NYFF: Will folk-infused ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ be music to Oscar’s ears?

Will directors Joel and Ethan Coen re-enter the Oscar race this year with “Inside Llewyn Davis“? They’re already four-time winners, including three for 2007 Best Picture winner “No Country for Old Men.” “Llewyn” premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Grand Prize of the Jury, and it’s an official selection at this year’s New York Film Festival. However, it’s not the kind of film typically embraced by the Oscars.

Following the title character (Oscar Isaac) as he struggles to stand out in New York City’s crowded folk music scene in the 1960s, the film is offbeat, with touches of melancholy as well as absurd humor. But unlike typical Oscar-winners, it’s small in scale and doesn’t tell a heroic story, and it doesn’t have the gravitas or literary cachet of the Coens’ Oscar-winning “No Country.”

But the Coens are so popular with the Academy that it could sneak in anyway. “A Serious Man” was also an unconventional choice for Oscar voters, but it was nevertheless nominated for Best Picture in 2009, undoubtedly helped by the expansion of the category to 10 nominees that year; otherwise the film, whose only other nomination was for Best Original Screenplay, would likely not have made the cut.

Leading star Oscar Isaac may face an uphill battle in the crowded Best Actor race, though he may be able to pick up momentum at the Golden Globes, where the film is likely to compete in the Musical/Comedy races. There he might face Ben Stiller (“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty“) and Joaquin Phoenix (“Her“), but would avoid a head-to-head contest against top Oscar contenders like Tom Hanks (“Captain Phillips“), Robert Redford (“All is Lost“), and Chiwetel Ejiofor (“12 Years a Slave“).

Carey Mulligan and John Goodman are the most prominent supporting actors, playing an embittered folk singer and a drug-addled traveling companion, respectively, but their screentime is limited, and neither character offers the kind of emotional fireworks Oscar voters tend to favor. In one scene, Mulligan sings the solemn folk song “500 Miles” (popularized by Peter, Paul and Mary in 1962) with co-stars Justin Timberlake and Stark Sands, but it’s not the kind of tear-streaked show-stopper that won Oscars for Anne Hathaway and Jennifer Hudson.

Bruno Delbonnel could be a contender for his moody cinematography, which creates a lonely, desaturated New York City to match the film’s protagonist. He’s been nominated three times before, most recently for “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince,” the only film from that franchise to earn a bid in that category.

But even if “Llewyn Davis” doesn’t succeed at the Oscars, it could get a second chance at the Grammys. Like “O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” it features music produced by T-Bone Burnett, who won Album of the Year from the Recording Academy for the “O Brother” soundtrack after the film was mostly snubbed by the Motion Picture Academy. Also contributing to the soundtrack, which may be released as two albums, is Marcus Mumford, husband of actress Mulligan and lead singer of Mumford and Sons, who won Album of the Year in 2012 for their sophomore album “Babel.”

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