We had four films releasing this weekend with the potential for Oscar nominations.
Sony Pictures Animation is the black sheep of the animation family. Hotel Transylvania marks their seventh major animation release (including the mixed live action-animation The Smurfs) and other than a surprise Oscar nomination for 2007's Surf's Up, Sony has had very poor luck getting the Academy to love them. That's largely because their product seems to frustrate critics with only their Aardman animation co-productions yielding anything near to rapturous support.
But what of that Surf's Up incident? Sony's film was release the same year as the critically acclaimed big screen adaptation of The Simpsons. The Simpsons Movie seemed like it would have the third slot that year by default, but the Academy's notoriously club-like environment has a tendency to shut out those who don't focus firmly on film or feature a large number of animators from the major animation houses. Surf's Up was the only notable animation film released that year that the Academy could see its way to recognizing. Not before and not since has the Academy cared one wit about Sony Pictures Animation. That's the key reason the box office hit Hotel Transylvania is going to fail to resonate with Oscar voters. A large number of other releases this year will make Transylvania look like an also-ran without much effort. And with the abysmal 42% rotten rating from Rotten Tomatoes, it would be another major shocker if this one got anywhere near the Oscars.
If there's a genre the Academy is less appreciative of than animation, it's science fiction. Rian Johnson's third feature Looper has been performing amazingly well among critics even if it's solid, not exceptional, box office debut would indicate it isn't playing well with audiences. Looper would seem like one of those films that would benefit most from the Academy's 5+ rule for Best Picture nominations, but as I've ruminated on elsewhere in the past, the Academy doesn't really care much for science fiction and other than District 9, the only sci-fi films they seem to look at as Best Picture fodder are major blockbusters (like Avatar or Inception), but even then Star Trek would like to point out that even box office hits that have support from critics can't bring the notoriously stingy Academy on board.
With Looper, the more modernistic approach may help sell it to reticent Academy members; however, I doubt it will convince enough to vote for it. The film might end up doing well in the creative categories with Visual Effects leading the way. The film's look is spectacular and left to key important moments in the film. That may hurt the film's chances with the Visual Effects branch who love their nominees to be drowning in effects (think of any Transformers film). Still, if the film has a decent shot at any nomination, this is it. Also a potential strong entry at the Oscars is the film's makeup. While the effects are solely devoted to Joseph Gordon-Levitt's character, it wouldn't be the first time such a single-individual film was nominated. The one major problem will be convincing the Makeup Branch to give the film a nomination in spite of the fact that Gordon-Levitt looks a little bit more like Bruce Willis than he does in real life, but the similarities are almost negligible. The film could also contend in Sound Mixing, Sound Editing and Original Score categories with Editing and Original Screenplay outside chances.
The competition in the realm of science fiction is stiff this year with a number of year-end films relying heavily on visual effects all of which are trying hard for Best Picture consideration. By the time the Academy votes, I'm afraid Looper may be a distant memory.
Won't Back Down
After Viola Davis lost this year's Oscar to Meryl Streep in a role that many thought would bring the classically-trained thespian a golden statuette, talk turned to what project might bring Davis back to the Oscars. The first film on the horizon was the education-themed drama Won't Back Down. The premise seemed dramatic enough that her presence in the film could nab her a third nomination. However, as the film got closer to release and a trailer was put out there, those chances began to crumble. The film looked like any number of other uplifting films. Then, as teachers unions came out against the film as right wing propaganda pushing for parents to push for private educational facilities, the press couldn't have been more damaging to Davis' chances.
The stars did their best to dissuade the public that their film was more pro-education than anti-union, using their own Screen Actors Guild credential as a defense, but what more can you expect from actors whose contracts require them to do positive press junkets for the film. Were they able to speak their minds after the fact, I wonder if they might not voice a different belief. Regardless, the negative press was seen as a boon for the producers who thought that even bad press would result in higher ticket sales. The problem was that the film just wasn't speaking to most audiences who would have made the film a hit any other day, so no amount of press, good or bad, could have likely helped the film. And its failure at the box office is a secondary factor that will prevent Davis from getting a nomination, with the primary being the film's anti-liberal bias and its cliched narrative threads.
The Other Dream Team
Telling the story of the Lithuanian men's basketball team heading into the 1992 Summer Olympics representing a country embroiled in a succession from the Soviet Union and, for the first time, being able to fly their own flag and wear their own uniforms as symbols of their hard-fought freedom. There aren't many political documentaries that are so strongly rooted in a rise to success. Many of the most recent documentaries have focused on the negative impact of right-wing philosophies and priorities destroying or frustrating lives. It's a movie that will make you feel good about another country's success and that kind of sentimentality can play well with the Academy. Too frequently in the past, the Academy have selected feel-bad documentary features exposing the ills of society. This will be the Academy's chance to pick something political while feeling good about themselves at the same time.
While I'm not certain the film will ultimately win, sports documentaries rarely do, I think its chances at a nomination are stronger than many other recent documentary releases.