The Academy Awards are still five months away. But with so many award-season movies making their debuts at the Venice, Telluride, and Toronto International Film Festivals in September, Oscar discussions have already begun among sad, lonely film geeks.
As a sad, lonely film geek, I feel it is my duty to inform all you people who actually have friends what movies will be the talk of the town in February. This way, when Oscar nominations are announced on January 12, you’ll already know alllllllll about all the nominees, and you can impress your friends (which you have) with your insights and condescendingly look down on them for knowing nothing! Hooray!
Note: There are two categories of contenders — those that have been seen and those that are yet to debut (but look really strong on paper). To produce this film-by-film breakdown, I used an amalgamation of Indiewire’s handy category-by-category breakdown, initial reception from the September festivals mentioned above, and my own knowledge.
Heavy-Hitters That Have Made Their World Debut:
Directed by: Todd Haynes
Release Date: November 20, 2015
Based on The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith (the author of Strangers on a Train, writing under a pseudonym), Carol tells the story of a young department-store clerk (Rooney Mara) who falls for an older, married woman (Cate Blanchett, playing the title character). Given that this is set in 1950s New York, this relationship is a big no-no, and the film explores the conflict of natural desires vs societal expectation and the dangers of pursuing those forbidden relationships.
Why It’s Generating Buzz: It received multiple standing ovations at the Cannes Film Festival in May, and its praise continued into Telluride earlier this month. Cate Blanchett, with her two Oscars, will always garner some attention, but it appears Rooney Mara is worthy of a statue of her own, as she won Best Actress at Cannes (technically, she tied with Emmanuelle Bercot, but that’s still a win). The movie also seems to have some plot and thematic overlap with Brokeback Mountain (2005), which won three Oscars of its own and – despite losing Best Picture – was the best picture of the year (even Jack Nicholson couldn’t believe it when he read the envelope).
Where It Will Compete: A Best Picture nomination is more or less a foregone conclusion at this point, as this has been one of the most universally-praised films at these fall festivals. Todd Haynes appears to be in the driver’s seat for his first Best Director nomination, but there’s a lot coming down the pipe that hasn’t been seen yet (see the other films in this list). It was announced that Blanchett will compete in the Lead Actress category and Rooney Mara in Supporting, and as of this writing, they might be the two to beat in their respective categories.
Directed by: Danny Boyle
Release Date: October 9, 2015 (limited), October 23, 2015 (wide)
Ever since the forgettable Ashton Kutcher vehicle of 2013, I’ve been referring to this as “the good Steve Jobs movie.” That’s bold talk for a movie that was still two years away, but there’s a reason. The Good Steve Jobs Movie had the rights to Walter Isaacson’s definitive (authorized) biography, Academy-award winner Aaron Sorkin to adapt it, and the cooperation of Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak. The Kutcher production had none of those things, and in fact, Wozniak had turned them down, calling their script “crap.”
And while the 2013 iteration covered many years of Jobs’ life, it barely scratched the surface of who he actually was; it played out more like a recap of his relationship with Apple than a biopic, like it was based on the Cliffsnotes of his career. This new one, on the other hand, is quite the opposite. I had the pleasure of reading Aaron Sorkin’s 178-page screenplay a few months ago, and I can tell you this: like Jobs himself, the script is uncompromising, deceptively complex (under the guise of simplicity), and — more than anything else — incredibly bold. I can’t wait to see what the supremely talented Danny Boyle does with it.
Why It’s Generating Buzz: One of the best working directors, one of the best working actors, and quite possibly the best working writer (for this kind of story at least) made a film about one of the most interesting public figures of the century. That’s why.
And for a less-biased reason, it got rave reviews when it premiered at Telluride over Labor Day weekend.
Where It Will Compete: It’s a lock for a Best Picture nomination (and quite possibly the early favorite to win, judging it against only what’s been released so far…which isn’t saying a ton). Fassbender will almost certainly be nominated for Best Actor, as Steve Wozniak quipped “I felt like I was actually watching [Steve Jobs],” and Danny Boyle is a decent bet for a Best Director nod, having won in that category for Slumdog Millionaire (2008). The consensus seems to be that Kate Winslet, playing Jobs’ long-time marketing director Joanna Hoffman, is a safe bet for a Supporting Actress nomination, but Seth Rogen, playing against type as Wozniak, has little more than an outside shot at a nomination in the (increasingly crowded) Supporting Actor category.
Directed by: Thomas McCarthy
Release Date: November 6, 2015
Screening at all three big September festivals (Venice, Telluride, Toronto), the film follows the Boston Globe “Spotlight” team, as they work to uncover the Massachusetts Catholic sex abuse scandal which made headlines in the early 2000s (thanks in no small part to this “Spotlight” team). Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Mad Men’s John Slattery, and Michael Keaton star in this Thomas McCarthy-directed drama.
Why It’s Generating Buzz: The early festival feedback is drawing (unsurprising but certainly welcome) comparisons to All the President’s Men (1976), but I’ve also heard that it tackles the Catholic priest sex scandal in Zero Dark Thirty-like fashion, which certainly peaks my interest. Tom McCarthy is a very talented but thus far fairly under-the-radar filmmaker. I can personally attest that his first two movies are great (The Station Agent and The Visitor), his third is apparently very good (Win Win), his fourth took a bizarre Adam Sandler-y turn (The Cobbler), and now here we are with his fifth, where he seems to finally be getting some much-deserved recognition.
Where It Will Compete: It’s thus far being talked about with the other probable Best Picture nominees, and not in a casual or long-shot kinda way; its nomination seems to be all but guaranteed. As it stands, the November and December releases will have to really underperform in order for Tom McCarthy to sneak in with a Best Director nomination, but he’s certainly one of the first in if they do. Among the very talented cast, Michael Keaton’s name is the one being spoken the most for awards consideration, and he seems very poised to get a second-straight nomination (this time for Best Supporting Actor). Fingers crossed he avenges the injustice done to him last year. *hair flip*
The Danish Girl
Directed by: Tom Hooper
Release Date: November 27, 2015
Based on David Ebershoff’s novel of the same name, several cultural talking points of 2015 have coincidentally made this 1930s period piece one of the most zeitgeist-y movies of award season. It stars last year’s Best Actor Eddie Redmayne as real-life Danish painter Einar Wegener, who began living as Lili Elbe and eventually became one of the first known recipients of gender reassignment surgery. Yeah, in the God damn 1930s.
Why It’s Generating Buzz: With subject matter like this (and the names attached to it), it makes sense. Director Tom Hooper seems to have a knack for making Oscar-y movies, like The King’s Speech (2010), Les Miserables (2012), and this. And Eddie Redmayne has a knack for acting in Oscar-y movies, like My Week With Marilyn (2011), Les Miserables, The Theory of Everything (2014), and this.
Where It Will Compete: After screening at both Venice and Toronto film festivals in September, the early consensus seems to be that Redmayne’s performance is much better than the movie itself (which was what I said about The Theory of Everything last year). That said, it has all the right pieces for a Best Picture nomination: a period piece, progressive subject matter, a strong lead performance, Tom Hooper and Eddie Redmayne, etc. I maintain Best Actor should’ve definitely gone to Michael Keaton in Birdman last year, but it seems Redmayne is a sure to get a chance to go back-to-back this year (maybe even as the front-runner?). Given his past record, Hooper’s got a pretty decent shot at a Best Director nod as well.
Beasts of No Nation
Directed by: Cary Fukunaga
Release Date: October 16, 2015
This one is what we call a “game changer.” The movie itself is a disturbing war film about child soldiers in an unnamed West African nation (not to be confused with J.K. Rowling’s whimsical and happy but kinda-sorta-similarly-titled Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them; this is a reeeeeeally different thing). It’s based on the novel of the same name by Uzodinma Iweala (who wrote it as his senior thesis at Harvard) and directed by Cary Fukunaga, who’s best known for directing all eight episodes of True Detective (because as far as I’m concerned, there has only been eight episodes).
The reason it’s a game changer can be summed up in three words: Netflix. Original. Film.
Beasts of No Nation will get a limited theatrical release (via the production company Bleecker Street), but everyone will be able to stream it in their homes on October 16. Netflix has already changed TV for better and for always (eventually being followed by Amazon, Hulu, Yahoo Stream, etc), and now it’s poised to similarly change how movies are produced and released. If and when Netflix, which started out as nothing more than Blockbuster by way of Columbia House Record Club, can add “Academy-award winning production company” to its list of ever-growing accomplishments, it will be possibly the most impressive chapter in the story of how Netflix is changing all forms of media.
Why It’s Generating Buzz: The reasons described above are enough to generate buzz, but it’s also created quite the stir at all three of the September film festivals just on its own merit. Esquire called it “the most intense war movie in years.”
Where It Will Compete: This one is harder to call. As it stands right now, it looks to be right on the fringe of a Best Picture nomination, and possibly on the fringe of a Best Director nomination for Fukunaga. The problem is, usually these super intense (uber-depressing) glances into the darkest parts of humanity don’t always fair well with the Academy, even if they’re deserving. However, Idris Elba, who plays the warlord who recruits the child soldiers, is being talked about as a likely Supporting Actor nominee, but that category is more crowded than the Taco Bell drive thru at 2 am.
Directed by: John Crowley
Release Date: November 6, 2015
An Irish immigrant (Saoirse Ronan) makes her way to 1950s Brooklyn — likely not far from where Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara are having their love affair in Carol — where she falls for an American boy, causing a conflict of loyalties between her old life, including her mother she left behind in Ireland, and her new life in America.
Why It’s Generating Buzz: Funnily enough…it’s kind of not anymore. This premiered at Sundance wayyyy back in January, and it was one of few films at that festival to receive a standing ovation (and, by the way, it sold for $9 million hours after it premiered). And going into the fall festivals, it was being talked about as one of the sure-thing Best Picture nominees, but now it’s very much fringe. It didn’t play at Telluride or Venice, but the response from Toronto is much more tame than it was at Sundance. Maybe the stiffer competition softened the impact of this romance.
Where It Will Compete: If nothing else, Saoirse Ronan appears to be a decent bet for Best Actress, but we’ll see. Again, it’s now a fringe Best Picture nomination, so it’ll duke it out with the likes of Inside Out, Mad Max: Fury Road, The Martian, Straight Outta Compton, Room, and the other fringe movies for that last Best Picture spot (if there is one). Director John Crowley is still in the conversation for a nom, but he’s falling further and further into the fringe.
Directed by: Lenny Abrahamson
Release Date: October 16, 2015
Joy Newsome (Brie Larson) has been held captive in a locked shed for many years — long enough that her seven-year-old son has no knowledge of the outside world and was presumably born in the titular Room. Faced with the difficult and universal parenting dilemma of how much of the world’s ugliness to reveal to her child, she elects to let him be ignorant of their imprisonment and just believe that their Room is all there is. It’s based on a novel of the same name by Emma Donoghue (who also wrote the screenplay), and the novel was inspired by the real life Fritzl case (which is a truly horrifying but deeply fascinating wikipedia page, if you ever have the time to read it).
Why It’s Getting Buzz: It drew multiple standing ovations at its premiere in Telluride and similar reactions in Toronto (where it won the People’s Choice award). It’s been described as “highly emotional…at times grueling, at times joyous, but ultimately richly satisfying.” But most of the buzz is surrounding the performance of Brie Larson.
Where It Will Compete: If the movie gets any nominations, it’ll be Brie Larson for Best Actress, and she’s probably got as good of a shot as anyone else to get that nomination. In terms of a Best Picture nomination, it’d be tough with this crowd of great movies. Plus, it’s a small movie (in scope, not in theme or ideas), and those often get passed over. But then again, Whiplash….
Directed by: Sarah Gavron
Release Date: October 23, 2015
As its title suggests, it is a period drama about the movement to get women the right to vote in 1912 England. Carey Mulligan leads the way as Maud Watts, who isn’t based on any one person but represents thousands of struggling and voiceless female workers of the time. Helena Bonham Carter, Meryl Streep, and Brendan Gleeson costar.
Why It’s Getting Buzz: See The Danish Girl above: period, progressive, star power. It’s also very much worth noting that it’s written, produced, and directed by a team of women, after a year of notoriously homogeneous nominees.
Where It Will Compete: This movie might’ve seemed better on paper than it actually is. The reception at Telluride (which is the only fall festival it played at) suggests that Carey Mulligan is likely to get a Best Actress nomination, but that might be it for the major categories — outside of Costume, Production Design, etc. Of course, with Academy vets Helena Bonham Carter and Meryl “Nineteen Nominations” Streep, there’s plenty of opportunity for Supporting Actress noms, but we’ll see.
Upcoming Heavy-Hitters Yet to be Seen:
Directed by: Alejandro G. Iñárritu
Release Date: December 25, 2015 (limited), Janury 6, 2016 (wide)
Adapted from Michael Punke’s 2003 novel (which was inspired by true events), it’s the story of frontiersman Hugh Glass (Leo DiCaprio). In 1823, Glass is mauled by a bear while hunting, and he’s robbed and left for dead by his companions (among them, Tom Hardy). He then must trek 200 miles through the wilderness to get revenge.
Why It’s Getting Buzz: Iñárritu’s Birdman took home Best Picture last year, as well as Best Director and Best Original Screenplay, and his western thriller follow up looks to be just as ambitious. Add in five-time nominee ‘Nardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (who’s won Best Cinematography the last two years’ running), and it’s easy to see why people are excited.
However, it’s also getting attention for it’s very troubled production, as the 10-month shoot in the Canadian wilderness became “a living hell” — to the point that there could probably be a pretty compelling Birdman-esque movie about making this movie.
Where It Could Compete: Judging from the trailer and those involved, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where it doesn’t get a Best Picture nomination; in fact, early odds in Las Vegas have this as the favorite to win, and no one’s even seen it yet…hell, it just finished filming last month. You also have to assume ‘Nardo DiCaprio will compete for Best Actor and Iñárritu for Best Director, given their past success.
Bridge of Spies
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Release Date: October 16, 2015
After Francis Gary Powers’ U-2 spy plane is shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960, a Brooklyn lawyer (Tom Hanks) is tapped to negotiate Powers’ release in exchange for a Soviet prisoner held by the U.S. It’s inspired by true events and based on the book of the same name by Bard Lindeman.
Why It’s Getting Buzz: It’s a Cold War thriller based on an acclaimed book, adapted by the Coen brothers, directed by Steven Spielberg, and starring Tom Hanks. Any more questions?
Where It Could Compete: Again, pure conjecture, as this didn’t appear in any of the fall film festivals (because it didn’t need to), but Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor nominations are always possibilities with this cast of characters.
The Hateful Eight
Directed by: Quentin Tarantino
Release Date: December 25, 2015 (limited), January 8, 2016 (wide)
John “the Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell) is escorting a fugitive (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to Red Rock to be hanged for murder in post-Civil War Wyoming. Along the way, a blizzard forces them to hold up in Minnie’s Haberdashery, where they meet a group of strangers. Not a ton is known plot-wise (unless you’ve read the leaked script, which I haven’t) but all you really need to know is that it’s Quentin Tarantino.
Why It’s Generating Buzz: Because it’s Quentin Tarantino.
Where It Could Compete: Tarantino’s last two movies have been nominated for Best Picture, and there’s no reason to believe this one will break that streak. Tarantino’s historically been recognized by the Academy for his writing more than his directing (and Best Director already looks pretty crowded), but he could sneak in. And with Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, and Bruce Dern, it’s conceivable one of them could make a push for Best Supporting Actor.
Directed by: David O. Russell
Release Date: December 25, 2015
Yet another (welcome) collaboration of David O., Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, and Bobby DeNiro, Joy covers four generations of a family as a woman founds a powerful family business dynasty.
Why It’s Generating Buzz: David O. Russell’s last three films (The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle) were all nominated for Best Picture and scored him a Best Director nomination. Two of those three featured Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, and Robert DeNiro, who together accumulated five acting nominations and one win (for Lawrence in Silver Linings).
Where It Could Compete: If history serves us, it’ll be hard to bet against a Best Picture nomination or a Best Actress nomination for Lawrence. David O. Russell’s name will always come up for Best Director possibilities, but it’s a crowded group.
Others That May Compete:
Inside Out. Pixar’s journey inside an 11-year-old girl’s head could squeak in with a Best Picture nomination.
The Martian. Ridley Scott’s sci-fi adventure/NASA recruiting video could conceivably rally for Best Director, Best Actor for Matt Damon, and possibly even Best Picture.
Black Mass. The true-life crime thriller about notorious Boston mobster Whitey Bulger didn’t quite impress the way it promised to, but a Best Actor nomination for Johnny Depp and/or Supporting for Joel Edgerton are still possibilities, maybe even likelihoods.
Youth. A Michael Caine drama about an aging composer seems to be very good possibility for a Best Actor nod.
Trumbo. Accused of being a Communist in the 1950s, blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo attempts to work his way back into Hollywood. Bryan Cranston, playing the titular character, is very much in the conversation for Best Actor.
The End of the Tour. Based on a four-day interview between Rolling Stone writer David Lipsky and lauded author David Foster Wallace, this small (and endlessly charming) movie could grab a Supporting Actor nomination for Jason Segel.