Sunday, February 5, 2023

The Calm Before The “Babylon” Storm

Most films that will contend for awards season have been screened to critics or released in theaters. Critics’ circles are beginning to make the rounds with their end-of-year awards, and it’s only a matter of time before the televised awards begin. Films like “The Fabelmans” and “Everything Everywhere All At Once” have been the talk of the season for possibly having great days on Oscar nomination morning, let alone having a real chance to win Best Picture. However, there’s one film that has received a mixed reception (without official reviews yet) that has become a big question mark as to how well it might perform this awards season, and that film is Damien Chazelle’s “Babylon.”

It is an audacious one-hundred-and-eighty-minute plus epic about Hollywood in the 1920s. It follows the silent film era’s transition to talkies and the people in this industry trying to make a name for themselves during this hellacious time. “I think of (this) movie as a poison pen, a hate letter to Hollywood, but a love letter to cinema,” says Chazelle. First things first, is that films about filmmaking and Hollywood are catnip to the Academy. “Once Upon A Time In Hollywood,” “Mank,” and even “The Fabelmans” are all films that are right up the voter’s alley with recent Best Picture winners such as “The Artist,” “Argo” and “Birdman” incorporating aspects of Hollywood into their storylines. Now, for the most part, all of these films have been praised with almost entirely positive critical reception, which is something we are still waiting to fully see with “Babylon” when reviews drop tomorrow, December 16th.

Babylon” officially began its rollout, screening on November 14th to critics in Los Angeles. What we got was a whirlwind of reactions that were either praising the film or claiming it was one of the worst things they had seen all year. There was no reaction in between. Following screenings in New York, “Babylon” ultimately had more positive responses coming to its defense. Still, with those initial reactions, plenty of people began adjusting their award predictions. The reactions by the critics and adjustments by Oscar pundits in their predictions feel very similar to that of Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street” back in 2013, a film to which Chazelle and studio Paramount owe a great debt to with their latest. Both are films that are very much larger-than-life epics filled with the debaucherous and graphic underbellies of said topics they explored. Not to mention both have similar release dates targeting the Christmas time window. Paramount looks to ensure “Babylon” gets seen by everyone in time for various critics and industry voting. With the amount of talent involved in this project, why wouldn’t you?

Despite not doing well with various critics groups so far (a possible sign of the reviews to come?), the film has done well where it counts. It received a good nomination haul at both the Critics Choice and Golden Globe nominations. At the end of the day, this film could still possibly earn up to twelve nominations. People think that just because “First Man” didn’t get a Best Picture nomination, the Academy is suddenly not a massive fan of Chazelle’s work. Two of the last three films he made were nominated for Best Picture. His previous three films have earned a total of 25 Academy Award nominations and have won a total of 10 Oscars. Also, Chazelle is the youngest director to win the Best Director Oscar for “La La Land.” Mixed reactions or not, “Babylon” will likely do well, appealing to industry voters and scoring multiple Oscar nominations in both above and below-the-line categories.

The all-star cast of “Babylon” is filled with multiple Academy Award and Emmy nominees, winners, and other popular (and rising) stars. The talent behind the camera is up to the same level of quality as those in front of it. You have Academy Award winner Justin Hurwitz (“La La Land“) composing the score. Academy Award Winner Tom Cross (“Whiplash“) is editing. Academy Award Winner Linus Sandgren (“La La Land“) is the cinematographer. And you have three-time Academy Award nominee Mary Zophres (“The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs“) as the costume designer. Should I even continue? All of them are expected to contend in a significant way in their respective categories, along with Best Sound, Best Production Design, and Best Makeup & Hairstyling.

We saw last year how a late-December release with a positive but not enthusiastic reaction could coast to a Best Picture nomination on the strength of its crafts (“Nightmare Alley“). But we must also acknowledge some things that could prevent a film like “Babylon” from performing at its best this awards season. Of course, there are possibly mixed reviews still set to come out, but another more alarming detriment is that it could sadly join the awards season graveyard of box office disappointments 2022 has given us this year. The film comes out December 23rd (wide release) at what will surely be the height of “Avatar” fever and has a hefty $78 million budget. As we saw during the Thanksgiving weekend, films such as “She Said” and “The Fabelmans” didn’t get the turnout Oscar films would have received five, let alone three years ago. Receiving positive word of mouth so that audiences come out to see these films is only sometimes the end all be all when it comes to awards season success. Besides “Dune,” every Best Picture nominee last year was either a streaming title or didn’t perform well at the box office. For certain films, a great box office run is truly essential. However, I do not think we would be considering “Top Gun: Maverick” as a strong potential Best Picture nominee this season if it didn’t become the most successful film of the year. Even a small film like “Everything Everywhere All At Once,” if it didn’t also strike well commercially, grossing over a hundred million dollars and capturing the hearts of general audiences as well as critics, it may not be doing as well in the Best Picture conversation as it currently is at the moment.

Another issue that could arise for “Babylon” is the controversy surrounding the abuse allegations made against one of the film’s biggest stars, Brad Pitt, and with how much the Academy’s voting body has changed dramatically over the past few years, they might want to steer clear of this situation. Although discussions of these allegations have increased recently, this didn’t stop the Academy from awarding Pitt the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in 2019 for “Once Upon A Time In Hollywood.” Also, let us not forget last year how the lead actor for “West Side Story” was caught with serious accusations of assault, and the Academy still gave the film seven nominations, including Best Picture. Only time will tell if this affects the film overall or not.

No matter what, Paramount will push “Babylon” hard, and the potential for it to score big with Academy voters is still present. A Best Picture win may be out of the question, but that does not mean it cannot still accumulate a lot of nominations, including Best Picture and Best Actress for Margot Robbie, and even score a couple of wins. It could still win Best Costume Design, Best Cinematography, Best Production Design, and Best Original Score. Maybe this is Margot Robbie’s time in a supremely competitive Best Actress field, and she wins as well? With a star-studded cast and crew of this pedigree, many of us might be overreacting, and the film may still perform just as we always predicted it would.

What do you think? How many Oscar nominations do you see “Babylon” receiving? Do you have it predicted for any wins? What do you think the reviews will be like tomorrow? Please let us know in the comments section below or on our Twitter account.

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

Giovanni Lago
Giovanni Lago
Devoted believer in all things cinema and television. Awards Season obsessive and aspiring filmmaker.

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