Aspen’s sneak peek at the Oscar contenders returns |

Aspen’s sneak peek at the Oscar contenders returns

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN – If you’ve been paying attention to the Academy Award races – and if you haven’t, now is the time to start, as quality films are making their way into theaters – you might have noticed that things are wide open this year. How wide? Consider that the Best Picture favorite for the moment seems to be “The Artist” – a black-and-white French comedy with no dialogue and no A-list stars. Now consider that no French film has ever won the top prize, no black and white film has won in forever, movies without dialogue have as much appeal as Dianetics-inspired John Travolta projects, and comedies have as good a chance of taking Best Picture as Charlie Sheen has of getting a lifetime achievement award.

In other words, no winner has been declared for Best Picture. Even Woody Allen’s latest, “Midnight in Paris,” is generating some Best Picture buzz – something Allen hasn’t heard since the Reagan administration. And the race seems equally unclear for top acting honors, with a crowded field of usual contenders (Meryl Streep, George Clooney, Leonardo DiCaprio, Michelle Williams, Tilda Swinton, Ryan Gosling) joined by a handful of the unexpected (Michael Shannon, Rooney Mara, Jean Dujardin, Michael Fassbender).

One sure winner in the Oscar scene is movie fanatics in Aspen over the holidays. For the 20th year, Aspen Film is presenting its Academy Screenings, a gift-wrapped series of films considered Oscar contenders. The thinking behind the Academy Screenings is that there are numerous Academy members in Aspen around Christmastime (perhaps, but likely there are as many in Telluride, Park City and Sun Valley these days), and that they need to see the Oscar wannabes on a big screen (solid in theory, at least). But Aspen Film throws the doors of Harris Hall open to all, for a film feast unique in the world. (Yes, Hawaii has a similar festival, but the films are spread out over six weeks and the schedule is crowded with titles that will never be mentioned in the Oscar race. Plus, the skiing is a lot better in Aspen than on Maui.)

Aspen Film’s slate of 2012 Academy Screenings – 19 films to be screened between Dec. 21 and Jan. 1 at Harris Hall – is packed with movies getting the early Oscar buzz, including “The Artist”; Steven Spielberg’s “War Horse”; “The Descendants,” starring George Clooney; and Stephen Daldry’s “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.” Serious Oscar watchers should take note that last year’s Academy Screenings included “The King’s Speech,” “The Fighter” and “Black Swan” – which together took all the major Academy Awards.

Not only do the Academy Screenings give filmgoers a convenient, condensed way of charting the Oscar race, it even gives Aspenites an inside track on shaping the Academy Award run. Many of the films will be screened in Aspen before they open nationally, so local viewers can start posting and tweeting their reviews to get the Oscar campaigns rolling.

Here’s what to keep an eye on:

• “The Descendants” – George Clooney, who stars as a prominent Hawaiian landowner facing family difficulties, gets better with age. Director Alexander Payne has taken his sweet time with this project; his last feature film was 2004’s “Sideways.” And Payne has a way with getting Oscar-worthy performances from his actors.

• “The War Horse” – The last time Steven Spielberg went to war (not counting 2005’s sci-fi “War of the Worlds”), it was with 1998’s “Saving Private Ryan” (which inexplicably lost the Best Picture nod to “Shakespeare in Love”). This time, an animal is thrown into the mix; “The War Horse” is the story of Albert, a young soldier who goes to the trenches of World War I to save his pal Joey, a horse. The European cast is short on star power – Albert is played by Jeremy Irvine, and the most recognizable name is Emily Watson, who play’s Albert’s mum – but watch for Eddie Marsan, who was nothing short of brilliant in 2008’s “Happy-Go-Lucky.”

• “The Artist” – On paper, a longshot if ever there was one. But “The Artist,” starring Dujardin as a silent-era Hollywood star confronting the advent of talkies, is being touted as a legit contender. Before betting the mortgage on it, though: “The Artist” didn’t even win the Audience Award at Aspen Filmfest, where “50/50” took the Audience Award. (It wasn’t even the top French language movie at Filmfest; runner-up went to “The Women on the 6th Floor.”)

• “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” – Tom Hanks stars as a man who died in the 9/11 attacks, and may have left secret messages behind for his 11-year-old son. Adapted from the novel by Jonathan Safran Foer, the film is directed by Stephen Daldry (“The Hours,” “The Reader”) and features a cast of Sandra Bullock, Viola Davis, James Gandolfini and John Goodman.

• “The Iron Lady” – The safest bet of all – Meryl Streep will be nominated for her biopic portrayal of the iconic Margaret Thatcher. An interesting jump for director Phyllida Lloyd, whose last film was the musical “Mamma Mia!”

• “Young Adult” – Director Jason Reitman’s track record is spotless: three films, three winners (“Thank You for Smoking,” “Juno,” “Up in the Air”). He re-teams with “Juno” writer Diablo Cody for a story about a self-absorbed woman (Charlize Theron) who tries to hook up with a former boyfriend, now happily married.

• “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” – John Le Carre’s classic spy novel has Gary Oldman as the unretired George Smiley, attempting to root out a Soviet spy from inside British intelligence. Are Cold War battles still relevant?

• “My Week With Marilyn” – Michelle Williams plays Marilyn Monroe, butting heads with Sir Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh) on the set of “The Prince and the Showgirl.”

• “Shame” – German-born Michael Fassbender is getting raves for his portrayal of a troubled New Yorker in this psycho-sexual drama.

Worth seeing, Oscar potential notwithstanding: “Melancholia,” a sci-fi drama directed by Lars von Trier and starring Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg; “Like Crazy,” a romance of young love; “The Kid with a Bike,” by Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne; “Rampart,” an L.A. crime thriller with Steve Buscemi, Woody Harrelson and Anne Heche; and “Coriolanus,” a Shakespeare adaptation directed by Ralph Fiennes.

Rounding out the program: “Albert Nobbs,” starring Glenn Close as a woman disguised as a man in 19th century Ireland; “Pariah,” about a teenage girl in an African-American neighborhood in Brooklyn; “Undefeated,” a documentary of an underdog football team; the French language comedy “Le Havre”; and “Monsieur Lazhar,” a French-Canadian movie about a new teacher in an elementary school.

Tickets for Academy Screenings will go on sale Dec. 9 at the Wheeler Opera House. For complete details, go to