of the film industry’s official holiday movie season. Oscar Chance: Perry’s a cash cow for Lionsgate but he’s got no Oscar cred yet except for an AMPAS membership card. Last year, this distributor scored 6 nominations and 2 Oscars with Precious (which Perry supported by lending his name). But can lightning strike twice?
HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS PART 1 (Warner Bros – 11/19) The mega-box office Harry Potter series begins its wrap party with the first of a 2-part finale. Oscar Chance: These films are usually good for one or two technical nods but haven’t broken through into the marquee categories. If Harry has any shot at pulling a Lord Of The Rings-style victory lap, it’s probably with the more emotionally potent Part 2 which gets a July release.
THE NEXT THREE DAYS (Lionsgate – 11/19) Oscar-winner Paul Haggis co-wrote and directed this thriller about the turmoil in a couple’s life after the wife is accused of murder. Russell Crowe, Liam Neeson, and Elizabeth Banks star. Oscar Chance: Although Haggis and Lionsgate last struck Oscar gold together with Crash, this one is said to be a strictly commercial bet with no similar awards trajectory.
BURLESQUE (Sony/Screen Gems – 11/24) The trailer for this showbiz tale of a young singer (Christina Aguilera) who arrives in town and winds up working in some sort of burlesque club run by Cher looks like the movie wants to be Chicago. Well, that’s a lot better than trying to be another Showgirls, right? Oscar Chance: Let’s hope Cher and Christina have a duet.
LOVE AND OTHER DRUGS (Twentieth Century Fox – 11/24) This rare adult comedy from a major studio centers around a womanizing pharmaceutical salesman who falls hard for a free-spirited girl with early onset of Parkinsons disease. Director Ed Zwick delivers sex, drugs, nudity, and smart dialogue in a film that will do for Viagra what Social Network does for Facebook. Oscar Chance: A winning Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway in career-best performances should be high on any list. And the film is sophisticated and different enough to become a strong possibility in Best Picture and Adapted Screenplay, too.
TANGLED (Walt Disney Pictures – 11/24) A throwback to the style of Disney animated musicals like The Little Mermaid and Pochahantas. This tale of Rapunzel with all that blonde hair is given a contemporary twist and new Alan Menken songs. Oscar Chance: Eight-time winner Menken could go for a record-tying 9 with “I See The Light”. An animated feature nod is definitely possible if there are 5 slots this year. But it will be fighting for holiday season attention with MEGAMIND (DreamWorks Animation – 11/5).
I LOVE YOU, PHILIP MORRIS (Roadside Attractions – 12/3) Once embroiled in a nasty distribution battle, this Jim Carrey/Ewan McGregor comedy based on a true story was originally bought at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival and already has been played out internationally. It is finally getting a long delayed U.S. release through its new indie savior Roadside Attractions. Oscar Chance: Start with a musical/comedy Golden Globe nod and hope the never Oscar-nominated Carrey can then gain traction at last with the more difficult-to-please Academy.
THE FIGHTER (Paramount – 12/10) This long time passion project for Mark Wahlberg chronicles the relationship between boxer “Irish” Micky Ward (Wahlberg) and the brother who helped train him (Christian Bale). Oscar Chance: Could be a strong Best Picture prospect with both Wahlberg and Christian Bale prime prospects for lead and supporting actor respectively. Melissa Leo is said to be to rising to the top of supporting actress lists for her performance here.
THE TOURIST (Sony Pictures – 12/10) A thriller set in Venice with the superstar teaming of Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp should spell a huge holiday hit for Sony. Oscar Chance: Probably too much of a popcorn flick for much awards consideration, even though it reps the English language directorial debut of Oscar winning Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck whose The Lives Of Others won Best Foreign Language Film in 2006.
HOW DO YOU KNOW? (Sony Pictures – 12/17) Writer/Director James Brooks delivers this relationship comedy with an all-star cast, including Reese Witherspoon, Jack Nicholson, Paul Rudd, and Owen Wilson. Oscar Chance: Despite Oscar winners Witherspoon’s and Nicholson’s presence, I am told Paul Rudd is the standout here. Best chance for the movie is likely at the Globes where it may duke it out with The Kids Are All Right and Love And Other Drugs for Best Picture Comedy or Musical.
COUNTRY STRONG (Sony/Screen Gems – 12/22) This dramatic country musical shows off the considerable singing skills of Gwyneth Paltrow, who stars opposite Nashville favorite Tim Mc Graw as a fallen star out to make a comeback professionally and personally. Oscar Chance: Past Oscar-winner Gwyneth shows a different side of her talents here. But this year’s overcrowded Best Actress race really doesn’t need any more applicants this year.
TRUE GRIT (Paramount – 12/25) The Coen Brothers’ remake of 1969’s western hit is said to adhere more to Charles Portis’ original book than the John Wayne version. But it’s still the same story: a determined young woman enlists Rooster J Cogburn to track down her father’s killer. Oscar Chance: Wayne won an Oscar. But it’s really Mattie’s tale, so look for a possible supporting actress in newcomer Hailie Steinfeld. Thankfully, the La Beouf role which Glen Campbell screwed up 40 years ago is now in Matt Damon’s hands. And reigning Best Actor winner Jeff Bridges takes on Cogburn. Never, but never, underestimate what the Coens are up to. So this could also be the rare western to make the Best Picture honor roll. No one has seen it yet, though.
ANYTHING WITH HELEN MIRREN IN IT: Helen Mirren stars in 3 more upcoming 2010 releases, so take your choice. RED (Summit -10/15) Bruce Willis and Morgan Freeman join with Mirren as an Over The Hill gang who do one last job. THE TEMPEST (Touchstone – 12/10) Prospero has made a gender switch to Prospera in director Julie Taymor’s wild take on Shakespeare’s classic. THE DEBT (Miramax – 12/29) Post-WWII thriller in the Munich mode co-starring Sam Worthington, Ciaran Hinds, and Tom Wilkinson. Oscar Chances: Nice to see the great Dame is a workaholic. But based on festival buzz, don’t expect a return to the Kodak stage this year.
NEXT WEEK: A look at contenders from the first nine months of 2010.
Awards Columnist Pete Hammond - tip him here.