Jon Stewart’s ‘Rosewater’ deserves more serious Oscars buzz

Rosewater” was one of the year’s most anticipated films — for its backstory as much as for its content. Adapted from the memoir by journalist Maziar Bahari, it tells the tale of how Bahari, on assignment for Newsweek, covered the Iranian election of 2009, appeared in a satirical segment on “The Daily Show,” and was subsequently arrested for espionage in the Muslim state. Jon Stewart was so affected by the event that he took the summer off from “The Daily Show” in 2013 to direct the film adaptation, which he also wrote. But after it made the rounds on the festival circuit – Telluride, Toronto, and London – its awards buzz seemed to fade. Why?

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The reduced Oscars buzz lowered my expectations when I saw the film, so I was surprised by how accomplished it is, and how awards-friendly. It’s an ambitious project for any first-time filmmaker, let alone one with as demanding a day job as Stewart’s. That’s not just because it addresses challenging subject matter – political divisions in the Middle East, and the region’s relationship with the West – but because the nature of Bahari’s imprisonment requires Stewart to generate dramatic tension with few characters and limited physical space.

The academy usually can’t get enough of films based on politically or historically relevant true stories, and the film is led by Gael Garcia Bernal in an emotive performance. Bernal has no previous Oscar nominations, but he has been on the academy’s radar before thanks to roles in several nominated films, like “Amores Perros,” “Y Tu Mama Tambien,” “The Motorcycle Diaries,” “Babel,” and “No.”

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However, “Rosewater” is a 100/1 underdog in every category according to our racetrack odds, which combine the forecasts of our Experts, Editors, Top 24 Users (the best scorers predicting last year’s Oscar nominations), and All Users. What do you think of the film’s chances? Click here to make your predictions in all top Oscar categories, or use our drag-and-drop menu below to get started. The prize for best predictions is $1,000.

Tonally, “Rosewater” is not unlike recent Best Picture-winner “Argo,” and not just because both tell stories about Iran. Both have urgent geopolitical themes captured in entertaining, accessible styles, and both draw out the absurd humor in their life-or-death struggles – consider a scene in which Bahari, after weeks of isolation and interrogations, makes up a story about erotic massage parlors in New Jersey.

The film has received positive reviews. As of this writing it has 72% freshness on Rotten Tomatoes and a 68 score on MetaCritic; those are relatively soft numbers for a film trying to win Best Picture, but they’re not far off from other films in the derby this year, like “The Theory of Everything” (71 on MetaCritic, 79% on Rotten Tomatoes) and “Interstellar” (74 on MetaCritic, 74% on Rotten Tomatoes).

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And Stewart is an industry favorite, the patron saint of Hollywood liberals with a combined 20 Emmys for “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report.” He has even hosted the Oscars – twice (2005, 2007). Though perhaps there is resistance to Stewart precisely because of his origins: He may be late-night TV royalty, but has he earned a place among the filmmaking elite? Ironically, “Daily Show” alum Steve Carell is far likelier to earn an Oscar bid this year, for playing a murderous billionaire in “Foxcatcher.”

“Rosewater” is distributed by Open Road Films, which is presided over by CEO Tom Ortenberg, who ran Lionsgate back when “Crash” won Best Picture of 2005. Open Road has two dark-horse candidates this year: this film as well as “Nightcrawler.” Do you think Jon Stewart’s directorial debut is an awards contender, or is it really out of the running? Click here to make your predictions or use our drag-and-drop menu below to make your predictions.

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