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Friday, February 23, 2024

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Comparing Last Year’s Oscar Contenders To This Year’s Oscar Contenders Pre-Fall Film Festival Reactions

After a lot of last year’s preseason fall favorites collapsed quickly or merely fell short, they offer cautionary tales to many similar-sounding unseen preseason fall favorites this year.

  • Maestro” = “Bardo” [Netflix’s presumed preseason No. 1 contender premiering at Venice]
  • “Saltburn” = “The Son” [2020 Screenplay winner’s 2nd film, starring multiple Oscar nominees yet with suspiciously small fall fest presence]
  • The Holdovers” = “Empire of Light” [nostalgic decades past film from a past winner and starring a past nominee]
  • The Color Purple” = “Babylon” [if only because it is likely the last presumed contender to screen in 2023 if it stays in 2023]
  • Dune: Part Two” = “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” [blockbuster sequel to blockbuster BP nominee out in November)

While studios could still prolong the strikes enough to endanger the entire fall movie lineup, the fall’s biggest unseen projected Oscar challengers – save for “Dune: Part Two,” “The Color Purple,” “Napoleon” and a few others – will at least be seen by pundits at the fall festivals, whether general audiences see them by New Years or not. But while so many upcoming fall movies look like surefire Oscar frontrunners in mid-August, last year proved how premature such picks can be.

Last year, close to half of the films projected as major preseason contenders were considered giant flameouts by mid-season. As such, they offer cautionary tales to the seemingly sure-thing preseason contenders of 2023.

Maestro” = “Bardo
Last year when the Venice Film Festival opened, Netflix screened the film, expected to be its No. 1 contender. Yet not long after Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu’s “Bardo” finished its Venice premiere, one of the biggest preseason frontrunners was out of the Best Picture race before the fall fests barely started – and Netflix had to wait the rest of the year until “All Quiet on the Western Front” gave it an actual Best Picture contender.

A year later, Netflix is bringing its supposed giant gun of Oscar season to Venice again. Only this time, it isn’t from a two-time Best Director winner in Iñárritu, but from Bradley Cooper in his second directorial film. And Unlike Iñárritu, Cooper is the current poster boy for being overdue at the Oscars after nine combined defeats as an actor, producer, and writer.

Between that, Netflix still looking for a Best Picture win, and Carey Mulligan trending towards overdue status herself, “Maestro” is basically “Overdue: The Movie.” With Cooper also undergoing an Oscar-friendly yet already controversial make-up job as Leonard Bernstein – whose fictional in more ways than one protégé Lydia Tar was shut out at the Oscars last year after “TAR” had its own Venice premiere – “Maestro” is calculated to end quite a few droughts for those involved.

Yet as much as “Maestro” seems like the ultimate Oscar bait, so did “Bardo” a year ago, if only because of the Academy’s past worship of Iñárritu. Of course, “Bardo” was far more unconventional and less understandable than Iñárritu’s past winners in “Birdman” and “The Revenant.” Yet it was assumed Iñárritu was too big to fail and Netflix was just too overdue, at least until people saw it.

Likewise, assumptions that Netflix and Cooper are too overdue and baity to fail here could be just as premature. Plus, with the exception of Jamie Lee Curtis last year, the Academy seems less inclined to give make-up Oscars for past losses and career narratives alone than it used to. At the minimum, “Maestro” has to rise or fall on its own initially, starting with conquering the ghosts of Venice’s past for Netflix.

“Saltburn” = “The Son
“Saltburn” is the second film from a writer/director who won a 2020 screenplay Oscar with their first movie and whose follow-up has several past Oscar nominees in front of the camera. That alone seems like an unbeatable combination – but that same combination was very easily beaten just a year ago.

When 2020 Best Adapted Screenplay winner Florian Zeller followed up “The Father” with Hugh Jackman, Laura Dern, Vanessa Kirby, and Anthony Hopkins headlining “The Son,” it wasn’t so much an Oscar contender as much as it was the laughingstock of the entire season. From its flop reviews at Venice and TIFF to being unceremoniously dumped off in mid-January 2023 to general audiences, “The Son” was the textbook example of how a breakout Oscar winner and supposed new auteur can go so downhill so fast. Now that textbook example is hopefully one that Zeller’s fellow 2020 screenplay Oscar winner found a way to sidestep.

Now it is 2020 Best Original Screenplay winner Emerald Fennell’s turn to avoid a sudden sophomore slump, with her own follow-up starring multiple Oscar nominees like Barry Keoghan, Rosamund Pike, Richard E. Grant, and Fennell’s “Promising Young Woman” star Mulligan. Yet despite that pedigree, it might be suspicious that “Saltburn” is only likely to screen at Telluride, just as “The Son” only having afterthought screenings at Venice and TIFF was an unheeded warning sign.

Of course, the premise of “Saltburn” has generated far more comparisons to “The Talented Mr. Ripley” than something like “The Son,” so that alone may help. Then again, for all the raves “The Talented Mr. Ripley” got – and despite how it too was the follow-up for a major Oscar winner in “The English Patient’s” Anthony Minghella – its only major Oscar nominations and losses were for Jude Law and the script. But it was released in one of the most crowded movie years of the last quarter-century in 1999 – and we’re still a ways from knowing if 2023 will become that top-heavy.

The Holdovers” = “Empire of Light
A third fall festival premiere in 2022 that seemed destined for major Oscar contention yet was an afterthought by New Year’s was “Empire of Light.” Though it had an Oscar-winning director in Sam Mendes, an Oscar-winning star in Olivia Colman, and seemingly Oscar-friendly nostalgia in its early 80s set story, it fell well short of the past standards set by its makers.

The Holdovers” has a very different premise, as it’s set in a 70s college campus rather than a movie theater a few years later. But it has its own Oscar-winning writer/director in Alexander Payne, an Oscar-nominated star in Payne’s “Sideways” lead Paul Giamatti and a trailer that evoked quite a bit of nostalgia for films of decades past. That kind of track record and combination would seem right up the Academy’s alley, but last year proved that it isn’t foolproof.

Payne himself was once automatic with the Academy with “Sideways,” “The Descendants,” and “Nebraska.” Yet, his last film, “Downsizing,” broke his streak of Best Picture nominees and critically beloved movies. Six years later, “The Holdovers” is poised to be his comeback, though his past record of awards-friendly hits doesn’t automatically mean another one is guaranteed – as Mendes learned last year.

The Color Purple” = “Babylon
Since it will in no way have “Babylon’s” R-rating or its precise degree of excess, this comparison may not hold up that well. Nevertheless, just as “Babylon” made everyone wait for it as the last major projected Oscar favorite to screen in 2022, so too will “The Color Purple” likely be the final piece of the puzzle to screen in 2023 – assuming it even stays in 2023.

But if it does, “The Color Purple” will be the last big question mark of the season, as a potential second or even third Best Picture nominee for Warner Bros. It also has a potential Best Actress frontrunner in Fantasia Barrino, a second Oscar nomination possibility for Colman Domingo in 2023, and two potential Best Supporting Actress players in Danielle Brooks and Taraji P. Henson. Likewise, “Babylon” had expectations as Paramount’s second possible 2022 Best Picture nominee, with Damien Chazelle possibly completing the Best Director field and Margot Robbie, Brad Pitt, and Diego Calva possibly filling out the acting fields.

Yet despite the highest early hopes and a share of passionate backers when it was actually screened, “Babylon” was finally too divisive and disappointing at the box office to meet its preseason projections. In any case, Paramount could easily write it off by then since it had “Top Gun: Maverick” to focus on for the rest of the Oscar season.

Likewise, “The Color Purple” could meet its share of divisive reactions and an uphill box office battle, in spite of its own seemingly automatic place in Oscar season. If it doesn’t, then Warner Bros would at least still have its own summer hit turned potential Oscar player in “Barbie” to focus on – as well as another potential blockbuster Oscar crossover.

Dune: Part Two” = “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever
Like last year, a November blockbuster that is the sequel to an Oscar-nominated predecessor is coming out hoping to match or surpass the original at the box office and in Oscar wins. Of course, “Dune: Part Two” didn’t tragically lose its lead like the Black Panther franchise did beforehand – and of course, Marvel blockbusters and ones from Denis Villeneuve are entirely different visual and storytelling behemoths.

While “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” did make massive money and get its share of raves, it did not match the Best Picture nomination that the original got – although, at times, it looked like it could. Aside from a repeat Best Costume Design victory, its most significant part in Oscar season was getting Angela Bassett in Best Supporting Actress for an expanded role as the lead character’s mother. In that analogy, “Dune: Part Two” would look to do the same for Rebecca Ferguson, though it has much bigger aspirations.

Dune: Part Two” is following up a Best Picture nominated predecessor too, yet the first “Dune” did not have the nearly unanimous raves that “Black Panther” did. A mere 83% Tomatometer score and 7.6 average were enough for the original, along with its $100+ million domestic box office, even during the pandemic. Yet if “Dune: Part Two” is allowed to premiere in 2023 amidst a much more crowded potential Best Picture field with a more normal theatrical run, its box office and reviews might need to be much higher.

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” fell short with its own 83% Tomatometer score and a mere $450+ million domestic box office – all minor compared to its original. Maybe those numbers would still be enough for “Dune: Part Two” since it has a far less daunting shadow by comparison. But again, this all assumes that David Zaslav is more determined to give it a chance than he is determined to destroy the Hollywood labor movement.

If “Dune: Part Two” and others get their chance in a regular Oscar season, the hope is they will be as formidable in late 2023 as they looked in late summer 2023. But as last year kept reminding us, things in August can look very different in the blink of an eye – or after unexpectedly disappointing world premieres.

What do you think of these comparisons? Do you think any of these 2023 Oscar contenders will follow the same path as the proposed 2022 contenders did? Please let us know your thoughts in the comments section below or over on our Twitter account. And please check out the Next Best Picture team’s latest Oscar predictions here.

You can follow Robert and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @Robertdoc1984

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