By William Wiggins
Tired of the recession, partisan politics, Occupy Your City’s Name Here? Last year, lots of Americans who were sought refuge a couple of hours at a time at the movies. According to entertainment industry analysts The Numbers, in 2011 Americans bought 1.25 billion cinema tickets, generating some $9.94 billion in box office revenue.
Not bad, given a rough economy, but even traditionally bulletproof Hollywood proved just a bit vulnerable this past year, with those figures down just a tick from the 1.33 billion tickets and almost $10.5 billion in receipts in 2010.
Nonetheless, now that the holidays are behind us, it’s almost time for Hollywood’s 1% to pat themselves on the back for another year well done. And to a large extent industry insiders can point to a decent crop of pictures to justify all that self-congratulation.
Let’s take a look at a different type of 1%: those select films that could well produce this year’s Best Picture. Only the Producers Guild of America (PGA) has put forth its list of nominees, so we’ll start our own Occupy Hollywood movement there. Set up your tents and get your protests ready!
First off, as usual, none of the top 10 grossing films for 2011 are even close to being nominees for the top Oscar. Franchises largely ruled the roost, with Harry Potter, the Twilight fangers, Transformers, comic book adaptations, Capt. Jack Sparrow, another “Hangover” and even the “Cars” sequel from Pixar making the case that anywhere but reality was where the public wanted to be!
For whatever reason, those films, as well crafted and popular as they might be, rarely seem to do it for PGA and Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences members when it comes to what qualifies as “Best Picture,” even with 10 nominees instead of five.
With 10 slots to fill, it’s only natural that comedies are part of the lineup, and producer Judd Apatow nabbed one with his modest hit, “Bridesmaids,” not his best but a likable, smartly done picture. I was particularly happy to see Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” nominated as well. Allen is most comfortable shooting on a soundstage (his idea of being on location is usually picking up a scene streetside), but this film, shot entirely on location in the City of Lights is both charming and has Allen’s signature to it.
Shifting to dramas, Alexander Payne scored a surprise nomination for “The Descendants” with George Clooney, which flew mostly under or off the radar during its initial release. Clooney also toplined and co-produced the political drama, “The Ides of March.” Both of those, however, are likely to be overshadowed by the very highly regarded film version of author Kathryn Stockett’s bestseller “The Help,” directed and co-produced by veteran Chris Columbus, which should also see star Viola Davis nominated for Best Actress.
A late entry, the David Fincher-directed U.S. version of “Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” isn’t entirely surprising, given that producers Ceán Chaffin, Scott Rudin have a long history with darker films that have lots of production value.
Speaking of production value, “Hugo,” which might have suffered from a mismanaged marketing campaign, locked up a nomination for producers Graham King and Martin Scorcese, who also directed the visually stunning and emotionally charming fable, an overt ode to the silent film era and the importance of film preservation.
Which brings us to a literal silent film, “The Artist,” produced by French filmmaker Thomas Langmann. Shot in black and white, the film is set in 1927 Hollywood, where the life of a silent movie star, who wonders if the arrival of talking pictures will cause him to fade into oblivion, intersects with a young actress looking for her big break. The international cast includes John Goodman, James Cromwell, Penelope Ann Miller and Malcolm McDowell. If it wins, “The Artist” would join “Wings” (1927) as the only silent pictures to ever win a Best Picture Oscar.
Sports gets another shot at the brass ring. Last year, “The Fighter” was a contender and this year, a baseball film makes it to the show with “Moneyball,” from producers Michael De Luca and Brad Pitt, who also stars in the fascinating and true behind the scenes look at the transformation of the Oakland A’s.
And in case you’re wondering what happened to the big, touching war epic, wonder no further. Kathleen Kennedy and Steven Spielberg’s much lauded “War Horse” rounds out the list.
Missing in action …
Aside from my personal fave, “The Muppets,” there are a handful of films missing from the PGA’s list that could show up on Oscar’s ballot. Clint Eastwood’s “J. Edgar” boasted Leonardo DiCaprio (as well as some mixed reviews) and could easily be among the finalists. Spy story “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” with Gary Oldman and Colin Firth is exactly the kind of intricate, understated drama Oscar gravitates toward. Don’t be surprised if master of mood Terrence Malick’s “Tree of Life,” a ‘50s-era loss of innocence tale starring Brad Pitt and Sean Penn, garners a nod. And don’t discount “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” with Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock from making some noise as a nominee.
The PGA Awards will be announced on Jan. 21, and more than 75% of the time set the pace for Oscar’s Best Picture winner. Should the Best Picture have come from the other 99% of last year’s films? Which film will Hollywood’s 99% decide is the best? We’ll find out when the 84th Academy Awards are held on Feb. 26.