While you read this I'm on my way to the Toronto International Film Festival, one of several early September film festivals that mark the real beginning of Oscar season. Yes, it will be many months before you start seeing TV ads with "Best Picture nominee" on them, and almost as long before many of the big potential contenders-- like Steven Spielberg's War Horse or Jason Reitman's Young Adult-- appear in front of audiences. But a lot of the fall's biggest movies are already screening for festival audiences or are about to, which means the Oscar buzz has started whether you like it or not.

For my fourth year in a row I'll be writing this weekly column to chart the ups and downs of Oscar season, both taking a look at each week's new releases in terms of Oscar potential and looking at where movies stand in terms of that ephemeral quality awkwardly defined as "buzz." When I get back from Toronto I'll start up the weekly charts predicting four different tiers of possibilities for the top categories-- Mortal Lock, Likely Contender, Still in the Running and Long Shot. One week I may say Ryan Gosling is a Mortal Lock as a Best Actor nominee for Drive, the next week he may be bumped down to Still in the Running-- these things change quickly, and the Oscar Eye charts won't reflect who I think deserves the nomination, but who is most likely to get it based on what we know about the Academy and their voting habits.

But to kick things off, let's go over the year so far and the movies already in release that may play into the Oscar race. I'll also go over some of the films coming in the next month that will be at least considered for the Academy's attention, and some of the movies that may not be released soon, but are getting that ever-important buzz from festivals already. Think of it like a primer for how to jump into following the Oscars, and a cheat sheet for which movies to pay attention to going forward. This is just the beginning of a long, hopefully Oscar season ahead of us, and this is the fun part, because we really have no idea what might happen. Get started on your Oscar obsession below, and I'll be back next week with hopefully a little more information gleaned up in Toronto.


Jane Eyre. This is more wishful thinking on the part of those of us who love this movie-- it's a really wonderful adaptation of a spooky and very affecting novel, but doesn't seem to have stuck much in the public consciousness. Both stars Michael Fassbender and Mia Wasikowska have other projects coming this fall, and the best hope for Jane Eyre seems to be Costumes or Cinematography-- a hope I'll cling to as long as I can.

Rango. No, you probably shouldn't look for this to jump into Best Picture like a Pixar film-- in fact, this will probably be the first year since the lineup of 10 was introduced that an animated film won't make the cut. But with Pixar's weak Cars 2 and DreamWorks Animation's slightly less weak Kung Fu Panda 2, Rango could easily walk away with the Best Animated Feature prize-- not half bad.

Win Win. Another early-year highlight that seems all too forgotten now, but Fox Searchlight might pull off a campaign for the movie's screenplay if nothing else, and some critics at least should keep it in the conversation through the end of the year. If you want to predict your office Oscar pool, you probably don't need to see it-- but it's worth catching anyway.

Midnight In Paris. It's Woody Allen's biggest hit ever-- yes, ever-- and the Sony Pictures Classics marketing team has spent the entire summer sending out press releases reminding journalists of what a huge hit it is. The trick here, though, is what nominations it could get that might bolster its shot at Best Picture-- Woody Allen seems like a natural choice for Best Original Screenplay, but it's hard to imagine any strong acting contenders, and even Best Director seems unlikely. This is an obviously well-loved movie that will still be tricky to navigate through Oscar season.

Tree of Life. Probably the year's most talked-about film in arthouse circles, and God help the Academy if they deny it a Best Cinematography nomination, but Terrence Malick is divisive enough that the movie could find trouble getting traction, especially once other prestige favorites make their way into the marketplace. If anything I could see this adding to Jessica Chastain's body of work for the year that leads her to a possible nomination for Take Shelter-- more on that later. But given how passionate Tree of Life's defenders are, there's a lot of room for surprise here.

Beginners. This tiny Focus Features release was a summer highlight but likely too slight to get much traction as a Picture. Since Christopher Plummer just snagged his first Oscar nomination last year for The Last Station, though, we might expect him to get on the Academy's radar and wind up in the Best Supporting Actor category again. You can also expect a Best Original Screenplay campaign here-- writer/director Mike Mills has a great story, having based the story on his late father-- but who knows how strong the competition might get there.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2. Some people think this will finally be the time that the most popular franchise in movie history gets its due in Best Picture-- I remain a good bit skeptical of that. But Harry Potter movies have been consistently nominated in technical categories like Cinematography, Visual Effects and Best Art Direction and have never won; the final adventure of the Boy Who Lived seems like a far more formidable contender there than in Best Picture.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes. I don't care how much you want it happen-- Andy Serkis will not get an Oscar nomination for this performance, much as he deserves it. But if the team that created Caesar doesn't win for Best Visual Effects, something truly unexpected has happened.

The Help. When DreamWorks chose to open the movie in early August-- a.k.a. the Julie & Julia/Eat Pray Love spot-- we knew The Help would have to be a huge hit to keep up Oscar traction for its massive, massively talented female cast. $125 million in global box office later it's got that part down, so now we watch both Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer keep up long campaigns for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress, respectively-- and if the movie really has staying power, it's possible to imagine Bryce Dallas Howard or even Jessica Chastain jumping in for supporting. Now that the Best Picture field has been whittled down to a sliding scale of between 5 and 10 movies, though, it's hard to imagine The Help landing the kind of Blind Side populist spot-- and beyond nods for costumes and maybe adapted screenplay, the actresses are likely where the movie's Oscar chances will end.


50/50. This movie is incredibly beloved among the many Internet critics who have been seeing it early, and the screenplay from Will Reiser-- based on his own experience surviving cancer-- seems like a very strong shot for a nomination. But even with all the great performance it boasts, especially from Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Anna Kendrick, 50/50 still seems to skew too young to gain much Oscar traction. It will be part of the conversation, sure, and still deserves to be a big hit, but I think it will eventually be drowned out by more traditional fare.

Drive. The Academy somehow ignored Ryan Gosling last year even when nominating his Blue Valentine co-star Michelle Williams, and now that he seems to be the most popular man in the universe-- with The Ides of March and Crazy Stupid Love also working in his favor-- this seems like a great time to nominate him for Drive, which also might actually be his strongest performance. It's hard to see what else might happen for Nicolas Winding Refn's violent, expertly crafted movie-- it's a little too strange and dark to follow the usual Oscar route-- but this is a movie that nearly everyone who sees it seems to love, so it could pick up a lot of steam after it opens next week.

Warrior. There's pretty much one thing you can guarantee for this better-than-average sports drama, and that's the campaign and likely nomination for Nick Nolte as Best Supporting Actor. Both Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton give strong performances as well, but neither has the back-from-the-brink story that Nolte does, or the decades of goodwill. It's hard to imagine what else might happen for Gavin O'Connor's film, but a lot of people are expecting it to be a big fall hit, and when audiences really love a movie, the Academy often takes notice.

Moneyball. Another big potential fall hit, but also hard to predict for nominations-- it took straight-up Oscar bait like Benjamin Button to get Brad Pitt a nomination last time, so who knows how starring in a baseball movie about statistics might work out for him. If it were a Best Picture field of 10 we might be able to predict Moneyball for a populist slot, but even then only if it was really, really popular and really good. I've got high hopes for this, but it's no Academy shoo-in.

Machine Gun Preacher. All you need to do is take one look at the poster to tell both that Relativity wants this to be Gerard Butler's Big Serious Oscar movie, and that the movie looks a little too over-the-top to make that possible. Then again, I might have said the same thing about Hotel Rwanda, so who really knows at this point. If the reviews come in bad, though, we'll be able to quickly cross this one off the list.

Take Shelter. I haven't been able to shake this movie since I saw it at Sundance, and neither have a lot of other critics-- it's a guarantee for a lot of year-end Top 10 lists if nothing else. But Jeff Nichols's small, contemplative, slightly weird movie is the kind of thing that's usually hard to sell to the Academy, and even strong performances from new It Girl Jessica Chastain and the once-nominated Michael Shannon might not be able to get noticed. It's going to get nominated for a hell of a lot of Indie Spirit awards, I'll tell you that much.

Ides of March. After premiering at the Venice Film Festival the writing already seems to be on the wall for this-- it's entertaining and good, but maybe not great enough to be the rare political satire that's also an Oscar hit. It'll be interesting to see whether or not there's a stronger campaign for Ryan Gosling as best Actor in this or Drive, and there are a lot of supporting performances here that could potentially gain traction if the movie is a hit, especially Evan Rachel Wood and Paul Giamatti. But this might be the kind of fall prestige movie that takes becoming a bit hit as an odd kind of consolation prize.


A Dangerous Method. It's got the ubiquitous Michael Fassbender, plus Keira Knightley and Viggo Mortensen, who got a Best Actor nomination the last time he worked with director David Cronenberg on Eastern Promises. This historical drama about Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud also seems more Oscar-friendly than Cronenberg's usual subject matter, but the buzz out of the Telluride Film Festival has been a little muted. I'm dying to see how the movie plays later this week in Toronto.

Shame. Another Michael Fassbender movie, but this one getting nothing but sterling buzz out of both the Venice Film Festival and Telluride. It's also screening in Toronto this week and then later at the New York Film Festival, so by then that wave of hype you're starting to see out on the horizon could morph into something serious. Like Ryan Gosling, Fassbender may have to choose which film to take toward a very possible Best Actor nomination, but this tiny drama about a sex addiction may be too dark to be the one.

Carnage. It's maybe the most pedigreed release of the fall, boasting Jodie Foster, John C. Reilly, Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz in the cast, based on a Tony-award winning play, and directed by Roman Polanski. It premiered in Venice to pretty good reviews, but will get seen by a lot more people when it acts as the centerpiece of the New York Film Festival next month. Word is that Waltz is the standout among the actors, but an Adapted Screenplay nod also seems possible-- and who knows, maybe even more if the buzz gets stronger once the movie arrives stateside.

My Week With Marilyn. Michelle Williams is fresh off her second Oscar nomination, and playing an iconic screen figure like Marilyn Monroe is a pretty good way to get people predicting you'll win your third. That plus by a turn from Kenneth Branagh playing Sir Laurence Olivier means that, regardless of the quality of the movie once it premieres at the New York Film Festival, people may be eager to give this one awards no matter what.

Martha Marcy May Marlene. It was among the most talked-about films at this year's Sundance Film Festival, and since Fox Searchlight picked it up the movie has run the festival gamut, stopping over in Cannes, headed next to Toronto. It's a small indie in the mold of Blue Valentine or Winter's Bone that's more likely to earn acting nominations or a screenplay nod than a Best Picture nod, but newcomer Elizabeth Olsen is good enough that she seems very likely to pull it off.

The Descendants. Six years after Sideways Alexander Payne is finally back, and the word from the movie's Telluride premiere is that it was well worth the wait. The movie will likely pick up more acclaim in Toronto, with word especially strong for Shailene Woodley, who plays George Clooney's rebellious daughter. Sideways was the kind of grown-up indie that had a hard time making it onto the Best Picture list back in the days of five nominees, but with a wider field now it will be interesting to see if it can crack in this time.

The Artist. This is kind of the opposite of all the movies I've mentioned as Oscar possibilities only if mainstream audiences embrace them. A throwback silent film, shot in black and white and made by a French production team, The Artist is a love letter to old Hollywood, and a crowdpleaser for the audiences brave enough to seek out a silent movie, but also not the kind of hit that's likely to translate to bigger crowds. It's a charming movie, though, and one likely to go over really well with Oscar voters, even to the point that lead actor Jean Dejardin could snag a Best Actor nomination for a performance in which he doesn't speak at all.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Director Tomas Alfredson, making his first film since Let The Right One In, has stacked the deck here with practically every great English actor working today, from veterans like Gary Oldman and Colin Firth to up-and-comers like Tom Hardy and Benedict Cumberbatch. Word from Venice is that this could be the performance that finally inspires the Academy to give Oldman his due as Best Actor-- he's actually never been nominated-- and with such a strong cast and an irresistible spy premise, the sky could really be the limit if this movie continues to take off.

Albert Nobbs. Glenn Close hasn't been nominated for an Oscar since the 1980s, a decade in which she was nominated five times, but she's poised to be back in a major way with Nobbs, a period drama she helped shepherd to the screen, and which got a strong response at the Telluride Film Festival over Labor Day weekend. It's hard to tell what else will come out for the film-- the reviews were strong but not uniformly so-- but Close seems like a guaranteed contender.

(Oscars image via Konstantin Sutyagin / Shutterstock.com and Joe Seer / Shutterstock.com)

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