Oscars: Scott Feinberg Picks Likely Contenders at the Halfway Point

Oscars Halfway Collage - H 2013

Oscars Halfway Collage - H 2013

This story first appeared in the July 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Labor Day, still two months away, is when the first major wave of this year's Oscar hopefuls will wash ashore at Venice, Telluride and Toronto. But why wait till then to start identifying awards contenders? The first half of the year has produced some promising possibilities.

Start with Ryan Coogler's feature directorial debut Fruitvale Station, the hottest title to emerge at Sundance, where it won the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award and quickly was snapped up by Harvey Weinstein. The tearjerker, inspired by the tragic true story of the last day in the life of a young black man in Oakland, is following the Sundance-Cannes-summer release trajectory that resulted in several major noms last year for Beasts of the Southern Wild. Michael B. Jordan is someone to watch in the lead acting race, while Coogler could stake a claim in the original screenplay category.

Sundance also showcased several movies that could show up in the writing categories: Before Midnight, the third installment in writer-director Richard Linklater's series of films about a couple played by Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, in adapted screenplay, and in original The Way, Way Back, a coming-of-age comedy written and directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, recent Oscar winners for The Descendants. And then there's Jeff Nichols' creepy Southern drama Mud, another original and a real indie breakout, having grossed more than $20 million. Its enthusiastic reviews could mean Matthew McConaughey is part of the supporting actor buzz, too.

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At Cannes, the Palme d'Or was awarded to Blue Is the Warmest Color, Abdellatif Kechiche's French-language drama about a lesbian relationship, but it's probably too risque for most Academy members. Three other entries stand a stronger shot at making the long trip from the Croisette to the Dolby Theatre on March 2. Inside Llewyn Davis, Ethan and Joel Coen's whimsical dramedy about a '60s folk singer, was the fest's Grand Prix winner, making its star Oscar Isaac a best actor contender and setting up the Coens for their sixth screenplay nom (they've won twice). Asghar Farhadi's dark relationship drama The Past earned Berenice Bejo the fest's best actress prize, and that could translate into her second Oscar nom in three years, following her success with The Artist. And Alexander Payne's black-and-white father-son pic Nebraska, for which Bruce Dern took home Cannes' best actor prize, stands a strong shot of bringing the 77-year-old a supporting nom and Payne his third directing nom (he's already won twice for adapted screenplay).

One of the best-received films in Cannes wasn't even in the competition: All Is Lost, writer-director J.C. Chandor's moving, dialogue-free follow-up to his dialogue-heavy Margin Call. Picture, director and original screenplay noms are all possibilities, but the film's strongest awards shot belongs to its sole actor, Robert Redford, who is onscreen for every minute of the film about an old man battling the sea.

In between the two fests, a number of theatrical releases featured memorable work: Chris O'Dowd was funny and charming as the lead of the Aussie musical-drama The Sapphires; Greta Gerwig was as quirky as ever in Frances Ha; Rooney Mara was delightfully unpredictable in Side Effects; Michael Shannon was at his creepiest as the serial killer at the center of The Iceman; Ryan Gosling was a first-rate bank robber in The Place Beyond the Pines, even if he was onscreen for just 40 minutes; Harrison Ford was virtually unrecognizable as baseball maverick Branch Rickey in 42; and Terence Stamp, an Oscar nominee 51 years ago, played a hardened man who loses his wife but finds his voice in Unfinished Song.

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So far, standout docs include Oscar winner Alex Gibney's timely We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks, Oscar nominee Sarah Polley's deeply personal Stories We Tell and Morgan Neville's showbiz-themed 20 Feet From Stardom.

The strongest animated features, mixed reviews notwithstanding, have been DreamWorks Animation's The Croods, Fox's Epic and Disney-Pixar's Monsters University -- which is preceded by a short, The Blue Umbrella, that is even better than the feature and a likely animated short nominee. Just remember, you heard it here first.