We are about a month into this awards season, and the amount of contending films yet to be seen is now in the single digits. As I discussed last week, we may well have already seen the eventual Best Picture winner at the 88th Oscars, based on a simple analysis of recent awards season history.
And yet, the Oscar season is ever-fluid, with little certainty to be found until full evidence is in front of us. Hell, in a way, no one can be sure of anything until the envelopes are opened on Oscar Night, but as more films are seen, more critics and audiences react, and the onslaught of precursors begin to announce their nominee slates, the deduction process becomes easier.
At this stage – still decidedly early – it’s hard to wrap one’s head around the shapeless enormity of the season. So that’s the focus of today’s Projection: Oscar column. Six things – I would venture to posit the only six things – we know to be true about the Oscar race right at this moment.
In no particular order…
The Best Picture Race is a Three-Headed Monster…For Now
This point of certainty is actually dependent upon the forthcoming months of uncertainty, so this article is already collapsing in on itself. But as recent Oscar history indicates, the eventual Best Picture winner has surged to prominence in the fall of every year since 2005. Meaning that, while there does remain uncertainty since films like The Hateful Eight and The Revenant won’t show themselves until very late in the game, there is ample reason to feel bullish about the films that have emerged at the top of the Venice-Telluride-Toronto pack. This year, there are three of them: Spotlight, Steve Jobs, and Room. All three played Telluride and Toronto, and all three left an Oscar-sized imprint on viewers. Steve Jobs is obviously the biggest film of the trio (both of the others come from indie distributors), which would seem to give Danny Boyle’s film the edge, but Spotlight got the jump by premiering at Venice and generating its strong buzz a few days early (which is indeed helpful), and Room may have left the biggest impact of all, having dominated buzz out of Telluride and then going on to win Toronto’s coveted People’s Choice Award. It’s hard to forecast which film will push ahead of the others, but it’s fair to say with certainty that, at this moment, these three films stand atop the list of Best Picture frontrunners.
There’s a Distinct Lack of an “Industry-Specific” Contender
For me, this fact further muddies the Best Picture race, believe it or not. Think about it: Birdman won Best Picture last year, Argo won in 2012, and The Artist won in 2011. This current iteration of AMPAS likes movies that are about the industry in one significant way or the other. Now take a look at this year’s list of contenders. All the way down the line, there’s a paucity of industry-specific Oscar contenders. The Hateful Eight will surely be a celebration of genre filmmaking that will play to a certain sect of the Academy, and movies like Mad Max: Fury Road and The Walk are like celebrations of film craft and film invention, respectively. But there is very little that directly taps into industry neuroses.
The one outlier is Jay Roach’s Trumbo, which at this point appears to be more of a Best Actor push for leading man Bryan Cranston, but if the film plays strong for the Academy, that identification could vault it into the Best Picture race.
Inside Out is the Only Early-Year Release to Hold Strong
Having a Pixar film on a shortlist of projected Best Picture nominees is nothing new. What makes Inside Out unique this year isn’t its Pixar affiliation, but how it has seemed to successfully navigate the summer months and remain near the top of everyone’s mind. The June release seems to be the only early-year film to remain in the Best Picture conversation. Ex Machina is now only being discussed as a possibility for Alicia Vikander, and even then it is in the shadow of her later year release, The Danish Girl. Mad Max: Fury Road will most certainly earn multiple craft nominations, but its Best Picture prospects have faded recently, as the fall festivals have unleashed a continuing blitz of strong contenders. Even the most recent summer release to briefly break into the Oscar conversation, Straight Outta Compton, has dissolved after its box-office spike.
Inside Out may represent the last gasp in terms of early-2015 Oscar legitimacy, and even it is being challenged by festival player Anomalisa, and there’s yet another Pixar film on the horizon in The Good Dinosaur. We’re only a month into the Oscar season, but even these early stages seem to extinguish the fire of early year contenders.
The Martian is Surging
Ridley Scott’s space opera may yet be a major Oscar player. Audiences at TIFF loved it (our fearless leader, Christopher Misch, was among the enthusiastic masses). It was such a sensation that the New York Film Festival – where the film was not previously included in the lineup – picked it up and is playing it this week. The film stands at a 93% consensus on Rotten Tomatoes and is poised to open big this weekend. If all that doesn’t scream Best Picture Contender, add to it the fact that this is a broad, mainstream thriller with big emotion from a respected filmmaker, starring an enormous cast of esteemed big-name actors. The more you ponder it, the more it seems like a soft lob to the Academy.
The Female Acting Categories Are Just as Deep as the Male Acting Categories
We are used to having a difficult time handicapping the male acting races, just because every year there are so many fabulous roles for men. This year, frankly, is no different, with enough performances from enough stars to populate the Best Actor category nearly three times over.
However, this year we can say the same thing about the Best Actress category. Brie Larson, Cate Blanchett, Charlotte Rampling, and Saoirse Ronan have to be considered frontrunners to this point, but there are about 10 other possible contenders capable of filling that fifth spot – and perhaps supplanting one or more of those top four. A potential juggernaut is lurking in Jennifer Lawrence, with David O. Russell’s Joy releasing in December. Plus, the lead and supporting categories flow into one another this year, with a handful of performances with the potential to land in either category. Is Cate Blanchett lead or supporting in Carol? What about Rooney Mara in the same film? Is Alicia Vikander lead or supporting in The Danish Girl? And if one of those performances that toes the line between lead and supporting ends up in the supporting category, will the sheer size and significance of the role trump the other nominees, for which there is no other categorization than supporting?
Such “frustrating” complications matter little in the grand scheme, for the real story here is the refreshingly dense crop of female contenders this year.
No One Can Be Sure of Anything at this Point
Yeah, maybe this one is a cop-out. But it’s also the truest statement one can make when discussing the Oscar race in September. The buzz will fluctuate from film to film, performance to performance. Accurate predictions will be hard to come by for at least a few more weeks, when we start to get a feel for how Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies will figure into the race. It will either be strong enough to snag a spot based on the combination of prestige and quality, or it will become part of the overall haze. And then the critics groups will chime in, at which point if any film becomes a consensus favorite, there will simultaneously be proclamations of its Oscar supremacy and obituaries positing that a “Critics Movie” can’t make the leap with industry insiders. Bottom line: everything is still up in the air, and we have a lot of grousing to do before the picture becomes clearer.
And that much I can tell you for sure.