Hollywood has figured out two ways to get people excited about movies. In winter, from the holiday season until February, it promotes good movies -- often quirky, challenging indies or releases from major-studio "classics" divisions -- by touting them as Oscar contenders, nominees or winners.
In the dog days of summer, which start in May and seem to last forever, it pushes often-dreary and overblown special-effects-laden extravaganzas by either grinding out clichéd sequels or adapting comic books, video games, children's books and toys. This year has been particularly bad with such dispiriting product as Spider-Man 3, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End, Ocean's Thirteen, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, ad nauseam.
Yet there are good movies being released in the first part of the year, mostly on the art-house circuit but occasionally in the multiplexes. But some people don't get as excited about them because they don't figure in the Oscars race. (It's rare that studios spend money campaigning for nominations for early-year releases, since they're already theatrically played out and often on DVD by then.)
Occasionally, an early-year documentary will touch a political nerve -- Michael Moore's Sicko or Davis Guggenheim/Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth -- and become part of our national discussion. But they're too few and far between.
Here's an idea to improve things, one I've had for some time: How about an Oscar playoff system? Movies released during the first six months of a year could compete in a July mini-Academy Awards, with fewer categories and nominees but just as much chatter and speculation, hopefully, as the real thing. The ceremony could be televised. Winners would be guaranteed a nomination in the "big" Oscars the next February.
It would give adults something to be excited about movie-wise while the kids clamor for Transformers and Harry Potter.
(And maybe studios wouldn't horde their best films for the end of the year.)
For instance, Breach, Zodiac, The Hoax and A Mighty Heart all are unjustly overlooked films based on real events that might have been too difficult or serious for audiences to face without Oscar hoopla to give them a push. (Actually, The Hoax, with its terrific turns by Richard Gere and Alfred Molina, treated Clifford Irving's fraudulent claim to have helped Howard Hughes write an autobiography as light tragicomedy.) But Chris Cooper was as good as any of last year's Oscar nominees as Breach's treasonous spy Robert Hanssen.
David Fincher's dark take on San Francisco's Zodiac killings was a solid, sobering and important American crime film, and Michael Winterbottom's A Mighty Heart tried to treat pregnant Mariane Pearl's (Angelina Jolie) reaction to her husband's kidnapping and (ultimately) assassination by terrorists with dignity and respect. A July Oscars race could help them all.
Here are some other films that would benefit:
· La Vie en Rose. Even if it is in French, this biopic about tragic chanteuse Edith Piaf has all the strengths of Walk the Line and Ray -- and maybe even a more innovative and interesting narrative structure. Actress Marion Cotillard is so good as Piaf that she's probably going to get an Oscar nomination next year. But it'd be great to have one now, while the movie is still in theaters to benefit.
· Killer of Sheep. I'd have to check with the Academy to be sure, but the belated theatrical release that Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep got this year by opening in L.A. and New York, as well as other cities like Cincinnati, might qualify it as a "new" film for Oscar consideration. If so, Burnett would be a quadruple-threat for July Oscars for his directing, producing, editing and cinematography of this black-and-white, neo-realist mood piece about life in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts. It was made in 1973 while he was a film student.
· Away From Her. Julie Christie would be a cinch for a nomination for her difficult role as a woman suffering from Alzheimer's in Sarah Polley's quietly determined adaptation of an Alice Munro short story. As such, Christie would be an elegant, exciting campaigner as she appeared on talk shows about her life as an actress.
· Black Book. I'm unsure if Paul Verhoeven would get a Best Director nomination for this Dutch thriller about a young Jewish woman working for Dutch Resistance in World War II, although it'd be weirdly entertaining to see the director of Showgirls and Hollow Man turn his back on Hollywood, return to his native country and then get nominated as a result. But Carice van Houten could well score a nomination for her acting.
· Waitress. This would probably lead the July Oscar nominations if there were July Oscars. Adrienne Shelly, who was murdered last year after completing the film, would be good bet for director and writer. Keri Russell would be a Best Actress candidate for her wonderfully mischievous performance as Jena, a pregnant waitress who expresses herself by creating colorfully imaginative pies. But Nathan Fillion, as the doctor smitten with Jena, could score a Supporting Actor nomination, as could Andy Griffith for his hard-edged but sentimental turn as Old Joe, the pie-shop owner. Production design, art direction, sets and costumes also would all be heralded.
· Once. A quiet movie -- a veritable two-character mood piece about a Dublin busker making a record with help from a Czech immigrant -- could be a surprise Best Picture nominee, voted in as a protest against the wretched excesses of summer blockbusters. Along with it could come acting nominations for Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova. And while I'm unsure which of Hansard's great songs have been previously released in Ireland (he's a member of The Frames), the movie deserves some type of recognition for its music.
· The Namesake. While Mira Nair's adaptation of Jhumpa Lahiri's novel about a Bengali family in America had some structural problems, it also had two powerful performances by Irrfan Khan and Tabu as the young married couple who become parents and then grow into middle age in America. They are touching in their scenes together and apart.
· Knocked Up. Probably too raunchy (and too funny) to figure in an Oscar race as things are now, it could rival Waitress for nominations in a July face-off. Judd Apatow's directing and especially his writing would be acknowledged, and there are four strong performances worthy of attention -- Seth Rogen and Katherine Heigl as the awkward couple and Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann as Heigl's sister and brother-in-law. Mann, Apatow's wife, knew she was being given the role of a lifetime and took advantage of it. ©