By Oliver Lyttelton | www.oliverlyttelton.com March 5, 2014 at 1:19PM
5 That Could Surprise
After a few years on top, The Weinstein Company had a disappointing awards season in 2013. The studio had too many middling options, took a long time to get their weight behind one or the other, and ended up with only "Philomena" making much impact. The company won only one Oscar, for the documentary "20 Feet From Stardom." But you can trust that Harvey won't be letting that happen again, and one of his most promising prospects is "Suite Française." Based on the posthumous novel by Irène Némirovsky, it's an epic romance set during the Nazi occupation of France with a very prestigious cast: Michelle Williams takes the lead, with Kristin Scott Thomas, Matthias Schoenaerts, Sam Riley, Margot Robbie and Ruth Wilson in support. The Weinsteins jumped on this one early, suggesting real faith in the project, and this sort of fare (particularly with such beloved literary source material) is always a potential threat. The relative unknown quantity is writer/director Saul Dibb, whose "The Duchess" won a costume Oscar, but made little awards impact otherwise. It does have to compete for attention with with the rest of Harvey's slate, and it'll need strong reviews to avoid the fate of "August: Osage County," but it's certainly one to keep an eye on.
"Get On Up"
It's been a little while since one really clicked, but musical biopics, if done convincingly, can be a real awards player. "Get On Up," a long-gestating Brian Grazer-produced retelling of the life of singer James Brown, has some precedent behind it. The film comes from director Tate Taylor, whose "The Help" proved an unexpected Oscar phenomenon a few years back. He's brought his nominees Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer along for this one, while rising star Chadwick Boseman ("42") takes the lead role, and Universal have already given the film the August release date that proved so wildly profitable for both "The Help" and "The Butler." That said, it's worth noting that the latter failed to pick up a single nomination despite early buzz, and Brown's life (PCP-abuse, multiple domestic violence arrests late in life) is rife for the kind of controversy that can spike a potential nominee. All that said, the presence of "Fair Game" and "Edge Of Tomorrow" writer Jez Butterworth among the credited scribes gives us hope that this could be a cut above, and Boseman's presence suggests that the film will focus more on Brown's early life and career, rather than his later years.
"Beasts Of No Nation"
We'll be honest, if we were absolutely sure that this was coming in 2014, we'd probably have it among our top tier of contenders. The last few weeks have seen filmmaker Cary Fukunaga pull off the impressive feat of gaining promotion to the A-list by making a TV series, so there's no doubt people will be watching the "True Detective" helmer's next move very closely. And that move is to be an adaptation of the powerful novel by Uzodinma Iweala about child soldiers in Africa. It's material that threatens to be a difficult to watch, but prognosticators worrying about that sort of thing have been proven wrong more than once of late (nominations for "Amour," "12 Years A Slave" winning), and a supporting role for Idris Elba should help bring in some eyes, plus this year's race (so far) is rather lacking in "important fare." But the movie isn't due to go before cameras until later this month, which means Fukunaga will have a fast turnaround on what's likely to be a complicated shoot. Plus it needs a distributor (Focus were linked at one point, but given the recent shake-up there, it's unclear if that's still the case), but regardless, to contend in 2014 it needs a tight turnaround. If it can be ready (and it's not impossible—"American Hustle," for instance, started shooting at a similar time), it could be a real force, if not, we might just have to wait.
No Tim Burton movie has ever earned a Best Picture nomination, or indeed Best Director, but on paper, "Big Eyes" has perhaps the misfit director's best chance yet. A much smaller, cheaper affair than what we're used to from the helmer, it reunites him with the writers of "Ed Wood" (which did win two Oscars, for Supporting Actor and Makeup) for the true-life tale of Walter Keane, who became a celebrity for his paintings of large-eyed children, only for it to emerge that his wife Margaret was the real artist behind them. It's the kind of quirky but powerful material that has real awards potential, but perhaps more importantly, has a lot of Oscar-friendly names involved including five-time nominee Amy Adams as Margaret and two-time winner Christoph Waltz as Walter (Jason Schwartzman, Krysten Ritter and Danny Huston are also involved). Plus, The Weinstein Company are backing it, and are clearly going to be targeting awards season for the picture. Burton's Oscar track record (and, recently, quality track record) is so spotty that we still have reason to pause ("Big Fish" looked like a home-run on paper but picked up only a single nod), but with Harvey on board, this definitely feels like the best bet he's ever had.
Despite the incredible bleakness of some of his work, Alejandro González Iñárritu (thanked from the stage this year by Alfonso Cuarón) has always been fairly popular with the Academy. "Amores Perros" was a Foreign Language nominee, "21 Grams" got two acting nods, "Babel" managed seven in total, including Best Picture and Best Director, and even the relatively unloved "Biutiful" got acting and foreign-language shout-outs from Oscar. As such, Iñárritu moving into (nominally) lighter fare with his latest, "Birdman," could see even greater awards success come his way. An oddball comedy-drama starring Michael Keaton as an actor best known for playing a cinematic superhero trying to revive his career on Broadway, the film co-stars Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Emma Stone, Andrea Riseborough, Zach Galifianakis and Amy Ryan, and promises to be something of change of the pace for the director. "Inherent Vice" aside, it's a rather dour-looking slate in 2014, which could work to the film's advantage (it's rare to have a year, since the expansion of the field, without at least one comedy-minded nominee), and making it about an actor always helps appeal to the largest voting block. The film is strongly rumored to premiere at Cannes, so we should find out if it's a solid possibility relatively soon.
Also in the conversation: One we would have absolutely included if we thought there was any chance it would be ready in time is Warren Beatty's untitled Howard Hughes picture, which finally got before cameras last week. With some other directors, it'd be possible for them to make that date, but Beatty spent two years in the editing room on "Reds," so a fast turnaround is unlikely. Other strong possibilities to look out for are "Suffragette" with Carey Mulligan and Meryl Streep, Stephen Hawking biopic "Theory Of Everything," Ed Zwick's Bobby Fischer vs. the USSR tale "Pawn Sacrifice" with Tobey Maguire, Tommy Lee Jones' western "The Homesman," Ridley Scott's Biblical epic "Exodus," Clint Eastwood's Broadway adaptation "Jersey Boys" and the Jeremy Renner-starring "Kill The Messenger."
They're some way off, but we could also end up seeing Rupert Wyatt's '70s remake "The Gambler" with Mark Wahlberg, Jason Reitman's "Men, Women & Children," "Macbeth" with Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, Todd Haynes' "Carol," Mike Leigh's "Mr. Turner," or even Terrence Malick's "Knight Of Cups" (or his other one, depending on if they're done of course) in the conversation. We were more divided on "Into The Woods," the fairy tale musical from "Chicago" director Rob Marshall. On paper, the combination of a Sondheim classic and an all-star cast including Meryl Streep, Anna Kendrick, Emily Blunt and Johnny Depp is a home run, but people said that about "Nine" as well, and this is decidedly more difficult material (the show has a very tricky structure), so we're reserving judgement. "Serena" is also a more questionable one—any film starring Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence would seem to be a dead certainty these days, but there's been some questionable buzz around Susanne Bier's period drama, especially given how long it's been sitting on the shelf. Woody Allen's "Magic In The Moonlight" is always viable, but history suggests you don't get two decent Woody Allen movies in a row, and there may still be blowback from some of his recent controversy.
If any blockbusters beside "Interstellar" were to make the cut, "Godzilla" and "Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes" seem from a distance are the most promising, but even if they turn out to be great they're both very unlikely. Ditto to "The Lego Movie," despite the great reviews. But more mainstream-friendly pictures that could surprise include Brad Pitt-starring WWII tank drama "Fury," Cameron Crowe's untitled latest, the "Annie" remake, Robert Downey Jr. vehicle "The Judge," Kevin Costner's sports drama "McFarland," delayed Cannes-opener "Grace Of Monaco" with Nicole Kidman, Shawn Levy's "This Is Where I Leave You" with Tina Fey, Jason Bateman and Adam Driver, and Helen Mirren and Lasse Hallström teaming for the "Chocolat"-ish "The Hundred-Foot Journey."
As for films that have been seen already, "The Grand Budapest Hotel" has long shot at a nomination, it's less awards-friendly than "Moonrise Kingdom" (which wasn't nominated), and would need to keep up the momentum for literally 51 weeks. Don't count on it. From Sundance, Richard Linklater's "Boyhood," a huge critics' favorite, would appear to be the best bet, but IFC is distributing it, and they're generally unable to afford to throw money behind Oscar campaigns (they're also releasing it this spring which generally isn't the best time for contention). "Calvary" has Fox Searchlight on its side, but if they push it, it's likely to be for Brendan Gleeson's performance rather than the movie as a whole.
Finally, for rather more under-the-radar choices, there's feminist western "Jane Got A Gun" with Natalie Portman, true story "True Story" with James Franco and Jonah Hill with "12 Years A Slave" Oscar-winner Brad Pitt producing, Hardy adaptation "Far From The Madding Crowd" directed by "The Hunt" helmer Thomas Vinterberg and starring Carey Mulligan, Brian Wilson biopic "Love & Mercy" with Paul Dano and John Cusack, Tom McCarthy's "The Cobbler" with Adam Sandler, Soviet-thriller "Child 44" with Tom Hardy, Jeff Nichols' sci-fi adventure "Midnight Special," Noah Baumbach's "While We're Young," Alan Rickman's "A Little Chaos" starring Kate Winslet, Jon Stewart's Iranian drama "Rosewater" with Gael García Bernal, Lone Scherfig's stage adaptation "Posh," and Fox Searchlight's period drama "Belle."
Anything you're putting the chips on? Let us know in the comments section below.