Since the film academy expanded the best picture category six years ago, 55 movies have been nominated for that honor. Of that group, 15 – including “American Sniper” and “Selma” last year – arrived in theaters in December.
Not one of those 15 movies went on to win the Academy Award for best picture.
In fact, the last December movie to take that Oscar was Clint Eastwood’s 2004 film “Million Dollar Baby,” a late entry that Eastwood had shot that summer and didn’t land on Warner Bros.’ release schedule until the leaves began changing color.
Why the history lesson? This month will see the release of a bevy of would-be award-season contenders, including movies from Oscar-nominated directors (David O. Russell’s “Joy” and Quentin Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight”); an Oscar-winning director (Alejandro G. Inarritu’s “The Revenant”); and the sorts of serious-minded pictures that voters like to reward (the football expose “Concussion” and “The Big Short,” a look at the 2008 financial meltdown). Plus, there’s the searing, Hungarian concentration camp drama “Son of Saul,” a movie that took the Grand Prix prize at Cannes and will likely win a host of critics prizes leading up to the time when Oscar ballots go out.
(Note to Kansas City: “Hateful Eight,” “Revenant” and “Saul” open this month in New York and L.A. but aren’t scheduled to open here until Jan. 8 at the earliest.)
The trouble with late-arriving movies is that they sometimes get lost in the shuffle. When a filmmaker locks a final print in November, it leaves little time for the studios to manufacture individually watermarked DVD screeners to mail to actors, producers and directors guild members, among other groups. Last year, Paramount came under fire for not sending “Selma” screeners to guild members after the movie scored just one nod (costume design) from those organizations. The studio dealt with the same time crunch in 2013 with Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street.”
Which leads to this year, with a Paramount representative confirming that production has begun on DVD screeners for the studio’s contender, “The Big Short.” Guild voters will also receive screeners for “Joy” and “The Revenant,” their studio reps say, leaving “The Hateful Eight,” Tarantino’s claustrophobic post-Civil War western, as the only high-profile contender on the bubble.
The latecomers still need to accelerate right out of the gate, but there’s a strong suspicion that at least one of these December movies could break the decade-long Oscar drought. What films stand in their way? A look at 10 movies that many voters have already seen, listed in order of strength.
Tom McCarthy’s detailed look at the Boston Globe’s investigation of a Catholic Church sexual abuse coverup won acclaim at the Telluride, Toronto and Venice film festivals. Impeccably crafted and acted, it’s the kind of meaningful morality play that voters feel good about supporting.
Box-office behemoth following the orbit “Gravity” grooved two years ago. It’s not as technically accomplished as that film, but it’s more of a crowd-pleaser and has the sentimental play of the soon-to-be 78-year-old director Ridley Scott vying for his first Oscar.
“Bridge of Spies”
Steven Spielberg’s Cold War thriller (well … it’s thrilling to some people) could well vacuum up several crafts nominations (cinematography, production design, editing) on its way to a best picture nod. Mark Rylance is a slam dunk for a supporting actor nom for his restrained turn as the spy Tom Hanks’ attorney defends — and befriends. Hanks is pretty great in the movie too, but some might see his decent character as too close to roles he has already played.
This Sundance favorite is something of a throwback in its reserved tone and measured storytelling, making it a good bet to connect with the academy’s predominantly older membership. Lead actress Saoirse Ronan delivers an absolutely heart-rending turn as a young woman moving from naivete to quiet empowerment. It ranks among the year’s best performances.
Todd Haynes’ deeply felt lesbian love story, starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, will be a strong contender for critics groups awards. Its gorgeous, confident visual style, flawless design and superb acting should win Oscar voters’ hearts as well. (No KC opening date yet.)
This drama about a young mother and her 5-year-old son held prisoner by a sexual predator has been collecting audience prizes at just about every film festival it has played, including the bellwether People’s Choice Award at Toronto. Peg it as this year’s “Whiplash,” the indie movie that enters the conversation on the strength of its bravura filmmaking and acting.
If tears count for votes (and they often do), the Pixar classic could win dual nominations for animated feature and best picture.
“The Danish Girl”
Fall film festival reviews for Tom Hooper’s transgender true story were so-so, with critics damning it with faint praise, calling it “well-meaning” and “tasteful.” The thing is, academy members like well-meaning, tasteful movies. (Opens in KC Dec. 25.)
The academy has a long history of nominating movies with modest box-office totals. Movies that carry the label of a box-office bomb? Not so much. “Jobs’” team needs to remind voters about all those great reviews that preceded its commercial implosion.
“Mad Max: Fury Road”
The National Board of Review, composed of film enthusiasts and academics, this week named it the best film of the year. But George Miller’s movie is probably too gonzo for most academy voters’ tastes. Too bad, since it’s the most imaginative movie I’ve seen this year.