Fall festival season is over, trailers for the final films of the year have dropped, and prestige pictures are beginning to roll out their wide releases left, right, and centre. You guessed it: it’s awards season. While there are strong arguments to made that artworks shouldn’t really be compared in such a cut-throat way – let alone be placed in a gladiatorial, fight-to-the-death competition, hinged on expensive gifts given by sleazy men and women to even sleazier men and women over boozy dinners – it is certainly a satisfying feeling for anyone who has struggled through years of blood, sweat, and tears to receive recognition for their work from audiences, critics, and their peers alike.
More or less all of the major contenders have stepped up to the plate, with only a couple left to emerge. The tactics behind running a successful awards season campaign, from marketing and release dates, through festival appearances and critics screenings, is an encyclopaedia’s worth of words. Let’s focus instead on who has a chance of having their name read out when the Oscar nominations are announced on the 23rd of January, and, more importantly, when the golden statuettes are handed out on March 4th.
Out of the race
It is often possible to make fairly decent guesses at who will be involved in the awards conversation well over a year in advance, based on the reputation of a favoured director or the subject matter a given film may involve. Two artists who have strong status amongst the Academy in recent years are Kathryn Bigelow and Alexander Payne. Bigelow became the first woman to win the Academy Award for Best Director for her film The Hurt Locker, which won six Oscars from nine nominations, including Best Picture. Three years later, she followed this up with the five-time nominated Zero Dark Thirty, and this summer she released Detroit, another modern historical drama. While well-reviewed, it has not received the same level of unanimous praise of her previous two, and this, coupled with the summer release, means that Detroit is unlikely to register with Academy voters. Similarly, Payne has been a staple at the Oscars, winning the Best Adapted Screenplay award twice. A director renowned for his depictions of men entering transformative existential crises at breaking points in their lives, Payne’s Downsizing attempts to bring his unique blend of comedy and drama to science fiction, with mixed results. The Academy will not bite this time round.
Managing to garner the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay with just her second film, Sofia Coppola looked set to follow in her father’s footsteps to awards greatness. Since then her fare has proved too arthouse for the Academy. It was thought that her latest, The Beguiled, a remake of a seventies Clint Eastwood vehicle with a distinctly feminist flavour, could bring her back into the winners’ circle. But while it won her the Best Director Prize at Cannes, it is not carrying enough buzz to bring further awards attention. Similarly, Darren Aronofsky, who has at times flirted with awards season but generally proved too gritty, will not be in the mix with his divisive mother!. Critics were split, and audiences generally hated it.
Amazon announced themselves as a major awards season player last year, with Manchester by the Sea winning two Oscars from six nominations. This year their end of year releases were set to include You Were Never Really Here, Last Flag Flying, and Wonder Wheel. The former received universal acclaim at Cannes, and won the Best Actor prize for Joaquin Phoenix and the Best Screenplay Prize for director Lynne Ramsay. Amazon have since deemed the film too abrasive for the Academy’s liking, and pushed the release date to February next year, ruling it out of the running. The latter is the latest from Woody Allen, and continues his mediocre collaboration with Amazon, though Kate Winslet may be in the running for a Best Actress nomination. From Richard Linklater, who came close to taking home a number of big prizes for Boyhood, Last Flag Flying is a sequel to Hal Ashby’s wonderful The Last Detail. In spite of the strong cast, including Bryan Cranston, Steve Carrell, and Laurence Fishburne, warm yet muted reviews and box office struggles mean that this picture will not be in the minds of Academy voters. Rival Netflix has been a lot less successful with launching awards campaigns due to their apparent allergy to 90-day theatrical windows, and Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories: New and Selected will be lost amidst this.
At the top of the year it was thought that Logan may be able to get some play, considering its obvious parallels with Westerns. This excitement seemingly stemmed from a select group who seem desperate for a superhero flick to earn Oscar nods, and has since dwindled. Another Hugh Jackman vehicle, The Greatest Showman, has yet to screen for critics. There is very little buzz with this one, and early word emanating from the studio is that it is not very good.
Amongst the furore of fledgling production company A24 seeing Moonlight all the way to a famously last-ditch Best Picture win last year, it was forgotten that another of their films, The Lobster, picked up an Original Screenplay nod for director Yorgos Lanthimos. His follow up, psychological horror The Killing of a Sacred Deer, picked up the very same prize at Cannes this year; but the small yet potent distribution company, hailed by many as the saviour of cinema, seems to be focusing its attention on other projects that are easier to sell to voters.
The Hollywood sexual harassment and assault scandals may have had a knock-on effect on awards season. The Weinstein Company’s The Current War opened to dismal reviews at Toronto anyway, and has since been pushed to 2018 (if TWC survives that long). Harvey Weinstein, among his many heinous crimes, was a bully, capable of forcing his pictures down the throats of Academy voters. In his heyday, TWC scored back to back best picture wins for The King’s Speech and The Artist (both undeservingly), and many will be glad to rid of him. Ridley Scott’s second film of the year, All the Money in the World, is still aiming for release in late December, in spite of the fact that they have removed the disgraced Kevin Spacey from the project and are reshooting with original first choice Christopher Plummer. Scott has had limited pull with the Academy since his best picture win for Gladiator in 2000, a notable exception being 2015’s The Martian.
Dan Gilroy’s 2014 debut Nightcrawler did not pick up nearly as much attention with voters as it should have done. He returns with a strong cast for his sophomore effort Roman J. Israel, Esq., though average reviews mean that this one is out of the race. David Gordon Green’s drama Stronger, following a man who loses his legs after the Boston Marathon bombing, is lacking awards traction in spite of good reviews, though Jake Gyllenhaal may well land a long-overdue second Oscar nomination. Stephen Frears is the type of director whose films used to play well to the Academy but no longer resonate as the voting pool is freshened and diversified, sinking the hopes of his Victoria and Abdul.
It was a pleasant surprise to many when Mad Max: Fury Road garnered 10 Oscar nominations and won the most of the night two years ago. It was the best English-language film of the year – along with more traditional awards fare Carol and eventual best picture winner Spotlight – and its success signalled the Academy’s intent to include more diverse material. Many had hoped that Blade Runner 2049, another revival of a classic dystopian film of the eighties, could repeat that success, especially with the in-form Denis Villeneuve at the helm. It is unlikely to be a Best Picture contender, but may do well in a number of the technical categories, and Roger Deakins is the favourite to win Best Cinematography for the first time, at a 14th attempt. Some consider Star Wars: The Last Jedi as a possibility, considering Rian Johnson’s evidently greater skill level in comparison with his peers who are also directing new films in the Star Wars franchise. Incidentally Johnson has just agreed to launch an entirely new Star Wars trilogy for Disney, signalling just how highly they rate the Looper director.
New distributor A24 had huge success last year, and while their efforts will be focused on a couple of their other releases, The Disaster Artist could see a Best Adapted Screenplay nod, or director James Franco could score a second Best Actor nomination. Amazon have teamed up with Todd Haynes, whose last film Carol mysteriously received six Oscar nominations without one for Best Picture. He returns with Wonderstruck, another of the period pieces he excels with, intertwining two narratives from 1927 and 1977 respectively. It has reviewed well, but not quite to the extent of his previous masterpieces Carol and Far from Heaven. Margot Robbie stars and produces I, Tonya, a biopic about notorious figure skating bad girl Tonya Harding. Regarded as a sort of Goodfellas on ice, the picture’s best hopes hang on Robbie for Best Actress. Rookie company Neon are distributing, and it remains to be seen if they can have a major impact with so little experience, in the way A24 did.
Others wearing new hats like Robbie include Aaron Sorkin and Andy Serkis. Sorkin is one of the most famous screenwriters in the industry, and while his directorial debut Molly’s Game is a solid attempt, it lacks the guile that the likes of Danny Boyle and in particular David Fincher have been able to give his written material in the past. Serkis is best known for his motion capture performances in big franchise films, include The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, and Planet of the Apes. His first time in the director’s chair, Breathe, sees him bring the biographical story of a man paralysed from the neck down by polio at the age of 28 to the big screen. It is tender but unremarkable.
Husband and wife team Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris were unable to recapture the magic of their wonderful debut Little Miss Sunshine with their sophomore effort Ruby Sparks. Their third film, Battle of the Sexes, is good but not great. Emma Stone, in the lead as Billie Jean King, is unlikely to retain her Best Actress crown. Scott Cooper helped land Jeff Bridges a long overdue Best Actor Oscar in 2009 with Crazy Heart, and will be hoping to do the same for Christian Bale in violent Western thriller Hostiles. It has been a box office phenomenon, but surely not enough to force the hand of the Academy. Warner are running a full awards campaign, but bar Sophia Lillis, who may be able to sneak in a best supporting actress nod, it seems unlikely this will stick.
We will be concluding the predictions for this year’s awards season in next week’s Felix – keep an eye out!