My love-hate relationship with the Oscars is never ending. I love to bitch about their choices all the time, and yet, I can’t get enough of them. Even this early on, almost nine months in advance, I’m curious to know what films will tickle their fancies and what reason I’ll have to hate/love them for this year. Who’s this year’s Sandra Bullock? Will Cronenberg be ignored like he was for A History of Violence? Will royalty or WWII porn reign over more modern creativity like it did this year? Or what will be this year’s beautiful surprise the way In the Loop’s screenplay nomination was, or Bright Star’s costume design nod? Is it possible they choose something as offbeat as Dogtooth again?
Anyway, I’ve decided to only look at the best picture category for now and think about the rest later, but looking at these titles, one can think of several obvious guesses in the other races as well. Bearing in mind that some smaller titles are not really known this far in advance, and that this year’s Sundance line-up didn’t have a major hit like Precious or The Kids are All Right, these titles are the ones I find most likely to be nominated at the end of the year (in decreasing order of likeliness):
1- War Horse (dir. Steven Spielberg)
With 13 nominations and four wins, Spielberg is one Academy’s all time favourite directors and he’s been away for six years now. War Horse sounds like the ultimate Oscar bait film with its sentimental young kind in the middle of WWI plot. As long as it’s not awful, it will find its way in the top ten, and given Spielberg’s track record, it will not be awful.
Most Recent Parallel: Letters from Iwo Jima (but the academy responds to quality world war films all the time, even if they don’t scream awards bait. Inglourious Basterds anyone?)
2- The Tree of Life (dir. Terrence Malick)
Malick is one of America’s most respected filmmakers. Of his past four films, only one was nominated for best picture, but I imagine in a field of ten, that number would have been higher. Anticipation for this film is sky high, and unlike The New World, this one gets a summer release, which gives everyone enough time to see it and form an opinion. If past experiences are any indication, Malick’s films only grow in stature over time, so I’m going to count this one in.
Most Recent Parallel: Malick’s films are really one of a kind. In some ways, P.T. Anderson’s There will be Blood is the most similar.
3- J. Edgar (dir. Clint Eastwood)
Eastwood’s relationship with the academy has dwindled a bit in recent years, but if anything’s gonna make them love him again, it’s a gay-themed biopic about a controversial political figure with Leo DiCaprio in the lead.
Most Recent Parallel: Milk; but depending on your definition of a biopic, in the past decade the Academy nominated at least 14 of them for the top prize. Then they started the new decade by crowning another as the best of the year, so parallels are plenty.
4- The Descendants (dir. Alexander Payne)
Alexander Payne’s last film was nominated in a field of five and more importantly, his films almost always deliver. He himself has been nominated three times and won once for writing Sideways. He’s written the screenplay for this one as well. Clooney is the lead here and his reputation in Hollywood won’t hurt either. He’s lead a film to a best picture nomination every other year now (2005, 2007 and 2009) and if that pattern’s to continue, 2011’s his turn again.
Most Recent Parallel: The Kids Are All Right
5- Ides of March (dir. George Clooney)
This year could be another 2005, when Clooney directed a film to best picture nomination while winning an acting prize for another film. Prestige political films can be the academy’s cup of tea if they’re well made, and the cast of this film is terrific (Clooney, Gosling, P.S. Hoffman, Giamatti, Tomei, E.R. Wood) and it already looks like a SAG ensemble nominee, which never hurts.
Recent Parallel: Good Night and Good Luck
6- Young Adult (dir. Jason Reitman)
Jason Reitman’s last two films really hit AMPAS’ sweet spot. He’s back with another dramedy, scripted by his Oscar winning collaborator on Juno, with Oscar winning Charlize Theron in the lead. If the film is as good as I’m hoping it is it can’t be counted out. Besides, The Descendants aside, the line-up is going to need some more light fare.
Recent Parallel: Up in the Air
7- Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (dir. David Fincher)
The foreign version of this film was a hit, so much so that the previously unknown Noomi Rapace was gaining traction for her performance. Fincher has a lot of momentum and they kind of feel sorry for his fate last year too. At the very least, one can imagine Rooney Mara in the conversation for Best Actress, but we have to think, thematically and most likely stylistically, this is much more similar to Fincher’s ignored films (Seven, Zodiac) than his nominated films (Benjamin Button, The Social Network). Then again, this is the type of film that can really benefit from the expansion to ten though.
Recent Parallel: Not quite sure with this one! Sadly, crime films are not really their favourite genre.
8- A Dangerous Method (dir. David Cronenberg)
They can’t ignore Cronenberg forever, can they? He’s such a unique and original voice and has been making great films for two decades now. Here he seems to have toned down his usual grimness and gone a bit more toward the typical bait. A biopic about Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud, starring three incredibly talented actors (Fassbender, Knightley, and Mortensen whose last collaboration with Cronenberg resulted in a Best Actor nod for Eastern Promises) and set on the eve of WWI seems to have everything going for it.
Recent Parallel: Ref. J. Edgar. Biopics are really popular with the academy; The King’s Speech was set on the eve of another World War as well. Going further back in history, this film really reminds me of Amadeus for some reason.
9- Hugo Cabret (dir. Martin Scorsese)
With an unlikely slate of animations set for release this year, Scorsese’s first venture into children’s films can take the Pixar spot this year. He hasn’t tackled this genre before, but it’d be foolish to worry about that. Shutter Island was a relatively surprising box office hit and Hugo Cabret has even more financial potential. If it makes some big money, then it might take the populist spot on the list.
Recent Parallel: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
10- Contagion (dir. Steven Soderbergh)/Super 8 (dir. J.J. Abrams)
Either Steven Soderbergh’s disaster film will bring him back in the race, or JJ Abrams’ Super 8 will take the spectacle spot. Many believed that nominating Avatar and District 9 together prevented Star Trek from getting in, but Super 8 looks less genre and more 80s Spielberg, which is definitely a good thing when it comes to the Oscars. On the other hand Soderbergh’s disaster movie has a great cast, and sometimes action films that are heavy on the drama fare well. Super 8 is almost certainly a summer hit and if it delivers, it can hold on to the buzz all the way through the year.
Recent Parallel: Inception
Other potential nominees
Take This Waltz (dir. Sarah Polley)
This Canadian treasure had her first film Away From Her nominated for two big Oscars: Screenplay and Actress, and we’ve seen films nominated for the top category with less than that in a field of ten. The academy has a tendency to ignore lightweight efforts but at the same time, they usually keep a spot open for less serious but high quality efforts (e.g. The Kids Are All Right). If it gets a proper release, I think it can score.
Moneyball (dir. Bennett Miller)
The concept doesn’t really sound special. Miller’s only feature film to date (Capote) was nominated for the top prize but that one was a biopic about an important figure in 20th century American art and had tons of buzz for Phillip Seymour Hoffman. This one doesn’t exactly compare in hype, but if it’s a good film, it won’t be ignored. Hoffman is back here, although supporting Pitt’s lead and that can’t hurt either. Pitt is sure to be in the spotlight because of his bigger film and Hoffman turns brilliant performances in the smaller roles too. Lastly, it’s penned by Aaron Sorkin who’s hot off his win for The Social Network.
Rampart (dir. Oren Moverman)
The Messenger, Moverman’s first film was one of the best war films of recent years and one of the best films of its year. Harrelson was nominated for his work there and he’s back again. Sure, cop dramas are not the safest bet but if it’s anywhere near as good as The Messenger, I think it’ll be a serious threat.
Extreme long shot?
Cars 2 (dir. John Lasseter, Brad Lewis)
There have been sequels than improved on the original before, and if anyone can do it, it’s going to be Pixar. Are they gonna use this opportunity to take a break from Pixar or is Cars 2 going to be a critical hit that cannot be ignored? For now I think it’s the former.
Carnage (dir. Roman Polanski)
It’s not clear whether it will be released this year. Even if it does, it might be too theatrical in its setting. The extent of support for Polanski in the academy is unclear too. Could this be The Pianist again or will it be more like The Ghost Writer? My guess is that given the subject, it will be the latter, but with that cast, one has to wonder.
Other long shots
We Need to Talk about Kevin (dir. Lynne Ramsay) with Tilda Swinton and John C. Reilly
We Bought a Zoo (dir. Cameron Crowe) with Matt Damon and Thomas Hayden Church
The Eye of the Storm (dir. Fred Schepisi) with Geoffrey Rush and Charlotte Rampling
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (dir. Tomas Alfredson) with Gary Oldman and Colin Firth
My Week with Marilyn (dir. Simon Curtis) with Michelle Williams and Emma Watson
Albert Nobbs (dir. Rodrigo Garcia) with Glenn Close and Mia Wasikowska
Shame (dir. Steve McQueen) with Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan