Oscar Preview: Weekend of Dec. 26-28, 2014

We had eight films release this past weekend with the potential for Oscar nominations.

Big Eyes

Once upon a time, Tim Burton was a wunderkind, a film director with great potential and an even greater fanbase. However, as the years have drifted by, Burton’s enthusiasts have dwindled in number with one creative and critical drubbing after another. Not since Ed Wood has a film had much in the way of Oscar potential outside of the creative categories, where he has always dominated.

Big Eyes, about an art con of some notoriety, gave us the first chance we’ve had in several years to give a Burton movie an opportunity to compete against the big boys at the Oscars. However, as with all recent Burton outings, the film released and critics began weighing in on the film, giving it a positive-to-middling response. Amy Adams, once thought to be a major player for Oscar in the Best Actress category has fallen to a distant 7th in the race, though she could still pull things out.

The film is likely to find itself sequestered to the creative categories once again with Best Production Design and Best Costume Design its best chances at getting recognized, though some thing the song “Big Eyes” could be an Oscar nominee for the film as well. Young musical artists aren’t faring well with the Academy, though.

Into the Woods

With Chicago, the modern stage musical-to-screen era took a turn towards the exciting when it won six Academy Awards including Best Picture. Since then, at least one major adaptation has earned buzz going into Oscar season every year since. This year, there were three stage musicals with that potential. Jersey Boys opened to lukewarm reviews earlier this year. Annie had “dud” written all over it since it was announced and, unsurprisingly, lived up to that potential. Into the Woods, however, managed to stave off doubt and emerge from the season as the go-to behemoth Oscar voters were sure to recognize.

For the most part, that thought process has been born out. Into the Woods is doing well at the box office (about on par with the last major Oscar contending musical, Les Misérables) and has a satisfactory, though unimpressive response from critics. After director Rob Marshall’s 2009 critical bomb Nine, no one was certain he would be able to return to Oscar’s good graces. He’s not likely to figure in Best Director or most major categories outside of Meryl Streep’s supporting performance, but the film is still chugging along as a possible Best Picture nominee.

Move out of the top categories, and you have a film that’s sure to do much better with Oscar voters. Best Production Design and Best Costume Design seem certain. Best Sound Mixing is a common get for most musicals, but that may be where the film’s chances are limited. It didn’t make the finalist list for either Best Makeup or Best Visual Effects, the cinematography and editing aren’t earning much attention and apart from Best Supporting Actress, the film’s potential fifth nomination is Best Picture and even that prospect is holding on by a sliver. Ultimately, I suspect enough voters will tick the film off on their list to get it a Best Picture nod, but it’s one of the lower-rung films and could easily be knocked off by a fewer-than-ten slate.

Unbroken

Before anyone saw the film, Angelina Jolie’s second feature as a director was building the kind of buzz that guarantees Oscar consideration even if it disappoints. Disappointment is a bit of an understatement. Critics are decidedly split with many giving it negative marks and many giving it positives. As such, it seems to be a film that people admire for its courage, but dislike for its journeyman-like quality.

Jolie’s film about an Olympic champion confined to a prisoner of war camp had all the earmarks of an Oscar winner. It was reminiscent of The Bridge on the River Kwai and featured a young, up-and-coming star with themes of triumph over adversity, perseverance through conflict and had an uplifting finale. So prominent was the film in early prognostications that even though critics aren’t in love with it, the film is sure to pick up a Best Picture nomination, though the rest of its potential seems murky.

Like Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (it had largely negative reviews, but it still two Oscar nods including Best Picture), a scant two or three nominations may be all that Unbroken can muster. Most of those won’t be in major categories as star Jack O’Connell has far too much competition for Best Actor and any buzz around the film’s supporting cast has disappeared. It won’t likely be nominated for its screenplay, but Alexandre Desplat’s score could be one of the film’s few nominations. Roger Deakins’ cinematography will probably be the film’s third and I could see a late-breaking rally in Production Design, Sound Mixing and Sound Editing, but those latter three are distant possibilities at this point.

American Sniper

The end of the year brought a number of potentially game-changing Oscar contenders. Director Clint Eastwood may have struck out with Jersey Boys, but critics are giving American Sniper a warm reception, which could help the film overcome faded expectations to secure a Best Picture nomination and merit inclusions in several other places.

Bradley Cooper stars as one of the United States’ most deadly assassins during the Iraq War whose pinpoint decision-making helped save countless lives, but the lives he destroyed in the process are now weighing heavily on him as he questions everything he’s now done. Cooper might have been a major player in a year that wasn’t so hefty with competition, but that field density might benefit a performance like his. So many performances faring equally among prognosticators (outside of Michael Keaton and Eddie Redmayne) for two or three slots could result in a few shocking inclusions and omissions, Cooper being one of them.

Sienna Miller could sneak into a weak Best Supporting Actress slate and the film could also secure a Best Adapted Screenplay nod in a very lightly-populated field. Eastwood scores his own films and he’s never been recognized, so don’t expect that to change now. Best Editing is a good possibility, as is Best Sound Mixing and Best Sound Editing, but most other categories seem out of reach at this point.

Leviathan

Riding a see of enthusiastic reviews, Russia’s entry into the Academy’s Best Foreign Language competition is now one of the leading contenders for a nomination and, depending on the competition, could ride things out to a win.

A film about political greed seems like an odd choice for a country like Russia to submit to the Oscars. A potentially telling comparison to Vladimir Putin’s regime, this story surrounds a small-town man fighting a corrupt mayor to prevent the demolition of his home. That political undercurrent could help get the film nominated and, in a rebuke of Russia that they would probably take as moral victory regardless, could be a way for the Academy to thumb its nose at Russia.

The film is certain to be nominated for Best Foreign Language Film, but won’t make it into any other categories at the Oscars.

Selma

Whereas Angelina Jolie’s potential nomination for Best Director has faded into obscurity, another female director has the potential to make history by becoming the first black woman ever nominated for Best Director. Ava DuVernay’s new film about Civil Rights pioneer Martin Luther King Jr. takes a narrow look at his legacy regarding the demonstrations in a small Alabama town at the height of tensions between blacks and whites in the American South.

As King, David Oyelowo is building up steam as a Best Actor nominee, a situation that wasn’t as secure a few months ago. Alongside Oyelowo, the film is certain to be nominated for Best Picture, Director and Original Screenplay with several other categories also in tow.

Best Original Song and Best Original Score are possible. Best Editing is almost assured. Best Cinematography is possible, though far from certain. Best Production Design and Best Costume Design are also strong contenders, but that’s where its chances end in the creative arena. Several supporting performances in the film could be pulled along with the film’s enthusiastic reception. Carmen Ejogo as King’s wife Coretta could be a potential entry into the lightly-populated Best Supporting Actress race. Past Oscar nominees and winners are also in good position to get nominated with a strong showing by the film. Those possibilities are: Tim Roth as the film’s villainous George Wallace; Tom Wilkinson as unconvinced President Lyndon Johnson; and Cuba Gooding Jr. as civil rights lawyer Fred Gray.

Two Days, One Night

Another foreign language entry makes its way into cinemas this weekend and Two Days, One Night has potential everywhere except Best Foreign Language Film.

Usually, a film that is playing well as a possible Oscar nominee in major categories will be a surefire nominee for Best Foreign Language film. However, with the new rules put in place for that branch in recent years, the full slate of submissions are narrowed to a more manageable list of nine that often has as many shocking exclusions as it does inclusions. Beglium’s Two Days, One Night is one of them.

The story of a young mother voted out of her job by her co-workers so they could each receive a pay hike must try to convince them to vote to reinstate her so she can continue providing for her family. The story has a lot of relevance in today’s delicate climate for workers’ rights and pay issues, but for some reason the members of the Foreign Language Film committee didn’t feel this film had more merit than some of the others that were selected. Regardless, the film has one more shot at a nomination.

Star Marion Cotillard has been getting rave reviews for her performance and has even picked up several critics prizes. That alone should cement her Best Actress nomination, but a late-breaking contender, Jennifer Aniston in Cakehas been making inroads and it’s possible that Cotillard, whose film hasn’t been widely seen yet, must fight for the fifth slot over the likes of Aniston and Felicity Jones for The Theory of Everything. To Cotillard’s benefit is that she is a past Oscar nominee (unlike Aniston and Jones) and has earned a lot of respect and attention since she won for La Vie en Rose seven years ago. That could help her out in a tough race, though that didn’t get her nominated for her worthy turn in Rob Marshall’s Nine in 2009.

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