It’s time to talk about Oscars again! Kidding. I’m personally enjoying taking a nice (brief) sabbatical from thinking too seriously about awards fare, but before we get too deep into 2015 I wanted to highlight a few films that could be part of the upcoming Oscar season. We’re already seeing big studios like The Weinstein Company and Fox Searchlight stake out awards-friendly release dates for their Oscar fodder, and while it’s way to early to speak with any degree of certainty about these films’ chances, we can make a few way-too-early assumptions about some of the possibilities.
Without further ado, here are 10 films that—based on pedigree, awards-friendly subject matter, or plain old intuition—could be among the serious contenders in the 2016 Oscar race.
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
Possible Nominations: Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Original Score
While on the surface Me and Earl and the Dying Girl may not seem like prime Oscar material, we almost have to consider director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s adaptation of Jesse Andrews’ book because it—like last year’s Whiplash—was the breakout film of this year’s Sundance Film Festival. In fact, it won both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at the January festival, a feat that was also accomplished by Whiplash, which subsequently went on to win three Oscars. Me and Earl is an unabashedly sentimental film, though it refuses to delve too deeply into the saccharine. The story tells of a high schooler obsessed with the Criterion Collection who is forced to strike up a friendship with a female classmate who’s just been diagnosed with cancer.
It’s sad, funny, and extremely heartfelt, and if Fox Searchlight’s gamble of releasing it in the summer pays off, it could be “the little indie that could” of the 2016 race. Or it could go the way of Fruitvale Station—a previous Sundance favorite—and garner critical acclaim, yet fail to catch any awards steam due to a too-early release date.
Possible Nominations: Picture, Director, Actor, Supporting Actor, Adapted Screenplay, Editing
Oscar-winning director? Check. Oscar-winning screenwriter? Check. Aggressive, Oscar-winning producer? Check. Based on a true story? Check. Universal’s biopic Steve Jobs has all the hallmarks of an awards friendly prestige drama, but it also has an edge that separates it from the pack. Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay for the drama is really a performance showcase, with Michael Fassbender forced to carry most of the film on his own with a structure comprised of only three big scenes. If executed well by director Danny Boyle, that could be the thing that really takes the film over the top and solidifies it as an Oscar heavyweight. The film certainly has everyone’s interest piqued (its profile was undeniably raised in the midst of the unfortunate Sony leak), and I imagine this is gonna be one of the most highly anticipated films of the fall.
Bridge of Spies
Possible Nominations: Picture, Director, Actor, Original Screenplay, Score, Editing, Cinematography, Production Design
When Steven Spielberg makes a film, people pay attention. Joel and Ethan Coen scripted this Cold War spy thriller, and Bridge of Spies also features a reunion between the three-time Oscar winning director and Academy favorite Tom Hanks—though pedigree does not always equal success, as we saw with last year’s Unbroken (also scripted by the Coen Brothers). Spielberg has said his appeal in directing this film was to finally make a spy movie, so it’s possible this is more of a commercial effort than a prestige picture, but when Spielberg is on he’s on, so it’s worth consideration regardless.
The central premise (based on a true story, obviously) is Oscar-friendly as well, with the film telling the tale of a deal brokered between the CIA and Russia in the midst of the Cold War to return a downed U.S. pilot to American soil. While Spielberg came close to another win with Lincoln, could Bridge of Spies finally bring his Best Director trophy tally to three?
Possible Nominations: Picture, Director, Actress, Supporting Actress, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Original Score, Editing, Production Design
I saw director John Crowley’s (Boy A) immigrant drama Brooklyn at Sundance this year and came out thinking, “Well I think I’ve found The Weinstein Company’s big Oscar play for the year.” While I was only off slightly (Fox Searchlight nabbed the rights to distribute), the fact remains that this is an impeccably crafted, emotionally affecting drama that feels like it’s right up the Academy’s alley. Saoirse Ronan stars as a young girl who leaves Ireland for New York City in the 1950s, where she finds herself straddling two different worlds and, ultimately, two different lives. It’s a sweet, beautiful, and oftentimes belly laugh-inducing film that boasts assured direction, a whip-smart screenplay by Nick Hornby, and wonderful performances all around.
Fox Searchlight has become a dominating force at the Academy Awards as of late, distributing (and running the awards campaign for) the past two Best Picture winners in a row. With the weight of the studio behind Brooklyn, I’d consider it a serious candidate for a number of categories.
The Danish Girl
Possible Nominations: Picture, Director, Actor, Supporting Actress, Cinematography, Production Design, Editing
After his film The King’s Speech won a handful of Oscars including Best Picture, Director, and Actor, filmmaker Tom Hooper opted for something rather ambitious for his follow-up—maybe a little too ambitious. The musical Les Miserables was not the Oscar juggernaut many were expecting it to be, and while Hooper took some time in settling on his next project, he’s returned to a character-centric drama that could follow in The King’s Speech’s footsteps. The Danish Girl tells the story of one of the world’s first transgender transformations, and Hooper enlisted recent Best Actor winner Eddie Redmayne to lead the picture.
So we’ve got an Oscar winning director, an Oscar winning lead actor, a timely premise, and a true story. This is another film that checks off a litany of boxes for the “Oscar Juggernaut Prerequisite” worksheet, but then again so did Les Miserables. Regardless, this is definitely one to keep an eye on.
Possible Nominations: Picture, Director, Actress, Actor, Supporting Actress, Supporting Actor, Original Screenplay, Costume Design
Speaking of Oscar pedigree, it’s now impossible to consider a new David O. Russell film without also talking about awards chances. The filmmaker’s last movie, American Hustle, netted 10 Oscar nominations, and while it ultimately walked away empty handed, it’s clear the Academy is a fan of the guy. Moreover, he gets great performances out of his actors. His next film tells the true story behind the woman who invented the Miracle Mop, and he’s reuniting with actress Jennifer Lawrence for the third time in a row. She won an Oscar for her first Russell film and came very close on the second, so she boosts the film’s awards chances as well.
Joy also reunites Russell with Robert De Niro and new Academy darling Bradley Cooper (can he make it four Oscar nominations in a row?), and if the film’s tone is in line with his new style, I imagine we’ve got another Oscar heavyweight on our hands. Or this could finally be the film in which we get the I Heart Huckabees David O. Russell back. We know very little about the movie at the moment, except for the fact that it’s probably going to be right in the heart of the 2016 Oscar race.
Possible Nominations: Picture, Director, Actor, Supporting Actor, Cinematography, Costume Design, Adapted Screenplay
We don’t have to wait long to see the next film from Best Director winner Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, and his 1800s frontier-set revenge drama The Revenant has a prestigious lead actor to boot: Leonardo DiCaprio. Inarritu finally found Oscar success with his first foray into comedy, Birdman, but this film looks to see him returning to the bleak dramas for which he’s most known. Or has Birdman awoken something new in Inarritu? Are we in for something surprising instead? Either way, this one’s hard to ignore.
In addition to DiCaprio we’ve got Tom Hardy and Domhnall Gleeson, and Inarritu has been shooting the film almost entirely during Magic Hour in remote Calgary (including breaks for Birdman campaign duties, this movie will have been in production for 8 months before it wraps). Oh, and did I mention Emmanuel Lubezki—who just won the Best Cinematography Oscar twice in a row for Gravity and Birdman—is once again acting as director of photography? If nothing else, this one’s already a frontrunner in the Cinematography category.
The Hateful Eight
Possible Nominations: Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor, Original Screenplay, Cinematography
Quentin Tarantino’s first foray into the Western genre won him his first Oscar since Pulp Fiction, so his second Western—not to mention his follow-up to Best Picture nominee Django Unchained—is most certainly in the awards mix. The film’s central conceit of a group of stagecoach travelers/strangers stranded in a bar certainly lends itself to the kind of performance-centric, script-highlighting film that becomes a favorite of Academy members, and that’s before we consider that this is the new film from one of the few truly unique voices in American cinema. Moreover, Tarantino shot the whole thing in Cinemascope, and it’s getting a massive theatrical push when it opens.
Tarantino has found considerable favor during awards season with his past two films, so will The Hateful Eight keep the streak alive? We’ll find out at year’s end.
The Light Between Oceans
Possible Nominations: Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Supporting Actress, Adapted Screenplay
Writer/director Derek Cianfrance’s last film, The Place Beyond the Pines, seemed like it could be an Oscar heavyweight if played the right way, but for whatever reason it opened in spring 2013 and wasn’t able to parlay its critical success into a serious awards campaign. His next film, though, seems right in the Academy’s wheelhouse. The Light Between Oceans features a formidable triumvirate of Michael Fassbender, Rachel Weisz, and Alicia Vikander, and posits a moral dilemma in which a couple raise a baby they rescue from an adrift rowboat as their own.
The film boasts Harry Potter and Gravity’s David Heyman as its producer, so it certainly has smart people behind the scenes. It’s possible the film could simply be destined for an “arthouse favorite” moniker and nothing more, but given the Academy’s willingness to acknowledge such films in recent years, The Light Between Oceans seems like it could very possibly be a serious awards contender.
Possible Nominations: Picture, Director, Actress, Supporting Actress, Adapted Screenplay
This one’s a bit more of a question mark than others, but no matter how the film fares overall, Oscar winner Cate Blanchett is likely to be back in the Best Actress race. Far From Heaven and I’m Not There. writer/director Todd Haynes steers this 1950s set story of a same-sex love affair between a department store clerk and an older, married woman, with a stellar ensemble that includes Rooney Mara, Kyle Chandler, and Sarah Paulson. Many are expecting Carol to make its debut at the Cannes Film Festival so we might have a better idea of the pic’s awards prospects sooner rather than later. Regardless of its Oscar chances, it’s undoubtedly a most anticipated film for many.
Obviously there are a great deal of films coming out this year, not all of which are on our radar yet. In addition to those mentioned above, we could also see Ron Howard back in the Oscar hunt with his Chris Hemsworth-fronted period drama In the Heart of the Sea, or veteran filmmaker Robert Zemeckis may return to the awards fray with his “based-on-a-true-story” high-wire drama The Walk, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Speaking of which, Gordon-Levitt leads Oliver Stone’s Snowden, and while it’s been some time since Stone was in the Oscar game, the timeliness of this film could give it an edge. We’ve also got Johnny Depp’s first drama in years to consider, the untitled Whitey Bulger biopic directed by Crazy Heart helmer Scott Cooper. And since Skyfall was considered by many to be a Best Picture candidate, we shouldn’t count Spectre out. James Ponsoldt‘s wonderful The End of the Tour certainly has a shot as well coming off a strong showing at Sundance, though its summer release date puts it in tricky territory.
Again, this is entirely too early to be making any serious predictions about how the 2016 Oscar race will end up, and if the Academy takes the Best Picture category back down to 5 nominees, things will be even more competitive. But this preview shows that there’s no shortage of prestige pictures to look forward to this year. And with Cannes on the horizon, the awards season is gonna heat back up before you know it. For now, though, I think I’ll go back into hibernation mode. Until next time, folks.