‘War Horse’ Versus ‘The Artist’: Oscar Season 2011 Looks an Awful Lot Like 2009


It’s a dangerous thing to predict the Oscar winner for Best Picture in early December. Dangerous, I tell you! OK, that’s a strong word, though — with just under three months remaining until the ceremony — such a declaration could be perceived as a reckless. So I won’t do that. But! There is a trend brewing that looks mighty similar to 2009, a year that saw a sprawling epic and a low budget indie movie clash head-to-head — well, that is, once the pesky George Clooney movie that was an early favorite faded into oblivion. In other words: Hey, this is going to be fun!

Last year at this time, it was already ‘The Social Network’ versus the darling of the Toronto International Film Festival, ‘The King’s Speech.’ This never changed. As we approached last year’s final stretch, ‘The Social Network’ ran out of gas while ‘The King’s Speech’ surged. By the time we got to the Oscars, ‘The King’s Speech’ winning Best Picture was a forgone conclusion. Yawn. Especially compared to the year before.

Remember ‘Up in the Air’? In an alternative universe, it won an Academy Award for Best Picture in 2009. Entering that year’s awards season, it was the hands down film to beat. ‘Up in the Air’ was directed by somewhat quirky director Jason Reitman, starred George Clooney and featured standout supporting performances. ‘The Descendants’ was directed by somewhat quirky director Alexander Payne, starred George Clooney and featured standout supporting performances. A month ago, ‘The Descendants’ was the Best Picture favorite; now it seems to be fading and there’s already backlash. Will the similarities between ‘Up in the Air’ and Clooney’s latest Oscar hopeful continue? For his sake, hopefully not: ‘Up in the Air’ held onto its favorite label until January before fading away.

Once ‘Up in the Air’ was out of the conversation, it opened up the arena for the eventual final battle between James Cameron’s ‘Avatar’ and the low-budget ‘The Hurt Locker.’ If ‘The Descendants’ follows suit, 2011 will play out in similar David vs. Goliath fashion: the $18 million budgeted film ‘The Artist’ (which cost $3 million more than ‘The Hurt Locker’) and Steven Spielberg’s nearly $100 million budgeted World War I epic, ‘War Horse.’

(Full disclosure: Of the films thrown around as possible Oscar contenders, I still haven’t seen ‘The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo’ or ‘Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.’ It’s hard to imagine that either of these films will factor too heavily into the final favorites. I would expect ‘Dragon Tattoo’ to garner a nomination, but it’s got an ‘Inception,’ “Hey, cool movie, but not a serious contender” vibe to it. And then there’s ‘Extremely Loud,’ which hasn’t been fully screened yet by Warner Bros. That’s … odd. Warner Bros. also held onto ‘J. Edgar’ for as long as it could before it’s release date and, well, when’s the last time you’ve heard anything about ‘J. Edgar’?)

The Academy loves sprawling epics, and small, innovative films. With no clear favorite, as there wasn’t in 2009, it’s not too big of a stretch to envision the split happening between the more old-guard ‘War Horse,’ and the more progressive ‘The Artist.’ (Yes, the irony of labeling a black and white silent movie as “progressive” is not lost on this author.) Though, if this does wind up being the final two (‘Hugo,’ which won the National Board of Review Award for Best Picture on Thursday — which pretty much means nothing — is the ominous cog in all of this), ‘The Artist,’ like ‘The Hurt Locker,’ is in a really good position to win.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is made up of over 6,000 voting members, divided into branches. The largest of these is the Actors Branch — by far. The Actors Branch currently consists of 1,183 members. The next closest is the Producers Branch, at 446 members. Not surprisingly, actors like to reward acting. Just like ‘Avatar,’ ‘War Horse’ — for as sprawling as it is — doesn’t really feature any memorable acting performances. (Well, except for the horse.) ‘War Horse’ takes place over so many settings, even the lead actor in this movie, Jeremy Irvine, is only in about half of the film. Compare this with ‘The Artist,’ which will most likely garner two acting nominations (for Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo; Uggie the dog is still ineligible). So, with the largest portion of the voting Academy focusing on great acting performances, ‘War Horse’ may not necessarily appeal to that group.

Now, here’s where I backtrack a bit. Again, it’s early. But the trends already seem to be in place. As I alluded to earlier, ‘Hugo’ is a huge wild-card that could throw this whole thing off. My gut feeling, though, is that ‘Hugo’ will be more of a player for Scorsese as Best Director — hell, if I had to bet right now, I think he’s going to win — than ‘Hugo’ will be for Best Picture. But, remember, in 2009 when Tom Hanks announced Best Picture, no one knew for sure if it would be ‘Avatar’ or ‘The Hurt Locker.’ That’s what makes the Oscars fun. And if it does boil down this year to ‘War Horse’ and ‘The Artist,’ it’s certainly not going to be like last year when they should have just canceled the ceremony and mailed ‘The King’s Speech’ its Oscar.

So, no, I’m not predicting the Oscar winner: But, screw it, your final two will be ‘War Horse’ and ‘The Artist.’