“The Descendants” — writer-director Alexander Payne’s finely observed portrait of a family coping with grief — opens tomorrow. And if Oscar prognosticators can be believed, the film may be one of the first indisputable Best Picture front-runners to arrive in theaters this season.
Will the movie get an Academy Award nomination as one of the best of the year? And will George Clooney receive his third Best Actor nomination for his performance? Let’s assess its chances based on hard data (what other critics and bloggers are saying) and mathematical formulas (my opinion after seeing the film).
Best Picture chances
Film critics have almost universally embraced Payne’s latest, which, like all of Payne’s work, swings effortlessly from wry comedy to painful truths. The experts at Gold Derby have it at the top of the pack as a likely Best Picture nominee, and IndieWire is expecting a nomination as well. The only thing working against it is the subject matter, which is profoundly sad — the wife of Clooney’s character is in a coma for the duration of the movie — even though the tone of the movie is hardly relentlessly depressing. Which, as IndieWire also points out, might make it a tough sell as Best Picture winner. But as a nominee, it seems like a lock.
Likelihood of a nomination: Very high.
George Clooney: Best Actor chances
Of his two falls films, this one and “The Ides of March,” “The Descendants” is far likelier to bring him Oscar attention. It’s a more nuanced role, he’s in nearly ever frame of the film and, in his frumpy button-downs and fatherly glasses, he tackles the part with zero trace of movie star vanity. (Watching him, you will be reminded that he is, indeed, 50, a fact often forgotten while viewing all those red carpet photos of him with Stacy Keibler.) Plus, he’s simply very good in it — in one particular scene, he delivers the most emotionally vulnerable performance I can recall seeing him give onscreen.
Likelihood of a nomination: Very, very high. As in, it’s practically done already.
Shailene Woodley: Best Supporting Actress chances
There are several strong supporting performances in the film, including turns from Beau Bridges, Judy Greer and even (believe it or not) Matthew Lillard. But it’s Woodley, who you may recognize from “The Secret Life of the American Teenager,” who leaves the most lasting impression. As Clooney’s older semi-wild, wounded and curse word-spewing daughter, she does something that a lot of young actors are not able to do: she behaves like a genuine, believable adolescent. Both IndieWire and Rope of Silicon have her in their nomination mix, deservedly so.
Likelihood of a nomination: High.
Alexander Payne: Best Director chances
This category is a bit harder to call. Given Payne’s track record — he was nominated in this category for his last directorial effort, “Sideways” — and the fact that he handles this material with a deftness and attention to detail that merits a nomination, it would seem like the chances are good. he’s certainly in the mix on every prediction list I’ve seen. It’s just a question of whether some other filmmaker, or the aforementioned sadness of the material, bumps him out of contention.
Likelihood of a nomination: Moderately high.