As the Oscar derby reaches its Winslet-duelling, Australia-gutting heights, there are only a handful of films that can survive. We've had a look at the current conventional wisdom, and here are three rising Oscar contenders that could stand to have a few holes poked in them. (Some spoilers for the synopsis-averse may ensue.)
Frost/Nixon: Nearly every list of the final five contenders for Best Picture this year includes Frost/Nixon, director Ron Howard's adaptation of the acclaimed play about British journalist David Frost (Michael Sheen), who goes one-on-one with Richard Nixon (Frank Langella) in a televised interview. Sounds appropriately Oscar bait-y, no? So why did we feel we were watching a gussied-up Mighty Ducks movie, with Sheen as Emilio Estevez and Langella as the bad, haughty coach of the opposing team? Two reasons. The first is that nearly every non-interview scene in the film strikes the exact same beat: Frost's team of kooky researchers and producers are the underdogs! They'll never stand a chance against Nixon! Why, they'll never have careers again after, probably, because they are so damn underdoggy! This is hard to swallow each time it occurs (which is always), since this movie would, y'know, not exist if Frost boffed the interview. The other Ducks-like demerit? Howard's relentless hand-holding. Even when the film finally reaches the interview portion (which is admittedly more interesting but also drawn from an actual, real-life transcript), it's constantly interrupted by cutaways to other people watching the interview, muttering "Bad question" when Frost tosses a softball or "Nailed it!" when he gets Nixon squirming. Just so you're aware of what you're supposed to be thinking!
The Visitor: This year's independent filmscape left few survivors yet The Visitor was an inexplicable word-of-mouth hit, perhaps because producers wisely changed its title from How Whitey Got His Groove Back. The film begins with stiff college professor Richard Jenkins attempting to play piano, but he simply can't summon enough inner soul to imbue the notes with any passion. Oh, but he will, reader, he will! Soon enough he meets some kindly immigrants who have little better to do than to teach this boring white man about their vibrant culture, which includes playing an exotic hand drum called the djembe (so much better than some stuffy piano). Also, when the hunky immigrant is thrown into a detention center, Jenkins meets the man's beautiful mother, who finds his terminal blandness irresistible. Thank God for the movies, otherwise white milquetoasts with little personality would never have anything (or anyone) to do! We loved Jenkins in Six Feet Under and Flirting with Disaster and, well, damn near everything he's ever been in. However, even our affections have limits.
I've Loved You So Long: In I've Loved You So Long, Kristin Scott Thomas does three things that Oscar voters will eat up: she speaks in a foreign language (French), she de-glams herself, and she suffers nobly over the film's entire running time. In that way, Scott Thomas's performance recalls Best Actress winner Marion Cotillard's from last year, and another similarity between I've Loved You So Long and Cotillard's La Vie En Rose is that (excepting the films' lead performances) they're not actually that good. The Loved plot — in which Scott Thomas plays a woman just released from prison after committing murder — includes more than a few hard-to-swallow scenes and plot devices, including a third act reveal of Scott Thomas's motivation to commit the crime that is both ludicrous (why she would have kept the reason for the murder secret for so long makes no sense) and ludicrously revealed (a long-ago written note just happens to fall on the floor in front of Scott Thomas's sister, explaining everything!). Each scene exists only to make Scott Thomas suffer quietly (in a way that would make Lars Von Trier tumescent) as characters constantly veer close to discovering her secret, culminating in an absurd dinner party sequence where a stranger ostentatiously bullies Scott Thomas into revealing all for close to ten minutes while family and friends feebly protest, but are unable to actually do anything because This is What the Plot Demands. For a similar storyline but a more honest take devoid of grinding plot gears, check out this summer's little-seen British import, Boy A. Oscar will never see it, but you should.