Thursday, November 7, 2013

Is "The Book Thief" Able to Return World War II Movies Back Into the Best Picture Race?

Sophie Nelisse
Once in a great while, there is a movie that falls under the Oscar Buzz radar that didn't seem to stand a chance at any major nominations. Maybe it is because it was outside the realm of the Oscar bias and didn't have too many major stars. Maybe it lacked acclaim. In the past month, director Brian Percival's The Book Thief came to my attention and slowly it began to make me perplexed and interested. Before seeing a trailer in front of Captain Phillips, I had no idea that the film existed. However, the more interesting question going forth from here is whether or not it can manage to put World War II back into the race.

It has been a strange pattern over the past few years, but World War II narratives have begun to dry up in terms of Oscar potential. While The Monuments Men looked to reverse that until a schedule shift, it is a strange dilemma when considering the Academy Awards' history with the war. Even in the general sense, films such as Zero Dark Thirty and War Horse seemed like outside chances to win and the only one since 2000 to have done so is The Hurt Locker. But still, World War II once was the greatest Academy Award genre of them all, covering psychological themes and stories of hope.

My theory is that in the past few years, the Academy has begun to focus more attention on Civil Rights films. While it could largely be thanked to feeling of acceptance by Barrack Obama's presidency, it remains a perplexing theme that is much like a lot of moments in the Academy's past. As much as they have enjoyed spectacle, they have also enjoyed pieces about social acceptance and unity. Films like Gentleman's Agreement, Gandhi, and Crash all strove to preach tolerance among the community. It is debatable on how well those films held up, but it does feel like the Academy is attempting to become more modern by focusing on themes more central to modern American history. That is why 12 Years A Slave, The Butler, and hopefully Fruitvale Station will all show up strong in the Best Picture race.

What makes The Book Thief look interesting may be that it is one of the first serious World War II films to come out in recent years. It is a story that at very least feels tonally intriguing and tells a story that may be ripe with emotional content. Even if it doesn't look to have as much emotional impact as The Pianist, it does seem to have a certain similarity in accessibility that made War Horse and Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close nominees in the first place. It tells a familiar story from a different perspective.

Here's the trailer:

Looks pretty good. While my initial speculation is to suggest that almost every category's race has already been too established, I do feel like this could be one of the year's dark horses. It seemed to come out of nowhere and with very little promotion. With World War II stories not very common these days, it could just get nominated by its sheer existence. The only argument is that Percival is not an established movie director and has mainly worked on Downton Abby episodes. It may give him some experience, but it is probably the only big hurdle in this film being more than just sentimental.

Before diving into the main dissection, one of the biggest excitements to come from The Book Thief is that it does feature an original score by John Williams. While I recently decried his nomination for Lincoln, it is hard to really disrespect a composer so legendary based on one lackluster project. Not being overly familiar with the music at hand yet, I do feel like Williams could bring something intriguing to the World War II setting much like he did with Schindler's List. Even War Horse's score had plenty of memorable, noteworthy moments. For all I know, the enthusiasm could be bust and it is just another lackluster score, but I hold enthusiasm for Williams nonetheless. 

In fact, the bias could already be playing into things. When consulting statistics website Gold Derby, The Book Thief places #4 with odds of 10:1 behind Saving Mr. Banks (Thomas Newman, odds of 15:2), 12 Years a Slave (Hans Zimmer, odds of 12:5), and Gravity (Stephen Price, odds of 2:1). While I consider Gravity's score to be an apt nominee, I do feel it is too high. The only one that I have heard is 12 Years a Slave. For those that have read my review, you will understand why I think this is an egregious and terrible decision. In irony, Gold Derby has Zimmer again at #5 with the lackluster Rush score with odds of 14:1. However, it is a relief to see Williams turning in another potentially great piece of work. 

To continue, I do not see the film standing much of a chance in any other category. In the Best Picture race, it currently is at #18 with odds of 100:1. With the right amount of positive feedback, this can change, though things are starting to solidify as we move through November. In fact, the only category that it will probably have a sure chance at competing properly is Best Adapted Screenplay. It currently sits at #8 with odds of 100:1. With 12 Years a Slave, The Wolf of Wall Street, and Before Midnight topping that list, I do feel like it will be impossible for it to make the cut. It will have to probably piggyback off of Williams for any Oscar attention.

Even though I am looking forward to seeing the film, it is in the questionable zone of either being a dark horse or not even on the radar. As it stands, it currently sits on critics aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes with a rating of 67% (subject to change). This isn't the lowest that a Best Picture nominee has been in recent  years (Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close currently has a 47%), which gives it some edge. However, with heavyweights coming out very shortly, I do feel like The Book Thief hasn't established itself well enough to be taken seriously in the race. Maybe with a word of mouth buzz things will change, but not likely.

Of course I just believe that the Academy is moving away from World War II films and starting to tackle more modern culture. It is a move that is interesting, even if that means the nominees could become more divisive. Very few contemporary Best Picture winners have been given respect in the annuls of history (see: Ordinary People, Slumdog Millionaire), but it is important to notice diversity in cinema. That is where Civil Rights and World War II genres clash and while the former is probably usurping everything, I do believe that it is more because the Academy wants to recognize stories of unity that are more relative to now. That may unfortunately be The Book Thief's downfall.

Do you think that The Book Thief is going to be a dark horse contender? Will John Williams snag a nomination based on quality or legacy? Is World War II films starting to lose their muster?

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