It’s September, so why wouldn’t we start predicting an Oscar race that won’t finish for another five months?
To be fair, Venice, Telluride, and the Toronto film festivals have all concluded. Many films have screened. Many films have connected with audiences, and a rough draft of the Oscar race is beginning to come into focus. Sure, no Academy member will even begin popping in those screener DVDs for another couple of months, but it’s still worth discussing what has buzz and what is likely to still be on voters’ minds once the weather finally begins to cool off.
Here’s a very early look at what the race looks like now.
Foxcatcher stunned at Cannes, Birdman earned raves at Venice and Telluride, Wild impressed at Telluride and Toronto, and The Imitation Game and Theory of Everything had audiences cheering in Toronto.
If the race were held tomorrow, it would come down to a heart vs. head type of battle, with voters having to choose between the impressive filmmaking of Foxcatcher, the true story of billionaire John du Pont’s (Steve Carell) deluded and tragic relationship with Olympic wrestlers Mark and Dave Schultz (Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo); the audacious storytelling of Birdman, the story of a washed-up actor launching a Broadway comeback; the superior directing of Wild, an adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s memoir of her solo hike on the Pacific Crest Trail; or the heartfelt, sentimental storytelling captured in the remarkable biopics The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything. Throw in Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, the 12-year story of a family through the eyes of a young boy (Ellar Coltrane), too, since the critics still haven’t ceased singing its praises since it debuted at Sundance.
And that’s just what’s known so far. The adaptation of the bestseller Unbroken has yet to be seen. With its starry director Angelina Jolie and its pedigreed script from Joel and Ethan Coen, the epic true story of Louis Zamperini has Oscar bait written all over it. David Fincher’s adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s he-said/she-said thriller Gone Girl will open the New York Film Festival on Sept. 26. Ava DuVernay’s Martin Luther King film, Selma, is still being finished, so that remains a wild card, as does Rob Marshall’s adaptation of the Broadway musical Into the Woods starring Meryl Streep and Johnny Depp. Christopher Nolan hasn’t yet revealed his space-traveling epic Interstellar starring Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway. Let’s not forget Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper starring Bradley Cooper, or Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice. And with new distributor A24 announcing today that A Most Violent Year starring Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaacs will get a 2014 release, the Best Picture race is still wide open.
For the second consecutive year, there is no shortage of impressive performances out there for leading men. Between Benedict Cumberbatch’s vulnerable turn as the closeted genius Alan Turing in The Imitation Game to Michael Keaton’s go-for-broke performance as a washed-up actor in Birdman, the category is stacked with favorites. Steve Carell is unrecognizable as the deluded millionaire John E. du Pont, while relative unknown Eddie Redmayne is stupendous as a young—and older—Stephen Hawking in Theory of Everyting. It’s a year where Bill Murray, in a return-to-form role in St. Vincent, could get edged out by the others in the category. David Oyelowo’s transformation into Martin Luther King and Jack O’Connell’s take on Zamperini have yet to be seen. And let’s not forget Channing Tatum’s remarkable role of the isolated wrestler in Foxcatcher.
The Best Actress category was considered light until Julianne Moore stunned audiences at Toronto with her performance as a mother and wife who is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s in Still Alice. The performance prompted the already very busy Sony Pictures Classics (Foxcatcher, Whiplash) to plunk down some coinage and launch a race for the four-time Oscar nominee. She will now face off against Shailene Woodley, who won raves as a cancer patient in the summer weepie, The Fault in Our Stars; Reese Witherspoon, for her role as hiker Cheryl Strayed in Wild; and Felicity Jones, for her portrayal as Hawking’s’ loyal wife in Theory of Everything.
And there are still wild cards out there in the category. Will Amy Adams shine as the long-suffering wife in the Walter Keane-tale Big Eyes for director Tim Burton? Will someone scoop up Jennifer Aniston’s Toronto film Cake and launch a campaign around her performance? Will there be any heat surrounding Mia Wasikowska’s turn as Robyn Davidson in John Curran’s Tracks, which opens on Friday?
Best Supporting Actor
In the Best Supporting Actor category, there is already a clubhouse leader: Trustworthy character performer J.K. Simmons ignites the screen as the terrifying jazz conductor in Damien Chazelle’s debut Whiplash—a film that debuted at Sundance and has been generating attention ever since. It will open on Oct. 10. Boyhood could deliver Ethan Hawke his second nomination for acting for his 12-year-long performance as an absentee dad. Edward Norton plays a pompous actor in Birdman, and Mark Ruffalo is solid as the more worldly older brother in Foxcatcher. And what about Japanese singer-songwriter Miyavi, who will play the malicious POW camp guard ‘The Bird’ in Unbroken?
Robert Duvall’s chances for a second Oscar feel muted after the mixed reception his film, The Judge, received after its Toronto debut. Also losing steam is Adam Sandler for his role in Jason Reitman’s Men, Women and Children—another film that debuted in Toronto and left the fest knocked down a bit by critics.
Best Supporting Actress
The Supporting Actress category is looking robust this early in the game. Laura Dern is receiving high marks for her role as Reese Witherspoon’s mother in Wild, while Emma Stone has been singled out for her role as Michael Keaton’s daughter, recently released from rehab, in Birdman. Those behind Boyhood have decided to throw Patricia Arquette’s 12-years-in-the-making performance as a mother into the Supporting Actress category, an arena where she may have to compete with Keira Knightley and her turn as a mathematician/Alan Turing co-conspirator in The Imitation Game. Arquette may also have to go up against Meryl Streep for her part as the evil witch in Into the Woods. Perhaps even Naomi Watts’ wild turn as a pregnant Russian prostitute in the comedic St. Vincent could get recognized by the Academy for its sheer audacity.
Once again, the Best Director category looks like it will be dominated by men. Richard Linklater is sure to make it in with his inventive approach to storytelling with Boyhood. And once there, he is likely to go up against heavyweights such as Bennett Miller (Foxcatcher), Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu (Birdman) and Jean-Marc Vallee (Wild). Who takes that fifth spot is anyone’s guess. Will it be filled by a woman? Angelina Jolie (Unbroken) and Ava DuVernay (Selma) will surely give the boys a run for their money. Can Fincher make it into the race for the third time? Additionally, it remains to be seen what Clint Eastwood does with American Sniper or what P.T. Anderson does with Inherent Vice. And Rob Marshall, who was nominated for Chicago, could see some love should Into the Woods shine.