Oscar Beat: Previewing This Year’s Heavy Hitters, Dark Horses, and Unknowns

     August 28, 2015

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It’s only August, but the Oscar season will officially get underway next Wednesday when the Venice Film Festival begins, as critics will begin to weigh in on some of this fall’s most promising films. That continues with the Telluride Film Festival on Friday, a more intimate fest that works hand-in-hand with the big and flashy Toronto Film Festival the following week. Between these three events, a good deal of this year’s biggest contenders will be showcased, dissected, and pored over by the time September is through, and while that certainly doesn’t mean the season is over, it does mean that very soon we’ll have a much clearer outline of how this year’s awards race may play out.

So, before all of this gets underway, I wanted to take a moment to provide a brief overview of some of the contenders we could be seeing a lot of in the coming months. Let’s begin with the obvious ones.

The Heavy Hitters

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Image via Focus Features


These are the films that, whether it be pedigree, premise, or a combination of the two, just scream “Oscar”. We start, appropriately enough, with The Danish Girl. Pedigree-wise this one is stacked: Best Director winner Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech) in the director’s chair, and Best Actor winner Eddie Redmayne in the starring role as a groundbreaking transgender pioneer. Hooper tried maybe too hard for that second Oscar with Les Miserables, but Danish Girl not only has a previous winner in a transformative performance, it’s also got incredibly timely subject matter, a buzzworthy co-star in Alicia Vikander, and, most importantly, it’s based on a true story. A serious contender for sure, and we’ll know whether it has the goods within two weeks after it plays Venice, TIFF, and possibly Telluride.

Speaking of true stories and transformative performances, we also have the Johnny Depp-starrer Black Mass. Filmmaker Scott Cooper directed Jeff Bridges to a Best Actor win, so could this be a return to form for Depp that puts him back in the Oscar mix? There’s also, of course, Steve Jobs, which gives Michael Fassbender the floor in a stageplay-like structure that should do well to showcase his performance. And director Danny Boyle and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin are previous winners too, so the pedigree is strong with this one.

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Image via DreamWorks/Fox 2000

We’ve also got a new Steven Spielberg joint on the horizon with Bridge of Spies. This one’s based on a lesser-known true story and it’s unclear if the spy thriller is “dramatic” enough for the Academy, but when Spielberg and Hanks work together you can bet they’ll take interest (The Terminal aside…). The filmmaker is also working from a Coen Brothers script, though the duo’s work on Unbroken turned out to be a false signifier of that film’s “heavy hitter” status, so best not to take too much stock in that aspect of Bridge of Spies just yet.

David O. Russell is entering the Oscar fray once again as well with Joy, which began as biopic of the woman who invented the Miracle Mop, but which Russell now says evolved into a mostly fictional story inspired by the women in his life. He’s got good luck charm Jennifer Lawrence front and center alongside Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle alums Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro, and if the popularity of those two films with the Academy (nominations-wise at least—American Hustle walked away empty handed after landing 10 nods) was any indication, Joy will be a serious contender in multiple categories.


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Image via 20th Century Fox

Speaking of Academy favorites, Birdman went over huge last year, and director Alejandro G. Iñàrrittu returns with perennial bridesmaid Leonardo DiCaprio as his lead in The Revenant, a bleak survival/revenge story set in the 19th century American frontier. You can already set your calendar to backlash somewhere down the line on account of the harsh conditions on set and disgruntled crew members, but for now it remains a serious contender, and the trailer alone makes a strong case for Emmanuel Lubezki to three-peat the Best Cinematography category.

There’s also Todd Haynes’ relationship drama Carol, which went over brilliantly at Cannes and has already announced Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara as performers to watch in the acting categories, as well as Paolo Sorrentino’s drama Youth, which also received a fairly positive response at Cannes. And Quentin Tarantino’s last two movies landed Best Picture nominations, so it stands to reason that the contained character-driven Western The Hateful Eight is a serious possibility as well.

The Dark Horses

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Image via Lionsgate

These are the films that may be underestimated in the beginning of the season, but could become “ones to watch” as the nominations loom closer. I’m talking about movies like Sicario, which got a positive response at Cannes and has buzzworthy director Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners) at the helm, Emily Blunt in the lead, and a timely premise involving drug cartels on the U.S./Mexico border. There’s also Crimson Peak. Sure, a horror film hasn’t won Best Picture since Silence of the Lambs, but Guillermo del Toro has Jessica Chastain, Mia Wasikowska, and Tom Hiddleston leading his first adult drama in the English language, so there’s a formidable team driving what could be a pleasantly surprising burst of genre into the awards conversation.


There’s also Brooklyn, which premiered at Sundance in January (I saw it and it’s excellent) and is building steam with every passing day. It has a slot at TIFF and could gain more traction there, and it features an incredibly moving lead performance by Saoirse Ronan as an Irish immigrant in 1950s New York torn between two lives. I also feel like Creed is being a bit underestimated. How quick we forget that Rocky took home Best Picture, and this spinoff/sequel/reboot has Fruitvale Station director Ryan Coogler at the helm and the enormously talented Michael B. Jordan in the lead. The trailer suggests Coogler is going for something more hard-hitting than a simple sports movie, and if he delivers, Creed could be a serious contender. And though it looks like a simple feel-good dramedy, the Bradley Cooper-fronted Burnt has the Weinstein Company at its back. Remember Philomena?

Finally, I don’t want to alarm anyone this early, but if Star Wars and Avatar can get Best Picture nominations, Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a possibility—assuming it’s good. J.J. Abrams doesn’t have experience with the Academy and voters may not be inclined to recognize such blatant commercialism, but I’m not counting The Force Awakens out of the conversation just yet.

The Unknowns

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Image via Universal

And lastly, the big fat question marks. Is Angelina Jolie’s marital drama By the Sea another overestimation like Unbroken, or will her character-driven “art film” co-starring Brad Pitt strike a nerve with voters? It has the somewhat cursed opening night slot at AFI Fest, previously held by such wannabe contenders as J. Edger, Hitchcock, and Saving Mr. Banks, but it’s also a very different film from Unbroken. And then there’s the satirical political comedy Our Brand Is Crisis, which has the unpredictable David Gordon Green at the helm but Sandra Bullock and Billy Bob Thornton leading the cast.

Could Ron Howard be back in awards form with In the Heart of the Sea? His last collaboration with Chris Hemsworth, Rush, was disappointingly underrated and didn’t make much noise with the Academy, but Warner Bros. pushed Heart of the Sea’s release from this past March to November, so the studio must at least think they’ve got something. We also have Snowden, which ticks the “true story” and “timely subject matter” boxes but has Oliver Stone at the helm, who hasn’t been much of an Oscar player for a while now. And is Concussion, the drama about the doctor who made the first discovery of football-related brain trauma in an NFL player, a surprise in wait? It’ll surely make noise, with the NFL already readying an opposition campaign, but Will Smith’s last couple of dramatic efforts, Seven Pounds and The Pursuit of Happyness, didn’t fare too well.


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Image via Open Road Films

Skyfall was in serious consideration for Best Picture a couple of years ago, so it stands to reason Spectre is at least one to keep in mind going forward. And Spotlight has incredibly fascinating true-story subject matter going for it (Boston Globe staffers uncovering Catholic Church sex abuse) and a stellar ensemble (Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams), but despite writer/director Tom McCarthy’s beloved films The Station Agent, The Visitor, and Win Win, his last directorial effort was the critically derided The Cobbler so there’s some minor cause for pause here. And Suffragette has prestige, timely subject matter, and a solid cast, but it’s another case of “could go either way” with regards to whether it has the goods.

There’s also a few performance-showcasing biopics like Trumbo with Bryan Cranston and I Saw the Light with Tom Hiddleston, but it remains to be seen if these are actor-only contenders. And are The Martian and The Walk awards-friendly spectacles a la Gravity from directors Ridley Scott and Robert Zemeckis, respectively, or are they more commercial thrill rides that the Academy will gloss over? A question mark indeed.

So, as far as a brief overview of the season to come, that about covers it. I’m personally hoping for some surprises in lieu of standard Oscar fare running rampant over the season, and there are a couple of contenders from earlier in the year that could shake things up a tad, but there are some interesting prospects on the horizon to be sure. The time for guessing sight-unseen is nearly over though, so hold on to your butts, folks. Oscar season’s here.

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Image via 20th Century Fox


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