Thursday, December 10, 2015

Long, winding road: 2015 Oscar chase underway

Writer-director Tom McCarthy's journalism thriller Spotlight is an early frontrunner for Best Picture at the Oscars.

With the announcement yesterday of the Screen Actors Guild nominations and this morning of the Golden Globe nominations, we are deep into what many awards watchers call Phase 1 of the Academy Awards race. This is the time when critics groups around the country and other awards-giving bodies narrow the field of Oscar contenders to a select few films that can weather the storm of awards campaigning. Phase 2 kicks into gear later this month and early January when the industry guilds announce their nominees. For now, let’s see where the race stands.

Golden Globes

Best motion picture, drama: Carol, Mad Max: Fury Road, The Revenant, Room, Spotlight

Best motion picture, comedy: The Big Short, Joy, The Martian, Spy, Trainwreck,

Screen Actors Guild

Best ensemble: Beasts of No Nation, The Big Short, Spotlight, Straight Outta Compton, Trumbo

Gotham Awards

Best feature: Carol, The Diary of a Teenage Girl, Heaven Knows What, Spotlight*, Tangerine

*Spotlight won the award

Independent Spirit Awards

Best feature: Anomalisa, Beasts of No Nation, Carol, Spotlight, Tangerine

Critics groups

New York Film Critics Circle: Carol
Los Angeles Film Critics Association: Spotlight
National Board of Review: Mad Max: Fury Road
Boston Society of Film Critics: Spotlight
Washington D.C. Area Film Critics Association: Spotlight
New York Online Film Critics: Spotlight

The one film you see showing up pretty much everywhere is writer-director Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight, which I called at the time of its release an American masterpiece, so I don’t have much to be upset with so far this season. Even where it did not win the top award with critics, its presence was felt as Michael Keaton nabbed best actor from the New York Film Critics and the film was listed as one of the top 10 films of the year by the National Board of Review.

Ever since it garnered near-universal praise on the festival circuit, Spotlight has been considered a heavy favorite for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, and nothing in this early part of the season has derailed those hopes. Among the other films drawing both praise and awards recognition nearly across the board are Todd Haynes’ Carol, George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road, and Adam McKay’s The Big Short. We are a little more than a month away from the Oscar nominations even being announced, and a lot can change, but for now, Spotlight is shining brightest.

In the acting races, this may be one of the most wide-open years in recent memory with no clear frontrunner in any of the four categories. A slight consensus is starting to build around a group of nominees, but even that is subject to fluctuations throughout the season and which groups have seen which movies. So, let’s break it down by category.

Best Actor

Paul Dano in Love and Mercy.
This will be a theme here: There are a few performers the conversation has revolved around, but no one has yet jumped to the front of the pack. That may happen in Phase 2, or it may not. That is what makes this year so exciting. For Best Actor, the leading hopefuls appear to be Leonardo Dicaprio for The Revenant, Bryan Cranston for Trumbo, Michael Fassbender for Steve Jobs, Eddie Redmayne for The Danish Girl, and Johnny Depp for Black Mass, with Will Smith (Concussion), Matt Damon (The Martian), and Paul Dano (Love and Mercy) also hanging around the edges.

As far as critics groups, Dano, Dicaprio, Damon, and Fassbender have taken the major awards, while only Dicaprio and Fassbender showed up on the Screen Actors Guild list. The Golden Globes only muddied the waters by naming Dicaprio and Fassbender in the drama category, Damon in comedy, and Dano in supporting. Cranston and Redmayne got in with both the Screen Actors Guild and the Globes, while Depp was named by the Screen Actors Guild and Smith by the Globes.

It seems possible that even with five slots in Best Actor, six of these actors could find themselves with Oscar nominations if Dano gets in for Supporting Actor with the Academy. It is a fair question to ask whom Dano is supporting as Brian Wilson in the Brian Wilson biopic Love and Mercy, but we will talk about so-called “category fraud” more in the actress races. Right now, here are my nominations predictions: Dicaprio for The Revenant, Cranston for Trumbo, Fassbender for Steve Jobs, Redmayne for The Danish Girl, and Damon for The Martian.

Best Supporting Actor

Mark Rylance in Bridge of Spies.
Apart from Dano, the biggest players in this field appear to be Mark Rylance for Bridge of Spies, Sylvester Stallone for Creed, and Idris Elba for Beasts of No Nation. The guys in Spotlight, particularly Keaton and Mark Ruffalo, were expected to be major players, and while the critics have borne this out, they were shut out with both the Screen Actors Guild and Globes, though Ruffalo was nominated for best actor in a comedy for Infinitely Polar Bear. Also in the mix are Christian Bale and Steve Carell for The Big Short, Michael Shannon for 99 Homes, and Jacob Tremblay for Room.

Rylance has taken the lion’s share of critical kudos, while Shannon, Elba, and Stallone have also picked up recognition. Throw in Dano, and you could have your five, but Bale looks to be building steam as well. For the win, it is anyone’s guess, although I know a lot of people would love to see Stallone pick up an Oscar for the role he created almost 40 years ago. For now, here are my nominations predictions: Ryalnce for Bridge of Spies, Stallone for Creed, Elba for Beasts of No Nation, Ruffalo for Spotlight, and Bale for The Big Short.

Best Actress

Rooney Mara in Carol.
Here is where we start to see some shenanigans. Every year, people complain the Best Actress race gets limited to a select few performances and a ton of great actresses get left on the sidelines in more obscure work. Well, this year, there are more superb performances by talented actresses in contention than there have been in a long time, and this has led to some awards campaigners trying to sneak actors and actresses into categories where they do not belong.

Of course, this goes on every year, but this year seems particularly egregious with Alicia Vikander in The Danish Girl and Rooney Mara in Carol being campaigned for supporting awards. The strategy is as shameful as it is outright delusional since both actresses are clearly co-leads in their films. The Academy is under no obligation to listen to the campaigns and has ignored such attempts at manipulation in the past, notably when Kate Winslet campaigned for Supporting Actress for The Reader but was correctly nominated and won for Best Actress.

As of now, it is hard to say where the Academy will fall on this issue. The Screen Actors Guild took the bait and nominated both Vikander and Mara in supporting, while the Globes did not and nominated them both in lead. The Best Actress frontrunners as it stands are Brie Larson for Room and Saoirse Ronan for Brooklyn, in addition to Mara’s Carol co-star Cate Blanchett. If Vikander and Mara are properly placed, that is probably your five. If not, look to Jennifer Lawrence in Joy and Charlotte Rampling in 45 Years for your alternatives.

Larson, Ronan, and Rampling have been the critical darlings thus far, and I expect Ronan and Larson to battle it out for the win. My predicted nominees in the category are: Ronan for Brooklyn, Larson for Room, Blanchett for Carol, Mara for Carol, and Lawrence for Joy.

Best Supporting Actress

Kate Winslet in Steve Jobs.
The biggest problem with trying to slide around in categories is that it pushes other great, truly supporting performances out for leads. Case in point, Elizabeth Banks delivers one of my favorite, mostly unheralded performances of the year in Love and Mercy, and with five slots to play with, she would be a good bet for a nomination. However, if Vikander and Mara go supporting, they are almost certain nominees, leaving only three spaces for true supporting performances. If Banks misses out as a result, it would be a shame.

Should Vikander and Mara end up here, they are your frontrunners and will compete for the win. They will most likely be joined by Winslet for Steve Jobs, Jennifer Jason Leigh for The Hateful Eight, and Helen Mirren for the surprisingly popular Trumbo. Kristen Stewart is on the fringe for The Clouds of Sils Maria, and Vikander has also earned recognition for her performance in Ex Machina, which I would also call a lead but is at least a little more of a judgment call than her role in The Danish Girl.

The critics so far have spoken up for Stewart, Mara, Leigh, and Vikander for both performances, while the Screen Actors Guild added Rachel McAdams for Spotlight, and the Globes highlighted Jane Fonda for Youth. Anything could happen, and a lot of it is going to depend on category placement. My current predictions are: Vikander for The Danish Girl, Winslet for Steve Jobs, Mirren for Trumbo, Leigh for The Hateful Eight, and Stewart for The Clouds of Sils Maria.

Final thoughts

It is a lot of fun when we don’t know anything. We never really know anything about how these awards are going to go, but this year feels especially like anything can happen. By this time, we usually have one or two performances steamrolling through the season on the way to the Oscar stage, but so far, we just have a lot of great work being recognized by many different groups. To me, that’s cool, and it represents the most important reason these awards exist – to highlight stellar artistic achievements.

On a personal level, I have a few rooting interests. Dicaprio and Fassbender are my two favorite actors, and I would love for either one of them to accept an Academy Award. Shannon is another of my favorites, and I think 99 Homes deserves more recognition than it has gotten, so to see his name crop up in so many places has been a delight. The same goes for Vikander and Ex Machina. In the top category, Spotlight is hands down the best American film of the year, and if it does lead the way all season, I would be perfectly fine with that.

There is a lot of time left, and right now, we cannot count out any possibility. Everything could change, or maybe nothing will, but regardless, it will be a fun ride. So, let’s strap in.

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