It is undeniably the season of survival. With Gravity and Captain Phillips dominating the weekend box office and both 12 Years A Slave and All Is Lost on their way to theaters this weekend, audiences have many opportunities to see famous actors struggling onscreen against impossible odds, whether versus pirates or space or the open sea or slavery. I'll leave it to pundits braver than I am to decide which of those threats is the most terrifying.

I'll also leave it to others to examine why this trend is occurring, though I suspect it's coincidence more than anything-- each film took years to make and was assembled for vastly different reasons, and the main thing they have in common is being a showcase for phenomenal, confrontational acting. You can give yourself a headache trying to decide who's more deserving of Best Actor between Robert Redford, Tom Hanks and Chiwetel Ejiofor, much less determine why they're all busy beating the odds this fall. Does it matter why survival stories aren't just being made, but cleaning up at the box office? Sure. But for the purposes of the Oscar season, all that matters is that there's great work being done, and it's becoming increasingly difficult to see how it will all get rewarded.

What's the Academy voter's dilemma, of course, is the moviegoers' gain, and an already strong fall movie season only got better over the weekend, when Spike Jonze's Her premiered at the New York Film Festival to warm reviews. It enters Joaquin Phoenix into what's already a brutally crowded Best Actor race (see there of those four films above), and has more than a few people hoping for a possible Best Supporting Actress nomination for Scarlett Johannson. Voicing the computer Samantha Johansson never actually appears onscreen, but her sultry, warm and thoroughly human performance is the heart of the film, and the rapport she builds with Phoenix-- even though they were never even on set together-- is significant. Vocal performances have earned Oscar buzz in the past to no avail, but hey, Her is a movie all about crossing boundaries, so why not keep the conversation going?

Also making headlines in the supporting category, across the gender divide, is Michael Fassbender, whose unblinkingly cruel performance as a slaveowner in 12 Years A Slave is a major highlight in a film that's full of them. Talking to GQ Fassbender said he had no plans to participate in yet another Oscar campaign, after pressing the flesh for Shame for months in 2011. "I won't put myself through that kind of situation again," he told them, before accurately describing the process of actually campaigning for a shiny gold statue. ""It's just a grind. And I'm not a politician. I'm an actor." Will this hurt Fassbender's chances of actually getting the nomination? It could-- the Academy Awards are theoretically about rewarding talent, but it really helps if you're willing to glad-hand and work for it. But if 12 Years A Slave remains the critical powerhouse it is now, Fassbender ought to be able to get that nomination anyway, swept in by the force of a movie that can't be ignored. The winning part is a whole other question we'll have to get to once the nominations are out there.

Among this week's releases is a would-be awards contender that already feels dead in the water, The Fifth Estate, which could have been Benedict Cumberbatch's Best Actor bid if the movie weren't so bad. There's also Kill Your Darlings, which has attention-getting performances from Daniel Radcliffe and Dane DeHaan but thus far hasn't made nearly enough noise to be a serious factor in the race (given that it's a first movie and a delicate one at that, that's fine). Next week brings us yet another Fassbender movie, The Counselor, and even though it's got Ridley Scott directing and a whole slew of Oscar winners in its cast, the marketing and complete lack of press screenings suggests this isn't really an awards player. And after that we're in November, where Matthew McConaughey will come back into the conversation with Dallas Buyers Club and the Best Actor race will really start looking ugly.

Below, the charts, where a few things are falling by the wayside but for the most part the strong contenders remain firmly in place.

oscar winner prediction
BEST PICTURE

I've bumped Rush down to Outside Chance, based on its fairly low profile since it opened in September, and removed The Fifth Estate entirely-- the lack of a critical re-consideration after its Toronto premiere indicates everyone would rather be rid of it. And while The Weinstein Company prepares to push along with August: Osage County, I'm wondering about the fate of Lee Daniels' The Butler-- is it laying low after a press-heavy summer to keep us from getting sick of it, or has it fallen away entirely?

MORTAL LOCK

NONE
LIKELY CONTENDER

12 Years A Slave
Captain Phillips
Gravity
STILL IN THE RUNNING

American Hustle
August: Osage County
Blue Jasmine
Dallas Buyers Club
Inside Llewyn Davis
Lee Daniels' The Butler
Saving Mr. Banks
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
The Wolf of Wall Street
OUTSIDE CHANCE

All Is Lost
Before Midnight
The Book Thief
The Counselor
The Fifth Estate
Fruitvale Station
Her
Labor Day
Lone Survivor
Monuments Men
Mud
Nebraska
Out of the Furnace
The Place Beyond the Pines
Prisoners
Rush
oscar winner prediction
BEST DIRECTOR

Both Alexander Payne and Spike Jonze are previous Oscar nominees whose films played very, very well at the New York Film Festival in the last week, so I've bumped them up to Still In The Running--- veteran status counts for a lot. There's also J.C. Chandor, who like Jonze is a previous nominee for his screenplay, and who shows surprising directorial chops in All Is Lost. Could he be the upstart newcomer in this category like Benh Zeitlin last year? At the same time, Ron Howard has been bumped to the bottom, since even veterans can't compete if their movies don't get enough attention to put them there.

MORTAL LOCK

NONE
LIKELY CONTENDER

Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity
Paul Greengrass, Captain Phillips
Steve McQueen, 12 Years A Slave
STILL IN THE RUNNING

J.C. Chandor, All Is Lost
Lee Daniels, Lee Daniels' The Butler
John Lee Hancock, Saving Mr. Banks Spike Jonze, Her
Alexander Payne, Nebraska
David O. Russell, American Hustle
Martin Scorsese, The Wolf of Wall Street
Ben Stiller, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
OUTSIDE CHANCE

Woody Allen, Blue Jasmine
George Clooney, The Monuments Men
Joel and Ethan Coen, Inside Llewyn Davis
Scott Cooper, Out of the Furnace
Ron Howard, Rush
Jean-Marc Vallee, Dallas Buyers Club
Denis Villeneuve, Prisoners
John Wells, August: Osage County
oscar winner prediction
BEST ACTOR
Joaquin Phoenix is very much in the competition after Her's New York Film Festival premiere, but like Oscar Isaac he may not have as much luck with a relatively restrained performance comparing to what the likes of Hanks, Ejiofor and Redford endure onscreen. It's still a very crowded field, and one with a lot of heavy hitters up top who don't seem to be going anywhere.

MORTAL LOCK

NONE
LIKELY CONTENDER

Bruce Dern, Nebraska
Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years A Slave
Tom Hanks, Captain Phillips
Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club
Robert Redford, All Is Lost
STILL IN THE RUNNING

Christian Bale, American Hustle
Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall Street
Idris Elba, Mandela
Oscar Isaac, Inside Llewyn Davis
Joaquin Phoenix, Her
Forest Whitaker, Lee Daniels' The Butler
OUTSIDE CHANCE

Christian Bale, Out of the Furnace
Benedict Cumberbatch, The Fifth Estate
Chris Hemsworth, Rush
Hugh Jackman, Prisoners
Michael B. Jordan, Fruitvale Station
Ben Stiller, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
oscar winner prediction
BEST ACTRESS
It still feels a touch too early to start calling Mortal Lock, but I'm very tempted to put Sandra Bullock and Cate Blanchett in there anyway, since both give such formidable, universally praised performances. And it's still unclear who might be able to hold a candle to either of them, thuough Judi Dench looks like a likelier default nod the longer it takes for any other huge contenders to jump in. I did catch Blue Is The Warmest Color last week, though, and would love to see an organized campaign for Adele Excharchopolous, who gives such a great, well-rounded coming-of-age performance in the Palme d'Or winner. And given that it's the movie with the famously graphic lesbian sex scenes, it shouldn't be so hard to get voters to watch their screeners, right?

MORTAL LOCK

NONE
LIKELY CONTENDER

Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine
Sandra Bullock, Gravity
Julia Roberts, August: Osage County
Meryl Streep, August: Osage County
STILL IN THE RUNNING

Amy Adams, American Hustle
Judi Dench, Philomena
Emma Thompson, Saving Mr. Banks
Kate Winslet, Labor Day
OUTSIDE CHANCE

Berenice Bejo, The Past
Julie Delpy, Before Midnight
Adele Exarchopoulos, Blue is the Warmest Color
Greta Gerwig, Frances Ha
Brie Larson, Short Term 12
Naomi Watts, Diana
oscar winner prediction
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Daniel Bruhl's Supporting campaign for Rush seems too flimsy to last, to break my heart, but the success of Captain Phillips means things look better than ever for Barkhad Abdi, which is exciting for a first-time professional actor. This category is still suspiciously quiet though-- is it just waiting for Jared Leto to jump in and run away with the entire season, or is there some big surprise lurking when Saving Mr. Banks opens? Hanks would be only the 12th actor to be nominated for two Oscars in a single year, but if anyone's going to do it, it may as well be the most likable man in Hollywood.

MORTAL LOCK

NONE
LIKELY CONTENDER

Michael Fassbender, 12 Years A Slave
Tom Hanks, Saving Mr. Banks
Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club
STILL IN THE RUNNING

Barkhad Abdi, Captain Phillips
Daniel Bruhl, Rush
George Clooney, Gravity
Bradley Cooper, American Hustle
Jonah Hill, The Wolf of Wall Street
Matthew McConaughey, Mud
Matthew McConaughey, The Wolf of Wall Street
David Oyelowo, Lee Daniels' The Butler
OUTSIDE CHANCE

Casey Affleck, Out of the Furnace
Steve Coogan, Philomena
Matt Damon, Monuments Men
Jean Dujardin, Monuments Men
Will Forte, Nebraska
John Goodman, Monuments Men
Jake Gyllenhaal, Prisoners
Bill Murray, Monuments Men
Geoffrey Rush, The Book Thief
oscar winner prediction
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Rooney Mara doesn't have nearly a big enough part to get consideration for Her, so she's out, and replacing her is Scarlett Johansson on that quixotic Campaign That Could. Hopefully the conversation about Lupita Nyong'o keeps up after 12 Years opens this weekend, otherwise this category will be looking very sad with just Oprah running it.
MORTAL LOCK

NONE
LIKELY CONTENDER

Lupita Nyong'o, 12 Years A Slave
Oprah Winfrey, Lee Daniels' The Butler
STILL IN THE RUNNING

Sally Hawkins, Blue Jasmine
Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle
Margo Martindale, August: Osage County
June Squibb, Nebraska
Octavia Spencer, Fruitvale Station
OUTSIDE CHANCE

Amy Adams, Her
Cate Blanchett, Monuments Men
Cameron Diaz, The Counselor Jennifer Garner, Dallas Buyers Club
Scarlett Johansson, Her
Juliette Lewis, August: Osage County
Carey Mulligan, Inside Llewyn Davis
Julianne Nicholson, August: Osage County
Sarah Paulson, 12 Years A Slave
Zoe Saldana, Out of the Furnace
Lea Seydoux, Blue is the Warmest Color

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