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For Your Consideration: Assessing The Major Oscar Races In The Calm Before The Storm

For Your Consideration: Assessing The Major Oscar Races In The Calm Before The Storm

At this point last year, all but one film that would go on to win an Academy Award had screened in some capacity. The exception? Animated Feature and Original Song winner “Frozen,” though we were just a week or two away from that changing.

It’s hard to imagine that not a single Oscar will come from the octet of seemingly awards hungry films left to screen: Angelina Jolie’s “Unbroken,” Clint Eastwood’s “American Sniper,” Ava DuVernay’s “Selma,” Tim Burton’s “Big Eyes,” JC Chandor’s “A Most Violent Year,” Rupert Wyatt’s “The Gambler,” Ridley Scott’s “Exodus: Gods and Kings” and Rob Marshall’s “Into The Woods.” But stranger things have happened. And either way, it makes for an exciting home stretch. With two months to go, there’s still no clear frontrunner.

Many expected that to change yesterday with the embargo lift on reviews for Christopher Nolan’s remarkably anticipated “Interstellar.” But the reviews were certainly not of the sort that shoots a film to frontrunner status. Granted, “Interstellar’s” narrative is not over. Critics don’t necessarily make or break a film’s awards chances, and audiences won’t be weighing in for another week or so.  Which leaves “Interstellar” in an uncertain position similar to most films in the hunt for gold this season. Time will tell, and it will do so quite shortly. The eight films mentioned earlier in this article are all likely to screen by the end of November, and the critics’ prizes, Golden Globes, Screen Actors Guild and others will lend their opinions soon thereafter. By mid-December, we should have a very clear picture of where things are heading. But in the calm before that storm, let’s take a look at where they are now with respect to the six big categories.

Best Picture

While no film has emerged as a full-on frontrunner, two films have been steadily hanging in the wings to potentially emerge as just that: Alejandro González Iñárritu’s “Birdman” and Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood.” Both have the critics on their side, have proved commercially successful (at least thus far, in the case of the two weeks out “Birdman”) and have sustained — or even continued to build — Oscar buzz since they made their debuts. At the absolute very least, they are both getting nominations. But there’s simply too many films we haven’t seen to lock in much else, though it’s hard to imagine “The Imitation Game” not getting in as well (though it’s also hard to imagine it winning).

In a fantasy situation where all the films that are left to screen are not in consideration, one would imagine “Interstellar,” “Foxcatcher,” “Gone Girl,” “The Theory of Everything,” “Mr. Turner” and “Whiplash” rounding out the best picture race (under the likely wrong assumption that there will be 9 nominees for the fourth year in a row). But there’s almost no way all five of those films will survive. And unlike “Birdman” and “Boyhood,” each of those films has found their awards buzz fluctuate considerably since they premiered. Currently, it would seem “The Theory and Everything” and “Whiplash” are the MVPs among them. But that could change in the next few weeks.

What will also change in the new few weeks is our understanding of what “Unbroken,” “American Sniper,” “Big Eyes,” “Into The Woods,” “A Most Violent Year,” “Selma,” “The Gambler” and “Exodus” are bringing to the season. If they want to be considered for critics’ prizes, they’ll have to screen before the end of November.  So it’s likely that by that time, we’ll know if one of them has what it takes to overtake “Birdman” and “Boyhood” and become the season’s first full-on frontrunner. 

On paper, the most likely to succeed in that regard is “Unbroken.” It’s the kind of true life story Oscar winners are made of: It follows World War II hero Louis “Louie” Zamperini, a former Olympic track star who survived a plane crash in the Pacific only to spend 47 days drifting on a raft, and then more than two and a half years living in several Japanese prisoner of war camps. If Jolie can pull it off (and it doesn’t hurt that the Coen brothers wrote the script), it could be a force to be reckoned with. But so could any of them, really. So let’s enjoy the fun of all those question marks while they last, and take in these predicted nominees with the grains of salt that come with that uncertainty.
The predicted nominees:
“American Sniper”
“Gone Girl”
“The Imitation Game”
“The Theory of Everything”

Best Director

If our thoughts on the Best Picture race have any credence, it suggests Alejandro González Iñárritu and Richard Linklater are as close to locks in this category as they come. And, really, they should be. “Birdman” and “Boyhood” are each remarkable achievements in their own right, and it’s hard to imagine director’s branch of the Academy not feeling strongly inclined to reward them. It would mark Iñárritu’s second nomination in the category (he got in for directing “Babel,” though has also received four other nominations in other categories), and Linklater’s very first (he has two nominations for writing, but none for directing).

Another filmmaker who has received writing nods but never one for directing is Mr. Christopher Nolan. Many felt he was snubbed for “Inception” and/or “The Dark Knight,” and it’s entirely possible “Interstellar” could make up for that.  But it’s no sure thing at this point, and we’d wager Morten Tyldum is currently a safer bet at a first nomination for his work on “The Imitation Game.”

Whether they — or previous nominees like David Fincher (“Gone Girl”), Mike Leigh (“Mr. Turner”) and Bennett Miller (“Foxcatcher”) — can get in once again depends on their ultimate competition, which features a few folks who could make for historic nominees. Angelina Jolie would become only the fifth woman nominated in this category, and the first Academy Award winning actress to become an Academy Award nominated director. Clint Eastwood — who interestingly directed Jolie to an Oscar nomination in “Changeling” — would become the oldest person ever nominated in this category. Ava DuVernay — whose “Selma” is oddly enough produced by Jolie’s husband Brad Pitt  — would also become the fifth (or sixth, if Jolie is also nominated) woman to be nominated here, and the very first African-American woman. Certainly some fascinating food for thought going to the home stretch, though for now, this is where we see the race standing.

The predicted nominees:
Clint Eastwood, “American Sniper”
Alejandro González Iñárritu, “Birdman”
Angelina Jolie, “Unbroken”
Richard Linklater, “Boyhood”
Morten Tyldum, “The Imitation Game”

Best Actor

The best actor race always tends to be pretty stacked, largely, and sadly, because most films that end up featured in the Oscar race are primarily about men. This year is absolutely no exception, with no fewer than 20 men in the mix. Of them, a mighty quintet has been standing firm since early September: Steve Carell (“Foxcatcher”), Benedict Cumberbatch (“The Imitation Game”), Michael Keaton (“Birdman”), Eddie Redmayne (“The Theory of Everything”) and Timothy Spall (“Mr. Turner”). Of them, Keaton seems like the vulnerable frontrunner, while Spall is probably the most likely to drop off if sight unseen performances from Oscar Isaac (“A Most Violent Year”), David Oyelowo (“Selma”) and Jack O’Connell (“Unbroken”) blow us away, which they very well could.

The shame in this is that it likely leaves a slew of very worthy work off the table. Ralph Fiennes in “The Grand Budapest Hotel” or Jake Gyllenhaal in “Nightcrawler” or Miles Teller in “Whiplash,” for example, are performances that would seem like shoo-ins many other years. Perhaps the tides will turn in their favor. But for now, we’re sticking with the most favored five (which would give this category a rare slate of all first time nominees).

The predicted nominees:
Steve Carell, “Foxcatcher”
Benedict Cumberbatch, “The Imitation Game”
Michael Keaton, “Birdman”
Eddie Redmayne, “The Theory of Everything”

Timothy Spall, “Mr. Turner”

Best Actress

There are two very notable things about this year’s best actress race. First, it’s the most clear of all the acting races. And second, it’s the leanest in terms of actual contenders. Unlike best actor, there’s probably only 9 or 10 women in genuine contention here. And that’s in part because of the last minute addition of Jennifer Aniston for her work in “Cake.” You certainly can’t blame upstart “Cake” distributor Cinelou Releasing for giving it a shot given how weak the competition is. Though it would make for a gossip magazine dream if Aniston gets her first Oscar nomination the same year Angelina Jolie gets nominated for best director and Brad Pitt is in for producing “Selma.”

For that scenario to happen, however, would require quite the campaign on Cinelou’s part. Aniston would need to break into a lineup that seems to have a solid four contenders already: Felicity Jones (“The Theory of Everything”), Julianne Moore (“Still Alice”), Rosamund Pike (“Gone Girl”) and Reese Witherspoon (“Wild”). Waiting in the wings is Amy Adams (said to be great in “Big Eyes”), Emily Blunt (reportedly the sole actress going lead for “Into The Woods”) and Jessica Chastain (who may or may not go lead for “A Most Violent Year”). If all of those falter, Aniston has a shot. Though either way, this is definitely Julianne Moore’s to lose anyway. If any of the acting races have a likely winner already, it’s this one.

The predicted nominees:
Amy Adams, “Big Eyes”
Felicity Jones, “The Theory of Everything”
Julianne Moore, “Still Alice”
Rosamund Pike, “Gone Girl”
Reese Witherspoon, “Wild”

Best Supporting Actor

Before this year even reached its half way point, folks had three very strong possibilities in this category thanks to Ethan Hawke and JK Simmons (with their Sundance premieres “Boyhood” and “Whiplash,” respectively) and Mark Ruffalo (Cannes premiere “Foxcatcher”). They’ve held on nice and strong months and months later, welcoming Edward Norton (Venice premiere “Birdman”) to their gang back in September. But do they all hang in there?

There’s a few other contenders we’ve already seen. Josh Brolin in “Inherent Vice,” Robert Duvall in “The Judge” and Tyler Perry in “Gone Girl,” for example. They could sneak into that fifth slot, but it would take a lot of failed potential. Because those eight Oscar hopefuls left to be seen have a whole lot of supporting actors. Which ones stand a chance here remains to be seen, but just look at this list: John Goodman (“The Gambler”), Tim Roth and Tom Wilkinson (“Selma”), Albert Brooks (“A Most Violent Year”), Christoph Waltz (“Big Eyes”), Johnny Depp (“Into The Woods”)… The whole category could end up being made from these names, for all we know. Though our sneaking suspicion is that a relative unknown gets in here.  Japanese singer Miyavi has a juicy, villainous role in “Unbroken” as a “The Bird,” the guard who made it his mission to break the spirit of the film’s hero. This category has been all about rewarding villains as of late (see Javier Bardem, Heath Ledger and Christoph Waltz), and perhaps Miyavi will be the latest.

The predicted nominees:
Ethan Hawke, “Boyhood”
Miyavi, “Unbroken”
Edward Norton, “Birdman”
Mark Ruffalo, “Foxcatcher”
JK Simmons, “Whiplash”

Best Supporting Actress

Oh, the problems of Jessica Chastain. Back in 2011 she had 4 performances in contention (“The Tree of Life,” “Take Shelter,” “The Help,” “Coriolanus”) during what was really her first year in the spotlight, eventually getting a nod for “The Help.” A couple years and another nomination later (for “Zero Dark Thirty” in 2012), she faces a similar problem. It’s not so much a matter of will she got nominated, but for which film.  At one point, she seemed like a potential contender for “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby,” though that film’s poor box office and lack of buzz seems to have left it to her two other 2014 releases: “Interstellar” and “A Most Violent Year.” It’s entirely possible she’ll go lead for “Year” and supporting for “Interstellar,” though good-but-not-amazing reviews for “Interstellar” suggest that maybe her best shot this year is indeed “Year.” And if that’s the case, and its arguable that it’s a supporting performance, a push here might be Chastain’s best shot at a third-time-is-the-charm Oscar win.

Whether that’s the case also depends on whether she can beat out a formidable group of women also looking very good for nominations: Patricia Arquette and Emma Stone seem close to locked in for potential Oscar heavyweights “Boyhood” and “Birdman,” respectively, while Keira Knightley (“The Imitation Game”), Laura Dern (“Wild”), Kristen Stewart (“Still Alice”), Carrie Coon (“Gone Girl”) and Rene Russo (“Nightcrawler”) all stand reasonable chances as well. Standing in their way is none other than Meryl Streep, who is looking for her whopping 19th Oscar nomination for what could be a show-stopping performance in Rob Marshall’s musical “Into The Woods.” Or perhaps this will be one of those years — they do happen every so often — where Streep sits things out. We’re not betting on that just yet, however:

The predicted nominees:
Patricia Arquette, “Boyhood”
Jessica Chastain, “Interstellar”
or “A Most Violent Year”
Keira Knightley, “The Imitation Game”

Emma Stone, “Birdman”
Meryl Streep, “Into The Woods”

Peter Knegt is Indiewire’s Contributing Editor and awards columnist. Follow him on Twitter.

Check out Peter’s latest charts of Oscar predictions here, and Anne Thompson’s latest charts here.

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