You’re weary. You’ve suffered through months of campaigning, backbiting, frustration, joy, tears, and maybe depression. And then, just like that, it’s all finally over. The Oscars obviously took place this past Sunday, with investigative thriller “Spotlight” the surprise and well-deserved Best Picture winner. It was a bit of a shock that the Academy would award a film this deserving, but one also as mannered, subdued and a bit unsexy. But…. at this point you really don’t want to talk about it. You’re just relieved the season is over and you’d like to move on and maybe sleep for a few months.
Surprise! We have a great “recovery” feature just for you. Too soon! Yes, we know it’s ridiculous to be thinking about the next Oscar season just a couple of days after the previous one ended. It’s also a little masochistic and sadomasochistic, but being that it’s become something of a warped tradition here at the Playlist, we always take what should be our switching-off coma week to look forward to the movies we might be talking about over the next twelve months as having awards potential. Yes, we are highly aware these are very early, very premature predictions and that anything can happen.
But when you think about it, the 2016/2017 awards season has already been underway for a couple of months. As its wont to do in recent years, the Sundance Film Festival has already unveiled some potent titles that could be very viable back in January and which have already began bubbling in the awards-season narrative (like it or not).
It should be an interesting year ahead, particularly after the most closely contested Best Picture race in years and following the #OscarsSoWhite controversy. Plus, it’s a bit of a nice head cleanser to talk about some different movies for a bit. So with all that mind, below you’ll find our eleven Best Picture picks, mostly sight unseen. And be forewarned: we’ll be making premature predictions all week, though remember, they’re all in loose, good fun, and nothing you should take too seriously. Let us know your own long-range predictions and stay tuned for more.
“Birth Of A Nation”
A Sundance sensation the likes of which has rarely ever been seen, the directorial debut of actor Nate Parker regarding the slave rebellion of Nat Turner blew the roof off Park City in January and was immediately snapped up by Fox Searchlight for $17.5 million, the biggest deal in Sundance history (or of any festival). Clearly the Oscars fit into the plan for the studio —which had success with “12 Years A Slave” in 2013— and with Parker’s film drawing comparisons to both that film and “Braveheart,” and with a prime October release date, the studio is not messing about with it. With the #OscarsSoWhite controversy dominating proceedings this past season, Parker’s film (read our review) seems primed to redress the balance. Expect to see it pop up at other festivals like Cannes and the Toronto International Film Festival to keep its momentum up through the fall, but this is as close to a lock as you can get with 363 days to go.
Steven Spielberg is always a force to be reckoned with —even his less-loved prestige pictures like “War Horse” or even last year’s “Bridge Of Spies” still manage to rack up multiple nominations and Best Picture nods, with only the occasional “Amistad” or “The Terminal” left entirely out in the cold. His summer releases tend to fare less well —in the last thirty years of his Best Picture nominees, only “Saving Private Ryan” had a summer date— but “The BFG” could well have the right stuff. This adaptation of Roald Dahl’s beloved classic reunites Spielberg with this year’s Oscar-winner Mark Rylance as the titular Big Friendly Giant, with the director working from a script from Melissa Mathison (who sadly passed away last year) for the first time since “E.T.” It looks to be true Spielberg awe-and-wonder territory, and in a year with few awards-friendly blockbuster prospects, few would bet against it. That said, there is a potential spoiler lurking, with Focus’s similarly-themed “A Monster Calls,” which has a prize-winning, emotionally potent and much-lauded source material, and an Oscar-friendly cast including Felicity Jones and Liam Neeson.
“Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk”
Though he’s a two-time Best Director winner, Ang Lee’s never had one of his films win Best Picture —“Brokeback Mountain” was beaten by “Crash,” and “Life Of Pi” by “Argo.” Could “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” be the one to break the curse? Based on Ben Fountain’s award-winning novel, it’s a story about a group of soldiers from the Iraq war set during a salute to the soldiers during a football game, a sort of mix of “The Hurt Locker” and “Flags Of Our Fathers,” but with a lightly satirical tone. Lee’s pushing things forward technically with the film —shooting in 120 FPS 3D—and has attracted A-list collaborators with a script from “Slumdog Millionaire” scribe Simon Beaufoy. His usual against-the-grain casting is in full force too: only Lee could bring together Kristen Stewart, Steve Martin, Vin Diesel, Chris Tucker and Garret Hedlund in a cast led by a complete newcomer, Joe Alwyn. Lee’s not above the occasional “Taking Woodstock”-style misfire, but if this works, expect it to be a big player.
The last two Best Picture winners starred Michael Keaton, which means that all eyes are on “The Founder” this year, which stars the “Birdman” and “Spotlight” actor in the lead role. The film’s a biopic of Ray Kroc, the man responsible for transforming McDonald’s from a handful of California restaurants to a world-beating exponent of American-style capitalism, while screwing over the McDonald brothers in the process. Laura Dern, Patrick Wilson and Nick Offerman also star in the film, and though it comes from “The Blind Side” helmer John Lee Hancock, expect something a little more “The Social Network” than “Saving Mr. Banks,” if reports of the script from Onion veteran and “The Wrestler” writer Robert D. Siegel are anything to go by. After a couple of disappointing years and with rumors of difficulties, The Weinstein Company will be looking to make a splash in the coming year, and “The Founder” definitely looks like their best prospect, especially with Keaton as its lucky charm .
The busiest filmmaker around right now might be the Chilean helmer Pablo Larrain, who has three movies due for release in 2017. “The Club” and his poetry biopic “Neruda” are probably unlikely to register in a big way on the awards circuit, but his English-language debut “Jackie” could well follow his Foreign Language nominee “No” to the Oscar party. The project, which follows Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman) in the days following the assassination of John F. Kennedy, has been kicking around for a few years, with names like Steven Spielberg and Darren Aronofsky attached, but it’s Larrain who got it over the line, and he’s a perfect fit for the material. We looked at the script by Noah Oppenheim way back in the day, and it was a very strong piece of work even then, and Larrain’s cast it with ringers like Portman, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup, Peter Sarsgaard and John Hurt. The movie wraps shortly, and should be ready for the fall festivals: it doesn’t have a distributor yet, but assuming this lives up to expectations, it’ll be a contender.
Damien Chazelle’s “Whiplash” was the little film that could: a brilliantly executed yet modest little drama about a jazz drummer and his teacher that swept Sundance and Cannes before resonating at the Oscars, at which it won three awards, more than heavy hitters like “American Sniper,” “Boyhood,” “The Imitation Game” and “The Theory Of Everything.” Chazelle is back this year with an ambitious third feature: an original Hollywood-set musical about the romance between a jazz pianist and an aspiring actress, with Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone in lead roles. It could turn out to be an enormous folly in the tradition of “At Long Last Love” or “One From The Heart,” but Chazelle has talent to burn, and the cast he’s assembled (with Oscar winner J.K. Simmons reuniting with him, and Rosemarie DeWitt and “The Big Short” breakout Finn Wittrock as well) suggests he’s got something here. The film’s currently set for a summer release, which won’t help its Oscar chances, but if it turns out to be a successful Hollywood-set musical, it could go the distance.
“Manchester By The Sea”
The other big Sundance success of this year, “Manchester By The Sea” sees writer-director Kenneth Lonergan rise from the ashes of “Margaret” (a great film that sat on a shelf for years before being buried by its distributor) with arguably the best-reviewed movie of the festival. That doesn’t always necessarily lead to Oscar glory, but reaction to the film, which involves Casey Affleck as a man who returns to his hometown after his brother’s death to take care of his nephew, suggests that it packs the kind of serious emotional punch that should make it an awards favorite. Lonergan’s a critic’s favorite, but he’s also not a complete stranger to the Oscars —“You Can Count On Me” earned two nominations a decade ago— and should get some additional star power thanks to producer Matt Damon. Perhaps this film will prove to be too modest and actor-driven to register for Best Picture, but this is looking good for now.
Before 2000, Martin Scorsese had never won an Oscar, and only three of his movies had been nominated for Best Picture. In the sixteen years since, five of his six pictures earned Best Picture and Best Director nods (only “Shutter Island,” a genre-y picture released in February, missed out), and he finally has a statuette of his own for "The Departed." As such, it means that even when he’s working out of his traditional comfort zone to the extent that he is with his much-anticipated “Silence,” it would be foolish to count Scorsese out. A far cry from the excess and materialism of “The Wolf Of Wall Street,” this film, based on Shüsaku Endō’s novel, promises to be a sober look at faith and martyrdom involving two Portuguese priests who risk persecution when they travel to Japan. It’s an unfamiliar setting for Scorsese to some extent, but promises plenty of blood and Catholic contemplation —given his current run, it’d have to be truly inaccessible not to grab the Academy’s attention, especially with Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver and Liam Neeson leading the cast.
“Belle” seemed in many ways to have the right stuff for awards consideration —it’s a lush period piece that stealthily used its corset-y trappings to make fascinating points about race, gender and identity. But Fox Searchlight released the film in May, and despite good reviews, that studio was too distracted with “Birdman” and “Grand Budapest Hotel” to give it an Oscar push. Don’t expect that to happen this time with director Amma Asante’s follow-up “A United Kingdom,” which recently wrapped its shoot. Coming from “The King’s Speech” and “Selma” backers Pathe, the film tells the story of Seretse Khama, the king of the country that would become Botswana who was forced to renounce the throne after marrying a white English woman, causing uproar at home in the U.K. and in neighboring apartheid-era South Africa, only for Khama to return, become the new nation’s first democratic leader and help make the nation’s economy the fastest growing in the world. It’s an extraordinary story, one well-suited to Asante’s skill set, and she’s got an awards-friendly cast on board, with recent nominee Rosamund Pike and should-have-been-a-nominee David Oyelowo as the leads. There’s no U.S. distributor yet, but expect it to land one quickly.
“The Zookeeper’s Wife”
There was a time when a World War II-era movie was virtually guaranteed an Oscar nomination, but they’ve been thinner on the ground recently —of late, only “The Imitation Game,” “Inglourious Basterds,” “Atonement” and “The Reader” have really grappled with the subject matter with any real awards success. 2017 will bring Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” movie, but we could see a return to the era before that with “The Zookeeper’s Wife,” an unusually female-driven WWII pic. Based on Diane Ackerman’s best selling novel, it tells the true story of Antonina Żabińska and her husband Jan, the keepers of the Warsaw Zoo in the late 1930s who saved the lives of Jews fleeing the Nazis by hiding them in animal cages. Jessica Chastain and “Broken Circle Breakdown” star Johan Heldenbergh have the lead roles, with Daniel Brühl as their Nazi adversary from the Berlin Zoo, while Angela Workman wrote the script, and Niki Caro (“Whale Rider”) directs. The latter can be hit and miss, but when she’s on form she’s hard to beat, and with Chastain leading, this should be much more than “We Bought A Zoo: WWII Edition,” and looks to be Focus Features’ big hope for the season.
While quality control can be an issue with the fast-working Clint Eastwood (see recent efforts "Jersey Boys" or "Trouble With The Curve"), when he’s firing on all cylinders, he’s a tough to beat. His last picture "American Sniper" is the biggest hit of the 85 year-old director’s career by a huge margin, the second highest grossing R-rated movie of all time domestically, and it earned six Oscar nominations, winning for Sound Mixing. So pay close attention to "Sully," because it pairs Eastwood with unshakably reliable Tom Hanks, telling the ripped from the headlines story about Chesley Sullenberger, the airline captain who in 2009 safely piloted a plane into a safe crash landing in the Hudson River with no casualties. You can practically hear the audience cheering for this one already, and if the picture onscreen is as rousing as it was in real life, "Sully" could well be in the race.
Honorable Mentions: We’re not going to list every movie that could figure in during the year, but there are some others worth paying attention to. Tom Ford’s “Nocturnal Animals” with Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal will attract heat, and Robert Zemeckis’ as-yet-untitled WWII spy romance with Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard already has a fall release date set.
Jeff Nichols’ civil rights marriage drama “Loving” could chime nicely with the diversity narrative. If Warren Beatty will finally be done with his Howard Hughes movie this year, it’ll be a major event. With the backing of Brad Pitt’s Plan B and A24, Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight” could be a surprise in waiting. Oil rig disaster drama “Deepwater Horizon” with Mark Wahlberg seems more “Everest” than “Gravity” at a distance but could figure in, while Matthew McConaughey has a couple of potentials with “Free State Of Jones” and “Gold.” Meanwhile, “The Girl On The Train” could fill the “Gone Girl” slot of genre-y awards fare, while “Passengers” with Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence and Denis Villeneuve’s “Story Of Your Life” with Amy Adams are looking to make the jump beyond their sci-fi trappings.
Derek Cianfrance’s “The Light Between Oceans” looks potent in its trailer, but we worry that DreamWorks are dooming it with a Labor Day release. Mike Mills could step up a gear with his “20th Century Women,” while James Gray’s “The Lost City Of Z” could see him crack into the awards conversation if enough people like it. Brad Pitt and Netflix will unveil their “War Machine,” Will Smith has an all-star cast joining him for “Collateral Beauty,” Woody Harrelson stars in the Alexander Payne-produced Daniel Clowes adaptation “Wilson,” Jessica Chastain goes to Washington for “Miss Sloane,” and Christian Bale and Oscar Isaac have "The Promise."
Who do you think are the strongest contenders? Let us know in the comments section.