Oscar Preview: Precursor Winners & Losers, Week 1

Now that Precursor Season has begun, I’m going to be providing a weekly update highlighting the films that have won and lost momentum through the precursor awards (and in some cases other outside influences).

Before the Academy moved their annual awards up into February, precursor season didn’t start until the middle of December. Nowadays, the earliest nominations announcement comes in November from the Independent Spirit Awards. Typically, they are first out of the gate, but the Producers Guild pushed their documentary nominees ahead by a week, thus putting them out first. Here are the results of those contests in terms of how they might affect the conversation around the Oscar race this year.

But, before we get into this week’s winners and losers, let’s take a look at what’s coming up this week:

Week 2

Tuesday, Dec. 1 – Annie Awards Nominations (Official)
Tuesday, Dec. 1 – Satellites Nominations (Official)
Tuesday, Dec. 1 – National Board of Review Awards (Official)
Wednesday, Dec. 2 – New York Critics Awards (Official)
Saturday, Dec. 5 – DC Critics Nominations (Unconfirmed)
Saturday, Dec. 5 – Boston Online Critics Awards (Unconfirmed)
Sunday, Dec. 6 – Boston Critics Awards (Official)
Sunday, Dec. 6 – Los Angeles Critics Awards (Unconfirmed)
Sunday, Dec. 6 – NY Online Critics Awards (Unconfirmed)
Monday, Dec. 7 – Grammy Awards Nominations (Official)
Monday, Dec. 7 – Online Critics Nominations (Official)
Monday, Dec. 7 – DC Critics Awards (Official)

Big Winners

Carol. Since its premiere at Cannes, Todd Haynes lesbian drama has been a consistent presence on prognosticators’ lists for potential Oscar nominees. Its showing at the Spirit Awards confirm this to be the case and add an interesting wrinkle to Harvey Weinstein’s planned campaign. In it, co-leads Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara are split between lead and support rather than going for the rare feat of having double Best Actress nominees (something that hasn’t happened in 25 years). The Spirit Awards placed her clearly in lead and other than the Globe Awards, SAG is likely to put her back in Support. Will that damage her chances, not if precursors start rewarding Mara instead of Blanchett in lead. Harvey’s plan may have been to get both Blanchett and Mara awards, but the Spirits, which gave Carol the most nominations, have shown that it’s a real possibility that Blanchett and Mara will go head-to-head rather than hand-in-hand.
Spotlight also built traction after its festival performance. Many have considered the film to be the one-to-beat at the Oscars this year, but as All the President’s Men showcases, that’s not always a likelihood. While President’s Men wasn’t thought to be the frontrunner that year, Spotlight has all it needs to push for that consideration. With the Spirit Awards rubber-stamping those ideas, it seems a safer bet, at least in terms of a nomination, than anything else.
James White. Every year, a film shows up late in the cycle that build such a reputation that its Oscar potential elevates, though is perhaps a bit over-inflated. James White is that kind of film. Before its release, no one had any idea it was a competitor, but after a strong showing with the Spirit Awards, Cynthia Nixon has become a strong contender for a Best Supporting Actress nomination, while the film enters the conversation enough that it could make inroads in the down-ballot category of Best Original Screenplay even if its chances aren’t nearly as good as the commentariat would have you believe. The screenplay may not make it, but Nixon has very light competition ahead of her, so ultimately the film’s late peak may help it more than it normally would.
Beasts of No Nation is Netflix’s first contender for non-documentary prizes at the Oscars. Like with the Emmys, their first entry has earned a great deal of press and enters the race at an advantage. The problem is that the Academy, unlike the Emmys, is distrustful of new delivery methods. They’ve largely resisted films that have day-and-date releases because the studios don’t feel it’s a winning business model, a fact that Netflix utterly disagrees with. Beast of No Nation has come out of the gate running, picking up a strong number of Spirit Awards nominations. While that might look like a great selling point, it’s the critics groups that will determine if the film has what it takes to move beyond the Spirit Awards.
Anomalisa‘s nomination for Best Film is a rarity for an animated feature. Getting in when other prominent films are left off is a boon to the film. Yet, a Best Picture nomination from the Academy seems a bit of a stretch, especially with Inside Out as the de facto animated contender for that category. However, the strong appearance at the Spirit Awards give the film some needed visibility, something necessary to make a play for a Best Animated Feature nomination. Plenty of indie films have made it in with the Academy, but movies like Anomalisa feel like outsiders rather than insiders, giving the Academy’s animation voters pause to recognize it. Look at films like Scanner Darkly, The Simpsons Movie and The Lego Movie as prime examples of perceived outsiders (outsiders for vastly differing reasons each) failing to garner enough support for a nomination. This Spirit Awards nod will help, but perhaps not enough.
Amy is the only documentary about the music industry that has much of a chance this year in the Best Documentary Feature race. The doc was incredibly well received and has tragic elements to it. To get a nomination from the Producers Guild is a boon, but not always the best of one. Most of the PGA’s Best Documentary selections fail to earn Oscar consideration. The only reason this one has a shot is because it has had strong press for a long time and has built plenty of reputation ahead of the voting period.
The Look of Silence follows up Joshua Oppenheimer’s well received and Oscar almost-won film The Act of Killing. His unusual style earned him recognition, but failed to pull enough support for a win. This time, he’s trying something in a similar vein, a thematic follow-up to Act of Killing, and that could be enough to earn him his second nomination.

Big Losers

Room was such a strong player out of the Toronto International Film Festival, it was placed into many predictions as a Best Picture contender along with nominations for Brie Larson in Best Actress and a Best Adapted Screenplay nod. However, the fact that the Spirit Awards, who should have heavily embraced the film, saw fit to give it only three nominations (Best Female Lead, Best Editing and Best First Screenplay), only one of which is in a major category for this group. That casts serious doubt on whether it can leverage the audience award from TIFF into more than a Best Actress nomination. It’s still entirely possible, especially if it finds recognition elsewhere in the precursors, but I suspect only Larson will get any traction and the film may suffer as a result of its lack of inclusion at the Spirits.
Love & Mercy fared even worse than Room with its single nomination for Best Supporting Male Paul Dano. The film has enjoyed a strong word-of-mouth campaign since its release much earlier this year. While it hasn’t exactly translated into huge box office, the film’s solid notices from critics gave it traction it might not have otherwise had. There was some talk that it could make a limited play at the Oscars, but after being almost entirely shut out by an organization that should have embraced it, the official nail may be in this film’s coffin.

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