5 Important Questions Heading into Oscar Season

Am I the only one who thinks 2015 is flying by? A great many developments in my personal and professional life have prevented me from writing as much as I’d like to, and I apologize for that. I know that some of you visit to read my thoughts on popular culture and whatnot (or maybe you just come for the memes). In a world where anyone with an internet connection can quickly create content and share it, there really is no valid excuse for someone who considers themselves a writer to, well, not write. But enough about me. Let’s talk movies, and more specifically, Oscars.

The summer blockbuster season is over, and oh what a lovely summer it was. Furious 7 and Jurassic World blew expectations out of the water. Trainwreck and Pitch Perfect 2 proved that women can do stuff now (shoutout Kimmy Schmidt). This summer wasn’t without its flops (cough Fantastic Four cough), but on the whole, it was a major step forward from last year, with box office receipts being nearly 10% higher. Franchises, event movies, and apparently anything starring Dwayne Johnson are all still capable of packing the seats when the heat ramps up.

But again, summer is over. Fall festivals such as Venice and Tellruide have already kicked off, with New York and Toronto up next. These festivals serve as a jumping off point to “awards season”, an over-long process that dominates the film world narrative from October to February (I highly recommend this interview with Edward Norton on the monetization of artistic awards). Before we know it we’ll be seeing precursor award shows take place and we’ll hit Christmas, the last big movie week the year. It’s probably still too early to make Oscar predictions, as those last two festivals will provide much-needed insight, but it’s not too early to look at some key storylines. Here are five questions I have moving forward that figure to be major discussion points throughout the process.

As you can see, I have an "Oscars" page on the left side. Click there to find anything I write about the Oscars, including updated predictions once I actually make them.

1. Is it finally DiCaprio’s year?

When the common movie-going public discusses Oscar snubs, everything always comes back to Leonardo DiCaprio. It’s not hard to see why. He’s a remarkably gifted performer who garners praise for every turn he gives, not to mention that he is arguably the biggest box-office draw on the planet. He’s been nominated for an acting Oscar four times (What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, The Aviator, Blood Diamond, The Wolf of Wall Street) and probably should have a few more as well (Django Unchained? The Departed? Revolutionary Road? Catch Me if You Can?). While I feel there are others actors in his generation just as, if not more, deserving of their first Oscar –Jake Gyllenhaal, Joaquin Phoenix, Sam Rockwell- I will admit that when you look at Leo’s filmography, it’s straight-up blasphemous that he doesn’t have a statue.

That may change in a few months. DiCaprio stars in The Revenant, the upcoming film from last year’s Best Director winner Alejandro G. Inarritu that will get a serious campaign from 20th Century Fox. The film tells the real-life story of Hugh Glass (DiCaprio), an American frontiersman who is mauled by a grizzly bear and then robbed and left to die by his companions (amongst them, Tom Hardy). The role asks for a great deal of physical dedication from DiCaprio, something that has helped other Oscar hopefuls in the past. All eyes will be on the film. It’s a clear frontrunner this year….if it actually comes out on time. According to reports, at the time of me writing this, the film was still shooting. Inarritu and editor Stephen Mirrione are going to have a lot of sleepless nights if they’re going to get this finished by its intended Christmas Day release.

DiCaprio in a still from production on 'The Revenant'
DiCaprio in a still from production on ‘The Revenant’

DiCaprio will have some serious competition, including Michael Fassbender as Steve Jobs, last year’s winner Eddie Redmayne as one of the first transgender women, and Tom Hanks in a Spielberg wartime drama.

2. Can anything from Sundance get a Best Picture nomination?

Last year we saw two films that premiered early in the year at the Sundance Film Festival go on to get nominated for the top prize: Boyhood and Whiplash. The former was actually seen as the favorite for most of the year until the pure craftsmanship of Birdman outdid Richard Linklater’s naturalist ambition. While there were some minor hits from this year’s festival, it’s hard, at least right now before the precursors start, to see any of them making serious noise.

Paul Weitz’s Grandma may secure its star Lily Tomlin a nomination, but it’s probably too small for Sony Pictures Classics to run with it as a Best Picture pony (especially when the distributor has Son of Saul in the hunt). Dope proved to be a sleeper hit, but the film is not without its detractors and the word-of-mouth has died down. Same goes for Me & Earl & the Dying Girl. The horror/thrillers from the festival, like The Witch and The Stanford Prison Experiment, simply and sadly aren’t Oscar material.

The charming young cast of 'Me & Earl & The Dying Girl'
The charming young cast of ‘Me & Earl & The Dying Girl’

Paul Weitz’s Grandma may secure its star Lily Tomlin a nomination, but it’s probably too small for Sony Pictures Classics to run with it as a Best Picture pony (especially when the distributor has Son of Saul in the hunt). Dope proved to be a sleeper hit, but the film is not without its detractors and the word-of-mouth has died down. Same goes for Me & Earl & the Dying Girl. The horror/thrillers from the festival, like The Witch and The Stanford Prison Experiment, simply and sadly aren’t Oscar material.

Perhaps the film with the best shot is Brooklyn, which is about a young Irish immigrant living in, you guessed it, Brooklyn. It appears to be Fox Searchlight’s chief pony this year, as they’ve pushed a few other films back to 2016. They’ve positioned it to screen at Toronto as well, indicating an awards run. It also stars previous Oscar-nominee Saoirse Ronan. We’ll see.

3. Who from the cast of ‘The Hateful Eight’ will get nominations?

I left “if” out of that question because Quentin Tarantino is always good for getting someone on his team a supporting nom. Hell, he got Christoph Waltz nominated –and awarded- twice for playing the same role in two different movies. QT is back this Christmas (in 70mm!!! For a day!!) with The Hateful Eight, another western. The film will have eight main players: Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Samuel L. Jackson, Bruce Dern, Michael Madsen, Walton Goggins, Tim Roth, and Demian Bichir. Let’s assume that Jennifer Jason Leigh gets a nom in Best Supporting Actress because she’s awesome and is the center of the story. Which fella, or fellas, can get a nom in the male category?

The script for the film leaked long ago. I didn’t read it. I love reading scripts, but not before I see a film. I learned my lesson the hard way by reading the script for Inglorious Basterds long before I saw it. Great script and great movie, but I really wish I saw it from a different perspective. Anyways, those who have read the script for The Hateful Eight say the juiciest role is the one Kurt Russell will be playing. Let’s run with that, given that Russell is also a very fun veteran who has never really been viewed as a “serious dramatic actor”. Oscar loves this sort of narrative. But can anyone else sneak in?

Jackson, Leigh, and Russell in 'The Hateful Eight'
Jackson, Leigh, and Russell in ‘The Hateful Eight’

Jackson, Dern, and Bichir are all part of the Oscar club and have the veteran angle going for them. There are a lot of people who felt Jackson deserved a nom for Django Unchained (I’m one of them). But the guy I’m keeping my eye on is Walton Goggins. He’s been outstanding over the years both on TV and in film. He fits well in westerns. His character is described by the studio as “a Southern renegade pretending to be the Sheriff”. I’m here for it. Go Goggins.

4. Can ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ or ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ make the Oscars cool again?

A few years back, after loads of backlash for not nominating The Dark Knight, Oscar changed its rules and allowed up to ten Best Picture nominees. The “Nolan rule”, as it was dubbed, was supposed to bring about more viewers and engage a younger audience by nominating films that the average person actually sees.

Welp. Inception and Avatar got nominations, but as far as blockbusters go, that’s really it (despite their success, films like Gravity and The Social Network and District 9 weren’t really blockbusters, in the classic sense). I’m not saying that the Oscars needs to reward every Furious 7 and Jurassic World that comes out, but at least show some respect when a popular movie is artfully executed (like The Dark Knight, which is widely viewed as one of the greatest films of the century thus far).

I’d be surprised if 2015 sees a truly “better” film than Mad Max: Fury Road in terms of design and execution. It was lauded by every critic in the business and made nearly $400 million dollars. This is the type of film this rule was made for. It will gets noms, and probably a few wins, in technical categories. Film elitists will never admit it, but you’re not going to see better photography or sharper editing than you can in Mad Max.

Charlize Theron in 'Mad Max: Fury Road'
Charlize Theron in ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’

But I want to see it nominated for Best Picture, and I want the legendary George Miller to get a Best Director nom (the latter scenario is much more likely given Miller’s industry-wide respect).

Then there’s JJ Abrams’ Star Wars, which also figures to make noise in nearly every technical category. My question: how good does it have to be in order to make Best Picture noise?

5. Will the Academy feel threatened and blackball ‘Beasts of No Nation’?

Beasts of No Nation is the latest film from rising star writer slash director slash producer slash cinematographer Cary Joji Fukunaga, who you may know from his outstanding take on Jane Eyre or from the first season True Detective. The film, also written and produced by Fukunaga, tells the story of a young boy whose family is killed in a West African civil war and is then forced to join a group of mercenaries. Idris Elba plays the head mercenary. The boy is played by 14-year old Abraham Attah, in his feature film debut. He actually won the Marcello Mastroianni Award (for up-and-coming talent) at the Venice Film Festival, where the film was screened to acclaim.

A thematically relevant passion project from a talented young director featuring one of the finest working actors in Idris Elba? Seems like surefire Best Picture nomination, right?

Here’s the kicker. The distribution rights to Beasts of No Nation were purchased by Netflix for $12 million. After a brief festival run, the film will be available for streaming on October 16th. This violates a pact that the four largest theatre chains made creating a 90 day exclusively theatrical release window for new films, and thus, those four chains have boycotted the film. Bleecker Street, a relatively new company, will still put the film in independent theatres in October.

Idris Elba in 'Beasts of No nation'
Idris Elba in ‘Beasts of No nation’

How will an Academy that always seems to be stuck in its ways respond to this? Will they view a highly-anticipated film such as Beasts of No Nation being released via Netflix as a threat to their industry? The television industry accepted the idea of original content being released for streaming, but they didn’t really have a choice. Just how good does a film that people are going to watch online have to be in order to be an Oscar contender?

I don’t know the answer. But I sure as hell am excited to watch the film on Netflix in a few weeks.

That’s all I got for today, folks. I’ll actually start making predictions in a few weeks once I start hearing and reading things about more films.

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