I've been steeped in year-end "for your consideration" screeners and press screenings, dozens of high-profile movies, each hoping for some kind of Oscar buzz. I can't really talk about most of them yet, given that they haven't opened and also that they're not in my 400 screen realm, but I can tell you that my "worst" list is expanding faster than my "best" list.
I wanted to focus, instead, on those movies, now playing on 400 screens or less, that aren't getting any awards consideration.
Christopher Nolan's The Prestige (321 screens) had the misfortune to open a few months from a vaguely similar film about stage magicians, The Illusionist (173 films). Both films have their supporters and detractors, but both have fared well. The Prestige currently rates 73% on Rotten Tomatoes.com, while The Illusionist rates only two points higher. The Prestige has earned $51 million on a $40 million budget, while The Illusionist has earned less, but with a wider margin of profit: $40 million on a $16.5 million budget.
In my book, The Prestige is the far better film. It uses actual illusions -- or what look like actual illusions -- while The Illusionist relies on obvious CG effects. Looking at the CG, we already know how the trick is done, but The Prestige manages to bring some mystery back into it. Moreover, The Illusionist is based around a silly love triangle, while The Prestige's plot is quite a bit more diabolical, concerning a vicious rivalry between magicians (Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale). The "surprise" ending of The Illusionist comes across as a cheap Shyamalan knockoff, but the "surprise" at the end of The Prestige is one that leaves your jaw hanging on the floor.
Likewise, Nolan's filmmaking skills are at their peak. The film has an amazing, streamlined look, with a brilliant use of light and darkness, interior and exterior and clutter vs. open space. It harkens back to the Nolan that made Memento and Insomnia and not the one that made that shaky, junky looking Batman Begins with all its jerky fight scenes and needless explosions (why am I the only one that's ever noticed this?).
But the real power behind The Prestige is that it's a science fiction film based on an actual idea, rather than an action film based in the future or in outer space. (I hope I won't be giving too much away by suggesting that science enters into it, but David Bowie appears in an amazing performance as Nikolas Tesla.) As bad as 2006 has been, it has actually yielded a number of interesting science fiction films, namely Darren Aronofky's The Fountain, Richard Linklater's A Scanner Darkly and Alfonso Cuaron's upcoming Children of Men. These four films will no doubt stand the test of time well past the top Oscar contenders.
The fate of Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette (80 screens) is less certain. Its current gross stands at about $15 million, on a $40 million budget. I've found that when interesting women filmmakers direct flops, that spells the end of their career, Elaine May (Ishtar) and Kathryn Bigelow (Strange Days), for example. Perhaps not even Sofia's father will have enough pull to get her fourth movie greenlit.
But I'm absolutely certain that Marie Antoinette is a misunderstood film, rather than a bad one. Most of its harshest critics have accused it of ignoring plot and/or history in favor of lush visuals, or they have accused Coppola herself of being too spoiled to fully comprehend the real tragedy of the story, or that her story had no real point. Most critics focused on Coppola's cool soundtrack more so than the film itself, without bothering to understand how the mood of the soundtrack enhanced the film.
But Marie Antoinette is more about an emotional state than a plot or a point. It's about a girl trying to fit in with her surroundings; sometimes she succeeds -- as in the luscious sequence where she romps in the grass, waiting for the sunrise -- and sometimes she fails, as when she sits at dinner, rigid and trapped among the sculpted foods and waiting, watching servants. It's difficult not be struck by the scene in which she is dressed by an army of handmaidens. Or, when she overhears scathing comments about her inability to produce an heir, she walks stoically into a room and slams the door. She begins to cry while Coppola's camera moves right up to her face, blocking out the opulent backgrounds and going for pure human emotion.
It's too bad that the zeitgeist has already cast judgment on these films, for better (The Prestige) or worse (Marie Antoinette). They'll be ignored for a while in the thick of Oscar season, but after it's over, these will be the films worth returning to.