With Venice and Telluride in the rear-view mirror, and TIFF starting to wind down (we’ve still got coverage to come, but very few films remain that haven’t been screened for press), it feels like the perfect time to kick off, for real, our annual awards coverage. There’s a part of you that groans, and that’s fair enough—it does feel like only yesterday that we were talking “Argo” vs. “Life of Pi” and so on, but even with five months to go until the ceremony itself, over half of the films that’ll be in play have been unveiled. And you can bet your bottom dollar that Oscar campaigns have been underway for weeks, if not months.
There’s lots more to come into view, both in the near future (NYFF is only a few weeks away), and further away (some films are unlikely to be unveiled until the end of November at the earliest), but taking the temperature of the race so far, where do we stand? Well, it’s looking, even by the tough standard of last year, like it’s going to be a particularly competitive race. Variety semi-jokingly (we hope…) suggested yesterday that the Academy should extend the Best Picture field to 20 this year, and while their logic is pretty unsound, it’s clear that more than ever, there’s going to be blood on the floor come the nomination announcements in January, what with heavy hitters like “The Wolf Of Wall Street,” “Monuments Men” and “American Hustle” still some way off.
Best Picture and Actor are looking particularly brutal, but even Best Actress, which has had quote-unquote weaker line-ups in recent years (more a by-product of the Academy shunning deserving turns like Tilda Swinton in “We Need To Talk About Kevin” and Rachel Weisz in “The Deep Blue Sea” than a reflection of the field) is looking like it’s going to be a difficult one to call. This discussion is one that will shift and change, but let’s get the ball rolling. Who can take advantage of the early-bird discount on limo bookings for Oscar night, and who can make plans to be elsewhere? Thoughts on the Oscar circus as it stands below.
The Near Certainties:
Both “Gravity” and “12 Years A Slave” were looking good on paper for potential awards consideration, but both had reasons to be cautious. Was “Gravity” just going to be a pure thrill ride, or worse, some kind of “The Fountain“-like mind-bender? Would ‘Slave’ prove to be as inaccessible for wider audiences as director Steve McQueen‘s “Hunger” and “Shame“? But from the moments the films first screened, at Venice and Telluride respectively, it’s been clear that both are likely to be major players all the way through February. “Gravity” is clearly going to be this year’s answer to the “Avatar“/”Hugo“/”Life Of Pi” slot—a 3D technical extravaganza that could well clear up in the tech categories, and it’s got a good shot at finally landing DP Emmanuel Lubezki his first statue. It could also pick up acting nominations, with Sandra Bullock a good bet, and George Clooney certainly a possibility too. The inevitable semi-backlash arrived with some cooler notices at TIFF after universally ecstatic reception in Venice and Telluride, and one wonders if “The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty“—which at least from this distance seems more in the emotional vein of “Life Of Pi” than “Gravity” and has it’s own share of effects—could throw a spoke in the wheels.
Meanwhile, “12 Years A Slave” was, if anything, even better received, with ecstatic, bruised reactions almost universal, and some even declaring the Oscar race over at the start of September. Obviously, we’re not silly enough to make such proclamations, but it’s impossible to see a scenario in which this isn’t a Best Picture nominee. Chiwetel Ejiofor, seems a certainty too, even with the toughest category in recent memory, and there’s a strong chance that co-stars Lupita Nyong’o and Michael Fassbender will follow him (we wonder if the unrelentingly evil nature of Fassbender’s performance might end up counting against him, but it’ll depend on the strength of the competition, which is unclear at this stage). There’ll inevitably be nay-sayers, and the film’s likely going to be a target for dirty-tricks-fuelled op-eds, given its subject matter, but McQueen seems to have made something accessible enough to bring in Academy voters, that’s still likely to have heavy critical support—it’s a potential winner at Critics Circle awards, which will help keep momentum up through the end of the year.
Joining the two as a pretty solid Best Picture contender is “Inside Llewyn Davis,” which had its first stateside screening at Telluride. Again, it’s hard to find someone who doesn’t like the film, while it’s perhaps not as mortal a lock as “Gravity” and “12 Years A Slave,” if only because distributor CBS Films are untested as awards campaigners. But this still feels like a very, very solid proposition, and the Coen brothers are longtime Academy favorites.
Looking Good, But Quite Not There Yet
Telluride saw the first screenings of Denis Villeneuve‘s “Prisoners” and Ron Howard‘s “Rush,” and both were, in general, warmly received, and look life definite prospects. From long range, we’d considered the former to be a principally commercial prospect, but reviews thus far have been fairly stellar. Having been nominated for the Foreign Language Oscar a few years back with “Incendies,” Denis Villeneuve looks to be continuing an awards run, and Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal are both prospects for nomination, even if our gut says they’ll be outside the final five come January (Maria Bello and/or Viola Davis are also potentials, but we believe their roles are too small to ultimately get through, though as Jacki Weaver will tell you from last year, that’s not always a roadblock to a nod). There’s a lingering feeling from some that the film may just be too dark and, yes, pulp-y to go the distance—the similar “Mystic River” wasn’t quite as brutal, and of course had the more obviously prestige-y Clint Eastwood factor. But healthy box office when it opens in a few weeks will help.
We actually saw “Rush” six weeks or so back, and while this writer liked it a fair bit less than the official review, the crowd we were with ate it up, and it felt fairly clear that it could attract some attention. Still, we were surprised by how warm most of the reactions from Telluride and TIFF have been, so it’s very much in the conversation, as is co-lead Daniel Bruhl (who’ll be campaigning in supporting, and aided by the relatively little traction that he’s getting for “The Fifth Estate“). We still wonder about the appeal of the film in the U.S, given the general apathy towards Formula 1, and it never really transcends the sports movie genre, so there’s potential weakness that could see it drop out of the top slots if those still to come deliver. But if “Frost/Nixon” could make it in in a five-film year, one shouldn’t doubt the potential of Ron Howard‘s film too much here.
Not actually on the festival circuit yet is “Captain Philips” (it’s opening the New York, London and Tokyo Film Festivals in the next month or so), but the trades breaking embargo on the film led to early word getting out sooner-than-expected, and it’s pretty strong. Few are losing their shit over it completely, but Paul Greengrass seems to have delivered a docudrama that stands alongside his earlier “Bloody Sunday” and “United 93,” and one centered on a performance—by most accounts, his best in years—from award-friendly megastar Tom Hanks (who’ll also be in contention for Supporting Actor for “Saving Mr. Banks“). There are already rumblings in terms of the film’s treatment of the pirates from some quarters, and we wonder if its impact will be dulled for those who saw this year’s superb “A Hijacking” (likely very few of the Academy membership, admittedly), but Scott Rudin and Sony are following the template that worked beautifully for them for “The Social Network” a few years ago, and there’s no reason to think it won’t pay off again.
Also shoring up a strong position is Alexander Payne‘s “Nebraska,” which if anything, got better notices out of Telluride than it did at Cannes. The film doesn’t have the star wattage of Alexander Payne‘s previous film “The Descendants,” but the film, and star Bruce Dern, are very much in the top tier of potential contenders right now, though, again, we wonder if its relative intimacy makes it vulnerable to bigger hitters like “American Hustle” and “Monuments Men” down the line.
The Less Well Received Contenders That’ll Probably Get In Anyway
With many films delivering and then some on their promise at the festivals, it was inevitable that something wouldn’t quite take off in the way many expected, and it seems that the biggest film to do so was “August: Osage County.” Our review was one of the more negative ones, but reaction in general has been fairly cool, with quite a few detractors, and the film’s fans generally acknowledge that it’s a flawed piece of work. But we suspect that, if any awards-targeting film is essentially review-proof, it’s this one due to source material already swimming in Tonys and Pulitzers, a much-lauded cast along with George Clooney and Harvey Weinstein in the producers’ chairs. Maybe most importantly, unless “Grace Of Monaco” proves to be a real surprise, it’s the most obvious contender from The Weinstein Company, certainly over “The Butler” and “Fruitvale Station.” The films’ huge ensemble is likely to make it a favorite among the actors’ branch (it already feels like a good bet for the SAG ensemble prize), so reviews be damned, we’d be very surprised if it didn’t make the Best Picture cut, with Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts looking likely for their own nods.
Looking Set For Acting Nods, Could Make Best Picture Too
Most had figured that “Dallas Buyers Club” was looking good for Matthew McConaughey, given his dramatic weight loss, and the film’s status as the culmination of an extraordinary couple of years for the star. And indeed, the performance, by almost all accounts, really delivers—not just a physical transformation, but an honest-to-good great piece of acting, and at this stage, he’s a lock for Best Actor, and looks likely to be pitted against Chiwetel Ejiofor in the months to come. But what was more surprising is that the film itself was as warmly received as it was, and that co-star Jared Leto, who hadn’t acted in nearly four years, would become a serious possibility for his supporting turn as McConaughey’s characters’ trans business partner. Bar a brace of surprises still to come in the category, Leto looks like he’ll be a nominee, and the film certainly has a shot as well being Focus‘ sole real priority this year (though we vainly hope that they might launch a Best Actor push for Simon Pegg in “The World’s End“—seriously, he’s totally deserving…). Assuming the good reviews continue on release, it’s very much in the race.
Equally surprising was the quality of “Philomena,” which we were somewhat dreading in Venice, and turned out to be far, far better than it had any right to be. We’re unlikely to personally include it among our favorites of the year, to be sure, but it’s sharper and funnier than you might expect, and should go down a storm with the Academy membership. Even given the weighty competition, Judi Dench is a very strong Best Actress contender, and Steve Coogan could well see a Screenplay nod (he won, with co-writer Jeff Pope in Venice) and possibly even a Supporting Actor nomination, though the latter is less likely. As for Best Picture? The film is enough of an issues-driven crowd-pleaser that it’s sure to be in the conversation, though again, it may be pushed out by films seen, fairly or unfairly, as being less dominated by a single turn. That being said, if it walks away with Audience Award in Toronto—where the movie played very well—expect the Weinsteins to hustle this one in a hurry.
Robert Redford continues to be considered an obvious choice for a Best Actor slot thanks to “All Is Lost,” and if the momentum behind the J.C Chandor directed film can keep up, it’s certainly a possibility for Picture, Director and more. Redford’s legendary status gives it an advantage, but as a less obvious technical showcase than fellow survival tale “Gravity,” it’s going to have to breakthrough to reach other major categories.
Finally, we floated before the festival season kicked off the idea that “Enough Said” might be worth keeping an eye on, at least for James Gandolfini‘s performance, his penultimate one (and likely a much more significant one than his final film, next year’s “Animal Rescue“). Reviews have been kind to a point—it’s ultimately a Nicole Holofcener film, so fairly intimate and small scale, so it doesn’t seem to have Best Picture legs, though in a year thin with comedy, a Golden Globe nomination might well be a good bet. But the notices are united on Gandolfini’s turn, so a nomination in Supporting is certainly viable if Fox Searchlight push for it.
Being Held For 2014
Of course, the festival season always has numerous films needing a home, and it can take some time before even the buzziest film reaches theaters (nearly eighteen months separated the premieres of “Crash” and “The Hurt Locker” at TIFF and Venice respectively, and their Best Picture victories). Harvey Weinstein‘s certainly been doing his shopping early, picking up Mia Wasikowska vehicle “Tracks,” spiritual “Once” sequel “Can A Song Save Your Life?,” Jessica Chastain double-header “The Disappearance Of Eleanor Rigby His & Hers” and Colin Firth WWII drama “The Railway Man.” We’d certainly wondered as the buys racked up if Harvey might end up sneaking one onto the 2013 slate, given that “August Osage County“— and more importantly, “Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom“—were coolly received. But in a show of the support to both films, the company have revealed that all four acquisitions won’t see the light of day until next year. It’s always possible his mind will be changed, but with the competition already packed, it’s likely to stay that way.
Another film we’d pegged as a possibility for a bump up was “Belle,” Amma Assante‘s costume drama picked up by Fox Searchlight a few months back. The film was warmly received by those who saw it in TIFF, but with the film already slated for a “Best Exotic Marigold Hotel“-aping slot in May 2014 by Fox Searchlight, it needed raves to get bumped up, and the buzz wasn’t quite that electric, so it’s likely to stay where it is. Still, mark star Gugu Mbatha-Raw on your possibilities list for 2015. Potentially joining her there is Jude Law, the star of another Fox Searchlight film “Dom Hemingway.” Law’s getting some of the best notices of his career for the British crime comedy, but again, there’s no sign of the film landing in this year’s race.
There are three other lead performances that have gotten great reviews, but even if they have distributors, they’ll be held for next year. A24 have picked up Tom Hardy vehicle “Locke” out of Venice, and the turn’s certainly awards worthy—the “Inception” star holds the screen solo throughout, and does it beautifully. But with the competition still stiff, the company will hold it for next year and try their luck again, possibly surfing the hype of Hardy’s starring role in the “Mad Max” reboot (if that is in fact a real thing that exists, and not an elaborate practical joke from Warner Bros). Neither David Gordon Green‘s “Joe” or John Ridley‘s “All Is By My Side” have distribution as we go to press, but both got good notices.
Not Looking Great
Not everything that goes to the festivals can be a winner, and that’s certainly been the case this year, with even a few high profile films very much out of the race. In some cases, it’s simply that they’re not the kind of film that voters respond to—”The Double,” “Enemy“,”Under The Skin” and “How I Live Now” got pretty great notices on the whole, but are hardly awards-friendly, so won’t hit until 2014. And for some, the story isn’t done yet. Initial reactions to biopics “The Fifth Estate” and “Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom” were fairly tepid (though the former has its supporters, notably Deadline’s Pete Hammond, and the latter’s emotional subject matter feels more resonant after Mandela’s recent ill-health), and the strength of the Best Actor field make Benedict Cumberbatch and Idris Elba less of the home-runs they might otherwise appear, but they’re still going to be in the conversation, at least for a little while longer.
Similarly, Jason Reitman‘s “Labor Day” has its fans, but a ton of detractors too, and certainly doesn’t have anywhere near the buzz that “Juno” or “Up In The Air” had at the same point in the cycle. Our gut is at this point that the film’s more likely to go the way of “Young Adult,” but we’re holding off judgement completely at least until we start hearing how Academy screenings go down. But those are the best bets of the bottom tier at this point, along with, perhaps, “The Past,” which seemed like a possibility out of Cannes, but is suffering cooler buzz these days, and seems to be a lesser cousin to “A Separation.” Word may yet pick up again, but it’s not looking like a serious proposition in the major categories. No one seems especially wild about “The Invisible Woman” at this point either.
Elsewhere, poisonous reviews greeted “Devil’s Knot,” “Therese,” “Third Person” and “You Are Here,” so they’re all out for the count. “Parkland” was received more warmly at TIFF than in Venice, but it’s still a non-starter, while Kevin Kline‘s had some good notices for “The Last Of Robin Hood,” but not enough for it to become a contender, and few seemed to see Britflicks “Le Week-End” and “One Chance,” which won’t be Oscar contenders, though could figure into the BAFTAs. Finally, not on the festival circuit, but opening across the pond are Richard Curtis‘ “About Time” and Naomi Watts-starring biopic “Diana.” The former is probably Curtis’ best directorial effort, and has a Bill Nighy performance that might in theory have been a chance to award the never-nominated actor, but it’s not going to get much awards traction. “Diana” is by all accounts a train wreck, and Watts should essentially be ruled out of Best Actress contention at this point, even if the performance is apparently better than the film.
We’re off to catch our breath before NYFF kicks off, when we’ll be seeing official verdicts on “Her” and “The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty.” But we’ll be back before then, with our first Best Picture chart coming next week.