Awards Season Playbook

 

As a critic, I long ago made it a policy never to mention the "O" word in a film review because of a strong conviction that -- despite the tastes of a few thousand people who belong to a certain organization in Beverly Hills -- such a word has nothing to do with film criticism. I used to do very well on awards prediction ballots and betting, but even that's gone sour for me because every year the subject gets beaten into the ground to the point of utter fatigue by so-called experts.

All the same, as November and December approach, it's impossible for anyone who follows films closely not to think about what kind of year it's been and what tantalizing titles still lie ahead that could bring the year to a climax with exclamation points.

What's striking about 2012 is how abjectly awful the first half was, when we were subjected to a relentless spray of unappealing, badly made and fundamentally useless films that seemed to have been produced just to cover dates on the calendar. Sure, the late winter months are often weak, but this year winter lasted nearly through June, preceded by a spring thaw occasioned by a few lightweight but nonetheless funny, charming and/or clever comedies: the Farrelly brothers' long-gestating The Three Stooges, Richard Linklater's Bernie, Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom, Steven Soderbergh's Magic Mike and Seth MacFarlane's Ted, all films with real personality and off-center senses of humor.

Still, the industry was able to conveniently ignore its many failures during this period for precisely two reasons: The Hunger Games and The Avengers, hits so enormous that everything else became an afterthought. The former was not as good a film as it could have been -- the effects were second-rate, and its heroine Catniss' hunting and wilderness expertise was shortchanged -- but it still scored thanks to the strong premise and Jennifer Lawrence in the leading role. Avengers, the latter film, was a cleverly concocted geek-out, the ultimate Comic-Con experience. After watching it, I felt totally Marveled out; there's nothing further I need to see involving any of these characters. The world, dollars in hand, will beg to differ.

By this point, the audiences for specialized films who were looking for something other than comics come to life or teen-novel adaptations were starving from neglect but found relief in Benh Zeitlin's Sundance sensation Beasts of the Southern Wild, a film like no other that took willing viewers to a place they'd never been. It's the sort of small, unheralded, stylistically distinctive film that critics and discerning viewers love to discover, something out of the blue that announces a big new talent and elates with its beauty and original characters.

But for real weight, size and stature, the summer was all about The Dark Knight Rises. I rarely see films twice, but this one earned a return (Prometheus, on the other hand, did not), and there's little question that it and its predecessor, The Dark Knight, are the ultimate films of their kind -- pushing comic-derived characters, themes and conflicts to a point where they disturbingly intersect (violently and tragically so on opening night in Aurora, Colo.) with real-world concerns while on the level of craft and style standing second to none.

Unfortunately, Christopher Nolan's farewell to Batman stood as a giant among pygmies through the summer, which, except for the occasional small pleasures (Ruby Sparks, Farewell My Queen, Celeste and Jesse Forever, 2 Days in New York, take your pick) was dry indeed.

But with Labor Day always comes the hope of relief, and early looks at the big fall festivals revealed some tasty treats in store for the rest of the year. Ben Affleck's very accomplished Argo already has followed through from its Telluride and Toronto successes to score with the public. By contrast, Paul Thomas Anderson's exceptional and demanding The Master hasn't been able to sustain its initial momentum, probably because more than anything its final stretch leaves most viewers high and dry. A film with such a deliberate, long-arc build needs a catharsis or payoff of some kind, and with its denial has come audience rejection.

Also resistible is the (literally) touchy-feely aspect of The Sessions, but the way that characteristic mixes with and is finally overcome by boldness makes Ben Lewin's film (originally called The Surrogate) stick in the mind nine months after I saw it at Sundance.

Ang Lee has made a beautiful thing with his stirringly successful adaptation of Life of Pi, just as Sam Mendes, with Skyfall, has delivered James Bond a wonderful 50th anniversary present with a series entry that ranks with the very best of them.

Two films that hark back to autobiographical origins also of a half-century's vintage are David Chase's fine and resonant coming-of-ager Not Fade Away and Sally Potter's small, withering moral and political British drama Ginger & Rosa.

Robert Zemeckis, after a decade of being captive to motion-capture, makes a welcome return to live-action adult drama with the fine Flight. And then there is Steven Spielberg, doing good, serious, self-effacing work with weighty material on the long-in-the-works Lincoln.

More of a mixed bag is Joe Wright's take on Anna Karenina, admirably bold in conception and execution but, in its controlling precision and impeccable doll's house environment, entirely antithetical artistically to the rambling, searching nature of Tolstoy's text. Roger Michell's Hyde Park on Hudson is nothing major but enjoyable enough, mostly for Bill Murray's performance as FDR and its suggestion that we might have been better off when we didn't know, or dwell upon, the most intimate secrets of our leaders.

Just when it seemed the year might be a total write-off where fresh, original and exciting animation is concerned, along comes Rich Moore's fantastically clever and fun Wreck-It Ralph. It's certainly the best Hollywood entry in its field since Rango last year and a film that feels closer, in its freewheeling comedy and tight-knit storytelling, to the Pixar of Monsters Inc. (whereas Pixar's own Brave earlier this year seemed more in the traditional Disney line).

On the foreign film front, nothing thus far beats Michael Haneke's Cannes triumph, the merciless and moving Amour, but I have seen many others nearly as good on the festival circuit, including a couple still due to come out this year: Christian Petzold's Barbara from Germany and Miguel Gomes' Tabu from Portugal.

I haven't yet seen David O. Russell's Silver Linings Playbook, though I've heard good things. Otherwise, lying ahead and demanding attention are Tom Hooper's Les Miserables, Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty, Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained, Gus Van Sant's Promised Land and, looming at journey's end, Peter Jackson's The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.

Leave it to the self-appointed seers to start laying odds on these last few films weeks before anyone's even seen them -- if they haven't weighed in already.

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