Aspen Film takes peek at Oscar season with Academy Screenings
December 5, 2009
ASPEN – Not to overload your plate, what with ski season in swing and the holidays coming fast. But we’re also in the thick of prestige-film season, as distributors roll out their proudest achievements and put their Oscar strategies into motion. To stay in the game of early Academy Award buzz, cinema geeks need to have visions of George Clooney and Nicole Kidman, James Cameron and Clint Eastwood dancing in their head alongside those sugar plums.Feeling stressed? Wait, it gets a tad worse.This year the Best Picture category expands to 10 nominees, from five, for reasons that are as ungraspable as Sandra Bullock’s popularity. Meaning that the most frantic Oscar trackers need to squeeze in twice as many films – perhaps even extending down to the current “The Blind Side,” starring, yes, the aforementioned and ungraspable Ms. Bullock.Aspen movie buffs, though, have a critical aid to keep their eye on the Oscar chase. (The awards themselves are bestowed in early March.) Aspen Film’s Academy Screenings series, entering its 19th year later this month, presents several handfuls of films considered award contenders. The Academy Screenings come in a neatly wrapped package: 19 films this year, shown over an 11-day period (Dec. 23-Jan. 2), all in one location, at Harris Hall – a concert venue that turns out to be an outstanding movie house. As a bonus, several of the films are shown here before they are released nationally. Just another thing for Muncie, Ind., to envy Aspen for.And if history holds, the Academy Screenings will be a reliable gauge of which movies are on the minds of awards nominators and voters. Last year was a banner year for the intersection of the Academy Screenings program and the eventual nominees: the program featured four best actor nominees, three best actress nominees, and four of the films that contended for best picture: “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” “Doubt,” “Milk” and “Frost/Nixon.” Last year’s lineup did, however, miss the big one, “Slumdog Millionaire,” which took eight Oscars.Following is a run-down of the program for this year’s Academy Screenings.
“Nine” (Dec. 23, 8 p.m.)Director-choreographer Rob Marshall returns to the same sort of territory that earned him accolades for “Chicago,” which earned the 2003 Best Picture Oscar. “Nine” is a musical combining old-school flashiness with modern smarts and attitude. Like its predecessor, “Nine,” inspired by Federico Fellini’s 1963 drama “8 1/2,” should be high on the sex quotient – it better be, with a cast featuring Penlope Cruz, Nicole Kidman and Kate Hudson. Starring as the frustrated film director Guido is Oscar magnet Daniel Day-Lewis.”The Lovely Bones” (Dec. 27, 8:15 p.m.)Peter Jackson, who turned J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” fantasy trilogy into memorable cinema, takes a sharp turn in material. “The Lovely Bones” adapts Alice Sebold’s best-selling novel of a 14-year-old girl who narrates the story of her own murder. The cast includes Saoirse Ronan as the dead teenager, plus Mark Wahlberg, Rachel Weisz and Susan Sarandon. Stanley Tucci, who already has a trophy on his shelf from this year – he was the recipient of the Independent by Nature Award at Aspen Filmfest – plays the creepy murderer, George Harvey.”Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire” (Dec. 29, 8:15 p.m.)Noted for its raw-nerve depiction of the urban nightmare, “Precious” tells the story of an obese Harlem teenager, pregnant by her father and abused in almost equal measure by her mother. But director Lee Daniels focuses as much on redemption (a theme beloved by the Academy). Mariah Carey (!!) could well be up for an Oscar (assuming voters have recovered from her horrific star vehicle, “Glitter”), as could comedian Mo’Nique, whose work is said to raise the bar for wicked mothers on film.”A Single Man” (Dec. 30, 8:15 p.m.)Colin Firth took best actor honors at the Venice Film Festival for his portrayal of a gay, British academic in 1962 L.A., mourning the death of his lover. Fashion designer Tom Ford, in his film debut, directed this quietly moody meditation on loneliness.The Contenders”The Road” (Dec. 28, 8:15 p.m.)An adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s dark portrait of the final remnants of human society may be too relentless for Oscar tastes. The cast, though, is starry-bright: Viggo Mortensen, Charlize Theron, Robert Duvall, Guy Pearce.”Creation” (Dec. 31, 5:30 p.m.)The title promises big things, and it tackles a big subject: Charles Darwin, who is captured both as a person – a father struggling with the death of his young daughter – and an outsized historical figure – formulating the ideas that would become the landmark, and still controversial, “On the Origins of Species.” Real-life couple Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connelly star as the Darwins.”The Hurt Locker” (Jan. 2, 5:15 p.m.)After several fizzled attempts, the film world has finally come up with a story about America’s current military that has engaged audiences. Maybe it took a woman’s perspective. This Grand Prize winner at Venice, about a crew of soldiers who defuse bombs in Baghdad, was directed by Kathryn Bigelow.”Brothers” (Jan. 1, 8:15 p.m.)A look at war from the home front. In director Jim Sheridan’s remake of a 2004 Danish film, Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Tommy, a ne’er-do-well whose brother (Tobey Maguire) is a Marine in Afghanistan with a family back in the States.”Crazy Heart” (Jan. 2, 8:15 p.m.)Jeff Bridges’ portrayal of His Dudeness in “The Big Lebowski” earned him everlasting cult status rather than an Oscar nomination. “Crazy Heart” should put him in the running for the statuette. Bridges stars as Bad Blake, a country singer living in a country song of booze, bars, a trail of ex-wives, and a last shot at redemption. Robert Duvall, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Colin Farrell co-star in the debut from writer-director Scott Cooper.
“The Messenger” (Dec. 26, 5:15 p.m.)A sergeant with the unenviable job of delivering bad news to military wives cannot keep the cool detachment that he is told is necessary for the task. The film features Samantha Morton and Woody Harrelson; Oren Moverman, who wrote the screenplay for the Bob Dylan quasi-biopic “I’m Not There,” makes his directorial debut.”The Last Station” (Dec. 26, 8:15 p.m.)A look at the romantic life of Leo Tolstoy, with Christopher Plummer as the Russian novelist, Helen Mirren as his wife of a half-century.”Bright Star” (Dec. 27, 5:15 p.m.)After an extended absence, director Jane Campion returns with this well-reviewed film about the unconsummated romance-by-mail between the young poet John Keats and a neighbor woman.”Looking for Eric” (Dec. 28, 5:15 p.m.)A small-scale British comedy about a postal clerk whose mid-life crisis deepens when his kids fall into trouble. He finds himself reaching out to the most unexpected people for help, including his ex-wife.”Valentino: The Last Emperor” (Dec. 29, 5:30 p.m.)An appropriately stylish documentary of the Italian fashion legend Valentino.”The Art of the Steal” (Dec. 30, 5:30 p.m.)This documentary with overtones of a crime thriller examines the $25 billion art collection of the late Dr. Albert Barnes, whose wish was to keep his cache of post-Impressionist and Modernist work intact in suburban Philadelphia.”That Evening Sun” (Jan. 1, 3 p.m.)Hal Holbrook is Abner Meecham, a willful old man who ditches his existence at a nursing home and returns to the family farm in Tennessee to find contentious times.”The Young Victoria” (Jan. 1, 5:30 p.m.)A costume drama about the early years of Queen Victoria, focusing on the marriage to her cousin, Prince Albert. The director, Jean-Marc Valle, is French Canadian, but the cast is so very British (Rupert Friend, Miranda Richardson, Jim Broadbent, Paul Bettany, and Emily Blunt as Victoria).”Everybody’s Fine” (Jan. 2, 3 p.m.)Is this a return to form, at long last, for Robert De Niro? In this remake of an Italian comedy, De Niro stars as a widower traveling the country to check in on his adult children. Kate Beckinsale, Drew Barrymore and Sam Rockwell co-star.”The Wildest Dream” (Dec. 23, 5:30 p.m.)A documentary recreation of mountaineer Conrad Anker’s effort to retrace George Mallory’s 1924 climb up Mt. Everest.Aspen Film’s Academy Screenings series runs Dec. 23-Jan. 2 at Harris Hall. Tickets go on sale Dec. 14. For further information, go to email@example.com