Recently we ran our Fall Festival 50, a wishlist and prediction piece about the films we expect to see popping up in the fall. Many of them will be on their way to an Oscar campaign, because, as the accepted wisdom goes, if you want your film to have a fighting chance at Academy Awards glory, you secure in a nice cozy October/November/December release date, maybe on the back of a festival premiere, and bombard the trades with For Your Consideration ads. This indeed has been the route taken by five of the six most recent Best Picture winners ("12 Years a Slave," "Argo," "The Artist," "The King’s Speech," "Slumdog Millionaire") with only Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker” proving that it’s possible to play in summer and still pick up the big one.
But of course the picture is a little more balanced when you expand it to include nominees in other categories. Which got us to wondering just how many of the 2014 films that have already opened might have a shot at figuring in the Oscar conversation come January 15th when the nominations are announced. And so we cooked up a little hypothetical thought-experiment: If the Oscar nominations were being announced today, with only the films that have premiered so far in 2014 in contention (that is to say, ones that have opened in New York and Los Angeles between January 1st and June 30th), what would they look like?
In order to keep this from simply becoming a list of our own favorite films so far, which we’ve already done with “The Best Films of the Year So Far” we also decided to put our awards-observers hats on (deerstalkers with built-in monocles, if you must know), and to try and judge which films and performances so far would have a shot with the real Academy, as much as we personally often differ with their choices (and we’ve included what would be on our collective ballot at the end of each section). So yes, there’s a lot of guesswork and rules of thumb going on, but it’s been fun to consider, and here’s our suggestion of what the lineup might look like, if the Oscars were now:
Let’s assume for a moment that even with the slimmer pickings of the first half of the year to play with, the Academy end up going with nine nominees (as they have the last three years with the new system of Best Picture voting). The safest bet, and probably the likeliest to make the cut come next winter (though it’ll depend hugely on the strength of the competition to come) is Wes Anderson‘s "Grand Budapest Hotel," one of the filmmaker’s best-received pictures, and a legitimate crossover hit (taking nearly $60 million domestically). Anderson’s luck with the Academy has only stretched to Screenplay nominations and an Animation nod for "Fantastic Mr. Fox," and he’s missed out before—"Moonrise Kingdom" was hotly tipped, but failed to make the cut. ‘Grand Budapest,’ with its chopped-off heads and the like, is in some ways less Academy friendly than that film, but it did really connect with audiences, and if voting were restricted to the first half of the year, it would certainly be at the front of the pack, and could end up surviving all the way to January.
Also with some level of prospects for later in the year is Fox Searchlight’s summer sleeper "Belle." Expertly timed as blockbuster counter-programming in the same way that "Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" was a few years back, it hasn’t been the crossover smash that that was, but it’s still the third most successful indie of the year, and certainly would seem to appeal to traditional Academy voters, combining lush period romance with more button-pushing issues of race and gender. How much of a push it’ll get in the fall depends on how the rest of Fox Searchlight’s slate connects (they have "Birdman" and "Wild" alongside "Grand Budapest Hotel," and they couldn’t get much Oscar love for "Best Exotic Marigold Hotel"). As a star-studded period piece, "The Immigrant" would in theory make sense but James Gray proves very divisive, and Harvey Weinstein all but abandoned the film months ago. Maybe there’s enough of a Gray hardcore out there to get the same auteurist votes as Haneke or Malick in recent years, but without the distributor support, it’s a longer shot, though might figure in to some degree if voting were being held now.
But Harvey’s always courting Oscar, and he’d be better off with the Academy pushing "The Railway Man." The WWII drama starring Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman was tepidly reviewed at best, and is decidedly stodgy and worthy stuff that doesn’t live up to the potency of its premise, but it’s the kind of movie that Weinstein knows how to sell. He’ll undoubtedly have shinier prospects in the fall, but with limited competition, could probably get a voter turn out for this. From the blockbuster arena, "Noah" has the right mix of auteurist cred and epic sweep (plus commercial success) to pick up votes, even if few truly loved the movie. "Godzilla" was also divisive, but was significantly more artful than most blockbuster this year, and, while it won’t figure in at year’s end, would have a fighting chance at this point.
In terms of animated fare, "How To Train Your Dragon 2" has strong reviews, but the film’s commercial underperformance kills any chance of it grabbing the so-called Pixar slot. Instead, the critically and commercially massive "The Lego Movie" would probably sneak in: many voters would be reluctant to vote for something so heavily branded, but the film’s invention would win plenty of fans besides. Next February, it’ll have to settle for a Best Animated Feature nod rather than having a serious chance at Best Picture, but for now it would be in the conversation.
Beyond that, "The Fault In Our Stars" had some rather muted awards talk when it opened from some quarters: the weepie, better reviewed than many expected it to be, probably skews too young to make a dent against "Foxcatcher" and "Unbroken" et al. in the fall, but could squeak in votes were today. And for the remaining two slots, one should probably look to two of the surprise indie hits of the year so far: Jon Favreau‘s "Chef" (which has made nearly $20 million to date), and John Turturro‘s "Fading Gigolo"—not quite as big, but still remarkably popular with older crowds. With both films helmed and starring popular industry figures, they’d certainly be in with a shot.
The Playlist’s Picks: "The Double," "Enemy," "The Grand Budapest Hotel," "Ida," "The Immigrant," "The Lego Movie," "Only Lovers Left Alive," "Stranger By The Lake," "Under The Skin," "We Are The Best!"
The Academy’s Picks
Marion Cotillard – "The Immigrant"
Lindsay Duncan – "Le Week-End"
Angelina Jolie – "Maleficent"
Gugu Mbatha-Raw – "Belle"
Shailene Woodley – "The Fault In Our Stars"
Best Actress tends to be seen, usually unfairly, as having some slightly slimmer-pickings than the male equivalent even at year’s end, and that’s certainly true half-way through the year. Even so, there are some viable Academy-friendly options to be found at this point. Probably most notable among them is Gugu Mbatha-Raw. Hardly a household name at the start of the year (and, to an extent, even now), she was front and center for the marketing for "Belle," in which she gives a positively star-making performance. There’ll likely be too many bigger names later in the year for her to crack the final five, but she’d be a strong possibility right now.
The category tends to be a mix of younger up-and-comers and veteran stars, and joining Mbatha-Raw as one of the former would be Shailene Woodley. The actress was touted for nominations for both "The Descendants" and "The Spectacular Now," but after headlining blockbuster "Divergent" and covering Vanity Fair, she’s having a moment, and her acclaimed turn as a terminally ill teen in "The Spectacular Now" is certainly the sort of thing that Academy nominations are made of. Another relatively unknown possibility, albeit one much older than Woodley, would be Lindsay Duncan, a British stage veteran who’s terrific in Roger Michell‘s "Le Week-End." The film actually did pretty well in limited release, and with the right traction could have made Duncan a first-half contender, but distributor Music Box Films don’t have the deep pockets to put her seriously in the race in six months or so.
Finally, there are the major movie stars. Again, The Weinstein Company will have bigger fish to fry—or at least easier sells to sell—than "The Immigrant" once the rest of their slate hits, but as a previous winner in a potent role, Marion Cotillard would have a decent shot at this point. And speaking of previous Oscar-winners, there’s Angelina Jolie. "Maleficent" got pretty poor reviews, but most agreed that Jolie was by far the best thing about it, and without much other viable competition, she’d be a possibility for the half-way Oscars (she doesn’t have a chance at year’s end, though don’t count out a Globes nomination from the Jolie-loving HFPA, and she could be a directing nominee for "Unbroken" so she won’t be too heartbroken.
The Playlist’s Picks: Marion Cotillard in "The Immigrant," Paulina Garcia in "Gloria," Scarlett Johansson in "Under The Skin," Gugu Mbatha-Raw in "Belle," Tilda Swinton in "Only Lovers Left Alive."
The Academy’s Picks
Russell Crowe – “Noah”
Ralph Fiennes – “The Grand Budapest Hotel”
Colin Firth – “The Railway Man”
Tom Hardy – “Locke”
John Turturro – “Fading Gigolo”
Taken just as a list of actors, without considering the actual movies, this would be a pretty plausible roll-call for any year’s Best Actor nominations: two prior winners (Crowe for “Gladiator” along with two other nominations, Firth for “The King’s Speech” plus a nod for “A Single Man”); one two-time nominee who has bizarrely never won (Fiennes, nommed in support for “Schindler’s List” and in the lead for “The English Patient”); a character actor of long-standing reputation and popularity (Turturro); and a rising star whose meteoric ascent to bankable leading man suggests his Oscar is only a matter of when, not if (Hardy).
But of these, it’s maybe Fiennes who has the best chance of surviving the onslaught of competing performances that will crowd in thick and fast come fall: his turn in Wes Anderson’s loving Lubitschian homage is pivotal to the film, and crucially shows a whole new side to an actor/thespian already so respected we have to keep reminding ourselves that he hasn’t actually yet won. Still, in our thought-experiment narrower field, it’s easy to suggest that prior form would carry Crowe through for Aronofsky’s divisive but certainly interesting and epic “Noah,” and while we’d all roll our eyes at “The Railway Man” getting in, it could certainly earn the “obvious Oscar bait is obvious” place. “Fading Gigolo” is probably the biggest dice-roll, as any of several small films featuring favored, under-awarded performers could go here, but ‘Gigolo”s modest success, and actor-friendly bent makes Turturro certainly as worthy as any.
“Locke,” meantime, is probably the most interesting case in point. Hardy’s buzz is such that if only more people had seen this amazing one-man-show from director (and Oscar-nominated screenwriter) Steven Knight, we’d say it would have a good chance of landing a nomination for real, but it’s a really minuscule film, and Hardy himself has two more higher profile movies due to hit before the year is out (“The Drop” and “Child 44”). So while either of those could well actually see him figure in January’s list, as of releases this moment, it’s his titanic, riveting performance in “Locke” that we feel would get some love. Any way you cut it, it looks to be a big year for Hardy.
The Playlist’s Picks: Jesse Eisenberg in “The Double”/“Night Moves,” Ralph Fiennes in “Grand Budapest Hotel,” Jake Gyllenhaal “Enemy,” Tom Hardy in “Locke,” Tom Hiddleston in “Only Lovers Left Alive.”
Best Supporting Actress
The Academy’s Picks
Laura Dern – “Fault In Our Stars”
Nicole Kidman – “The Railway Man”
Tilda Swinton – “Snowpiercer”
Emma Watson – "Noah"
Penelope Wilton – “Belle”
The Supporting Actress category is always a harder one to call, and this is no different, especially considering our pool only contains one eligible Jennifer Lawrence performance, and even we can’t see the Academy’s crush on J-Law extending to a nod for an “X-Men” movie, even within the fantasy parameters of this feature. It’s a category where even the notoriously conservative Academy have been known to push the boat out a little, but the new faces it sometimes features (last year’s winner Lupita Nyong’o, for example) tend to need to break out in an otherwise recognized, buzzed film (like “12 Years a Slave”) and even those picks are often offset by nods for established actresses who either deserve a consolation prize or who in general feel like they haven’t ever really been given their due. Kidman is the obvious bet for consolation prize: it feels like she’s moving into the Grande Dame phase of her career in which every major role she takes has one eye on the little gold fella, and if a lot of the time she’s going to aim and miss (the specter of “Grace of Monaco” hovers on the horizon, not eligible here yet, but still its stinking word of mouth and distribution troubles are already part of the narrative), in general the Academy loves a trier, so a nod for something as unexceptional-but-prestigey as “The Railway Man” would not be out of the question.
“Belle” ’s period trappings and clever counter-programming slot make it a fertile ground for performance nominations at this stage, even if it feels in reality almost destined to be totally engulfed by the award season slate. So right now it might be Penelope Wilton’s turn on the Judi Dench/Brenda Blethyn train: she’s a very respected British actress whose face is familiar to “Downton Abbey” viewers and basically anyone who’s turned on a TV in Britain at any point over the last 40 years. Tilda Swinton’s showy, hilarious turn in “Snowpiercer” has probably caught enough attention and positive notices, despite no distributor push, to figure in the current mix, and Laura Dern is terminally undervalued so it’s nice to think she’d get some love, even if was for the sappy “The Fault In Our Stars.”
As to the last spot, it’s especially hard to hypothesize, because while we’d love to believe that Rose Byrne in “Neighbors” could score a Melissa McCarthy-in-“Bridesmaids”-style surprise our heads say she’s a step away from that level, and it would be more likely to go to the less deserving, but more traditionally Oscar-y performance from Emma Watson in “Noah,” especially as Watson feels like the kind of actress the Academy might be anxious to anoint, and “Noah” is distinctly not a comedy.
The Playlist’s Picks: Jillian Bell in "22 Jump Street," Rose Byrne in "Neighbors," Melanie Laurent in "Enemy," Tilda Swinton for "Snowpiercer," Mia Wasikowska in "Only Lovers Left Alive"/"The Double.
Best Supporting Actor
The Academy’s Picks
Woody Allen – "Fading Gigolo"
Bryan Cranston – "Godzilla"
Tony Revolori – "The Grand Budapest Hotel"
Hiroyuki Sanada – "The Railway Man"
Tom Wilkinson – "Belle"
As ever, this category is sort of anyone’s game, and unlike perhaps any of the others, there aren’t really any performers that we can see carrying through to the end of the year. But from the relatively slim pickings, there are a few potentials. Most of the supporting players in "Grand Budapest Hotel" make too brief an impression to figure here, but newcomer Tony Revolori (technically the film’s lead, but likely to be pushed to supporting to give Fiennes more of a leg-up) was an excellent find, and certainly deserves to be in any conversation here.
Beyond that, Tom Wilkinson is the obvious stand-out from the supporting men of "Belle"—a sympathetic yet conflicted representation of white guilt that many Academy voters can likely identify with. On a similar note of reconciliation, Japanese star Hiroyuki Sanada isn’t in "The Railway Man" much, but stands out when he does appear, and were the Weinsteins to push it, could well figure in.
We’d also wager that Woody Allen would have a good shot for his rare acting appearance in John Turturro‘s "Fading Gigolo"—whatever his recent controversies, the Academy have no compunction about showing him some love (he was nominated for writing "Blue Jasmine" last year), and he steals scenes a plenty in the movie, which again was a bit of a spring surprise hit on the arthouse scene. Finally, acting nominations for blockbusters are rare, but if anyone was gonna pick one up, it’d be Bryan Cranston in "Godzilla:" he turns in a performance of fierce integrity, one so memorable that the movie actively suffers from his absence. Again, none are likely to figure in by the end of the year, though…
The Playlist’s Picks: Jeff Goldblum in "Le Week-End," Don Johnson in "Cold In July," Robert Pattinson in "The Rover," Joaquin Phoenix in "The Immigrant," Nat Wolff in "Palo Alto."
Best Achievement in Directing
The Academy’s Picks
Wes Anderson – “The Grand Budapest Hotel”
Darren Aronofsky – “Noah”
Amma Asante – “Belle”
Gareth Edwards – “Godzilla”
James Gray – “The Immigrant”
Perhaps in no category does our idea of who would be up for the putative half-year Oscar differ so much from who’d we want to be in the running, than in the Director category. Historically Achievement in Directing is an area dominated by better-established names over lesser-known (Michel Hazanavicius and Benh Zeitlin being the only real exceptions over the past five years—even Steve McQueen had two prior, very well-received features under his belt). And of those titles we feel would be in the running, it’s probably Amma Asante for “Belle” that would take that newcomer slot if there were one going, while Gareth Edwards, whose “Godzilla” made money while retaining a degree of authorial input might hoover up whatever goodwill was left on those grounds. Though we’d be very surprised to see either run the gauntlet through January. Very.
And yet the first half of this year hasn’t seen a huge number of big-name directors release films either and the necessarily small pool, therefore would probably benefit someone like James Gray, whose “The Immigrant” has had no push from the Weinsteins and who has been traditionally overlooked by the Academy and yet has the name-recognition and the peer respect (to say nothing of a deserving film!) to make his inclusion here possible. Beyond that we’re on slightly less shaky ground with previous Best Director nominee Aronofsky delivering a large-scale biblical epic that still managed to be idiosyncratically his own (some would say to its detriment): love or loathe “Noah” it can’t be faulted for ambition or scale, nor for the craftsman aspect of the directing skill on display.
And finally, the most no-brainer pick, which is also the one that we’d choose ourselves, as well as the one we’d have the strongest hopes for maybe showing up in January’s actual announcement: Wes Anderson for “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” It’s certainly more eccentric than the standard Academy-favored picture, and occupies a register of zaniness that the august body could deem a little too lightweight and beneath its dignity (which is perhaps what happened with "Moonrise Kingdom"), but on the other hand it’s a movie that loves movies and that is unmistakably the product of a very singular and meticulous directing approach. As such, it would not only be a shoo-in a nomination for these half-time Oscars, it would win the phantom statuette, and we would applaud loudly.
The Playlist’s Picks: Wes Anderson for "The Grand Budapest Hotel," Bong Joon-ho for "Snowpiercer," Jonathan Glazer for "Under The Skin," Jim Jarmusch for "Only Lovers Left Alive," Denis Villeneuve for "Enemy."
And Still To Come: As we said, we kept our speculation solely to movies already eligible for the Academy Awards, released between January 1st and June 30th. But thanks to festivals and the like, we’ve seen some of the films that may make a bigger splash by the time awards season really gets underway. Richard Linklater‘s "Boyhood" picked up the kind of reviews everyone dreams of when it hit Sundance, and has only gone to be buzzier and buzzier over time. Ordinarily, it would look like a real contender, but it’s in the hands of IFC, who don’t have a strong track record with picking up Oscar love. Let’s see how the film goes: the critical adulation may be too strong for them to ignore, especially if the movie performs well, but it will depend on how much IFC are willing to spend.
Beyond that, the strongest contender from the festival circuit looks to be "Foxcatcher"—as we said post-Cannes, it’s not quite a home run (it might be too alienating and dark for some), but it’s more than a worthy, and Steve Carell is a cert for a nomination, with Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo and Bennett Miller all likely to be in the conversation too. Mike Leigh‘s "Mr. Turner" should be a player too, especially with the Cannes Best Actor-winning performance from Timothy Spall. "The Search" and "The Homesman" are relatively unlikely to figure in, but don’t count out an acting nomination for J.K. Simmons for "Whiplash," or for the leads of "The Disappearance Of Eleanor Rigby." Blockbuster-wise, "Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes" has picked up stellar early reviews, but as a sequel, it’ll need to be a box-office phenomenon to break into the race.
But of course, there’s lots more to come: "Magic In The Moonlight," "The Hundred-Foot Journey," "Get On Up," "The Drop," "Gone Girl," "The Judge," "Kill The Messenger," "Birdman," "St. Vincent," "Interstellar," "The Theory Of Everything," "Fury," "The Imitation Game," "Wild," "Exodus," "Inherent Vice," "Untitled Cameron Crowe," "Into The Woods," "Unbroken," "Big Eyes" and "Selma" will all premiere over the next six months, along with many of the films from our fall festival wish-list that you can check out here. Any thoughts on what’ll be real contenders? Let us know your thoughts below. — Jessica Kiang, Oliver Lyttelton