What Precedent Reveals
The relationship between the Academy and earlier films (example: Its 5,738 voting members love war movies; 9/11, not so much) adds a new spin to this year's best picture race. Plus: foreign films, music and animated films are in play.
Like generals Who are always fighting the last war, Oscar strategists obsess over precedents set by past winners as they plot their current campaigns. But while the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences often displays a sort of collective taste, that taste changes over time. Disaster films like 1970's Airport and 1974's The Towering Inferno would never score a best picture nomination these days. (Steven Soderbergh's reimagined 2011 disaster tale Contagion never became a serious contender.) But some genres, like war movies, remain in favor, while others, like comedies, continue to be suspect. As this year's best picture nominees square off, each hopes to be part of a winning tradition.
The Story So Far: The Weinstein Co. has turned Michel Hazanavicius' silent movie about the arrival of talkies into an awards juggernaut. It has built momentum with Golden Globe, PGA, DGA and SAG nods, though mass moviegoers have approached it more warily. It has grossed $20.6 million domestically to date.
The Precedents: If Artist were to win best picture, it would be the first silent movie since the very first category winner, Wings, to accomplish the feat. But that isn't its biggest challenge. The bigger obstacle Artist must overcome is that Hollywood has never had much interest in honoring movies about Hollywood. While the 1937 version of A Star Is Born was nominated for best picture, it didn't win, and the other two films Artist echoes -- Singin' in the Rain (1952), about the talkies' arrival, and the 1954 Star Is Born, about a star's demise -- didn't even rate best pic nominations.
The Story So Far: Alexander Payne's idiosyncratic look at a father whose life is spinning out of control became an instant critics' darling when it debuted at the Telluride Film Festival. The Golden Globe winner for best drama, it has attracted $65.5 million domestically.
The Precedents: Family dramas have been catnip to Academy voters. The 1980s saw a string of best picture winners that focused on domestic trauma: Kramer vs. Kramer, Ordinary People and Terms of Endearment. Fox Searchlight's Descendants, based on Kaui Hart Hemmings' Hawaii-set novel, has a lot of the surefire elements -- rebellious teens, painful infidelity, a fatal accident, a teary deathbed scene -- that have moved voters in the past. But Payne dials down the melodrama in favor of a wry observational style, and the question will be whether he dialed it down too much.
EXTREMELY LOUD & INCREDIBLY CLOSE
The Story So Far: Stephen Daldry's adaptation of the Jonathan Safran Foer novel about a boy coming to terms with his father's death on 9/11 squeezed in under the wire. With the fewest nominations of any best picture contender -- its only other mention is for supporting actor Max von Sydow -- and a domestic gross of $26.7 million, the Warner Bros. release is the underdog of the pack.
The Precedents: Movies that deal with 9/11 have been a tough sell. Neither Paul Greengrass' United 93 nor Oliver Stone's World Trade Center, both released in 2006, was nominated for best picture. But Extremely Loud isn't really a 9/11 movie, its supporters will argue. It's a sensitive film version of a complex literary novel, something at which Daldry excels. Both of his previous movies, 2008's The Reader and 2002's The Hours, were based on novels that weren't inherently cinematic, and both managed to secure best picture nominations -- though neither won the big trophy.
The Story So Far: If the public were voting, then DreamWorks' The Help would be the odds-on favorite because the movie about blacks and whites in the South during the early '60s struck a mighty popular chord, grossing nearly $170 million domestically. Its SAG win for best ensemble has further burnished its credentials.
The Precedents: Liberal-minded Academy members boosted 1989's Driving Miss Daisy and 2004's Crash, two very different movies about race relations, into the best picture circle, which bodes well for Help. On the other hand, in 1986, The Color Purple, a screen adaptation of an equally influential book, went home empty-handed, even though it came to the ceremony with 11 nominations. That's unlikely to happen this year because Help's Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer are considered front-runners in their respective categories.
The Story So Far: Martin Scorsese's first film based on a children's book as well as his first foray into 3D, the Paramount release has collected nearly $62 million domestically. And with 11 nominations, it earned more Oscar love than any other nominee.
The Precedents: The film is something of a hybrid, and that presents a challenge. In part, it's the tale of an orphan hiding out in a Paris train station, but Oscar winners built around very young heroes -- 1988 winner The Last Emperor and 1969 winner Oliver! as well as older nominees like David Copperfield and Great Expectations -- are few and far between. The movie is also a loving portrait of cinema pioneer Georges Melies, which shifts it into another genre, that of the great-man-of-history biopic. But that genre flourished during the 1930s and '40s -- with Oscar winners like The Life of Emile Zola (1937) and nominees including Madame Curie (1943) -- and has long since fallen out of style. Hugo's best bet might be establishing its own precedent by becoming the first 3D movie to win best picture.
MIDNIGHT IN PARIS
The Story So Far: The time-traveling romantic fantasy set in the City of Light has been a commercial and critical comeback for Woody Allen, who has been turning out movies nonstop for more than 40 years. The Sony Pictures Classics release, which has grossed nearly $150 million worldwide, is by far his biggest hit.
The Precedents: Given the opportunity, the Academy can easily fall in love with a movie set along the banks of the Seine. In 1952, it gave its top prize to An American in Paris, the Vincente Minnelli musical starring Gene Kelly. And seven years later, it gave the prize to Gigi, another Minnelli musical, this one starring Leslie Caron. If Midnight in Paris is to prevail, it also will have to overcome the Academy's long-standing prejudice against lighthearted movies. But if anyone can do it, it's Allen: His Annie Hall (1977) was the most recent full-fledged comedy to collect best picture laurels.
The Story So Far: Released in September, Bennett Miller's adaptation of Michael Lewis' nonfiction account of how Oakland Athletics GM Billy Beane turned to statistics to beat the odds had to withstand competition from a slew of year-end releases before earning its berth in Hollywood's World Series. With Brad Pitt leading the team, Moneyball has attracted $75.6 million domestically.
The Precedents: Winning the trophy could be tough, though, because historically the Academy never has had a real feel for the great American pastime -- and its membership has become increasingly international, making it even less likely to appreciate the game. The Pride of the Yankees (1942), starring Gary Cooper as Lou Gehrig, is one of the few baseball movies to be nominated for best picture, and none has won. Team Moneyball would argue that the film isn't really about baseball, that it's more about a sportsman who challenges the system -- and that would put it in a tradition that traces to 1982 winner Chariots of Fire.
THE TREE OF LIFE
The Story So Far: Having begun production in 2008 after years of gestation, Terrence Malick's masterwork, a poetic treatise on the meaning of life, was unveiled at the Cannes Film Festival, where it immediately ignited passionate debate. For a movie that breaks with narrative conventions, the Fox Searchlight release established a modest foothold, grossing $13.3 million in the U.S. and another $41 million internationally.
The Precedents: Tree of Life's singular strength also is its chief weakness: It's a film that is entirely without precedent, at least within the mainstream moviemaking the Academy favors. In a sense, it does for the domestic drama (the pic centers on a Texas family during the 1950s) what Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) did for science fiction. It fixes it in a larger context, that of the whole history of mankind. No surprise that visual effects wizard Douglas Trumbull, who helped blow moviegoers' minds in 2001, also contributed to the mind-bending visuals of Tree of Life. And like Kubrick's film, which didn't even rate a best picture nomination in its day, Malick's movie could become an enduring classic whatever its fate at the Feb. 26 Oscar ceremony.
The Story So Far: Steven Spielberg displays his command of classical moviemaking in War Horse, his epic tale of a majestic stallion behind enemy lines in World War I. Having grossed more than $77 million domestically, it's second only to The Help among best picture nominees in terms of popular appeal.
The Precedents: In a year that saw The Artist and Hugo pay homage to cinema's past, War Horse hearkens to 1930's All Quiet on the Western Front, the third best picture winner in Oscar history. While some of the most beloved movies about horses (1944's National Velvet, 1979's The Black Stallion) failed to secure best picture noms, the Academy always has appreciated a good war movie -- from 1957's The Bridge on the River Kwai to 1986's Platoon to 2009's The Hurt Locker. If it salutes War Horse, it will be following that tradition.