[Editor's Note: Oscar Prospects is your weekly analysis of an awards contender and how it's likely to fare come Oscar nomination morning. The column is comprehensive, so beware of spoilers.]
It's getting on that time when it's nearly impossible to keep up with an Oscar hopeful's precursor tally, as trophies and nominations steadily roll in from a dizzying slew of acronymic awards bodies. Hastily kicked off by the New York Film Critics Circle (NYFCC), precursor season is most certainly in full swing, with the BFCA, AFI, SAG, LAFCA (Los Angeles), BSFC (Boston), VFCS (Vegas), TFCA (Toronto), SLFC (St. Louis), SFFCC (San Francisco), and many more having released their picks for the best in 2011 cinema. Amid the frenzy, Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris has been resting in a rather safe zone, failing to come close to the top spots so dominated by The Artist, The Descendants, and Hugo, but sitting pretty when it comes to Top 10s and grouped citations. The culture-vulture comedy just snagged a Best Picture nod from the Phoenix Film Critics Society, but, much more importantly, it's landed on AFI's Top 10, been named a Critic's Choice nominee for Best Picture, and, just this morning, counted among the five SAG nominees for Best Ensemble (it competes against The Artist, The Descendants, The Help, and Bridesmaids). The steady inclusion assures that no one has forgotten about this swoony May release, and it affirms what so many already knew: Midnight in Paris is one of your Best Picture locks.
Allen hasn't had such a rousing critical success since 1994's Bullets Over Broadway, a film that went on to pick up seven nominations and one win, for Supporting Actress Dianne Weist. Moreover, the prolific 76-year-old has never seen a movie yield such hefty box-office returns, as Midnight finishes the year a global, unprecedented Allen triumph, its $55 million haul trampling the $40 million record previously held by Hannah and Her Sisters. Allen's latest is one of the year's better examples of an arty, critical hit with proven crossover appeal, its glistening nostalgia and CliffsNotes takes on the 20th century's top creative minds making it at once irresistible and accessible. It's a film superbly designed to make you feel smarter while you smile, even if its many iconic titans are merely sketches played for laughs. Famously prone to cynicism, Allen finds a delightful way to soften for this picture, championing artistic mentorship and showing a greater openness to the ardor of dreamers. At the start of the season, it was certainly looking like Allen's warm efforts were going to make him a sure thing in the Best Director top five, rounding out a list that was likely to include other legends like Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese. But while Spielberg has stayed strong and Scorsese has drastically advanced, Allen has started to fall behind, with groups like the BFCA handing his slot to Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close director (and Oscar favorite) Stephen Daldry.
Where Allen is sure to perform well is in the Best Original Screenplay category, where he's been nominated a total of 14 times, more than any other writer in Oscar history. His last screenplay nomination was for 2005's Match Point, a cold thriller that wasn't nearly as well received as Midnight. Deftly taking viewers on a guided tour through a mishmashed bygone era, and proving he hasn't lost his talent for juggling multiple characters, Allen is one of the year's few screenwriters to just about have an Oscar nod in the bag, standing in the company of The Artist's Michel Hazanavicius; The Descendants's Alexander Payne, Nat Faxton, and Jim Rash; and Moneyball's Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin. If not for The Artist's probable Best Picture sweep, Allen, the first out of the gate this year with a romantic look back at the popular art of yore, could easily take this trophy.
Other Oscar shots for Midnight in Paris are few, each of them with varying degrees of improbability. On the technical end, there's a dark-horse chance that the cinematography by Darius Khondji and Johanne Debas could get noticed, ditto the art direction by Anne Seibel, but with so many showy, spectacular titles like The Tree of Life and Hugo to contend with, each scenario seems as much a lost cause as Gil (Owen Wilson) and Inez's (Rachel McAdams) Midnight marriage. In a wild turn of events, relatively unknown actor Corey Stoll, who gave such entertaining, melancholic life to Ernest Hemingway, could ride his Indie Spirit nod to a Supporting Actor nomination, unseating one of the many veterans vying for a place in the crowded category. It's a situation only slightly more conceivable than a Supporting Actress bid for Marion Cotillard, whose turn as Gil's time-warp love interest has helped to further bolster one of the finest post-Best-Actress-victory careers in recent memory. Ultimately, though Midnight in Paris is looking like a modest two-race nominee, with plenty of support but not enough head-over-heels passion. If only the Academy were made up of Gils.
Surest bets: Best Picture; Best Original Screenplay.
Possibilities: Best Director, Woody Allen; Best Supporting Actor, Corey Stoll; Best Supporting Actress, Marion Cotillard; Best Cinematography; Best Art Direction.
Shouldn't be Overlooked: Best Supporting Actor, Adrien Brody.