Ahoy, Oscar Beat readers. Long time no see. It’s been a few weeks since our last entry, and this year’s awards race remains a mysterious beast. There’s still no clear “frontrunner” when to comes to Best Picture, although there are a couple of finalists vying for that spot. But studios are in the midst of sending out awards screeners in full force, which means the critics groups will be weighing in in just a matter of weeks. Of course, critics don’t vote for Oscars, and more and more lately there seems to arise a “critics choice” for Best Picture and an “Academy choice”, but the various precursor awards do help to raise the profiles of certain films, while others may fall by the wayside.
So as we head into the Thanksgiving holiday, now seems like a good time to take a snapshot of the Best Picture race as it stands now. I’ve broken it up into a few different categories with my current (ie. not final) predictions for this year’s Best Picture nominees at the bottom. Let’s get started.
The Safe Bets
There’s no such thing as a “sure thing”, but at this point I’d be pretty shocked if Spotlight, Room, and The Martian didn’t make the cut for Best Picture. If you can call anything a “frontrunner” at the moment it’s Tom McCarthy’s searing Catholic Church sex scandal drama Spotlight, which is a meticulously paced, tremendously crafted journalism procedural. The picture has picked up rave after rave ever since its debuted on the festival circuit, and I imagine it’ll top many voters’ lists when the Academy starts collecting ballots.
Room is another critical favorite, and one that kind of snuck up on folks. It’s a contained piece of work, showcasing a pair of phenomenal performances in Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay as a mother and son held in captivity, but it landed the coveted audience prize at the Toronto International Film Festival, which almost always results in a Best Picture nomination. So I’d count Room in.
And then there’s The Martian, which appears to be this year’s “commercial” nominee. Ridley Scott hasn’t been in the awards race in a long time, and though Gladiator took home the big prize, Scott was passed over for Best Director (a fact he was not thrilled about). But The Martian has earned Scott some of the best reviews of the career, and it’s an out and out crowdpleaser, ratcheting up the box office chart and still going strong nearly two months after release. The Martian is not only a favorite to land a Best Picture nomination, it has the potential to actually go all the way for the win.
The Likely to Succeeds
Here’s where things get a bit trickier. There are a number of films that are somewhat “waiting in the wings”, looking for that extra push, that late-season surge, or surprise windfall to land themselves in the coveted Best Picture category. A month ago, Steve Jobs was a “safe bet”, but the film’s abysmal box office performance and Universal’s apparent embarrassment (they drastically pulled the movie from wide release after just two weeks) have folks second guessing its Oscar chances. It remains one of the better reviewed films of the year, and the Academy’s largest voting body—the actors—love Aaron Sorkin, so I’m still pretty confident in its chances even if it’s slightly less of a sure thing.
Inside Out is another film that stands a solid chance of landing a Best Picture nomination. 2009’s Up and 2010’s Toy Story 3 previously netted Pixar Best Picture nominations, and Inside Out is similarly one of the best-reviewed films of the year and also hails from the same director as Up, Pete Docter. If anything’s working against it it’s that Charlie Kafuman’s R-rated, stop-motion animated Anomalisa has emerged as another impeccably received animated film. While Anomalisa doesn’t have much of a shot at landing in the Best Picture category, it could potentially siphon votes away from Inside Out from folks who don’t want to put two animated films on their list, despite the fact that this is very dumb reasoning. Regardless, I still think Inside Out gets in.
Speaking of critical darlings, John Crowley’s outstanding immigrant story Brooklyn is doing swimmingly in limited release, and it feels like the kind of film that will play incredibly well with Oscar voters. Given that it only just hit theaters it’s still a tad early to call it, but Brooklyn is a serious contender in the Best Picture race to be sure. There’s also Bridge of Spies, which may not have made a big splash in the pop culture realm, but is showing strong legs at the box office and is another kind of film that’s right up the Academy’s alley. Plus, it’s Steven Spielberg. Even War Horse got a Best Picture nomination, so you’d do well to hold a slot for Bridge of Spies.
The Bubble Contenders
Then we have a tier of films that really could go either way. Tom Hooper landed Best Director and Best Picture wins for The King’s Speech, and even though Les Miserables’ response was decidedly more mixed, it still nabbed a Best Picture slot. The Danish Girl played to solid if muted responses at the Venice and Toronto International Film Festivals this fall, leaving many to wonder if Hooper may not pull the Best Picture hat trick after all. The Danish Girl is far from a bad film, but it is a very quiet, very patient one. It’s incredibly sensitive with its material, which doesn’t make for the biggest of “splashes”, but I have an instinct it’ll find a late surge once Academy voters get a closer look, especially when it comes to Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander’s performances.
Beasts of No Nation was a notable film for many reasons. It’s not only Cary Fukunaga’s highly anticipated directorial follow-up to True Detective, but it’s Netflix’s first original film and first Oscar play. Reviews have been kind, but it’s a very difficult film to watch and is slightly overlong. If voters take the time to actually watch the movie it has a shot at landing in the Best Picture field, but it’s very much an “up in the air” play at the moment.
Todd Haynes’ romantic drama Carol is also certainly of the year’s critical darlings, and while it’s had a robust life on the festival circuit, it remains to be seen how Oscar voters respond to the pic about a love affair between a married middle-aged woman and a young department store clerk. Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara may turn out to be the film’s best shots at nominations, or it could be a bona fide Best Picture play. Again, could go either way.
Another critical hit was Denis Villeneuve’s intense drug war thriller Sicario, which is a brilliant exercise in blending thoughtful subtext with incredibly compelling text. The heat on it has cooled a tad since its release, but if Lionsgate can keep it fresh in voters’ minds, I think it stands a well-deserved chance of landing in the field.
The Question Marks
Can Mad Max: Fury Road be a Best Picture contender? What about Star Wars: The Force Awakens? These are some of the year’s biggest “question marks” when it comes to the awards race, although Star Wars doesn’t seem too interested in playing the Oscar game—Disney is holding the picture back from screening for critics groups, taking it out of consideration for the first wave of awards and Top 10 lists at the beginning of December. Mad Max, meanwhile, faces an uphill battle as a genre picture. These types of films haven’t fared too well with Oscar in years past, though I’ll have more on Mad Max’s chances in a separate Oscar Beat column soon.
There’s also Warner Bros.’ Rocky reboot/sequel Creed, which is enjoying some really strong early word. If the film is a box office hit over the Thanksgiving holiday, folks would do well to keep an eye on it. Warner Bros. also has Ron Howard’s sea-set adventure drama In the Heart of the Sea, although they’ve been playing their cards a bit strangely with that one—no festivals, no long-lead screenings—so it may not be an “Oscar” kind of film.
Speaking of which, Universal is seriously pushing for box office hit Straight Outta Compton, and there’s support within the community for the NWA biopic to land some awards notice. Could we be looking at Ice Cube, Best Picture nominee in the near future?
There are also plenty of other fantastic films that, if given the right amount of highlighting, could become players. Academy voters may feel inclined to acknowledge the deeply intimate and emotionally devastating 45 Years, or one of the best biopics in recent memory with Love & Mercy. The housing crisis drama 99 Homes is certainly deserving of recognition, and Me and Earl and the Dying Girl remains one of the most moving films of the year. There’s only room for so many, yet the wealth of notable filmmaking in 2015 is imposing.
And we haven’t even seen all the contenders yet. Top of the list is The Revenant, director Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s follow-up to last year’s Oscar winner Birdman. The behind-the-scenes stories are verging on myth at this point, but no one’s doubting the dedication of Iñárritu, Leonardo DiCaprio, or his cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who capture the entire film using natural light. If The Revenant is good, it’s a juggernaut to watch out for. If it’s not, the goodwill of Iñárritu and DiCaprio could possibly even carry the film to a Best Picture nomination anyway.
Another pedigree-heavy release is Joy, which is much less assured than The Revenant. David O. Russell has come close three times now to nabbing that Oscar glory, inching ever closer with 2013’s American Hustle, which netted a ton of nominations and zero wins. This time he’s behind a star vehicle for Jennifer Lawrence with a stable of frequent collaborators at his side, but the movie now has a number of editors working to refine it in the post-production process, so I’m less inclined to call this one this early.
And then there’s Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, a Western that’s equal parts performance showcase and visual spectacle. Shot in 70mm, the contained picture takes place mostly within the confines of a single room as a diverse cast spouts off Tarantino’s signature dialogue and plots one another’s murders. Django Unchained was a massive commercial and critical hit for Tarantino, landing him a second Best Original Screenplay Oscar, so expectations are high for his second Western. The guy doesn’t make bad movies, so I’d say it’s pretty safe to assume Hateful Eight will land a Best Picture nomination.
Finally, Step Brothers and Anchorman director Adam McKay makes his drama debut with The Big Short, an ensemble piece that tackles the financial crisis in a unique manner. McKay’s film is bolstered by a staggeringly good-looking cast that includes Ryan Gosling, Christian Bale, Steve Carell, and Brad Pitt. This one is screening very soon at AFI Fest so we’ll know shortly whether it’s a serious contender or not, but for now it’s one to keep an eye on.
So, again, where do things stand now? If I were to take a snapshot of the race at this particular moment, keeping in mind that there will be many ebbs and flows between now and nominations day, my Best Picture predictions would look something like this:
- Bridge of Spies
- The Hateful Eight
- Inside Out
- The Martian
- The Revenant
- Steve Jobs
So, there you have it. Things will become much more clear once all the films have been screened, but for now that’s my best educated guess. Look for much more on this year’s awards race soon in another edition of Oscar Beat.