MCN Columnists
David Poland

By David Poland

18 Weeks To Oscar: Why The Martian Is Currently The Movie To Beat

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I can hear the moaning from Oscaristas (or Oscaristos?) all over town from the headline alone. But they don’t vote for the Academy Awards.

Nor do I.

I think there are two Oscar locks right about now… Brie Larson in Best Actress and Mark Rylance in Supporting Actor.

But as I look down the barrel at this season, aiming at Best Picture, it is looking more and more like 2000 or 2006, when the Best Picture statue ended up going to the big, well-made, not terribly shocking, but very entertaining movie over a series of films that critics and “serious film people” liked better. Those two winners were Gladiator and The Departed.

Opposing Gladiator were two Soderbergh films (Traffic and Erin Brockovich), an Ang Lee movie (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), and a bonbon from Weinstein’s Miramax, Chocolat. The cute film from Miramax was the only one of the five that didn’t end up with over $100 million at the box office. So economics were a non-issue. Still, the biggest commercial hit, which was serious enough with a well-loved enough director as to not be embarrassing, won the day.

In 2006, Scorsese was well into the “he’s gotta win” era. So lots of people were all over The Departed as a Best Director winner to be. Early on, almost no one saw it as a potential Best Picture winner. (I would say “no one,” but no doubt there was someone.) In fact, it was poo-poohed by many in the chattering class as not a screenplay nominee, not an acting nominee, etc. So how did it win?

It was surrounded by small, passionately-loved modest commercial successes. Little Miss Sunshine seemed to many to be the more likely winner. The film had lost to Dreamgirls at the Golden Globes in Comedy/Musical, but Dreamgirls failed to be nominated. It won the cast award from SAG and another from BFCA. It won the Indie Spirit Best Picture award. And on Oscar night, it would take home two Oscars.

Also in that field were Babel, which won Best Drama from the Golden Globes and had two Supporting Actress nominations, The Queen, a surprise commercial hit which locked Helen Mirren in for an Oscar win from the day it was shown, and Letters From Iwo Jima, which was the surprise in the group, the Clint Eastwood foreign-language film that supplanted his much-touted Flags of Our Fathers. Like 2000, it seemed like one film (Iwo Jima) had no chance to win. But the other four were all, in perception, neck-n-neck.

What emerged? The big box office success that every Academy member saw because of the inevitable Scorsese Best Director win… and they liked it, language and violence and dildo and all.

Flash forward to 2015.

Put a gun to my head and I will say that Spotlight, The Martian, Room, and Steve Jobs will get in (though there seems to be a wave of negativity against Steve Jobs right now that could sink that awards ship).

Can the film about the scrappy reporters who do great work and make public a horrible injustice win Best Picture? Yes. But it will be Open Road’s first nominee and not hugely commercial and part of what is so beautiful about the film is that it is not very showy… it’s just plain excellent. Is that enough?

Can the movie about the kidnapped girl who has a son and for whom the outside world may be as terrifying as being stuck in Room win? Sure. But the more likely scenario is that Brie Larson takes home her first Oscar and it was lovely that the film managed a Best Picture nod.

For me, what was for a moment the frontrunner based on the movie, Steve Jobs, is no longer a serious contender to win because of the damage it took on this last week, regardless of whether the damage was remotely fair. This was not a late attack in the style of A Beautiful Mind, where the frontrunner was being smashed. This is just (inappropriate, in my opinion) negativity given wing by a disappointing box office result. But that is the real world. I would love to see the film recover, but right now, it doesn’t feel like there is a clear path to a full recovery, thus a nomination and no win.

But there are other things in the way of The Martian.

If the plan to get it nominated by The Golden Globes in comedy, that would put a stink on a humorous film that is not a comedy. They’d be better off not Globe nominated at all, really.

And of course, there are other films coming.

The big dogs are The Revenant and The Hateful Eight. Both directors have been twice before nominated for directing. Quentin’s last two movies were both nominated for Best Picture and Alejandro’s won last year, his second film to be so nominated. You can’ bet against either of these guys.

But, and a big BUT… Iñárritu had a picture win last year. And this year’s movie seems dark and brutal… which also happens to be Tarantino’s milieu. And both are set in seriously bad winter weather.

There are, of course, other movies to consider as Best Picture nominees, from Bridge of Spies to The Danish Girl to Joy To Brooklyn to Youth to even the great and explosive Mad Max: Fury Road… but are any of these winning Best Picture? Not likely.

I am not saying that the most popular commercial film always wins. That is not close to the truth at all. But I do believe that unless there is a reason to vote for something else, the film that people like the most tends to win.

That reason those films often look might be that the “popular” choice would seem too frivolous (Ghost, Beauty & The Beast, Four Weddings & A Funeral, Jerry Maguire, The Sixth Sense, Rings twice, Little Miss Sunshine, Juno, Up, Avatar, Toy Story 3, Gravity), but most often, there is a narrative. Rings 3 was a lock from Day 1 in 2003. The Aviator pushed too hard and didn’t completely capture Hollywood’s imagination about itself, making room for Eastwood. Bigelow vs Cameron. Silent, black + white old Hollywood. Affleck snubbed. Slavery over space drama.

There are other years where there seemed to be an even fight without a clear narrative for Academy votes to follow. 2007 with No Country For Old Men. Very intense movies that year, with relief coming from Juno and Atonement (a bit). But Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood was probably too much for the average Academy voter. And that left Michael Clayton, which I adore, but could not fight off the Coens, who felt very, very due at the time. Is it a coincidence that your winner was also the #2 grosser in the group behind the comedy that wouldn’t win for being a comedy (Juno)?

2001 was pretty open also with musical drama (Moulin Rouge!) against a second Rings nomination vs and stiff-upper-lip Altman precursor to “Downton Abbey” (Gosford Park) fighting a powerful little drama about loss (In The Bedroom)… leaving the door open to an old-fashioned romantic drama about a misunderstood genius, which was by far the biggest hit aside from Rings 2, which was just placeholding its way to the winning Rings 3.

The Martian has a well-liked high prestige cast, a legendary director, it’s beautifully made, and it’s a massive hit that smart audiences like and respect.

There are no locks in October (in spite of the two mentioned at the top who are likely to stay locked in, in my opinion). Things change. Positions shift. Movies are shown.

But if you had to put the house on one title for Best Picture as of today? Easy.

Give me that quizzical RCA dog look if you like. But it only makes sense in a season of really good, really challenging, not very commercial contenders. If that changes, I will be happy to note the change right here… all Fox has to do is to stumble over their shoelaces and get this thing a Best Comedy nomination at The Globes… and you will be right and I will be wrong. But until I see something change… The Martian.

21 Responses to “18 Weeks To Oscar: Why The Martian Is Currently The Movie To Beat”

  1. Gustavo says:

    David, Moulin Rouge squared off with The Fellowship of the Ring, the first LOTR outing. The Two Towers was nominated the following year, losing to Chicago.

  2. TMW says:

    What have you got against The Big Short, David? You’re a naughty boy for not even mentioning it as a potential Best Picture nom. The A list quartet of actors in it alone should warrant speculation at the very least. And the buzz from the the two screenings of it so far are very good. Could this possibly be due to a bias against Adam McKay? Yeah, yeah, he’s directed comedies but this one looks special.

  3. John says:

    If they want to award a blockbuster, they will choose Mad Max whose directorial effort surpases by far The martian.

  4. You mention that Tarantino and Iñárritu’s films are the “big dogs” and who have two directing nominations apiece yet you lump David O. Russell, with THREE, in the ‘not likely to win BP’ section.

  5. Laura says:

    mentions Tarantino and Iñarritu’s Director nominations, but “forgets” that David O. Russell has 3.

    .mess. and please stop trying the martiaan happens in awards race. The movie its a no factor. Between 7or 10 in awards contenders.

  6. I don’t disagree with David that The Martian is a major player, I definitely think it is. It’s ‘feel good’ in the way AMPAS likes. I have it at #6 and Scott in my top 5 right now.

  7. movielocke says:

    Who is more due ala scorsese in 06 or coencoens in 07: Russell or Tarantino? Both have hit big with the academy as of late.

    The director win will be one of those two I think. Picture may follow.

  8. Sam E. says:

    Bridge of Spies isn’t a great film but it hits the sweet spot between serious and populist in the way a lot of big oscar winners like King’s Speech and Argo have. As for the Departed I thought it was hands down better the Queen and Babel. The other two movies were great but didn’t have much of a shot at winning.

  9. PB says:

    Academy Award nominees for BP also nominated in Comedy/Musical at the Golden Globes:

    2014 – Birdman (won Oscar for BP)
    2013 – American Hustle
    2012 – Les Miserables
    2011 – The Artist (won Oscar for BP)
    2010 – The Kids Are All Right

    Dude, do your homework.

  10. YancySkancy says:

    PB: David didn’t say no BP noms had ever been nominated for the Comedy/Musical Globes. He said he thought that nominating a non-comedy/musical in that category would put a stink on it for Oscar.

  11. PB says:

    I laughed my head off at The Martian. It was a laugh riot compared to Birdman. His comment about the Globes negatively affecting The Martian’s chances is flat out ridiculous. Shakespeare in Love, Hannah and Her Sisters, The Artist, were all dramas with comedy elements. All were up for comedy globes and won best picture.

  12. Gustavo says:

    Shakespeare in Love and The Artist dramas? Try harder, tough boy.

  13. Maxim says:

    Yes, Bridge of Spies IS winning best picture and Best Director Oscars.

  14. PJ says:

    There is no question that after all the flops from festival circuit that The Martian is a top 5 film at this point. The issue is that it’ll probably be too light to win in the end.

  15. Jon says:

    You and Sasha Stone… I just can’t understand the hype. If Interstellar didn’t even score a nomination, how will this mediocre Ridley Scott movie will win? Please God. Make it stop.

  16. DW says:

    We may have laughed out loud during The Martian, but it is NOT a comedy. And if Fox pushes it for a GG comedy nomination, it shows how poorly they understand their own movie. Label it a comedy, and it undermines the gravitas that makes this science fiction film more than a trifle in the eyes of voters. Remember, no outright sci-fi movie has ever won Best Picture, so The Martian needs all the help it can get. DP, you’re absolutely correct with at least this portion of your assessment of the race. I’d also like to point out that while Fox captured attention by emphasizing the movie’s humor in the trailers and ads, they also managed to sap a lot of suspense out of the film by giving away too many of its plot points. Frankly, I don’t trust them to get the Oscar campaign right.

  17. Daniella Isaacs says:

    Unless an unseen film comes out and wows everyone HATEFUL 8, STAR WARS, I’d say it’s between THE MARTIAN and BRIDGE OF SPIES. It’s going to be an old Hollywood year.

  18. Pete says:

    Brie Larson won’t win. It’s a lousy movie.

  19. Doah says:

    Here’s to hoping both The Martian and Mad Max are not nominated for Picture.

  20. Joshua says:

    It’s going to be an old Hollywood Vs new Hollywood year with movies like Bridge splitting votes with Martian, Revenant splitting with Hateful and then pleasingly, the new Hollywood paying homage to old, Brooklyn, squeezing out the win.

  21. eurocheese says:

    I understand your argument for box office, but there is a sure BP nominee that outflanks Scott’s The Martian earnings, managing wide audience appeal as well as carrying the torch for the most critically beloved studio of the modern era. That would be Pixar’s Inside Out, arguably their most adult-oriented film. Is it possible for an animated film to win? If Pixar ran a crowning achievement/prestige campaign, couldn’t it happen?

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This is probably going to sound petty, but Martin Scorsese insisting that critics see his film in theaters even though it’s going straight to Netflix and then not screening it in most American cities was a watershed moment for me in this theatrical versus streaming debate.

I completely respect when a filmmaker insists that their movie is meant to be seen in the theater, but the thing is, you got to actually make it possible to see it in the theater. Some movies may be too small for that, and that’s totally OK.

When your movie is largely financed by a streaming service and is going to appear on that streaming service instantly, I don’t really see the point of pretending that it’s a theatrical film. It just seems like we are needlessly indulging some kind of personal fantasy.

I don’t think that making a feature film length production that is going to go straight to a video platform is some sort of “step down.“ I really don’t. Theatrical exhibition as we know it is dying off anyway, for a variety of reasons.

I should clarify myself because this thread is already being misconstrued — I’m talking about how the movie is screened in advance. If it’s going straight to Netflix, why the ritual of demanding people see it in the theater?

There used to be a category that everyone recognized called “TV movie” or “made for television movie” and even though a lot of filmmakers considered that déclassé, it seems to me that probably 90% of feature films fit that description now.

Atlantis has mostly sunk into the ocean, only a few tower spires remain above the waterline, and I’m increasingly at peace with that, because it seems to be what the industry and much of the audience wants. We live in an age of convenience and information control.

Only a very elite group of filmmakers is still allowed to make movies “for theaters“ and actually have them seen and judged that way on a wide scale. Even platform releasing seems to be somewhat endangered. It can’t be fought. It has to be accepted.

9. Addendum: I’ve been informed that it wasn’t Scorsese who requested that the Bob Dylan documentary only be screened for critics in theaters, but a Netflix representative indicated the opposite to me, so I just don’t know what to believe.

It’s actually OK if your film is not eligible for an Oscar — we have a thing called the Emmys. A lot of this anxiety is just a holdover from the days when television was considered culturally inferior to theatrical feature films. Everybody needs to just get over it.

In another 10 to 20 years they’re probably going to merge the Emmys in the Oscars into one program anyway, maybe they’ll call it the Contentys.

“One of the fun things about seeing the new Quentin Tarantino film three months early in Cannes (did I mention this?) is that I know exactly why it’s going to make some people furious, and thus I have time to steel myself for the takes.

Back in July 2017, when it was revealed that Tarantino’s next project was connected to the Manson Family murders, it was condemned in some quarters as an insulting and exploitative stunt. We usually require at least a fig-leaf of compassion for the victims in true-crime adaptations, and even Tarantino partisans like myself – I don’t think he’s made a bad film yet – found ourselves wondering how he might square his more outré stylistic impulses with the depiction of a real mass murder in which five people and one unborn child lost their lives.

After all, it’s one thing to slice off with gusto a fictional policeman’s ear; it’s quite another to linger over the gory details of a massacre that took place within living memory, and which still carries a dread historical significance.

In her essay The White Album, Joan Didion wrote: “Many people I know in Los Angeles believe that the Sixties ended abruptly on August 9, 1969, ended at the exact moment when word of the murders on Cielo Drive traveled like brushfire through the community, and in a sense this is true.”

Early in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, as Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt’s characters drive up the hill towards Leo’s bachelor pad, the camera cranes up gently to reveal a street sign: Cielo Drive. Tarantino understands how charged that name is; he can hear the Molotov cocktails clinking as he shoulders the crate.

As you may have read in the reviews from Cannes, much of the film is taken up with following DiCaprio and Pitt’s characters – a fading TV actor and his long-serving stunt double – as they amusingly go about their lives in Los Angeles, while Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate is a relatively minor presence. But the spectre of the murders is just over the horizon, and when the night of the 9th finally arrives, you feel the mood in the cinema shift.

No spoilers whatsoever about what transpires on screen. But in the audience, as it became clear how Tarantino was going to handle this extraordinarily loaded moment, the room soured and split, like a pan of cream left too long on the hob. I craned in, amazed, but felt the person beside me recoil in either dismay or disgust.

Two weeks on, I’m convinced that the scene is the boldest and most graphically violent of Tarantino’s career – I had to shield my eyes at one point, found myself involuntarily groaning “oh no” at another – and a dead cert for the most controversial. People will be outraged by it, and with good reason. But in a strange and brilliant way, it takes Didion’s death-of-the-Sixties observation and pushes it through a hellfire-hot catharsis.

Hollywood summoned up this horror, the film seems to be saying, and now it’s Hollywood’s turn to exorcise it. I can’t wait until the release in August, when we can finally talk about why.

~ Robbie Collin