By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist July 29, 2011 at 4:27AM
Last time we talked about the awards race, we were halfway through the year, and it was anyone's game, with only a handful of even vaguely serious contenders emerging both from wide releases, and from the festivals up to Cannes. Our conclusion was that only "Midnight in Paris," "The Artist" and "The Tree of Life" were real contenders, with a handful of other films looking like they might pick up nominations here and there, but unlikely to be in the final ten.
In the last few days, the route ahead for the next months is starting to become clearer, thanks to the unveiling of the line-up of the Venice Film Festival, as well as the first wave of films at Toronto. Films hoping to be major players, films like "Carnage," "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy," "The Ides of March," "A Dangerous Method," "Contagion," "Moneyball," "The Descendants," and "W.E." all have their premieres set, and in only a few weeks it'll start to be clear if they're serious threats, or if they'll fall down at the first: all are execution dependent, and could turn out to be too artsy, too commercial, or just not good enough to become contenders.
But what of the surprises? Let's not forget, this time last year, only the most savvy prognosticators had mentioned "The King's Speech" at all, let alone placed it as the front-runner it swiftly became after bowing at Telluride and winning the Audience Award at TIFF, and "Black Swan" wasn't really in the race, an odd-looking genre picture from a filmmaker who wasn't seen as an awards favorite at all ("Requiem For A Dream" and "The Wrestler" both landed acting nods, but nothing else). But both picked up acclaim on the August/September festival circuit, starting a snowball of momentum that took them to several nominations.
So the question is, what films are the potential bolts from the blue this year? What pictures, on few radars seriously at present (we're not talking "War Horse" or "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close," which won't be seen until the end of the year, but are basically locks), could have one killer screening, light up the blogosphere and suddenly become the film to beat. It's always difficult to pick these things -- that's the nature of a surprise -- but we've selected ten films that could suddenly find their stock rising in the next few months. We won't be right on all counts, we might not be right on any (some may not even see the inside of theaters until well into next year), but all have the potential to suddenly come from nowhere and shake things up.
And at the bottom, we've got our first chart of the year -- the 20 most likely films to get a Best Picture nomination full stop -- with which you'll be able to track the ups and downs of the race across the next six months or so.
Andrea Arnold's excellent films to date, "Red Road" and "Fish Tank," haven't really been Oscar material; gritty British dramas, mostly star-free, dealing with tough subject matter. But you may not remember that Arnold already has an Oscar: her 2003 film "Wasp" won the Best Live-Action Short Film award at the 2005 ceremony. She's also got two BAFTAs as well, so it's not like she's unfamiliar to the red carpet. Her new film isn't really on Oscar-prognosticator's radars, thanks to a basically unknown cast, but it does, of course, adapt the classic novel by Emily Brontë, and has made it to the screen many times before, the 1939 version with Laurence Olivier picking up eight Oscar nominations. It's in the official competition at Venice, which bodes well, and has Film4 behind it, who had awards success with "Slumdog Millionaire" a few years back. If it turns out to be exceptional -- and we're expecting that from Arnold -- all it'll take is a swift pick up by someone like Focus (whose other Brontë flick, "Jane Eyre," unfortunately looks unlikely to get the necessary traction, considering its March release) and the film could become a major player, given that it's source material is far more Oscar-friendly than, say "Fish Tank" was. However, recent years have suggested that costume dramas aren't the awards bait they were in the 1980s and 1990s -- "Shakespeare in Love" was the last film in the genre to win Best Picture.
"The Wettest County"
John Hillcoat's film hasn't yet figured into the conversation, but let's not forget that at Cannes, race heavyweights The Weinstein Company were said to be picking the film up, and setting for a platform release at the end of the year so it would qualify for awards consideration. Considering that the film is a depression-era gangster tale with a starry cast led by Shia La Beouf and Tom Hardy, from an acclaimed director, it's safe to assume that if this release does happen, it's expected to be a contender, and stands a pretty good chance of getting in the race. But right now, it's a big if: for one thing, we're not certain that the Weinsteins ever closed the deal -- no press release was ever issued, and the film isn't listed on the studio's site. Even if they did pick it up, it's possible it won't be ready to bow in December, plus the Weinsteins waited until Christmas to release "Blue Valentine," which turned out to be too late for it to really figure into the race, bar Michelle Williams' nomination. And the film doesn't quite have an Oscar pedigree -- Hillcoat's films have been too dark and violent so far, and no one in the cast -- even veterans Gary Oldman and Guy Pearce -- have ever been nominated before.
"Salmon Fishing In The Yemen"
If this was a decade ago, this film would essentially be considered a lock: a British flick, based on a best-selling novel, and directed by Lasse Hallstrom, who bagged two Best Picture nominations in a row with "The Cider House Rules" and "Chocolat." But Hallstrom's not had much luck of late, with "The Shipping News," "An Unfinished Life," "Casanova," "The Hoax" and "Hachi: A Dog's Tale" all failing to be liked by pretty much anyone, while "Dear John" was a much-needed hit, but didn't exactly bring in the glory. Still, "Salmon Fishing in the Yemen," which will bow at Toronto, has a script from recent winner Simon Beaufoy ("Slumdog Millionaire"), and an appealing cast led by Ewan McGregor, Emily Blunt and Kristin Scott-Thomas. And, while it might seem feather-light on the surface (not that that stopped "Chocolat" from awards success), the source material mixed politicial satire with a love affair and an examination of faith, in a way that could catch on. Of course, the film doesn't yet have a release date or even a U.S. distributor, so all of this might be moot, but it wouldn't be the first film to bag both at Toronto and go on to glory. However, our heart says this will have to be really, really good -- better than anything Hallstrom's done in the last couple of decades -- to make much of a splash if it does become a 2011 release.
Between "The Whistleblower" and Terence Davies' "The Deep Blue Sea" (also a Toronto premiere), Rachel Weisz is having a pretty good year in terms of awards-baiting performances, but let's not forget that she's teamed up again with the man who won her the Best Supporting Actress Oscar, "City of God" and "The Constant Gardener" helmer Fernando Mereilles. And, while we reckon, from the buzz at least, that "The Deep Blue Sea" holds her best chance at a nomination, Mereilles' "360" could prove to have the right stuff to do well in other categories too. An ensemble drama, based on "La Ronde" and penned by Peter Morgan, who between "Frost/Nixon," "The Last King of Scotland" and "The Queen" has proven he knows how to get actors nominated, it also includes Jude Law, Anthony Hopkins, Ben Foster, Moritz Bleibtreu and Jamel Debbouze, among others. Furthermore, the premise, which involves a look at the class system through a selection of characters who are sleeping with each other, is more palatable than Mereilles' misfire "Blindness" was -- it's essentially "Crash," but with fucking. Of course, the fucking may become the issue: too much explicit sexuality may turn off audiences. We had not previoulsy considered the film a possibility for release until its Toronto premiere was announced, but again, if it goes down well, someone will find spot a gap in the market and decide to push it for 2011.
"Welcome To People"
One of the few films on this list that already has studio backing, "Welcome To People" might seem like an unlikely candidate for awards consideration, being the directorial debut of Alex Kurtzman, who with co-writer Roberto Orci (who also penned this script with Kurtzman) has been behind "Transformers," "Star Trek" and "Cowboys & Aliens." Plenty of success, sure, but not a lot of critical love. But this film, backed by DreamWorks, is a raw drama about a young man (Chris Pine), who after his father dies, is tasked with delivering $150,000 to his alcoholic sister (Elizabeth Banks) and her son. Olivia Wilde, Michelle Pfeiffer, Mark Duplass and Jon Favreau are also in the cast, an intriguing mix of talents, and the film, which seems to be mid-way between a faux indie and an old fashioned drama like "Ordinary People," has been getting buzz for a while now: Hilary Swank and Amy Adams both confessed in an awards season roundtable that they loved the script and the part won by Banks, and wish they'd ended up doing it. Of course, it'll be execution dependent, and Kurtzman wouldn't be the first screenwriter to get stuck outside of his comfort zone. And we suspect that if the studio wanted to release it in time for awards consideration, we'd have heard about it by now, particularly as it hasn't (yet) been announced for a Toronto slot. But as filming began in January, there's no reason it won't be ready by December, and, if it's any good, is the kind of film that could well come from nowhere and pick up a few nominations.
"Best Exotic Marigold Hotel"
Who what why hotel? So you've probably barely registered that this film exists, but like "Salmon Fishing In The Yemen," this is old-fashioned Oscar bait. Another British best-seller (from "Tulip Fever" author and "Pride & Prejudice" screenwriter Deborah Moggach), a prestige director of old -- in this case, "Shakespeare in Love" helmer John Madden -- and a cast full of awards favorites, people like Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson and, representing the younger generation, "Slumdog Millionaire" star Dev Patel, hoping that we'll all forget he was in "The Last Airbender." Centering around a retirement home in India, it seems like the kind of material that voters love to honor elder actors with, and Fox Searchlight are distributing, so it's in good hands. Therein lies half of the problem, however; there's no sign of a release date, and the film hasn't yet appeared in any festival line-ups (London might be a good bet); with the company's hands already busy with "The Tree of Life," "The Descendants" and "Martha Marcy May Marlene," this could end up being pushed into 2012, particularly as it isn't listed on the company's website at present. Furthermore, Madden's had tricky form of late, with none of "Proof," "Killshot" or the long-delayed "The Debt" really catching fire. Still, if does end up hitting before the end of the year, we wouldn't count out a few acting nominations at the very least.
We raised a few eyebrows earlier in the year when we raised the possibility of "Butter" being a Best Picture nominee, but back then it was the only Weinstein Company film that looked to have a real shot. The company have made several pick-ups that supersede it, most notably "The Artist," but it remains a potential dark horse. A political satire set around a butter-carving competition in a small town, it's the closest thing in this year's line-up to something like "Juno" or "Little Miss Sunshine," and its selection for the Toronto Film Festival should bode well, in theory. The script is timely, and highly praised (it figured highly in the Black List a few years ago), and has a starry-enough cast -- led by Jennifer Garner, Hugh Jackman, Olivia Wilde and Emmy-nominee Ty Burrell -- that it shouldn't have a problem getting attention. Director Jim Field-Smith is something of an unproven quality, beyond feature debut "She's Out Of Your League," but his short films were excellent, so this could be something that surprises people. Again, it doesn't have a date, but if the reviews are strong, The Weinsteins could easily place it on the calendar swiftly -- "Juno" went from unknown indie to Best Picture nominee in a matter of months after it premiered at Telluride. Not the most likely, but shouldn't be counted out just yet.
Another film that we weren't expecting to see this side of 2012 -- star Ben Foster suggested it wouldn't make the festival circuit until next year -- cop thriller "Rampart" was another film announced to bow at Toronto. And seeing as director Oren Moverman's last film, "The Messenger," managed to bag two Oscar nominations, and likely only just missed out on being in the final ten, it could well end up impacting on this year's race. A 90s-set cop drama, based on a script by James Ellroy, who knows corrupt cops better than anyone, the performance by Woody Harrelson, who was nominated for "The Messenger," is already gathering buzz, with co-star Foster calling it "stone cold work." Again, however, there's no distributor or date, and the cast is eclectic enough (Ice Cube? Cynthia Nixon? Anne Heche?) that we'll need to see a lot more to be convinced it'll be a big player this year. But again, we're big fans of Moverman and "The Messenger," so we're expecting strong reviews, and if that happens, someone may be convinced to take the plunge in 2011.
Like many of these films, it's more than likely that we'll see "Twylight Zones," the feature debut of "The Sopranos" creator David Chase, in theaters in 2012; backers Paramount haven't dated the film yet, and it hasn't appeared in any festival line-ups as yet. But the film, which revolves around three Italian-American kids who form a band in the 1960s, went before cameras in February, meaning a cut should be coming together, so an appearance at Telluride or the second-wave of Toronto announcements shouldn't be ruled out entirely. And again, if it does end up hitting theaters before the end of the year, it could be a force to be reckoned with: Chase has an amazing seven Emmys from thirteen nominations, and may well follow the success of people like Ed Zwick and Paul Haggis in making the leap to the big-screen. It's not like music-led movies like "Ray," "Dreamgirls" and "Walk The Line" haven't had awards success either, although our fingers are crossed that this'll turn out to be more hard-hitting than those. There are obstacles, still, principally a cast of near unknowns, and our gut says that we won't see this until at least Sundance 2012, and possibly much later. But one to keep half an eye on.
"Texas Killing Fields"
To be honest, we'd pretty much discounted this film, a hard-boiled based in fact noir about the hunt for a serial killer that marks the sophomore directorial effort of Michael Mann's daughter Ami Canaan Maan. Indeed, considering it has "Avatar" star Sam Worthington in the lead, and will be released by genre-specialists Anchor Bay, we'd basically assumed it was going to be yet another "Seven" knock-off, and likely slink into a brief theatrical release before hitting DVD. And then, this week, it was surprisingly picked in competition at Venice, and we started to get a little more interested. The script, after all, was a Black List favorite, Worthington gave strong performances back in Australia before he became an action star, and the supporting cast are terrific -- Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Chloe Moretz, Jessica Chastain, Stephen Graham and Jason Clarke, among others. Even if it does turn out well (and we're still fairly skeptical), it still it has a lot of hurdles: the material might well be too dark, and Anchor Bay (who tend to serve as a last port-of-call for producers, beyond horror fare; they were the ones who eventually picked up the critically-eviscerated "Son of No One" for example) have no experience in the race. But stranger things have happened.
And The Chart (week ending July 29th)
1. "War Horse"
Spielberg. Kids. Animals. A Tearjerker. Even "Amistad" got four nominations, so this is going to be the frontrunner until we see it
2. "The Artist"
Gathering momentum after Cannes, this looks like Harvey Weinstein's big bet for the year
3. "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close"
Daldry's three-for-three when it comes to directing nominations, and 2/3 on Best Picture. This film stars Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock, and is tied to the tenth anniversary of 9/11. Again, something close to a lock.
4. "J. Edgar"
Clint's had mixed success in recent years, awards-wise, but he's still had three best picture nominations in the last decade, and the material is perhaps the strongest he's had to work with since "Mystic River"
5. "Midnight In Paris"
Still the belle of the ball with audiences, this could well slip out if it doesn't stick with audiences, as we suspect it might not, particularly as "The Artist" plays in some of the same nostalgic territory. Expect this to drop down the list in the future, but it's still in the mix for the moment.
6. "The Tree of Life"
Didn't win over everybody, but it's got enough fervent admirers that it should sneak in if the field is strong enough
7. "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy"
Looks like it could be a critical favorite, and Oldman's a major contender, but word is from test screenings is that it could be too slow for some audiences
8. "The Descendants"
We suspect that at least one Clooney film will get in, and this is the most obvious. But Payne's films haven't always connected with voters
The trailer made us think this is more of a question mark than before: it looks broader and more kid-friendly than we were expecting. But still, it's Scorsese, so don't count it out
10. "A Dangerous Method"
If Cronenberg ever makes a film that gets a nomination, it's this one. And the subject matter in any other hands would be a lock. Will he go too explicit and weird for Academy voters, though?
11. "The Ides Of March"
Clearly being posiitioned as a big player, and with a very prestige-y cast, we wonder if this'll be too inside baseball, and could lose out to the heart-over-head of "The Descendants." But still a serious prospect
One of the most well-liked films of the year, but small in scope, even more so than last year's nominee "The Kids Are All Right"
13. "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo"
Some say this is a front-runner, we say they're crazy: Fincher might have been seen as being robbed last year in some quarters, but this is not only dark material, but predominately genre-led
14. "We Need To Talk About Kevin"
Won some raves at Cannes, but also seems to be a hard film to love. Likely a critic's favorite, and a definite possibility for performances, but a tough sell to voters, particularly as it's Oscilloscope, essentially newcomers to Academy politics who are releasing it
Performances are definite candidates, for all four, but the film may be too stagey and bitter for a best picture slot, especially given the Polanski problem some voters may still have
This looks like a commercial picture first and foremost, but director Bennett Miller has Academy form, and Sony are selling it very much as this year's "Social Network," so if it's good, don't count it out.
17. "Young Adult"
Reitman managed two picture/director nods back-to-back, but this is harsher, darker material than "Juno" or "Up in the Air," even if it's being positioned as a contender. Not impossible, however.
18. "One Day"
We thought at one point this could be a real contender, but the trailers haven't been too hot so far. Maybe the film will be a pleasant surprise, but its lost its luster so far, and a late August release doesn't bode too well
19. "The Iron Lady"
We suspect this, like "My Week With Marilyn," is one all about the performance, but if the film is good enough (a question mark at this point), it, like The Queen, could make the cut
20. "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Pt. 2"
Some are convinced it'll make it in, as a nod to the success of the franchise in general, and to celebrate its record-breaking opening weekend, but a swift fall in its second week has hurt its chances, as did the decision to break it into two parts
Bubbling Under: "W.E," "The Deep Blue Sea," "We Bought A Zoo," "Shame," "Jane Eyre," "Super 8," "My Week With Marilyn," "Take This Waltz"
Out: "Crazy, Stupid, Love" -- decently received, but not the unanimous raves a commercial picture like this needed.