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PrizeFighter: Rise of the Oscar contenders

In the wake of film festivals at Venice, Telluride, and Toronto, these movies and actors have surged to the front of the Academy Awards pack. But can they keep their momentum?

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At this time last year, Birdman had already cut a wide swath through the Oscar field, debuting to rave reviews at both the Venice and Telluride film festivals and cementing its status as one of the frontrunners in the Best Picture race. This go-around, several films and performances have buoyed themselves with consistent buzz and enthusiastic festival accolades that could carry them within reach of the Academy Awards stage next February.

BEST PICTURE

Child soldiers. Suburban kidnapping. Pedophile priests. Transgender identities. One thing’s for sure, the 2015 race isn’t for the faint of heart. From director Cary Fukunaga’s harrowing look at the loss of innocence during war in Beasts of No Nation to Lenny Abrahamson’s adaptation of the devastating novel Room to Spotlight, Tom McCarthy’s examination of the Boston Globe reporters who uncovered the molestation scandal within the Catholic Church, the festivals’ best-reviewed films are substantive, investigative, and downright brutal. Even lyrically fashioned films such as Todd Haynes’ Carol and Tom Hooper’s The Danish Girl are nuanced portraits of deep longing. Perhaps the biggest surprise of the circuit has been Charlie Kaufman’s stopmotion-animated Anomalisa, a meditation on love and humanity. It may feature puppets, but it’s as heavy as all the rest. In fact, the most uplifting contender this year may be about a man left for dead on a distant planet. The Martian, Ridley Scott’s rousing crowd-pleaser starring Matt Damon as a wry botanist trapped on Mars, balances suspense with humor and emotional gravity. 

BEST ACTRESS

Contenders:

Cate Blanchett, Carol

Emily Blunt, Sicario

Sandra Bullock, Our Brand is Crisis

Brie Larson, Room

Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl

Kate Winslet, Steve Jobs

Speaking of Gravity, Sandra Bullock is back — as the lead in Our Brand Is Crisis — playing a part originally written for a man: a political operative charged with getting a former Bolivian president re-elected. Similar to Emily Blunt in Sicario, Bullock unveils layers as she spars with men in various positions of power. Indeed, inner strength is a theme among the actress hopefuls this year. Alicia Vikander plays the dauntless yet vulnerable partner to her husband (Eddie Redmayne) as he transitions to a woman in The Danish Girl. Brie Larson fiercely fights to free her son, and herself, in Room, while Cate Blanchett’s character is forced to make dire concessions to her own heart in hopes of holding on to her child in Carol. The quirk of the female acting races this year is how many of the performances could land in either the lead or supporting category. The Weinstein Co. will campaign for Blanchett’s co-lead, Rooney Mara, in supporting to give them both better shots at winning. The same fate may await Vikander, who should get a lead nomination yet may end up in the less-crowded supporting slot with Kate Winslet, who is really the female lead, and moral compass, in Steve Jobs

BEST ACTOR

Contenders:

Abraham Attah, Beasts of No Nation

Matt Damon, The Martian

Joel Edgerton, Black Mass

Michael Fassbender, Steve Jobs

Eddie Redmayne, The Danish Girl

Jacob Tremblay, Room

The actor race, by contrast, is far more open. Eddie Redmayne will almost certainly earn a second consecutive nod for his emotionally effecting transformation in The Danish Girl. He’ll likely be joined by Michael Fassbender for his role as the aloof, complicated Apple cofounder in Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs. Whether Johnny Depp makes it in for his turn as Whitey Bulger in Scott Cooper’s Black Mass now seems like a toss-up, but his costar Joel Edgerton might be headed for his first nom. What’s most remarkable, though, is that the upcoming Oscars could feature two child actors in the Best Actor race. That’s never happened before — and no boy has ever won in this category — but both 8-year-old Jacob Tremblay in Room and 15-year-old Abraham Attah in Beasts have emerged from the festivals with critics and audiences raving. Which is right where you want to be, even after puberty. 

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