With the festivals looming, we take our first stab at what the Oscar race will look like.

By Nicole Sperling
August 28, 2015 at 04:48 PM EDT
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The Academy Awards this past February were a celebration of filmmaking that pushed boundaries, including the 12-years-in-the-making Boyhood and the daring technical prowess of the Best Picture winner, Birdman. But in the end, 2014’s Oscar season was an exercise in homogeneity. No actors of color were nominated and only one film featuring a Best Actress nominee was included in the Best Picture category. Sadly, that wasn’t just an off year for women. Of the 87 films that have won Best Picture, only 13 have revolved around a central female character.

There’s some good news, though: This year’s race could signal a course correction. Most fall movies have not screened yet — and won’t until the Telluride and Toronto film festivals kick off Oscar season next month — but right now the field of potential Best Picture contenders includes at least six films featuring women in leading roles, three movies about lesbian or transgender characters, and at least two with multiethnic casts.

The current front-runner is Carol, the 1950s-set love story about a married socialite (Cate Blanchett) and a department-store clerk (Rooney Mara). Directed by Todd Haynes (Far From Heaven), the film debuted to thunderous raves at the Cannes Film Festival in May and nabbed a Best Actress prize for Mara. But Carol has at least 12 other movies on its heels, including the most ­zeitgeisty film of the year, The Danish Girl, directed by Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech). It stars recently crowned Best Actor Eddie Redmayne, as Lili Elbe, a 1920s artist believed to be the first person to have undergone gender-­confirmation surgery.

Also looking for Oscar love are Sandra Bullock’s political drama Our Brand Is Crisis; the gay-equality film Freeheld, ­starring Ellen Page and last year’s Best Actress, Julianne Moore; and Suffragette, the women’s-voting-rights tale starring Carey Mulligan and Meryl Streep. And then there’s David O. Russell’s Joy. The director’s last three films — The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook, and American Hustle — all earned Best Pic nods. This, his third outing with star Jennifer Lawrence, examines three decades in the life of an entrepreneurial woman.

If that still doesn’t seem like a sea change from last year, consider the intense Mexican-drug-trade thriller Sicario. Directed by Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners), it stars Emily Blunt as an FBI agent forced to square off against Benicio Del Toro and Josh Brolin, and it’s as brutal as anything in the male-centric segment of the Best Picture pack. Those films include Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s 19th-century action-survival tale The Revenant, starring Leonardo DiCaprio as fur-trapper/hunter Hugh Glass, and The Hateful Eight, Quentin Tarantino’s Western in which he locks seven angry men (e.g., Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt ­Russell, and Tim Roth) in a room with a captured outlaw (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and waits to see who gets out alive. Yet even those inglorious bastards may have nothing on the twisted killer and FBI informant Whitey Bulger, played by Johnny Depp in Black Mass.

Still, it’s not all blood and bullets with the boys this year. Three veteran directors examine the brainier side of man. Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire) and his star Michael Fassbender delve into the mind of the enigmatic Apple cofounder in Steve Jobs; Steven Spielberg takes on Cold War espionage in the Tom Hanks starrer Bridge of Spies; and Ridley Scott tries to rescue Matt Damon from space in The Martian.

With this crop of films, genders are bending and genres are twisting. Ultimately, Oscar voters may not be deciding between stories starring men and those starring women. They’ll be asked to select from a range of films that explore the trans­formative capacity of love, the transcendent power of intelligence, and the destructive force of violence. And that’s a much more compelling choice to make.

Related Stories

GALLERY: Exclusive looks at the season’s blockbusters and Oscar contenders

Prepare to swoon for Todd Haynes’ 1950s romance Carol

Emily Blunt finds her strength in Sicario

In Secret in Their Eyes, Julia Roberts takes on the role she (almost) disappeared into

Jennifer Lawrence on the Joy of working with David O. Russell

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