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Oscars: Michael Fassbender, Brie Larson, And The Frontrunners In The Best Actor & Best Actress Race

Oscars: Michael Fassbender, Brie Larson, And The Frontrunners In The Best Actor & Best Actress Race

With Venice, Telluride, and Toronto in the rear-view mirror, the mid-point of New York Film Festival closing in, and some of the movies in question landing in theaters, we’re well into the midst of awards season. Though the narrative this year will depend heavily on the respective arrivals of “The Hateful Eight,” “Joy” and “The Revenant” in December, we’re certainly seeing some of our questions about this Oscar race being answered already.

There’ve been a few big revelations since our A-Z of the season a few weeks back. “Room” won the Audience Award at TIFF, proving that it wasn’t too tough for crowds and suggesting that the movie will be a big player. We got a couple of new arrivals in the season from Paramount, namely Adam McKay’s ensemble financial dramedy The Big Short (which feels more like “The Gambler” than “Million Dollar Baby” to me, in terms of late-breaking arrivals), and Charlie Kaufman’s “Anomalisa” (which could be a serious challenger to Pixar in Animated Feature) both landing on the calendar before the end of the year.

READ MORE: Awards 2014: If The Oscar Nominations Were Today, Who Would the Academy Vote For? 

The Walk premiered at NYFF to better reviews than some were expecting, though it’s too early yet to see what its awards prospects really are —the praise for the film’s final act is nearly unanimous compared the more muted responses to everything else that happens beforehand. Meanwhile, among the pictures that have opened, “Everest” looks unlikely to play much of a further role in awards season, and “Black Mass” is underwhelming at the box office, but “Sicario” is going great guns in limited release, suggesting it could be a stealth performer.

As part of intermittently checking in on the race this season, I wanted to focus in a little more on the runners and riders in the acting categories. So below, you’ll find an in-depth look at Best Actor and Best Actress: the frontrunners, the challengers, the upstarts and those waiting in the wings. In a few days, I’ll also examine the Supporting categories, but for now, you can find my early predictions on Best Actor and Best Actress below.

Best Actress

The Locks:

The last few years have seen commentators bemoaning the perceived weakness of the Best Actress category, but expect few such complaints this year given the number of serious contenders jostling for position. And in a year without a real Meryl Streep performance in contention, no less… As far as locks from the festivals, there’s two. With Room winning hearts and minds, and the TIFF Audience Award making it much more likely that the film becomes a Best Picture player, Brie Larson looks pretty much certain to pick up her first nomination. She’ll surely be joined by Cate Blanchett, for “Carol.” There’s been some back and forth about whether the actress or co-star Rooney Mara would end up being campaigned for lead, but in the end, it will be Blanchett. Whether or not she can win is a bigger question —it’s only two years since “Blue Jasmine”— but the performance is universally praised as deserving, and she’ll be in the final five bar a giant shock. It’ll knock out her almost-as-deserving turn in “Truth,” which might have made the cut otherwise.

Looking Strong:
Saoirse Ronan is looking good for “Brooklyn.” The film is being underestimated by some prognosticators, but those have seen it know the punch it packs and how it plays for the Academy demographic while still impressing critics.

Telluride brought two more contenders, with Carey Mulligan in “Suffragette” and Charlotte Rampling in “45 Years.” Oscar watchers seem surprisingly down on “Suffragette” in general, but most praised Mulligan’s performance —the only reason she’s not locked is the tepid critical response for the film, but I suspect it’ll play better with voters. “45 Years” is much smaller but much admired, and Sundance Selects showed they can play the awards game when Marion Cotillard was nominated last year.

Lily Tomlin
will remain a potential for sleeper contender “Grandma,” while audiences and U.S. critics seem to be really taking to “Sicario,” which could yet land Emily Blunt her first nod (though we suspect the deliberate passivity of the role will count against her against showier competition). And though it’s less glittery than others, don’t underestimate awards bodies’ desire to give Maggie Smith nominations, and “Lady In The Van” could deliver there.

Finally, there’s still Charlize Theron in “Mad Max: Fury Road.” It remains to be seen if the critically-adored actioner can break past genre boundaries with the Academy. I suspect not, but Theron should remain in the conversation well into the end of the year, and stranger things have happened.

Still To Come:
First will be Angelina Jolie-Pitt, with her self-directed “By The Sea.” Her last couple of awards runs came up short, but it looks like she’s given herself some meaty work to deal with, and sight unseen, she feels like the film’s best shot at a nomination. Then there’s the juggernaut in waiting: Jennifer Lawrence and “Joy.” She has nominations (and one win) for her two previous films with David O. Russell, and this is the first time a film’s been built directly around her. Unless the film turns out to be the next “Serena,” look for Lawrence in the final five, and battling Larson (who, being as-yet-unrewarded, may yet have the advantage) for the win.

Also Around:

When we said there was no Meryl Streep movie in contention this year, that isn’t strictly true; the actress did star in Jonathan Demme’s “Ricki & The Flash.” But mixed reviews and tepid box office mean it’s more “Hope Springs” than “The Iron Lady.” Sandra Bullock looked like a possibility for “Our Brand Is Crisis,” but it seems like the film doesn’t have enough strength to crack a trickier field, and the same goes for Julianne Moore in “Freeheld” and Elizabeth Olsen in “I Saw The Light.” You’ll also see names like Blythe Danner for “I’ll See You In My Dreams,” Juliette Binoche for “Clouds Of Sils Maria,” Bel Powley for “Diary Of A Teenage Girl,” Helen Mirren for “Woman In Gold,” and Amy Schumer for “Trainwreck” thrown around, but they’re unlikely to make much awards impact. And for the record, if you’re looking to see Alicia Vikander here, she’s campaigning as supporting for “The Danish Girl,” not for lead. 

Early Predictions:

Cate Blanchett – “Carol”

Brie Larson – “Room”

Jennifer Lawrence – “Joy”

Charlotte Rampling – “45 Years”

Saoirse Ronan – “Brooklyn”

Best Actor

The Locks:

In contrast to previous years (all last year’s eventual nominees bar Bradley Cooper had been seen and were already tussling for place), 2015’s only seen a couple of sure-thing contenders emerge from the race, and the lack of stiff competition only shores up their place further. Top of the list and the likely frontrunner is Michael Fassbender in “Steve Jobs” —the actor gets to play Aaron Sorkin’s dialogue like an aria, age a couple of decades and effectively embody an icon, and unless the film absolutely dies at the box office, it’s hard to imagine the final line-up without him. Likely to join him is last year’s winner Eddie Redmayne, who plays trans pioneer Lili Elbe in “The Danish Girl.” Response to the movie itself isn’t overwhelmingly joyous, but given the physical transformation (and the good notices for the performance), Redmayne should make the cut, though he’s probably unlikely to win in two consecutive years.

Looking Strong:

That leaves three slots left and a wealth of actors to fill them, though the contenders who have been seen will have to battle off those whose films haven’t yet arrived. Matt Damon might have been taking a beating in the press recently for certain comments, but reviews for “The Martian” and his old-school movie star leading turn have been stellar. Damon’s only had two nods in the past (for “Good Will Hunting” and “Invictus,” of all things), and his subtle work in films like “The Departed,” “True Grit” and “Behind The Candelabra” can often go overlooked in favor of showier co-stars. But he carries this film on his shoulders, and if it plays as well as many most suspect and becomes the big popular hit among the Oscar contenders, he could make the cut.

“Black Mass” has done less well with critics and the box office so far, but the Johnny Depp-comeback narrative is  strong, and some critics are over the moon with the performance. The movie’s likely to play well with Academy voters, but Depp will have to fight off all the performances yet to be seen to make the cut.

Michael Caine could get a lifetime achievement nod in disguise for “Youth,” though pronosticators are divided on the movie, and it’s a relatively passive, unshowy turn. Another veteran who could have stealth strength is Ian McKellen: eighteen years since he earned a nomination for “Gods & Monsters,” his reteam with director Bill Condon on “Mr. Holmes” was a hit and is right in the Academy demographic, though it’ll need to demonstrate staying power, having opened in the summer.

Finally, it’s not yet clear whether A24 will campaign for young actor Jacob Tremblay in lead or supporting for “Room.” It’s more likely to be the latter, but even if it is the former, people love the movie enough that it’s not unfeasible that he could become the youngest nominee in this category since Ryan Gosling, and indeed the youngest ever.

Still To Come:

As is the case with so many films this season, it’s hard to be too sure about anything, because there are such a wealth of heavy-hitters still to be unveiled. Premiering shortly at NYFF will be Tom Hanks in “Bridge Of Spies.” It certainly seems like awards-friendly material, and Spielberg/Hanks team-up “Saving Private Ryan” won him a nod, but the star hasn’t been nominated since “Cast Away,” and somehow failed to get one for “Captain Phillips.” The film will have to be very very good, or the competition surprisingly weak, for Hanks to look like a sure thing. NYFF will also give us the first peek at Don Cheadle as Miles Davis in “Miles Ahead.” Sony Pictures Classics hasn’t yet dated the film, so we’re assuming Cheadle won’t be in the race, and they are likely waiting to see what the response to the picture is.

Probably the biggest potential down the line is Leonardo DiCaprio in “The Revenant” —despite umpteen nominations, he’s never won, and there’s an increasing sense that he’s due. Trailers are impressive, though the Academy doesn’t always honor purely physical performances —it’ll need a few quieter moments to make an impact. That said, most awards-watchers are reserving him a slot.

There’s some suggestion that Edgar Ramirez will go lead for “Joy” (enabling a third David O. Russell film to pick up four acting nods in four categories) and early buzz points to him as a breakout in the movie, but our gut says that 20th Century Fox will push him in supporting in the end.

I hear that Samuel L. Jackson stands out among the ensemble of “Hateful Eight and is the closest thing the film has to a lead. Perhaps less likely, though not to be counted out until seen, are Chiwetel Ejiofor in “The Secret In Their Eyes,” Steve Carell in “The Big Short,” Will Smith in “Concussion” and Brad Pitt in “By The Sea.”

Also Around:

Fall festivals saw a number of other debuts that to my mind don’t quite have the strength of others, but could yet rally. Bryan Cranston in “Trumbo” is foremost —the Hollywood story certainly could appeal to voters, but it’s been dismissed by many as a TV movie. But if the Academy connects, he could be a player. Tom Hardy gives a showy two-man turn in “Legend,” which has been a huge hit in the U.K, and got pushed back in the U.S. to a more award-friendly date. But with a supporting nod for “The Revenant” looking very viable and lukewarm reviews for “Legend,” it might not be Hardy’s year in this category.

Tom Hiddleston 
is also waiting for his first nod, but while reviews for his performance as Hank Williams in “I Saw The Light” were good, few are enthusiastic about the movie itself, and unless it catches light, he likely won’t be a player here. Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s unlikely for “The Walk,” and Richard Gere in “Time Out Of Mind,” John Cusack in “Love & Mercy” and Jake Gyllenhaal in “Southpaw” would need a real heat injection to get further.

It remains to be seen if “Son Of Saul” becomes a player outside Best Foreign Language: if it does, we could see star Géza Röhrig figure in here. While Abraham Attah in “Beasts Of No Nation” is phenomenal, he faces something of an uphill battle. It’s unclear whether Sundance Selects will campaign Tom Courtenay for lead in “45 Years” —our guess is he ends up in supporting, where he’ll probably have a better chance. UPDATE: PRs tell us that Courtenay will indeed be campaigning in the supporting category. 

Our Early Predictions

Matt Damon – “The Martian”

Leonardo DiCaprio – “The Revenant”

Michael Fassbender – “Steve Jobs”

Ian McKellen – “Mr. Holmes”

Eddie Redmayne – “The Danish Girl”

Agree? Disagree? Let us know your thoughts in the comments, and check back soon for more awards coverage.

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