Recently we ran our Fall Festival 50, a wishlist and prediction piece about the films we expect to see popping up in the fall. Many of them will be on their way to an Oscar campaign, because, as the accepted wisdom goes, if you want your film to have a fighting chance at Academy Awards glory, you secure in a nice cozy October/November/December release date, maybe on the back of a festival premiere, and bombard the trades with For Your Consideration ads. This indeed has been the route taken by five of the six most recent Best Picture winners ("12 Years a Slave," "Argo," "The Artist," "The King's Speech," "Slumdog Millionaire") with only Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker” proving that it’s possible to play in summer and still pick up the big one.
But of course the picture is a little more balanced when you expand it to include nominees in other categories. Which got us to wondering just how many of the 2014 films that have already opened might have a shot at figuring in the Oscar conversation come January 15th when the nominations are announced. And so we cooked up a little hypothetical thought-experiment: If the Oscar nominations were being announced today, with only the films that have premiered so far in 2014 in contention (that is to say, ones that have opened in New York and Los Angeles between January 1st and June 30th), what would they look like?
In order to keep this from simply becoming a list of our own favorite films so far, which we’ve already done with “The Best Films of the Year So Far” we also decided to put our awards-observers hats on (deerstalkers with built-in monocles, if you must know), and to try and judge which films and performances so far would have a shot with the real Academy, as much as we personally often differ with their choices (and we've included what would be on our collective ballot at the end of each section). So yes, there’s a lot of guesswork and rules of thumb going on, but it’s been fun to consider, and here’s our suggestion of what the lineup might look like, if the Oscars were now:
The Academy's Picks:
“The Fault In Our Stars”
“Grand Budapest Hotel”
“The Lego Movie”
“The Railway Man”
Let's assume for a moment that even with the slimmer pickings of the first half of the year to play with, the Academy end up going with nine nominees (as they have the last three years with the new system of Best Picture voting). The safest bet, and probably the likeliest to make the cut come next winter (though it'll depend hugely on the strength of the competition to come) is Wes Anderson's "Grand Budapest Hotel," one of the filmmaker's best-received pictures, and a legitimate crossover hit (taking nearly $60 million domestically). Anderson's luck with the Academy has only stretched to Screenplay nominations and an Animation nod for "Fantastic Mr. Fox," and he's missed out before—"Moonrise Kingdom" was hotly tipped, but failed to make the cut. 'Grand Budapest,' with its chopped-off heads and the like, is in some ways less Academy friendly than that film, but it did really connect with audiences, and if voting were restricted to the first half of the year, it would certainly be at the front of the pack, and could end up surviving all the way to January.
Also with some level of prospects for later in the year is Fox Searchlight's summer sleeper "Belle." Expertly timed as blockbuster counter-programming in the same way that "Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" was a few years back, it hasn't been the crossover smash that that was, but it's still the third most successful indie of the year, and certainly would seem to appeal to traditional Academy voters, combining lush period romance with more button-pushing issues of race and gender. How much of a push it'll get in the fall depends on how the rest of Fox Searchlight's slate connects (they have "Birdman" and "Wild" alongside "Grand Budapest Hotel," and they couldn't get much Oscar love for "Best Exotic Marigold Hotel"). As a star-studded period piece, "The Immigrant" would in theory make sense but James Gray proves very divisive, and Harvey Weinstein all but abandoned the film months ago. Maybe there's enough of a Gray hardcore out there to get the same auteurist votes as Haneke or Malick in recent years, but without the distributor support, it's a longer shot, though might figure in to some degree if voting were being held now.
But Harvey's always courting Oscar, and he'd be better off with the Academy pushing "The Railway Man." The WWII drama starring Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman was tepidly reviewed at best, and is decidedly stodgy and worthy stuff that doesn't live up to the potency of its premise, but it's the kind of movie that Weinstein knows how to sell. He'll undoubtedly have shinier prospects in the fall, but with limited competition, could probably get a voter turn out for this. From the blockbuster arena, "Noah" has the right mix of auteurist cred and epic sweep (plus commercial success) to pick up votes, even if few truly loved the movie. "Godzilla" was also divisive, but was significantly more artful than most blockbuster this year, and, while it won't figure in at year's end, would have a fighting chance at this point.
In terms of animated fare, "How To Train Your Dragon 2" has strong reviews, but the film's commercial underperformance kills any chance of it grabbing the so-called Pixar slot. Instead, the critically and commercially massive "The Lego Movie" would probably sneak in: many voters would be reluctant to vote for something so heavily branded, but the film's invention would win plenty of fans besides. Next February, it'll have to settle for a Best Animated Feature nod rather than having a serious chance at Best Picture, but for now it would be in the conversation.
Beyond that, "The Fault In Our Stars" had some rather muted awards talk when it opened from some quarters: the weepie, better reviewed than many expected it to be, probably skews too young to make a dent against "Foxcatcher" and "Unbroken" et al. in the fall, but could squeak in votes were today. And for the remaining two slots, one should probably look to two of the surprise indie hits of the year so far: Jon Favreau's "Chef" (which has made nearly $20 million to date), and John Turturro's "Fading Gigolo"—not quite as big, but still remarkably popular with older crowds. With both films helmed and starring popular industry figures, they'd certainly be in with a shot.
The Playlist's Picks: "The Double," "Enemy," "The Grand Budapest Hotel," "Ida," "The Immigrant," "The Lego Movie," "Only Lovers Left Alive," "Stranger By The Lake," "Under The Skin," "We Are The Best!"
The Academy's Picks
Marion Cotillard - "The Immigrant"
Lindsay Duncan - "Le Week-End"
Angelina Jolie - "Maleficent"
Gugu Mbatha-Raw - "Belle"
Shailene Woodley - "The Fault In Our Stars"
Best Actress tends to be seen, usually unfairly, as having some slightly slimmer-pickings than the male equivalent even at year's end, and that's certainly true half-way through the year. Even so, there are some viable Academy-friendly options to be found at this point. Probably most notable among them is Gugu Mbatha-Raw. Hardly a household name at the start of the year (and, to an extent, even now), she was front and center for the marketing for "Belle," in which she gives a positively star-making performance. There'll likely be too many bigger names later in the year for her to crack the final five, but she'd be a strong possibility right now.
The category tends to be a mix of younger up-and-comers and veteran stars, and joining Mbatha-Raw as one of the former would be Shailene Woodley. The actress was touted for nominations for both "The Descendants" and "The Spectacular Now," but after headlining blockbuster "Divergent" and covering Vanity Fair, she's having a moment, and her acclaimed turn as a terminally ill teen in "The Spectacular Now" is certainly the sort of thing that Academy nominations are made of. Another relatively unknown possibility, albeit one much older than Woodley, would be Lindsay Duncan, a British stage veteran who's terrific in Roger Michell's "Le Week-End." The film actually did pretty well in limited release, and with the right traction could have made Duncan a first-half contender, but distributor Music Box Films don't have the deep pockets to put her seriously in the race in six months or so.
Finally, there are the major movie stars. Again, The Weinstein Company will have bigger fish to fry—or at least easier sells to sell—than "The Immigrant" once the rest of their slate hits, but as a previous winner in a potent role, Marion Cotillard would have a decent shot at this point. And speaking of previous Oscar-winners, there's Angelina Jolie. "Maleficent" got pretty poor reviews, but most agreed that Jolie was by far the best thing about it, and without much other viable competition, she'd be a possibility for the half-way Oscars (she doesn't have a chance at year's end, though don't count out a Globes nomination from the Jolie-loving HFPA, and she could be a directing nominee for "Unbroken" so she won't be too heartbroken.
The Playlist's Picks: Marion Cotillard in "The Immigrant," Paulina Garcia in "Gloria," Scarlett Johansson in "Under The Skin," Gugu Mbatha-Raw in "Belle," Tilda Swinton in "Only Lovers Left Alive."