Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Is "Fruitvale Station" This Year's First Serious Best Picture Nominee?

Left to right: Ariana Neal and Michael B. Jordan
After months of speculation and asking the question "Is this going to get nominated?," we have finally come across the first that very well may do just that. Director Ryan Coogler's Fruitvale Station has become one of the most talked about films of the year largely thanks to a successful run at Sundance back in January in which it won the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award in the Drama category. Since, it has only gotten more and more acclaim as it finally reaches a limited release this week. While it seems likely to get a nomination, does this film have what it takes to the Best Picture statue?

As a critic for a local website, I had the opportunity to go to Sundance, but unfortunately had other plans. Instead, I did the normal routine of reading press coverage. A handful of exciting films came out of it, and one of the most notable was Fruitvale Station, which was a big hit. In fact, the biggest reason that the film has stood out as a potential Best Picture nominee is that during the awards ceremony, the juror Tom Rothman took that moment to say "This will not be the last time that you guys walk up to the podium."

While many could perceive it as a hype machine, that has been one of the film's biggest fuels. But what is Fruitvale Station and what exactly makes it so special? Here is the trailer:

According to IMDb, the plot is:
"The true story of Oscar, a 22-year-old Bay Area resident, who crosses paths with friends, enemies, family, and strangers on the last day of 2008."
Right off the bat, it sounds like a shoe-in. While it has been awhile since films classified as a day in the life stories have stood a chance, there has been little to keep them from being nominated. In fact, with the sliding 5-10 slots, it has become easier to get into the field. If you look at period pieces from last year alone, there is a strong sense that contemporary cinema is starting to stand a chance. Silver Linings Playbook and Zero Dark Thirty reflect modern day looks at problems facing us. 

Of course, one of the bigger issues is that contemporary films don't quite receive the praise immediately that period pieces do. The past few Best Picture winners: Argo, The Artist, and The King's Speech, are all universal stories, but are also about times and places. Ones that many are comfortable with exploring without it feeling too personal. Go further back and there's Slumdog Millionaire, which for better or worse, remains a controversial win simply because many consider 2008 to feature the worst nominees in that decade. In fact, it lead to the 10 nominees field, potentially to avoid from having a lackluster selection.

To say the least, contemporary films aren't popular in the post 70's history of the Academy Awards. It has happened, but most of them have now become loathed for being dated and a little hackneyed. The biggest example is Crash, which is still considered one of the worst nominees in recent years (though I disagree as stated here), which attempted to deal with racism but ended up being accused of winning over the basis of "white guilt," or the predominantly Caucasian voters who feel bad for being seen as racist and white and use the win as an apology.

While I doubt that Fruitvale Station is going to be accused of "white guilt," I still feel like the themes make it possible to be seen that way. I know very little about the film other than what the promotional materials have given, but if this film is planning to be as great as assumed, it will probably deal with heavy issues involving race, the police, and morality in society. It could be totally blank for all I know, but according to review aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes, it currently holds 89%. While the wider release could subject it to a change, that is already boding well for this film.

It is hard however not to see this film taking the same path as last year's Beasts of the Southern Wild. It is ill-conceived to look at it from the standpoint that both are urban narratives, but that used to be a downfall. Along with "white guilt," the Academy used to not nominate as many urban films no matter how poignant their subject matter was. In the past few years, that has started to turn and if Beasts of the Southern Wild means anything, it means that films with an unknown cast and a first time director could go above and beyond. That is almost the same story here, with exception to the appearance of Academy Award-winner Octavia Spencer (Best Supporting Actress for The Help). 

It may seem niche, but provided that this film picks up traction and keeps people talking about it, it will make it to the finish line with at least a few nominations. I will admit that it is impossible to gauge all of the potential nominees at this point and that maybe early buzz could die before the bigger contenders show up. Still, if the film gets a Best Director nomination for Ryan Coogler, it will be the second year in a row that a film has achieved a first time director in that category (Beasts of the Southern Wild's Benh Zietlin). It would be almost too uncanny. 

There is really only one category that I feel it stands a chance in. Everyone who has seen the film has raved that Michael B. Jordan turns in a great performance. Even if the film itself doesn't live up to potential, Jordan almost seems to be assured as one of the first great performances of the year. If Quevenzhane Wallis can get a Best Actress nomination, provided it wasn't just to beat a gimmicky record, then Jordan can. I will justify everything once I actually see the film, but for now, he seems to be the biggest takeaway. 

It is hard to really judge Fruitvale Station when there is nothing out to compare it to. While I hold out vague hope that Leonardo diCaprio gets some love for The Great GatsbyJames Franco for Spring Breakers, or Matthew McConaughey for Mud, the reality is that these performances are too niche and in films that in terms of genre and quality, probably won't get respect. I will probably have to wait until September to get serious about the Best Actor field. However for now, I have strong faith that it will include Michael B. Jordan. Maybe there will be some surprise standouts for supporting fields, but for now, this period piece should at least be proud that it is one of the first true standouts for 2013's Academy Awards selections.

Will Fruitvale Station get into the Best Picture race? Is it following Beasts of the Southern Wild's traction maybe a little too on the nose? Who else stands a chance in the Best Actor race at this point?

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