With the New York Film Festival now in full swing, Gravity on its way to theaters and some release date shifts for Foxcatcher and Grace of Monaco taking them out of this year's race, there are so many different reasons to be excited about Oscar season right now. And even better, we're still in that "Anything's possible" sweet spot, where none of the categories seem locked down, where some of the fall's biggest movies are still unseen and full of potential, and where if you really want to cling to Brie Larson's chances at a Best Actress nomination, you can go for it.
I've been wrapped up in the New York Film Festival, which gave me the chance to catch two of the fest's biggest titles, the Coen Brothers' Inside Llewyn Davis and Paul Greengrass's Captain Phillips. The Coens' movie, while wonderful, seems less relevant in the awards conversation-- it's one of their pricklier and less emotionally rewarding efforts, telling the story of a gifted musician (Oscar Issac, who is fantastic) who can't get out of his own way while pursuing a career in the same New York folk scene that created Bob Dylan. It's more like A Serious Man than True Grit, but given that both of them were Best Picture nominees, I can't totally rule it out. But it's hard to imagine Llewyn connecting enough with Academy members to be a real threat for any wins-- a totally fine fate for a movie, and a pair of filmmakers, largely uninterested in awards anyway.
Captain Phillips, on the other hand, could be a big one, featuring Tom Hanks giving a fearless and remarkably surprising performance, and typically intense direction from Paul Greengrass, who was a surprise Best Director nominee for another gripping true-life story, United 93. Captain Phillips has a happier ending than United 93 and the added benefit of a huge star in its title role, both of which should get it more attention from audiences (did you catch the massive spot for it during the Breaking Bad finale?). Sony Pictures has another huge contender on the horizon with American Hustle, but now that Foxcatcher has moved on to 2014, the studio could easy throw their weight behind Captain Phillips as well, another major, deserving contender in a field that's suddenly full of them.
Which brings us to Gravity, a movie that will earn plenty of comparisons to Captain Phillips for the basic similarities of the plot-- a single person faced with unimaginable odds and doing their best to survive. Gravity is much more of a technical marvel, probably the most visually dazzling and gut-churning story ever set in outer space, but Sandra Bullock's lead performance carries much of the emotional weight, and as a recent Best Actress nominee she lends a sheen of prestige to what is, in essence, a thriller. It's hard to know if those genre trappings will stymie the film as awards season goes on-- sci-fi films typically don't fare well with the Academy, though District 9 and Avatar have done well very recently-- but Bullock ought to at least keep it in the conversation, along with the many technical awards that ought to head its way.
Gravity, like everything else in the season, could also get a boost from audiences-- recent tracking numbers suggest it could do very well, and the onslaught of football tie-in ads mean Warner Bros. must have a lot of faith in it. By the time we check back in next week Gravity will have gotten past its opening weekend, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty will have screened for critics at the New York Film Festival (though not me, sadly-- life gets in the way), and we'll be preparing for the arrival of Captain Phillips everyone. In the meantime, it's time to get to the first charts of the season! More specific conversation about the top 6 categories below, and if you see any omissions in there, or just want to argue with me, jump in the comments and keep the conversation going.
A surprising amount of films in the running have already shown their faces at festivals… but surprisingly few of them are currently looking like actual Best Picture threats. 12 Years A Slave is the obvious heavyweight, with both stellar filmmaking and a large cast of great actors going for it; Gravity and Captain Phillips, while also great, are largely single-person survival stories, which could bump them down when "bigger" movies arrive later in the fall. And since none of these films have yet opened for audiences, of course, the box office may be a huge factor in sorting them out. The "still in the running category" contains some unseen films that look strong on paper (American Hustle and Saving Mr. Banks primary among them) along with some less heavy-duty contenders from festival season like August: Osage County. And finally there's the Outside Chance category, which runs the gamut from festival whiffs-- The Fifth Estate-- unseen question marks-- Out of the Furnace, Her. It's still early days. Many things can happen to make any one of them a major threat.
STILL IN THE RUNNING