'Dallas Buyers Club,' 'Book Thief' angle for the 'passion vote'

When a film isn't a slam-dunk best picture nominee, backers and awards-season consultants like to talk about the "passion vote." If enough academy members adore a movie and put it at the No. 1 or 2 position on their ballot, then, thanks to the academy's preferential system of vote counting, it could well become a nominee.

That happened in 2011 with Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life" as well as "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close," the poorly reviewed, 9/11-focused family drama that had just enough voters dabbing their eyes for it to make the cut.

This weekend, two would-be Oscar best picture contenders -- the indie true-life drama "Dallas Buyers Club" and "The Book Thief," an adaptation of a popular young adult novel -- announced their bids for the passion vote with screenings at the academy's 1,000-seat Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills.

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"Dallas Buyers Club," which opened Friday to good business in nine theaters, stars Matthew McConaughey as Ron Woodroof, a hell-raising, homophobic Texas good old boy who, after his 1986 HIV diagnosis, set up a ring to sell non-FDA-approved drugs to other AIDS patients. The movie has won strong reviews, particularly as a showcase for McConaughey and Jared Leto, who plays Woodroof's troubled transgender business partner.

Although the actors seem secure in the lead and supporting actor categories, the movie itself appears to be more of a question mark. About 400 people turned out Saturday night for its academy screening, applauding generously, particularly when McConaughey was introduced for a post-screening Q&A. (Leto did not attend.)

"McConaughey is great, and I think the actors branch is really going to get behind him this year," one academy member (yes, an actor) said afterward, noting that she thought McConaughey probably just missed the cut last year for his supporting turn as a sleazy strip club owner in Steven Soderbergh's "Magic Mike."

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"The movie's fine too, but it's not perfect," she added. "The story felt kind of choppy sometimes, veering from one tone to another. The performances held my attention though."

"The Book Thief" screened Sunday night to fewer people (about 300) and about the same level of enthusiasm as "Buyers Club." The film follows a young girl (Sophie Nelisse) living in Nazi Germany with her foster parents (Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson) and the young fugitive Jewish man (Ben Schnetzer) they're hiding. As in the book, Death provides the narration and has an active hand in the proceedings. 

The film's historical setting, subject matter and tone put it right in the wheelhouse of the same older academy members who voted for that other recent, sentimental button-pusher, "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close." And though attendance was rather sparse, Rush and the 13-year-old Nelisse, there for the Q&A, were warmly received.

Fox 2000 believes "The Book Thief" can be a dark-horse Oscar contender, banking on attracting many of the same voters who loved "Life of Pi," the studio's best picture nominee last year. (Trailers and one-sheet posters for "Book Thief" make the connection plain, trumpeting, "From the studio that brought you 'Life of Pi.'").

The crucial difference: Ang Lee directed 'Pi.' Brian Percival, best-known for his work on the TV series "Downton Abbey," directed "The Book Thief." That's a huge gap, in terms of perception and execution and, yes, the passion it will elicit.


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