Here’s a Labor Day weekend shocker: Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” is an Oscar player. Oh, and it’s in the mix for a Best Picture nomination (no, it’s not a lock, it’s 2020 people). I know, this wasn’t the news you were expecting. He’s only directed two Best Picture nominees over the past decade, been nominated for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay (twice). But even with a spotlight on it harsher than Tom Hardy trying to emote through a Bane mask, it’s going to be in play for a number of reasons.
Before we discuss the film’s arctic merits, it’s important to recognize how it will be perceived in the industry. As of publication, the film is looking like it will perform up to Nolan blockbuster standards overseas, Canada, and as best as can be expected in a COVID ravaged American market. The Academy’s 10,000 members are not just made up of actors, writers and filmmakers, but producers and executives. For the time being, “Tenet” has helped the theatrical movie distribution business get back up and running. The other studios are rooting for it because it can get the moviegoing audience used to current protocols. That means there is going to be massive goodwill for Warner Bros. and “Tenet” even if there is another stay-at-home or wave of new infections (as expected) this Fall and Winter.
Full disclosure, Warner Bros. did not screen “Tenet” in Los Angeles. Private screenings are not allowed in the County of LA although we’ve heard some independent publicists and producers are ignoring that health mandate (hello, Wilshire Screening Room, we see you). U.S. media who have screened it so far have caught it in different states or during press screenings in Connecticut or Las Vegas earlier this week. This pundit trekked to San Diego to see it in an early afternoon screening on Friday with just four other patrons. Was it nerve-racking? Sure. Would I feel the same anxiety on a cross-country flight? Hell, yes. If a significantly larger amount of moviegoers were in the theater would I have left? You bet. Would a Drive-In option have been ideal? Absolutely. And, frankly, that’s going to remain my current go-to. The point of this article, however, is not to demonstrate that moviegoing is “safe” because, in a majority of Southern California, it is not. There is a massive risk. And, the fact that many older members of The Academy won’t chance that is something to keep in mind for all awards contenders during this extended Oscar season.
All that being said, “Tenet” is perhaps the most cinephile friendly film Nolan has made since “Memento” although you’d never know it from the reviews so far. Despite its large canvas, minor spy game constructs, and rewind effects, this picture feels less like a “studio” movie than anything he’s crafted since his breakout 20 years ago. Surprisingly, it actually might appeal to Academy members in his own branch who haven’t voted for him or his films in the past. If he doesn’t earn a Best Director nod, well, the competition turned out to be fiercer than expected in that category.
The film keeps you on your toes and while the future/past science isn’t always easy to keep track of, overall it’s a very smart screenplay. Even when you recognize where some of the pieces fall in place before the story reveals them. Nolan is a two-time Original Screenplay nominee. He’s absolutely in the mix again here. Especially considering how traditionally weak the Original Screenplay field can be. As for the rest of the cast and crew, some races are easier to gauge than others.
Five-time nominee Production Designer Nathan Crowley? Likely a sixth nomination. Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema, a nominee for “Dunkirk”? In the mix. Oscar, Grammy, and potential Emmy winning composer Ludwig Göransson? Possibly, we’re not sure the score is memorable enough to truly stand out. Editor Jennifer Lame? Well, she’s certainly due. She’s edited two other Best Picture nominees without any recognition so far. Sound and VFX? It’s a Nolan movie, of course!
As for the ensemble, Elizabeth Debicki arguably has the deepest performance (although Robert Pattinson teases wonderfully), but both actress categories are so competitive this year it feels like a reach. John David Washington could be a Golden Globe contender and, the less said about Kenneth Branagh, the better.
Now, I know what your thinking. It currently only has a 69 on Metacritic and a – gasp! – 74% on Rotten Tomatoes. Surely, that means something? It does and would mean a ton in any other year, but as we’ll constantly remind you, this is not like any other Oscar season. If “Tenet” helps usher back moviegoing across the world it’s going to mean something to many members of the Academy. And with few major studio players current left on the release schedule before Feb. 28 (although granted, things can change quickly), you simply cannot discount Nolan’s track record or the film’s appeal to Academy voters. And if it plays well on screener (our one major concern), that’s an even bigger bonus than in previous years, because that’s how a majority of members are going to make their decisions this season.
Of course, they could hate it. The Academy could also hate a ton of other movies and we could end up with five nominees for the first time since 2009. Both scenarios are highly unlikely though. Even with the most unlikely Oscar season on record already in bloom.