It’s been a strange Oscar season so far. Recent years have seen the races locked in early, with “12 Years A Slave,” “Argo,” “The Artist” and “The King’s Speech” all well on the path to glory by this point in time. And yet here we are in November, and most categories still feel open without clear front-runners and with a number of high-profile movies yet to be unveiled. You have to go back nearly a decade, to when “Crash,” “Brokeback Mountain” and the sight-unseen “Munich” were all contenders, to find a year as unpredictable and nebulous as this one.
Even some of the presumptive heavyweights haven’t quite landed with customary accolades. Last week saw the arrival of the first reviews for Christopher Nolan‘s sci-fi blockbuster “Interstellar,” a film that early buzz had suggested was a potential juggernaut for the awards season. But reaction was mixed. The film has its big fans, but also some more underwhelmed reactions, and even some outright haters (our own review being in the latter category, though other staffers who’ve seen are much more in the pro camp).
The film may yet prove to be a nominee. There’s a lot of love for it in the industry, with filmmakers like Brad Bird and Edgar Wright tweeting their support. But it’s certainly not the front-runner that some were expecting, and it might have even more impact in the director’s race. Nolan has never been nominated as a director, and many were expecting his time to have come this time around, but he’ll have a fight ahead of him to make it happen at this point, given the divided reaction to the picture so far. With “Interstellar” hitting theaters on Friday, we thought we’d put a spotlight on the Best Director category, to see who Nolan has to overcome, and the threats still on the way, that could see him thwarted yet again.
Right now, there are two filmmakers who seem like absolute locks in the category: Richard Linklater for “Boyhood” and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu for “Birdman“, and that’s hardly something we were expecting to write a few months ago, as the films are very different. Linklater’s picture is unshowy in every aspect except its concept, while Inarritu’s is a bravura showstopper, and one that’s quite different from his previous work. Their industry standings is quite different too: Linklater’s a perpetual outsider, albeit one who’s played in the studio sandbox a few times, while Inarritu is a previous nominee (for “Babel”) whose work can sometimes be unrelentingly bleak, but with “Birdman” he’s made his most accessible picture. Short of a major contender emerging from the films to come, it’ll likely be these two duking it for the win, and right now it’s hard to say who the Academy will go for. Will they recognize Inarritu’s bold one-take vision, or Linklater’s long-in-the-offing passion project? Either way, expect them both to be among the nominees on Oscar night.
Still To Come:
That said, there are still some potentially major threats to come, and happily and unusually, the two biggest ones are both women. Angelina Jolie showed that she had some impressive directing talent with “In The Land Of Blood & Honey,” and follow-up “Unbroken” is ostensibly a much better awards prospect. Universal have already started the push on the film, though it doesn’t screen until the middle of November, and given Jolie’s status as Hollywood royalty (she has two Oscars already, including her humanitarian award), she could well be set for a Robert Redford/George Clooney-style nod if the film even remotely works. Don’t count out Ava DuVernay, either. Her breakthrough “Middle Of Nowhere” was excellent, and studio debut “Selma,” about Martin Luther King’s famous civil rights march, certainly seems like the stuff awards success is made of. Advance buzz on the film (which, it should be stressed, isn’t finished) is mixed, but again, DuVernay could be in the mix if it turns out to have the goods. If she was nominated, she’d be the first African-American woman to do so in the category.
There are some more established names who could surprise as well. Clint Eastwood‘s “American Sniper” looks like his most serious prospect in a while, and the Academy hardly needs prompting to give him a nod. Veterans Tim Burton and Ridley Scott also have movies still to be unveiled, with “Big Eyes” and ‘Exodus: Gods And Kings” —neither quite look like awards heavyweights at this stage, but if they prove to be strong, they’re certainly potentials. Previous nominee Rob Marshall is back in his musical wheelhouse too, and if “Into The Woods” proves to be more “Chicago” than “Nine,” he’s a possibility as well.
Finally, we’re going to be seeing the latest from relative newcomers J.C. Chandor and Rupert Wyatt at AFI Fest over the next few weeks. when “A Most Violent Year” and “The Gambler” premiere. Chandor is already a nominee for writing “Margin Call,” but like Wyatt, he isn’t yet a household name, so our instinct is that even if their movies turn out to be legitimate Best Picture threats (‘Violent Year’ is the better bet, we reckon, especially after yesterday’s trailer), they may still be on the outside looking in. But it’s always possible that they turn out to be unignorably impressive directorial displays,
Of the films released so far, the second tier of potential nominees is probably headed by the helmers of the Brit-biopic-double-bill of “The Imitation Game” and “The Theory Of Everything,” Morten Tyldum and James Marsh. Again, both directors are likely unfamiliar to many Academy members (though Marsh already has an Oscar for documentary “Man On Wire“), but their movies are already playing extremely well to voters and look likely to pick up multiple nominations. Movies like theirs tend to be seen as actor/performance driven, so sometimes similar filmmakers can miss out (see Jean-Marc Vallee last year for “Dallas Buyers Club,” for instance —he’ll also miss out for “Wild” this time around), especially with the category proving more auteur-friendly these days. But Tom Hooper was in the same position a few years back, so they could still absolutely be players.
As we discussed above, Christopher Nolan’s not in the position he was before the reaction to “Interstellar” landed, but he shouldn’t be counted out: word is that the film’s playing better to Academy members than to critics. It might depend somewhat on the audience reaction as well, though because if the film doesn’t hit Nolan’s usual super-blockbuster standards, his chances get slimmer. Mike Leigh doesn’t have the same problem of expectations financially speaking, but is perhaps as much of a possibility. “Mr. Turner” is reportedly being eaten up by the Academy, and the potential for a third nomination for the helmer is very real.
Bennett Miller‘s also a previous nominee, but his filmmaking is unshowy enough that he can be in for an uphill struggle: he was nominated for “Capote” but not for “Moneyball,” and so “Foxcatcher,” could go either way. First-time feature director Damien Chazelle has a better chance with “Whiplash” is playing like gangbusters to pretty much everyone and has picked up a lot of steam of late in terms of the awards race. Chazelle would need a few bigger hitters to fall away to crack the final five, but if Benh Zeitlin can get a nomination, Chazelle certainly could too.
As we did with the acting categories, we wouldn’t want to discuss the potential nominees without flagging up some favorites that are just as deserving as any of the above, even if it might be a struggle to get Academy members to take them seriously. In the studio world, the sheer invention of Chris Lord and Phil Miller’s “The Lego Movie” certainly deserves a shout out (but the film should be a big threat in the animated feature race so it won’t be totally overlooked). Darren Aronofsky‘s “Noah” was as distinctive as anything the director’s ever made, while Gareth Edwards did a stunning job with “Godzilla” and Matt Reeves even more so with “Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes.”
Non English-language filmmakers often struggle to get attention in this category, so we’re resigned that the Dardennes and Pawel Pawlikowski will have to settle for competing in the foreign language category for “Two Days, One Night” and “Ida” respectively. And low-budget genre fare is rarely Academy friendly, so Denis Villeneuve, Jeremy Saulnier, Jim Jarmusch, Jonathan Glazer, Bong Joon-Ho and Jennifer Kent, while all deserving, would have a real fight for nods for “Enemy,” “Blue Ruin,” “Only Lovers Left Alive,” “Under The Skin,” “Snowpiercer” and “The Babadook.”
And indie-wise, we’d firmly be behind the idea of nominations for Kelly Reichardt and “Night Moves,” Richard Ayoade and “The Double,” Amma Asante and “Belle,” Gillian Robespierre and “Obvious Child,” Lenny Abrahamson and “Frank” and especially David Mackenzie and “Starred Up.” Again, if you’re an Academy member looking to broaden your horizons, you could do worse than pick any of that lot.
There are a few leftovers in the conversation, some of which have better chances than others at getting a second wind down the line. We’d be surprised if Jean-Marc Vallee (“Wild“), Glatzer & Westmoreland (“Still Alice“), Jon Stewart (“Rosewater“) or Theodore Melfi (“St. Vincent“) got much traction, and Tommy Lee Jones and “The Homesman” is probably not in the mix.
“Inherent Vice” was mostly liked at New York Film Festival, but the general consensus seems to be that the film’s a little too goofy for Academy tastes, so Paul Thomas Anderson probably sits this one out. The same might not be true of “Grand Budapest Hotel,” but a March release is probably still a little too far away to get the required momentum for Wes Anderson‘s first nod in the category, though we’ll see if the campaign gets into gear in the weeks ahead. David Ayer‘s “Fury” was seen as a potential in advance, but the film got mixed reviews, and it looks unlikely to be a player.
Perhaps the biggest question mark here is David Fincher: “Gone Girl” looks likely to pick up multiple nods, but the buzz on the director himself has gone a little cool. It could still happen, but it’ll probably need some support from the guilds to get there.
Predictions as it stands are below, look over the page for our Best Picture chart.
Predictions: Best Director
Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu – “Birdman”
Angelina Jolie – “Unbroken”
Richard Linklater – “Boyhood”
Christopher Nolan – “Interstellar”
Morten Tyldum – “The Imitation Game”
Best Picture Chart
The longest of long shots, really, but this week at least it clings on to the list: it’s likely too dark, and small, for Academy tastes, and it remains to be seen what kind of campaign Open Road will give it. But the film has been very warmly received, and it did pretty well on its opening weekend. Guild and critics’ group support could yet push it in the race.
19. “The Gambler”
Still something of an unknown quantity, even after a decent-looking trailer, our instinct is that this looks to mostly be a commercial play, but Paramount seem to have “The Wolf Of Wall Street”-style hopes for it, at least. We’ll be finding out shortly when it bows at AFI Fest.
18. “Inherent Vice”
Clinging on to the list for the moment despite many believing that the film’s too offbeat to work with the Academy. In part because it’s not been widely seen in LA yet, in part because Warner Bros don’t have much else to push this year, beyond “American Sniper.” A film does only need a small, vocal band of support to make it in, but “The Master” couldn’t manage that much (albeit in a tougher year).
17. “Big Eyes”
Few seemed to have been particularly impressed by the trailer, which again suggests that the early buzz on the film failing to break Tim Burton’s recent disappointing run was correct. But that said, early buzz has been wrong before, and The Weinsteins should never be underestimated, even if their attentions are principally on “The Imitation Game.”
Chances of this adding up to anything more than a nod for Reese Witherspoon (and potentially Laura Dern) seem to be dropping by the day, though we’ll admit that finding the film mawkish and cheap might be skewing us a bit. It could yet pick up steam when it opens in December, but Best Picture still feels like a stretch.
15. “The Grand Budapest Hotel”
Prognosticators are split on whether this can be the first Q1 release since ‘Erin Brockovich” to make it to the nominations stage. We’re leaning no at the moment, but given that Fox Searchlight’s other prospects are fading, we’re surprised we haven’t seen them start to push this properly already. Maybe the campaign is yet to come?
14. Into The Woods”
“Nine” burned a lot of people on Rob Marshall musicals, but this recent featurette reminded us that there’s still plenty of potential here. It could be a difficult sell, but with a Broadway classic and an all-star cast, we’re keeping an eye on it until the reviews land, at least.
13. “American Sniper”
A very promising trailer landed that made us think this could be a real challenger, but buzz more recently is that it’s closer to Eastwood’s more disappointing recent output like “Invictus” or “Hereafter” than “Mystic River” or “Unforgiven.” But again, buzz is never gospel, so this could end up in the mix.
Our favorite challenger at the moment, but the film’s admired more than loved by many, and with other Sony Pictures Classics movies surging, we can see this missing out in the way that “The Master” and “Inside Llewyn Davis” did in previous years. But likely to be right on the verge for a while, and if “Unbroken” or “Selma” miss, it’ll be good news for this.
11. “Mr. Turner”
Somewhat undervalued by Oscar bloggers in search of something a bit sexier, Mike Leigh’s film is apparently much admired by the demographic that actually do the voting. And it just performed like gangbusters on opening weekend in the UK (expect a big haul of BAFTA nods when the time comes), but could it get shut out by the other Brit biopics?
10. “A Most Violent Year”
As we said above, it’s possible
that Chandor (and upstart distributors A24) are too small to make much
of an impact here, but holy moly that new trailer looked good (we’ve heard good
things, too), it has a big AFI premiere coming up very shortly, and could
fill a gap of grown-up 70s-style crime thrillers this year. But will it be too sober for voters?
Some slightly questionable buzz coming out of early screenings, but DuVernay’s still working on the film, so there’s plenty of time to get it fixed. Screening a half-hour of footage at AFI Fest suggests some confidence on behalf of Paramount.
We’d been totally undervaluing this film as an Oscar player, even as big fans of it, but we’ve seen since it hit theaters just how widely and passionately it’s liked, and we think that’s likely to convert to Academy love. It’s still doing nicely at the box office too.
7. “Gone Girl”
David Fincher’s biggest ever hit has been dominating the conversation for the last month or so, and seems mostly safe for a nomination. That said, it was one of the first potentials to actually hit theaters, and will need guild support to stay in the conversation through to the announcements in January.
6. “The Theory Of Everything”
Anecdotally, we recently saw a bunch of people crying after watching the trailer. The trailer. Any doubts about the film’s Best Picture prospects we might have had started to evaporate then.
We had marked this as a potential front-runner, but those very mixed reviews look to make a victory here unlikely, keeping the race wide open. But Nolan’s peers are very much on board, however the only potential stumbling block is if the film ends up missing at the box office, but with a $60-plus million opening predicted, it should be ok.
The film’s apparently done, and what was again touted as a film to beat has some potentially worrisome buzz behind it. That said, some of that is down to the level of violence in the film, and that wasn’t an issue with “12 Years A Slave,” among many. Unless it’s truly bad (and there’s no reason to think that), it should be a potent force.
As other potential front-runners drop back, Inarritu’s film is a big beneficiary, especially with it doing so well at the box office. We suspect it’s not quite “important” enough to win, but then you could have said that about “The Artist” too (even if this is obviously a lot darker).
2. “The Imitation Game”
We’re pretty lukewarm on the film, but the Academy demographic are reportedly head-over-heels on it, and we’re now buying into the idea that it could challenge for the win. The Weinstein Company are being uncharacteristically quiet (even moving it back a week), but that may be a change of tactics after a dodgy year last time.
The little film that could, there was once question of whether IFC would even campaign for the film, but it’s now firmly locked in for a nod, and right now seems like the most viable winner. Some of the yet-to-be-seen films could spoil the party, but it’s likely this gets a boost from critics’ groups as voting gets closer to balance that out.