Berlin: Michael Shannon, Cynthia Nixon Performances Spark Early Oscar Talk

Midnight Special Michael Shannon Still - H 2016
Ben Rothstein/Warner Bros. Entertainment

Midnight Special Michael Shannon Still - H 2016

Charlotte Rampling's '45 Years' awards-season buzz began at the Berlinale. Now, insiders see a handful of films and performances that also could go the distance.

The Berlin International Film Festival has a spotty record of delivering films that go on to Oscar glory. The awards-season success of Berlin's 2014 lineup, which included Wes Anderson's Grand Budapest Hotel (nine nominations, four Oscars) and Boyhood (six noms, a best supporting actress win for Patricia Arquette) is the exception to the rule.

More typical was last year’s Berlinale, where the only Oscar-nominated performance to come out of the festival was Charlotte Rampling's. Her road to the 2016 Academy Awards started with the best actress Silver Bear she picked up for Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years. Co-star Tom Courtenay took Berlin’s best actor prize, and the film was snatched up by Sundance Selects for U.S. distribution.

"It was an important debut," says Arianna Bocco, senior vp acquisitions for IFC Films & Sundance Selects. "Charlotte and Tom’s acting wins obviously set the stage for the film with the critics and set us up to position the film as an awards film."

But while few expect a flood of awards contenders to emerge from Berlin’s 2016 lineup, Oscar handicappers are eyeing a handful of projects and performances that could break out and go the distance.

Jeff Nichols’ sci-fi chase drama Midnight Special premiered in competition and opened to strong reviews, leading to speculation that it could become an awards contender. While genre films aren’t often a part of the Oscar discussion and the movie has an early (March 18) opening in the U.S., Michael Shannon’s performance as a father protecting his superpowered young son and Kirsten Dunst’s weighty role as the mother could earn recognition further down the line.

Loving, another film from Nichols, screened at the European Film Market and impressed awards-season specialists Focus Features. In its first acquisition since ousting Peter Schlessel to refocus on specialty films, Focus bought Loving for the U.S. market for about $9 million. The true-life story, starring Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga as an interracial couple in the 1950s, seems like obvious Oscar bait.

Other likely contenders to follow in Rampling’s Berlin-to-Oscar-nomination footsteps are Emma Thompson and Brendan Gleeson as a couple who resist the Nazis in Vincent Perez’s Alone in Berlin; Colin Firth and Jude Law in Michael Grandage’s literary biopic Genius; and French icon Isabelle Huppert, who dazzled in the competition entry Things to Come and is being tipped as a favorite for Berlin’s best actress prize. Cynthia Nixon also is getting raves for her portrayal of Emily Dickinson in Terence Davies’ A Quiet Passion.

As with Boyhood, two films playing in Berlin after strong debuts at Sundance could continue to pick up steam. Former Focus chief James Schamus’ Indignation could generate heat for supporting actor Tracy Letts (who has a buzzworthy 10-minute battle-of-the-wits scene with Logan Lerman), while Ira Sachs’ Little Men could do the same for Greg Kinnear.

Also watch out for Andre Techine’s Being 17, which, depending on what’s offered in Cannes, could be France’s official Oscar submission, and, for documentaries, Gianfranco Rosi’s refugee film Fire at Sea is a clear frontrunner to win a Golden Bear on Saturday.

"Typically, there are always a few films that stand out for the U.S. market, whether they are the high-end foreign-language films or prestigious English-language films," says Bocco. "[Berlin is] extremely focused on the filmmakers, and the festival offers a wide variety of films to consider."