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.
Having looked at Best Picture and Best Actor already, we now turn our attention to Best Actress. Last year’s possibilities were deemed to be a thin field, but only because the Academy overlooked performances like Scarlett Johansson in “Under The Skin,” to name but one. Instead, there were so few alternatives acceptable to the Academy that they nominated, in Marion Cotillard, the kind of performance that they’re never meant to do. Few saw the eventual winner, Julianne Moore in “Still Alice,” coming from a distance, but once it was unveiled, the film dominated the precursors. There’s obviously a long, long way to go, and it’s still a thinner field than the men, mainly because female leads are still harder to find, but it looks like the 2016 race should be a more competitive one. Take a look at our guesses below, and let us know who you’re predicting at this point.
Jennifer Lawrence — “Joy”
She’ll be only twenty-five by the time next year’s Oscars ceremony takes place, but there’s a remarkably good chance that Jennifer Lawrence could earn her fourth Oscar nomination, and even her second award. The star (who’ll have also completed “The Hunger Games” franchise by the end of the year) has teamed for a third time with “Silver Linings Playbook” and “American Hustle” director David O. Russell for “Joy,” a biopic of the inventor of the Miracle Mop (and a Shopping Channel stalwart). The director and actress are a potent team, with Lawrence earning nominations for both of her prior supporting performances in Russell’s films. This is the first time she’s the solo lead, so there’s every reason to expect big things.
Naomi Watts — “Demolition”
Naomi Watts has to be one of the most talented actresses around who has yet to actually win an Oscar. In fact, she’s only been nominated twice: for “21 Grams” and “The Impossible.” But could she end up pulling a Kate Winslet in 2016, by picking up nods in both Supporting and Lead? Gus Van Sant’s “Sea Of Trees” provides the most obvious possibility in the latter, and assuming she doesn’t campaign against herself, that means she’s likely to go lead for Jean-Marc Vallée’s “Demolition,” in which she plays a woman who strikes up a relationship with Jake Gyllenhaal’s grief-stricken banker. It sounds like the kind of role that Watts has done before, but Vallée’s an actor’s director, and the Australian actress always kills it. Could this be her year?
Cate Blanchett — “Carol”
Speaking of Australian actresses, there’s Cate Blanchett, who unlike Watts has had plenty of recognition before now: six total nominations (two at the 2008 ceremony alone), and two Oscars, for “The Aviator” and “Blue Jasmine.” Could she make a run at a third this year, pulling even with her greatest-living-actress rival Meryl Streep? Blanchett’s playing the title role in “Carol,” the new drama from Todd Haynes, and while Rooney Mara’s technically the lead, we’re likely to see a “Foxcatcher”-type situation, with Blanchett taking first position for her part as a repressed housewife who begins an affair with Mara’s character. The last collaboration between Blanchett and Haynes saw a nod resulting (for “I’m Not There”), and with The Weinstein Company behind this one too, we wouldn’t be remotely surprised to see another, even if it’s a competitive year.
Alicia Vikander — “Tulip Fever”/”The Danish Girl”/”The Light Between Oceans”
Perhaps the only person to make Jessica Chastain look lazy, 26-year-old Swedish actress Alicia Vikander has nine films due for release this year. That’s a pretty remarkable feat, even if some of them are “Son Of A Gun” or “The Seventh Son,” but it should get even more impressive around awards season, where Vikander’s likely to become inescapable. Too little’s known about Justin Chadwick’s long-gestating period drama “Tulip Fever,” to know if it has a chance, though The Weinstein Company are behind it, so it’s a potential beast. But beyond that, she’s also the female lead in both Derek Cianfrance’s “The Light Between Oceans,” opposite Michael Fassbender, and in Tom Hooper’s “The Danish Girl,” with Eddie Redmayne. Her role in the latter, of artist Gerda Wegener, has been linked over the years to Charlize Theron, Gwyneth Paltrow, Marion Cotillard and Rachel Weisz, among others, so it’s clearly a meaty one. That would seem to be the front-runner for where Vikander will put her support behind, but don’t rule out the other two possibilities. (Frankly, she’s deserving for “Testament Of Youth” and “Ex Machina” as well, but let’s not over-complicate things…)
Saoirse Ronan — “Brooklyn”
She was nominated for her breakthrough role in “Atonement,” but we haven’t seen Saoirse Ronan up for an Oscar since. This seems pretty likely to change given the buzz around her turn in “Brooklyn.” John Crowley’s adaptation of Colm Toibin’s book is carried almost entirely on the shoulders of the young Irish actress, and she nails it. As our Sundance review said, “not enough good things can be said about Saoirse Ronan in this film and she’s outstanding, crushing scenes about her romantic conflicts, reflections on the past, and turbulent worries about the future.” Fox Searchlight snapped the movie up and clearly have awards in mind, slotting the movie for a November release date.
The Next 5:
Brie Larson — “Room”
If we could wave a wand and give a nomination (and/or Oscar) to one performance in the last few years, it might be Brie Larson in the wonderful, woefully underseen “Short Term 12.” That turn, raw and bold and brave, got little awards traction, but it was clear from the promise she held there (and in other early performances) that it was only a matter of time before Larson was at the Dolby Theater, and her breakthrough might arrive in “Room.” Based on the best-seller by Emma Donoghue, directed by “Frank” helmer Lenny Abrahamson, and set to be released by A24, it’s a very dark, but still hopeful story of a child raised by his mother (Larson) inside a tiny room, and should let Larson show her dramatic range in a big way. It could turn out to be too dark for Academy tastes, A24 are newcomers to the Oscar game, and there’s still competition for that ingenue slot already from Ronan, Vikander and even Lawrence. But Larson’s one of the best working, the material’s hugely powerful, and if it gets the reviews, don’t count her out.
Sandra Bullock —”Our Brand Is Crisis”
It’s easy to dump on Sandra Bullock’s Best Actress win for “The Blind Side,” but her fierce, committed, and nominated performance for “Gravity” last year reminded everyone that Sandra Bullock more than deserved an Oscar, and she could be about to school everyone again. Bullock’s re-teamed with “Gravity” co-star George Clooney (who is taking a producing role only) on David Gordon Green’s “Our Brand Is Crisis,” a dramedy about hotshot Washington political consultants advising on a Bolivian election. The film’s still very much under the radar, but “Argo” parallels are everywhere, and the chance to see Bullock in this sort of smart operator mode should appeal to voters if the film even remotely works (and with Clooney, Gordon Green and writer Peter Straughan on board, there’s every reason to think it will).
Meryl Streep — “Ricki And The Flash”
Because Meryl Streep made a movie.
Oh, you wanted something more than that? Well Streep has three Oscars, sixteen nominations, and the Academy still loves nominating her. Her latest (excluding a very brief “Suffragette” cameo) should be something of a gear-change though: she’s starring as a veteran rock star attempting to reunite with her family in “Ricki & The Flash.” And yes, while that’s the plot of that Al Pacino movie that’s just about to come out, there’s a little more prestige behind this, which is penned by Oscar-winning “Juno” writer Diablo Cody, and directed by Oscar-winning “Silence Of The Lambs” director Jonathan Demme. Sure, both have had downs as well as ups recently, but both know their way around complex female characters (Cody got a nod for Ellen Page in “Juno,” Demme took Anne Hathaway to her first nomination in “Rachel Getting Married”), and we’ve not been this excited about a possibly-inevitable Streep nomination in a while (though if the film’s closer to “Hope Springs,” it could yet miss out).
Charlotte Rampling — “45 Years”
Berlin provided an unexpected Oscar discovery ground last year with “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” Bar the inevitable “Cinderella” costume nod, or an unexpected rush of blood for “Fifty Shades Of Grey,” it’s unlikely to be repeated this time around. But the actual exception could be veteran actress Charlotte Rampling in Andrew Haigh’s “45 Years.” Focusing on a decades-long marriage that suddenly suffers seismic effects, the latest from the “Weekend” and “Looking” director got stellar reviews at the festival, and particularly so for Rampling: our review called her turn “simply the best we have ever seen from the actress over her long, varied career… The film lives in every part of her, but especially in her remarkable eyes.” Despite work stretching back nearly fifty years, Rampling’s never been Oscar nominated, which suggests she’s very much overdue: could she be this year’s Emmanuelle Riva? The modest size of the film suggests not, but distributor Sundance Selects did manage to get Marion Cotillard a nod last year. Rampling faces, at this distance, a more crowded field, but if she can outlast some of the competitors, she could well make the final cut.
Marion Cotillard — “Macbeth”
The last time someone got a Best Actress nomination for a Shakespeare performance was in 1936 — eighty years ago. But if that streak is going to be broken, Marion Cotillard is the person to do it. Already an Oscar winner for “La Vie En Rose,” she’s done even better work since, and landed an Oscar nod for her latest effort “Two Days, One Night” (though it should be noted, it was in a relatively weak year for Best Actress performances, and the Sundance Selects release likely wouldn’t have broken through if there was more competition). But “Macbeth” comes loaded with pre-release buzz thanks to the pairing of Cotillard and Michael Fassbender. Early images are gritty as hell, and director Justin Kurzel has already shown the kind of bracing drama he can concoct with “The Snowtown Murders.” All of that combined with the might of Harvey Weinstein, and this could be one to be reckoned with, with Cotillard leading the charge in the juiciest of Shakespeare’s roles, Lady Macbeth.
Honorable Mention: What else is worth keeping an eye on, then? Well, we nearly put Carey Mulligan in for either “Far From The Madding Crowd” or “Suffragette,” but the former, like “Belle” last year, is likely released too early in the year, while the latter has been significantly delayed, so the jury’s still out on that.
Angelina Jolie directs herself for the first time in “By The Sea,” which is worth paying attention to, while Sean Penn directs Charlize Theron in “The Last Face.” Rachel McAdams seems like the biggest female lead in Tom McCarthy’s journalism drama “Spotlight,” while Tilda Swinton is definitely one to watch for Luca Guadagnino’s “A Bigger Splash,” and Maggie Smith is “The Lady In the Van.” Finally, if it’s done in time, Lily Collins could make her Oscar debut for co-starring with Warren Beatty in his Howard Hughes movie, while Emma Stone could get a second for Cameron Crowe’s “Aloha,” or Woody Allen’s “Irrational Man.” Anyone else you’re tipping? Let us know below.