John Le Carre films might not have been Best Picture fodder of late, but between "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" and "The Constant Gardener," they've been responsible for a brace of nominations over the last decade or so. Could that continue (or even be exceeded?) by "A Most Wanted Man"? Hailing from Film4, and directed by "Control" and "The American" helmer Anton Corbijn, it follows a Chechen refugee caught up in espionage in Berlin, critiques extraordinary rendition, and has Robin Wright, Rachel McAdams, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Willem Dafoe, Daniel Bruhl and Nina Hoss among the impressive cast. Our gut says that the film may be too politically spiky to make many Academy inroads, and Corbijn's previous films haven't exactly been warmly embraced by the establishment. But stranger things have happened, especially if it lives up to our expectations and gets embraced by critics.
"Dallas Buyers' Club"
The inspirational disease biopic has fallen out of favor in recent years, but Matthew McConaughey has a doozy this year, with this story of Ron Woodroof, who was diagnosed with AIDS in 1986, given six months to live, only to survive for six years thanks to smuggled non-FDA approved medication, alternative healthcare, and court battles. McConaughey's already got a ton of attention for his weight loss, but we're not quite convinced that this has the legs beyond the central performance -- even "Philadelphia" missed a Best Picture nomination, and director Jean-Marc Vallee ("The Young Victoria") isn't a major figure as yet. But if the film surprises, maybe it'll turn out to be a bigger deal than we think at this stage.
"Fruitvale" might have been the mostly warmly received film at Sundance, but "Ain't Them Bodies Saints" arguably got the more enthusiastic reviews, even if it was a touch more divisive. David Lowery's feature, following a criminal couple in the 1970s played by Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck, had some seriously impressive notices (including ours), and seemed to mark the arrival of a new talent in a way that mirrors Benh Zeitlin made his mark with "Beasts of the Southern Wild." It would have to be a "Tree of Life"-style critical favorite to get traction, though, and given that it was picked up by IFC Films, who have very little form when it comes to successful Oscar campaigning, this one probably isn't going to happen to any major extent.
While he got a Best Director nomination at his first time at bat for "Being John Malkovich," for the most part, Spike Jonze hasn't been an awards magnet; none of his three films to date earned a Best Picture nomination, and his last, "Where The Wild Things Are," missed out altogether. Could that change with his new film, "Her?" There's certainly a strong selection of talent involved -- Joaquin Phoenix, Rooney Mara, Amy Adams, Olivia Wilde, Samantha Morton, plus Megan Ellison as producer. But given that the plot involves a man who falls in love with his mobile phone (essentially), we suspect it'll be too quirky to register with the Academy (though Jonze could end up figuring in the Best Screenplay race). At the same time, we probably would have said that about "Being John Malkovich," so you never know....
"Crazy Heart" proved to be a surprise late-entrant into the race a few years ago; it missed Best Picture, but won Jeff Bridges an Oscar. And the new film from its director, Scott Cooper, came close to being another late-breaker this year; Relativity seriously considered pushing the release up into December 2012 in order to qualify. That certainly suggests that the company are confident in the crime drama, which stars Christian Bale, Casey Affleck, Zoe Saldana, Forest Whitaker, Willem Dafoe, Woody Harrelson and others. "No Country For Old Men" aside, the genre hasn't had all that much luck with the Academy of late, but Cooper seems to be up their street, and the star power could help. There's no release date as yet, but look for a festival debut and a late-year bow.
You've probably forgotten that Atom Egoyan is an Oscar nominee; he picked up a nod for "The Sweet Hereafter" nearly two decades ago. The prolific Canadian filmmaker hasn't been anywhere near awards season since, but that might change with his West Memphis Three movie "Devil's Knot." The true crime tale is well-worn in the documentary world, but the "Paradise Lost" trilogy and 2012's "West Memphis Three" probably didn't get on the Academy's radars, so the story might be new to them. With a cast including recent winners Colin Firth and Reese Witherspoon, plus rising star Dane DeHaan, it's certainly got the potential for prestige, and if Egoyan's back on form, this could be a real dark horse.
There are multiple biopics in the works this year, as we've seen already, but one that we're a touch more skeptical of is "Diana," formerly known as "Caught In Flight." Written by Steven Jeffreys ("The Libertine"), and directed by "Downfall" helmer Oliver Hirschbiegel, it focuses on the romance, towards the end of her life, between Princess Diana (Naomi Watts) and surgeon Dr. Hasnat Khan (Naveen Andrews). Watts' presence aside, we're a bit skeptical about the potential substance of the thing, although the film's apparent focus on her campaigns against land mines might help. Hirschbiegel's been off his game since his Hitler biopic, and we honestly can't see a scenario where this turns out to be more than a showcase for a performance, and certainly not one of the best films of the year. But, hey, stranger things have happened...
After movies like "Avatar," "District 9" and "Inception" made it through, Oscar attention has rather dried up for tentpole blockbusters, with recent fare including "Harry Potter & The Deathly Hallows Pt. 2," "The Dark Knight Rises" and "Skyfall" failing to make the cut. And this year's batch seems fairly unlikely to change that, with too many sequels and films of slightly questionable quality. But one to keep an eye on might be "Man Of Steel." The film's shaping up nicely, if the trailers are anything to go by, with impressive cinematography and a Nolan-ish sense of a reinvention of the most iconic superhero in history. It's clearly taking itself seriously, and if the film works (we've heard buzz to the effect that it really does), it could be easier to get some awards traction. It's still a very, very long shot (it's a Superman movie directed by Zack Snyder after all and again, films like this fall short with the Academy more often than they land), but this far out, one worth considering.
Another Sundance movie that arrived with a ton of buzz is "The Way Way Back," the directorial debut of Oscar winning "The Descendants" screenwriters Jim Rash and Nat Faxon, which premiered in Park City and was snapped up by Fox Searchlight for a near-record sum. A coming-of-age tale starring Steve Carell, Toni Collette, Sam Rockwell and Allison Janney, among others, it's been described as "the next "Little Miss Sunshine' " by more than one person. And there's a notable lack of this kind of comedy-drama this early in the awards season game, and it could fill the "Silver Linings Playbook" slot. The said, the movie is getting released in July, so it'll have to play the long game (and be a smash hit), but that worked out fine for 'Sunshine,' so it could well end up in contention.
Also Worth Keeping An Eye On: "The Grandmaster," "The Young & Prodigious Spivet," "Rush," "About Time," "Prisoners," "The Railway Man," "Third Person," "The Invisible Woman," "Blood Ties," "The Place Beyond The Pines," "Blue Jasmine," "Can A Song Save Your Life," "Mud," "The Spectacular Now "
And just so you can see how wrong we might be a year from now, below are my prediction of ten films that could be nominated (assuming they don't shrink down to five again). More of a gut pick that anything else, and not necessarily coherent with what's above. Let us know what you're predicting in the comments section
"August Osage County"
"Inside Llewyn Davis"
"Saving Mr. Banks"
"Twelve Years a Slave"
"Untitled David O Russell ABSCAM Project "
"The Wolf Of Wall Street"