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10 Awards Season Movies That Could Be Surprise Contenders

10 Awards Season Movies That Could Be Surprise Contenders

Awards season gets underway this week. We’re sorry. We know it’s August. But it’s a fact—the premiere of “Gravity” on Wednesday at Venice is only the first in a veritable tsunami of Oscar contenders that will be unveiled on the Lido, with more unspooling at TellurideTIFF and NYFF over the next six weeks or so. By the beginning of October, we’ll have a much better sense of how the season will be looking (although some of these films have started screening already—we’ve seen a couple, though are embargoed for the moment).

You could probably name a lot of the films that’ll be in the running sight unseen off the top of your head right now: “American Hustle,” “Wolf Of Wall Street,” “Saving Mr. Banks,” “The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty,” “Inside Llewyn Davis,” “Foxcatcher,” “Nebraska,” “August Osage County,” “Twelve Years A Slave,” “Labor Day,” “Monuments Men,” “Captain Philips,” “Her,” “The Counselor,” “Grace Of Monaco,” “Diana,” “Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom,” “Rush,” etc, etc.

But what about the surprises? Films like “Slumdog Millionaire,” “The King’s Speech,” “The Artist” and even “Silver Linings Playbook” weren’t necessarily on the radars of awards-watchers until they bowed on the festival circuit, going on to be early front-runners. So while the competition’s already stiff, assuming the movies above live up to expectations, there’s always room for a few more. Below are ten movies that might not be on prognosticator’s watch-lists just yet, but just might be ones to keep an eye on in the weeks and months to come. Take a look below, let us know your thoughts in the comments section, and stay tuned as we pack our bags to Venice, Telluride, Toronto and beyond.

Why It Could Be A Contender: Amma Asante‘s first film, 2004’s “A Way Of Life,” was little seen outside the U.K., but her belated follow-up, shouldn’t suffer the same fate, having been picked up in North America by Fox Searchlight, and now heading for TIFF. The bigger question at this point is whether it might be a late-breaking entry into the awards race this year. The film tells the true story of a mixed-race woman raised in an aristocratic family in 18th century England, and has a solid and eclectic cast, led by potential breakout Gugu Mbatha-Raw with the likes of Tom Wilkinson, Miranda Richardson, Sarah Gadon, Tom Felton, Emily Watson and Matthew Goode in support, and there’s some solid buzz already circling it. If the reviews out of TIFF are strong, there’s certainly a gap for this kind of costume drama in the race. And it seems that Fox Searchlight are certainly considering the possibility. The Hollywood Reporter said last month that, as they have in the past with “Crazy Heart” and “Hitchcock,” the studio might try the so-called “sneak attack” with one of their slate, and “Belle” seems like a much more natural fit for that than the studio’s other potential: Jude Law crime comedy “Dom Hemingway” (also at TIFF, but not obviously Oscar material unless it’s transcendently good) and Wes Anderson‘s “Grand Budapest Hotel” (which we’re assuming will be held for Cannes, or at least a “Moonrise Kingdom“-style summer release).
Why It Might Not: Searchlight’s awards slate is thin, but that’s because they’re going to be focusing most of their energies on Steve McQueen‘s “12 Years A Slave” (and potentially, “Enough Said“—see below). Indeed, the studio have already set the movie for a May 2014 release for “Belle,” in part to try and replicate the impressive success of “Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” and in part because there are internal worries that between McQueen’s film and TWC’s “Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom” and “Fruitvale Station,” there are too many films with black leads for “Belle” to get traction (We’d argue there’s room for them all, but you can see the logic, given the Academy’s tastes). That said, if the reviews are strong enough—or if “Twelve Years A Slave” fails to live up to expectations—there’s a fair chance “Belle” might step up.

The Book Thief
Why It Could Be A Contender: A film that many weren’t aware existed until a few weeks ago, “The Book Thief” remains under the radar at this point, despite its trailer debuting last week. But 20th Century Fox seem to think they might have something, as they moved the film from an inauspicious January release date to the height of Oscar season, on a similar date to the one that proved so successful with “Life Of Pi” last year. Based on Markus Zusak‘s worldwide bestseller, it’s a World War II tale with Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson, and helmed by Brian Percival, who’s no stranger to awards glory, being an Emmy winner for his work on “Downton Abbey.” Millions of readers know that the story’s the kind of potent tearjerker that often leads to awards fare, and the trailer seems to suggest that it’s handsomely done. And there’s actually a bit of a gap this year for this sort of thing: none of the pre-anointed contenders are literary-derived war weepies, a genre that traditionally does well with the Academy.
Why It Might Not: That said, something like this has been less popular in recent years (“The Pianist” was the last one to make a real impact). And with the film skipping the festival circuit entirely, the signs don’t appear to indicate it’ll be a particular critical favorite. And while something like “Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close” can pick up nominations off the back of the previous form of its cast and filmmakers (not to mention sheer force of will), this isn’t prestige-y in the same way. Plus for every film like that one that makes the cut, there’s a “Boy In The Striped Pajamas” that never gets the traction, and at first glance, this does seem more like that film than anything else. Still, it’s the kind of effort we can see the older Academy crowd responding to if Fox can get it in front of them.

Devil’s Knot
Why It Could Be A Contender: The story of the West Memphis Three is one of the best-known miscarriages of justice in living memory, and no one would argue that it’s been under-documented on screen: there have been three films by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky (the last of which, “Paradise Lost III: Purgatory,” was an Oscar nominee two years back) as well as Amy Berg‘s “West Memphis Three.” But “Devil’s Knot” marks the first time the story’s been turned into a narrative feature, arriving thanks to the well-matched hands of Canadian helmer Atom Egoyan. The filmmaker’s not been in Oscar’s favor recently, but let’s not forget that he’s a Best Director nominee (for “The Sweet Hereafter“), and he’s got a hell of a cast here, with recent winners Colin Firth and Reese Witherspoon heading up an ensemble that also includes Dane DeHaan, Mireille Enos, Amy Ryan and Alessandro Nivola. While it’s well-trodden ground, it’s still incredibly resonant material and Egoyan could take it in some interesting directions.
Why It Might Not: Audiences and critics may decide that the territory has been well traveled already, and Egoyan will really have to bring the drama to make it resonate. And some of that responsibility also falls to screenwriter  Scott Derrickson, whose credits—”The Day The Earth Stood Still,” “Sinister“—doesn’t instill a lot of confidence. And oh yeah, this will need a distributor willing to hit the ground running with the movie, and there are only a few that can take make that turnaround from unknown quantity to contender in such a short time.

The Disappearance Of Eleanor Rigby: Him & Her
Why It Could Be A Contender: One of the most ambitious films of the festival season, and one we’ve had our eye on for a little while, “The Disappearance Of Eleanor Rigby” is a two-part, three-hour drama from first-time writer/director Ned Benson. Examining the disintegrating relationship of a young married couple, and told in two distinct parts focusing on the two sides of the story, it’s a bold idea, and it’s no surprise that Benson was able to attract an extraordinary cast, with Jessica Chastain and James McAvoy in the leads, and Viola Davis, Ciaran Hinds, Isabelle Huppert, William Hurt and Bill Hader in support. It’s a fascinating concept, and with McAvoy and Chastain (who also serves as a producer, and, let’s not forget, has two nominations in the last two years) starring, there’s plenty of potential for memorable lead performances, and possibly much more besides.
Why It Might Not: Many, many reasons. For one, the TIFF screenings are billed as a “work-in-progress,” which means that the film’s not done, which makes a 2013 release less likely, even if someone picks it up out of TIFF (there’s no distributor in place yet). Furthermore, the dual nature of the movie poses a difficult question — which movie do people nominate? Is Chastain Best Actress in “Her,” but Supporting in “Him?” Would the film end up robbing votes from itself? Or could it be eligible as the double-length take? There’s all kinds of complexities inherent in the film, and even if the movie turns out to be everything we hope, it doesn’t really seem to be something that’ll get a lot of awards play. So short answer, it’s probably not a player in 2013, and it’s probably not in 2014 either, but you never known, and we’ll find out in a few weeks if that is the case or not.

Enough Said
Why It Could Be A Contender: While her semi-contemporary Lisa Chodolenko had something of an awards breakthrough a few years back with “The Kids Are All Right,” Nicole Holofcener‘s never quite made the same leap. She’s been behind the strong likes of “Lovely And Amazing” and “Please Give,” but while they’ve been consistently well-received, they’ve never broken out to a wider crowd, or to major awards recognition. On paper, her new film, “Enough Said” might not change that — it’s another small-scope comedy-drama, this time about a woman who discovers that her new beau is the ex-husband of her new best friend. But the film does have the might of Fox Searchlight behind it this time, who’ve had success with this sort of thing in the past. Furthermore, it has Emmy favorite Julia Louis-Dreyfus in her first big-screen role in fifteen years, and, perhaps most importantly, has the final leading role of the late James Gandolfini. If it even comes close to working—and Holofcener’s as reliable as they come—Gandolfini could be a very viable Best Actor or Supporting Actor candidate, given the apparent warmth of the performance, and the esteem in which he was held by his peers.
Why It Might Not: It doesn’t entirely look like Best Picture material—it seems even smaller in scope and scale than similar indie “The Kids Are All Right” or even something like “Nebraska.” As such, it’ll have to be really superb (or a lot of the competition will have to fall down) to get above a Screenplay nomination. As for Gandolfini, it’s easy to remember that for every Heath Ledger who gets a posthumous nomination or award, there are actors whose final work failed to get recognition. As sentimental as Academy members can be, the performance generally has to be of the caliber where they would have been nominated anyway. That’s not to say it won’t be happening (Gandolfini looks great in the film), but don’t necessarily count on it.

The Invisible Woman
Why It Could Be A Contender: From “Shakespeare In Love” to “Iris” to “The Hours,” there was a time when a literary biopic was almost a guaranteed way to pick up a brace of Oscars. The genre has seen slim pickings in the last few years, but Charles Dickens is about as big a name as you could ask for, so “The Invisible Woman” is certainly worthy of consideration. After making an impressive directorial debut with “Coriolanus” a few years back, Ralph Fiennes both takes the helm and the role of Dickens, with fast-rising-star Felicity Jones as his mistress Nelly Ternan. It’s adapted from Claire Tomalin‘s award-winning biography by “Shame” writer Abi Morgan, so the prestige is certainly there on the page, and with Kristin Scott-Thomas and Tom Hollander among the supporting cast, there’s plenty more on the screen too. Last year marked Dickens’ bicentennial, so he’s been in the zeitgeist, and with screenings at both TIFF and NYFF, it should keep the momentum up through to awards season, not least with a prime Christmas Day release that worked out nicely for Sony Pictures Classics for “Amour” last year. Plus, the buzz we hear on this is very promising; of all ten, we’re most confident that this might turn up somewhere.
Why It Might Not: Sony always have an impressive slate of contenders, but often end up spreading themselves too thin. They have had three nominations in the last four years, but never more than that, and we wonder if “Blue Jasmine” might be a surer thing for the company (that said, it might also not lead to anything beyond screenplay and a nomination for Cate Blanchett, but that’s a discussion for another time). Furthermore, it’s possible that the film might struggle to be seen as more than a performance showcase—Jones and Fiennes might well be in the running, depending on the strength of the categories, but it’ll really need strong reviews out of TIFF to be a Best Picture contender. Still, all told, this could be a good outside bet.

The Last Of Robin Hood
Why It Could Be A Contender: Movies about Hollywood history have been big in awards season the last few years, with both “The Artist” and “Argo” going on to win Best Picture, in part because they appealed to Academy voters’ love for their own industry. That slot might be taken this year by “Saving Mr. Banks,” but as a Disney movie about Disney, it might be seen as a more partisan kind of movie. This could make way for “The Last Of Robin Hood,” which takes a look at a darker side of a great Hollywood icon. Directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, who were behind the undervalued “Quinceanera,” it tells the story of the late-in-life affair between legendary swashbuckling star Errol Flynn and underage actress Beverly Aadland, with Kevin Kline and Dakota Fanning in the lead roles, and Susan Sarandon (as Aadland’s mother) and Max Casella (as Stanley Kubrick; it’ll be interesting to see if they include the “Lolita” would-be casting rumor) among the supporting cast. Kline hasn’t been nominated since winning for “A Fish Called Wanda,” and has something of a little revival coming (he’s apparently the highlight of “Last Vegas,” which looks set to be a big hit in the holiday season), while Fanning’s been inching towards a nomination for about fifteen of the twenty years she’s been on the planet. The film’s an unknown quantity, but this is one to keep an eye on at TIFF.
Why It Might Not: While “The Artist” and “Argo” were about Hollywood, they also glorified the industry to some degree—Academy members could walk out and feel good about their chosen profession. Digging up the darker side of things, as “The Last Of Robin Hood” seems to do, and reminding everyone that a beloved actor was more-or-less a pedophile, doesn’t exactly have the same feelgood factor, and there’s bound to be a little controversy attached. Then it should be noted that Kline, at 65, is fifteen years older than Flynn was when he died. Maybe it’ll be fine (he does look younger than his years), or maybe it’ll end up looking like Kevin Spacey in “Beyond The Sea.” If the film is to be an awards player, it’ll have to overcome both that and its potentially tricky subject matter. And it should go without saying, it’ll also have to be good: last year, “Hitchcock” proved that, if the movie stinks, you’re unlikely to land with the Academy. And before any of this conversation can be had, it needs a distributor.

Why It Could Be A Contender: As one of the great American icons, it was inevitable that the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy would be celebrated by someone. And while “Parkland” hasn’t registered on many radars as yet, it’s set to make a splash on the festival circuit very shortly. Produced by Tom Hanks, and marking the directorial debut of journalist and novelist Peter Landesman, it tells the story of the day in November when JFK was killed, through the eyes of the agents investigating (including Billy Bob Thornton), the doctors trying to save him (including Zac Efron), the family of the perpetrator (James Badge Dale and Jacki Weaver) and witnesses like Abraham Zapruder (Paul Giamatti). It’s the kind of ensemble approach that the actors’ branch always respond to, and the trailer suggests that it’s a handsomely mounted historical drama. Lord knows that the Academy still love Hanks, and with the star looking like a double-threat with “Saving Mr Banks” and “Captain Philips,” he’ll likely be on the circuit and giving his own baby a push. And though it’s an unknown quantity, quality-wise, that it’s in competition at Venice bodes reasonably well.
Why It Might Not: Remember “Bobby,” Emilio Estevez‘s ensemble drama about the assassination of Bobby Kennedy? It looks like “Bobby.” There’s a similar assembly of not-quite A-list talent, and what seems to be a similar kind of structure. And while that film ended up with a few Golden Globe nominations, it failed to make much of an impact with the Academy. This seems to be aspiring to something closer to a Paul Greengrass-type docudrama, but some of the lines in that trailer are fairly clunky, so we’ll need to see the thing to have any real confidence in its Oscar chances (we’ll have our review for you later in the week). It’s also distributor Exclusive Media Group‘s first time at bat, so it remains to be seen how they’ll get on with campaign season, and it’s got a tough release date, going head-to-head with “Gravity” and with based-in-fact dramas “Captain Phillips” and “The Fifth Estate” following hot on its heels. Will it be able to stand out from the crowd?  

The Railway Man
Why It Could Be A Contender:The Book Thief” isn’t the only World War II drama on the way, and one could argue that “The Railway Man” seems like a more solid prospect. The film tells the true story of a Japanese POW camp who searches out the man who tortured him, and stars two previous Oscar-winners, Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman, with a classy supporting cast also including Jeremy Irvine, Stellan Skarsgard and Hiroyuki Sanada (in a supporting turn we’ve already heard some buzz about). While Australian director Jonathan Teplitzky (“Burning Man“) doesn’t have much of an Oscar track record so far, this is the kind of material that couldn’t be more up the Academy’s street. While it doesn’t yet have a U.S. distributor, the film is going to be unveiled at TIFF next month, and early word is that it’s both pretty good, and very Academy-friendly. While there are a lot of contenders out there already, many of the indie distributors could well pick it up out of Toronto, even if it’s just to push nominations for Firth, Kidman and Sanada.
Why It Might Not Be: Again, right now there’s no distributor and no release date in place. And it may be that the filmmakers are actively against the idea of putting it out this year, with Kris Tapley noting on the Oscar Talk podcast that some people involved with the movie are keen to wait for 2014, presumably to avoid it being overshadowed by other films (not least Kidman’s other contender, “Grace Of Monaco“). And it’s certainly true that most of the companies that would seem like natural fits for a film like this—TWC, Focus, Fox Searchlight—have their slates pretty full already. Assuming the film works, it might be better served with more time to campaign. But if some of the presumed frontrunners fall away, of if “Grace Of Monaco” doesn’t deliver, we could see this hustled quickly this fall.

Le Week-End
Why It Could Be A Contender: Seven years ago, Peter O’Toole picked up his final Oscar nomination (assuming he sticks with his plan of retirement) for a lovely turn in “Venus.” Now, the director and writer of that film, Roger Michell and Hanif Kureshi, have teamed up again, for another tale of life on the other side of sixty. Jim Broadbent and RSC veteran Lindsay Duncan star as a married couple who head to Paris for a second honeymoon on their thirtieth anniversary, only to find themselves re-examining their relationship, in part thanks to the intervention of an old, wildly successful friend (Jeff Goldblum). That’s right, it’s a sort of “Before Sunrise,” with two of Britain’s finest actors, and one of America’s best, in front of the camera. While Michell can be hit and miss (his last would-be awards-contender, “Hyde Park On Hudson,” falling in the latter category), he’s done some of his fine work, and this has crowd-pleaser written all over it, and shouldn’t be ruled out.
Why It Might Not Be: “Venus” had the advantage of having a performance from one of the most iconic (and unrewarded) stars in cinema history, and didn’t pick up much aside from the nod for O’Toole. So there will be little of that similar sympathy here. Meanwhile, distributors Music Box Films are still a bit new to the game, and couldn’t pull off nods for buzzed performances Noomi Rapace (“The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo“) and Rachel Weisz (“The Deep Blue Sea“) in recent years, even with significant critical support, particularly for the latter.  
Other Possibilities: There’s three movies that would be on this list, but we really can’t see them turning up this side of January. We discussed Wes Anderson‘s “Grand Budapest Hotel” above, but to reiterate, the film’s likely to be held for Cannes, or a similar mid-2014 date. Meanwhile, we were expecting both “A Most Wanted Man” and “Serena” to be on the festival circuit somewhere, but both have been absent, so we don’t expect them to see the light of day until next year. Jean-Pierre Jeunet‘s “The Young & Prodigious Spivet” is ready—it’s premiering at the rather low-key San Sebastian Film Festival—and given that, it seems unlikely to be a player.

As for films that could see the light of day in 2013, there’s “Can A Song Save Your Life?,” the “Once” follow-up from John Carney, with Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo, another as-yet distributor-less film that could break out at TIFF. Also at the festival are under-the-radar pictures like the Clive Owen/Juliette Binoche film “Words And Pictures,” Andre 3000-starring Jimi Hendrix biopic “All Is By My Side,” comedy-drama “You Are Here,” the feature debut of “Mad Men” creator Matthew Wiener, Biafra war film “Half Of A Yellow Sun” with Chiwetel Ejiofor, the James Corden-starring “One Chance” (which has the Weinstein Company‘s backing, but seems more “Unfinished Song” than “Silver Linings Playbook“) and, perhaps most importantly, Stephen Frears‘ “Philomena,” which could see Judi Dench being in contention. Lastly, there’s some word knocking about that Somalian refugee drama “The Good Lie” starring Reese Witherspoon might pop up at Telluride.

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