In a little more than a month, the National Board of Review, the National Society of Film Critics and the Los Angeles and New York Film Critics Associations all begin revealing their lineups of the best of 2010. But sometimes when swinging for an Oscar home-run, a movie can hit a foul ball. For every Wall Street, unfortunately there's Wall Street II; for each Silence of the Lambs, there's Lions for Lambs; for every Seven Samurai, there's Nine, the Musical.
During October through December, Colin Firth, Gwyneth Paltrow and Meryl Streep suit up for an awards season that seems to stretch into extra innings each year and includes a lineup of VIP players. But then there's Hilary Swank. Even her average movies (Amelia, Freedom Writers) deserve attention. And when she's in sync with a great script and top-notch cast, she is Oscar bait. At 36, Swank has a 100 percent Oscar batting average. Two nominations, two wins: Boys Don't Cry, Million Dollar Baby. Considering that her performance in Conviction is as good as anything she's done to date, Swank ought to pick out a particularly nice dress to wear on Sunday, Feb. 27, 2011, when the golden statues are handed out.
Conviction is this year's entry in the "this story is too good to be true" sweepstakes, but it is indeed the real-life story of Betty Anne Waters, an unemployed high-school dropout, who earns her GED, bachelor's and master's degrees, and 18 years later, graduates from law school, all in an effort to exonerate her brother of his murder conviction. The story is a crackling legal drama and a study of unconditional love between a brother (Sam Rockwell) and sister (Swank). Rockwell (Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Moon) is wonderful as Kenneth Waters, a screw-up who is increasingly difficult to defend. Yet Betty Anne endures, in spite of her crumbling marriage and doubting family. The always lovely Minnie Driver plays Abra Rice, Betty Anne's classmate, legal colleague and best friend.
Conviction also stars Melissa Leo (Frozen River) as the policewoman who arrests Kenny for murder and Juliette Lewis as a town drunk who offers key testimony that sends Kenny away for life. Peter Gallagher portrays legal eagle Barry Scheck, who created the Innocence Project, a nonprofit organization devoted to overturning wrongful convictions.
The dense screenplay was penned by Pamela Gray (A Walk on the Moon, Music of the Heart) and, in possibly the film's biggest surprise, is directed by actor Tony Goldwyn, who is best known as the bad guy in Ghost and who is currently starring in the Broadway production of Promises, Promises. Goldwyn nurtured Conviction for nine years, working on the first draft of the screenplay, waiting for the ideal cast to become available and finally dragging the movie across home plate when studio financing dried up.
At the world premiere of Conviction at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, the audience choked back tears while applauding cast and crew. But when Swank, Rockwell and Goldwyn pointed to the real-life Betty Anne Waters, who had tucked herself into the crowd, applause evolved into cheers. Now, that's a pretty good Oscar campaign.