They Shoot Oscar Prognosticators, Don't They?
The Mid-Year State of the 2015 Oscar Race
By J. Don Birnam
August 5, 2015

He likes me?

Birdman, Boyhood, Whiplash, The Grand Budapest Hotel... how long ago it seems that those words were endlessly swirling in our brains as part of the alphabet soup/mesh of the Oscar season. Five full months (and counting) after the Kodak Theater ceremony, it seems impossible to believe that we are about to begin the six month journey all over again.

But here we are on the cusp of the fall film festival season, the now unofficial/official beginning of the awards season.

Slogging through such a laborious and at times even tedious modern-day Academy Awards race requires a lot of endurance, so I hope for that endurance’s sake that you have not paid any attention to awards chatter since February 23rd. The point of today is to catch up on what you may have missed (not much) and look forward only a bit to what lies ahead (a hell of a lot).

The State of the Technical Races

It has become a trend that summer blockbusters receive a good bulk of the below-the-line races, even if they ultimately end up losing all of them to a more “prestigious” film. This year should be no exception, so expect the immensely popular Avengers: Age of Ultron and Jurassic World to land anywhere between one to three nods apiece for visual effects and sound. I find it hard to fathom the Academy completely ignoring what is set to become one of the highest grossing films of all time; then again, they may well do just that.

Also in the technical race is perhaps the shoo-in Animated Feature Film for the immensely popular Inside Out. Of the remaining animated movies to be released this year, none seems to even have a prayer of a chance to steal this one, and Pixar is poised to once again reign supreme here.

And another technical race in which not only the nomination but the win seems assured is the Documentary Feature category, which appears to be all but locked and sealed for the immensely popular The Wolfpack, the (somewhat contrived) story of a family held captive by their father for most of their lives in their Brooklyn apartment.

The State of the Acting Races

When it comes to acting, the field is equally thin. But this has not stopped some from declaring certain acting races over. The highly anticipated Todd Haynes drama Carol was seen at Cannes and took critics by storm, with nominations and possible wins for Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara in the tea leaves.

But sticking to movies that have been released in theaters, it is clear that there are only a handful of serious contenders for nominations. Most crowded, shockingly enough, appears to be Best Supporting Actress, a normally thin category. In first place right now is Kristen Stewart for her portrayal of the assistant in the problematic Clouds of Sils Maria. The movie was actually released in Toronto last year but only found its way into theaters this year, and then netted Stewart the top acting prize in Cannes, the first ever for an American actress. I personally found her performance flat and undeserving, but perhaps critics are rewarding her for a not-completely-ridiculously-bad performance? Regardless of my feelings, it is clear that she is currently the front-runner here, with no obvious challenger...

...Except perhaps for Elizabeth Banks and her touching performance as the love interest in the emotional Love and Mercy. Banks has shown her depth with turns in The Hunger Games, Pitch Perfect 2, and Love and Mercy this year, and that versatility could buoy her to the podium. Indeed, Love and Mercy has some buzz for nominations in other acting categories, such as for Best Actor for a deserving but underrated Paul Dano. However, my gut is that this movie was released too early to be a true contender once/if the field gets crowded.

Finally, I would love nothing more than to see Phyllis Smith get a Supporting Actress nod for her exact and moving portrayal of Sadness in Inside Out, but she will have to overcome the deep-rooted opposition by the actors’ branch to non-live performances. None have ever been nominated.

That’s about it. Some of the movies that I list below, which I have not seen but have been screened at Cannes or Sundance, have generated buzz for some of their stars. It is hard to evaluate without seeing them, so suffice to say that so far the field of the acting races is thin so far.

The State of Best Picture

The big elephant in the room from the first half is the critical and audience darling of the first half of the year: Mad Max: Fury Road. Mad Max will likely land a cinematography nomination and a visual effects nod, and right now I can’t see it losing either of those to any of the contenders in the horizon (maybe The Martian could prove me wrong). But the reason I didn’t mention Mad Max in the technical state of the race is because it has a true chance of landing a Best Picture nomination, depending on how well some of the other contenders do. The movie has superb acting by Charlize Theron, stunning sound and visual effects, a tightly paced story, and critical and audience acclaim. It does face an uphill battle: the subject matter is simply not appealing to the traditional, prestige-minded Academy, and since they are sticking with only giving five nominating slots for Best Picture to each member, I actually highly doubt that Mad Max will make it in. The early release date hurts it, too.

And it’s the only movie from the first half with even a slim shot. Others have mentioned Inside Out, and I guess I could see that in a weak year—I would love nothing more, but it will depend on the strength of whatever else is released. The futuristic thriller Ex Machina has been mentioned in some circles as a potential Best Picture nominee, but I expect that movie to be completely shut out. Its narrative plot holes are too wide and will sink it. Finally, as I explain further below, movies that have been released in festivals - Carol and Youth, in particular - have generated a lot of Best Picture buzz. Most of them haven’t been seen, so it’s hard to evaluate.

Bottom line, the Best Picture winner of 2015 has not been released in theaters as of this writing, and likely few if any nominees have, either.

The State of What Lies Ahead

Sitting where we are today, it is hard to make a list of true Best Picture contenders sight unseen. After the end of the Oscars in February, I covered some of the big names releasing movies this year (from Tarantino to Spielberg to Allen) and some of those movies are still on the horizon. More interesting are the movies that have received buzz after either Sundance or Cannes screenings, but that have yet to be seen by most American audiences.

Three in particular stand out. The Saoirse Ronan vehicle Brooklyn has been critically acclaimed since Sundance, and the film hopes to become the next little-indie-that-could, ala Whiplash, by building additional buzz after it screens in both Toronto and possibly New York in the coming months. If the chatter is true, this one has a shot at Picture, Directing, Writing, and Acting nominations.

Meanwhile, out of Cannes, two highly anticipated movies seemed to have wowed critics (but then again, so did Foxcatcher last year, which later lost a lot of steam when it was released in theaters). These are Todd Haynes’ lesbian drama, Carol, which many have pegged as likely to net Cate Blanchett another Oscar, and Paolo Sorrenti’s Youth. Sorrenti won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar for Italy two years ago with The Great Beauty, and Youth is a supposed companion/follow-up featuring well-known and highly revered American and British actors. You may recall that I found The Great Beauty to be too facile, the type of catnip that the old codgers that vote for this category adore at the expense of the much more difficult and heart-wrenching dramas that it defeated (its staid, old-man pace is hardly better than The Broken Circle Breakdown’s devastating story - okay, enough with bitterness from two years ago). But serious critics have sung the praises of Youth as a more deserving film, so keep your eye out for this one.

Aside from those movies, which have had at least some exposure, I’ll mention others only to keep a look out that have been seen at least by some: specifically, the have been seen by the programmers for the Toronto International Film Festival and the New York Film Festival.

As a reminder, these film festivals, as hipster-y as they may sound, are, along with the first-in-time Telluride Film Festival, clear Oscar suck-ups. They don’t really try to hide it anymore. Telluride has at times featured the AMPAS logo on its red carpets, along with the festival’s own logo. The TIFF organizers routinely exhort audience members to vote for the bellwether People’s Choice Award by reminding in adds how many of that awards’ winners have gone on to win Best Picture. The New York crew is perhaps too snobby to overtly mention the Academy, but its selections year in and year out, along with the now-famed sneak peeks of unfinished movies by megastar directors, should leave no doubt in your mind about what the Lincoln Center crew is trying to achieve.

So what movies have these programmers selected? Telluride keeps its lineup hidden until the festival begins Labor Day weekend, so we won’t know for a while - but don’t forget that Birdman made a splash there after it had a sneak in Venice the week prior. Indeed, the last three Best Picture winners were screened at Telluride. Rest assured we will be keeping our eyes peeled for what they show down there.

We DO know that none of the movies now listed as galas for Toronto and New York will be screened in the Colorado Mountains - the whole point of being galas for TIFF or NYFF is that they will be exclusive releases there. Noteworthy from Toronto is their selection of The Martian as either a mid-festival or closing-night gala. Perhaps cognizant that the high buzz surrounding the opening night selection has caused some films to fall flat with critics (see last year’s The Judge), TIFF programmers have left the star-studded film adaptation of the runaway hit for either the middle or closing slots (likely the former). The Martian has the highest degree of buzz of most movies in the fall season horizon, and with its technical prowess it has the true potential to be the last man standing on Oscar night. Indeed, if true to the book, the adaption should appeal broadly to the geeks as well as the so-called “steak eaters” of the Academy.

But New York, too, has selected two high-profile movies as gala screenings, and both have the potential to make an impact in this year’s race. The first is the opening night screening, Robert Zemeckis’s The Walk, which tells the story of the World Trade Center tightrope walker. The non-fictionalized version of the story already won a Best Documentary Oscar for Man on Wire, so the subject matter clearly has resonance with the Academy. Moreover, Zemeckis is doing a 30-year anniversary of Back to the Future tour starting in October, which you know is at least in part motivated by a desire to make appearances in the awards circuit.

And the third time may be the charm for Steve Jobs, who has received biopic treatment in two movies that have fallen flat in recent years, but shows promise of redemption in the Aaron Sorkin-penned and Danny Boyle-directed version, starring Michael Fassbender, and which will be New York’s centerpiece pick. This movie, too, has the potential to make a dent in categories from acting to writing and directing.

Welcome back to our Oscar coverage, folks! The start of the race, at least, has one advantage: one can get excited for potentially great movies. Seeing it all with fresh eyes is both idyllic and hope-inducing. Let’s try to ride that feeling high until the Oscars get close and then ruin it all…