Only one film remains unseen: Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street. The press will get their hands on the picture soon enough, perhaps as early as the day after Thanksgiving. And from there, the race enters into a different phase. So much of the awards talk around this time is based on pure speculation; in seeing the names on a marquee and the studio that backs it. The Weinstein Company? Why, that’s an Oscar contender. Backed by Cohen Media Group? Good luck with that. These barometers are in large part utilized to measure other subsequent factors - commercial and critical success - but in large part, if you’re backed by a big enough studio featuring enough premiere names, you’re going to be in the conversation.
So, with that said, what films have people talking?
Most pundits would have you believe that there’s an even split between the commercial behemoth that is Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity and the evocative historical probing that comprises Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave. While both films are firmly within the conversation, the overarching narrative surrounding 12 Years a Slave almost strikes me as insurmountable. In a banner year for black film and filmmakers, the prospects of rewarding a renowned black artist for tackling a piece of black history - an effort that essentially defines the black experience - is just too striking a narrative to not get swept by.
But to humor the idea of 12 Years a Slave not winning, I would wager that it is not Gravity that poses its greatest threat but rather Paul Greengrass’ Captain Phillips. While experienced, Sony/Columbia Pictures haven’t had the best of luck running campaigns, as is the case when films like The Social Network and Zero Dark Thirty rose to prominence only to fall by the wayside. But it’s hard to argue that Captain Phillips, along with the studio’s other contender, David O. Russell’s American Hustle, have slowly etched a spot in the potential-ten lineup. And unlike other years, where the studio has been much more forceful with their campaigning, it seems like Sony/Columbia is retreating, allowing 12 Years a Slave and Gravity to dominate the conversation while laying in wake, preparing for the next wave of precursors.
Then there’s something like John Lee Hancock’s Saving Mr. Banks. Opening at AFI Fest earlier in the month, I can’t help but feel like the picture is in the Best Picture discussion for its individual pieces rather than the sum of its parts. The Oscar-blogging community has positioned the Walt Disney film as the prototypical Oscar bait yet the cool response it received should have extinguished the film’s chances, especially in a year as competitive as this one. Most still have the picture as a legitimate threat in the race, though I find much of these holdouts dubious at best - while maligned films like Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and The Blind Side managed to secure Best Picture nominations, those years did not possess the embarrassment of riches that compose this year’s offerings.
Among the most rewarding pictures of the year have taken the long road: Alexander Payne’s Nebraska and Joel and Ethan Coen’s Inside Llewyn Davis both took major awards at the Cannes Film Festival and have only generated more and more buzz as the year has progressed. From Bruce Dern working the circuit (he’s travelled to Chicago on two separate occasions within a couple of weeks to take part in Q&A screenings) to Oscar Isaac and T-Bone Burnett jazzing it up at Inside Llewyn Davis screenings, both films have remained critical fixtures in the awards conversation and given their incredible quality, could easily make a play for the win.
And then there’s Before Midnight. I often try not to get too wrapped up with personal favorites in the awards race, as it more often than not leads to disappointment; look no further to the rise and fall of The Master, my favorite film of 2012. But in an era where there’s such an emphasis on franchising films, Richard Linklater, along with writing partners and stars Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, effectively show that a diminished return on subsequent installments need not be the norm - each film in the Before trilogy has been better than the other. If another film ever comes out, it’ll likely be nine years down the pike. Are we really going to hold out on rewarding these talented people until they reach senility? Well, it worked for Amour…
Check out my updated Oscar Predictions here.