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Oscar’s dark horses could take the lead

Michelle Fordice | Wednesday, February 21, 2007

The Academy Awards are notorious for the inscrutability of their nomination process.

Somewhere between the 6,000 unnamed members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences receiving a ballot and a winner receiving a golden statuette, a list of nominees is formed and a winner chosen. But every year, there is a nomination that no one actually believes will win, no matter its cinematic worth – the dark horse.

Dark horse nominations are the movies and performances that, though excellent examples of filmmaking, don’t seem to quite fit the typecast of an Oscar contender, and are a long shot to win.

Of course, the official qualifications to be nominated are deceptively simple. Best Picture nominees simply have to fulfill such requirements as have a running time over 40 minutes and be released in a commercial theatre for paid admission. But there is an undefined standard which nominees are expected to fill to have a chance to win.

Dark horse candidates are fairly common. “Seabiscuit” for the 2003 Best Picture was one, as it stood up to movies such as “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” and “Mystic River.” So were “Babe” in 1995 – against “Apollo 13,” “The Postman (Il Postino),” and “Braveheart” – and “Quiz Show” in 1994 – against “Forrest Gump,” “The Shawshank Redemption” and “Pulp Fiction.”

None of the films were undeserving nominations, but they were unlikely to be Oscar winners. Generally, they didn’t have the “seriousness” or the chance for historical longevity associated with Oscar Best Pictures.

The likelihood of there being a non-standard best picture nominee was high this year because so many contenders were still left in the running right before the nominations were announced.

Everything from “Apocalypto” to “Bobby” to “Pan’s Labyrinth” was still considered a possibility. Even “Babel,” which is now considered to have a shot, was not a sure thing.

The odds increased when “Dream-girls” was left out of the best picture race, leaving an open spot behind it. Now, several of the other acclaimed nominees, such as “The Queen” and “The Departed,” have a shot at the top prize.

The dark horse candidate for best picture this year is “Little Miss Sunshine,” which has received considerable critical acclaim, gathering four Oscar nominations and two Golden Globe nods. It has gained popular support, managing to rank in the top three weekly box office winners, despite being an independent film with a relatively low $8 million budget.

Still, it does not fit the typical Oscar persona.

While “Little Miss Sunshine” has dramatic elements, it is considered comedic satire, a genre that has never fared well at the Academy Awards. It is also the first feature film of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, so it cannot be carried by director prestige. Despite all of its merit, “Little Miss Sunshine” will probably never shed its film-festival roots.

Another dark horse for this year’s Academy Awards is Ryan Gosling for best actor. Gosling was nominated for his portrayal of gifted high school teacher and cocaine addict Dan Dunne in “Half Nelson.”

Since the film itself has not received much attention – in fact, it is Gosling’s performance that has mostly put it on the radar – it will not carry him. Neither will Gosling’s acting history; he is most known for “The Notebook” and “Remember the Titans,” neither of which are Oscar-type movies.

Finally, up against names like Peter O’Toole, Forest Whitaker, and even Leonardo DiCaprio and Will Smith, Gosling does not have much of a chance. Despite his strong performance, Gosling is not actually seen as a contender this year.

As the 79th Academy Awards draw near, there aren’t as many sure bets as in years past. Maybe this is the year that one of the dark horses will take the lead.