Saturday, November 28, 2015

Oscars 2016: Pre-Oscar Cheat Sheet

This past month, I was walking down the street, when suddenly the hairs on the back of my neck stood on end. I stopped and looked around. The air had changed, and there was now a slight chill in the atmosphere. I considered my surroundings. Summer was clearly over, and autumn was beginning to give over to winter. The end of the year was creeping steadily closer, and that could only mean one thing. I grinned a big grin and, as if carried by a passing breeze, I could hear a voice in the back of my head whispering..."It's Oscar season."

Anyone who knows me knows of my obsession with film, and even if you don't know me, you're reading my blog which is almost entirely about movies so you could probably have guessed anyway. And that obsession with film means that I take the awards season, and in particular the Oscars, very seriously. I love how the Oscars celebrate quality filmmaking and artistry, but more than that, I'm fascinated by the mechanics of how the Oscar process works--even though that process is oftentimes incredibly problematic. Why is it that some great films simply don't get the Oscar attention that they deserve? The not-so-hidden truth is that Oscars are more about politics than about quality. Quality can merely be used to gain a political advantage. And so even though the Oscar nominations won't even be announced for another month and a half, and even though several of the films thought to be major contenders haven't even been released yet, the lineup at this year's Oscars is starting to form a somewhat blurry shape. And while there's still plenty of time for things to change, film fanatics like myself have already started to speculate who the major contenders are going to be.

So, who are those contenders? Let's examine the big players who seem to be in contention for Best Picture next year. I've divided them into a few categories. Below is my cheat sheet if you want to know what titles to expect to see come nomination time.

THE FAVORITES: These are the films that seem poised to definitely compete for the coveted Best Picture prize.

The riveting Spotlight could be the first film to win Best Picture to prominently feature a montage of people using rulers
What It's About: The investigative journalists at The Boston Globe who uncovered and exposed the Catholic sex abuse scandal. Features a strong ensemble cast which includes Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, and Stanley Tucci, all doing great work.
Why It Will Be Nominated: If the Academy were to cast their votes right now, Spotlight would probably win. The star-studded ensemble cast--which includes Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, and Stanley Tucci--does some great work, and the film certainly has subject matter befitting of an Oscar winner. Critics and audiences alike have responded to the film, with even the Catholic church responding favorably. It's hard to imagine anyone not thinking this is a great movie.
Why It Might Not: It will almost definitely get a nomination, but it might not win. A lot can change in the three months before the Oscars, and having a frontrunner status so early often opens the door for another film to gain momentum and overtake you. Just ask Boyhood, Lincoln, Avatar, and American Hustle how the early frontrunner status worked out for them. Plus, I'm curious to see whether the buzz for Keaton, Ruffalo, and McAdams will translate to actual nominations. They're all really strong, but since it's ensemble work, their performances are far less flashy than some other buzzed about nominees. If the film can score multiple acting nominations and do well during the various guild awards, though, it might just have the momentum needed to take hope the top prize.

The Revenant
What It's About: Leonardo DiCaprio plays a man who seeks revenge on the trapper (Tom Hardy) who left him for dead. Directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, whose film Birdman won last year and is going to try and win two times in a row.
Why It Will Be Nominated:  No one has seen The Revenant yet, but people have been citing it as a Best Picture frontrunner since the project was announced. Inarritu has yet to make a bad movie, and star and perennial Oscar hopeful DiCaprio seems to have gone all out with his performance, reportedly sleeping in animal carcasses, eating raw bison liver, and generally doing more ridiculous things of that ilk. This is, I believe, the same sort of preparation that Marisa Tomei went through before her Oscar-winning turn in My Cousin Vinny. Plus, early footage from the trailers looks promising.

Leonardo DiCaprio purposefully found the script that would allow him to do the weirdest method shit possible so that people would finally give him a goddamn Oscar.
Why It Might Not: The fact that we have yet to see any of it yet means that it could all be smoke and mirrors. It could be great and win all the awards. But it also might be disappointing and fail to capture the attention of voters. We won't know for sure until it's released on December 25th. That release date, by the way, might not bode well for its chances. Usually, the winner for Best Picture has been released by now--the last time a Best Picture winner was released in December was Million Dollar Baby, which was way back in 2004.

What It's About: Adapted from the acclaimed novel of the same name, Brooklyn tells the story of an Irish immigrant (Saoirse Ronan) who has just moved to New York in the 1950s.
Why It Will Be Nominated: While Spotlight is the frontrunner at the moment, it's not the frontrunner by a huge margin. Like Spotlight, it has a star-studded cast and has received near universal critical acclaim. While Spotlight has more of a political edge to it, Brooklyn is a far more beautiful and story-driven film, and the Academy has a certain fondness for period pieces. Plus, Ronan is a lock for Best Actress.
Why It Might Not: It's too safe. It's a pretty film, but it's not a risky film. There isn't the sense of importance that something like Spotlight has. Last year, the two frontrunners for Best Picture both had ambitious gimmicks, which voters responded to more than more traditional Oscar fare like The Imitation Game. So while it's hard to find any faults in the movie's chances, there's nothing particularly notable that makes this film stand out from the pack. It's unlikely that Brooklyn will become a runaway frontrunner, but in such a competitive year, it could have enough mass appeal to take the crown should other frontrunners lose momentum.

What It's About: A woman (Brie Larson) who has been kidnapped held captive in a garden shed for seven years, along with her five-year old son (Jacob Tremblay) decides that her son is finally old enough for them to attempt an escape.
Why It Will Be Nominated: With strong reviews, Room has overcome its unsettling premise--and its title's unfortunate resemblance to a far inferior movie--to become a major contender. As it should be--Room is one of the most hauntingly raw reflections on humanity and the power of our own emotions I've ever seen. Larson will easily pick up a Best Actress nomination, and the film also seems poised to pick up nominations for Supporting Actor for Tremblay (who is actually the film's lead character but has been demoted to supporting because he's a kid), Adapted Screenplay, and of course, many believe it will be nominated for Best Picture. I'm going to go one step further and say that I think it has a shot at actually winning the top award. This is a brilliant film--and one that I truly believe is powerful enough to take home the top prize. It stays with you long after you've watched it.
Why It Might Not: I might be letting my own feelings about the film get in the way. I'm not the only one who thinks it's a contender, but it's possible that my thoughts about the film's chances are merely wishful thinking. It's a small independent film, other films with a larger studio backing them might have a bit of an edge. The film has gotten strong reviews, but it remains to be seen if the reaction has been quite strong enough to separate it from the rest of the pack. In a just world, though, Room will be a part of the conversation.

Larson and Tremblay in the titular room of Room.

THE SAFE BETS: These films aren't likely to win Best Picture, but they seem like pretty safe bets for a nomination. That being said, if you combine these seven films with my list of four "favorites" you get eleven films competing for, at most, ten spots. So, I guess the word "safe" doesn't mean anything.

Bridge of Spies:
What It's About: Steven Spielberg's Cold War drama follows an attorney (Tom Hanks) who travels to the Soviet Union to negotiate a trade of two American prisoners of war with the convicted Soviet spy (Mark Rylance) who he represented in court.
Why It Will Be Nominated: When Spielberg makes a drama, it's automatic Oscar bait. That even War Horse can get an Oscar nomination truly shows the power of Spielberg's name. Many see Bridge of Spies as a return to form from Spielberg, and indeed, it's a compelling political thriller that can appeal to both mass audiences and intellectual film snobs.
Why It Might Not: There's no way it won't get a nomination, but it also seems highly unlikely it will actually win the top award. I can't help but think about Spielberg's last attempt at an Oscar: Lincoln. While Bridge of Spies probably has more popular appeal (while it was mostly well-received, many found Lincoln to be a bit boring and muddled), Lincoln made a bit more of a splash. As good as Hanks is in the leading role, he's simply not as grand a presence as Abraham f--ing Lincoln. So, if Lincoln couldn't win the top award, I don't see how Bridge of Spies can. That being said, it could still pick up awards for its screenplay and/or for the brilliant Mark Rylance's supporting performance.

I see the spy, but where is the bridge? This movie is a goddamn lie.
The Martian: 
What It's About: Matt Damon-esque astronaut botanist Mark Watney (played by Matt Damon) is accidentally stranded on Mars after his crew believes he died in a storm. He has to survive on Mars with limited resources, while NASA desperately tries to figure out a way to bring him home.
Why It Will Be Nominated: The Martianis one of the best popcorn movies of all time. It's uplifting, it's entertaining, it's funny, it's gripping, and it's polished. In a year where the most acclaimed movies seem to be from smaller independent studios, The Martian is easily the highest grossing film to be a serious part of the Oscar conversation this year, and as the Academy struggles to keep its ratings up with each broadcast, The Martian's popularity is certainly a point in its favor. It's a return to form for director Ridley Scott, and the positive reception from both critics and audience will likely transfer to Oscar voters.
Why It Might Not: That being said, the highest grossing nominee has not been the winner in recent years. And the Academy has a particular aversion towards science fiction--no sci-fi film has ever won Best Picture, and only seven have ever been nominated depending on which films you classify as science fiction (I'm counting A Clockwork Orange, Star Wars, E.T., Avatar, District 9, Inception, and Gravity). Granted, four of those nine received nominations in recent years, with Avatar and Gravity being considered frontrunners at some point, which shows that the Academy might be warming to the genre. Still, that's quite a dry spell for The Martian to have to break. For right now, it has made a strong enough impression to merit a nomination at the very least. A win might be a stretch.

Steve Jobs:
What It's About: Former CEO of Apple, Steve Jobs. The film is divided into three installments: each one taking place before one of three speeches made by Jobs throughout his career.
Why It Will Be Nominated: The Oscars love biopics, and Steve Jobs is a particularly artsy one which is likely to those in the film industry due to its more cinematic and experimental approach. Plus, it has an impressive group behind it. Michael Fassbender's turn as the titular figure has garnered rave reviews, and it's directed by an Oscar winner (Danny Boyle) and written by an Oscar winner (Aaron Sorkin). With that group behind it, it's easy to see why it has long been considered an early frontrunner.
Why It Might Not: Steve Jobs isn't out of the running completely, but ever since it came out, its chances at Oscar glory have gotten slimmer and slimmer. Although critics liked it, Steve Jobs failed to resonate with audiences, and its notably poor box office performance has hurt its chances considerably. It's not a typical biopic, and doesn't try to tell the story of Steve Jobs, it's more of a quiet reflection on the idea of Steve Jobs and all that he stood for. It's not what most audiences were expecting, and I think that failure to meet expectations certainly hurt it. Now, obviously, box office performance isn't at all an indicator of what will win awards. But its underwhelming performance paints Steve Jobs as a bit of a loser. I will say that, despite the backlash, its critical acclaim is the most important factor, and Fassbender's performance alone will keep it in the Oscar race. It's hard to imagine it won't be nominated...although that's what a lot of people thought about The Butler two years ago.

A powerful scene from Steve Jobs, when Jobs got into an argument with film director Peter Jackson.
What It's About: Set in the 1950's, a young photographer (Rooney Mara) begins an unexpected relationship with a married woman (Cate Blanchett).
Why It Will Be Nominated: Todd Haynes' drama earned rave reviews at Cannes and generated Oscar buzz for both Blanchett and Mara, and it's easy to see why. This is, quite simply, a great movie. Not only is it a beautiful period piece, but it's also destined to be viewed as one of the great movie romances of all time. So often relationships in movies feel inauthentic, but here, Blanchett and Mara have a wonderful dynamic, and are fascinating characters in their own right. You understand why each of them is attracted to the other. Considering how few films are actually about a gay couple, Carol feels like a modern love story even though it's set in the past.
Why It Might Not: To put it simply, homophobia. Despite stereotypes about gay people being artistically inclined, the Oscars have a terrible record with LGBTQ films. Not one film dealing with LGBTQ has ever won Best Picture. Sure, some have been nominated, and some have won other awards, but none has ever actually taken home the top prize. If the homophobia argument isn't good enough for you, how about sexism? No film with a female protagonist has won Best Picture for over a decade. Unfortunately, the Oscar voting pool seems to be stacked against Carol rather than for it. And while it's a good movie, it doesn't strike me as incredible enough to overcome what appear to be the preferences of the Academy. It has a chance at a nomination, and Blanchett and Mara are certainly in the running for their performances, but unless the studio has a great strategy for its Oscar campaign, it seems unlikely that it will win the top award, no matter how wrong the reasons.

What It's About: Joy tells the true story of housewife Joy Mangano who, after creating The Miracle Mop, built a business empire and became one of the most successful inventors of the decade.
Why It Will Be Nominated: Oscar darling Jennifer Lawrence plays the titular Joy, and it's directed by David O. Russell, who directed Lawrence to two acting nominations for Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle, with Lawrence winning for Playbook. The two clearly work well together, and both are on a bit of a hot streak with the Academy Awards. After his strong with with actors in his last three films (The Fighter, and also the aforementioned Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle), some voters might think Russell himself is overdue to win, and that might put Joy over the edge to make it rise to the top.
Why It Might Not: Much like with The Revenant, everything about Joy sounds right on paper, but we don't know if it will work as well in reality. It also has not come out yet, and so it's impossible to definitively say whether it will live up to the considerable hype (although early buzz from festivals has been good). It's released on December 25th. After then, I don't think it will take too long before Joy's place this awards season becomes clear. Either it'll be a big contender, or it will fade out of the conversation.

More like JOYnifer Lawrence, am I right? No. I am wrong. That pun is terrible.
Also, it's worth nothing that while David O. Russell is admired as a director, and many do think he's overdue for the award, he's not exactly the most likable person in the industry. He's had numerous confrontations with notable people (most notably George Clooney and Lily Tomlin), and his reputation was not helped by the recent Sony email leak, where one particular email spoke about Russell's inexcusable behavior on set, and asked why they kept hiring him. While the Academy often pretends to not notice such behavior (after all, it wasn't that long ago that Sean Penn was given an Oscar), it could definitely hurt his, and the film's, chances.

The Hateful Eight:
What It's About: In the latest from Quentin Tarantino, a blizzard traps eight strangers in a stagecoach stopover on a mountain pass during the Civil War. Among the eight are the bounty hunter with a penchant for nooses (Kurt Russell) and the fugitive in his charge (Jennifer Jason Leigh).
Why It Will Be Nominated: Quentin Tarantino is one of the most unique filmmakers around, and while his style may not be for everyone, he always demands attention. The film has all the makings of a Tarantino classic, and he's been on a roll lately, with his last two films (Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained) earning both best director and best picture nominations.
Why It Might Not: This is another one that hasn't been released yet, and so we don't know for sure what the response will be. But while The Revenant and Joy seem like promising Oscar bets, The Hateful Eight is much more of a question mark. Tarantino has certainly gotten more recognition from the Oscars lately, but he's still yet to win either Best Director or Best Picture, with his masterpiece Pulp Fiction famously losing to Forrest Gump. His style is a bit more brash and unconventional than the Academy tends to recognize, and The Hateful Eight seems like it will be in much the same vein. If it receives universal acclaim, then The Hateful Eight does have a chance to be the film that finally earns Tarantino the Best Picture award. But it could also just not be the Academy's cup of tea. We'll have to wait and see.

The Danish Girl:
What It's About: Tom Hooper (The King's Speech, Les Miserables) directs Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything, Les Miserables, and most importantly Jupiter Ascending) telling the story of Lili Elbe, one of the first known recipients of sex reassignment surgery.
Why It Will Be Nominated: Everything about this movie screams "Oscar." Hooper's directing style lends itself well towards the types of films the Oscars tend to respond to. Elbe's story is a great one. Fresh off of his Best Actor win last year (not for Jupiter Ascending), Redmayne is riding high as one of the most talented young actors in the business. Former dancer Alicia Vikander, who plays Elbe's wife, has come from out of nowhere to have a prolific year--she starred in five different films, and earned rave reviews for her work (it's a longshot, but I still hold out hope she can gain some awards for her brilliant work in Ex Machina). With all of these elements, The Danish Girl is certainly going to have a lot of fodder for its Oscar campaign.
Why It Might Not: The buzz for both Redmayne and Vikander's performances has eclipsed the buzz for the film itself. I haven't seen it yet, but early reports are that the film as a whole is not as strong as its individual parts. Reviews have been mostly positive, but not overwhelmingly enthusiastic. Reaction to the film has, actually, been reminiscent of last year's The Theory of Everything, another biopic starring Redmayne. That film scored a nomination, but was never viewed as a major contender for the win. The Danish Girl appears to be in the same boat.

Alicia Vikander, who has generated lots of Oscar buzz for The Danish Girl.

THE POSSIBILITIES: These are the movies that are not exactly the strongest bets to gain a nomination, but are still in the conversation and could rally.

Inside Out:
What It's About: If you haven't heard of this film, you live under a rock. But, in case, it's Pixar's latest film and it's about the secret life of the emotions that live in your head. Or, more specifically, the secret life of the emotions that live in the head of a girl named Riley.
Why It Will Be Nominated: Pixar is one of the most consistent studios to date, with a slew of acclaimed classics and only a few duds. Of the three animated films to be nominated for Best Picture, two of them are from Pixar. And, with Inside Out, they're looking to gain another Best Picture nominee. The film is certainly one of the most original premises of the year. While kids' movies are never traditional Oscar fare, Pixar is the exception to that rule, and Inside Out's wonderful message and combination of whimsy and surprising gravitas are sure to keep it in voters' minds when it's time to fill out their ballots. It's a movie everyone likes, and many believe it will easily pick up a Best Picture nomination.
Why It Might Not: So, the first thing I should say is that I liked Inside Out. I liked Inside Out a lot. It's a really good movie. I think that the message, that it's not only okay to be sad but sometimes it's important, is not only spot on, but incredibly original for any movie, especially one for children. And I think that it's wonderful that the film is already being used by child psychologists to help kids articulate how their feeling. That's all excellent. But...and I hate to rain on the parade here...Inside Out really isn't a great film. Again, it's very good, but I can't for the life of me see it as Best Picture material. Pixar has always been creative, but their strength has been that it's great at storytelling. And while Inside Out has an original premise, the story itself is kinda muddled, and it falls apart the second you think about anything. How is it that the emotions in Riley's head showcase emotions themselves? The main character of Joy (Amy Poehler) is meant to be the embodiment of happiness, and yet she is shown to be fearful, disgusted, angry, sad, and also surprisingly petty at numerous times in the film. Does that mean that the emotions in our heads also have emotions living in their own heads? Also, how is Riley not completely braindead when her entire brain basically falls apart? The film never defines its world as clearly as Pixar was able to in the past. It's very good, but it's going to take a masterpiece like Up or Toy Story 3 to earn a Best Picture nomination. I'm not sure Inside Out really has what it takes to be on that level. But, hey, I'm in the minority here so I could be completely wrong.

Also, yes, before you ask, I am already planning to write a full review of Inside Out to more accurately explain some of my problems with it.

Pictured: the average internet commenter after reading what I just wrote about Inside Out.
Black Mass:
What It's About: Johnny Depp plays real-life gangster James "Whitey" Bulger who managed to rune the organized crime scene in Boston for years without any police interference.
Why It Will Be Nominated: Depp gives one of his best performances to date as Bulger, and has earned plenty of Oscar buzz for his work. That buzz could certainly translate to the film itself, which is slick and stylish while also being gritty and compelling. Bulger is a fascinating historical figure, and while characters have been based on him before (most notably Jack Nicholson's character in The Departed), this is the first time he has been portrayed on the the big screen.
Why It Might Not: The film's reviews have been good, but not great. The film is entertaining, but many have left disappointed. While Depp is still seen as a likely nominee for Best Actor, even that is starting to seem less certain in the face of the film's somewhat underwhelming impact. No one seems to think this movie is bad, but no one seems to think it's that good either. Black Mass still has a chance at a nomination, and it will have a better chance should Depp's Best Actor bid build momentum. But it's a bit unclear how much support the film has. A Best Picture nomination for the film wouldn't be too surprising, but it would have to beat out other, more likely films to gain one.

Love & Mercy:
What It's About: A biopic about Beach Boys lead singer and songwriter Brian Wilson, Love & Mercy divides its attentions between a young Wilson (Paul Dano) during the Beach Boys' rise to prominence, and an older Wilson (John Cusack) struggling with mental health issues later in life.
Why It Will Be Nominated: Love & Mercy is a rather brilliant film, featuring incredible performances from Dano, Cusack, and Elizabeth Banks as Wilson's future wife. Dano and Banks especially have started gaining Oscar buzz for their performances, which has forced voters to pay more attention to the small film. It's a biopic that doesn't feel like a biopic--the time jumps are effective and impeccably done. When the film is over, you feel like you not only understand Wilson's story, but you understand him as an individual too. One of the best films of the year, it possesses a quirky charm that works well with its serious subject matter, and has developed a vocal fan base.
Why It Might Not: Love & Mercy kind of came and went when it was in theaters, and while it received critical acclaim, no one was paying too much attention to it. It's certainly good enough that, if voters have it on their radar, it might have a chance. Dano and Banks have generated some buzz for their performances, and in turn the film, but it remains to be seen if they can actually score nominations, or if acting nominations for them will translate to a Best Picture nomination.

Paul Dano, who is hoping to gain his first Oscar nomination for Love & Mercy
What It's About: Trumbo tells the true story of Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston), the acclaimed screenwriter who was blacklisted due to his political beliefs.
Why It Will Be Nominated: The Academy loves biopics. And the film industry is likely to be especially responsive to a film about one of its most influential figures. Plus, Cranston might be the film's secret weapon towards Oscar glory. One of the most acclaimed television actors due to his brilliant work on Breaking Bad, the Oscars will possibly want to honor the tv star's transition into a more film-focused career.
Why It Might Not: Like Black Mass, reviews of the film have been good, but not great. And while the Academy loves biopics, there are simply too many biopics this year. With Steve Jobs, Joy, The Danish Girl, Black Mass and Love & Mercy, Trumbo might simply be the odd man out in a year of true stories. And, besides, Cranston will undoubtedly have other chances at Oscar glory in the future.

Bryan Cranston, an actor who apparently can never keep his goddamn clothes on, doing some very serious acting in Trumbo.

THE WILD CARDS: These films are not exactly major players in the conversation right now. But they're just might get nominated if they can play their cards right. They'd be unconventional choices, but the whole reason the Best Picture nomination field was expanded from just five nominees was to allow for some unconventional choices.

What's It About: The latest installment in the long-running Rocky franchise, Creed follows Adonis Johnson Creed (Michael B. Jordan), the son of Apollo Creed, who trains with his father's old rival Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone, of course) as he attempts to become a celebrated boxer in his own right.
Why It Will Be Nominated: The original Rocky was an Oscars powerhouse. It not only won Best Picture, but it beat out far more typical Oscars fare like Network, Taxi Driver, and All the President's Men to do so. But, when you watch Rocky, the film's appeal becomes obvious. It's such a beautiful story. When Creed was first announced, many were skeptical, as it felt like it was attempting to revisit a franchise that had already run its course. Plus, it would be the first Rocky film not written by star Sylvester Stallone (it's written by Aaron Covington and director Ryan Coogler). But, all of that early skepticism proved unfounded. Creed is not only a true spiritual successor to the original, but it's a great film in its own right. It's emotional, powerful, and at times truly beautiful--easily one of my favorites for the year, and features incredible performances from Michael B. Jordan and especially Stallone. It captures much of the magic that made Rocky such a commercial and critical success. If voters respond to its quality and nostalgia value, it could still be an underdog Oscar contender (and, frankly, Rocky Balboa would have it no other way)
Why It Might Not: It still feels like a huge "if." It's been so many years since the original Rocky swept the Academy Awards, and the voting demographic has changed so much, Creed is simply not Oscar fare no matter how much like the original it is. There still is a possibility that Creed could be a huge awards success--and if it is, there might be acting consideration for both Jordan and Stallone, but it just doesn't have the feel of an Oscar contender yet, even though it deserves to be.

What's It About: A stop-motion animation film from oddball screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, Anomalisa follows a lonely author who is unable to connect with people, until he meets someone who changes his perceptions on reality. It doesn't come out until the end of December, but I must admit that I am more excited for this movie than any other film this year. Do yourself a favor and watch the trailer.
Why It Will Be Nominated: No one is really talking about Anomalisa as an Oscar contender, mostly because people don't know too much about it. But early reviews have not just been positive, they've been overwhelmingly positive--it's currently at 100% on Rotten Tomatoes with 40 reviews posted. Excerpts from reviews read, "A rare sliver of transcendence," "Anomalisa changed my life," and, "One of those rare perfect films." Kaufman is one of the most fascinating and original voices in film--he penned the extraordinary Oscar-nominated screenplays for films like Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (which he won for). Anomalisa, from the sound of it, maintains his same skewed view of the world and keen insight into humanity, but is far more personal and small. In many ways, it almost sounds like Kaufman's most accessible film, as strange as that may be. While no one's talking about it too much in terms of the Oscars, if it's as good as the early reviews imply it is, it will have to enter the conversation. If it can gain momentum after it's late release, it might score a surprise Best Picture nomination and might even give Inside Out a run for its money in the Best Animated Feature category.
Why It Might Not: The Academy, and the industry in general, like Kaufman. But they don't usually LOVE Kaufman. Even thought Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was considered by many to be the best film of the year, it didn't score a Best Picture nomination. And Kaufman's directorial debut, the brilliant Synecdoche, New York, failed to gain any awards recognition whatsoever. Plus, there's really no precedent for a film like Anomalisa. There are so few animated films aimed at adults, that even if  Anomalisa is as good as early reviews say it is, it's still tough to know what the Academy will make of it. I think it could be the surprise of the year, but I'm one of the few who seems to think this.

Beasts of No Nation:
What's It About: Beasts of No Nation follows Agu (Abraham Attah), a young boy in West Africa who is forced to become a child soldier under the command of the terrifying Commandant (Idris Elba).
Why It Will Be Nominated: It's a haunting look at a very serious issue. Beasts of No Nation is chilling and haunting, and features a frightening performances by Elba. It's a grim portrayal of war, and one of the more powerful films of the year.
Why It Might Not: Beasts of No Nation never really excels past its premise. It's well-shot and very well-acted, but aside from showing that child soldiers are a travesty, it doesn't add too much to the conversation. As such, it's a powerful film, but not really an essential film. Most people were not exactly on the fence about child soldiers before the movie.

Idris Elba, playing basically the opposite of his role in Mandela: The Long Walk to Freedom
But the biggest thing working against Beasts of No Nation is that it was produced and distributed by Netflix. It was available on the streaming service the same day it was released in theaters, and is Netflix's first major attempt to break into the feature film game. Netflix has had some excellent documentaries, including the Oscar-nominated The Square, but scripted films are a different breed. If releasing these films on a streaming service works, then it threatens to change the entire industry, and the Oscars might be hesitant to reward the first film to be released this way. Beasts of No Nation actively has a strike against it for this reason. And while it is very good, it might not be good enough too overcome that. If it had been released in theaters without Netflix's involvement, then it might have been more of a player during Oscar season.
In the Heart of the Sea:
What's It About: A whaling ship is attacked by an angry sperm whale, shipwrecking the crew. It's based on the true story that inspired Herman Melville to write Moby Dick.
Why It Will Be Nominated: The film, directed by Ron Howard, was initially going to be released at the beginning of the year, but the studio pushed back the release date. Many have speculated that they did this because they thought the finished product was good enough to compete during Oscar season, and thought it would have a better chance with a later release. And if that's the case, then it means the studio is willing to launch a major Oscar campaign for In the Heart of the Sea, and if it's good then that might mean it will be in the running. And while the trailer wasn't particularly extraordinary, the film looks like it will be very impressive technically, and might get multiple nominations in the design and effects categories.
Why It Might Not: We don't really know why they pushed the release date back. It could have nothing to do with the Oscars. And the early footage of the film doesn't seem all that impressive. How can a whale attacking a ship take as long as a feature length film? Howard's a solid director, but it's been a long time since the Academy responded enthusiastically to any of his films (even the excellent Rush, which got snubbed). Despite what studios are hoping, I'm skeptical about whether In the Heart of the Sea will be what brings Ron Howard back to the winner's table.

Son of Saul:
What's It About: A Hungarian-Jewish prisoner at Aushcwitz who works by burning bodies for his captors happens upon a corpse that he believes to be his son, and tries to arrange for a proper burial service.
It's the feel-good comedy of the year!
Why It Will Be Nominated: The winner of the Grand Prix (second place) at Cannes, this Hungarian film is currently considered the frontrunner to win Best Foreign Language Film. Due to the critical acclaim the film has received, there has been a campaign to gain recognition for the film in other categories as well--especially for lead actor Geza Rohrig, director Laszlo Nemes, and of course Best Picture. Foreign language films usually don't crack the Best Picture list, but it's certainly not unheard of. Back in 2012, the French film Amour became a surprisingly large presence on the list of nominees--with nominations for best picture, best actress, best director, best screenplay, and of course best foreign language film, which it won. If any foreign language film has a chance at cracking the best picture list this year, it's going to be Son of Saul.
Why It Might Not: Did you read that description? It's depressing! And while the Academy does like depressing, films that are too bleak can sometimes fail to gain popular support (which is my theory for why Foxcatcher didn't get a Best Picture nomination last year). While it did well at Cannes, it won't be released in this country until mid-December, and we'll see if the positive acclaim continues once it comes to the states. It'll be tough for Son of Saul to crack the best picture list, but not impossible.
Mad Max: Fury Road:
What's It About: In a relaunch of the Mad Max franchise, Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) aids Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) as she helps the oppressed brides of a tyrannical ruler named Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) escape. Set in a postapocalyptic wasteland, what ensues is a car chase across the dessert that just looks SOOOOOO COOL! And that one part! Oh and then there's this other part. And the guitar guy. THE GUITAR GUY. And that thing with the guy and then there's THE GUITAR GUY! WITNESS MEEEEEE!!!!!

Oh man and this part!!!!
Why It Will Be Nominated: Mad Max: Fury Road was the surprise of the year. It was a box office smash far more than anyone predicted, but it was also a critical hit, which currently has a 97% on Rotten Tomatoes. If being the most talked about film of the year isn't enough, the film's biggest case for a Best Picture nomination is its director, George Miller. At 70 years old, Miller has had a long and varied career, and Mad Max: Fury Road is a wonderful manifestation of his artistry. The Academy loves to nominate people in recognition of their whole career, and Miller fits that bill.
Why It Might Not: Even if it is, as some have argued, the best action movie of all's still an action movie. And the Academy doesn't ever nominate action movies. Despite Mad Max: Fury Road's passionate fan base, and some murmurings of Oscar speculation at the time of its release, the truth is it just isn't a movie that was made for the Oscars.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens:
What's It About: This section is unnecessary. It's the new Star Wars movie. You know this.
Why It Will Be Nominated: It's already the biggest movie of the year--its pre-sold tickets have already broken records. Everybody is going to be talking about this movie, and if it's really good, then all that chatter might turn into genuine Oscar buzz. The original Star Wars was nominated for Best Picture back in 1977 (although it lost to Annie Hall) so if The Force Awakens can match the brilliance of the original film, it might be able to gain a nomination.
Why It Might Not: The nomination for the original Star Wars was a bit of an anomaly. And, I would argue, no matter how good The Force Awakens is it can never match the original. The best case scenario for The Force Awakens is that it will be an excellent sci-fi film that revitalizes the franchise. The original Star Wars, on the other hand, had a cultural impact arguably unlike any other film in history. The Oscars aren't going to want to acknowledge this film for major awards unless it simply cannot be ignored.

This li'l guy is sure to either become a beloved sci-fi robot icon like C-3PO, or an irritating useless disruption also like C-3PO.

THE LONG SHOTS: These films might be a part of the conversation but will have to rally. Right now they're just not generating enough buzz to be major players. Still, stranger things have happened and if they can pick up nominations at other awards ceremonies, these films just might have a shot.

What It's About: A historical fiction drama about the British women's suffrage movement, with a loaded cast that includes Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter, and Meryl Streep is in it for maybe two minutes.
Why It's Struggling: The film's reviews have been positive, but few have thought the film is extraordinary. Much like with Steve Jobs, its Oscar chances seemed to drop drastically after the film's release, and Suffragette has garnered a fair amount of controversy over the lack of women of color in the film. The Oscars love political period pieces, but it seems as if Suffragette doesn't have the substance behind it to live up to its pre-release hype. In a crowded year, simply being a "good" film isn't good enough.
Why It Might Have A Chance: I might be underestimating Suffragette's chances, and many odds-makers think this film will have a stronger performance than I do. The performances are sure to help its chances--Both Bonham Carter and Mulligan, but especially Mulligan, are earning some Oscar buzz for their work, which can help keep the film in the running. Also, as it's a British film, we can expect it to fare better at the BAFTA's than at the Oscars, and a strong BAFTA performance can maybe raise its status in the eyes of Oscar voters.
The Walk:
What It's About: Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Philippe Petit, the French tightrope walker who famously walked between the two Twin Towers illegally.
Why It's Struggling: No idea, it just is. It was released to critical acclaim, but now it feels like nobody thinks it has a chance. It has faded from the conversation, perhaps because it was released around the same time as stronger contenders, like The Martian. Ultimately, though, nobody seems to think it has a chance.
Why It Might Have A Chance: Except me. I think it has a chance. Why? Because this is a really great movie! Robert Zemeckis deserves a Best Director nomination for his brilliant work, especially for the last half hour of the film. For me, this is absolutely an Oscar-worthy film, but it doesn't seem to have made an impact on others the way it did on me. Its only hope, if this makes sense, is that people are talking about it, but nobody REALIZES that people are talking about it. I hope this film can rally, but for whatever reason, its awards stock appears to be plummeting. The best chance this film has to turn its fate around will be at the Director's Guild Awards. Like I said, what Zemeckis does is pretty incredible, and much like with George Miller for Mad Max: Fury Road, if he can score a nomination at the DGA's, it will boost the movie's Oscar chances immensely.

I do wish they had explained the title. I mean, Joseph Gordon-Levitt walks a lot of times in the movie, shouldn't it have been called "Walks?" Explain, movie!
The End of the Tour:
What It's About: A true story, journalist David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) goes on tour with acclaimed author David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel), and the two philosophize and learn about themselves and about each other.
Why It's Struggling: This one is the studio's fault. The End of the Tour is a great film--it's smart, it's well-done, it's serious, and it's charming. Plus, it features a breakout performance from Segel, who was an odd choice to play Wallace, but pulls it off undeniably. The Oscars love to give awards to comedic actors doing dramatic turns, and one would think The End of the Tour would have been on the path to Oscar gold. But, it was released way too early in the year, and now a lot of people have forgotten about this quiet, understated film. It's a movie worth remembering, but as flashier titles have been released, it feels like The End of the Tour is going to get lost in the shuffle.
Why It Might Have A Chance: Jason Segel's performance is the truly standout part of this film (well, that and the fantastic adapted screenplay). The film's best chance at an Oscar nomination is going to be through him. The studio, annoyingly, is submitting Segel as a supporting actor instead of a lead, even though he's in almost every scene in the movie. It's clearly a political move to do so, and if that tactic pays off and Segel gets a nomination, it might remind Oscar voters of the film's existence and bring it back into the running.

Jason Segel in his surprising performance in The End of the Tour.
What It's About: A by-the-books FBI Agent (Emily Blunt) is brought into a government task force to try to bring down a Mexican drug cartel boss.
Why It's Struggling: For five years, Denis Villeneuve has quickly made a name for himself as a director to watch. His film Incendies earned a nomination for Best Foreign Language Film, and he followed up with the excellent and critically-acclaimed Prisoners and Enemy. And he was recently announced as the director of the upcoming Blade Runner sequel. As a rising star in the film world, everyone agrees that he's due for Oscar attention at some point, but Sicario might not be the film to do it. Like The End of the Tour, I think the problem is it was released too early. It's good, and maybe it would be under more consideration with a more strategic release, but since Sicario came out, better films have been released and taken over the conversation. Blunt gives a strong performance, as does Benicio del Toro as a volatile CIA operative, and both earned considerable Oscar buzz during the film's release, but even that has started to die down.
Why It Might Have A Chance: It's a solid film, and just because people aren't really talking about Sicario right now doesn't mean they won't start talking again. Oscar buzz comes in waves. Sicario is currently ebbing in support right now. It might start flowing again, and if it does, then Blunt, del Toro, and the film as a whole all have a shot. Personally, I think the work in Sicario is better than the film itself. It's interesting, but ultimately falls short. If enough people have the same opinion as me, then Sicario is bound to be sadly forgotten after the end of the year.

What It's About: Aging composer Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) is on vacation in Switzerland. Surrounded by a series of eccentric characters, he and his best friend Mick (Harvey Keitel) reflect on life and death and the process that connects the two.
Why It's Struggling: There's a lot to love about this work from Paolo Sorrentino, who won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar last year for The Great Beauty. The strength in Sorrentino's work is in his artistry and his originality--his movies are not like other movies. Unfortunately, that's the problem. Most movies tell a linear story--there's a set frame and a certain way of going about things. Sorrentino throws all those rules out. If most movies are like prose, Sorrentino treats films like poetry. And...not everyone likes poetry. Those who respond to Youth will really like it, but a lot of people are going to find it alienating and pointless. I personally found it beautiful, but if someone told me that they hated it I would certainly understand why. This is a film that will be on several critics' top ten lists at the end of the year, but it's hard to see it picking up the widespread support a film usually needs for an Oscar nomination.
Why It Might Have A Chance: More artsy-fartsy oddball movies have been nominated in the past few years, thanks to the extended number of nominees. The Tree of Life comes to mind, and for many, I think even last year's winner Birdman might qualify. The other end of the "some people love it and some people hate it" coin is that, of course, some people will love it. And if the supporters of the film are vocal enough, Youth might be an upset and join the Best Picture nominees.

45 Years:
What It's About: A childless couple (Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling) plan a celebration party for their 45th wedding anniversary.
Why It's Struggling: This is an odd movie for me to include here. Admit it, you have not heard of this film. And that lack of name recognition is exactly why it's currently struggling--nobody knows about this movie. After receiving a positive reception at the Berlin International Film Festival, this independent British film was quietly picked up and will be released in this country towards the end of December. This movie was completely unknown earlier in the year, back when people were already buzzing about Steve Jobs and The Revenant. You can't be an Oscar winner if no voters know that you exist.
Why It Might Have A Chance: Whether it will be a part of the Oscar chatter remains to be seen, but this film's secret weapon is its performances. Courtenay, and especially Rampling, have both received buzz for their work (they each won the acting awards at the Berlin International Film Festival). If their performances are strong enough, it can put the film on voters' radar, and potentially nab it a best picture nomination. This would be close to what happened with Amour back in 2012, for example.

Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling in A Movie You Have Now Heard Of
BONUS ROUND! ONCE BUZZED, SOON FORGOTTEN: Every year there are movies that generate a lot of early Oscar buzz, but then don't get any nominations and everyone immediately forgets about them. Does anybody remember Monuments Men, Defiance, Freedom Writers, The Summer of Wesley Brown, The Great Debaters, Exultant, The Road, Smashed, or many other titles from recent years which one time were thought to be Oscar contenders? No, you don't. You don't remember them. You didn't even realize that I made at least two of those titles up. Anyway, these are the films from this year that I think will be in that position. May they rest in obscurity.
  • Freeheld (unless Julianne Moore can generate Oscar buzz for her performance)
  • Legend (unless Tom Hardy can generate Oscar buzz for his performance)
  • Truth (unless everyone accidentally fills out their ballot wrong and nominates Cate Blanchett for this instead of Carol by mistake)
  • Southpaw (unless the Academy realizes they snubbed Jake Gyllenhaal last year and decides to nominate the film as penance)
  • Secret In Their Eyes (unless nothing...this movie isn't getting any nominations)
  • Concussion (unless the critics like it a lot more than I did)
  • The Big Short (the critics already like this movie a lot more than I did, but I can't imagine the Oscar voters will too)
  • Macbeth (unless the world goes completely mad and thinks that this steaming pile of shit is deserving of accolades. I was not a fan of this movie, is what I'm saying)
  • Experimenter (this is a critically-acclaimed movie with a great ensemble cast which nobody seems to remember was actually released this year)

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