Oscar Eye: Predicting The Strongest Contenders In This Year's Awards Race

I'm freshly back from the Toronto Film Festival, and ready to start this year's series of Oscar Eye columns with a big confession: I saw almost none of the big awards contenders in Toronto. Call it bad timing or bad luck or both, but I'm heading into this Oscar season with little advance knowledge-- which seems appropriate enough for a season in which it feels like we're still waiting for the biggest contenders to come into view.

But halfway through September, the Oscar race is very much underway, and I'll be checking in weekly between now and the February ceremony for the latest on where things stand, which contenders are doing better than the others, and what you ought to expect when the nominations and the winners are announced. Before we get started with the charts, which will be updated weekly, it's time to look back over what we've seen so far this year, what's coming out of the festivals with strong buzz, and what we're still waiting to get a look at. Let's go over the massive list of potential contenders first, and next week we'll get started with the charts.

Take a look below to check out this year's potential Academy Awards landscape, and join in the comments to start the discussion as we begin the long, long road to the Oscars.


The Avengers. Big a hit as it may be, it probably won't be the first superhero movie to break through in the Best Picture ranks. But effects and sound nominations are practically guaranteed, and with the amount of love Whedon has out there, a screenplay nomination wouldn't be unreasonable either.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. This movie is a far bigger hit than you think it is-- it's made $131 million worldwide-- and hits right to the sweet spot of the older Academy voter demographic. But Fox Searchlight will have to fight hard to help people remember this light movie, and it's unclear if they'll do so with both Beasts of the Southern Wild and The Sessions as stronger contenders.

Moonrise Kingdom. Wes Anderson's early-summer charmer wasn't quite the monster success of its most obvious Oscar comparison, Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris, which last year went from a low-key May release to grossing more than $50 million and a Best Picture nomination. But with impeccable design and a wide-ranging ensemble cast, Moonrise could start popping back up come critic's awards in December-- you can never count Anderson out, at the very least.

Beasts of the Southern Wild. It's the big-hearted indie success story of the summer, a Sundance hit backed by Fox Searchlight, which knows a thing or two about taking small films from Sundance and getting them to Oscar night. Young star Quvenzhane Wallis is a strong contender for a Best Actress nomination, and the film's design, photography and music could all be in the running, as could director Benh Zeitlin and the picture itself. It all depends on how well it lingers once the big fall potentials get out there in the coming weeks.

Brave. You would think Pixar's slot at Best Picture would be guaranteed now that they've made a movie better than Cars 2, but Brave wasn't quite as big a critical smash as it needed to be. A Best Animated Feature nomination is probably guaranteed, but with the likes of ParaNorman and Frankenweenie out there, not likely a win there either.

Magic Mike. Don't laugh! Matthew McConaughey could easily walk away with a Best Supporting Actor nomination, if not win, given what a great year he's having. And with a summer hit this popular, you seriously never know what else is possible.

The Dark Knight Rises. I'm including it here because I think I have to, since it seems very clear Nolan's final Batman film won't be able to make up for the Best Picture nomination The Dark Knight probably deserved. The film didn't get the critical boost it would have needed, and overshadowed by July's theater shootings, it doesn't feel part of the zeitgeist the way the first one did. Technical nominations are very possible, but anything else? I'm betting not.

ParaNorman. One of the most inventively animated films ever, and hopefully that will be enough to push this minor hit into serious Best Animated Feature contention.

The Master. Paul Thomas Anderson's new film is well-received but baffling a lot of people, and without the bigness of There Will Be Blood probably won't be able to sneak him into Best Picture a second time. But Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix tear up the screen. so the acting attention could lead this film in a lot of directions if it continues being a box office hit.


End of Watch. This gritty cop drama isn't exactly Oscar's wheelhouse, but it's getting great reviews and it comes from David Ayer, who wrote Training Day, the movie that got both Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke acting nominations. Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena will probably be campaigned for their roles as well, but we'll have to see what it amounts to.

The House I Live In. A heartbreaking documentary about the American Drug War that ought to find its way into Best Documentary Feature contention.

Argo. Here's the big 800 pound gorilla of the season right now. Ben Affleck's spy thriller got rave reviews at the Toronto Film Festival last week, and is poised to tick virtually every Oscar box if it's as big a hit in theaters-- including, believe it or not, a Best Director nomination for Affleck. That guy who used to stand around making dick jokes with Kevin Smith has grown up so fast, hasn't he?

Seven Psychopaths. Director Martin McDonagh, whose feature debut In Bruges was nominated for Best Original Screenplay, is back with another black comedy that hit big at TIFF last week, and includes some supporting performances from the likes of Christopher Walken and Woody Harrelson that could be worth watching as the season goes on.

The Sessions. This big Sundance success looms large for one very specific reason-- John Hawkes's mesmerizing, very committed performance as a man in an iron lung who wants to have sex for the first time. Helen Hunt-- yes, that Helen Hunt-- could also be a Best Supporting Actress contender, and who knows, if they like the film enough it could go all the way to Best Picture too.

Cloud Atlas. It premiered to wildly mixed reviews in Toronto-- for my part, I adored it-- and it will be an uphill challenge for this massive, ambitious film to fit in with the usual Oscar profile. But you just never know what might catch fire, so don't count it out. At the very least, technical awards are very likely.

A Late Quartet. It's a posh film with Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener and Christopher Walken in the cast, but reactions in Toronto were only so-so. We'll see what kind of push it gets.

Anna Karenina. Not everyone fell for it at Toronto, but those who did-- like Sean-- fell hard. It's a sumptuous period film that might not be for everyone, but you can never count those out when it comes to Oscars.

The Silver Linings Playbook. Having won the Audience Award at Toronto, it's positioned itself as a serious Best Picture contender, with people even talking up a Best Actress win for Jennifer Lawrence, and Bradley Cooper's first nomination. There's a lot of excitement around it right now, but it's likely the Weinstein Company will keep it close tot he vest until much closer to its November release date, so expect it to be quiet for a long while yet.

Rust and Bone. A brutal but moving drama about a romance between two very damaged people, this French-language film will have a lot of American competition, but a very buzzed-about performance from Marion Cotillard ought to get it plenty of attention all the same.

Hyde Park On Hudson. Almost nobody liked this movie when it played in Toronto, but almost nobody liked The Iron Lady either, and Meryl Streep still won an Oscar for playing a real politician. Bill Murray might be able to do the same, but we'll see how much he's sandbagged by the subpar movie.

The Impossible. It starts with a nail-biting recreation of the 2004 South Indian Ocean tsunami, then segues into the kind of giant, heartstring-plucking emotions that Spielberg would envy. Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts both give strong performances, but people have to be willing to put themselves through the trauma of seeing it to actually nominate it.

Amour. The Palme d'Or winner from Michael Haneke is brutal and heartbreaking, but features two phenomenal lead performances and a quiet emotion that wins over anyone brave enough to see it. If viewers can overcome the bleakness, it could be a dark horse Best PIcture contender to watch.


Flight. Nobody thought much about this new film from Robert Zemeckis until it was announced as Closing Night presentation at the New York Film Festival. Now it seems possible we've gotten Zemeckis back after years of dabbling in motion-capture animation, and Denzel Washington's lead performance could be a serious Best Actor contender. No one's seen it yet, though, so be cautious for now.

Skyfall. Bond films typically aren't Oscar things, but they're not typically directed by previous Oscar winners like Sam Mendes either. This new installment looks very, very promising, and with The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises both unlikely to make it in for Best Picture consideration, this might be the blockbuster everyone can get behind.

Lincoln. Duh. If you've seen the trailer you know it's got awards written all over it, and even if it doesn't turn out to be stellar, well, Spielberg managed a Best Picture nomination for War Horse. Everyone predicting this to clean up at the Oscars hasn't actually seen it yet, but if you need to get behind a single horse right now, Lincoln is a pretty good bet.

Life of Pi. Like Flight, this giant film from Ang Lee has a prime spot at the New York Film Festival, which suggests greatness along with impressive CGI effects and beloved source material. If the movie works, it could be a huge deal come the holidays.

Killing Them Softly. Recently pushed back to a later release to capitalize on Oscar momentum, the film from Andrew Dominik starring Brad Pitt seems to have big ambitions-- but Cannes reviews were middling, so it's unclear if they'll pan out.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings films were all showered with nominations, though few wins until Return of the King. If history repeats itself the first Hobbit installment will be right up there in the mix… but that's only if the movie is good, and if the Academy is feeling as fantasy-friendly as it was a decade ago. A lot of questions we can't answer until we see it.

Les Miserables. A splashy adaptation of a beloved musical, with recent Oscar winner Tom Hooper behind the camera? Check, check and check. Nobody knows yet if Les Miserables is any good, but if it is… look out. The sky's pretty much the limit on this thing.

This Is 40. Judd Apatow has seemed to have his own Broadcast News in him for a while, but we'll see if the highly personal This Is 40 can be it. If it's great, it could be a real dark horse in a field crowded with Big Important Movies-- though Silver Linings could also steal its comedy thunder.

Zero Dark Thirty. A lot of people automatically assume Kathryn Bigelow will waltz up to the Oscars with her Hurt Locker follow-up, but I'm not so sure her action-driven style will work again, even with such meaty material as the SEAL Team Six raid that killed Osama bin Laden. With a Christmas release date, we have a long time to wait to find out.

Not Fade Away. The third of the big NYFF films to get a release, and the directorial debut of Sopranos creator David Chase… and that's pretty much all we know about it. If it plays well at the festival, we can start considering it a real contender.

Django Unchained. Quentin Tarantino's big, daring slavery revenge tale is being pegged as an Oscar contender because of the success of Inglourious Basterds, but it seems a little early to bet on that, especially with a lot of good competition out there. Whether or not it's good, it could simply be too big or violent for the Academy's taste.

Promised Land. Described as a Capra-esque drama from Gus van Sant, with John Krasinski and Matt Damon in the lead roles, it could be a low-key alternative to the bigger holiday movies, and has a whole lot of promise. But could something so small also get lost in the shuffle?

Katey Rich

Staff Writer at CinemaBlend