At long last, we finally have the full Oscar picture in front of us.
And the result, it seems, is more confusion than ever before.
Don’t get me wrong – it’s good from a punditry standpoint (and, hell, even better from a movie lover standpoint) that The Revenant, The Hateful Eight, and Joy are now screening for the industry and major critics groups. Opinions are trickling in, we now have solid footing to determine whether these films will factor in the Oscar race (as it turns out, all three will), and as they bow, 2015’s full film slate is, essentially, complete. But the knowledge that these big movies – from big-name directors whose films generally always swing for the fences and contend for Oscars – are, in fact, Oscar bait is merely confirmation of our months-long speculation. So does “confirmation of speculation” really lead to clarity in the race?
If possible, it further muddies the outlook. No larger example of this is the Best Picture category itself, wherein it seems like all three of the aforementioned titles will contend for a slot in the variable five- to ten-film (but more likely seven- to nine-film) category. So even if the preferential balloting winds up expanding the category to nine slots this year (ten is a more complicated number to reach, though it is possible), if Revenant, Hateful Eight, and Joy all make the cut, that leaves only six open slots…and which expected nominees get cut? Todd Haynes’ Carol seems most likely to be sacrificed, and it was uncertain whether it would make it in anyway. But what next? Does Pixar’s Inside Out get shut out? What about one-time sure thing Steve Jobs? Do those box-office obituaries finally result in Best Picture fallout?
It seems like Spotlight is sure-footed as ever. The Martian feels in by virtue of its broad appeal with critics and audiences. Brooklyn is on a high. Bridge of Spies is Spielberg. That leaves Room, which many pundits (including yours truly) have been high on since its fall festival success. Not only has the film been a huge festival and critical success, but it speaks to audiences as well. So why, then, has it been so coolly received by the early awards circuit? Lenny Abrahamson’s film failed to garner a Best Film nomination at both the Gothams and Indie Spirits. Sure, there were eligibility concerns with both groups, but Brie Larson’s inclusion as a Best Lead Actress nominee at both signal that eligibility didn’t end up being an issue. Especially since Room is such a small indie darling, the fact that these two indie-centric groups failed to list it as a Best Film nominee does signal concern. Critics groups begin their nominating and announcing processes this very week – the Gothams are handed out tonight, the National Board of Review announces tomorrow, the New York Film Critics Circle follows on Wednesday – so we will see if the critics give the film a much-needed jolt as we head into the homestretch of Phase One.
Trickling down into the directing and acting categories, the terrain becomes rockier still, since we’re dealing with a fixed group of five available nominations. Say Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Quentin Tarantino, and David O. Russell are all ushered into Best Director. Then you can say goodbye to some combination of Abrahamson, Spielberg, and Danny Boyle. Outliers like Ridley Scott or John Crowley become pipe dreams, and I assume we can forget about George Miller, if we hadn’t already (heartbreak). Ultimately, I still feel like only Inarritu is a certain nominee in Best Director, and it’s actually quite possible only two films out of the Revenant-Hateful-Joy triad end up cracking the Best Picture category. So maybe the tectonic plates aren’t shifting as dramatically as it would initially seem. But still, each of these three films is threatening.
In the acting categories, it seems as though the effect is less imposing. Based on the early word on Joy, Jennifer Lawrence’s spot in the Best Actress field is now assured, and Leonardo DiCaprio’s Best Actor spot was assured before The Revenant even debuted. It’s after that where things have the potential to get interesting. I’ve had Jennifer Jason-Leigh slotted in as a Best Supporting Actress nominee since the beginning, and that seems likely to hold true (she may even be a threat to win, depending on how the category logistics shake out). But she is no longer the only viable acting threat from Hateful Eight. Samuel L. Jackson is a threat as well, and which category he’ll land in is up for debate. Based on the film’s marketing campaign and early screening reaction, Jackson is essentially a lead among the film’s large ensemble. But he might stand a greater chance of being nominated in the Supporting Actor category, which is otherwise barren. The same logic re: Supporting Actor would apply to a trio of supporting performances in Joy: Robert De Niro, Bradley Cooper, and Edgar Ramirez. Ramirez actually has the inside track on his more seasoned co-stars by virtue of the size and impact of his role in the film. When you combine that with the sudden rise of Sylvester Stallone as a top contender for Creed, all of the sudden a category heretofore lacking any competitive interest becomes a whirlwind.
On the subject of Stallone, he may be precisely the guy, with precisely the performance, encased in precisely the story that this Best Supporting Actor category has been searching for. Since September, we’ve sort of been looking for a key to unlock this rather drab and uninteresting race. For months, it’s felt like you had Mark Rylance and a couple of the Spotlight guys…and then a glut of uncertainty. Jacob Tremblay is deserving. Idris Elba was thrown into the mix. Benicio Del Toro was included by virtue of being Benicio Del Toro. And that was that. Now, however, we have a dynamo with a narrative that plays directly into the Oscar season. Stallone returns, having created the Rocky Balboa character and nurturing the namesake franchise for nearly four decades. Now he’s handed the creative reins to Ryan Coogler, ceded lead actor status to Michael B. Jordan, and he may just win an Oscar as a result.
As I mentioned last week, Jordan may also be in the Best Actor mix for Creed, and when you combine that with Jackson’s work in Hateful Eight, Will Smith’s work in Concussion, and the lingering presence of Elba in Beasts of No Nation, at long last we are seeing potential for black actors to break into the Oscar conversation this year. Kind of heinous that it took so long for such potential to develop. Chalk it up to the combination of Hollywood’s tendency to backload the release schedule of its prestige films until late in the year, and its other tendency…to overlook people of color in major roles. And how about roles for black women?? There are options out there – Gugu Mbatha-Raw in Concussion, Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor from Tangerine, Tessa Thompson in Creed – but all seem very unlikely. We may be looking at a white-out in the female acting categories.
Nonetheless, all of this information points to the same thing – even though all the players have been identified and all the pieces are on the board, this pot is still being stirred, and vigorously.
Yeah, I know…what a ridiculously mixed metaphor. But what is the Oscar season if not a mixed metaphor searching for a consistent theme?
This season more than any other in recent memory seems to be searching for that theme, and only time can ultimately reveal what it will be.