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Awards season has started. Yes, really-- if fall means to you the start of school or the return of football you might not have noticed, but for those of us who circle the Oscar ceremony on our calendars months in advance (March 2 next year, heads up) and have Kate Winslet's Best Actress acceptance speech memorized, Oscar season begins around Labor Day, when the Telluride Film Festival kicks off what will be a very, very busy four months of premieres, interviews, red carpets, and buzz buzz buzz.
Telluride, Toronto and Venice are all over, the New York Film Festival is about to begin, and many people have seen at least a handful of the films expected to be major contenders not just for Oscars, but for Golden Globes and critic's prizes and Independent Spirit Awards and all the rest. So to kick off this year's installment of Oscar Eye, I've done an exhaustive rundown of the year so far in buzz: the films that have already opened, the ones that have screened at festivals, and the ones that remain big question marks as they prepare to open this fall. From the deafening Best Picture talk surrounding 12 Years A Slave to the summer success of Woody Allen's Blue Jasmine, here are the titles to keep an eye on for one reason or another, along with a handful that may walk and talk like Oscar prospects but won't get anywhere in the end (sorry, Stoker). The films are listed in rough order of their chances at big awards-- so 12 Years A Slave is at the top of the festival crowd, American Hustle is dominating the group that has yet to be seen, etc.
Next week I'll be back with the year's charts ranking everything in order of likelihood, along with more detailed talk about all of these contenders. We've got a long and hopefully exciting season ahead of us, and I'm dying to hear from you guys-- my Oscar-loving brethren-- about your thoughts so far. Please jump in the comments and start the conversation. This is the fun part of the year, when anything seems possible, so enjoy it while it lasts!
ALREADY OUT THERE
Lee Daniels' The Butler.The summer's surprise runaway success, having made nearly $100 million already, The Butler is the strongest Best Picture contender to have opened so far, and the campaign that will surround Oprah Winfrey's Best Supporting Actress efforts ought to be noisy and never-ending. Who knows how well The Butler and its so-so Metacritic score will be able to hang in there once other big titles open, but there's something to be said for getting out there early and on a hot-button topic. Just ask The Help.
Blue Jasmine. Unlike Allen's recent mega-success Midnight in Paris, which earned a Best Picture nod, Blue Jasmine is all about the lead performance from Cate Blanchett, whom some have been bold enough to declare a lock to win Best Actress (talk about counting your chickens early). Blanchett is a strong contender for the win, though, and Sony Pictures Classics should also push the supporting performance from Sally Hawkins, in addition for what might be token campaigns for Allen's directing and screenwriting. Best Actress is the film's best bet by far.
Before Midnight. Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke's latest reunion was beloved by critics and a modest summer success. Their previous collaboration Before Sunset earned a Best Adapted Screenplay nomination, and many expect the same to happen for this. But expect a campaign for Delpy's raw lead performance, and even a potential Best Picture push that could at least get attention for critic's awards.
Fruitvale Station After earning huge buzz at the Sundance Film Festival and opening on a huge wave of press this summer, Fruitvale Station dropped out of the conversation swiftly, partly because distributor The Weinstein Company turned its attention toward promoting Lee Daniels' The Butler. Star Michael B. Jordan remains a contender for Best Actor-- but he's looking like the film's best hope, and a possibly fading one at that.
Mud Its $21 million box office gross this spring was a major success, but it's hard to know how Jeff Nichols' small gem will gain attention as the fall awards derby start-- even its magnetic star Matthew McConaughey has another flashier movie out with The Dallas Buyers Club. At this point attention from critic's awards may be its best hope.
The Place Beyond The Pines With a box office take almost identical to Mud's, Pines is in a similar position of trying to get people to remember it, though a starry ensemble cast that includes Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper could give it a bit of a boost. Derek Cianfrance's tricky three-part screenplay could be a dark horse contender, but that's about all that seems likely right now.
Spring Breakers. Yes, really-- James Franco's Best Supporting Actor campaign has already started.
Short Term 12. One of the summer's most lauded indies, Short Term 12 is a little too small to be a major player here, but there's more than enough buzz around Brie Larson's lead performance to keep her in the conversation, especially if some of the fall's bigger contenders wind up stumbling when finally revealed. At the very least she ought to be able to ride the buzz toward an Independent Spirit Award nomination.
Frances Ha. You can say almost exactly the same thing about Frances Ha that you can about Short Term 12, although with director Noah Baumbach behind it in addition to Greta Gerwig's luminous lead performance, Frances might have a slightly easier time getting older Academy voters' attention. It's the kind of film that needs to be kept alive through constant awards chatter… so expect to keep hearing about it from me and other pundits who fell hard for it.
The Great Gatsby. Why isn't the lavish, well-acted and 11th-highest grossing film of the year a total lock for Oscar buzz? Here's where awards season starts seeming circular and ridiculous-- because it opened in May it was way more successful than if had been competing with other prestige projects in the fall, but it is also seen as "less" than all the big autumn movie that kill each other trying to get to theaters. I could see them building a big awards campaign on the shoulders of Leonardo DiCaprio, who does fantastic work here, but he's got his own Wolf of Wall Street to compete with. Look for it on the technical side, but some major winds have to shift for anything more to happen.
Oz the Great & Powerful. A major contender for some technical awards but not more, don't worry.
The Act of Killing. Repeatedly called one of the year's best documentaries, expect it to be in the conversation for that category from now on.
Blackfish. Another strong documentary with a lot of buzz and real world consequences. Watch out, Sea World.
Stories We Tell. Sarah Polley's heartfelt, introspective documentary might be too genre-blurring to qualify as Best Documentary Features, but it deserves to fully. Expect at the very least a ton of critical buzz and spots on Top 10 lists.
42. A long shot, but something that Warner Bros. might consider campaigning given that it was a surprisingly big financial hit earlier this year, and there's a lot of talk about how many strong lead actor performances there are from black stars already. Why not add newcomer Chadwick Boseman to the mix?
Stoker. If I were the only person in charge of handing out Oscars-- and Lord do I wish that were true-- Park Chan-wook's beautiful, deeply strange film would be a contender for everything. But I'm not, and most people didn't like this movie as much as I did. Sorry, Matthew Goode-- in an alternate universe you're a lock for a Best Supporting Actor nomination.
GETTING FESTIVAL BUZZ
12 Years A Slave. Already the 800 pound gorilla in the race, the new film from Steve McQueen has some people so excited after its Telluride and Toronto premieres that it's been declared the Best Picture winner. Grantland's Mark Harris, who hasn't even seen it yet, stepped it back a bit with a thoughtful analysis of why 12 Years A Slave is so well-positioned (Hollywood finally grappling with race, Oscars making up for rarely acknowledging race, etc.) but also why it's way too damn early to declare anything. I'll talk more about 12 Years next week-- you can read my review in the meantime-- but it is definitely one to keep an eye on. It's one of few recent awards-targeted movies that actually exceeds its hype.
Gravity. Reviews so far, ours included, have been ecstatic, both for the technical accomplishment from director Alfonso Cuaron and Sandra Bullock's physically demanding, captivating lead performance. Sci-fi films have a terrible track record at the Oscars, but the recent expanded slate of Best Picture nominees has made the path easier for potential commercial hits like this one. We'll see how Gravity does with wider audiences when it opens October 4 before making bold pronouncements about its overall awards potential.
Dallas Buyers Club. Most of the buzz out of the Toronto Film Festival has been about Matthew McConaughey's lead performance and Jared Leto's supporting work, though some have fallen for the movie as a whole. Though telling a touching true story about serious issues, Dallas Buyers is a modest film, and should wind up mostly heralded for its performances, which I think are the best reason to see it. Is this finally McConaughey's Oscar nomination after several years of strong work? I sure hope so.
August: Osage County. If the Toronto reviews for this had been ecstatic it could have knocked out 12 Years as an early Best Picture frontrunner; instead most reviews, Sean's included, have been modestly warm, with most of the attention going to Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts' performances. Can the film itself build its way up to contender status? There are many months to go before its December 25 opening, and the Weinstein Company is backing it, so anything is possible.
Captain Phillips. Paul Greengrass's newest film is the splashy opener of the New York Film Festival, and the early reviews are all over it, with everyone seemingly psyched to see Tom Hanks back in heroic form (who wouldn't be?) Greengrass's United 93 was another tense real-world thriller that earned him a surprise Oscar nomination for Best Director, so don't be surprised if this is another straightforward action film that goes the distance in awards season-- and never, ever estimate Tom Hanks when he's saving the day.
Rush. Daniel Bruhl is sneakily emerging as a major contender, not for The Fifth Estate (we'll get to that later) but for this Ron Howard racing drama. From the posters you might think the whole thing is about Chris Hemsworth and his blond mane, but Bruhl steals the show as the forceful Austrian driver Niki Lauda, who engaged in a fierce rivalry with Hemsworth's James Hunt in the 1970s Formula One championships. Some pals of mine think Bruhl could walk away with Best Supporting Actor-- and the movie itself, especially if it does well with audiences after opening next week, could be a strong populist pick across the board.
Prisoners. A lot of critics seemed to surprise themselves by falling hard for this movie at Toronto, and with Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal leading its cast, it could do well at the box office when it opens this week. Director Denis Villeneuve has a strong Oscar track record as well, earning a Best Foreign Language Film nomination for Incendies… but the main Oscar race is a different beast entirely, and dark, criminal movies aren't always Best Picture catnip. Just ask Gyllenhaal, who did great work in David Fincher's Zodiac, a lengthy crime thriller that was one of the best films of 2007 and precisely zero Oscar nods to show for it.
Inside Llewyn Davis. The latest film from the Coen Brothers premiered to strong reviews way back at Cannes, but its awards season mettle will be truly tested when it opens at the New York Film Festival next month. Coen movies can never be counted on to court awards-- the brothers seem to have no interest in it-- and despite reportedly strong performances from Oscar Isaac and Carey Mulligan, Llewyn Davis could easily be too modest, or too idiosyncratic, to earn significant awards heat.
Nebraska. After coming damn close to winning Best Picture two years ago with The Descendants, Alexander Payne is back with a much lower-key film, about a road trip between father (Bruce Dern) and son (Will Forte). Unsurprisingly it's the performances, especially Dern's, getting the most attention after the film screened at Cannes and Toronto, and it's dutifully making its way to the New York Film Festival to keep that buzz going. Dern is a longstanding Hollywood veteran who's never been nominated, which can only boost sentimental support for his win, but it's a crowded Best Actor field, and Nebraska may not be big and bold enough to compete in many other categories.
All Is Lost. Robert Redford, who hasn't starred in a film since 2007's Lions for Lambs, is very much front and center here as a nameless man lost at sea and struggling to survive. After screening at Cannes the film earned rave reviews, and sentimental attachment to Redford-- who has never won an Oscar for acting-- could propel it very, very far, even if people are still too scarred from Life of Pi to look forward to another "lost at sea" drama.
Kill Your Darlings. Many months after its Sundance premiere the Beat-era drama is finally making its way through other festivals and toward theaters, with strong notices for the performances by Daniel Radcliffe and Dane DeHaan. But it's not nearly as big a heavyweight as some of the season's other offerings, as good as the movie is, and it hasn't been trumpeted enough at the fall festivals to keep its Sundance buzz going. That might not be a bad thing-- it's a compact story that might be wrecked by inflated awards attention. But some further critical support could at least get it through some critics awards and maybe the Indie Spirits.
Labor Day. After pounding endlessly through awards season with both Juno and Up in the Air Jason Reitman backed away with the divisive Young Adult, which puts less pressure on the intimate drama Labor Day. Sean was a fan at Toronto, and you can never count a Kate Winslet performance out of any awards race, but it remains to be seen how the small-scale Labor Day can fare against the louder competition. With its release not coming until December 25, it has plenty of time to build up enough buzz to compensate.
Philomena. Much like Kate Winslet, you cannot count Judi Dench out of any awards race, and Philomena-- which Sean said"will entertain my mom and her friends" from Toronto-- puts Dench in the Best Actress competition. Remember: Sean's mom and her friends are a lot more similar to the Oscar voters than many of us.
The Fifth Estate. A true story drama about Julian Assange, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Daniel Bruhl, The Fifth Estate seemed to have everything going for it, until it opened the Toronto Film Festival to brutal reviews. Everyone still says that Cumberbatch is solid, but if nobody likes the movie, that might not mean anything. Somehow the mega-popular Sherlock star has three big movies this fall (he has supporting turns in August: Osage County and 12 Years A Slave), but very dim awards prospects.
Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom "Idris Elba IS Nelson Mandela." It's the kind of tagline that can invite people to practically fling statues at you, but this Nelson Mandela biopic met tepid reviews in Toronto, with critics calling it "fundamentally uncinematic" and "straightforward storytelling of a type that’s somewhat out of fashion," even while praising Elba's performance. Morgan Freeman got a Best Actor nomination for playing Mandela in Clint Eastwood's very boring Invictus, so nothing is impossible, but without a name-brand director backing it Mandela might have a hard time getting a similar level of attention.
ON THE HORIZON
American Hustle For my money this is the biggest threat lurking in the fall season, a star-heavy, historical drama from David O. Russell, whose last two films The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook have been huge awards season favorites. Any actor in the cast could get a nomination, or even win. Russell could finally get the Best Director statue he's been up for twice. Nobody's seen it yet, but Russell is a strong enough director to get major benefit of the doubt sight unseen.
Saving Mr. Banks Remember what we were saying earlier about Tom Hanks in heroic mode in Captain Phillips? Now consider him playing Walt Disney, opposite Emma Thompson as the author of Mary Poppins, in what looks entirely like a charming, family-friendly holiday film, and from the director of The Blind Side no less. Set to open the AFI Festival in Los Angeles, Saving Mr. Banks is aiming for both prestige and big audiences, and if it's actually good it could prove a monster of a combination.
Monuments Men George Clooney is quickly becoming an enormous force in awards season, having shared the Best Picture prize as a producer of Argo last year, gotten a nomination for Best Actor for The Descendants and Best Adapted Screenplay for The Ides of March in the same year, plus three other acting nominations, one win, and a Best Director and Writing nod way back in 2006. Awards bodies love him (everybody loves him, let's be honest), and Monuments Men combines the ensemble heist energy of Ocean's Eleven with historical gravitas, which is about as awards-friendly as you can hope for. Some pundits have grumbled that it looks too mainstream and self-satisfied, but if it's as fun to watch as it should be, the power of Clooney ought to take it far.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty On the power of a single trailer-- and a prime spot at the New York Film Festival-- Ben Stiller's directorial effort went from holiday season would-be blockbuster to possible awards contender. It looks both dazzling and fun to watch, but does it have enough substance to compete? It won't screen for press at the New York Film Festival for a few more weeks, so for now we wait and see.
The Wolf of Wall Street Martin Scorsese + Leonardo DiCaprio = awards buzz, no matter what, and it helps that early looks at Wolf of Wall Street show DiCaprio looking looser than ever, and a chance to both hate greedy Wall Street types while reveling in their ridiculous excess. Wolf currently has no announced plans for a film festival debut ahead of its November 15 opening, but it stands a good shot of being a "secret screening" at the New York Film Festival next month. Regardless of when it opens Wolf will be considered a contender unless it somehow opens and falls terribly flat. And even then, Scorsese's legacy could keep it alive.
Her Another New York Film Festival entry, and this one with last year's Best Actor nominee Joaquin Phoenix leading it, Her looks beautiful and melancholy, but also a little strange-- what we expect from director Spike Jonze, but what's also kept Jonze's other great films out of awards chatter. As a character-driven drama about human connections Her has the power to overcome that-- just look at Best Picture winner Crash!-- but it's hard to know how strange it will be, or alienating to older awards voters, without seeing it first.
Foxcatcher Until it set a release date for December I was worried Bennett Miller's Moneyball follow-up might be pushed to next year, but now it's on its way with an impressive cast-- Steve Carell, Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo-- all poised to do interesting work in the dark story of an heir to a fortune who became a wrestling sponsor and then a murderer. Miller's track record as a director, after Capote and Moneyball, is impeccable, and Carell has seemed poised for a while to take a dramatic role and shake up his comedic image. If it's as good as it looks, buzz-building screenings may start soon to get the word out.
Out of the Furnace Scott Cooper's debut feature Crazy Heart was a little-indie-that-could success story, earning Jeff Bridges a Best Actor Oscar, a handful of other nominations, and a major career boost for actor-turned-director Cooper. He's assembled a bigger cast and more sweeping story for his follow-up, starring Christian Bale and Casey Affleck as a pair of brothers caught up in the criminal world surrounding depressed steel town Braddock, PA. Can he improve on Crazy Heart's success? With not a peep yet about Out of the Furnace's quality as a finished product, it's impossible to know yet.
The Counselor Like Scorsese, Ridley Scott is another big name when it comes to awards consideration, but despite his incredibly starry and awards-friendly cast-- Javier Bardem! Michael Fassbender! Brad Pitt! Penelope Cruz! Cameron Diaz!-- The Counselor looks pulpier and more commercial the more we get a look at it. That could make it a fantastic movie, of course, but so far it's looking less like an awards hope than a chance for actors courting awards elsewhere (we're looking at you, Fassbender) to cut loose and shoot guns at each other.
Diana "Naomi Watts IS Princess Diana." The same logic that puts Idris Elba in the hunt for Mandela could make Watts a contender here, though the longer this biopic stays away from critics in the U.S., the more I suspect it's a standard-issue story that won't distinguish itself from the many, many TV movies about the people's princess. Critics who have seen it in the UK call it "a cheap and cheerless effort that looks like a Channel 5 mid-week matinee." Harsh-- and not promising for Oscar hopes no matter how good Watts is.
Grace of Monaco Naomi Watts and Nicole Kidman are famously old pals… is it possible they'll both fall flat playing princesses? Grace of Monaco has been completely invisible aside from a brief preview at Cannes. It's set to open November 27, and yet we haven't even seen a trailer. Not a great sign, especially with the ever buzz-savvy Weinstein Company behind it.
The Book Thief As I wrote when it first premiered, the trailer for this film starring Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson screams "mid-90s Oscars!" But is that enough to help it succeed against more modern, interesting competition? Only if the movie is really, really great-- and we have no idea yet if they've pulled that off.