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.
First up is Best Picture. Last year, we did horribly, partly because some seemingly sure things didn’t materialize (“Unbroken,” “Interstellar”), or because we put a little more faith in some auteurist pictures like “Inherent Vice” or “Gone Girl.” How will our premature predictions compare this time? Take a look below to see our guesses, and check back the rest of the week to see our views on the acting and directing races.
“Our Brand Is Crisis”
This feature remake of the 2005 documentary about a team of U.S. political consultants sent to consult on a Bolivian political election feels like it has the potential to be next year’s “Argo.” The Warner Bros. project has some serious star power: George Clooney is producing, while Sandra Bullock takes the lead role with Scoot McNairy, Billy Bob Thornton, Anthony Mackie, Zoe Kazan, Ann Dowd and Joaquim de Almeida in support. The biggest wild card here is David Gordon Green, the surprising choice to direct when Clooney stepped aside: the helmer’s either made tiny indies or big studio comedies before, but this project falls in the exact midpoint of both poles. Could it be his key to respectability in the way that Richard Linklater managed last year? There’s always the risk that this film will turn out more “The Men Who Stared At Goats” (the last collaboration between Clooney and screenwriter Peter Straughan) than “Argo,” but there’s definite potential here. The film doesn’t have a release date yet, but expect it at Venice Film Festival, Toronto International Film Festival and the Telluride Film Festival.
Once indie cinema’s enfant terrible, David O. Russell’s now a full-on Oscar-nomination-generation machine: between “The Fighter,” “Silver Linings Playbook” and “American Hustle,” his work managed to pick up a whopping 25 nods in the space of four years (with a stunning eleven for acting). Russell is back this holiday season with “Joy,” which reteams him with muse Jennifer Lawrence for a biopic of Miracle Mop creator and entrepreneur Joy Mangano. It sees Russell in comically-tinged blue-collar American Dream territory again (the script comes from nominated “Bridesmaids” writer Annie Mumulo), something that voters have clearly been responding to in recent years, but with a female-led “Erin Brockovich”-style perspective that could pay off after a very male year. On one hand, Russell and his films are arguably overdue —of those 25 noms, they’ve only won three Oscars, all for acting, so “Joy” could be a beneficiary of a sort of cumulative effect. On the other, everyone hits a backlash at some stage, and if there’s a sense that the director and his star are retreading old territory, voters may look elsewhere. Either way, expect Sony to give this a big push when it lands at Christmas time.
After surprisingly tumultuous pre-production (a revolving door of stars and directors and a last-minute studio switch from Sony to Universal), this long-gestating Aaron Sorkin-penned biopic of the Apple founder got underway in the early part of this year, with Danny Boyle directing and Michael Fassbender donning the black polo to play Jobs (with Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen, Jeff Daniels, Katherine Waterston, Sarah Snook and Michael Stuhlbarg among the supporting cast). Sorkin’s script apparently takes an almost-theatrical structure, set in three time periods tracking three Apple product launches, but with Boyle at the helm, it’s likely to feel cinematic. “The Social Network” ultimately proved too millennial in its interests to completely win over older Academy voters, but Jobs’ entrepreneurial spirit, iconic power, and status as a Baby Boomer makes him a much easier sell to the Academy, while Boyle managed to get a string of nominations for the similarly tricky biopic “127 Hours,” so unless this is as bad as the Ashton Kutcher film regarding Jobs, this should be a big player (the film’s release date mirrors previous big Oscar players like “Argo” and “Gravity,” though it’s worth noting that October opening ultimately proved too early for “Gone Girl”).
“Untitled Cold War Thriller”
Even if he only has one Best Picture victory under his belt, Steven Spielberg’s always a force to be reckoned with at awards season, and after a three-year break, his latest (still untitled, though rumored to be called “St. James Place”) is no exception. Based on a hot spec script by newcomer Matt Charman, it’s a true-life Cold War thriller about an attorney (Tom Hanks) who’s enlisted to help the release of an American pilot captured by the Soviets. This definitely seems to be Spielberg in serious mode rather than with his blockbuster hat on (“Munich” seems to be the closest comparison point in his filmography), and unless the film’s an “Always”-style misfire, that usually leads to nominations —even “War Horse” picked up a brace of them. That said, Spielberg and Hanks both attract high expectations, and in a year packed with spy movies, from “Kingsman” to a Bond film, it’s possible espionage fatigue will set in by then. This doesn’t necessarily sound like Spielberg’s second Best Picture winner, but it’s likely to be in contention.
It’s virtually unheard of in the modern era for a director to win two Best Pictures, or even Best Director, awards back-to-back, but Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu looks to be making a run at that particular record this year: he spent much of the campaign season in the frozen North shooting this wilderness revenge thriller, in which 19th century trapper Leonardo DiCaprio is mauled by a bear and left to die by his companions (Tom Hardy, Will Poulter and Domhnall Gleeson), only to survive and seek vengeance. It’s a markedly different premise and setting from Inarritu’s “Birdman,” but he’s kept much of the same creative team, most notably DP Emmanuel Lubezki (who could win a third Oscar in a row if he lives up to his usual standard). There’s real star power to the movie with the DiCaprio/Hardy double-header, and Inarritu’s obviously made his Academy bones now: the biggest question is whether this is just a genre picture (Westerns traditionally do not cull big Academy love), or something weightier. And with Inarritu proving that he can’t be contained by genre boxes, we’re expecting the unexpected.
“The Hateful Eight”
The other Western from an Oscar-winner coming this year is Quentin Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight.” He initially began production, scrapped when the script leaked, and then began filming with a revised and updated screenplay late last year. Returning to the Western genre after the huge success of “Django Unchained,” this is much more of an ensemble piece, eschewing the A-list star power of “Inglourious Basterds” and ‘Django’ in favor of a mix of Tarantino vets (Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Walton Goggins, Tim Roth, Bruce Dern and Michael Madsen), and character actor favorites (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Demian Bichir). If the script’s anything to go by, it’s Tarantino’s smallest film in scope since “Reservoir Dogs,” but he’s shooting the whole film on 70mm in an ultra-wide aspect ratio, so it’s likely to be a grand visual spectacle anyway. After ‘Basterds’ and ‘Django,’ it seems that the Academy’s love of Tarantino is deeply entrenched —will “The Hateful Eight” get him back on the Oscar stage?
Harvey Weinstein is the undisputed king of the Oscars game, but he hasn’t won Best Picture since “The Artist” in 2011 and only won two Oscars this year (Best Adapted Screenplay for “The Imitation Game,” and Best Documentary “Citizenfour”), so he’s sure to be lining up possibilities. And while “The Hateful Eight” is probably his biggest horse in the race for this year (and other movies like “Macbeth,” “The Founder” and “Southpaw” are still coming up, plus whatever he ends up picking up from festivals), “Carol” certainly shouldn’t be ruled out. The return to the big screen for director Todd Haynes after an eight-year absence, the film is an adaptation of a Patricia Highsmith novella about the romance between a department store clerk (Rooney Mara) and an older married woman (Cate Blanchett). Haynes has not had much awards success so far (though “Far From Heaven” picked up four nods), but he’s coming off the huge Emmy success of “Mildred Pierce,” the Weinsteins are on his side, and “Carol” feels like potentially his most accessible and awards-friendly work so far, assuming the reviews are up to his usual high standard. The film’s heavily rumored to be premiering at Cannes.
“The Danish Girl”
Tom Hooper won Best Director for “The King’s Speech,” and saw a brace of nods for “Les Miserables,” so he’s already marked himself as a filmmaker to keep an eye on. His next film is based on the novel by David Ebershoff, about Lile Eble, the first person to have male-to-female sex illustration surgery, and her wife, artist Gerda Wegener, with the leads going to freshly-minted Oscar winner Eddie Redmayne, and fast-rising star Alicia Vikander, respectively. The mix of Hooper, Redmayne and this kind of subject matter (and after films like “Transparent” and “Orange is The New Black” in the last few years, we’re overdue a sensitive mainstream big-screen take on a transgender story) makes it an enormously potent possibility on paper, even if the film, which just started production, doesn’t yet have a distributor (you imagine the likes of the Weinsteins, Focus and Fox Searchlight will be champing at the bit to take a look at the dailies). Of course, sometimes something that looks like an awards juggernaut in theory doesn’t work out in practice —look at “Unbroken” last year. But for now, it should definitely be assumed that this is a serious contender.
Unlike most of the others on this list, “Brooklyn” isn’t a nebulous possibility, having already screened to rapturous reviews at Sundance. John Crowley (“Boy A”)’s film, adapted from Colm Toibin’s novel by “Wild” and “An Education” scribe Nick Hornby, is a 1950s-set immigrant romance centering on a young woman moving from Ireland (Saoirse Ronan) who strikes up a romance with a young Italian-American man (Emory Cohen). The film was an unlikely but enormous crowdpleaser at Sundance (read our rave review here), and was swiftly snapped up by Fox Searchlight for a near-record sum, and they clearly have awards hopes for the picture. The film doesn’t have the same career-defining masterpiece feel as “Boyhood” or striking-new-talent vibe as “Whiplash” or “Beasts Of The Southern Wild,” but it’s the sort of thing that should play right into the Academy’s wheelhouse, and with Fox Searchlight’s might behind it (they have the last two Best Picture winners and received twenty nominations last year), the trick for this film will be maintaining the buzz into next year.
“The Light Between Oceans”
“The Light Between Oceans” is the kind of film that’ll either miss out on awards recognition entirely or win the whole thing, depending on its execution. Based on a bestselling book club favorite by M.L. Stedman, it sees a lighthouse keeper and his wife adopt a baby girl who washes up in a lifeboat with eventually tragic consequences. So far, so Nicholas Sparks, right? But the film’s being written and directed by Derek Cianfrance (“Blue Valentine”), which should make it into something more raw and truthful than the weepie logline, and he’s got a stellar cast, with Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander in the leads and Rachel Weisz and fast-rising newcomer Caren Pistorious in support. Dreamworks are producing with “Gravity”’s David Heyman, Alexandre Desplat is scoring, and “True Detective”’s Adam Arkapaw is shooting. It’s possible that Cianfrance turns in something too artful to really connect with the Academy (or that he’s phoning in a studio gig), but given the caliber of talent involved, this feels like it could be his big entrance into the awards world. The film’s biggest problem might be that it’s hailing from Dreamworks, who also have the new Spielberg film to push (that said, Searchlight managed to pull off success for both “Birdman” and “Grand Budapest Hotel” this year).
5 Long Shots That Could Surprise
“Me & Earl & The Dying Girl”
“Me & Earl & The Dying Girl” was talked up bigtime at Sundance this year. Directed by acclaimed “American Horror Story” helmer Alfonso Gomez-Rejon and adapted by Jesse Andrews from his own 2012 novel, it follows two cinephile teens who are forced by one’s parents to hang out with a girl with cancer. Though it was little anticipated beforehand, the film proved to be a smash in Park City, winning, as Oscar-nominees “Precious” and “Whiplash” did, both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award, and also being snapped up in a big-money deal by Fox Searchlight. The big question right now is whether the company sees it as an awards or commercial play: the film probably skews young, “The Fault In Our Stars” couldn’t break the awards race, and Searchlight have set it for an early July date. Then again, “Little Miss Sunshine” hit at a similar time and still proved a real force. Our instinct is that the film needs a relatively weak year (as 2014 was) to break into the main race, but we’ll see how audiences and critics respond when the film hits theaters.
There was a point at which Pixar felt like they were becoming awards untouchables: they’ve won seven of the fourteen Animated Feature Oscars and saw “Up” and “Toy Story 3” earn Best Picture nominations in successive years, two of only three animated films ever to do so. But the company has had a rougher ride recently: they didn’t release a film in 2014 and two of their last three movies failed to receive a nomination for Animated Feature. Fingers crossed, the company are on their way back: they’ve got two original, non-sequel projects landing this year, and though November’s “The Good Dinosaur” is closer to awards season, the smart money’s on “Inside Out.” The film comes from “Up” director Pete Docter, has a fun “Herman’s Head”-style premise, and seems to literally be grounded in strong emotion in the way that the company’s best work all does. Of course, for it to break into Best Picture it’ll have to be really special, and that’s something that the company have been lacking in the last few years, but if anything can return them to the race, it’ll be this film.
You know what we don’t have much of in the upcoming awards season, at least at the moment? The big, technical-categories-dominating monster, a la “Hugo,” “Avatar,” “Gravity,” “Life of Pi” et al: “The Hateful Eight” and its Cinemascope look is closest, but given that the film’s essentially a chamber piece, even that doesn’t quite qualify. Which means that we could see Robert Zemeckis’ 3D “Man on Wire” remake “The Walk” in there, but our money’s on “Everest,” another 3D adventure not recommended for people with vertigo. Focusing on two ill-fated expeditions in the 1990s and with an all-star cast including Jake Gyllenhaal, Josh Brolin, Keira Knightley, Jason Clarke, John Hawkes, Robin Wright, Emily Watson and Sam Worthington, this film comes from Working Title and Universal, which was behind Oscar hits like “The Theory Of Everything” and “Atonement,” and seems to have the right mix of technical wizardry and potential emotion. There are two major questions, though. Is director Baltasur Kormakur, the guy behind “Contraband” and “2 Guns,” the kind of person who’d make an Oscar-nominated movie? And does the film’s September release date indicate that the companies believe that it’s mostly a commercial play rather than an awards one (the date proved too early for films like “Rush” and “Prisoners” to make an impact, and the last film to open in that month and end up Oscar-nominated was “Moneyball” in 2011).
“Beasts Of No Nation”
After cementing his status as one of the most exciting filmmakers around with last year’s HBO smash “True Detective,” it’s well known that Cary Fukunaga is planning a new two-part adaptation of Stephen King’s “It.” But most are still unaware that last summer he shot his actual follow-up, a long-gestating adaptation of Uzodinma Iweala’s novel “Beasts Of No Nation,” a startling story about an African child soldier. Co-produced by and starring Idris Elba as the fearrsome Commandant, the film delves into subject matter that’s rarely been tackled by Hollywood (successfully, anyway). Depending on how Fukunaga’s executed it, it could end up being a little too tough for Academy tastes, but this is definitely the under-the-radar choice that could turn out to be a quiet phenomenon.
“Star Wars: The Force Awakens”
When the Best Picture category was expanded, the idea was to allow more giant hit movies like “The Dark Knight” to become nominated, thus increasing general interest and TV viewership. It hasn’t really worked like that in practice: Best Picture has remained a mostly superhero/Katniss/Elsa-free zone, with only the occasional “Gravity” or “American Sniper” keeping the blockbuster end up, or a phenomenon like “Avatar.” A lot of this year’s giant movies, like “Avengers: Age Of Ultron” or “Jurassic World,” seem unlikely to crack the field, but could J.J. Abrams’ “Star Wars” revival make it? The film’ll be landing at Christmas at the heart of awards season, it has a top-quality cast mixing old stars and new, and there’s a history of “Star Wars” and the Academy, with the original film being nominated for ten Oscars and winning six of them. This won’t have the same thrill of the new, but if it’s even halfway good and premieres to “Avatar”-challenging box office as awards voting gets underway, could the film really be ignored by the more business-minded elements of the Academy? It’s biggest threat might come from elsewhere at Disney, who won’t just have Pixar movies to push, but also the Spielberg and Cianfrance films through the Dreamworks deal. But it’s certainly not unthinkable that it could surf good reviews to a Best Picture nod, given the timing.
Also In The Race: Just in case we’ve bollocksed this up as much as we did last year, it’s worth mentioning that there’s lots of other potentials out there that could end up eclipsing some or all of the films above. One of the big ones is Martin Scorsese’s “Silence” —last we heard, the film won’t be ready until 2016, but if that changes, definitely look for it to make an impact.
Keep an eye on British feminist tale “Suffragette,” with Carey Mulligan and Meryl Streep; Robert Zemeckis’ Philippe Petit biopic “The Walk” with Joseph Gordon-Levitt; Warren Beatty’s long-gestating Howard Hughes movie (though who knows when it’ll be ready); Gus Van Sant’s McConaughey-starring “Sea Of Trees”; and Ridley Scott’s all-star sci-fi “The Martian.”
Plus there’s the Bradley Cooper-starring chef movie, directed by John Wells; Tom McCarthy’s Catholic-Church-abuse journalism movie “Spotlight” with Michael Keaton and Mark Ruffalo; “Demolition” with Jake Gyllenhaal and Naomi Watts and from the director of “Wild” and “Dallas Buyers Club”; Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood” follow-up “That’s What I’m Talking About”; and Johnny Depp as Whitey Bulger in “Black Mass.”
But wait, there’s more! Angelina Jolie back for another run with “By The Sea,” along with her other half, Brad Pitt, while actors-turned-directors Jodie Foster and Sean Penn also have new movies: the former’s is “Money Monster,” with George Clooney, Julia Roberts and Jack O’Connell, the latter’s is war photography flick “The Last Face” with Charlize Theron and Javier Bardem.
Don Cheadle directs and stars in jazz biopic “Miles Ahead”; Robert Redford is Dan Rather in “Truth”; Julianne Moore is terminally ill and campaigning for gay marriage in “Freeheld,” also starring Ellen Page and Steve Carell; Carey Mulligan goes period with “Far From The Madding Crowd”; Meryl Streep dons rock star garb in Jonathan Demme & Diablo Cody’s “Ricki & The Flash”; and Ben Foster is Lance Armstrong in “Icon.”
It’ll be interesting to see if Guillermo Del Toro can follow the Best Director wins of pals Alfonso Cuaron and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu with Gothic chiller “Crimson Peak,” while in the blockbuster world, Brad Bird’s “Tomorrowland” could have some potential. Foreign helmers Luca Guadagnino and Paolo Sorrentino go English-language with, respectively, “A Bigger Splash” and “The Early Years” — the former, with Ralph Fiennes, Tilda Swinton and Dakota Johnson, just got bought by Fox Searchlight, while the latter has Michael Caine and Rachel Weisz, among others.
Woody Allen’s back with “Irrational Man” starring Joaquin Phoenix, while Cameron Crowe’s back with “Aloha” starring Bradley Cooper (both have Emma Stone as the female leads). There are new thrillers from John Hillcoat and Denis Villeneuve with “Triple Nine” and “Sicario,” while Jeff Nichols has gone studio with the Amblin-ish “Midnight Special.”
Marion Cotillard and Michael Fassbender go Shakespearean for “Macbeth”; Terrence Malick’s good reviews for “Knight Of Cups” could yet convert to nominations; Ron Howard riffs on “Moby Dick” with Thor for “In The Heart Of The Sea”; the Weinsteins have period drama “Tulip Fever” starring Alicia Vikander, Dane DeHaan and Christoph Waltz; Oliver Stone tackles the story of “Snowden” with Joseph Gordon-Levitt; Will Smith investigates “Concussion” in the NFL, Sylvester Stallone and Michael B. Jordan gets them in “Rocky” spin-off “Creed”; and Chiwetel Ejiofor stars in the remake of Foreign Language Oscar-winner “The Secret In Their Eyes.” Have you got your money on something else? “The Lazarus Effect,” perhaps? Let us know in the comments below.