2 Weeks until Oscar noms: 21 Questions to consider…

On the morning of January 15th, the nominations for the 88th Annual Academy Awards will be revealed. Oscar season is in its final stretch as far as campaigning goes; ballots have been handed out and the story of the year in film has already been written (sadly). Here are some questions to keep in mind as we move forward.

You can check out my Oscar predictions here, which I’ll update 1 or 2 more times before nominations come out.

#1) Can Spotlight win Best Picture if it only gets 4 overall nominations?

Let’s look at the last 5 Best Picture winners and the number of total nominations they received. Birdman had 9. 12 Years a Slave had 9. Argo had 7. The Artist had 10. The King’s Speech had 12. Since the start of festival season, Spotlight has been pegged as the Best Picture favorite and precursors/critics have done nothing to alter that notion. But here’s the thing, as of now you can only feel really confident in 3, maybe 4 total nominations for the film. That gives me reason to pause.

It’s getting in Best Picture. It’s getting in and probably winning both Best Original Screenplay and Best Film Editing. It’s probably getting Best Director for Tom McCarthy. Earlier in the year, it appeared as if Spotlight could very easily get 2 nominations in Best Supporting Actor (for Mark Ruffalo & Michael Keaton). Now, with category fraud narratives running amok and a Supporting Actor race that has developed into the year’s most competitive, there appears to be a good chance the film gets ZERO noms there. It’s best chancing in acting probably comes via Rachel McAdams (a shame since Ruffalo is the clear standout). The fact that it’s not really a player in the technical categories isn’t the films fault. It’s just not very showy on those fronts. There’s nothing wrong with its cinematography, costume design, etc. It’s just not flashy. I wonder if lack of vocal support from below the line branches could potentially see it fall victim to a technical marvel like The Revenant, Mad Max: Fury Road, or even The Martian.

McAdams, Keaton, Ruffalo in 'Spotlight'. All three are in the hunt for Oscar noms.

With that being said, Spotlight could very well get one of its men in, on top of McAdams. And it’s probably right in the hunt for one of the last spots in Original Score due to Howard Shore’s name alone (again, that work isn’t flashy, but it’s very good). Spotlight could get anywhere from 3 to 7 noms, and where it falls in that range could potentially sway how voters view the film the second time around when they pick winners.

#2) Can Fox Searchlight sneak in a Best Picture nominee?

According to reports, Fox Searchlight has been working hard all season on both coasts. They always do. After The Weinstein Company, Fox Searchlight is probably the distributor with the most consistently dedicated campaigns for its films. It’s had the last two winners (Birdman & 12 Years a Slave) as well as a long list of other recent films that became major Oscar players (The Grand Budapest Hotel, Beasts of the Southern Wild, The Descendants…to name a few).

But this year, the company’s films don’t seem to have landed as hard. Far From the Madding Crowd received positive buzz but as a May release without a festival run it really never had a shot. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, with Searchlight bought for $12M at Sundance, drew raves from the festival but hasn’t done much since, failing to pull in $10M despite a wide release on 800+ screens and positive reviews.

So the company has positioned Brooklyn, and even Paolo Sorrentino’s Youth as its pony’s this year. Brooklyn is obviously the safer bet. It’s done well financially and has won a litany of precursors. It’s a player in many techs and some above the line races as well. I currently have it getting 4 nominations, though have it just on the outside looking in for the big one. Youth is hanging onto the hope that love for Oscar favorite Paolo Sorrentino goes a long way (it does certainly appeal to older voters, so I wouldn’t stick a fork in it just yet).

#3) Where, if anywhere, will Rooney Mara land?

For her OUSTANDING work in Carol, previous nominee Rooney Mara split the Best Actress award at Cannes. She’s certainly a “lead”, but Weinstein had been campaigning her in supporting, hoping he can dip into both categories with Cate Blanchett going lead (where she looks like a lock). The thing is, Oscar voters don’t have to slot in someone where they’re being campaigned. It’s anyone’s guess right now. Golden Globes didn’t put up with the shit and put her in lead, while SAG slotted her in supporting. She’s a threat to win whatever category she appears in, but there’s an outside chance she splits votes across categories (as well as with Blanchett) and ends up being left out completely, which would be a shame, because it’s a deserving performance. I will say that Lead Actress looks a little deeper than Supporting this year, so if I had to bet I’d bet on Mara getting in the latter.

Rooney Mara in 'Carol'
Rooney Mara in ‘Carol’

#4) What do we do with Star Wars?

Star Wars: The Force Awakens, currently sitting at a 94% on Rotten Tomatoes and on track to pass Avatar and become the biggest movie ever, is an interesting player. Disney, in a world of spoilers and internet leaks, wisely opted not to send screeners of the film out weeks before its release which ruled it out for most critics’ awards and precursors. But it is campaigning the film hard and holding screenings for Academy members every night. We don’t really have anything to gauge how the Academy views it, and won’t until the PGA chimes in (even that is fishy).

It does figure to dominate in the technical categories, however. I currently have it slotted in for Sound Mixing, Sound Editing, Visual Effects, and Original Score. It’s very much a possibility in Production Design & Costume Design as well. It could get as many as 6 nominations below the line. That, combined with the nostalgia factor and positive reviews, certainly makes it a dark horse for a Best Picture nom. I wouldn’t bet on it, especially with other popular movies like Mad Max, The Martian, and Creed all in play. But I wouldn’t be shocked if the Academy announces on Oscar morning that they’ve decided to return to a galaxy far far away.

#5) Has Bridge of Spies been forgotten about?

It’s weird to think that a critically-acclaimed Steven Spielberg film backed by Disney and starring Tom Hanks could ever fall into the background of the Oscar discussion, but that may just be happening. Bridge of Spies managed to tread water at the box office, and while most folks generally like it, it doesn’t have the vocal supporters of other films in play. It’s not going to get a ton of #1 votes, which will hurt its chances at a BP nom. The names attached to it both above and below the line are big and will warrant discussion off recognition alone, however.

Reports say Disney is actually working Star Wars a lot harder in L.A. right now. Hell, Mark Rylance, the supporting actor who represents the films best chance at actually winning something, isn’t even campaigning at the moment. No interviews, appearances, nothing. He’s doing a play overseas. The film missed the SAG ensemble nod it needed and Golden Globes passed it over as well. Being a technically sound period piece, I believe the support will be there below the line and from the directors, which is why FOR NOW I have it just squeezing in. It could come down to how many films are nominated, which isn’t good, because again, Bridge of Spies is unlikely to receive many 1st place votes.

#6) How far can Jennifer Lawrence go given the mixed reactions to Joy?

Jennifer Lawrence is a star and an Oscar favorite. Her getting in for American Hustle proved that. But her latest collaboration with David O’Russell & friends, Joy, hardly looks like an Oscar player. Despite a strong opening, its mixed reviews and the general lethargy surrounding it make it unlikely to appear really anywhere outside of maybe Lead Actress on Oscar morning. Then again, I should know better than to assume such things, as O’Russell’s messy American Hustle garnered 10 nominations (an inferior film to Joy, I might add). Ultimately, I don’t think Lawrence can win. Not this year. Not with Brie Larson carrying Room. Not with what Saoirse Ronan did in Brooklyn. Not with Cate Blanchett showing us why she’s an Oscar favorite once again with Carol. But after those three, the leading ladies consist of older veterans, extreme longshots, and Lawrence. I think she scores her 4th nom at the age of 25.

#7) Is Trumbo really a serious Oscar contender?

Trumbo, the film from Jay Roach starring Bryan Cranston as the title character, a prolific Old Hollywood screenwriter “blacklisted” by Congress due to what they see as Communist propaganda in his work, has had quite a roller coaster of a year. At first, it appeared to have all the makings of an Oscar darling on paper. A story about old Hollywood sure to feature neat costumes and sets. An impressive cast led by Cranston, Helen Mirren, Diane Lane, and John Goodman. But as things progressed it began to look like less of a player. It was picked up by brand new company Bleecker Street prior to its premiere to mixed reception at Toronto. It made no impact in its limited or ill-advised wide release. But then a slew of critics groups started to cite Cranston and Mirren for their work in the film. And then SAG went for both of them on top of giving the entire cast the all-important ensemble nom. And then the Globes went for both as well. All of a sudden, Trumbo turned into a serious threat in some acting races, as well as being a factor in some techs do to its Old Hollywood setting. Ultimately, I think it’ll be left out across the board (Cranston remains its best shot). But it’s a factor in 5+ races right now.

Bryan Cranston in 'Trumbo'
Bryan Cranston in ‘Trumbo’

#8) And what about Straight Outta Compton?

Another film that got a surprise Ensemble nom from SAG. Universal’s N.W.A. biopic has surpassed Steve Jobs as the studio’s primary pony this season. While it doesn’t scream “Oscar material”, the fact that it doesn’t very well could help push its narrative. And in a time where racial tensions are on everyone’s mind, doesn’t a film about N.W.A. feel extremely relevant? The problem is that where else besides Best Picture is this film really a factor? Screenplay, and that’s it, right? That could ultimately hurt it in terms of branch support (though it WILL get some #1 votes). Jason Mitchell is the films clear standout as Eazy but the Supporting Actor race is just so loaded it’s hard to see him sneaking in there. For now, I think the film will miss out altogether, but it appears to be in the mix.

#9) Will the technical merits of Mad Max: Fury Road, The Revenant, and Star Wars ultimately curse The Martian?

When it came out, given the names involved and the smash hit it became with both critics and audiences, The Martian looked like this year’s Gravity, a gorgeous space film that could unite the masses and emerge as a true threat to win Best Picture. While talk of The Martian hasn’t soured since, and it’s shown up at some notable precursors (NBR/AFI Top 10, NBR went for the Ridley ScottMatt Damon duo, Globes cited the two as well, has been all over the place with techs from critics), I think it could fall to the background very shortly. Mad Max: Fury Road and even The Revenant appear a bit stronger overall, and then you have the late entry Star Wars: The Force Awakens sure to draw a ton of love from technical branches. It’s hard to find a single category where you would call The Martian a likely winner. It’s certainly a player in almost every technical category, but it’s looking like there’s a really good shot that it becomes the film this year that gets 5+ noms yet goes home empty-handed. Strangely enough, its best chance might be in Best Director.

#10) Can Michael Shannon and Idris Elba hold strong even if their films do not?

In what’s been a crazy Best Supporting Actor race, Michael Shannon (99 Homes) and Idris Elba (Beasts of No Nation) have emerged as arguably the top two contenders after Mark Rylance (Bridge of Spies). The two were nominated by both the Globes and SAG, which is really all we have to go by in a race that’s been all over the place with critics and littered with category fraud (Jacob Tremblay, Paul Dano, and Michael Keaton are three major contenders whom are arguably leads). Shannon and Elba would appear to be good bets, but you have to wonder if their films lack of overall buzz (if that’s really the case) could hurt their chances.

Michael Shannon in '99 Homes'
Michael Shannon in ’99 Homes’

That could ring especially true in a year where some other contenders (the Spotlight guys, Christian Bale for The Big Short, Tom Hardy for The Revenant, Sylvester Stallone for Creed) all appear to be contending for likely BP nominees. For now, I have Elba in and Shannon out because I’ve read a bit more about support for Beasts of No Nation than I have for 99 Homes.

#11) Is A24 Films the new premier distributor for indies?

No. That’s probably hyperbole, or maybe the answer is obviously still Fox Searchlight and Focus Features and The Weinstein Company. But A24 Films has had quite a nice slew of projects over the last couple years and 2015 has been their best year yet with Oscar noms are surely coming. There’s Room, of course; a surefire BP nominee and the frontrunner in Best Actress (Brie Larson). They also have the very highly-regarded The End of the Tour and Ex Machina, the latter of which is a serious Oscar dark horse in Original Screenplay, Visual Effects, and possibly even Best Supporting Actress (Alicia Vikander). On top of that A24 has the Amy Winehouse documentary Amy, the biggest doc of the year and a guaranteed nominee in that category.

2016 will see A24 bringing more highly-anticipated indies starring big time actors (Oscar Isaac, Mark Wahlberg, Christopher Plummer, Naomie Harris, Nicole Kidman, and Michael Fassbender amongst them) as well as whatever the company decided to purchase at festivals. The arrow is pointing up for A24.

#12) Will any of the men from The Hateful Eight get nominated? If the answer is “yes”, which one will it be?

Jennifer Jason Leigh is probably getting a nomination for her work in the 8th film by Quentin Tarantino, and she’s got a chance to actually win given the category confusion that could factor in with Vikander and Mara. Samuel L. Jackson is being rightfully campaigned in lead (though it’s very hard to see him squeezing in). But in the aforementioned brutal Supporting Actor race, it’s looking likely that both internal and external competition keep the supporting men from the film out altogether. If I were to rank their performances (dumb, I know), I’d go…

  1. Walton Goggins: the films true standout but a guy still thought of as a TV actor, which does carry a stigma no matter how unfair it is.
  2. Bruce Dern: a veteran we know the Academy loves and he shines in a few key moments but the screentime just isn’t there.
  3. Tim Roth: Charismatic, Waltz-esque turn but he’s not really being mentioned by anyone as a standout.
  4. Kurt Russell: in terms of narrative, he seems like the most likely but I personally feel he over-acts and mishandles the material.
  5. Damian Bichir: Academy has gone for him before and he’s funny in a few scenes but like Dern he’s not really a focus.
  6. Michael Madsen: Quiet turn. Doesn’t have much to do or say. Oscar has never gone for him before, why would they for this?
Walton Goggins in 'The Hateful Eight'
Walton Goggins in ‘The Hateful Eight’

Tarantino always does great things for his supporting men. Christoph Waltz won 2 Oscars for essentially the same performance in Tarantino films. The Hateful Eight is no different as the characters are juicy and for the most part brought to life by the talented cast. But this year, it appears as if that’s unlikely to result in any Academy attention. I feel the best bet would’ve been Jackson had he gone supporting. I wouldn’t completely rule out Goggins or Russell, but they’re going to need every bit of last-minute push Harvey Weinstein has in him (it’s happened before, Waltz won the Oscar for Django Unchained despite not even being nominated by the Globes or SAG).

#13) Are we in for the most interesting Best Animated Feature race in a long time?

Pixar’s Inside Out and Paramount’s Anomalisa, the latter an adult-oriented stop-motion project from none other than Charlie Kaufman, are two of the most acclaimed films of the year. Given Pixar’s track record and the films strong box office take, Inside Out appears to be right in the midst of the Best Picture race. Both films are obvious nominees in Best Animated Feature, and one of them is winning (we thought The Good Dinosaur would be in play because it’s Pixar, but it’s struggled to land with critics and is seen as one of the studios weaker offerings). In most years, both films would be surefire winners. Their battle this year will make for a very interesting case study as to what industry folks favor nowadays when it comes to animation. Not that Inside Out is a “kids movie” by any means, but it is more typical of what this category tends to reward. Anomalisa would not only be the first stop-motion film to win here since Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit in 2006, but also the first film rated PG-13 or up to win in the history of this category. Both films have vocal supporters claiming they’re the best of the year animated or live-action.

#14) Can The Big Short actually WIN Best Picture?

The Big Short, from writer/director Adam McKay, a scathing comedy dealing with the credit bubble and the ramifications of it in ’07-’08, has all the looks of this year’s out-of-nowhere late entry that shakes up the entire Oscar race. It already has, really. The principle cast alone (Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt, and Christian Bale) made it something to at least consider throughout the year but I don’t think anyone could’ve predicted that a film from McKay would receive the amount of critical love and late-season buzz that The Big Short is. Quietly, it’s arguably emerged as the best bet to top Spotlight. It’s a timely film that audiences are responding to headlined by A-list stars. Oscar pundits everywhere should feel silly for not having it near the top of their lists all year.

The Big Short is likely to get many key nominations that often coincide with Best Picture. It’s a lock in Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Film Editing (two telling categories). The actor’s branch will obviously be behind it, with a supporting nom for Bale appearing to be a strong possibility and Carell positioned as a dark horse in lead. I’ll tell you this, if McKay manages to double-dip with the DGA and the Academy somehow in director (probably a stretch), I’d bet the house on The Big Short winning BP.

#15) Can somebody unseat Emmanuel Lubezki, the two-time defending champion, in Best Cinematography?

Yes. Emmanuel Lubezki, who won for both Gravity and Birdman, turns in some truly great work with The Revenant. His camera carries the film through its lows and accentuates its highs. But there are three DP’s, all of them dudes, who should have a pretty good shot at preventing a three-peat from occurring. Roger Deakins, the twelve-times nominated but winless legendary image curator, turns in some his best career work with Sicario. It features many experimental tactics such as doing the entire climactic sequence in thermal/night vision. He’d be deserving, and the narrative is certainly there. He’d be my personal choice, but I am also a lot higher on Sicario as a whole than the industry seems to be.

Lubezki holding one of his multiple Oscars.
Lubezki holding one of his multiple Oscars.

Also in play are Robert Richardson for The Hateful Eight and John Seale for Mad Max: Fury Road. A lot of ink has been spilled on how good the 70mm projection of The Hateful Eight looks, and much of that is attributed to Richardson’s use and understanding of an old technology. He uses it to stretch the screen in both exterior landscape shots and interior shots that give us a look at what all eight players are doing. Seale’s work is outstanding, featuring the perfect amount of long-range looks at the mayhem on the road and some nice understanding of perspective for a viewer during in-your-face action sequences (the whole movie, basically). Seale came out of retirement just to shoot this film. Ultimately though, I think some of the camera effects added in post-production will hurt Seale slightly in the branches eyes. Critics awards have stated otherwise, however. For now I think it’s between Lubezki-Deakins-Richardson, and I believe those three are pretty much on equal footing.

#16) Could we see a “lone director” nomination this year?

FYI, a “lone director” nom comes when someone is nominated for Best Director without their film cracking the Best Picture field. It’s a rarity, especially with BP being expanded, but did happen last year for Bennett Miller (Foxcatcher). Generally, a “lone director” candidate is one who’s widely respected within the branch and has been working the circuit hard but whose film doesn’t appear to be traditional Oscar material.

Throughout the year, George Miller (Mad Max: Fury Road) was pegged as a possible lone director. He’s a respected veteran, his film was a true achievement, and it didn’t really look like the Academy’s cup of tea outside Miller’s branch. The thing is, Mad Max: Fury Road now looks like a damn good bet to get in the BP field. I think the best bet now is Paolo Sorrentino (Youth), but that’s such a long shot. His film isn’t really on the map anymore despite the love for him.

#17) Can anybody beat Leonardo DiCaprio?

No. Not this year. Not with the overabundant “but Leo doesn’t have an Oscar yet” narrative. Not with his role in The Revenant tailor-made to get him an Oscar. Leonardo DiCaprio is winning Best Actor. Next question.

#18) Where are some potential dark horses not much is being written about who could ear their names called on Oscar morning?

It’s hard to tell given how generally quiet Academy members say. But I have some ideas based on history and my gut. Steve Jobs is a film that appears to have fallen off the map, but I wonder if support from some key branches could see it squeak in despite its divisiveness. Directors love Danny Boyle, and with Michael Fassbender and Kate Winslet both probably getting nominated you wonder if the actors will be behind it. There’s Aaron Sorkin, of course. I also think it deserves notice for its score and editing, and neither seems impossible. I just wonder if Universal’s lack of a campaign will kill the film. They’ve been pretty much silent throughout the process. Still, I think Steve Jobs is a film to pay attention to in many categories, including Best Picture.

Marion Cotillard in 'MacBeth', a performance I wouldn't rule out.
Marion Cotillard in ‘MacBeth’, a performance I wouldn’t rule out.

Elsewhere, Weinstein can possibly sneak Marion Cotillard (MacBeth) in Supporting Actress despite not much being said of the film. We know the Academy loves her. Ian McKellan (Mr. Holmes) has been working the circuit harder than any lead actor not named DiCaprio and with that field looking surprisingly thin, it wouldn’t be all that shocking to hear his name called. I wouldn’t rule out Tomorrowland in Best Visual Effects. The film received bad reviews but a lot of folks love Brad Bird and his visual flare. There are people who thought the effects in the film were gorgeous, we’ll see if anyone in the branch agrees. Original Screenplay seems like a category to possibly cite a smaller film, since many of the BP players fall into Adapted. I’d keep an eye on Love & Mercy, Ex Machina, Grandma, and even Trainwreck.

#19) Has Son of Saul already won Best Foreign Language film?

It would certainly appear so. Son of Saul, the holocaust drama from first-time Hungarian director Laszlo Nemes, won awards at Cannes and has been played at various American festivals. It’s being campaigned in a lot more than just the Foreign Language category. It’s an easy choice for the Academy, and it wouldn’t surprise me if its supposed dominance all year has made it more forgivable for voters to forgo seeing other foreign entries.

#20) Is 9 y/o Jacob Tremblay a good bet for an acting nom somewhere?

He certainly is. I have him on the outside for now, however. Jacob Tremblay (Room), presents and interesting case for multiple narratives. There’s child actors, obviously. Children historically do a lot better in Supporting (where he’s being campaigned) but he’s such a clear lead in the film that’s it’s sort of gross to think he could bump someone else out in a stacked Supporting race. Could he split votes with himself hurting his ultimate chances? Certainly.

I just have a hard time seeing the masses of voters really get behind Tremblay in this race. But A24 is working him hard, and the SAG nom shows support from his branch. I’m clueless, really.

Jacob Tremblay & Brie Larson in 'Room'
Jacob Tremblay & Brie Larson in ‘Room’

#21) What upcoming events are important to pay attention to prior to nomination morning?

Again, nominations are announced the morning of January 15th, that’s a Thursday. Ballots are already out, but the following will give us at least a little more insight into what folks are thinking.

  • Jan. 5th – Producers Guild (PGA) announces their nominations.
  • Jan. 6th – Writers Guild (WGA) announces their nominations.
  • Jan. 8th – Oscar voting closes.
  • Jan. 8th – BAFTA (British Academy) films are announced.
  • Jan. 10th – Golden Globes awards show.
  • Jan. 12th – Directors Guild (DGA) announces their nominations.

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