The doldrums of the first third of 2010 are thankfully coming to an end. Some may care to divide each film year into seasons or even quarters. I prefer to look at it in thirds: summer season, Oscar season, and those four months at the beginning where we anxiously await the other two. Speculation on that final season so early in the year is normally a fool's game. I am not a great fool so I should clearly not choose the wine in front of you. That particular wine is spread out across four months of hype designed to get every dollar in your pocket (especially if it's in 3-D), but is not necessarily chasing the golden statue.
This is the period last year, however, when the Academy announced it was expanding its Best Picture field from 5 to 10. All of fanboyland was atwitter with the prospect of a film like Star Trek finally having a legit shot of sneaking into the playoffs for the honor of having no chance to win at all. Four films did make it out of the 2009 summer season into contention: District 9, Inglourious Basterds, Up and the eventual winner, The Hurt Locker. It is immaterial to look at them as "true summer fare" the way we might consider Transformers or an actual popcorn film of quality "true summer fare." With the Academy's notoriously short-term memory, this season now hold some promise.
Since 1990, only 16 films received a Best Picture nomination from the months of May-to-August including Ghost, Unforgiven, The Fugitive, Forrest Gump, The Full Monty, Saving Private Ryan, The Sixth Sense, Gladiator, Moulin Rouge!, Seabiscuit, Crash and Little Miss Sunshine. That is just 21% of the nominees. Barely 1-for-5 and actually down to 17% if you eliminate 1995 when Apollo 13, Babe, Braveheart and Il Postino all opened in those summer months. Looking over a field of over 90 films slated to open that period this year, there are still only five that on first glance may still be on the long lists once the critics begin filling out their ballots.
Inception - Christopher Nolan's latest film has quickly become the most talked about and maybe the most anticipated release of the summer. Partly because it is steeped in the kind of mystery even scoopers want to tread lightly around, but mainly because since his 2001 debut of Memento, Nolan has become, perhaps, the most challenging high-concept filmmaker of our time. He didn't just reinvigorate the Batman franchise, but reinvented it with two of the best comic-themed films ever and in-between made a film called The Prestige that is just waiting to be rediscovered and studied by film students everywhere. Who else could get away with a summer film that has already been described using the words "intellectual" and "existential"; cinema of the literal mind inside and out? The knockout cast includes four Oscar nominees (Leonardo DiCaprio, Ellen Page, Ken Watanabe & Tom Berenger), two Oscar winners (Marion Cotillard & Michael Caine) and two of last year's most up-and-coming actors (Joseph Gordon-Levitt & Tom Hardy) bringing Nolan's original vision to life in a sea of over 30 sequels, remakes and adaptations this summer. If Inception turns out to be only half of what our expectations will be come July 16, you can fill in the other half with the purported snubbing of The Dark Knight which many consider to be one of the factors in the Best Picture double down. How can Nolan lose a nomination this year? (Odds: EVEN)
Toy Story 3 - With due respect to a film we'll get to a moment and no respect to the Twilight saga whatsoever, this has to be the most anticipated sequel of the summer for all ages. Their reappearance in 3-D last October notwithstanding, we have waited over ten years for the return of Woody, Buzz and all the joy that Pixar has delivered with these characters. Gone are the days when animated films were not taken seriously as Best Picture contenders. Or are they? After the WALL-E push of '08, an expanded field allowed last year's Up one of the extra token slots. A lock certainly for Best Animated Feature (how could it not be after a Best Pic nod?) but even its most enthusiastic supporters might not have ranked it in the top three of Pixar's impressive resume. Will the new assumption that an animated film (even a great one) is just taking up space possess voters this year? QUICK - Name the last sequel to be nominated for Best Picture (and don't say Letters From Iwo Jima.) The Return of the King is your answer. Now, name the last sequel to be nominated when one of its previous films was not. You can try and make the case for The Silence of the Lambs, but under a different studio, filmmakers and actors that was never sold as such, that is a different beast altogether. What this sequel has in its favor, though, is that the previous chapters were made in the time before the Animated Feature Oscar, and never had the chance to compete. That all but guarantees its win in that category as sort of a lifetime achievement. If the film is on par with parts one and two though, it will most definitely earn a spot amongst the ten. (Odds: 2-1)
Winter's Bone - One of the darlings of this year's Sundance Film Festival was Debra Granik's adaptation of Daniel Woodrell's novel. In the spirit of 2008's Frozen River, this "hillbilly noir" (as colleague James Rocchi called it) is also going to draw a lot of attention for its lead female performance. Maybe even moreso since it belongs to 19-year-old Jennifer Lawrence, in what is certain to be one of the fiercest standouts of the year, as a girl trying to keep her family home while searching for her criminal father in the Ozarks. The heat will be on to support her performance for a nomination (and let us not ignore John Hawkes' sterling work either.) Last year's An Education and Precious sustained a sufficient amount of their praise up to their openings -- in October and November. Winter's Bone opens limited in June. Could Oscar's deserved praise of Kathryn Bigelow carry over to Debra Granik this year. It will need all the support from the critics it can muster to stay within the voters' minds. (Odds: 4-1)
Iron Man 2 - And here we go. The type of film many are hoping would now make the cut. First out of the gate this summer on May 7 and all signs point to being the biggest film of the season and maybe even the year. Dead Man's Chest money is not entirely out of the equation. It boasts at least as impressive a cast roundup as Inception (Rourke, Paltrow, Cheadle, Johansson, Rockwell) and right at the top is a guy who is firmly in Johnny Depp territory now. Robert Downey Jr. is able to infuse any character with his own quirky stamp and instantly lend a film -- even one as lackluster as Sherlock Holmes - a good deal of simple fun. The Blind Side and A Serious Man showed us last year that you don't need a smorgasbord of nominations to be one of the ten and if this follows the comic adaptation trend of sequels trumping their origins (Superman II, Spider-Man 2, The Dark Knight) perhaps it has the chance to be noticed. Then again, it is still a sequel and I must refer you back to the earlier discussion. (Odds: 10-1)
Robin Hood - Is anyone quite sure what to make of this movie yet? At first it was supposed to be about the Sheriff of Nottingham. Then Russell Crowe was playing the Sheriff and his titular nemesis. Now the trailers give no impression of this being about the prince of thieves other than a bow and arrow. The true story of Robin Hood before he became the legend? Didn't Antoine Fuqua and Jerry Bruckheimer try that approach with King Arthur and discover that is like doing a Michael Jordan flick and never getting to the basketball? Plus, some of the initial complaints of Kevin Reynolds' 1991 version focused on the harshness of the opening scenes, aka the "before" portion of the story. Still, it is a period action epic clocking in at two and a half hours with another solid cast. The PG-13 rating has to give one pause. If we want the real story, we want the blood and guts too. So you have no tights -- congratulations! Is Cate Blanchett's Maid Marian going to be donning the blue Braveheart makeup like Keira Knightley's Guinevere too? I'm hoping Ridley Scott will pull off something better than his truncated Kingdom of Heaven and as little chance as I'm giving it now, it's odds will likely still be better than Prince of Persia or The Last Airbender. (Odds: 25-1)
Few other films on first glance this summer scream a serious run at Oscar's big prize. A look at the calendar suggests that the bulk of the nominees will come during the actual Oscar season. Since these first four months have produced only one major contender in Shutter Island, the smart money is on films by the Coens, David Fincher, James L. Brooks, Alexander Payne, Terrence Malick and, yes again, Clint Eastwood. One thing the Oscars have taught us though is to never assume anything. Especially if you haven't seen the movies yet.