Contender Tracker

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The race for Best Actor this year already feels full and the season has not yet even begun. The big names crowding the race already include Leonardo DiCaprio for The Revenant, Johnny Depp for Black Mass, Eddie Redmayne for The Danish Girl, Bryan Cranston for Trumbo, Idris Elba for Beasts of No Nation, Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel for Youth, Joseph Gordon Levitt for Snowden and/or The Walk, Michael Fassbender for Steve Jobs, Tom Hank for Bridge of Spies, Tom Hardy for Legend, Michael Keaton or Mark Ruffalo from Spotlight, Jake Gyllenhaal for Southpaw, Ethan Hawke for Regression, Tobey Maguire in Pawn Sacrifice, Matt Damon in The Martian, Bradley Cooper for Adam Jones and these are just the ones we know about. There could be many more that aren’t front and center that could definitely reshape how we see the race in coming months.

Still we would be remiss if we walked by Ian McKellen’s astonishing portrayal of Sherlock Holmes in Bill Condon’s Mr. Holmes. There is virtually no buzz thus far for this great performance and the only reason for that is that everyone is aware of the impossibly crowded Best Actor race. Remember, though, many of these prospects are sight unseen films, and no one really knows how things will wind up by year’s end.

AO Scott writing about McKellen:

The film’s plots are soft and flimsy, and they don’t mesh as gracefully as they might, but they do serve as an adequate trellis for Mr. McKellen’s performance, which is gratifyingly but unsurprisingly wonderful. With his craggy visage and papery diction, his Holmes is a study in wry, intellectual charisma. Anachronistic as it might be, it isn’t hard to imagine Benedict Cumberbatch, the kinetic, intensely focused Sherlock of the BBC series, aging into this mellow codger. (The same can’t be said for the smirky action-hero version played by Robert Downey Jr. in Guy Ritchie’s tedious franchise.)

You might also detect some kinship between Holmes and Magneto, Mr. McKellen’s mutant in the “X-Men” movies, whose genius is filtered through rage and resentment. Not that Holmes is angry, though he does now and then betray a flicker of impatience. He is, however, very much a man of feeling as well as a creature of reason, and the suggestions of buried emotion that can sometimes be detected between the coolly logical lines of Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories are brought to rich life here.

The film suggests that there is much about Sherlock Holmes that his fans don’t know. Its most ingenious conceit is that the real man has grown old alongside his legend, slipping into theaters to watch movies made about his exaggerated exploits and gently correcting some of Watson’s fabrications. A long retirement has humanized him, and the specific longings and regrets chronicled in “Mr. Holmes” might constitute only a partial list.

That at least, is the tantalizing possibility implicit in Mr. McKellen’s whispered reminiscences and slow, graceful movements: that beyond the potted vignettes we are witnessing lies the untold story of a great, complex soul, a man more mysterious than any of the crimes he is supposed to have solved.

Review after review cites McKellen’s mesmerizing work as the aging and melancholy Holmes, even if the film overall is being met with less enthusiastic response. McKellen has, unbelievably, never won an Oscar. He is beloved within the industry, however, and received a standing ovation when the film screened for the Academy.

Although McKellen certainly qualifies for the “gold watch” slot we need to remember he’ll be competing with three other veterans — Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel in Youth, along with Robert Redford in Truth. Long shot or not, McKellen’s work deserves to be noted and appreciated. Whether he makes it into the winner’s circle or whether his performance becomes yet another warmly-regarded role we talk about in reflecting upon his impeccable career, one thing we know for sure: McKellen is indeed one of our very best actors whose enduring gift to the movies has yet to be recognized at the Oscars.

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Oh man, I can’t wait for this film. It gave me chills up and down my spine watching the trailer. It also appears as though someone is really using Brie Larson to full capacity finally. She’s mostly been cast so far in supporting parts that waste what this girl can really do. She is so talented, so willing to go there emotionally and in every other way. Take a look at Room, which is likely headed to Telluride and will probably put Larson in the league with the other (short list) of women for this year’s Best Actress race:

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I’ve spent twenty years online. I was on the internet before there was really a working web. There are things about it I understand and things I don’t. I will never snapchat and it took me a while to figure what memes were and how they figured into daily life. One thing I really never got or ever became immersed in was the internet’s obsession with Leonardo DiCaprio winning an Oscar. My teenage daughter doesn’t know much about who deserves to win Oscars but she knows “everyone” thinks Leonardo DiCaprio should have by now.

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The obsession ranges from “Leo wants an Oscar bad” to “Leo should WIN AN OSCAR NOW.” There is a parasite twin meme about Leo dying in movies. Why this sprang up, how it was birthed, how it became a “thing” is something I cannot explain. I will not pretend to understand it but I do see that it’s there. Each time Leo comes up for Oscar consideration the whole thing is whipped up again and with the Revenant the movement is going to reach a fever pitch.

Why hasn’t Leo ever won an Oscar?  Gold Derby’s Tom O’Neil would say he suffers from “pretty boy syndrome.” The middle-aged men in the Academy do not respect pretty boys. Whether there is resentment or jealousy or whether they think they are just getting by on their looks, what benefits good looking women in the Oscar race often does not benefit men.

DiCaprio did not start out his career as a pretty boy. He started out as a respected character actor earning his first nomination in the supporting category for What’s Eating Gilbert Grape in 1993.  In typical inexplicable Academy fashion, they gave Tommy Lee Jones an Oscar for phoning it in because they liked him and his character so much.

Still, DiCaprio was an instant sensation but not yet beloved as a matinee idol. That ship would sail and then crash into the iceberg with Titanic in 1997, although one could argue the seeds were most certainly planted with Romeo + Juliet (le sigh). Once he starred in Titanic that was it. He was redubbed as an icon.

That Titanic was a worldwide sensation and DiCaprio suddenly the object of every woman’s eye didn’t stop him from continuing to stretch as an actor and would, in fact, deliver sensational performances. His Oscar zone would begin in earnest  starting in 2002 when he worked with Martin Scorsese for the first time in Gangs of New York. DiCaprio was noticed for his work but he was yet to fully transform as he had done with Gilbert Grape. The Titanic bombshell put him in a different category where transformation was mostly discarded in lieu of leading man status. That would change with The Aviator, for which he received his second Oscar nomination and his first leading actor nod.

It was too early for DiCaprio to take it that year. The Aviator had entered the race (I remember because I was around and advocating for it hard back then) as the favorite before Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby strolled in at the last minute and took the Oscar. It was nominated in a staggering 11 categories and won five Oscars. Jamie Foxx won for a physically transformative performance with Ray. He was working the publicity circuit, and virtually became Ray Charles. At the end of the day, Charles was a more likable character than Howard Hughes. It was clear at that time the Academy wanted to reward Scorsese when The Aviator did so well with the Academy. They’d already given Gangs of New York ten nominations but it was ultimately poorly received.  They needed the right movie. They would get it the next time DiCaprio worked with Scorsese with The Departed.

DiCaprio is quietly the best performance in The Departed and that’s saying a lot. The reason he was not nominated for The Departed was because he WAS nominated for Blood Diamond. In both films he did two different accents. He could not have received two nominations and it’s always struck me as strange that he was nominated for Blood Diamond over The Departed. His competition was:

Forest Whitaker for Last King of Scotland – winner
Ryan Gosling for Half Nelson
Will Smith for The Pursuit of Happiness
Peter O’Toole for Venus

Nobody could have beaten Whitaker that year.  It was just one of those undeniable, too big ignore works. DiCaprio, I don’t think, was any competition for him, especially not in Blood Diamond.

And then DiCaprio would give a string of jaw-droppingly great performances, each one different from the next. He went deeper with each one. He was ignored for all of them:

Revolutionary Road – as an emptied out husband his grief was palpable. Insane wife.
Shutter Island – losing his grip on reality, seeing ghosts. Insane wife.
Inception – the scenes with Marion Cotillard were exceptional. Insane wife.
J. Edgar – he gained weight and used a lot of makeup to completely transform.
Django Unchained – a funny supporting turn unfortunately upstaged by the should-have-been-lead Christoph Waltz
The Great Gatsby – maybe the movie was a mess but DiCaprio was, as usual, beyond great.

By the time he works with Martin Scorsese again it’s for the sublime Wolf of Wall Street. After J. Edgar was ignored, DiCaprio seemed to relax as an actor and once again evolved with his masterful, iconic performance as Jordan Belfort. Finally, the Academy did recognize this work as it really was too big to ignore. Alas, he would not win for this because it was the year Matthew McConaughey lost 40 pounds to play a man dying from AIDS.

There was a bit of noise online that DiCaprio might finally pull a win for Wolf of Wall Street but the Academy was never going to turn down a hero who saved hundreds of lives for a guy who put a candlestick in his ass.

Well now we come to The Revenant. The film won’t come out until the end of the year. By then, we should have a good idea of the kind of competition we’re talking about in that category. DiCaprio, I can tell you, will be at the top of the lists — not to mention the kind of transformative work he’ll have to do for a movie about a man who barely survives in the wilderness and is attacked by bears and native Americans. It should be a showcase work, a performance for the ages – much like almost every other performance he’s ever given.

What’s it going to take? It’s going to take a year where there isn’t one they “like” better. Winning an Oscar has to be a perfect storm of events all swirling around a right here, right now moment. Popularity, publicity, likability — all of those things come into play. The mostly shy DiCaprio who is richer than fuck and busy saving the planet might not want to kiss babies, which is what you need to do to win.

We here at Awards Daily do hereby proclaim that yes, internet, you are right about one thing: Leonardo DiCaprio should have won an Oscar by now. I think you’re wrong that he gives a shit. His concerns are so much bigger than a little gold statue to put on the mantle.

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While cracking the acting categories is tough, there is some wiggle room in the screenplay category. The publicity team behind Bridesmaids helped secure that nomination for Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo, even if seeing any female writers in the Oscar conversation is still far too rare. All you have to do is remember back a year when Gillian Flynn was honored with more precursor nominations than any writer in history, and to then NOT get an Oscar nomination. BAFTA, WGA, even the Globes. But the Academy? Whiplash was supposed to have gone in the original screenplay category. The Academy changed the rule and it had to then vie for adapted. There was no way they were going to bump THAT movie so of course Gone Girl got the ax. How do we know this? We follow patterns that are rarely broken, especially when it comes to nominations. Sure, it happens sometimes but has never happened in the adapted screenplay category, to get that many nominations and miss out on an Oscar nod.

But Amy Schumer has an advantage heading into this race — she doesn’t make men feel like their balls are curling back up. She actually makes them feel kind of good. More than that, though, her script is FUNNY. It’s well written. Add to that her success with the viral videos of late puts her in strong contention for a nomination at least.

Comedy, though, is traditionally left out of the Oscars — they can barely handle satire, especially black satire. We will be beating the Amy Schumer drum throughout the year and given the lack of women writers in the race overall, she should fare well.

Abi Morgan will be on the contenders for Suffragette. Early favorite in the adapted category is Phyllis Nagy for Carol. Marielle Heller could get a nod for adapting Diary of a Teenage Girl. Lucinda Coxon for The Danish Girl. Angelina Jolie for By the Sea. Meg LeFauve, Josh Cooley, Pete Docter for Inside Out. Mistress America by Noah Baumbach, Greta Gerwig. Ricki & The Flash by Diablo Cody.

 Other than that, though? To find the early contenders you might have to look at the films that could be headed for Best Picture. Of course, we’ve a long way to go on that score but last year seven out of ten of the screenplay nominees were also Best Picture nominees and ALL those were written by men.

Strong Best Picture contenders on paper

Youth – Paolo Sorrentino*
Silence – Jay Cocks*
Steve Jobs – Aaron Sorkin*
The Revenant – Alejandro G. Inarritu, Mark L. Smith
Trumbo (November) – John McNamara
Crimson Peak -Guillermo Del Toro, Matthew Robbins
Bridge of Spies (October) Joel and Ethan Coen, Matt Charman
Joy – (December) David O. Russell*
Snowden (December) – Kieran Fitzgerald, Oliver Stone*
Black Mass – Mark Mallouk, Jez Butterworth
The Walk (October) – Robert Zemeckis, Christopher Browne
The Force Awakens (December) – JJ Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan, George Lucas*
Brooklyn 
– Nick Hornby*

Also to be considered: 

Love & Mercy – Oren Moverman, Michael A. Lerner
Pawn Sacrifice – Steven Knight*
Legend – Brian Helgeland*
Sicario – Taylor Sheridan 
Midnight Special (November) – Jeff Nichols*
Regression – Alejandro Amenábar*
The Martian (November) – Drew Goddard
In the Heart of the Sea (December) – Charles Leavitt
Concussion  (December) – Peter Landesman
Spotlight – Tom McCarthy, Josh Singer

Outside the Best Picture category but might be considered for screenplay:

The End of the Tour – Donald Margulies
Dope – Rick Famuyiwa
The Lady in the Van – Alan Bennett

*potentially nominated on name recognition alone. 

Andrew Garfield in Silence

There has been some confusion as to whether Martin Scorsese’s Silence will be ready to screen in time for this year’s Oscars. It, like Wolf of Wall Street, might just make it under the wire. Scorsese’s film is based on the Shusaku Endo novel about two Jesuit priests who try to bring Christianity to 17th century Japan. The film has been on the back burner for Scorsese starting back in 2009. It was filmed this year with Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver and Liam Neeson. The script was adapted by Jay Cocks.  Jeff Wells has been ruminating on whether the film would be released this year and seemed to get his confirmation of that from David Poland of Movie City News. There is no official confirmation yet, as far as I’ve heard, only speculation. But, if it comes to pass, that might mean a year with Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg potentially IN THE HOUSE as they were in 2011 with Hugo and War Horse.  Yeah, so like not a big deal or anything. Just two of the greatest directors OF ALL TIME.

Cinematography: Rodrigo Prieto
Editing: Thelma Schoonmaker
Production Design: Dante Ferretti
Music: Howard Shore

In other words, an Oscar joint up one side and down the other. From 2002 to 2013 every Scorsese film he’s made has been nominated for Best Picture except Shutter Island (which should have been).

Here is the plot summary from Wikipedia, with many details that will certainly constitute spoilers for anyone not already familiar with a book published nearly 50 years ago:

Young Portuguese Jesuit, Sebastião Rodrigues (based on the historical figure Giuseppe Chiara) is sent to Japan to succor the local Church and investigate reports that his mentor, a Jesuit priest in Japan named Ferreira, based on Cristóvão Ferreira, has committed apostasy. Half of the book is the written journal of Rodrigues, while the other half of the book is written either in the third person, or in the letters of others associated with the narrative. The novel relates the trials of Christians and the increasing hardship suffered by Rodrigues.

Fr. Rodrigues and his companion Fr. Francisco Garrpe arrive in Japan in 1639. There they find the local Christian population driven underground. To ferret out hidden Christians, Security officials force suspected Christians to trample on a fumie, a crudely carved image of Christ. Those who refuse are imprisoned and killed by anazuri (穴吊り), which is by being hung upside down over a pit and slowly bled.

Rodrigues and Garrpe are eventually captured and forced to watch as Japanese Christians lay down their lives for the faith. There is no glory in these martyrdoms, as Rodrigues had always imagined – only brutality and cruelty. Prior to the arrival of Rodrigues, the authorities had been attempting to force priests to renounce their faith by torturing them. Beginning with Fr. Ferreira, they torture other Christians as the priests look on, telling the priests that all they must do is renounce their faith in order to end the suffering of their flock.

Rodrigues’ journal depicts his struggles: he understands suffering for the sake of one’s own faith; but he struggles over whether it is self-centered and unmerciful to refuse to recant when doing so will end another’s suffering. At the climactic moment, Rodrigues hears the moans of those who have recanted but are to remain in the pit until he tramples the image of Christ. As Rodrigues looks upon a fumie, Christ breaks his silence:

“Trample! Trample! I more than anyone know of the pain in your foot. Trample! It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world. It was to share men’s pain that I carried my cross.”

Rodrigues obeys, and the Christians are released.

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Much of the work women find in film these days isn’t in lead, but in supporting, certainly in the movies that are most often considered for Best Picture. Both Boyhood and Birdman featured women in supporting, rather than leading, roles. The woman around the man, the woman behind the man, the woman underneath the man, the woman confronting the man, the woman seducing the man, the woman raising the man, the woman marrying the man. This is where so many filmmakers feel comfortable putting women. The problem gets worse when female characters are required to “always be good” in films, always portrayed in a positive light to right the wrongs our culture has imposed upon women. Just look at the fuss over Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl. Women must never be portrayed as bitches even though so many are (Yours Truly wears the badge proudly). If women are not given the same freedom as men to play failures, cunts, murderers, presidents, inventors – how then are they to be portrayed? Well, as supporting characters.

If you go back to the films of the 1930s and 1940s and even into the 1950s and 1960s you will find the most glorious portrayals of “bad women,” particularly in the pre-code days. Who wants to see movies become a book of etiquette for “good women” because that makes it 1) unrealistic, and 2) boring. Can you imagine if Terms of Endearment were out now, the kind of lengthy think pieces that would be written about both characters in terms of whether Aurora was a stereotype or Emma was a stereotype — there would have been no room for the film to simply exist and breathe on its own without a town meeting on whether or not they were portrayed correctly. Of course, there are reasonable complaints – black women always playing maids, for instance. Women always playing hookers with hearts of gold. Women represented as moist cuts of meat on a platter every time the camera hits them. These things are to be avoided at all costs and do not factor in when we’re talking about diverse portrayals. If you’re seeing it everywhere all of the time chances are that isn’t an example of under-representation. But when a film comes along where the female is complicated and strange, evil or even bitchy, that doesn’t immediately mean it should all be flushed down the toilet because it’s painting women in the wrong light.

This issue will not likely come into play much this year – as there won’t be that many female performances to choose from (as usual) in the leading categories. The supporting categories always offer up more freedom for women to play lots of different types of characters. Already the category is full up with great performances. There will no doubt be a long list as you can match the many lead male performances almost always with a corresponding female supporting performance.

One of the most surprising things that happened this year was that Kristen Stewart became the first American actress to win the Cesar for Supporting Actress. Surprising because the French don’t give out those awards to us Americans — never before, in the 40-year history of the Cesar. In one of the strongest turns for women overall, Stewart shines opposite Juliette Binoche in The Clouds of Sils Maria, one of the few films to examine the complicated relationships between women. Stewart is brilliant as the assistant who is plugged into the modern world helping to protect the aging (and self-involved) actress she works for. She represents integrity in an industry that has mostly forsaken it. The two actresses dig deeply into the play within a play, working out the stage relationship between the characters which then reflects on their own relationship. Stewart must therefore be considered among the strongest contenders at the moment for Best Supporting Actress.

Right up there with her is Elizabeth Banks in Love & Mercy. In what really could be considered a leading role (and might very well turn out to be), Banks holds her own in a film that features two bravura performances by Paul Dano and John Cusack. But don’t take my word for it, read this lovely David Thomson tribute at Thompson on Hollywood about Banks:

“Love & Mercy” is an old-fashioned film, I know, about a woman saving a troubled man, not simply because she loves him, or likes his music, but because she possesses a nuanced detailed power of sympathy that waits for someone who needs rescue and who has taken up the odd challenge of selling Cadillacs as a way of finding him. There is something of Doris Day with Sinatra in “Young at Heart” here, or of Elisabeth Shue with Nicolas Cage in “Leaving Las Vegas.” We are not accustomed to such generosity, or to stories that place so much value in love or such belief in rescue.

Melinda could have been a sentimental stooge. She could have been a mere sexpot or a bimbo. But she has the moral force of Cary Grant saving Ingrid Bergman in “Notorious,” and it comes from the assurance with which Pohlad knows he only needs to photograph Melinda’s face thinking about Brian and the fairytale ordeal in which she must overcome the dread spirit of Eugene Landy. Her scenes are with Cusack (who is brilliant) and the chemistry in which their two ardent but wounded and uncertain faces dip closer together is deeply touching.

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The Sorrentino film Youth delivers two powerhouse supporting performances, both by previous Oscar winners. Rachel Weisz, who plays Michael Caine’s daughter and Jane Fonda in one long “holy fuck” scene that ought to get recognition, or at least attention. Weisz is also in The Lobster and fantastic in it, of course. Fonda can be seen in the Netflix series Grace & Frankie. Fonda is once again defying the notions of what it means to be an actress closing in on 80, much like Katharine Hepburn did. While Fonda wants to be seen not as an old woman but as a vital woman still. At the same time, as Youth proves, she isn’t afraid of looking “ugly.” Probably it’s this aspect of her performance that might get her the most attention. It is also what she says about the business that will turn heads. She may obliterate Weisz but Weisz has the much bigger part. Youth has yet to screen for critics or run the fest circuit so its fate is still up in the air.

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Speaking of up in the air, it’s difficult to know whether Rooney Mara will be put in supporting for her work in Carol or put in lead. Since the Best Actress race is traditionally “thin” these days it makes sense to put Mara in lead. But if she’s put in supporting, she has a better chance to actually win the prize, which she very well may do. It is unlikely she would win in lead with Blanchett alongside her splitting that vote.

What other performances are coming up that might get some attention? Well, look for Best Picture contenders and work your way back from there. Many of them are just too mysterious at this point to know which performance might be “the one.”

Amy Ryan in Bridge of Spies
Jennifer Jason Leigh in Hateful 8 (lead or supporting?)
Melissa Leo/Shailene Woodley in Snowden
Jessica Chastain in The Martian (lead of supporting?)
Olivia Wilde, Nicole Beharie, Hailee Steinfeld in The Keeping Room (which is lead and which are supporting?)
Helena Bonham Carter, Anne-Marie Duff, Meryl Streep in Suffragette (but probably Duff)
Emma Thompson, Sienna Miller in Adam Jones
Ellen Page or Julianne Moore for Freeheld
Keira Knightley for Everest
Rachel McAdams in Southpaw
Kristin Wiig in Diary of a Teenage Girl
Diane Lane, Ella Fanning, Helen Mirren in Trumbo
Mamie Gummer in Ricki and the Flash

Right now, this category is mostly a mystery, but for a few slots that could be filled right now. If Rooney Mara goes supporting she’ll be the biggest threat to win (at the moment anyway).

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The year is beginning with promise, as the years almost always do, because the movies that are released now star women. The “Oscar movies,” as such, star men. That is how we find ourselves in this crazy predicament where the Oscar race for Best Picture is often defined as:

Men doing important things (The King’s Speech).
Men failing at attempting to do important things (Birdman).
Men doing things (every other movie in the race).

Many of these early released films that feature women don’t factor in to the Best Picture race the way things are now because voters only have five slots to nominate Best Picture and those five slots usually go to male-driven films but for an occasional exception like Gravity, Philomena or Zero Dark Thirty here or there.

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First up for Best Actress are the two lead roles some of us have already seen, Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett from Carol. Mara picked up the Best Actress prize in Cannes but it seems likely both actresses could find themselves hovering within sight of a Best Actress nomination. It would be better for the chances, though, to separate them as lead and supporting. In supporting, Mara might actually have a chance at the win. One of the marvels of Carol is how much director Todd Haynes’ spends on the internal worlds of these women before cutting straight to the sex stuff. In fact, the sex isn’t the main course at all, as might be the temptation here. Other things about these partners matter so much more as we watch them fall in love. It isn’t so much an uncorking of eroticism as it is a discovery of who they are. That, of course, inadvertently makes it all the more erotic. Either way, both women are given a full range of emotional expression here.

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The third strong Best Actress contender right now has to be Charlize Theron in Mad Max: Fury Road. Although not your traditional “Oscar performance,” Theron has the benefit of creating one of the most iconic females in action films along the lines of Sigourney Weaver in Alien. To my mind, Theron’s is one of the year’s standouts but we know our pesky actors branch will likely go for the more “important” or “serious” fare. Either way, she’s on the list at the moment before any of the other movies roll out.

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There are two films about women right now that could be headed for Best Actress at least if not Best Picture. One is Suffragette and the other is Joy. Joy seems the more likely, sight unseen, because David O. Russell when paired with Jennifer Lawrence have an impressive batting average — three nominations for Picture three years in a row. And still no win.

Lawrence should top any early Oscar predictions but she is already an Oscar winner. Hilary Swank and Jodie Foster are two actresses who earned lead acting wins fairly close together but for someone as young as Lawrence it would be a rare feat. Even still, you can bet with Best Picture heat driving the thing (unless it’s terrible), Lawrence will be prominent this year.

Carey Mulligan is another actress who has earned Oscar cred with so many brilliant performances already under her belt. She has Far From the Madding Crowd already this year but seems to be the real juice of Suffragette, at least in the trailer:

And look, it’s great women doing great things. Whoda thunk it? Suffragette is directed by Sarah Gavron who has directed one feature and co-directed a documentary. Hey, you have to start somewhere, right? It’s written by Abi Morgan who wrote the Invisible Woman and The Iron Lady. The best thing it has going for it, other than coming out at a time when our country might see its first female president, is what will be a significant push by Focus Features.

David O. Russell’s Joy puts a woman at the center for the first time in the director’s career. It’s no shock that it’s Jennifer Lawrence who has worked well with Russell since Silver Linings Playbook. Joy tells the story of Joy Mangano, the single mother of three who invented the Miracle Mop. It will likely be high satire, as co-written by Russell and Bridesmaids’ co-writer Annie Mumolo.

Two French actresses find themselves hovering in the Best Actress arena and both are already previous Oscar winners – Juliette Binoche for Clouds of Sils Maria and Marion Cotillard for MacBeth. It is unlikely that both will get in but both are certainly worth taking seriously.

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It could also be a year for four strong veteran actresses to launch into the race, including Helen Mirren for the box-office surprise hit Woman in Gold, Lily Tomlin in Grandma, Charlotte Rampling in 45 Years and Maggie Smith in the Lady in the Van. Of those, my gut tells me that Smith will have the advantage. But no predictions can be made until the films are seen, of course.

Meryl Streep will have a shot at her 20th Oscar nomination with the Jonathan Demme/Diablo Cody joint Ricki and the Flash where Streep will play a has-been rock n’ roller trying to have a second shot at motherhood. Streep always delivers; thus, she’s a force to be reckoned with whenever she stars in a film.

These are Anne Thompson’s current predictions for Best Actress — factoring in only films that she herself has seen:

Performance by an actress in a leading role
Frontrunners:
Cate Blanchett (“Carol”)
Rooney Mara (“Carol”)
Helen Mirren (“Woman in Gold”)
Bel Powley (“Diary of a Teenage Girl”)
Lily Tomlin (“Grandma”)

Contenders (plus films she hasn’t seen):
Juliette Binoche (“Clouds of Sils Maria”)
Marion Cotillard (“Macbeth”)
Greta Gerwig (“Mistress America”)
Jennifer Lawrence (“Joy”)
Carey Mulligan (“Far from the Madding Crowd,” “Suffragette”)
Charlotte Rampling (“45 Years”)
Maggie Smith (“The Lady in the Van”)
Alicia Vikander (“Tulip Fever,” “The Danish Girl”)

Thompson is floating Bel Powley for Diary of a Teenage Girl. Viola Davis is starring in Lila & Eve alongside Jennifer Lopez about two women pursuing justice outside the law. I don’t know about you but, Oscars or not, I can’t WAIT for this one.

Other names on the fringe besides those mentioned here include Vikander also for Ex Machina, Rinko Kikuchi for Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter. Greta Gerwig stars in Mistress America, another madcap goofball performance by Gerwig which may or may not capture the attention of voters. Z for Zachariah stars Margot Robbie as “a young woman who survives on her own, fearing she may actually be the proverbial last woman on earth, until she discovers the most astonishing sight of her life: another human being.”

Mia Wasikowska stars in Guillermo Del Toro’s Crimson Peak about “an aspiring author who is torn between love for her childhood friend and the temptation of a mysterious outsider. Trying to escape the ghosts of her past, she is swept away to a house that breathes, bleeds…and remembers.” Saorse Ronan stars in Brooklyn, which was already seen at Cannes. Anne Thompson presumably saw the film but does not list Ronan on her predictions.

Patricia Clarkson will star in Learning to Drive in which she plays a woman learning to drive with teacher Ben Kingsley. Already seen is Emily Blunt in Sicario starring opposite Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro. A strong performance from Blunt is likely, but we will have to wait on the reviews to see how far she can go with it.

Casualties of the year thus far (killed by the critics) include Emma Thompson for Effie Gray and Jennifer Connelly for Aloft, Kate Winslet for A Little Chaos.

Choosing five Best Actress contenders won’t be that hard as the months roll along. It is about the performance but it is also about the friendships and alliances in Hollywood, as with any other category. It is about publicity and it is about buzz and backlash. How annoying was last year’s epic fail of critics who pounced on Jennifer Aniston’s dramatic turn in Cake. They blamed her for being a successful movie star who dared to help produce a film to star in that would showcase her range. This is really what almost every actress in Hollywood must do to not only work but to get any attention whatsoever for their work.

More and more actresses from other countries are obliterating American actresses who seem to either lack the prestige factor or are discarded as the next fresh new face comes along. The critics, though, felt the need to bolster Marion Cotillard once work got out of an imaginary controversy involving Harvey Weinstein and the film The Immigrants. A mini revolution was held and the critics stubbornly pushed Cotillard and shat on Aniston. Cotillard, as you can see from this year or any other doesn’t have a hard time getting roles. She works because she’s absolutely great and deserves all of the praise and success she has coming. But. It’s harder for actresses over here in America to get the same kind of cred as Cotillard does from critics. The role in 2 Days and 1 night was better than Aniston’s role in Cake but I don’t think Cotillard’s work towered over Aniston’s. So color me unimpressed with that shit show went down last year.

If I had to pluck five names out of a hat based on what I know about how the race works and a vague sense of what some of these films might be I’d go with these five names:

Cate Blanchett, Carol
Rooney Mara, Carol (but she might go supporting)
Carey Mulligan, Suffragette
Jennifer Lawrence, Joy
Meryl Streep, Ricki and the Flash
Alts. Charlize Theron for Mad Max, Lily Tomlin in Grandma, Maggie Smith, the Lady in the Van

That’s just spitting in the wind, of course. There is no real way to tell how the race might go as there are months and months left.

Next up, the Supporting Categories.

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One film directed by a woman has entered the talk for Best Picture all because Anne Thompson has put herself behind it. She’s going it alone, as far as I can tell, but she did the very same thing last year with the Grand Budapest Hotel. Virtually everyone in the Oscar punditry world did not think it had the stuff to last through to the end of the year. She did and it did.  Now she has Diary of a Teenage Girl listed not just for frontrunner status but for Best Actress as well.

Thompson does not predict films she hasn’t seen but instead puts them in the contender categories. That’s why Jennifer Lawrence, a near slam dunk for Joy, is listed as a contender and not a frontrunner. She does this in opposition to the majority of pundits online.  Here is her Best Picture frontrunner list at the moment:

Best motion picture of the year
Frontrunners: 
“Carol”
“The Diary of a Teenage Girl”
“Inside Out”
“Love & Mercy”
“Mad Max: Fury Road”

Contenders:
“Bridge of Spies”
“Clouds of Sils Maria”
“The Danish Girl”
“The Hateful Eight”
“Joy”
“The Martian”
“The Revenant”
“Son of Saul”
“Suffragette”
“Trumbo”
“The Walk”

And for directing she has:

Achievement in directing
Frontrunners:
Olivier Assayas (“Clouds of Sils Maria”)
Pete Docter and Ronaldo del Carmen (“Inside Out”)
Todd Haynes (“Carol”)
Marielle Heller (“Diary of a Teenage Girl”)
George Miller (“Mad Max: Fury Road”)

Contenders: 
Danny Boyle (“Steve Jobs”)
John Crowley (“Brooklyn”)
Sarah Gavron (“Suffragette”)
Tom Hooper (“The Danish Girl”)
Jay Roach (“Trumbo”)
David O. Russell (“Joy”)
Ridley Scott (“The Martian”)
Steven Spielberg (“Bridge of Spies”)
Quentin Tarantino (“The Hard Eight”)
Bob Zemeckis (“The Walk”)

Probably none of her frontrunners in this category will get in. I’d be willing to bet money on it. But nonetheless, it’s heartening to see two names popping up here from the female side — Marielle Heller for Diary of a Teenage Girl and Sarah Gavron for Suffragette.

Diary of a Teenage Girl has six positive reviews on Metacritic, though none of them, at least so far, hit the 100 mark. There is still hope for it, particularly with Thompson putting her chips behind it this early.

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These days, when looking for Best Actor, follow Best Picture. Or rather, when looking for Best Picture, follow Best Actor.  For most of the past twenty years, but mostly since Oscar changed up to more than five nominees for Best Picture, Best Actor has been tied to Best Picture.  Even when the lead actor from the Best Picture nominee hasn’t been nominated, they still anchor the Best Picture contender.  This is the New Normal where Best Pic is concerned but for the odd year here or there.

The first half of the year has produced at least five notable performances that may or may not make it by year’s end, but the majority of performances have not yet been seen and could wipe the slate clean. How do we know this? For the past few years, maybe decade, films in the Oscar race have been driven by a singular male performance. This trend has not slowed, even if you count this year where there are so many female driven films packing the first half of the year. It’s funny that you will find more women this time of year in contention than men but that’s because the Oscar-bound performances are going to be found in the Big Oscar Movies coming to a film festival near you.

1. The race as it stands now, however, has one performance out front and that’s Paul Dano‘s in Love & Mercy. It helps that the film has already opened in theaters. The other four best actor contenders so far star in films that have only been seen at Cannes or Sundance.

Although Dano shares the spotlight with John Cusack in Love & Mercy, his is the more fully realized performance where Cusack’s might be seen as a supporting turn. Both could be considered Best Actor but if voters go down that road neither will be nominated.

Dano plays the young Brian Wilson who is is discovering his own ability to emerge as an artist in a band that seems committed as a hit machine. There is no denying the power of the Beach Boys and their catchy, unforgettable tunes but there was more to Brian Wilson’s composing. Dano is brilliant at conveying someone who was simply too gentle and passive to withstand the forces mounted against him — and those forces include controlling and abusive people and the progression of his own eventual mental illness.  Dano takes us down each road with compassion. Cusack, too, approaches his role with compassion and neither of them makes too much or too little of the demons that overtaken Wilson’s internal world. Dano has showed us so many different sides of his acting ability, which is often way over the top. But here, he illustrates that all of that talent can be harnessed more specifically. It’s a marvel to watch and deeply moving. Paul Dano has never been nominated for an Oscar, unbelievably.

2. Jake Gyllenhaal in Southpaw takes the number 2 spot even though I’ve not yet seen him in the film. He’s supposed to be great in it, though, and has Harvey Weinstein ushering him through Oscar season.  Gyllenhaal is another one of Oscar’s forgotten talents, having received only one nomination for his brilliant work in Brokeback Mountain. He almost made last year’s race with Nightcrawler. His transformative work here, becoming a beefed-up fighter, will most certainly be enough to push him through.

3. Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel for Youth – where you have Dano and Cusack needing to split, you can’t really split up Caine and Keitel, mostly because they are just too damned famous.  Caine is already a two-time Oscar winner with six nominations. To say they love him would be an understatement. Keitel has only been nominated once, as supporting actor for Bugsy. Does that mean they don’t like him? I don’t know. Either way, both have fully realized, deeply meaningful career-topping performances in Youth, Paolo Sorrentino’s film backed by Fox Searchlight. Unless the film is destroyed by critics (currently it’s mixed to positive on Metacritic), it should emerge as a strong Oscar contender in all aspects. I say “if” because there is no way of telling how a movie will land. This is a film about Hollywood but more than that, it’s about artists working in Hollywood — old-school vets who make up the majority of Oscar voters. Youth, like Birdman, is a lament of things past. It’s a condemnation of and celebration of “the new” while also a condemnation of and celebration of the gone and forgotten.  If all goes well, both actors should have an equal shot at landing a lead nomination.  Jane Fonda and Rachel Weisz will be strong contenders for supporting. Paul Dano makes an appearance here in a supporting role — the one thing to note about this performance of his vis-à-vis Love & Mercy is just what a better actor he is becoming as he evolves.

5. Michael Fassbender for MacBeth – this is another one I did not see in Cannes but by all accounts the reviews were good enough to put Fassbender in contention for lead actor.   Macbeth is faring slightly higher than Youth in aggregate scores but critics these days tend to be a younger bunch, not so much interested in the same things that interest Oscar voters (85 on Metacritic so far). That it’s Shakespeare, that Fassbender is a respected actor, make him at the very least a contender, at least for now. Once things start to roll his might be the one that gets the chop.

 

Which actors are waiting at the gates to threaten these? They are mostly actors playing real-life people (highlighted in red). Hollywood seems to never tire of true stories about great or famous men — they celebrate and reinforce the patriarchy while doing so. How long will this trend last? It’s hard to say.

1. Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant

2. Michael Fassbender competing against himself in Steve Jobs as Steve Jobs.

3. Tom Hanks in Bridge of Spies

4. Eddie Redmayne in The Danish Girl

5. Will Smith in Concussion

6. Johnny Depp as Whitey Bulger in Black Mass.

7. Ben Foster as Lance Armstrong in The Program.

8. Bryan Cranston as Trumbo in Trumbo. 

9. Tobey Maguire in Pawn Sacrifice, as Bobby Fischer

10.  Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Philippe Petit in The Walk.

11. Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Edward Snowden in Snowden.

12. Ian McKellen in Mr. Holmes. The great McKellen has been all too often overlooked by the Academy.

13. Benicio Del Toro in Escobar. Del Toro is also in Sicario but probably will go as supporting, giving the chance of a double nomination year.  

14. Bradley Cooper in Adam Jones.

15. Michael Shannon in Midnight Special.

16. Richard Gere, Time Out of Mind.

17. Jason Siegel, End of Tour as David Foster Wallace.

There will no doubt be other names added to this list, and names removed from it as we barrel towards the end of the year. It will be the most competitive of the acting categories, with Best Actress coming up a close second. We’ll be covering Best Actress later today.

As usual, it will be difficult to know this early whether the films already seen will have any chance as the race surges forward. Because Best Actor is so closely tied with Best Picture, the nominees from last year (all except Steve Carell in Foxcatcher) were from films that were nominated for Best Picture.

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Coming up next, Best Actress.

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We’ve been compiling our Contender Tracker pages slowly but we’ve narrowed down the list so far of what contenders might be showing up at this year’s Oscar race.  Thanks to Kevin for the help on this.  I have ordered them in terms of importance or prestige. Not all Oscar contenders are measured equally. Stars tend to have the advantage over unknowns and repeat nominees and winners also can sometimes have an advantage. More than that, the Oscar contenders are usually earmarked from the beginning of the year and have their place in line. Surprise hits or nominees always find their way into the race and can’t really be predicted but many of them can be.  So far, this is how we see it.  But it is going to be fluid, not static, and always changing month to month, week to week, day to day.

Best Picture Contenders

AwardsDaily’s Most Likely (by date)

The Grand Budapest Hotel (March 7)
Boyhood (7/11)
Gone Girl (10/3)
Birdman (10/17)
Interstellar (Nov 7)
Foxcatcher (Nov 14)
A Most Violent Year (11/12)
Inherent Vice (12/12)
Mr. Turner (12/19)
Unbroken (12/25)
Big Eyes (12/25)
Selma (12/25)
The Homesman

Second tier of most likely:
Mood Indigo (7/18)
Very Good Girls (7/25)
The Judge (10/10)
Trash (October, 2014)
The Imitation Game (11/14)
Fury (11/14)
Wild (12/5)
Into the Woods (12/25)
Men, Women & Children (2014)

Continue reading…

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The year starts slow, builds to a climax, then the inevitable disappointing conclusion.  But now’s the time when hope springs eternal and we might as well start the year with two auteurs.

Fruitvale launches the career of writer/director Ryan Coogler, whose Fruitvale won big at Sundance already, the audience award and the Grand Jury prize.  The plot, as written by HR’s Todd McCarthy:

The sort of material that you might more readily expect to be covered in a documentary — the true story of a senseless police shooting that takes the life of yet another young urban black man — instead has been made into a powerful dramatic feature film in Fruitvale. First-time writer-directorRyan Coogler, who, at 26, is the same age his subject would have been today, puts the life of Oscar Grant onscreen with conviction that makes it clear why Grant’s killing became a cause celebre and the springboard for massive protests against police brutality in Oakland. The project’s topicality, qualities and the presence of such connected Hollywood figures as producers Forest Whitaker and Octavia Spencer, the latter of whom plays Grant’s mother, ensure that attention will be paid, and, though commercial prospects are limited, the film certainly will serve as an effective springboard for Coogler, lead actor Michael B. Jordan and others involved.

Fruitvale has a ways to go but a word up by McCarthy is surely a very good start.

Meanwhile, another young filmmaker, Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell is set to make impact — it’s a tricky

Continue reading…

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