As you might have noticed, the 2011/2012 awards season is finally over: the Oscars were on Sunday night, "The Artist" was the big winner, Meryl Streep finally got her third statuette, and "Hugo" basically won everything else. And so we get to put all this talk of what might get nominated, what might win, and who will definitely win, to bed for a year.
Well, almost. Even if most people are done with the Oscars for the time being (understandably so), you can be damn sure that executives, filmmakers and marketing types are already starting to think about the next 51 weeks of awards campaigning, and so we thought it'd be fitting to take a stab at the kind of films we might be talking about as big contenders by the end of 2012.
Predicting this far out is a fool's errand, because, obviously, 95% of the eligible movies haven't been seen. This time last year, "The Artist" wasn't on a single radar, and that's the film that ended up taking the major prizes. But it's still possible to make educated guesses, and this time last year, we called five of the nine eventual nominees, which isn't so bad a year in advance.
The question is, what kind of year are we in for? 2012 has been anticipated for cinephiles for a while now, with an impressive number of big-name auteurs returning with new films before the end of December. But will that be how the awards season plays out? After a few years where dark, violent adult fare like "The Departed," "No Country For Old Men" and "The Hurt Locker" came out on top, the Academy pendulum has swung back towards cinematic comfort food like "The King's Speech" and "The Artist." Is this a shift that'll last for several years? Or is it a blip in the zeitgeist? Anything could happen in the next twelve months, from brewing war in the Middle East (again) to a presidential election that could help shift the climate one way or the other.
As such, we've run down the big contenders below. We won't be anywhere near correct: some will fall, some will rise, and at least one picture is almost certain to come out of nowhere to become a serious player. Tomorrow, we'll run down the acting categories as well.
"Les Miserables" (dir. Tom Hooper)
Even in this day and age, any big movie musical (bar perhaps something like "Rock of Ages") is considered to be a serious Oscar hope. But when you have an adaptation of a long-running hit, with a cast full of movie stars (Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway), the Oscar-winning director of "The King's Speech," the producers of "Atonement" and the writer of "Gladiator," you've got all kinds of pedigree to back it up. The song-and-dance genre has underdone directors far greater than Tom Hooper, and his plan to shoot with live singing could be a disaster, so the possibility of it being another "Phantom of the Opera" is there, but we'd be very surprised if this didn't get some major awards love.
"The Dark Knight Rises" (dir. Christopher Nolan)
The snub for the widely acclaimed, hugely popular "The Dark Knight" caused the Academy to open a wider field of Best Picture nominees, and given that its follow-up closes off Christopher Nolan's trilogy, we're expecting this to get a "Return of the King"-style boost, in part as recognition for the previous films, and for Nolan's career in general. That the early teases of the film seem to suggest a thematical element that chimes neatly with the Occupy Wall Street era/movement, that could earn kudos from the younger Academy members as well. But are voters ready to take comic book movies seriously? We'll soon see..
"Lincoln" (dir. Steven Spielberg)
The Best Picture nomination for "War Horse" demonstrated that when Steven Spielberg is in serious territory, only a fool would rule him out. And he's rarely been in more serious territory than his long-awaited biopic of the greatest President, subject material that would get awards attention from virtually any director, so long as it didn't have the words "Vampire Hunter" in the title. And with a top-calibre cast led by Daniel Day-Lewis, expect this to be among the nominees. That being said, it's reportedly quite procedural in nature, which makes us wonder if it might be closer to "Amistad," which missed out on a Best Picture nomination, than to "Schindler's List." Still, if "War Horse" got in, this should be an easy ride.
"The Great Gatsby" (dir. Baz Luhrmann)
Like most of the top contenders, this is the kind of film that's designed for Oscar from the ground-up: a super A-list cast (Leondardo Di Cap in a lush take on a literary classic, with a key Christmas release. All that being said, Baz Luhrmann has never been an Oscar favorite (he wasn't even nominated for Best Director for "Moulin Rouge!" even though it earned a Best Picture nod) and "Australia" was expected to be an awards contender until it fell flat with critics and audiences. We think the F. Scott Fitzgerald pedigree will help carry this through, but then again, it will have to be leagues ahead of the 1974 version.
"The Master" (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)
"There Will Be Blood" and its eight nominations saw the establishment fully embrace Paul Thomas Anderson (whose films had prevoiusly received Academy recognition, but not at this scale) and his long-awaited follow-up "The Master" (or whatever it winds up being called) seems to be along similar lines, a period piece revolving around a magnetic figure, in this case Philip Seymour Hoffman's would-be religious leader. It's got the might of The Weinstein Company behind it, which will help, but could the subject matter (widely thought to revolve around Scientology) turn off awards voters, regardless of the film's quality? There's also the huge weight of expectation on the film, which could be building up hopes far beyond reason. That said, the same fervor greeted 'Blood' and PTA still defied expectations, and we expect he'll do the same here.
"Argo" (dir. Ben Affleck)
Ben Affleck's reputation has grown and grown with each directorial effort, and it was generally thought that "The Town" only missed out on a Best Picture nomination by the skin of its teeth. Third time around, he's got great material (the true story of how the CIA faked a movie shoot in order to rescue hostages from Iran), a great cast, a Black List-ed script, and the backing of the always Oscar-friendly George Clooney, who's producing. The project is also a step away from the crime genre he made his name with, and it's his most broadly appealing material to date. It's obviously dependent on execution, but this feels like it could be this year's "Moneyball" to us.
"Untitled Terrence Malick Project" (dir. Terrence Malick)
After "The New World" was virtually shut out, Terrence Malick managed to make a return to the Oscars with Best Director and Best Picture nominations for "The Tree of Life," despite its experimental, metaphysical nature, and being more divisive than some of his previous works. With that in mind, given that the reported premise of Malick's next film is a little more down to earth, and it has a cast staked with familiar names — Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams, Javier Bardem, Olga Kurylenko, Rachel Weisz — one might assume he's in with a good bet. This depends on a few other things: principally, the film being ready by the end of the year (although that's fairly likely). Secondly, it depends on rumors that the film is structurally even more experimental than "Tree of Life" being incorrect. But then, even that may not stop this film from being an awards player.
Untitled Bin Laden Project (dir. Kathryn Bigelow)
Having won back at the 82nd Academy Awards for "The Hurt Locker," Kathryn Bigelow is back, with writer Mark Boal, for a film with a far more timley subject matter — the story of the hunt for 9/11 mastermind Osama Bin Laden. Already in the works when Bin Laden was killed, the start date was delayed several months, but it's made the film a far more gripping piece of material, and she's got a killer cast to match it with Joel Edgerton, Jessica Chastain, Chris Pratt, Jennifer Ehle, Mark Strong and more all featuring. It seems to be quite procedural in nature, which doesn't always play well, but now she's got a rep with the Academy, and given the high-profile material, this seems like a solid bet.
"The Surrogate" (dir. Ben Lewin)
If anything out of Sundance this year promises to break out into the awards season, as "Precious" and "The Kids Are All Right" did in recent years, it's "The Surrogate," the drama about a physically disabled poet (John Hawkes) who hires the surrogate of the title (Helen Hunt) to help him lose his virginity. The film got rave reviews at Sundance, and was swiftly snapped up by Fox Searchlight, with its two stars immediately talked up as awards prospects. There are two big questions here: does the film have the right stuff to be more than a showcase for the performances, and will Academy members be put off by the fairly explicit sexuality?
"Inside Llewyn Davis" (dir. Coen Brothers)
If someone told you in 1989 that the Coen Brothers would one day become Oscar favorites, you'd have called them mad. But with three Best Picture nominations in four years, the Coens have virtually taken up residency at the Academy Awards, and their latest could easily follow along — hell, if "A Serious Man," perhaps their most 'difficult' work since "Barton Fink," can get nominated, surely anything can. That being said, a youthful cast including Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan and Justin Timberlake doesn't necessarily hold the same grab factor as Westerns with Tommy Lee Jones or Jeff Bridges.
"Brave" (dir. Mark Andrews)
After two Best Picture nods under their belt, only a fool would count out Pixar, and "Brave" looks like a far more Oscar-worthy piece of material. Are we over the moon about the trailers? No. Have we ever seen a trailer that's effectively captured even the best of Pixar's work? Not really. If this is the same critical darling that "Ratatouille," "Wall-E," "Up" and "Toy Story 3" were, it could easily be a nominee.
"Hyde Park On Hudson" (dir. Roger Michell)
As a period biopic featuring stammering King Bertie and Queen Elizabeth, Roger Michell's film has some big shoes to fill, awards-wise. As the film that could bring Bill Murray his first Oscar, for playing crippled wartime president FDR, those expectations are even higher. That at least its main performance will be in contention is a near-certainty. But will it be a "King's Speech," riding that turn to be a crowd-pleasing hit and an awards-sweeper? Or will it be a "My Week With Marilyn," honored for a central turn, but otherwise ignored?
"The Silver-Linings Playbook" (dir. David O. Russell)
Once the enfant-terrible of a new generation of auteurs, David O. Russell has shaved down his more outrageous cinematic tendencies, and was rewarded with an Oscar nomination for "The Fighter" in 2011. This time around, he's got a indie-tinged comedy-drama with Bradley Cooper making his first post-stardom venture into serious fare. As such, we're reserving judgement for now, but with Weinstein Company muscle behind it, it could move right up the list if it plays with critics.
"Django Unchained" (dir. Quentin Tarantino)
The success of "Inglourious Basterds" two years back might have given the impression that Quentin Tarantino's latest is an Academy home-run, but we're not so sure. That film, however violent, had a Nazi-hunting vibe that the Academy connected with in a big way, and we're not sure a Western on the hot-button issue of slavery will do the same, particularly as it's bound to raise controversy. With the Weinsteins having more than enough fish in the sea this season, we suspect they'll be happy with the box-office returns on this one.
"Moonrise Kingdom" (dir. Wes Anderson)
Although he was nominated for screenplay for "The Royal Tenenbaums," and "Fantastic Mr. Fox" for animation, Wes Anderson has yet to make a real breakthrough at the Oscars, his recent live-action work being mostly ignored. But we feel like "Moonrise Kingdom" might be the one to change things: it's recognizably his work, but from the script, at least, a more heartfelt, emotional piece of material, with a retro setting and child's-eye-viewpoint that could be more appealing to voters than his previous efforts. With the film widely expected to bow at Cannes, could this turn out to be Anderson's "Midnight In Paris"?
"The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" (dir. Peter Jackson)
Given that "Lord of the Rings" was such an awards juggernaut (17 wins and 30 nominations between the three movies), many will feel that we're undervaluing its prequel. But our gut tells us that the novelty has worn off, however well Peter Jackson's film turns out. And we're not sure the splitting of the film, a less organic move this time out, will help: we maintain that if "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" was one movie, not two, it might have been more successful with the Academy. That being said, the residual love for the previous films shouldn't be counted out.
"This Is Forty" (dir. Judd Apatow)
The idea of the director of "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" making an Oscar-nominated film might horrify some, but actually, followers of Judd Apatow's work will know he's long been moving away from full-on raunchy comedy to territory closer to something like James L Brooks. "Bridesmaids" helped beat down some doors this year, and "This Is Forty" could walk through them. Seemingly more relatable than the somewhat inside-baseball "Funny People," the midlife crisis movie of sorts has an engaging ensemble led by Paul Rudd, Leslie Mann, Megan Fox and more with veterans like Albert Brooks and John Lithgow along for the ride too. But will Academy voters be able to get past whatever sweary crudeness remains? And can they relate to a film about your forties when most reached that landmark decades ago?
"Life Of Pi" (dir. Ang Lee)
With an Oscar-winning director taking on prize-winning literary material, this is ordinarily the kind of thing that Oscars are made of. But it's a tough year, and Ang Lee's "Life of Pi," may just prove a little too offbeat, with its tale of an Indian boy shipwrecked on a raft with a tiger. The Academy like a little more scope, and such a "Lifeboat"-style set up may not hit their sweet spot. That said, the book is beloved, and if Lee & co can capture half of that appeal, it could end up being a force to be reckoned with.
"Beasts Of The Southern Wild" (dir. Benh Zeitlin)
The other big Sundance hit of 2012 (and like "The Surrogate," it was acquired by Fox Searchlight) this apocalyptic Southern fairy tale was praised to the skies by critics. That being said, recognizable faces are nowhere to be seen, and from what we hear, there's real grit to go along with the magical realism. Our suspicions are that this'll be a critical favorite rather than an awards-sweeper, but Fox Searchlight know as well as anyone how to get tough material ("Black Swan," "127 Hours," "The Tree of Life") to a nomination.
"The Wettest County" (dir. John Hillcoat)
John Hillcoat is the kind of director who's probably overdue for a nomination at this point, and on paper, "The Wettest County" (or whatever it ends up being called) could be that film. It's a period gangster tale with a hot cast (Tom Hardy, Shia LaBeouf, Jessica Chastain, Mia Wasikowska, Gary Oldman, Guy Pearce) and it could be the "True Grit" genre surprise of the year. And the Weinstein Company have certainly got their fingers crossed, moving it from an April release date to the end of August, and planning a Venice Film Festival premiere just beforehand. That being said, even if the film avoids the exploding heads and cannibals of the Aussie director's recent output, it still may be a little tough for the Academy. Time will tell on this one, but we're leaning towards it not really being an Oscar movie.
"Anna Karenina" (dir. Joe Wright)
Given the multiple nominations for "Atonement," most had pegged Joe Wright's adaption of Tolstoy's classic as a potential awards juggernaut. And that may turn out to be the case, but the recent news that the film is less a lavish costume drama, and more an experimental blend of "Dogville" and "Inception," makes us wonder seriously about its Best Picture chances. And given that Working Title and Universal have the safer bet of "Les Miserables" to look after as well, we can see this performing more like "Jane Eyre" than "Shakespeare In Love" with Oscar voters.
Also In The Mix: We think those above are the most likely, but there's plenty more to consider as well. For instace, could the Wachowskis' bold gamble with "Cloud Atlas" pay off? Might Brad Pitt take Andrew Dominik to gold with "Cogan's Trade"? Might the presence of R-Patz give David Cronenberg the kind of glory that he missed out with "A Dangerous Method" this time around with "Cosmopolis?" Or what about Derek Cianfrance's reunion with Ryan Gosling in "The Place Beyond The Pines"?
There's plenty of more commercial-seeming fare that has the potential as well: Ruben Fleischer's "Gangster Squad," Ridley Scott's "Prometheus," Alfonso Cuaron's "Gravity" (which could be a real dark horse, if it's as revolutionary as some have suggested), Oliver Stone's crime tale "Savages," Meryl Streep/Tommy Lee Jones/Steve Carell starrer "Great Hope Springs," Clint Eastwood's return to acting with "Trouble With The Curve" or "The Paperboy," the latest from "Precious" director Lee Daniels.
And then there's more middle-brow movies (at least on the surface), any of which could end up surprising: Robert Redford's "The Company You Keep," Woody Allen's "Nero Fiddled," Dustin Hoffman's "Quartet," British tearjerker "Song For Marion," Mike Newell's "Great Expectations," or Robert Zemeckis' "Flight." And at the other end of the spectrum, there's Wong Kar-Wai's "The Grandmasters," should it ever arrive, Jeff Nichols' "Mud," David Chase's directorial debut, or Deepa Mehta's "Midnight's Children"
And for clarification, our exact long-shot predictions are below. What about yourselves?
"The Dark Knight Rises"
"The Great Gatsby"
"Kill Bin Laden"
"Untitled Terrence Malick Project"