Wow, that was fast. The movie year is already half over, and if you are a fan of Legos, sequels to bombastic blockbusters, and just-OK comedies, you probably think everything has been awesome in 2014 -- especially if you speak Lego-ese.
But those looking for female-driven films already in theaters that might grab some Academy Award attention will be left with a kid-size popcorn bag of possibilities. Certainly none seem as destined for honors as last summer’s Oscar-lock performance by Cate Blanchett in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine. Not even Emma Stone - as beguiling as she may be as a psychic – feels close to a sure thing in Allen’s new and lighter-weight effort, Magic in the Moonlight, which lands in theaters on July 25.
That does not mean there isn’t reason to cheer the girl-powered success of both Maleficent, which currently ranks as the fourth-highest grosser of the year, and Divergent, which ranks ninth. But these are first and foremost commercial enterprises, not award bait.
As for the art-house universe, Tilda Swinton always elevates the cinematic landscape whenever she materializes in a movie, and her work in The Grand Budapest Hotel, Only Lovers Left Alive, and Snowpiercer is a trifecta of terrific. But save for Hotel, Wes Anderson’s ornate music box of a nostalgia trip that meets the criteria as a best-picture possibility, Swinton is more likely to be in the running for Independent Spirit awards.
Shailene Woodley has an outside chance of scoring a best actress nomination for YA weeper The Fault in Our Stars, but performers in more prestigious titles will likely bump her out of the lineup. Scarlett Johansson was a revelation in Under the Skin, but the film itself is probably too outside the comfort zone of the evolving yet still staid academy. The best hope at this point for 2014? The highly praised Boyhood, a 12-years-in-the-making experiment by filmmaker Richard Linklater, that could earn some nomination love for the sorely underappreciated Patricia Arquette.
The truth is that most of the awards excitement for women lies somewhere in the future. And with most of their efforts as yet unseen, it is hard to know which actresses will end up in lead or supporting categories.
But here are a few educated guesses.
Nominated three times previously – the last time 12 years ago for Far From Heaven -- the overdue Julianne Moore is ahead of the game after taking the best actress prize at Cannes in David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars (no. U.S. release date).
Other strong possibilities in either the lead or supporting list include Rosamund Pike in David Fincher’s Gone Girl (Oct. 3), based on the literary phenom; Amy Adams - a five-time nominee too long denied -- in Big Eyes (Dec. 25), directed by Tim Burton; Emily Blunt and Meryl Streep in the adaptation of Sondheim’s musical Into the Woods (Dec. 25); three-time nominee Michelle Williams in Suite Francaise (no U.S. release date), a World World II romance; and Blanchett reunited with her I’m Not There director Todd Haynes in Carol (no date yet).
And it isn’t too soon to make a few educated predictions, either. Here is what my feminine intuition is telling me:
--A fifth female director will make the cut. It still stings to realize only four women have ever competed in the directing category – and only one, Kathryn Bigelow, has won. However, that piece of Oscar trivia stands a good chance of being rewritten this year. What has often stood in the way before is that women rarely get the opportunity or the money to make a film that can stand up to the big studio-financed marketing machine behind most awards campaigns.
Luckily, Ava Duvernay, the first African-American woman to take the directing prize at Sundance for 2012’s Middle of Nowhere, has two A-list producers on her side for Selma, opening Dec. 25. Both Brad Pitt (who was behind 12 Years a Slave, last year’s best picture winner) and Oprah Winfrey (who was part of the team supporting 2009’s Precious and shows up onscreen in Selma) are throwing their weight behind this story of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the struggle for voting rights for African Americans.
Of course, Pitt’s fiancée, Angelina Jolie, is her own best ambassador as the director of Unbroken, the follow-up to her behind-the-camera debut, the 2011 Bosnian War drama In the Land of Blood and Honey. The true-life saga about Olympic track star and World War II POW Louis Zamperini, also coming out on Christmas Day, can’t help but be even more moving now that its hero passed away on July 2 at age 97.
There are three other anticipated female-directed films in the mix that could also gain some attention. British helmer Sarah Gavron’s Suffragette may or may not open in time to qualify for this year’s contest. But given its subject – the women’s right-to-vote movement in England during the late 19th and early 20th century -- and with a cast topped by Carey Mulligan, Helen Bonham Carter and Meryl Streep -- the historical drama seems as if it would feel right at home on the Oscar ballot. That it also boasts a writer -- Abi Morgan -- and a pair of producers -- Alison Owen and Fay Ward of the female persuasion is enticing indeed.
Two notable underdogs also are lurking about: Lynn Shelton of Hump Day fame has Laggies (due Sept. 26), which stars Keira Knightley as a depressed 20-something who decides to hang with a teenage Chloe Grace Moretz, attracted a warm-to-middling reception at Sundance this year; and Liv Ullmann offers her vision of Strindberg’s Miss Julie starring Jessica Chastain, Colin Farrell and Samantha Morton, which does not have a U.S. opening date yet.
--A Reese revival is pending. That 1,100-mile path that Witherspoon is treading in the trailer for Wild, based on Cheryl Strayed’s best-selling 2012 memoir that is due Dec. 5, could easily turn into a comeback trail. Since winning a best-actress Oscar for her portrait of June Carter Cash in 2005’s Walk the Line, her resume has taken a decidedly downward turn both in quality and at the box office. A positive sign: Witherspoon, who is also a producer, has recruited a director who knows a thing or two about inspiring award-winning performances – Jean-Marc Vallee of Dallas Buyers Club.
If that weren’t enough, Witherspoon also is reuniting with her Walk the Line co-star Joaquin Phoenix in Inherent Vice, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson (The Master) and based on a detective novel by Thomas Pynchon, coming out Dec. 12. And she is also the lead in The Good Lie due October 3.
--Swank will go for the gold again. Tommy Lee Jones roped a mixed-to-positive Cannes reception to his latest directorial effort, a feminist road-trip Western named The Homesman. But Hilary Swank’s performance as a tough yet plain farmer who volunteers to lead three mentally ill women cross-country to a safe refuge was abundantly praised, which has not happened as much as you would think for this owner of two Oscars. Swank has one of the more schizophrenic acting careers out there. With her athletic build and strong dramatic features, the actress is not all that easy to cast. But when a role is tailored to her strengths, such as was the case with 1999’s Boys Don’t Cry and 2004’s Million Dollar Baby, she ends up winning trophies.
However, in a part that fails to take advantage of her unique presence, such as her off-putting portrait of the legendary aviatrix in the 2009 biopic of Amelia Earhart, Swank too often sinks onscreen. If the critics continue to be impressed by her when The Homesman opens Oct. 7, she could have a solid chance at competing again – and might attract more suitable opportunities in the future, too.
--A whole lotta Chastain. After being nominated for back-to-back Oscars for her supporting efforts in 2011’s The Help and as the star of 2012’s Zero Dark Thirty, this flame-haired actress is on fire this year. She has no fewer than four titles with awards potential. Besides Miss Julie, she is in The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby (Sept,. 26), Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (Nov. 7) and J.C. Chandor’s A Most Violent Year (Nov. 12). If she doesn’t show up on the red carpet, it won’t be because of a lack of trying.
--Double the Cotillard. Marion Cotillard, who already has an acting Oscar stashed away for 2007’s La Vie en Rose, has two opportunities to compete again. True, The Immigrant came and went this summer with barely a ripple. But she received praise at Cannes for her struggling working-class mother and wife in Two Days, One Night, and one can only dream what will happen when she and Michael Fassbender join forces and face the Bard in Macbeth (no U.S. dates yet for either movie).
Yes, the picture is still fuzzy, but I expect at least one of these predictions will be right. Check back again with The Big O once the awards season officially begins in earnest at the end of August when the film festivals at Telluride, Venice and Toronto get the ball rolling.