Oscars: Which of This Year's Early Films Will Be Remembered by Voters?

THR's awards analyst examines the prospects of 'Deadpool,' three male leads of music biopics and scripts by Academy favorites like Richard Linklater and the Coen brothers.
Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation/Photofest

Are there any films that have been released theatrically in the first quarter of 2016 that are likely to be remembered by Oscar voters at year's end? Aside from a couple of animated entries and a few Sundance stand-outs that have not yet hit theaters, the prospects look dim.

Granted, the post-New Year period is always a little thin, since most distributors believe Oscar voters are likelier to remember and be excited by films that arrive closer to the start of Oscar nomination voting (which this year begins on Dec. 31). But there have been a few major exceptions over the years, from The Godfather (March 24, 1972) to The Silence of the Lambs (Feb. 14, 1991) to Fargo (March 8, 1996) to Erin Brockovich (March 17, 2000) to The Grand Budapest Hotel (March 7, 2014), each of which came out early but still took home major Oscars.

Such a scenario does not look likely this year.

The biggest critical and commercial success thus far is Disney's animated Zootopia, which opened on March 4. It's got a near perfect Rotten Tomatoes rating of 99 percent and to date has grossed nearly $800 million worldwide. And that should assure it a slot in the feature animation contest. 

Among live-action movies, the big winner is Fox's Deadpool, the comic book movie starring Ryan Reynolds as its wisecracking Marvel antihero. The Feb. 2 release earned an 83 percent on RT and has grossed $752.7 million worldwide; with $355 million in domestic grosses, it currently ranks first in the North American market. But as enjoyable as it is, it does not feel like the Academy's cup of tea, with the possible exception of some tech categories.

The three lead actors who have generated some degree of buzz all star in music biopics: Tom Hiddleston as Hank Williams in I Saw the Light (March 25), Ethan Hawke as Chet Baker in Born to Be Blue (March 30) and Don Cheadle as Miles Davis in Miles Ahead (April 1). The problem is that each portrays a troubled genius in a film that is otherwise undistinguished. Also well-received, but little-seen are Christopher Plummer and Martin Landau as Holocaust survivors in Atom Egoyan's Remember (March 11).

One supporting actor has won particularly strong notices: John Goodman in the horror film 10 Cloverfield Lane.

On the distaff side, strong notices have been accorded to leads Tina Fey, who plays a green Middle East war correspondent in the unfortunately titled Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (March 4); Academy Award winner Helen Mirren, a British colonel who calls for a drone strike in Eye in the Sky (March 11); Catherine Frot, an aspiring opera singer in Marguerite (March 11); and two-time Oscar winner Sally Field, a cradle-robbing lost soul in Hello, My Name Is Doris (April 1).

Screenplays that have received praise include two dramedies adapted from other material, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, penned by Fey's frequent collaborator Robert Carlock, and Trey Edward Shults' Krisha (March 18). Jeff Nichols' original Midnight Special (March 18) and Richard Linklater's Dazed and Confused follow-up Everybody Wants Some!! (March 30) also have their fans. Most regard Ethan Coen and Joel Coen's Hail, Caesar! (Feb. 5) as one of the brothers' lesser efforts, but some of their loyal adherents are still championing it.

In addition to Zootopia, animated feature possibilities include Kung Fu Panda 3 (Jan. 29) — the prior two installments of which were nominated. Sound editing, sound mixing and VFX noms are probably the best options for 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi (Jan. 15) and Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (March 25) — but isn't that always the case with movies by Michael Bay and Zack Snyder, respectively?

Of course, the movies from the first quarter of 2016 that are most likely to show up on Academy members' ballots when all is said and done are those that have been seen so far only by Sundance audiences, such as Kenneth Lonergan's Manchester by the Sea, a drama about a family in crisis, which Amazon acquired for $10 million and will release on Nov. 18; and Nate Parker's The Birth of a Nation, a take on the 1831 Nat Turner-led slave rebellion, which Searchlight bought for a record $17.5 million and will release on Oct. 7.

And if The Birth of a Nation does not show up on ballots then, fairly or not, we're in for #OscarsSoWhite3.