Now that we’re slowly making our way toward November, both the start of the holiday rush and the kickoff of awards season since a number of critic groups are announcing their annual selections as early as Nov. 29, it’s time to take a serious look at what movies will likely be in the conversation when Oscar talk commences in the New Year.
It’s obviously still early, because there are a number of movies that haven’t been seen by anyone yet, and when it comes to Oscar voters—made up of over 6,000 individuals with varying experiences and specialties in the movie business—the only ones who know what they’re thinking are the Oscar voters themselves.
Still, we’re going to go back and cover what’s been seen this year so far in various film festivals, and where things stand…
The Sundance Champs
Even though last year’s Oscar nominations had barely been announced when this year’s Sundance Film Festival started, Sundance is seen by many as the start of the movie year, mainly because there aren’t too many thrilling movies playing in theaters come January. (Except of course, the Oscar-worthy movies that were expanding nationwide from the year before.)
The Birth of a Nation
The movie that had the most impact at this year’s Sundance Film Festival had to be Nate Parker’s directorial debut, which tells the story of slave Nat Turner, who learns to read at an early age, becomes a preacher to slaves at surrounding plantations, and then drives them to rebel against their masters. The movie premiered just as last year’s Oscar nominations and the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag was making the rounds, and the premiere got a standing ovation even before anyone had seen a frame. When the screening let out, everyone was already declaring that Birth was going to be a frontrunner, and even that the Oscar race was over with Parker likely to get directing, acting, and writing nominations. Fox Searchlight paid the highest amount ever paid for a film at Sundance to distribute it.
And then the other shoe dropped.
In July, it was revealed that 17 years ago, Parker and the film’s co-writer, were accused of rape, and although Parker was found not guilty, it still put a big smirch on the film before many people (and Oscar voters) even had a chance to see it. Parker wasn’t able to do nearly as much press, nor the normal rounds one would do to be considered in the awards race, and the movie tanked at the box office. Obviously, someone at a competing studio was nervous about Birth of a Nation taking all the diversity glory and made sure that the right people knew about Parker’s past… and with that, The Birth of a Nation died a quick death in the race.
Manchester by the Sea
The other film that got almost as much accolades at Sundance was Kenneth Lonergan’s third feature as a director, following You Can Count on Me (for which he received an Oscar nomination for his writing) and Margaret. The movie stars Casey Affleck as a damaged man whose brother dies suddenly, leaving him to have to move home and care for his nephew (Lucas Hedges). He has had lots of problems in his past, mostly from drinking, and going back means possibly running into his ex-wife (Michelle Williams). People, especially critics, are absolutely over the moon about this movie, and most of that can be attributed to Lonergan’s script and the performances by Affleck, who is a sure frontrunner in the Lead Actor race at this point, and Williams, who is likely to get nominated in Supporting.
There’s also a camp who think that newcomer Lucas Hedges could also get a supporting nod, though it’ll depend how much competition appears in the next month. There’s enough fans for the movie to get into the Best Picture race, and maybe Lonergan will get nominated for his directing as well as script this time. Either way, this is likely to be in many Top 10 lists this year, making it this year’s Sundance Oscar pick over The Birth of a Nation.
Manchester by the Sea kicked off awards season by receiving four Gotham Awards, which normally wouldn’t mean a lot, but since that’s the most nominations for any movie, one can presume it will win the Gotham for Best Feature, and the last two winners, Spotlight and Birdman, went on to win Best Picture at the Oscars.
There were other movies that played at Sundance that might be in the Oscar conversation, docs like The Eagle Huntress, Gleason, and Weiner, for instance, and possibly one or two of the original songs from John Carney’s Sing Street.
Yes, We Cannes
The annual festival in the South of France that kicks off the summer introduced a lot of American and foreign films to their first viewers, and those movies have slowly been trickling out in the months since then.
Jeff Nichols’ drama about Civil Rights pioneers Richard and Mildred Loving, as played by Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga, probably didn’t explode out of the festival as some might have hoped. It went on to play at the Toronto International Film Festival months later, and the subdued drama has enough fans, especially for Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton’s performances, who both are likely to get nominations (Negga for sure). Nichols’ adapted screenplay might get attention, and there’s even a chance of a Best Picture nomination if the film proves to have enough fans in the industry.
Hell or High Water
One movie that really has surprised everyone who’s seen it is this modern-day Western written by Sicario scribe Taylor Sheridan. His previous film received three technical Oscar nominations, but this seems like the one that might get him a screenplay nomination, and it has a fantastic cast, particularly previous winner Jeff Bridges, who has a good chance at his fourth Supporting Actor nomination. Either way, this is a film that has found universal praise on its release from critics, filmgoers, and industry folk alike, so it has a good chance of sneaking into the Oscar race.
Jim Jarmusch’s latest film is a comedy that stars Adam Driver as a New Jersey bus driver who writes poetry on the side, and it’s been very well received both at Cannes, but also at festivals since then including the recent New York Film Festival. The premiere New York indie auteur has somehow managed to evade the awards circuit despite years having his movies receiving raves at Cannes, but at least in this case, he has a hot actor like Driver giving a fun performance that might get him a Golden Globe nod, if nothing else.
Woody Allen is another Cannes mainstay, and while this one has generally been well received by critics and American audiences, it’s not thought to be one of Allen’s stronger offerings, maybe because it’s more of a comedy, and even Kristen Stewart has done better work in other movies this year.
Paul Verhoeven’s French revenge thriller features a masterful performance by one of France’s finest, Ms. Isabelle Huppert, who has yet to receive an Oscar nomination despite her impressive body of work. Although this may have a chance at getting into the Foreign Language category—it is France’s selection—it may also be a little too controversial for Academy members, and Huppert’s performance is the most likely candidate for awards.
This is another year with a film from Spanish master Pedro Almodovar, and besides being Spain’s film up for consideration in the Foreign Language category, the film’s screenplay, cinematography, and score also stand a chance of getting into the Oscar race, as has been the case with some of Almodovar’s past films. But it’s best bet is as a Foreign Language nominee.
There were many other foreign films that first came to attention at Cannes that might be vying for their country’s Oscar selection, going up against Elle and Julieta, but there are few that have a chance of receiving other nominations as well. Iran filmmaker Asghar Farhadi won an Oscar for his earlier film A Separation, and The Salesman is one of the films to look out for, as is Pablo Larrain’s Neruda, starring Gael Garcia Bernal.
Festival Season Favorites
With summer coming to an end, awards season kicked into full gear with a number of prestigious film festivals, including the Venice Film Festival, Toronto International Film Festival (aka TIFF), and the Telluride Film Festival. After that comes the New York Film Festival, and smaller ones in Chicago, Boston, LA. and the Hamptons.
La La Land
By far the film that had the biggest impact in early September was Damien Chazelle’s follow-up to his Oscar-nominated Whiplash, this one being an LA based musical starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. After opening the Venice Film Festival, it played at Telluride and Toronto, receiving rave reviews and audience ovations, and it would go onto win the coveted People’s Choice Award at Toronto, which has gone to previous Best Picture winners like Slumdog Millionaire and The King’s Speech.
Besides being considered a Best Picture frontrunner at this point, it’s likely Chazelle will receive nominations in both the directing and writing categories. Not only that, Emma Stone may actually win her first Oscar after being nominated for Birdman, and Gosling should add another nomination in the Lead Actor category. It’s long been known that the Academy loves their musicals, and one about trying to make it in Hollywood may hit home close enough to win over voters in most categories.
Another film that premiered at the Venice Film Festival, and one of two starring Amy Adams in show-stopping performances, is this sci-fi drama from director Denis Villeneuve based on Ted Chiang’s short story “The Story Of Your Life.” Science fiction has always had a tough time at the Oscars with films like District 9 and Inception getting Best Picture nominations, but only after the Academy expanded the category to 10.
Arrival has played well at a number of festivals and in previews, but it’s definitely a headier movie, a la Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, so one wonders whether Oscar voters might accept it for its craft in acting and direction, and beyond token technical nominations. Adams’ performance is certainly one that’s going to get attention, and this wouldn’t be her first nomination—it would be her sixth, but the second in the Lead Actress category. When an actor gets as many nominations as Adams, they clearly have fans within the Academy, although she’s in a very tough category this year.
While Adams probably has the best chance of getting nominated, Arrival will be vying for nominations for its screenplay by Eric Heisserer and score by two-time nominee Johan Johannson, as well as more technical awards. It’s far past time that Villeneuve be nominated for his direction after making so many great films, but being science fiction will be a hindrance to many of the Oscar voters.
Barry Jenkins’ sophomore feature has been receiving raves and standing ovations since it premiered at the Telluride and Toronto Film Festivals, which continued into this year’s New York Film Festival premiere and other festivals over the past two months, making it the clear successor to The Birth of a Nation’s fallen star. Based on a play by Tarell McCraney, it follows the story of Chiron, a kid living in an impoverished crime-ridden area of Miami with a drug-addict for a mother (Naomie Harris) who at an early age finds a mentor in Mahershala Ali’s drug dealer, Blue.
The film revisits Chiron three times during his life, in each moment played by a different actor, as he deals with his relationship to his best friend, Kevin. It’s a hugely emotional picture about dealing with one’s environment and sexuality; it’s also a strong contender for a Best Picture nomination and probably a frontrunner for Best Adapted Screenplay, although its two older stars, Mahershala Ali and Naomie Harris, as Chiron’s drug dealing mentor and junkie mother respectively, are likely to get nominated as well in the supporting category. Jenkins’ adapted screenplay is likely to be the one to beat in that category, and while it will probably receive a Best Picture nomination, we’ll have to see if Jenkins can get in for directing as well.
Recently, Moonlight was nominated for a Gotham Award for Best Feature (against Manchester by the Sea), but it’s also getting a jury award for Ensemble Cast, which certainly puts it into the Oscar discussion since the Screen Actors Guild are likely to nominate its ensemble performances, as well. This past weekend, the movie did great business in its platform release, grossing over $100,000 per theater, which is a good sign of audience interest.
Fashion icon Tom Ford’s sophomore effort after 2009’s A Single Man, which got Colin Firth his first Oscar nomination, received quite a bit of attention and accolades out of Venice and Toronto, mainly for performances by Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Michael Shannon. But it just hasn’t had the same buzz as the other films. The movie has a dual narrative of Adams as an art gallery curator who receives the manuscript for a thriller novel written by her ex (Jake Gyllenhaal). It’s about a man (also played by Gyllenhaal) who gets into an altercation on a deserted highway after which his wife and daughter are kidnapped. He seeks out those responsible, along with a sheriff played by Michael Shannon.
It’s a difficult film to talk about without spoiling stuff, but there are three amazing performances right there, particularly with Adams and Gyllenhaal reaching new heights in their performances. Ford’s adapted screenplay is also fantastic, but will this movie be too strange or out there for Academy voters? It doesn’t feel like the critics are fully behind it compared to other films, but that doesn’t mean the industry (many of whom have been dressed for the Oscars by Ford) won’t give it more attention.
Produced by Darren Aronofsky and directed by Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larrain (No), this drama about Jacqueline Kennedy in the days following the assassination of John F. Kennedy got a lot of immediate awards attention for Natalie Portman’s portrayal of the former First Lady. With a great supporting cast, most notably Peter Sarsgaard as Bobby Kennedy, this one could actually get attention from groups like the Screen Actors Guild in their ensemble category, which is a good precursor for the Best Picture race.
Noah Oppenheimer’s screenplay s sure to get awards attention as well, and it will be interesting to see if Larrain (who also has the Chilean Foreign Language film out this year) might get attention for his direction. Technical awards like Production and Costume Design are also possibilities, as is the cinematography by Stephane Fontaine, and the amazing score by Mica Levi.
Bleed for This
This boxing drama by Ben Younger about champion boxer Vinny Pazienza is mainly a spotlight for the talents of actor Miles Teller who brings the larger-than-life character to life, but it just didn’t have the sort of accolades one would hope for to get Teller into the Lead Actor race. Open Road may have also been too busy with Oliver Stone’s Snowden to give this film the attention it needs to be taken into serious consideration.
Oscar winner Mel Gibson’s latest film, a real-life war drama, premiered at the Venice Film Festival with less attention than some of the other films there, but it’s definitely the type of movie that Oscar voters absolutely love, and Andrew Garfield gives a strong performance, although some expect him to get more attention for his role in Martin Scorsese’s Silence (see below). Either way, it will be interesting to see if this makes much of a mark when it opens against Doctor Strange on Nov. 4.
Although it didn’t really go the festival route, Clint Eastwood’s telling of the “Miracle on the Hudson” did get a special screening at the Telluride Film Festival for a lot of industry folk, and its success at the box office, and “A” CinemaScore, basically shows that audiences like the movie. Tom Hanks is clearly the one who will get the most attention as the title character, and it’s another great performance, but the fact that he wasn’t nominated either for Captain Phillips or Saving Mr. Banks makes you wonder if he might have lost favor with Oscar voters.
Clint Eastwood has already won four Oscars, and one must ponder whether this can get into the Best Picture race like his last movie American Sniper.
One of the nicer surprises at the Toronto International Film Festival is this movie from Garth Davis adapted from Saroo Brierley’s memoir A Long Way Home, about how he was stranded on a train as a child, separating him from his mother and brother until he was adopted by a kindly Australian couple. The older Saroo is played by Dev Patel, and the first half his movie really does have a similar feel to Slumdog Millionaire since both are about a poor boy in Calcutta. Yet,the second half is more of a drama as Saroo tries to figure out where his home is… using Google Earth. (That’s not even a joke!)
Patel’s performance is fantastic, as are Nicole Kidman and Rooney Mara, playing his adoptive mother and girlfriend, respectively. It’s a crowd-pleasing drama that won runner-up for the People’s Choice award at Toronto, but we’ll have to see if the Weinstein Company is able to get this in front of the important Academy voters. Dev Patel will be campaigned in the Supporting Actor category, which may be easier to get into, but previous winner Nicole Kidman’s small part as his adoptive mother could also get some attention in the Supporting Actress category too.
Recently Seen or Soon to Be Seen
That brings us to October releases, the New York Film Festival, and other smaller films that have yet to be screened, but clearly have their eyes on awards gold.
The Girl on the Train
Opening theatrically in early October, this dramatic thriller from director Tate Taylor, who has already directed three actresses to an Oscar nomination (and one to a win) with his earlier film The Help, has Emily Blunt in the emotional role of a girl… on the train. The film deals with addiction in a way that really puts Blunt to her paces in a similar way as Rosamund Pike’s Oscar-nominated role in David Fincher’s Gone Girl. The problem is that this isn’t Gone Girl, and it hasn’t gotten the positive reviews or box office of Gone Girl.
20th Century Women
Premiering as the Centerpiece film of the New York Film Festival, Mike (Beginners) Mills’ third film was another semi-autobiographical story about his relationship with his mother and a few other women. The mother role is played by Annette Bening, who doesn’t appear nearly as much as some might like, but she’s going on four Oscar nominations already without ever having won. This dramedy will get a Christmas release just as awards voters are trying to catch up on their movies, and though the Lead Actress category is very crowded, we can fully expect Bening to join Emma Stone in the Golden Globes comedy/musical category and slip into that Oscar Lead Actress race for the fifth time.
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
Ang Lee’s latest film, an adaptation of Ben Fountain’s novel, played as a special presentation during the New York Film Festival, and it certainly was a game-changer in the Oscar race, mainly because everyone who thought Lee’s follow-up to The Life of Pi (for which he won his second Oscar as director) might lead to another nomination for him, quickly changed their mind after seeing the movie.
A lot of focus was put on the 3D high-frame rate presentation, and there were thoughts of possible supporting nods for Steve Martin or Kristen Stewart, who are both decent in the film. Unfortunately, the early reviews for the movie were not promising, and it’s likely that this might not even get into the Oscar race at all based on those early reactions. It’s clearly the Taking Woodstock to Lee’s earlier Oscar film, Brokeback Mountain.
Rules Don’t Apply
This long-in-development Howard Hughes movie from Warren Beatty, his first film as a director in 18 years, probably doesn’t have nearly as much anticipation as some of the others, but Beatty has a noteworthy cast with a lot of interest in Alden Ehrenreich, who got quite a bit of attention for his role in the Coen Brothers’ Hail, Caesar! earlier this year before beingcast as the young Han Solo in an upcoming Star Wars movie. The film also stars Beatty’s wife Annette Bening in a role that in theory could put her into the supporting race. But Alec Baldwin might also be eyed for such a nomination or even Beatty himself (who has a supporting role as Hughes).
One of the first of the films that has yet to be seen is this adaptation of August Wilson’s 1987 Tony-winning play. The picture stars Denzel Washington, who is also the film’s director, and Viola Davis, both of whom appeared in a 2010 revival of the play, which won each a Tony award. Plays translated to the screen aren’t an uncommon thing and while some fail to make a mark, even 2013’s August: Osage County received two Oscar nominations for Julia Roberts and Meryl Streep; 2008’s Doubt adaptation also received four acting nominations, including again for Streep and Davis herself.
While it’s still unclear whether Davis will be in the Lead or Supporting category, it’s thought that she is likely to win in the latter while Denzel could get nominations for Lead Actor (his seventh) and maybe even his first Oscar nomination for direction. He’s still finishing the movie, but it should be ready to screen sometime in November.
Not as much is known about this Will Smith led ensemble drama, co-starring Kate Winslet, Helen Mirren, Edward Norton, and Keira Knightley, but that’s a lot of prestige and Oscar nominees in the cast, and if the film is as emotionally strong as its trailer, it could end up being one of the last minute entries into the Oscar race. Then again, it could also be this year’s Extremely Loud and Dangerously Close, which actually got a Best Picture nomination despite horrid reviews. Hopefully this is better. After all, it has a couple Oscar-winning actresses who could receive more love in the fairly open supporting category. Again, this one is still a big question mark.
Another movie that began its search for awards with an amazing presentation and party at the Toronto International Film Festival is hoping to jump on this year’s response to #OscarSoWhitewith anotherreal-lifestory of groundbreaking African-American women who helped NASA with their math skills. It has a bonafide cast that includes Oscar winner Octavia Spencer and nominee (and Emmy winner) Taraji P. Henson, who’s popularity is smoking hot due to her role on Fox’s Empire. She may get a nomination, and if the film is as crowd-pleasing as it looks, a Best Picture nomination might also be in the cards, but this is still in the “wait and see” category.
This biopic about the beginnings of the McDonalds fast food chain, has been tooling around for some time, being given a ton of press screenings, and many feel that this will be another chance for Michael Keaton to get an Oscar nomination, but considering how this has been shifted from date to date, it seems like maybe Birdman was Keaton’s big chance to win an Oscar.
Will They Screen and Make the Cut?
The next three movies were originally slated for a release next January but then were given limited releases in December to qualify them for this year’s Oscars. This has worked in the past for films like Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper and others, because if they’ll likely be expanding nationwide as nominations are announced.
Coming out just a few months after director Peter Berg and Mark Wahlberg’s Deepwater Horizon, their third true-story drama in a row looks at the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings that shocked the nation. There’s nothing that jumps out about the movie that suggests it might be in the Oscar race, but you never know if one or more of the prestigious cast might stand out, for instance John Goodman, who has yet to receive a single Oscar nomination. Considering the lack of awards for Lone Survivor, it’s probably likely that this will be seen more as a movie that will make money from moviegoers but not gold from Oscar voters.
Live by Night
It’s been quite a few years since Ben Affleck’s Argo won Best Picture, and this is his follow-up. Still, it seems to have sneaked into the release schedule without having much in the way of marketing beforehand, so we’ll have to see whether Warner Bros. can step-up its game once the movie is ready to be shown to early voters. This is Affleck’s second adaptation of a Dennis Lehane novel, following his debut Gone Baby Gone, for which Amy Ryan received an Oscar nomination. It’s a period crime drama, but we’ll have to see if it’s something that’s deemed Oscar worthy.
Martin Scorsese’s latest film, an Asian-set drama, is probably going to be the last movie screened for critics and for the National Board of Review, who will be the first ones out of the gate with their awards nominations on Nov. 29. Scorsese is still working on cutting it down as of this writing, but if it’s as good as some think it might be, it will get a Best Picture nomination and possibly a 13th nomination for Scorsese. The performances by Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, and Liam Neeson should also be in the conversations after the movie is seen.
So that is what we’re looking at currently in terms of the possible Oscar players, and once more people get to see those last half-dozen movies or so, the picture will be much clearer, although there’s a good chance that this year’s Best Picture winner has already been seen, and it just needs to get released to the masses to solidify its status.
Another movie that’s been long-in-development and is starting to build anticipation is this science-fiction romance with Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt. Long in development, Passengers has remained a passion project for screenwriter Jon Spaihts for years (Doctor Strange, Prometheus). The movie is directed by Oscar nominated filmmaker Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game) and looks like a great follow-up to November’s Arrival, although it has the same issue in that the Academy seems reticent to give the sci-fi genre proper credit at the Oscars. This may be an entertaining holiday film and not something to be considered for awards, but Lawrence’s previous Oscar nominations and wins might speak otherwise.
Look for more Oscar coverage here on Den of Geek leading up to Oscar night on Sunday, Feb. 26, 2017.