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The State of the Race: Fumbling Towards Best Picture of the Year

In one week the season will start properly, as Telluride ushers in many of the films that will likely be among the major players. Turns out both Toronto and New York will also be in play this year with big movies showing up at both those festivals. David Fincher’s highly anticipated Gone Girl will screen in New York, as will Inherent Vice. Jason Reitman’s Men, Women and Children will hit Toronto. We also have Cannes still glimmering in the background, with Mr. Turner, The Homesman and Maps to the Stars, not to mention Leviathan.

“Please make your predictions,” said GoldDerby‘s Tom O’Neil in an email this morning. “It’s too soon,” I pleaded. But Tom explained to me that this was just a brief overview, not meant to be interpreted as an exact science. There is an element to feeling like a fraud when asked to be an “expert” about that which we do not know. Indiewire’s Anne Thompson refuses to play and has only predicted five films she has already seen that she feels confident in predicting.

Similarly, our contender tracker at Awards Daily only predicts those films that have been seen, which is why you won’t find any sight-unseen predictions there.

Anne’s current Best Picture predictions
1. Boyhood
2. Foxcatcher
3. The Grand Budapest Hotel
4. Mr. Turner
5. Get on Up

By contrast, here are EW’s Thom Geier’s predictions, which look a lot more like what you see around the web at In Contention and elsewhere.

1. Unbroken
2. Boyhood
3. Into the Woods
4. Selma
5. Exodus
6. Gone Girl
7. Wild
8. Birdman
9. Foxcatcher
10. Interstellar

Even though I operate in a similar fashion as Anne does — I feel uncomfortable predicting films no one has seen, always have, always will — Tom asks me to play and I agree. David Poland will also be gathering the first set of Gurus of Gold very soon.

For Best Picture, nothing can replace honest buzz — that is, the films people see and simply love. The Artist, Slumdog Millionaire, etc. You can’t see them coming. But for the most part the Oscar selection has become so small these days, being that Hollywood is giving itself over to what they know they can sell — branded sequels and remakes, family entertainment and stuff teens likes. Oscar Island is the last holdout for thinking people, adults and seniors, as it happens.

The problem with Oscar Island is its notorious lack of diversity. Several upstarts are shaking the tree in this regard. Last year, the Weinstein Co. pushed two films by black directors — Lee Daniels and Ryan Coogler — but Oscar Island did not select them. Another of those upstarts is Ava DuVernay, who is single-handedly trying to bridge the gap between African American audiences and art house cinema. She spotted the disparity and has been trying not to bring African American material to white audiences but to bring African Americans into the world of art house cinema. That is quite a bold move considering no one has bothered to do it. We always look at it like, “how can we make white voters like films about and by black artists?”

DuVernay is making a film about the American civil rights movement called Selma. It is going to be one of the most important films of the year. I do not know whether it will be good, or to the tastemaker’s liking. I do not know if Oscar Island will accept it or not. But I see a pioneer filmmaker and a film about Martin Luther King, Jr. and I think — yeah.

Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken has the Oscar sheen sight-unseen, not just because the trailer shows promise but because it’s about World War II, a favorite genre of Oscar voters. Written by the Coen brothers and shot by the esteemed Roger Deakins, Unbroken FEELS like an “Oscar movie.”

The collaboration of David Fincher and Gillian Flynn for Gone Girl might not look like an “Oscar movie,” and it’s all the better for it. The “hard R” Fincher is one of the few remaining film directors in town who doesn’t make films for the PG-13 set. Show up with a thinking brain, a pair of balls and brave constitution or don’t show up at all. Instead of going with a typical Hollywood choice of a male screenwriter to replace and rewrite Flynn (“move over, honey, I’ll drive”) Fincher put his faith in Flynn to bring her script to the big screen. Flynn herself is someone who writes cinematically, even if this film dwells inside the heads of its character. Because of that, it needed and inventive director who is not afraid of a challenge like that, but one who invites it. Fincher, and Flynn, like to get at the truth of who we really are, not the politically correct version of who we should be, but those plain elements that motivate, inspire, haunt, irritate and frustrate us. It isn’t that Gone Girl is going to be the kind of thing Oscar voters look for. Quite the contrary, I figure. But for the few of them who still look for great filmmaking to make their choices? I suspect Fincher’s film might be a welcome change. One never knows, of course. The five nominations slots on the ballot make it harder for voters to be liberal with their choices. They tend to go with their hearts, which often makes the slate these days driven by sappy emotion as opposed to bravura filmmaking.

If you want to find Best Picture by going through the potential five directors, it seems hard to imagine Birdman not getting in there. Supposedly González Iñárritu shot this thing in long extended takes. If last year’s Alfonso Cuaron led the Oscar race with his directing, it seems to follow that Inarritu’s camera work will drive this thing, along with Michael Keaton’s performance. Like Gone Girl, this is a dark film, not a sappy one, so it will be, again, a challenge for the emotionally driven voters. It is one of a handful many are excited about and is one that could win the whole thing.

The Imitation Game has the Weinstein Co. behind it, is about World War II and already has good word of mouth — that makes it seem like a safe bet this early. With a solid performance by Benedict Cumberbatch, it could one of the strongest to win.

J.C. Chandor’s A Most Violent Year is a mystery but given his dedication to never making the same kind of film twice, I’m just tossing out this film as a potential one to watch. But no one knows anything about it yet. It has a strong cast, to be sure, but other than that it’s all been very very quiet.

Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper is crashing this year’s Oscar race and could Million Dollar Baby itself to a win. The film is based on a true story about a sniper who then was shot at a firing range, of all places. If you’re looking to find a sight-unseen Oscar movie, look no further than Clint Eastwood.

The Homesman has two advantages heading into the race. First, that it is full of popular actors. Meryl Streep, Miranda Otto, and above all, Hilary Swank. This is a film about women on the prairie and about mental health. It is a stark, unflinching film about how the west was won, what it took, what it did, the legacy we left behind. Tommy Lee Jones is not a director who is interested in sugar coating anything. This is a tragedy, one that we probably have not completely addressed. The other advantage it has is that it’s currently being underestimated by the tastemakers because of one scene involving Hilary Swank. Thing is, last time I checked we were all adults, right? Why must everything be softened? Oh, right, because Oscar voters are sentimental wimps — too old to remember what great art can do.

There are so many possibilities this year, with a wide open Best Picture race, at least so far. It is probably kind of fun to see how perceptions are shaped, and where the race goes from here.

Films I’ve Seen:
The Homesman

Films I haven’t seen:
Gone Girl
American Sniper
The Imitation Game
A Most Violent Year

I had to keep the list down to ten but there are so many other films on my radar right now:

Inherent Vice
Men, Women & Children
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Mr. Turner
Get on Up
The Theory of Everything
The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby
Into the Woods

But we only get ten slots this time around. These ten will likely shift greatly by the end. Last year, my predictions at this stage were abysmal, though I top everyone here with 5 correct predictions compared to 4 on Gold Derby and anyone else except Susan Wloszczyna. If I had put Her on there I would have had 6. Oh well!

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Check out preliminary predictions in all of the major categories at Gold Derby.