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As awards season gets serious, voters get ever more serious-minded, setting aside movies they might have simply enjoyed in order to elevate films that have something “important” to say.
Sure, there are exceptions. This year, The Artist has positioned itself as the lighthearted alternative to all those movies about war and racism and the very meaning of life. But lest the movie appear too lightweight, its champions also have argued it’s more than just fluff: “The Artist is a movie of the moment,” Richard Brody wrote for the New Yorker, “because it’s about unemployment, specifically about an employee who loses his job due to technological change for which he’s unequipped.” Uh, OK.
But what of those movies that were released earlier in the year as commercial entertainments, without any great claims for their awards worthiness? Take Drive, 50/50 and Warrior, which all bowed in September — not on carefully calculated Oscar-bait platforms but as wide releases.
Overall, they did get a lot of thumbs-ups from the critics. At Rotten Tomatoes, 50/50, Will Reiser’s loosely autobiographical screenplay about a young man with cancer, directed by Jonathan Levine and starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Seth Rogen, scored a 93 with reviewers and audiences alike. Drive was a hit with critics (also earning a 93) but disappointed some movie-goers (who rated it 79). They may have been expecting more car chases in Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn’s existential tale of a laconic loner, played by Ryan Gosling, seeking redemption in a town full of vengeful crooks. Warrior, about two brothers who confront each other in the mixed martial arts ring, got a more mixed reception from reviewers (82) but wound up with another positive 93 from audiences.
None of the three movies turned into resounding commercial hits, though. Lionsgate’s Warrior bottomed out at just $13.7 million domestically — its overly generic-looking trailer failed to sell the movie’s realistic take on the economically depressed heartland. Summit’s 50/50 powered its way to $35 million domestic, which would have been a good number if it hadn’t attempted to be more than a specialty film release. Drive, the most successful of the three, managed to achieve $34.8?million domestically, $67.8 million worldwide.
That left all three films in a no-man’s-land: September releases that were disappearing from theaters just as the year-end awards hopefuls were arriving.
Yet each also collected admirers. Drive‘s Refn was proclaimed best director at Cannes for the film, which Gosling recruited him to oversee. The Broadcast Film Critics Association lavished eight nominations on the movie. Other groups have been less enthusiastic, reserving their praise for Albert Brooks’ supporting turn as a vengeful gangster. Drive may be every bit as much about the movies as is The Artist. Refn told THR that he decided to adapt James Sallis’ novel because “it’s very much about film mythology. So I leaned on that style.” But smartly made genre fare like, say, Michael Mann’s 1995 Heat, doesn’t often break into Academy territory.
In 50/50, Levine strikes an even more delicate balance, hitting genuinely comic notes while avoiding mawkish sentimentality. For his efforts, the film picked up three Spirit noms, including best feature, and two Golden Globe mentions, one for Gordon-Levitt. “It needed to feel real,” says Levine, who took his cues from filmmakers like Hal Ashby and Cameron Crowe. “Our rule of thumb was never to strain for a joke, and we really didn’t want the audience to feel manipulated in any way.”
But that could work against the film when it comes to the Academy, which often welcomes a good old-fashioned cry. As the movie’s protagonist says to his concerned mother, played movingly by Anjelica Huston, when it comes time to reveal his diagnosis: “Have you ever seen Terms of Endearment?”
For Warrior, Nick Nolte has picked up supporting-actor noms from the BFCA and SAG for his portryal of an alcoholic dad, but the movie itself has failed to find a spot on the betting line. Fight pictures, from 1976’s upbeat Rocky to 1980’s downbeat Raging Bull, have often been welcomed into Oscar contention. Last year, The Fighter took home two trophies.
But Gavin O’Connor’s Warrior, starring Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton, came and went so quickly, it never established its full credentials — at least, not until such critics as THR‘s Todd McCarthy and A.O. Scott of The New York Times‘ compiled their best-of-the-year lists. “With arresting honesty and enormous compassion — but without making a big topical deal out of it — Warrior looks at an American working class reeling from the one-two punch of war and recession,” Scott wrote. That kind of endorsement would normally signal a genuine awards player — if only the movie had announced its own importance.
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