Oscars: No Sure-Fire Best Picture Contenders at Midway Point

Let me begin by begging your pardon for taking some time before delivering my annual assessment of Oscar prospects from the first half of the year. Having missed January's Sundance Film Festival in order to cover the homestretch of the last Oscar race in Los Angeles and May's Cannes Film Festival to cover the homestretch of the Tonys race in New York, I've been playing catch-up — attending screenings, popping in screeners and bingeing at various other film fests including the Boulder International Film Festival, the Tribeca Film Festival, the Los Angeles Film Festival and the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in the Czech Republic.

At this point, I finally feel like I've seen enough of what's out there to be able to offer an opinion — and yet I feel less confident than ever about doing so. Why? Because the Academy itself has changed greatly over the past year. Roughly one-fifth of the organization's current membership joined since June 2016, and the new members are demographically very different from the other four-fifths, making things somewhat less predictable. (As evidence: Moonlight beating La La Land in the biggest best picture upset in Oscar history.)

Nevertheless, I'll offer my best guess of where things stand: I don't think we've seen a best picture Oscar nominee yet, but there are many elements from the films that we have seen that could register in other categories.

Theatrically releasing a film before August automatically means it faces a steep uphill climb. Only four pre-June releases have garnered best picture noms since the turn of the century — March 2000's Erin Brockovich, May 2009's Up, March 2014's The Grand Budapest Hotel and May 2015's Mad Max: Fury Road. And just a handful of June and July releases have gone the distance — June 2009's The Hurt Locker, June 2010's Toy Story 3, July 2010's Inception and The Kids Are All Right and July 2014's Boyhood. That's partly because Academy members tend to forget early releases when inundated with appetizing third- and fourth-quarter releases and partly because distributors tend to hoard their strongest product for the year's third and fourth quarters when they're most likely to be remembered.

There are only four films from 2017's first half that I can even imagine overcoming their early release dates if everything breaks their way. Two are smaller movies: Jordan Peele's Get Out (Universal), a satire of present-day race relations, which was made for just $4.5 million but has grossed more than $250 million worldwide since its February release and still possesses the year's highest Rotten Tomatoes score, 99 percent; and Michael Showalter's The Big Sick (Lionsgate/Amazon), a tear-jerking comedy about a Pakistani immigrant, currently at 97 percent on RT, that was a Sundance sensation and is just beginning to move into wider release.

The other two are big-studio productions: Patty Jenkins' Wonder Woman (Warner Bros.), the first superhero film in either the DC or Marvel movie universes that centers on a female character, which has grossed $725 million worldwide — more than any other live-action film ever directed by a woman — and which stands at a formidable 92 percent on RT; and Matt Reeves' War for the Planet of the Apes (Fox), the biblically undertoned closing chapter of an acclaimed trilogy, which doesn't open theatrically until Friday but which already has logged an impressive RT score of 95 percent.

The best picture category can contain anywhere from five to 10 nominees, depending on vote tallies. The category's cap of five nominees was expanded to a guaranteed 10 ahead of the 2010 awards, in the hope that doing so might bring into the fold a popcorn movie or two along the lines of The Dark Knight, the snub of which caused widespread outrage the previous year. But just two years after that, the organization adopted the current fluctuating size because the experiment had largely failed to yield different sorts of best picture nominees, and the Academy also didn't want to guarantee 10 nominees in a year in which fewer films might be worthy.

Wonder Woman, which played very well at its official Academy screenings, could be the rare popcorn movie that breaks into the category — it feels like a game changer in Hollywood, with a subtext that members may particularly want to champion in the aftermath of the 2016 election that saw the defeat of the first female candidate to be nominated for president by a major U.S. political party, and nothing would make the Academy or ABC happier. But if Deadpool, which also got good reviews but didn't get a best pic nomination, couldn't make it, it seems unlikely that Wonder Woman will. It seems likelier that it would be acknowledged in the best director category, and certainly in below-the-line categories, where War for the Planet of the Apes also should do well. Get Out's Peele also could register with the directors, but I suspect that he and his film are likelier to be embraced by the writers with an original screenplay nom; The Big Sick, which was written by Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon, also stands its best shot in that category. And the well-reviewed, E.T.-like Cannes selection Okja (Netflix), directed by the South Korean auteur Bong Joon-ho from a script by Jon Ronson, could be a sleeper with directors and writers.

As for performances? Few strong bets have emerged. The lead actor field could include The Big Sick's Nanjiani and/or Get Out's Daniel Kaluuya, both breakouts, or the never-nominated vets Richard Gere for Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer (Sony Classics) and Sam Elliott for The Hero (The Orchard) if their films' respective distributors mount vigorous campaigns. Also, the indie community might champion the defending best actor Spirit Award and Oscar winner, Casey Affleck, for David Lowery's critically heralded A Ghost Story (A24), but the film — like Affleck's performance, much of it given under a white sheet — is too out-there for most Academy members.

In the lead actress field, Wonder Woman's Gal Gadot has her backers, but likelier possibilities include several women who anchored art house fare: Rachel Weisz for Roger Michell's My Cousin Rachel (Fox Searchlight), playing a woman suspected of murder, a part previously brought to the screen 65 years ago by Olivia de Havilland en route to a Golden Globe nom; Sally Hawkins for Aisling Walsh's Maudie (Sony Classics), as the disabled Canadian folk artist Maud Lewis in a part particularly notable for its extreme physical demands; Salma Hayek for Miguel Arteta's Beatriz at Dinner (Roadside Attractions), playing the film's title character, a poor Mexican immigrant who winds up in an uncomfortable conversation; and Nicole Kidman for Cannes best director winner Sofia Coppola's The Beguiled (Focus Features), as the head of a girls school during the Civil War.

Revered veterans tend to do well in the supporting categories, so look out for Patrick Stewart, who is at the top of his game as the declining founder of the X-Men in James Mangold's Logan (Fox), an unconventional and acclaimed capper to that highly profitable franchise; John Lithgow, who plays Hayek's Trumpian tormentor in Beatriz at Dinner; Ethan Hawke, for playing Hawkins' hard-hearted husband in Maudie; and both Ray Romano and Oscar winner Holly Hunter as the bickering parents of a hospitalized daughter in The Big Sick.

We already have seen many formidable contenders for craft and technical Oscars. Oscar winner Bill Condon's Beauty and the Beast (Disney), a live-action remake of the 1991 classic that became the first animated film ever to garner a best picture Oscar nom, is 2017's only film that has grossed more than a half-billion dollars domestically, and it will get an across-the-board push from its studio. But considering that 2016's The Jungle Book live-action remake was even better received and still couldn't land a best picture nom, it seems likely that Beauty also will have to settle for below-the-line recognition. It stands a strong shot for its costume design, production design, sound editing, sound mixing and visual effects, as well as one or two (the Academy's maximum for a single film) of its three original songs — "How Does a Moment Last Forever," "Days in the Sun" and the strongest, "Evermore" — which were written by Alan Menken (who garnered three original song noms and one original score nom for the 1991 version, winning in both categories) and Tim Rice (with whom Menken shares another Oscar for an original song, from 1992's Aladdin).

War for the Planet of the Apes seems destined to follow in the footsteps of the two installments of the franchise that immediately preceded it, 2011's Rise of the Planet of the Apes and 2014's Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, which each received VFX noms. War could crack the sound categories, too, and, being the closing installment of the 21st century trilogy, might finally be the one that convinces the Academy to grant special recognition — perhaps an honorary Oscar — to the undisputed greatest motion-capture performer of all-time, Andy Serkis, who has been perennially overlooked by the actors branch. Meanwhile, Wonder Woman also is a possibility in the costume design, production design, sound editing, sound mixing and VFX categories. The Beguiled could find backing in the cinematography, costume design and production design categories. Kong: Skull Island (Warner Bros.) has cinematography and VFX hopes. Baby Driver seems a natural for the sound categories. And, in the original song category, don't count out Dark Rooms' ethereal "I Get Overwhelmed" from A Ghost Story.

Those are the Oscar-friendly films that already have had a U.S. theatrical release or will get one prior to Aug. 1. There are several other Oscar-caliber films that already premiered at 2017 film fests but won't open in the U.S. until the fall, such as Luca Guadagnino's Sundance sensation Call Me by Your Name (Sony Classics), a romantic drama about a gay couple in 1980s Italy, which is dated for Nov. 24. And there also are several examples of work within festival films that also might capture the Academy's attention, such as two career-best performances featured in films that were unveiled at Cannes, one given by Robert Pattinson, shedding his Twilight baggage to play a small-time criminal in Good Time (A24), and another by Diane Kruger, playing a woman reeling after a family tragedy in the German drama In the Fade, for which she was awarded Cannes' best actress prize. (Good Time opens Aug. 11; In the Fade somehow does not yet have a U.S. distributor — although it feels very Sony Classics to me — and therefore has not been dated.)

The 2017-2018 awards season won't truly begin to come into focus until Labor Day weekend, when the understated Telluride Film Festival — which has screened the last seven films that went on to win the best picture Oscar — gets underway in the Rockies. Fest directors Tom Luddy and Julie Huntsinger recently flew in to Hollywood to whet friends' appetites at a London West Hollywood cocktail party that drew the likes of Barry Jenkins, Werner Herzog and Roger Corman, shortly after which they announced that two-time Oscar-nominated documentarian Joshua Oppenheimer will serve as the fest's guest director this year. The 44th edition of Telluride, which already has sold out of admission passes, starts Sept. 1.

Coming later this week: A look at 2017's first-half documentary feature and foreign language film contenders.

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