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In recent years, there's been a big increase in the number of quality art-house films hitting theaters during the first half of the year. Last year, Winter's Bone and The Kids Are All Right carried their goodwill and relative box office success to Best Picture and Best Actress nominations. The year before, The Hurt Locker carried the same goodwill to a Best Picture win. And countless other films (Moon, Two Lovers, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, A Prophet) earned distinctions on year-end best lists despite early release dates.
In other words, December is no longer the only time an independent movie can succeed. Art-house cinema is a year-round enterprise, and in 2011, business has been booming. Here are some of the most respected indies of the year thus far, and their chances for Oscar recognition in 2012.
In January and February, art-house theaters are typically home to Oscar-eligible indies that were released the previous November and December. But Fox Searchlight found room in theaters this past February for this smart, sweet comedy starring Ed Helms, Anne Heche, and John C. Reilly. It wasn't hilarious or all that groundbreaking, but it's definitely worthwhile and will leave a smile on your face. Audiences seemed to agree; the film earned a solid $6.8 million during its run.
Oscar chances: None. Wrong genre, wrong stars, wrong time, wrong film.
My favorite film of the year so far, Abbas Kiarostami's Certified Copy is an art-house movie through and through. That was reflected in the film's performance (it earned just $1.3 million domestic, though it had a much smaller release than the other films on this list). The reviews, however, were stellar.
Oscar chances: Slight. If the expected Best Actress contenders fall by the wayside, Juliette Binoche has an outside chance at a nomination.
Director Thomas McCarthy had an early-year independent hit on his hands in 2008 with The Visitor. This one received even better reviews (94% to 89% on RottenTomatoes.com), and earned more cash (about $700,000 more.)
Oscar chances: Writing is a possibility, as is Paul GIammati for Best Actor.
Along with Win Win, this was one of the biggest Independent films of the year until May. With over $11 million to its name, it seems audiences were excited to see this reimagining of the Jane Austen novel. Or maybe they were just craving something that was well-reviewed (Jane Eyre rocks an 83% on Rotten Tomatoes).
Oscar chances: Maybe some technical love (costumes, art direction, etc.). And like Binoche, Mia Wasikowska could sneak into Best Actress if other later films fall.
Midnight in Paris
Woody Allen's best film in years, Midnight in Paris — without question — is the art house success story of the year. Having already made $34 million, I'd say it's fair to call it a crossover hit. But without any flashy performances, and considering the film's light subject matter, it's questionable whether it can hang on for the rest of the year.
Oscar chances: Writing is a virtual lock. Best Picture? Probably not, but perhaps.
The Tree of Life
Certainly the year's most puzzling film and maybe the most polarizing, The Tree of Life is everything we expected. It's intriguing audiences everywhere into forking over their hard-earned $10, and it's infuriating many of these viewers enough that they're walking out. With $8 million in the bank so far, the film is performing solidly, and the reviews are outstanding.
Oscar chances: In the technical categories, the film should perform well. As far as major categories go, Brad Pitt has a shot at Best Actor (or Best Supporting Actor, depending on where Fox Searchlight campaigns him). Best Picture and Best Director (Terrence Malick) can be considered outside possibilities.
Director Mike Millis' autobiographical story of a man dealing with his 75-year-old father's newfound homosexuality is the hot indie title right now. Audiences and critics alike are praising both Ewan McGregor and Christopher Plummer for their performances (to the tune of $2.5 million so far and an 83% on Rotten Tomatoes), as well as the film's delicate balance of romance and family drama.
Oscar chances: Good. Plummer is virtually a shoo-in for a Best Supporting Actor nomination, and he very well might be the early favorite to win.
That's just a sampling. I didn't even get into films like 13 Assassins, Meek's Cutoff, A Better Life or even delayed 2011 Best Foriegn Film nominees In a Better World and Incendies.
As for what to look forward to, there are some films that premiered at film festivals that are gearing up for release near award season such as We Need to Talk about Kevin, Melancholia, Martha Marcy May Marlene and Like Crazy. I guess the lesson is that no matter how bad it gets at the multiplex (Zookeeper, anyone?), at least there is exciting and challenging cinema to be found. You just need to step outside of your comfort zone a little.