We've officially reached the half-way mark of 2014. This time a year ago the only Oscar players on the table were Sundance debut “Before Midnight” and Cannes debuts “Nebraska” and “Inside Llewyn Davis,” give or take a “Croods,” “Great Gatsby,” “Lone Ranger” or an “Iron Man 3” that would pick up support outside of the major categories. So what does the year have to show for itself so far this time around?
Sundance feels like it might have an off year this season, though screenplay hopes and more abound for films like “Boyhood” and “Dear White People.” “Whiplash” could find a stride depending on how Sony Pictures Classics' slate shakes out for them, but as ever, the year's first big splash for new films will make more of an impression in the documentary feature category than anywhere else.
Not long after things wrapped up in Park City, Warner Bros. released Phil Lord and Chris Miller's “The LEGO Movie.” Fans of this one are loud and proud and probably in favor of screenplay recognition. At minimum we can expect it to figure into the animated feature film race, while the studio could have fun with a Best Original Song campaign for earworm “Everything is Awesome.”
In February, the Berlinale brought the premiere of Wes Anderson's “Moonrise Kingdom” follow-up, “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” with a commercial release not long after. A critical smash that played like gangbusters at the art house box office, the film was pegged early on as the year's first serious Oscar player. But is it part and parcel of a fresh new spirit from Anderson (which has yielded awards love for films like “Fantastic Mr. Fox” and the aforementioned “Kingdom”), or is it too far on the filmmaker's unique spectrum to register in a number of categories? I have some doubts myself.
“Boyhood” also popped back up at the Berlinale, landing Richard Linklater the Silver Bear (Best Director) prize. The film is a July release, so more in due time, but is IFC Films ready to really put in what it takes to stand out in the awards season? Or can the film survive on its already mythical stature? Questions…
March brought Paramount's “Noah” from director Darren Aronofsky. A noble effort from a filmmaker who struggled greatly with yet another studio to produce his ambitious vision, the film will get some campaign firepower from the studio. Already Paramount has set screenings specifically for Academy members, particularly to spotlight the craft accomplishments. The film seemed to be divisive on arrival, but mostly the strong opponents and proponents were just really vocal on their opposing fringes. Critics more or less went with it without a lot of fuss, so there is a playing field to work with here.
The summer movie season starts earlier and earlier as of late, and this year it was “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” firing the first shots way back in the first week of April. The Marvel sequel proved to be one of the studio's most well-received productions to date, but none of these films has sparked outside of the crafts categories and that doesn't look likely to change any time soon.
Jonathan Glazer's “Under the Skin” finally hit in April, too, after a Telluride 2013 debut. A24 surely sees the writing on the wall where a film like this is concerned – it's not exactly up the Academy's alley. But critics groups could keep it in a few conversations, at least, come year's end. If they feel so bold, of course; lately it seems these groups just line up behind the same handful of players. And speaking of A24, Steven Knight's “Locke” also hit theaters in April. There could be a Best Actor campaign for Tom Hardy worth playing with there.
The summer blockbusters “officially” arrived in May with films like “The Amazing Spider-Man 2,” “Godzilla,” “X-Men: Days of Future Past” and “Maleficent.” These films historically register in categories like Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing and Best Visual Effects, if at all. The summer season is the octane period for the industry, flexing a lot of craft muscle while looking to pay for some of the riskier efforts under the tent. But few were worth writing home about. I remain convinced that “Godzilla” is one of the events of the year, a visionary piece of blockbuster filmmaking. But it will be lucky to break out of the summer actioner Oscar box and skirt the conversations of Best Film Editing and Best Original Score, let alone reach greater heights.
However, while all of this action was happening at the multiplex, the international film gaze turned to the Cannes Film Festival and our first real look at a number of potential power plays this season. We finally set eyes on Bennett Miller's “Foxcatcher,” for instance, after the film was pushed out of 2013. Steve Carell landed firmly in the Best Actor race and, if the studio has its druthers, Channing Tatum will be right along with him for a dual campaign ride. Sony Classics also brought Mike Leigh's “Mr. Turner,” which was actually better-received than Miller's dark tale and has Timothy Spall all set for a major push (to say nothing of dazzling below-the-line contributions).
Elsewhere at the fest, wunderkind Xavier Dolan unleashed another critically-adored work in “Mommy,” though it is still seeking domestic distribution. Julianne Moore may have launched onto the Best Actress landscape with “Maps to the Stars,” while Jessica Chastain and James McAvoy brought a new version of “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby” that could be a Weinstein Company pony later in the year. Mostly, though, Cannes lit the Best Foreign Language Film fuse (as it always does) with films like “Winter's Sleep,” “Leviathan” and “Two Days, One Night.” Oh, and “Grace of Monaco” landed with a splat after being pushed from last season. (Fingers crossed for Best Costume Design, I guess.)
June kept the blockbuster season going with another exciting and smart player on such turf: Doug Liman's “Edge of Tomorrow.” But the marketing held it back, forcing Warner Bros. to push the Wachowskis' “Jupiter Ascending” to next year in order to avoid too much red ink on the 2014 ledger. It's a fantastic movie, though. It would be nice if branches like the film editors would take such work seriously, as they once did. The month also brought “How to Train Your Dragon 2,” to me one of the very best films of the year and one that deserves to break the typical ceiling on animated features as a full-fledged Best Picture contender.
And just this weekend, it was “Transformers: Age of Extinction” joining the party. The film now has the designation of being the most critically-dismissed entry in Michael Bay's money-sucking franchise, but films can be critic proof when it comes to the “blockbuster categories” (which we'll callously label the aforementioned trio).
Of course, mixed in and around all of the fireworks this summer have been the usual counter-programming measures. James Gray's “The Immigrant” finally landed, bringing with it Best Actress hopes for Marion Cotillard among its faithful. Jon S. Baird's “Filth” also arrived with an electrifying performance from James McAvoy that has already won awards across the pond. And then there was Clint Eastwood's “Jersey Boys,” which – womp womp.
That pretty much catches us up. All eyes are on the next six months and, certainly, the same handful of potential awards players. The studios look like they're going to be out in force this year, as Universal's “Unbroken” (and, perhaps in due time, Stephen Daldry's “Trash”), Sony's “Fury,” WB's “Inherent Vice,” Paramount's “Interstellar” and “Men, Women and Children” and Fox's “Gone Girl” are all very much front of mind. But mini-majors Sony Classics, Focus and Fox Searchlight have answers in the form of “Foxcatcher,” “Mr. Turner,” “Theory of Everything,” “Birdman,” “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and “Wild.”
Meanwhile, plenty are curious to see how Harvey Weinstein's slate will pan out with his long-time awards strategist taking her leave (leading to dirty laundry being aired out in public as the lion of awards season continues to play trade press like a fiddle). As usual, Harvey has a handful of titles, from former Black List superstar “The Imitation Game” to Tim Burton's “Big Eyes” to a lush adaptation of Shakespeare's “Macbeth.” If Todd Haynes' “Carol” gets yanked into 2014, maybe that will provide some insight into how strong he thinks that slate truly is.
But there will be plenty of time to chew on all of that in due time, as you well know. Soon enough the annual Telluride guessing game will commence, then Venice and Toronto will announce their slates and, in a blink, it will be late August and the machinery will be squeaking to life. For now, we've at least updated the Contenders section with a modest look ahead.
None of these predictions mean a lot yet, so please, for your sake and ours, don't obsess on them. There will be plenty of time for that as well.
What do you think will be the big Oscar player from 2014 so far, if anything? What are you looking forward to in the upcoming season? Tell us in the comments section below!