The good news: last year’s Oscar season is over. The bad news? This year’s Oscar season has begun. Obviously, this doesn’t mean you have weeks of Q&As and gaudy pull-quote ads to process, but by this time last year, “Whiplash,” “Grand Budapest Hotel” and “Boyhood,” three of this year’s big winners, had already premiered. And you can bet that publicists and executives have already started planning their campaigns for the next season, even when the films are only just entering production.
And as we’ve done for the past few years, we’re exorcising our demons and spending the week running down some of the premature possibilities for films that have been released so far that seem at a distance like they could have the right stuff for Oscar gold.
Last year’s Best Actor race was one of the most competitive in recent memory, with the young gun Eddie Redmayne beating out the comeback kid Michael Keaton. There’s obviously a long, long way to go, but right now, it seems like 2015/2016 will be a rather fairer split: take a look at our early predictions and possibilities for Best Actor below, and let us know who you’re rooting for. And check out our Best Picture picks right here.Eddie Redmayne – “The Danish Girl”
The last actor to win two consecutive Best Actor Oscars was Tom Hanks (for “Philadelphia” and “Forrest Gump”) Before that was Spencer Tracy. Could Eddie Redmayne be the next? The actor was a long way from being a household name only a few months ago, but his stardom’s been cemented by “Jupiter Ascending” —oh, sorry, with his Oscar for “The Theory Of Everything,” and he could be poised to pick up a second trophy, or at least a second nomination. His next role’s almost as bait-y, if not more so, than Stephen Hawking: playing Lili Elbe, who was born Einar Wegener, and was one of the first people to undergo successful sex reassignment surgery. It’s a part that allows both an eerily Jessica Chastain-esque physical transformation and plenty of emotional heft. That he just won might be a hinderance rather than a help, but if the performance is good enough, and we’re sure in Redmayne’s hands it will be, the Academy won’t deny him just for the sake of it.
Michael Fassbender – “Steve Jobs”/”The Light Between Oceans” /”Macbeth”
That said, Redmayne has some serious across-the-pond competition from Irish-German star Fassbender. The actor’s lack of a nomination for his searing turn in “Shame” enraged many, but he cracked the Academy with his first nod (in Supporting) in 2014 for “12 Years A Slave” and looks very likely to pick up his first Best Actor nomination with three lead roles on the way that all have enormous promise. The most obvious is the title role in Danny Boyle and Aaron Sorkin’s “Steve Jobs,” the biopic of the Apple founder. Linked to a number of big names before it came Fassbender’s way, it’s an iconic character, and like seven out of ten of the last Best Actor winners involves a biopic. Then again, there are other potentials: Derek Cianfrance’s “The Light Between Oceans,” in which Fassbender plays an Australian First World War vet who adopts a child who’s survived a shipwreck, has the potential to be an “English Patient”-style sleeper. Or there’s Justin Kurzel’s “Macbeth,” in which the star takes on one of Shakespeare’s greatest creations (though the last actor to be nominated for a Shakespeare performance was Kenneth Branagh in 1989 for “Henry V”). Is there a chance that Fassbender’s vote splits three ways and he ends up outside? Perhaps, but it’s more usual for voters to end up uniting behind a single performance in that situation, and it seems like they have plenty to choose from.
Leonardo DiCaprio – “The Revenant”
A perpetual Oscar bridesmaid (if the term ‘bridesmaid’ is an appropriate one for a guy who enjoyed the company of as many supermodels as he), DiCaprio has four acting nominations (plus nearer misses for the likes of “Titanic” and “J. Edgar”) but has never won. Could Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu be the director who finally brings him a statue? DiCaprio stars in the “Birdman” helmer’s “The Revenant” as a fur trapper seeking vengeance on former friends who left him to die in the wilderness, and it’s likely to be a tough leading man role of the kind that DiCaprio excels at, and with a long, comfort-free shoot, you can be sure that Inarritu’ll be pushing him. The “overdue” narrative is an increasingly compelling one (it’s one of the reasons Julianne Moore won this year), and Inarritu clearly has the touch at the moment: but with more obviously tear-jerking competition, will DiCaprio be left to watch someone else pick up a trophy again?
Matthew McConaughey – “Sea Of Trees”
Between “Dallas Buyers Club” and “True Detective,” McConaughey might be getting a little bored of turning up to awards ceremonies, so he could have been relieved that his (excellent) performance in “Interstellar” never got much traction. This year could be different, with the actor leading Gus Van Sant’s “Sea Of Trees,” about a depressed man who travels to Japan’s “suicide forest,” only to meet and bond with a similarly bereft Japanese man (Ken Watanabe). Van Sant’s track record with Oscar-type pictures is mixed —for every “Good Will Hunting” or “Milk,” there’s a “Restless” or “Finding Forrester.” But he’s due some success as such, and there’s a lot of buzz around the script for this, plus McConaughey seems incapable of putting a foot wrong at the moment.
Jake Gyllenhaal – “Demolition”/’Southpaw”
Almost as valuable to an actor’s campaign as the sense that he or she’s ‘due’ is the sense that they were robbed of a nomination in the previous year. That’s certainly the case for Gyllenhaal, who won BAFTA, Golden Globe and SAG nods for “Nightcrawler” without making the Oscar list. That film is the capper for an excellent few years for the star, but he’s somehow not been nominated since “Brokeback Mountain.” Yet 2016 seems like it could be his year: before the year’s out, he’ll star in Antoine Fuqua’s “Southpaw” and in Jean-Marc Vallee’s “Demolition.” The former, a boxing movie, is the more obvious physical transformation (though bulking up tends to be rewarded less than bulking down), but given Vallee’s track record with actors in the last few years, winning nods or wins for McConaughey, Jared Leto, Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern, it’s “Demolition,” in which he plays a grieving banker, that might be the smarter bet (“Southpaw” also has a summer release scheduled). But with both the Weinsteins and Fox Searchlight behind him, it seems like that “Nightcrawler” snub should be corrected very soon.
The Next 5:
Joseph Gordon-Levitt – “The Walk”/”Snowden”
Unlike some of his contemporaries (Ryan Gosling, Redmayne, James Franco etc), Gordon-Levitt’s yet to win an Oscar nomination, despite a string of acclaimed performances. He’s got two real potentials to break through this time: he’s playing World Trade Center tightrope walker Philippe Petit in Robert Zemeckis’ 3D drama “The Walk” and will portray controversial whistleblower Edward Snowden in Oliver Stone’s “Snowden.” Both films have already been the subjects of Oscar-winning documentaries (“Man On Wire” and “Citizenfour” respectively), which probably helps rather than hinders, and we’re sure Gordon-Levitt will do good jobs in both, but we’re not entirely sold on either yet. Early footage and stills of “The Walk” were a little questionable, while Stone’s been off his game for a while, and ‘Snowden” smells of “The Fifth Estate” more than of “The Social Network.” But should some of his competitors fall off, Gordon-Levitt could well be in the hunt.
Jason Segel – “The End Of The Tour”
Yes, that Jason Segel. The “Forgetting Sarah Marshall”/”Sex Tape” one. But if that’s a surprise, you clearly weren’t paying attention during Sundance, when the reviews for “The End Of The Tour,” the latest film from “Spectacular Now” helmer James Ponsoldt, hit. Based on writer David Lipsky’s memoir, it stars Jesse Eisenberg as Lipsky and Segel as postmodern fiction legend and noted footnotes fan David Foster Wallace, set as Lipsky writes a profile of Wallace on the book tour for “Infinite Jest.” The idea sounds like some kind of hipster-baiting gag, but from most Park City accounts, ours included, the film’s terrific, and Segel gives a performance that’s easily the best in his career. “Freaks & Geeks” fans will know that Segel’s always had the potential for something like this, but any further eyebrows raised when he was cast as Wallace have seemingly been lowered, as his turn became the talk of Park City. The bigger question might be whether the film will connect to Academy voters: Wallace is a touchstone for Generation X, but not so much for the baby boomers that mostly make up the Oscar electorate. Will they like the film enough for it to make an impact with them despite not having read his work? If A24 campaign right, it’s not impossible.
Joaquin Phoenix – “Irrational Man”
Cate Blanchett obviously won the Oscar a couple of years back for “Blue Jasmine,” but no man’s been nominated for Best Actor for a performance in a Woody Allen film since Sean Penn and “Sweet & Lowdown” in 1999. Could Phoenix be the one to break that particular duck? Though he’s seen as strange by many voters, he nevertheless managed a nod for “The Master” a few years back and came damn close with “Her” the following year. And playing an Allen lead (opposite Emma Stone) in “Irrational Man” gives him the opportunity to be a little more down-to-earth, which might be refreshing for voters. Or will it? The film deals with a college professor having an affair with a student, which may cause unpleasant recollections of elements of Allen’s personal life to some Academy members. Still, the prospect of Phoenix and Allen working together is a tantalizing one, and voters have consistently shown that they don’t pay too much heed to the darker reports about the filmmaker’s life.
Tom Hanks – “Untitled Cold War Thriller”/”A Hologram For The King”
Despite giving one of the best performances in his career the year before last in Paul Greengrass’ “Captain Phillips,” Hanks was shockingly passed over for an Oscar nod for the film. But should the Academy feel like they need to make it up to a legend that they’ve given two statues to and have nominated five times (but not for over a decade), they’ll have a couple of solid opportunities in 2016. Hanks’ most obvious horse would be the as-yet untitled new film with Steven Spielberg, in which he plays attorney James Donovan. In his several collaborations with the director, Hanks was only nominated for “Saving Private Ryan,” but now Spielberg’s run of never having one of his nodded actors winning has been broken by Daniel Day-Lewis, perhaps Hanks is in for more luck this time, assuming the film works out. The darker horse could by Tom Tykwer’s Dave Eggers adaptation “A Hologram For The King,” in which he plays an American businessman waiting endlessly for a Saudi prince to turn up to close an important deal. It’s an absurdist comedy that doesn’t currently have distribution, but it could also be the kind of change-of-pace for Hanks that voters respond to.
Michael Caine – “The Early Years”
The Academy loves recognizing actors in their twilight years as a way of honoring not just their recent performances, but also their careers as a whole —look at Robert Duvall this year. Could it be Caine’s turn? The British legend has two Oscars from six nominations and hasn’t received a nod in a decade, but has what we hear is a doozy of a role in “The Early Years,” the latest English-language film from “The Great Beauty” Oscar-winner Paolo Sorrentino, playing a conductor reunited with his best friend on a holiday in the Alps. Caine has made noises about the picture being something of a swansong, and if the role’s of the kind of quality that Toni Servillo had in “Il Divo” or ‘Beauty,’ it might be hard for AMPAS members to resist making Caine the oldest-ever Best Actor nominee, or even winner. Of course, the film could be a “This Must Be The Place”-sized misfire, but if it picks up buzz, or even an acting award, at Cannes, where it’s heavily rumored to be premiering, it could set up the stage for a last run at Oscar for Sir Michael.
Also In Contention: So who else might be up for Best Actor here? We had Liam Neeson among our potentials until discovering that Martin Scorsese’s “Silence” is likely to hit in 2016 rather than 2015, but there are a number of other screen legends who could qualify, most notably Robert Redford as Dan Rather in “Truth,” or Warren Beatty in his Howard Hughes movie, if it’s done as well. Tom Courtenay’s less likely to figure into the conversation than his “45 Years” co-star Charlotte Rampling, but he shouldn’t be ruled out, while Michael Keaton could have a chance to take his acceptance speech back out of his pocket with Tom McCarthy’s “Spotlight” (or if it’s done in time, John Lee Hancock’s “The Founder,” about the creation of McDonalds).
Being stranded in space worked nicely for Sandra Bullock, so keep an eye out for Matt Damon in Ridley Scott’s “The Martian,” while multiple Emmy-winner Bryan Cranston could be headed for his first Oscar nod as the famous blacklisted screenwriter in Jay Roach’s “Trumbo.” Tom Hardy’s doing double-duty as the Kray Brothers in Brian Helgeland’s “Legend,” which might win him his first nod, while Johnny Depp could return as Whitey Bulger in “Black Mass.”
In terms of other A-listers, Will Smith’s investigating NFL “Concussion”; Tom Hiddleston plays Hank Williams in “I Saw The Light”; Brad Pitt’s directed by his missus in “By The Sea”; Bradley Cooper has both his passion-project chef movie and Cameron Crowe’s “Aloha”; Javier Bardem’s in Sean Penn’s “The Last Face”; and Chris Hemsworth battles a whale in Ron Howard’s “In The Heart Of The Sea.”
And for newer faces or character-actors-come-good, we could see nods for Michael B. Jordan in “Rocky” spin-off “Creed”; Don Cheadle as Miles Davis in “Miles Ahead”; Ben Foster as Lance Armstrong in “Icon”; Ralph Fiennes making up for his “Grand Budapest” miss with Luca Guadagnino’s “A Bigger Splash”; Ian McKellen as an aged Sherlock in “Mr. Holmes”; Casey Affleck in John Hillcoat’s cop-thriller “Triple Nine”; Michael Shannon reuniting with Jeff Nichols in “Midnight Special”; Ewan McGregor as Jesus and the Devil in Sundance drama “Last Days In The Desert”; Dane DeHaan in period drama “Tulip Fever”; Thomas Mann in Sundance hit “Me & Earl & The Dying Girl”; and Chiwetel Ejiofor in the remake of “The Secret In Their Eyes.”