Oscars: It's Never Too Early for 2016 Hopefuls to Stake a Claim (Analysis)

THR's awards analyst highlights a host of possible contenders, from fest fave 'The Birth of a Nation' to animated feature 'Zootopia' to doc feature 'Life, Animated' to foreign-language film 'Julieta.'
Courtesy of Sundance Institute
'The Birth of a Nation'

Yes, I understand, it's premature to begin making Oscar predictions. Most of the movies that the studios internally expect to be their top contenders haven't even begun screening yet — some, like Denzel Washington's Fences, because they only just wrapped production.

Nevertheless, as we hit the mid-year point of 2016, it's worth remembering that last year, by this point, festivalgoers had already seen a film that went on to garner nominations for best picture, director, actress and screenplay (Brooklyn, which debuted in Sundance), as well as the eventual documentary and foreign-language film Oscar-winners (Amy and Son of Saul, respectively, which both bowed at Cannes). The general public had already seen the movie that wound up winning more Oscars than any other (Mad Max: Fury Road, which arrived in theaters on May 15), and the eventual best visual effects Oscar-winner (April 10's Ex Machina).

Are there 2016 films that could follow similar trajectories? Of course there are.

The big sensation out of Sundance was Nate Parker's directorial debut The Birth of a Nation, a film about the slave rebellion led by Nat Turner — played by Parker — which was hailed as both well-made and timely (it was unveiled just as the #OscarsSoWhite2 controversy was igniting). It sold to awards-specialist Fox Searchlight for a record $17.5 million shortly before winning the fest's Grand Jury Prize. And it seems poised to land noms across a host of top categories after it is released on Oct. 7 — and if it doesn't, the outcry will be so loud that it could overwhelm the 89th Oscars.

There are only a few other films at this point that have generated best pic-caliber buzz. Kenneth Lonergan's Casey Affleck-led drama, Manchester by the Sea, was a critical hit in Park City, leading to another big-dollar sale. Amazon picked it up for $10 million and will release it Nov. 18. Well-received in Cannes was Loving, a drama, written and directed by Jeff Nichols, about the couple at the center of the landmark Loving v. Virginia interracial marriage Supreme Court case, for which leading lady Ruth Negga has generated major buzz. And Jon Favreau's remake of The Jungle Book, released April 4, proved a critical and commercial hit.

Theoretically, The Jungle Book also could contend for the best animated feature Oscar, given all its CGI-created animals, although Disney is unlikely to submit it in that category, which is looking especially crowded and competitive this year — not least of all with Disney's own March 4 release Zootopia, which is still the year's best-reviewed film, and Pixar's new arrival Finding Dory, the sequel to 2003 winner Finding Nemo. Those two films also could wind up in the best original screenplay and best adapted screenplay races, respectively.

In addition to Parker and Affleck, best actor possibilities include last year's best supporting actor winner Mark Rylance for his reunion with Steven Spielberg on The BFG (which played out of competition in Cannes), in which Rylance contributed a motion-capture performance as the title giant. And then there are the three stars of biopics about dead musicians — Ethan Hawke for playing Chet Baker in Born to Be Blue (March 25), Tom Hiddleston for his Hank Williams in I Saw the Light (March 25) and Don Cheadle for his Miles Davis in Miles Ahead (April 1). All three films were first seen on last fall's festival circuits, and each of the three actors was deemed to be considerably better than the films themselves.

Best actress prospects, apart from Negga, include three veteran Academy favorites in contemporary dramas: Helen Mirren for her drone commander in Eye in the Sky (March 11), Sally Field for her late-life-crisis-plagued eponymous character in Hello, My Name Is Doris (April 1) and Susan Sarandon for her meddling mother in The Meddler (April 22). Also be sure to keep an eye out for Meryl Streep's performance as a terrible opera singer in Florence Foster Jenkins, an August release which has already begun screening and generating buzz.

Three longer shots — each young actresses in period pieces — are Kate Beckinsale for the Jane Austen adaptation Love & Friendship (May 13), which brought her career-best reviews; Rebecca Hall for depicting TV reporter Christine Chubbuck's story in Christine (which debuted at Sundance); and Kristen Stewart for the Hollywood-set Cafe Society (Cannes' opening-night film), the latest strong female role penned by Woody Allen, which moviegoers can see for themselves when Amazon releases it theatrically July 15.

As for supporting players, many think John Goodman deserves to receive his first Oscar nom, in the best supporting actor category, for the horror tale 10 Cloverfield Lane (March 11), and that Michelle Williams ought to be in the mix for her fourth nom, in the best supporting actress category, for Manchester by the Sea.

Joining The Birth of a Nation, Zootopia, Manchester by the Sea and Loving on the list of contenders for best original screenplay, a category in which eccentricity is often rewarded, are a handful of very eccentric films: Ethan Coen and Joel Coen's Hail Caesar! (Feb. 1), Jeff Nichols' Midnight Special (March 18), Richard Linklater's Everybody Wants Some!! (March 30), John Carney's Sing Street (April 15), Yorgos Lanthimos' The Lobster (May 13) and past winner Pedro Almodovar's Julieta (which debuted at Cannes and will be a top contender for best foreign language film if Spain submits it).

Over on the adapted side, the best bet apart from Finding Dory (which under Academy rules will be considered adapted because it is based on existing characters), The Jungle Book and The BFG may well be Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick's genre-subverting Deadpool (Feb. 12), even if it has to be considered a long shot.

No category already has as many interesting, serious contenders as best documentary feature. It's hard to imagine the eventual shortlist of 15 not including Life, Animated, about an autistic child finding his voice through Disney animated movies, for which Oscar winner Roger Ross Williams won Sundance's best director prize; Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg Weiner, about former Congressman Anthony Wiener, which won Sundance's doc Grand Jury Prize; Oscar nominees Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady's Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You, which opened Sundance; Clay Tweel's Gleason, about former NFL player Steve Gleason's battle with ALS, which Amazon acquired for $3 million at Sundance; and Peabody and Emmy-winning director Ezra Edelman's seven-and-a-half-hour O.J.: Made in America, which got an Oscar-qualifying theatrical run prior to its TV airing on ESPN.

Other docs generating significant buzz on the fest circuit include Oscar winners Laura Poitras' Julian Assange portrait Risk and Alex Gibney's examination of cyberwar Zero Days; Andrew Rossi's Anna Wintour-produced fashion doc First Monday in May, about the annual Met Gala; Werner Herzog's existential Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World; Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow's De Palma and Kirsten Johnson's Cameraperson, profiles of a director and cinematographer, respectively; Thorsten Schütte's Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words, Laura Hope's All Eyes and Ears, Jeff Feuerzeig's Author: The JT Leroy Story and Laura Gabbert's City of Gold, portraits of a musician, ambassador, author and food critic, respectively; Dawn Porter's abortion-rights doc Trapped; Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe's education doc The Bad Kids; three gun violence docs, Stephanie Soechtig's Katie Couric-produced Under the Gun, Keith Maitland's Meredith Vieira-produced Tower and Kim A. Snyder's Newtown; and a handful of colorful portraits of eccentrics, Adam Irving's Off the Rails, Penny Lane's Nuts!, Will Allen's Holy Hell, Robert Greene's Kate Plays Christine and David Farrier and Dylan Reeve's Tickled.

In terms of music, it's foolhardy to ever bet against John Williams, who composed The BFG's original score. And it would be wise to keep an eye on four tunes from huge pop stars: "Go Now," sung by Adam Levine in Sing Street (both of Carney's two previous features yielded best original song noms, one of which resulted in a win and the other of which was sung by Levine); "I'm So Humble" from Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, which Levine performs with The Lonely Island; "Fire," the Pink-performed tune from Alice Through the Looking Glass; and an already released and chart-topping Justin Timberlake number from the forthcoming animated movie Trolls, "Can’t Stop the Feeling!"

And last but certainly not least, there are the hopefuls in the technical categories — cinematography, film editing, sound editing, sound mixing and visual effects — that include the work on display in The Jungle Book and The BFG, plus Anthony and Joe Russo's Captain America: Civil War (May 6), the year's highest-grossing film so far, and Michael Bay's 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi (Jan. 15), Zack Snyder's Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (March 25), Craig Gillespie's The Finest Hours (Jan. 29), Roland Emmerich's Independence Day: Resurgence (June 24) and Bryan Singer's X-Men: Apocalypse (May 27).