The Year's First Oscar Hopefuls Stake a Claim (Analysis)

THR's awards analyst recaps the standouts from Sundance, Cannes and everything in between and ponders which movies might have the staying power to contend for nominations more than six months from now.
Steve Carell in "Foxcatcher"

The film "awards season" doesn't really kick off until Labor Day weekend. But the first half of 2014 has already produced several buzzed-about films, which could defy the odds and score major Oscar noms in January 2015, more than six months after their theatrical debuts.

Only a small handful of films seem to have a realistic hope of landing best picture noms.

Two standouts came out of Sundance:

The first, Whiplash, Damien Chazelle's drama about a young musician (Miles Teller) and his instructor (veteran character actor J.K. Simmons, a serious supporting actor possibility), was awarded both the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award. (Those two honors have gone to the same film only four other times; one of those films, Precious, wound up with a best pic nom.) The film was picked up at the fest by Sony Pictures Classics and will be released on Oct. 10.

The second, Richard Linklater's Boyhood, was shot intermittently over 12 years and offers a unique portrait of childhood and parenting. It stars the young newcomer Ellar Coltrane and frequent Linklater collaborator Ethan Hawke (see: the Before films), but its best prospect for an acting nom may be veteran Patricia Arquette in a major comeback role, which will probably be classified as supporting. IFC Films will release the film on July 11.

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Later in the spring, Fox Searchlight released Wes Anderson's dramedy The Grand Budapest Hotel, with Ralph Fiennes leading an impressive ensemble. The film quickly blew past Moonrise Kingdom to become Anderson's highest-grossing film — an art house hit, it took in $58 million domestically and nearly twice that amount worldwide — but the filmmaker's quirky style and sensibility are not everyone's cup of tea, and none of his previous films have made it to the Oscars in the top category.

Cannes, meanwhile, produced two more standouts, both of which are long-held Sony Classics properties.

The first, Foxcatcher, recounts a dark true story and is directed by Bennett Miller — whose prior two films received best pic noms, and who was awarded the fest's best director prize for this one — and is centered around unexpected leading performances by Steve Carell (the funnyman is virtually unrecognizable as a dark and twisted character under major prosthetics) and Channing Tatum (it turns out he has some real acting chops), with Mark Ruffalo in support. It will open on Nov. 14.

The second, Mr. Turner, is a drama, written and directed by Mike Leigh, about the complicated later years of an eccentric British painter. The title character is played, in a breakout performance, by veteran character actor Timothy Spall, who won the fest's best actor prize and seems a strong contender for an Oscar nom, as well. (Leigh has previously guided to acting noms three thesps — Brenda Blethyn, Marianne Jean-Baptiste and Imelda Staunton — all of whom were theretofore little-known, like Spall.) It will open on Dec. 19.

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A number of other films seem to stand stronger chances of attaining recognition in other categories.

There have been three remarkable performances by actresses in leading roles in films that debuted on the fest circuit last year but are being released this year by The Weinstein Co.: Past winner Marion Cotillard is heartbreaking as a 1920s immigrant to America in James Gray's The Immigrant. Past nominee Keira Knightley is charming — and reveals a surprisingly strong voice — in John Carney's Once follow-up Begin Again. And past nominee Jessica Chastain is utterly haunting in The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby. (The first two have already opened; the third opens Sept. 26.)

Additionally, at Cannes, Hilary Swank impressed many with her return to the screen in Tommy Lee Jones' The Homesman (Saban Films and Roadside Attractions, Nov. 7), and Julianne Moore won raves — and the fest's best actress prize — for David Cronenberg's Hollywood satire Maps to the Stars (eOne Entertainment, date TBD). I'm told that due to the relatively small size of her part, Moore will be pushed in the supporting actress Oscar race, which should increase the chances of her landing a fifth Oscar nom. Remarkably, the revered vet has never taken home the prize.

Among actors, the standouts, so far, have been Tom Hardy, the sole onscreen actor in Steven Knight's experimental Locke (A24), and Begin Again's Ruffalo, who has never been better — and who might be able to campaign in the supporting category and land a nom.

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Strong screenplay contenders include a Sundance standout that has yet to open, publicist-turned-filmmaker Justin Simien's Dear White People (Lionsgate-Roadside Attractions, Oct. 17), a dramedy about race; a spring release, Jon Favreau's delectable Chef (Open Road Films); plus, perhaps, Carney for Begin Again, Linklater for Boyhood, Gray for The Immigrant and Knight for Locke.

Animated feature possibilities include two sequels to popular kids' flicks, How to Train Your Dragon 2 (DreamWorks Animation), which has received off-the-charts reviews, and Rio 2 (20th Century Fox), as well as The Lego Movie (Warner Bros.) — all of which were released in 3D.

Top docs so far include Sundance winner The Case Against 8 (HBO Documentary Films), in which Ryan White and Ben Cotner chronicle the legal fight for gay marriage; Steve James' tearjerking take on Roger Ebert's memoir, Life Itself (Magnolia), which also premiered in Park City; past winner Freida Lee Mock's revisitation of Anita Hill's sexual harassment struggle, Anita (Samuel Goldwyn Films); Tribeca and Seattle audience award winner Keep on Keepin On (Radius-TWC), about a jazz legend and his blind piano prodigy; and two films that were first seen at last year's Toronto Film Fest, Mike Myers' portrait of veteran music manager Shep Gordon, Supermensch (Radius-TWC), and John Maloof and Charlie Siskel's reconstruction of the life of a late, great photographer, Finding Vivian Maier (IFC Films).

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The foreign-language film race is totally dependent upon which films countries ultimately decide to submit. France already has a number of strong options, including last year's Palme d'Or winner, Blue Is the Warmest Color (IFC), a lesbian love story which is still eligible in this category because it wasn't released in France before Sept. 30 of last year. This year's Palme winner, Winter Sleep (Adopt Films), a three-hour drama about a self-absorbed hotelier, will probably be Turkey's entry. China might well submit Zhang Yimou's historical romance Coming Home (SPC), which features a memorable perf by Gong Li. Russia could go with Leviathan (SPC), a play on the book of Job, but it is rather critical of present-day Russian leadership, so that's far from a sure thing. Italy has The Wonders, a drama about beekeepers that won the Grand Prix at Cannes, beating out brothers Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne's workplace drama Two Days, One Night, which Belgium may enter. And Argentina could go in a lighter direction with the Pedro Almodovar-produced comedy Wild Tales.

And then there are several films that have a shot at award recognition in only craft and/or technical categories like film editing, makeup, sound editing, sound mixing and visual effects. They include the biblical epic Noah (Paramount); the disaster flick Godzilla (Warner Bros.); the fantasy film Maleficent (Disney); the biopic Grace of Monaco (The Weinstein Co.); the musical Jersey Boys (Warner Bros.); and the sequels The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (Sony), Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Disney), Transformers: Age of Extinction (Paramount) and X-Men: Days of Future Past (20th Century Fox).

These days, the first six months of the year are, for lovers of quality movies, a very dark time, but, as you can see, there have also been plenty of rays of light.

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg