Each year, right after the Academy Awards, I attempt to pick next year's contestants for Best Picture... a whole year before the fact. The practice has thus far transpired with mixed results; here's the breakdown of the 3 years I've given it a shot:
2014: 2-8 (Boyhood and The Imitation Game)
2013: 5-9 (The Wolf of Wall Street, Gravity, Nebraska, Captain Phillips, and American Hustle)
2012: 5-9 (Lincoln, Zero Dark Thirty, Les Miserables, Django Unchained, and Argo)
Rough 2014 for me, huh? In fairness to myself (because really, who else is going to stick up for me on something so openly arbitrary?), I had Birdman at #10 and Whiplash at #11, and the predictions took place before either American Sniper or Selma were even announced. It would also mean a lot to me if you kindly ignored that I had The Grand Budapest Hotel at #33, The Theory of Everything at #28 (specifically because I thought Redmayne couldn't pull it off... opps), and ignored Sniper altogether until the guilds forced me to take notice. How have I done relatively well in previous years, you're probably not asking? I largely ignore stories, bypass actors, and dismiss familiar titles; I look for directors in whom I have faith, and in the years previous to this one, that's worked fairly well. I'm staying the course, primarily looking at helmers, and offering you this, an exactly-one-month-after-the-2014-Oscars look at 2015's potential Best Picture nominees:
You know how long it's been since Spielberg was in 'serious filmmaker' mode, and didn't land in the Best Picture line-up? The answer depends on how seriously you take The Terminal and Catch Me If You Can, but if we're being extremely literal here, it's Amistad... which was almost 20 years ago. Since then, the maestro has appeared with a slew of films that would have been ignored had they been created by less note-worthy helmers (Munich, War Horse, and Lincoln). Simply put, he has their number, and we should all freely anticipate this making the final cut.
As if a new Coen brothers' flick wouldn't rank highly on this list anyway, the cast looks both deep and fantastic (Johansson, Tatum, Fiennes, Swinton, Hill, Brolin... and Clooney as a bonus?), and Hollywood-centric narratives have taken the lion's share of Best Picture trophies in recent years (Argo, The Artist, Birdman). Should this film meet the world in 2015, a nomination feels assured.
3. The Revenant
Revenge epics don't usually walk away with Oscars, but the Leonardo DiCaprio/Tom Hardy top billing looks awfully nice, and after last month's Academy Awards, I feel safe telling you that Oscar kiiiiiinda likes Alejandro González Iñárritu (even is Sean Penn doesn't).
This story of a single mother rising to entrepreneurial success might not scream 'Best Picture,' but you know what does? Director David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle) leading a cast featuring Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro, headlined by Jennifer Lawrence.
5. The Walk
The Best Picture category has been nominating more than five films for a solid half-century now, and has invited exactly one big, buzzy effects picture every time out, save 2014. The Walk is perhaps a bit less grand than the likes of Avatar, I
nception, Hugo, Life of Pi, and Gravity, but I love the Robert Zemeckis comeback angle, and the film's impending IMAX release only makes me more bullish.
With both Dallas Buyers Club and Wild, director Jean-Marc Vallée has managed to make himself a perennial Oscar favorite. This doesn't sound like a runaway awards-season success, but with Jake Gyllenhaal making more of a name for himself with each passing day, this stays high on the list.
My brain tells me this film won't be done in time for a 2015 release, but my heart kindly reminds me that Scorsese never, ever, ever, ever, EVER, misses out on the big ticket. Seriously; discounting Shutter Island, the last film he made to miss out on a Best Picture nomination was 1999's Bringing out the Dead. For those counting at home, that makes the guy 5-for-6 since the turn of the century. That's RIDICULOUS, and whenever Silence comes out, be it this year or next, it will almost assuredly secure a spot at the big kid's table. If I knew this was coming out in 2015, I'd have it ranked #1.
The tale of Lance Armstrong's rise and subsequent fall is sure to attract some attention, and it's about damn time someone gave Ben Foster a role this juicy. Director Stephen Frears has helmed major Oscar players in the past (The Queen, Philomena); he just might do it again.
After two straight invites, it's easy to see Quentin Tarantino as an Oscar favorite, but I have more than a little pause. Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained, despite their overt salaciousness, were both historical dramas, which gives them an inherent Oscar advantage over Hateful's undoubtably-bloody revenge drama. I don't love its odds, but Tarantino is surely a force to be reckoned with.
A story centered around children at war in an unnamed African country, your faith in Beasts' Oscar prospects depends almost entirely on how much potential you see in pairing writer/director Cary Fukunaga (Sin Nombre, True Detective) with star Idris Elba. I see a lot.
This 1950's relationship drama has plenty of attention thanks to director Todd Haynes' previous success with similar material (Far From Heaven). I'm not as bullish as many, a starring tandem of Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara is certainly nothing to scoff at.
12. Steve Jobs
Even after about half of Hollywood signed on and subsequently dropped out, we're still looking at an awfully impressive collection of talent, and a subject that's sure to attract attention. From director Danny Boyle down to stars Michael Fassbender and Kate Winslet, everything here feels like an odd fit; we'll see if Aaron Sorkin's screenplay can hold it all together.
Colin Firth as a book editor who effected the work of Thomas Wolfe, Ernest Hemingway, and F. Scott Fitzgerald? Who cares if this is Michael Grandage's directorial debut; Genius would have to be downright stupid to not generate at least a little Oscar buzz.
14. Black Mass
Crazy Heart's Scott Cooper helms this tale of infamous gangster Whitey Bulger. The subject is juicy and the cast is stacked; this is a perfect comeback vehicle for star Johnny Depp, but does he still have it in him?
Before The Cobbler took an absolute BEATDOWN from critics, Thomas McCarthy was behind the wheel on three straight beloved indies (The Station Agent, The Visitor, Win Win). He'll be back later this year with Spotlight, a potboiler that follows the Boston Globe's uncovering of a molestation scandal within a local Catholic church. With a stacked cast in tow (including a maybe-we-should-make-it-up-to-him Michael Keaton), I like McCarthy's odds to finally make a splash.
16. Miles Ahead
Did someone say passion project? Don Cheadle writes, directs, produces and stars in this Miles Davis biopic. The fact that such an ambitious project marks Cheadle's feature film directing debut is problematic, but if this works, Oscar almost won't even have a choice.
A drama about the health risks of football set for a Christmas day release (in the heart of both Oscar and NFL seasons), and starring Will Smith? I'd have this way higher is writer/director Peter Landesman had ANY previously established clout with the Academy.
18. The Sea of Trees
A sad white guy contemplating suicide before he meets a man who changes his paradigm doesn't really sound large or lofty enough for Oscar's standards, but then you see that Gus Van Sant is in the director's chair, and Matthew McConaughey is in front of the camera, and all bets are off.
As insane as this might sound, screenwriter James Vanderbilt has essentially been coasting on the goodwill of his Zodiac screenplay for the better part of a decade. His directorial debut stars Robert Redford as Dan Rather, a casting that undoubtably had a Best Actor nomination in mind, but is Vanderbilt truly up to the task?
A historical drama about the early days of the feminist movement, Suffragette doesn't have a whole lot of Oscar-proven talent to hang its hat on, but it does have Meryl Streep. Need I say more?
21. Triple 9
Gangster movies almost always have an immediate leg-up on the competition, and director John Hillcoat should fit the material nicely. The embarrassment of acting wealth doesn't hurt either.
The name Oliver Stone doesn't mean much to Oscar anymore, but as Citizenfour's Best Documentary win will tell you, he's still mightily interested in Edward Snowden. The prospect of handing young, buzzy stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Shailene Woodley such meaty roles is quite enticing.
A two-and-a-half epic whose subject requires no explanation. While director Baltasar Kormákur's relatively unknown status gives me pause, the potential for spectacle, as well as a star-studded cast, keep it in the race for now.
24. Suite française
A war-time romance set in the early years of Germany's occupation of France, Suite certainly appears to have Oscar written all over it, especially with Michelle Williams in the lead. It was supposed to come out last year; why the wait?
Bryan Cranston playing blackballed writer Dalton Trumbo!?! I want so badly to be all in on this, but when your director's most recent films are The Campaign, Dinner for Schmucks, and Meet the Fockers, caution is in order.
26. By the Sea
After Unbroken was nearly a no-show at this year's Oscars, it's probably time to give up (oscar-wise) on Angelina Jolie as a director, but starring with husband Brad Pitt in a period romance keeps Angie in the mix.
A darling of the Sundance film festival, you have to like Brooklyn's chances more than some by simple virtue of the fact that it already exists, and folks are already drawn to it. Don't sleep on screenwriter Nick Hornby either, who's been at least faintly involved in the Oscar race just about every time he's written something. All that said, there's virtually no star power here.
Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine, The Place Beyond the Pines) has proven an effective craftsman of melodrama, one of Oscar's favorite genres. He's pulled strong performances out of Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, and even led Michelle Williams to a Best Actress nomination; will the lead pair Academy favorites Michael Fassbender and Rachel Weisz finally take him there?
Screenwriter Diablo Cody's win for Juno feels like it happened a million years ago, but if you want to make a comeback, riding with director Jonathan Demme and star Meryl Streep is the way to go.
30. Money Monster
Jodie Foster has yet to gain any traction with the Academy as a director, but their adoration for her work as a thespian keeps this one on the radar, as does its smarmy Wall Street subject, and pairing of George Clooney with up-and-comer Jack O'Connell.
31. In the Heart of the Sea
Man oh man oh man oh man, am I dubious on this film's prospects, but as I explained in my commentary on The Walk, the expanded Best Picture field has (until this last year) always made space for a big effects movie. And we know they love Ron Howard, so let's wait to cross this Moby Dick redux off the list.
32. Me and Earl and the Dying
The Sundance Film Festival's Grand Jury Prize winner is always on my radar, but Earl feels a bit less enticing that Beasts of the Southern Wild or Whiplash (not to mention Fruitvale Station). It's undoubtably beloved at this point, but 2016's Oscar ceremony is a LONG ways away.
David Gordon Green, now four years removed from his ill-fated sojourn into studio comedy (I'll stick up for Pineapple Express, but Your Highness was awful, and The Sitter was roundly reviled), adapts a documentary (that's a thing?) about the use of American political campaign strategies in South America. Casting Sandra Bullock and Billy Bob Thornton probably won't hurt it's chances either.
There are no stars, and no plot summary beyond the fact that it has something to do with baseball players. Why have this anywhere on the map, you ask? Because it's a Richard Linklater flick, which gives me faith in its quality, and MUCH more importantly, the potential that Oscar feels bad for doing Boyhood one dirty.
Gotta love the David Foster Wallace angle, but a Best Picture nominee with two comedic actors at its center? After The Spectacular Now, I'm ready to go to bat for director James Ponsoldt; I'm just not sure this is the project to conjure such certitude.
A based-on-a-true-story weepy starring recent nominees Steve Carell and Ellen Page, with this year's Actress winner Julianne Moore in the lead. Does Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist director Peter Sollett have the goods?
37. The Martian
In my heart of hearts, I still think the Academy wants Ridley Scott to have a Best Director Oscar. They've just been waiting for him to get back on his feet; the second he makes something pretty good, watch out.
"I know I usually bet on directors, but Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard in a Shakespeare tragedy CANNOT be ranked lower than this." That's what I wrote last year, when this was scheduled for a 2014 release, and nothing has changed.
Director Antoine Fuqua hasn't made real noise at the Oscars since 2001's Training Day, but I'm personally predicting a BIG year for (2014 Collin winner) Jake Gyllenhaal, and boxing has long been one of the Academy's favorite subjects.
Another director who will be there at the end the moment he makes another solid film, Cameron Crowe tells another Crowe-y tale about love... and preventing a satellite launch (?!?). Doesn't scream Oscars, but you know what does? Emma Stone and Oscar's new favorite, Bradley Cooper.
41. The Last Face
Fresh off his embarrassing Oscar appearance, Sean Penn directs his first film since 2007's Into the Wild, a political fabe starring Charlize Theron and Javier Bardem. That all reads nicely on paper, but Director Sean Penn has yet to make a real splash at the Oscars; maybe it's his time.
42. The Danish Girl
This tale of high-art and gender-bending wouldn't be within a mile's distance if it weren't for its pair of buzzy british talents. Eddie Redmayne and Tom Hooper have both won oscars within the last half decade; who's to say pairing them won't yield more?
43. The Good Dinosaur
It's Pixar, which should be enough in and of itself to explain why I've got this one on the radar. Their early-year release, Inside Out, doesn't appear to have much interest in Oscar glory, which makes Dinosaur the pick. Pixar is certainly diminished, but let's not count them out just yet.
44. Knight of Cups
The film's of Terrence Malick are always divisive, often racking up Oscar nominations, or being ignored full-sale. Early word on Cups hasn't exactly been outstanding, but when you've got a director who always moves the needle paired with four Oscar winning actors (Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, and Ben Kingsley), there's always a chance.
45. Queen of the Desert
Legendary director Werner Herzog has never made too big of a mark on the Oscar ceremony, but the Academy loves biopics almost as much as they dig period pieces... and this is both. Having a past winner like Nicole Kidman on hand also aids its chances, though it's tough to know wether James Franco and (2014 Elwyn nominee) Robert Pattinson affect the project positively or negatively.
46. Slow West
I'm fairly religious about my Michael Fassbender fandom, and have been dying to see more of Kodi Smit-McPhee ever since Let Me In. A western epic would rank higher on the list if this wasn't director John Maclean's feature-film debut after years as a member of The Beta Band (?!?).
As reported above, this is the fourth year that I've made impossibly premature Oscar predictions. Woody Allen comes out with a new movie every year, and each and every time, I include it somewhere in my Oscar predictions. Irrational doesn't really read like one that'll make noise on paper, but did Midnight in Paris?
6 Years removed from a surprise Best Foreign Language Feature win, Argentina's Secret is being remade by the serviceable Billy Ray. Nicole Kidman and Julia Roberts will inspire attention, but is the Academy really ready to see this story again so soon?
49. Last Days in the Desert
Ewan McGregor stars as Jesus Christ in an imagined chapter from the forty days that the son of God spent praying in the desert. A film that so brazenly courts this much controversy would have to be awfully damn good to be invited to sit at the big kid's table, but this concept is way to juicy to leave unlisted.
50. Star Wars: Episode VII---The Force Awakens
Why not take a flyer on potentially the most anticipated movie of the year? The trailer looks great, the cast is unbelievable, and director J.J. Abrams has already steered this sort of vehicle mightily close to the Best Picture race with Star Trek. All that said, if The Empire Strikes Back couldn't muster an invite...