Oscar Moment: “The Town”

18 08 2010

Since posting my September preview, comments have poured in speculating about Ben Affleck’s latest directorial venture, “The Town.”  Most people have compared it to his first film, “Gone Baby Gone.”  But is that a good thing?

“Gone Baby Gone” has a 94% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, but the only traction it gained during awards season was for Amy Ryan’s powerful supporting performance.  There are a few assorted nods to Ben Affleck’s skill on his first film, but nothing distinguishing him in a category with every other movie.  It’s worth noting that while Ryan was a critics’ association favorite, she didn’t win the Globe, SAG, or Oscar.

So are we just looking at one impressive performance from “The Town” to keep it in contention?  It has a nice cast including Golden Globe winner Jon Hamm, Golden Globe nominee Rebecca Hall, Oscar nominees Jeremy Renner and Pete Postlethwhaite, Oscar winner Chris Cooper, and Affleck himself (oh, and Blake Lively for looks).

I’d say if there were a potentially nomination-worthy performance from the bunch, it would probably be from either Hamm for crossing over from the small screen well or Renner for another good work.  If the Academy really loves him and wants to make him a marquee name, another nomination would surely help.  Nominations in consecutive years aren’t uncommon and really telling of Academy tastes.  Over the past decade, the only people to have pulled it off are Penelope Cruz, Meryl Streep, Cate Blanchett, Judi Dench, Renee Zellweger, Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Johnny Depp.  Only the latter doesn’t have a nice golden statue resting on their mantle.

But I think the biggest question about “The Town” is the one no one can answer as of yet because no one has seen it.  Is it a bona fide Best Picture contender?

Really, the trailer is a muddled mess and just watching it did not sell me on this being one of the ten best movies of the year.  We are resting on the laurels of the people involved to call it an awards prospect.  Would I be writing this if the movie were directed by Antoine Fuqua and starred Matthew Morrison from “Glee?”

Here are my reservations about calling this a contender for the big prize.  We’ve seen studios roll out Oscar hopefuls in September, seeing if they gain enough footing in the awards race.  They reserve the big guns for November and December, and any movie that disappoints in those release slots dooms the studio.  So these mixed-bag candidates often find a home in early fall.  Usually, the movies are either action or drama with the starpower on (and perhaps off) the screen to generate buzz provided that the movie is any good.

These movies generally don’t fare well.  Here are those movies, listed for your convenience by year:

2009

  • Steven Soderbergh’s “The Informant” with Matt Damon received fairly warm reviews.  It only musters two Golden Globe nominations. (released by Warner Bros.)

2008

  • Ridley Scott’s “Body of Lies” starring Oscar winner Russell Crowe and nominee Leonardo DiCaprio receives middling reviews, clearly disappointing the high expectations associated with such names. (released by Warner Bros.)
  • “Flash of Genius” starring Greg Kinnear makes virtually no money, receives average reviews, and can’t even get a campaign push. (released by Universal)
  • Spike Lee’s “Miracle at St. Anna” receives terrible reviews and no awards come its way.  Maybe it was the 160 minute runtime… (released by Touchstone)

2007

  • “American Gangster,” released at the very beginning of November, has huge expectations with Ridley Scott as director and Oscar winners Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe pitted against each other.  Box office was great, reviews were pretty good, but the buzz just didn’t sustain.  Despite receiving nominations for Best Picture and Best Actor and the Golden Globes, the only attention it received after that was for Ruby Dee, who won the SAG and was nominated for an Oscar. (released by Universal)
  • “Rendition,” an ensemble drama about the Middle East starring Oscar winners Meryl Streep, Alan Arkin, and Reese Witherspoon as well as nominee Jake Gylenhaal, can’t even clear $10 million at the box office.  And with mixed reviews, that kind of cash doesn’t fly. (released by New Line)
  • “We Own the Night” with Mark Wahlberg and Oscar nominee Joaquin Phoenix doesn’t ignite the box office or excite the critics.  It did not have an awards season. (released by Sony)
  • “The Kingdom,” a thriller with Jamie Foxx and Jennifer Garner set in Saudi Arabia, didn’t perform well with either critics or audiences.  No awards followed.  (released by Universal)
  • “3:10 to Yuma,” a remake of a popular 1950s Western with Oscar winner Russell Crowe and Christian Bale, does very well with critics and average with audiences.  It received a surprise Best Ensemble nod from the SAG and was discussed as a potential surprise Best Picture nominee.  Ultimately, it only wound up with two technical nominations. (released by Lionsgate)

In tone, “The Town” appears to resemble “Body of Lies,” “The Kingdom,” and “American Gangster” more than any others listed above.  Only the latter of those had any success in awards season.  Affleck’s latest and “The American,” George Clooney’s latest that I’ll discuss in next week’s column, are the two September wild cards.

“The Departed,” a cop drama like “The Town,” won Best Picture in 2006, and Warner Bros. wants to remind us of that.  With a name like Martin Scorsese behind the movie, though, all buzz is instantly legitimate.  There is no speculation like there is for a Ben Affleck movie.

So, folks, are we looking at a fall flop?  Or a contender?

BEST BETS FOR NOMINATIONS: Best Supporting Actor (Jeremy Renner)

OTHER POSSIBLE NOMINATIONS: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Jon Hamm), Best Adapted Screenplay