Oscar Beat: What Are the Year’s Biggest Contenders?

     August 23, 2016

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It’s that time of year again, folks. Welcome back to Oscar Beat, where we’ve got every inch of the awards race covered from preliminary looks, contender commentaries, and of course plenty of predictions. The next Oscar season is about to get underway in proper fashion with the kick off of the Fall Film Festival season—a trifecta of the Venice Film Festival, Telluride Film Festival, and the Toronto International Film Festival where some of the year’s biggest Oscar contenders will be introduced. Almost all of the Best Picture winners of the past decade (or more) have screened at either Telluride and/or TIFF, and so within the next month, there’s a strong chance our eventual Best Picture winner will have already been seen and appraised by critics.

But before things get too nutty, I wanted to take a moment to offer an early look at the lay of the land. Where do things stand, and what films look like they’re poised to be the biggest contenders of the coming Oscar season? Of course there’s no way to know for sure, and studios have been known to throw a curveball or two with release date shuffling, but there’s already a pretty robust lineup of contenders to thumb through.

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Image via Amazon Studios

Two of the biggest potential contenders may actually have been kicking around since January. Sundance saw the debut of both Kenneth Lonergan’s masterful grief drama Manchester by the Sea, starring Casey Affleck, and Nate Parker’s explosive slavery drama Birth of a Nation. The latter was snatched up for a huge sum by Oscar veteran Fox Searchlight, but the studio is now facing serious backlash to the film stemming from the resurfacing of rape charges filed against Parker and the film’s co-writer Jean McGianni Celestin. Manchester, meanwhile, certainly boasts Oscar-worthy performances, direction, etc., but it’s Amazon’s first major foray into the awards season, so it’ll be interesting to see how the industry reacts to the streaming giant that snatched up distribution rights at Sundance just a year after they gave Netflix’s Beasts of No Nation the cold shoulder.


In terms of dramas, director Jeff Nichols’ (Mud) interracial marriage true story Loving enjoyed highly positive reviews following its Cannes debut, and could hit big on the festival circuit as it’s poised to play at TIFF. There’s also Fences, which sees Denzel Washington and Viola Davis reprising their Tony-winning performances from the Broadway stage play of the same name with Washington directing. That one has powerhouse producer Scott Rudin and the weight of Paramount behind its back, and could certainly be a strong player in the lead acting categories.

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Image via Focus Features

We’re also not lacking for films from iconic filmmakers. Academy favorite Clint Eastwood enters the awards fray once again with the true story drama Sully, starring the ever-likeable Tom Hanks, and Oscar-winner Ang Lee attempts to rewrite the language of cinema with his visually ambitious Iraq War drama Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. And while it hasn’t been given a release date just yet, Martin Scorsese’s passion project Silence—a religion-driven drama about 17th century Jesuit priests—is expected to drop sometime this fall. There’s also the Mel Gibson question, as the Braveheart filmmaker returns to the director’s chair for the first time in a decade with the pacifist WWII film Hacksaw Ridge, which boasts a “true story” premise and Andrew Garfield in the lead role. And while it’s been a while since director Robert Zemeckis has been in the Oscar hunt, his World War II thriller Allied has star-power to spare with Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard.

And let’s not forget about Ben Affleck. After scoring the Best Picture trophy for Argo, Affleck set up his next directorial project as the prohibition-era drama Live by Night, but kept pushing it back to work with David Fincher, play Batman, etc. Warner Bros. has shuffled the release date of this thing around a few times, initially eyeing an awards run for next year, but they finally settled on a mid-January date a la American Sniper, so one assumes an awards qualifying run at the end of December is in order. Will Affleck get into the Best Director fray?

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Image via Focus Features

The awards season isn’t simply relegated to dramas, however. Response to trailers for Denis Villeneuve’s sci-fi film Arrival have been phenomenal, and the director’s last film Sicario scored a few Oscar nods after picking up serious critical support on the fall film festival circuit. Arrival is making the same rounds, hitting Telluride and TIFF, so we’ll know what’s what soon enough. Then we have the next film from Whiplash director Damien Chazelle, a musical called La La Land starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. Initially slated for a summer release date, Summit pushed the film to December and set up a splashy Venice Film Festival debut signaling that the studio is feeling pretty confident about this one. And while J.A. Bayona’s disaster drama The Impossible scored a Best Actress nomination for Naomi Watts, his adaptation of the fantasy novel A Monster Calls, about a young boy who copes with his mother’s impending death by conversing with a giant monster, looks to be a tearjerker of the most intense sort.


There are also a number of other unknowns. Is The Help director Tate Taylor’s bestseller adaptation The Girl on the Train “the goods” like Gone Girl, or is it a mere commercial play? Will director Tom Ford’s long-awaited A Single Man follow-up Nocturnal Animals amass similarly stellar reviews? Could Shakespeare in Love director John Madden finally return to the Oscar hunt with his gun lobby drama Miss Sloane, led by Jessica Chastain?

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The Weinstein Company

We’re also not lacking for star-driven vehicles, as Will Smith leads the drama Collateral Beauty—which has the makings of a great film or the next Seven Pounds. And Oscar-nominated The Imitation Game director Morten Tyldum cashed in his chips with the sci-fi romance Passengers, led by “so-hot-right-now” performers Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence. We could also see Matthew McConaughey back in the Best Actor race with Gold, which marks Stephen Gaghan’s first film since 2005’s Syriana, for which he won the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar. And we can’t discount that Weinstein magic, as The Weinstein Company is betting big on the drama Lion, which stars Dev Patel as a man who finds his birth parents from whom he was separated as a child while surfing Google Earth.

This is by no means a comprehensive overview, and there’s sure to be a surprise breakout or two from the festivals, but as it stands now these look to be the most likely candidates to make the rounds this coming Oscar season. I’ll be at TIFF in early September and filing plenty of updates on films as I see them, so stay tuned folks. And buckle in—it’s gonna be a bumpy ride.

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Image via EuropaCorp


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Image via Focus Features

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Image via Lionsgate

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Image via 20th Century Fox


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