Roll your eyes if you’d like, but the truth of the matter is that “award season” — which is less of a season than the half of the year that starts with the Venice Film Festival and ends with the speech of whoever wins best picture the Oscars, is a week away from being more or less upon us. And thus this column — dormant since Ben Affleck, George Clooney and Grant Heslov completed the latter when they won for “Argo” — is back to offer a weekly take on the long road to the big O. And yes, it’s coming a week before the said Venice Film Festival kicks off with awards season perennial George Clooney in Alfonso Cuaron’s “Gravity,” but with good reason: There’s actually a few films that were released before awards season kicks off that stand a good chance at staying in the conversation over the next six exhausting months.
While it’s certainly true most big Oscar contenders are released in the latter quarter of the year (the last three best picture winners — “The King’s Speech,” “The Artist” and “Argo — all were), there’s always a few major contenders from the first 75% of the year. Like “Beasts of the Southern Wild” or “Midnight in Paris” or “Winter’s Bone” or “The Tree of Life” or “The Kids of All Right.” All of those films were summer indie releases that made their way to Oscar’s biggest category (as well as a few others). In fact, since the Academy expanded the best picture lineup from 5 to 10 to somewhere in between, at least one summer indie has always made the cut (and in 2009, one of them — “The Hurt Locker” — even won). Which gives us good reason to believe there’s an Oscar contender or two that’s already made its way to theaters. So before we start focusing on the plethora of contenders that debut in Venice (or Toronto, or Telluride, or New York), let’s consider the chances — some certainly better than others — of 10 films you might have already seen, in order how generally likely they are to impact the Oscar race:
1. Lee Daniels’ The Butler
Coming off of one of the most epic pre-release narratives in recent memory, the now legally titled “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” is perhaps surprisingly sitting pretty as the most considerable Oscar contender that’s already hit theaters. With decent reviews and more-than-decent box office, the Weinstein Company-backed film has a much better shot at returning Daniels back to Oscar contention four years after “Precious” made him the first African-American filmmaker to ever have a best picture nominee than anyone expected a few months ago.
Best bet: Oprah Winfrey. Even the more tepid reviews of “LDTB” were high on the other big O, and she seems a near-lock to get her second best supporting actress nomination, almost 30 years after she got her first for “The Color Purple.”
Also possible: A best picture nomination is not outside the realm of possibility, and neither is nods for Forest Whitaker’s lead performance, Danny Strong’s screenplay, Daniels’ direction and a few craft categories. It really all depends on how the competition shapes up.
2. Blue Jasmine
Like Lee Daniels, Woody Allen had a huge hit two films ago that won best picture and best director nods and a best screenplay Oscar. And then — also like Daniels — he had a follow-up that didn’t go over so well. But “The Butler” is to Lee Daniels what “Blue Jasmine” is to Woody Allen, and then some. With strong reviews and near-“Midnight in Paris” size box office so far, Mr. Allen’s 44th feature film could land him back in serious Oscar contention, at the very least for the killer role he wrote for his leading lady.
Best bet for a nomination: Cate Blanchett. Allen’s titular Jasmine won remarkable raves for her work and it seems all but certain she’ll join Ms. Winfrey as the only two all-but-assured acting nominees from the pre-September releases. She could even win.
Also possible: Allen himself is a very strong best for another screenplay nomination, and the film itself is an outside contender for best picture. And then there’s Sally Hawkins, a tragic snub for “Happy-Go-Lucky” a few years ago and a definite possibility to be redeemed for her supporting performance here as Blanchett’s sister.
3. Fruitvale Station
Coming off of the very lucky charm that is winning Sundance’s Grand Jury Prize, Ryan Coogler’s “Fruitvale Station” is the same position recent best picture nominees “Winter’s Bone,” “Precious” and “Beasts of the Southern Wild” all were and that’s a very good thing. It’s $13 million and counting box office (higher than “Beasts” or “Bone”) only aids that. But it’s one major hurdle? “The Butler.” Released by the same distributor — The Weinstein Company — “The Butler” has stolen a bit of “Fruitvale Station”‘s thunder. Very different films both directed by and about African-Americans, they also face competition in that regard from Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave,” which debuts in Toronto. While clearly 2013 is going to result in a historically African-American friendly Oscar race, “Fruitvale Station”‘s status as the MVP in that regard has definitely been challenged.
Best bet for a nomination: Octavia Spencer for best supporting actress. While Oprah has definitely muted the momentum for the recent winner in that very category, Spencer still has an excellent shot at being nominated for her harrowing work in “Fruitvale.”
Also possible: Best picture, best director and best original screenplay are reasonable hopes, as is Michael B. Jordan’s incredible lead performance. The main issue is the competition that lies ahead. Each of those categories, could be incredibly stacked by year’s end, leaving little room for the little(r) guys. Though one things for sure: Expect “Fruitvale” to dominate the Indie Spirit nominations.
4. Before Midnight
Like “Fruitvale Station,” Richard Linklater’s “Before Midnight” came out of Sundance with the critical momentum to be a genuine threat in this year’s Oscar race. The third film in an unprecedented indie trilogy (that got an adapted screenplay Oscar nod with its predecessor “Before Sunset”), “Midnight” was a huge critical hit, and a decent commercial one. Oscar voters could very well wish to acknowledge what a unique feat this was, though it’s shaky as to how significantly they’ll end up doing so.
Best bet for a nomination: Best adapted screenplay for Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke and Richard Linklater. Just like they got for “Before Sunset,” this seems like a fairly sure bet for the film at this point, and in all likelihood its only nomination.
Also possible: Delpy and Hawke give incredible performances, and the film itself is certainly worthy of a best picture nomination. If the mighty crash this fall it’s a possibility, but for now all three seem like significant long shots.
Released just prior to summer’s official kick-off on the last week of April, we’re including Jeff Nichols’ “Mud” because it made the vast majority of its $21 million — the highest gross of any indie so far in 2013 — in the summer. Certainly the most likely to succeed amidst a crowded field of son-and-father-figure indies that did well this year (“The Place Beyond The Pines,” “The Way, Way Back”), “Mud” both made money and scored nearly unanimous praise from critics. But will it be remembered come Oscar time? Jeff Nichols’ last film “Take Shelter” appeared very close to receiving a couple nods but in the end came up empty-handed. Will “Mud” suffer the same fate? Maybe. Or maybe not if distributor Roadside revs up a strong enough campaign?
Best bet for a nomination: Matthew McConaughey for best supporting actor. He’s fairly being campaigned in that category (with Tye Sherdan as lead), which doesn’t clash with the likely heavy push he’ll get in lead for “Dallas Buyers Club” (but does potentially clash with his work in “The Wolf of Wall Street”). After snubbing him big last year for “Magic Mike,” perhaps the Academy will make up for it by giving McConaughey two nominations.
Also possible: Jeff Nichols’ screenplay definitely has a good shot.
6. Frances Ha
Noah Baumbach was nominated for an Oscar back in 2006 for “The Squid and the Whale,” and stands perhaps his best chance to follow that up with “Frances Ha,” a collaboration with Greta Gerwig that got great reviews and a made a solid $4 million at the box office.
Best bet for a nomination: Best original screenplay is an extremely crowded category already this year (see “Fruitvale Station,” “Blue Jasmine,” “Mud,” but that would be a way to honor both Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig, and a well deserved one.
Also possible: Gerwig’s lead performance should definitely get a few notices (an Indie Spirit nomination for sure, a Golden Globe nod in the comedy or musical category maybe), but the Oscars seem out of “Frances Ha”‘s reach. Best cinematography is a long shot as well, but would be a well deserved shout out to DP Sam Levy, whose black and white work in the film is gorgeous.
7. Ain’t Them Bodies Saints
Coming out of Sundance earlier this year, David Lowery’s “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” seemed like it had the critical momentum to potentially find its way into awards season, but it’s lack of buzz and rather lackluster box office returns so far (it averaged less than $10,000 from its very limited debut weekend) have muted that. But things could turn around if the critics decide to back with their awards in December.
Best bet for a nomination: Bradford Young‘s remarkable work on the film won him the cinematography award at Sundance, and it would be worthy of an Oscar nod too. But it’s the least likely “best bet” on this list, for sure.
Also possible: Ben Foster is best in show for his supporting work, though Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck offer great work too. But given what looks like very crowded acting races all around, those are very tough propositions to make at this point.
8, 9 & 10. Blackfish, Stories We Tell and Twenty Feet From Stardom
It would be an extraordinary surprise if Oscar’s best documentary category failed to nominate at least one of this summer’s trio of critical and commercial doc hits: Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s killer whale saga “Blackfish,” Sarah Polley’s family portrait “Stories We Tell” and Morgan Neville’s crowd pleasing backup singer doc “Twenty Feet From Stardom.” In fact, it seems quite possible all three could make the cut. Though we’ll give “Stardom” the edge of the three given said crowd pleasing-ness and its $4 million and counting box office haul.
Best bets for a nomination: Best documentary feature, of course.
Also possible: Nada.