After spending the entire week trapped in the bowels of a smoke-filled, maskless, jam-packed Caesars Palace in Las Vegas for CinemaCon, and after sitting through the various studio presentations in search of possible clues to what might be in play for the 95th annual Academy Awards, I can say two of the names we are very likely to hear about might be two of the most unexpected: Tom Cruise and Harvey Weinstein. I am not hallucinating. I will get to both in a second, but first I have to say Oscar pundits don’t really travel to this annual exhibitors convention with any realistic expectations of seeing major awards contenders.
No, this is more to excite those theater owners and managers who crowd the Colosseum to see the likes of Dwayne Johnson or Keanu Reeves tout their next sequels and/or Marvel movies. The collective takeaway after four days of this thing is more, more, more of the “IP” (a favored phrase at CinemaCon) that serves as comfort food for theaters, and that includes more John Wick, more Jurassic World, more Aquaman, more Spider-Man, Doctor Strange, Thor, Black Panther, Fast & Furious and especially way, way more of Avatar, with four sequels and the first one ready to go in December as the short but impressive teaser drew excitement from the collected crowd.
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But potential Oscar discoveries? Well, not as easy to detect, but based on names involved and their own Academy history, we can offer a brief rundown.
So let’s start with Paramount and Top Gun: Maverick. The studio, after five release-date changes due to Covid, finally unveiled the whole thing Thursday. and it was a triumph, a 36 years-in-the-making sequel to a superstar-creating original for Cruise that not only is a Top Gun that tops the first one but does so in every way and proves to be perfection as an example of the lost art of what makes a big-scale Hollywood movie. In other words, exactly the kind of movie Oscar never will take seriously but should. I said the same thing about last year’s Spider-Man: No Way Home, but it was relegated to a single nomination for Visual Effects, and certainly was, like this one, the kind of movie that must be seen in the biggest screen around with a packed audience.
With Oscar voters increasingly used to their digital screening room and home viewing, hope for getting them to celebrate an example of blockbuster perfection like Top Gun: Maverick is probably a lost cause, but I say to Oscar voters: “Get over yourselves and open your eyes and heart to what this industry has always been about. The CinemaCon crowd was electrified by this, certainly ticket buyers will be, and you should be too.” This is no easy achievement, and though Cruise has been nominated for more Oscar-baity performances than his second time around as Maverick, I would say this is a true movie-star performance for the ages, perhaps his best yet. And one studio insider told me he thinks that as well. The 1986 original was nominated for four Oscars (Editing, Sound) and won for Best Song (“Take My Breath Away”). The new Lady Gaga song over end credits likely will bring her back to the Oscars, but this film deserves more, even if snobbish voters and pundits don’t want to give it that chance. In Vegas, it stole the show, and it likely will do the same thing in Cannes.
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Paramount also showed the first footage from Damien Chazelle’s much-awaited Hollywood movie Babylon, starring Brad Pitt (who also stars in Sony’s summer hopeful Bullet Train), and it looks like Oscar is written all over it. We already know how voters love movies about the movies, and the La La Land director seems to have the goods here for a perfectly timed December opening. One top studio executive told me, and I believe him, that this footage was just a peek, that the film itself delivers, firing on all cylinders. Can’t wait. Hope springs eternal.
As for Weinstein — who made his career by reshaping the way Oscars were campaigned and won, based on footage shown of Universal’s fall release She Said — he will back in a very bizarre way as the subject of a All the President’s Men-style story of the investigative reporting by The New York Times that brought him down. Putting women in the focus and centering on the Pulitzer Prize-winning work of Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey (played by Zoe Kazan and Carey Mulligan, respectively) this looks to have genuine awards potential. In fact, I would say that between Universal and its specialty division Focus Features (celebrating its 20th anniversary this year), there was lots of Oscar fodder, more than any other studio to be sure. Jordan Peele, whose Get Out won him Original Screenplay as well as directing and Best Picture nominations, has the intriguing Nope. We’ll see if it is in the same league, but the footage was impressive. I can imagine maybe some action for Billy Eichner’s first all-LGBTQ-cast romantic comedy, Bros, particularly in precursor awards shows that separate comedy, something that could give it a boost. Who knows? It looks fun, and certainly innovative.
Focus has a slew of possibilities, but James Gray’s Armageddon Time with Anthony Hopkins, Anne Hathaway and Jeremy Strong really feels like it has the goods and will be in Competition in Cannes to up the stakes. Todd Field’s (Little Children, In The Bedroom) first film in 16 years, Tar has Cate Blanchett as an orchestra conductor and looks intense, but the teaser told us nothing except don’t count Cate out ever. Past Oscar nominee Lesley Manville gets what looks like a charming turn in the light Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris, so that is something to look forward to for Manville fans. There was no mention of Steven Spielberg’s very personal The Fabelmans, but you can bet Uni will be the race with that one as well as the nascent season gets going.
Warner Bros, which picked up seven Oscars this year between Dune and, uh, Will Smith, looks to be back in the race big time with Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis, not only for stars Austin Butler and Tom Hanks but for dazzling crafts, as you might expect. This one is headed to Cannes as well before a summer release but certainly will be an early contender, grabbing a huge chunk of time at the Warners presentation. Olivia Wilde’s intriguing Don’t Worry Darling got my attention based on the footage for a film she says was inspired by the likes of Inception, The Truman Show and The Matrix, among others. It certainly is steamy. Sadly it got overwhelmed by coverage of what turned out to be a child-custody case involving ex Jason Sudeikis when someone managed to serve her with an envelope she opened on stage that turned out to be a summons. Weird moment, indeed, but I look forward to the film and hope it delivers.
Sony has a big bestseller adaptation in Where the Crawdads Sing from Reese Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine, but the trailer doesn’t scream Oscar. We’ll see this summer. Viola Davis looks like she is delivering another fierce turn in The Woman King, which she also produced so don’t count that Tri Star entry out at this early stage.
Disney didn’t show much other than big chunks of its summer films, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness and the very promising Pixar toon Lightyear, along with the aforementioned Avatar 2 teaser (can it match the 2009 original and land in the Best Picture race again?). But the studio did have an intriguing, if confusing, look at David O. Russell’s latest star-laden film Amsterdam, which is a period piece starring an unrecognizable Christian Bale, John David Washington, Margot Robbie, Robert De Niro, Rami Malek, Chris Rock and Taylor Swift, among others. Russell’s films are difficult to encapsulate in a trailer, and this one is no different, but coming from the filmmaker behind Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle and The Fighter, you can expect Disney to make an awards play for this 20th Century Studios film. Oscar magnet Searchlight was given lip service for its lineup with brief mentions and no footage, so we shall wait on its pics.
Lionsgate didn’t really have a lot that seem like instant contenders, but execs tell me they are very high on the next chapter of the Wonder franchise called White Bird, which stars Helen Mirren and a young cast. Looks good. There is also Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret, which comes from producer James L. Brooks and associates and is the work of his discovery Kelly Fremon Craig, who brought us the terrific, if overlooked, The Edge of Seventeen, which I loved.
Neon also got a prime slot, and its buzziest title out of CinemaCon was David Cronenberg’s upcoming Cannes Competition entry Crimes of the Future. which looked pretty stomach-churning judging by the footage. Although revered, Cronenberg never has been nominated personally for an Academy Award, and his films can be divisive, but this is a major filmmaker, so maybe this time will be different. Cannes certainly can help, and that is the next stop in the off-season early tour of movies we might be talking about come fall. Remember this year’s Best Picture winner, CODA, already had been seen, acclaimed and showered with prizes at Sundance well before this point in time last year. Not everything has to be released after Labor Day, folks.