Oscar Chat: What Will Join 'Gravity' and '12 Years a Slave' in Best Picture?

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Joe: Richard! It’s November, the air’s getting chillier, the Daylight Savings monster has come to claim its dusky victims, and Hollywood is about to knuckle down to the business of awarding its own again. Much like Christmas and Presidential elections, the Oscar creep pushes the season ever earlier, and this year especially, with the October premieres of three of 2013’s best reviewed and buzziest films – 12 Years a Slave, Captain Phillips, and Gravity --  it’s time to take a look at The Race.

We’re actually in the middle of my favorite time in the Oscar season, when enough of the major contenders have either opened or screened at festivals/for critics that there is a general sense of what’s good, but none of the precursor events have stepped in to begin the process of winnowing down the field. The world is abundant and full of possibility! The dominant topic of Oscar chatter thus far has been Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, which ran the festival gauntlet and then opened to very good per-screen box office in limited release. The film was declared not only the frontrunner but the presumptive winner back when it screened in Toronto, which raised the hackles of those whose hackles are there for the raising. But who cares about who’s winning the Oscars when the much more fun question of what else will be nominated is still so very open? If 12 Years a Slave is a given (it is), that still leaves anywhere from four to nine other Best Picture slots available. Two of which seem likely to go to the other major October releases, Gravity and Captain Phillips, which are almost certain to turn their stellar reviews and unsinkable box-office numbers into nominations for Picture, Director (Alfonso Cuarón and Paul Greengrass, respectively), and their lead performers (Sandra Bullock and Tom Hanks, respectively).

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Three down. How the remaining two-to-seven slots fill up is shaping up to be a question of how far back the Oscar voters are willing to remember. The next two months are about to unleash an onslaught of new films with Best Picture aspirations: American HustleAugust: Osage CountyThe Wolf of Wall St.Saving Mr. BanksPhilomenaNebraskaInside Llewyn Davis, and Her, to name but a thousand. If enough of those movies hit voters’ sweet spots, that doesn’t leave very much room at all for early season hits like Fruitvale StationLee Daniels’ The ButlerBlue Jasmine, and Mud. Or even for some of October’s more modest hits like All Is Lost and Dallas Buyers Club, which could simply end up as vehicles for their lead actors. Blue Is the Warmest Color will certainly look to follow Amour’s path from Cannes to the Best Picture lineup, though my surface-level demographic observation is that Oscar voters might have a bit more in common with aged philharmonic-goers than nubile lesbian artists.

So the question may well be: Which of that group of November/December releases are going to end up disappointing enough to remove them from contention? Certainly, August: Osage County isn’t about to be a critical smash, but neither was Les Mis last year, and look how that turned out.

Richard, it’s time to pony up. Pick five movies to join 12 Years a SlaveGravity, and Captain Phillips in the Best Picture lineup. Show your work.

Richard: Joe, where's the love for R.I.P.D.?? Movies that nobody saw are always getting Oscar nominations and nobody saw that one. Can't believe you left it off your list. Otherwise, I'm feeling your picks. 12 Years a Slave is a complete inevitability at this point, and for good reason. As is its director, Steve McQueen, who will take up one of the five Best Director slots, where he'll likely be alongside heavy-hitters like Alfonso Cuarón and the Coen brothers. I think Cuarón's Gravity has a better shot of winning Director than Picture, but it will definitely get the nomination. (Really, I can't imagine he won't win the award. Yes, McQueen does a tremendous job with 12 Years, but the technical feats pulled off with aplomb in Gravity are, har har, simply out of this world.) I'm not quite as sure about Captain Phillips, which didn't have the popular buzz or resonance it might have had had Gravity not been right there overshadowing it. I agree with you on Hanks, but I'm not one hundred percent sold yet on Best Picture. We'll have to see how the rest of the year plays out.

Looking ahead then! Though I found it to be a far more downbeat, bitter movie than I was hoping it would be, I think Llewyn Davis will wind up getting a nomination. It's the Coen brothers, it's gorgeous to look at, it's about an old scene that Academy voters may remember fondly, and it features a lot of great music. Plus, festival reception has been mostly rapturous. I missed Her at the New York Film Festival, but I'm hoping it's as good as I want it to be. We need a weird contemporary film to fill out this list. Given his recent track record, I think we can probably assume that David O. Russell's American Hustle will wind up in contention, though it does make me a little nervous that nobody's seen it yet. Might this end Russell's hot streak?

I also think that we should remind ourselves that The Blind Side was nominated for Best Picture before we count out August: Osage County. Not that the two are thematically or tonally similar in any way, but they both feature flashy, well-received performances from huge-name actresses despite not getting great reviews over all. I think the deep roster of acting talent could put August on the list, though probably only if we're looking at a  seven- or eight-nomination year.

BanksPhilomenaAll Is LostNebraska; I think those are all movies that will be recognized for acting, but are too small for Best Picture. Well, we don't know about Saving Mr. Banks. That is a big Disney love letter to itself, and as we were reminded with The Artist, Hollywood loves movies about Hollywood. Speaking of sentiment, is there maybe a chance that people will be endeared enough to industry favorite Ben Stiller's big serious-ish opus The Secret Life of Walter Mitty? I know it was only mildly received at NYFF, but that doesn't necessarily mean anything. For heaven's sake, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close got nominated in 2011, and I don't think I talked to one person who liked that movie that year.

As for the long-shots that will never happen but should happen, dammit, I'm gonna start beating the drum for my favorite movie of the spring, the sprawling, novelistic melodrama The Place Beyond the Pines. Derek Cianfrance's beautifully constructed film had some detractors because of its grand stabs at profundity. But I like that Cianfrance was unafraid of going for old-school, like ancient Greek old-school, thematic rumble. Plus, just look at the thing. What a beaut! But it ain't gonna happen, no matter how hard I fight.

Joe: If there’s anything that should get talked about more during Oscar season, it’s the films we’re passionate about that don’t stand a chance. I’ll be hollering for people not to forget how great Frances Ha was, for sure. Hollering into a yawning chasm of indifference, but still. Also, I was the one who liked Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, though the bad buzz kept me away until well after Oscar season that year. Didn't much care for Mitty, though there's a chance it'll appeal to a certain subset who mourn the death of print media (which includes me! Hey there, print media! Love you, print media!), what with its plot finding the meaning of life on the cover of the last issue of Life magazine and all.

I feel like at this point, I could make cases for Saving Mr. Banks (a straight-up crowdpleaser in a year when the best movies have thus far been pretty heavy), Philomena (it’s consistently atop the standings at festivals when it comes to audience-voted awards), and Nebraska (Alexander Payne in the same David O. Russell category as a recent Oscar fave). I still feel like Her is a weirdo long shot, but I was really surprised by the vehemence of the affection for it when it screened at New York Film Festival. Maybe another Best Director nomination for Spike Jonze? He was nominated for Being John Malkovich in 1999, without a corresponding Best Picture nomination, though now that the Best Picture category has expanded, that would be a harder feat to pull off.

I’m with you on McQueen and Cuarón in Best Director, and I’d put in Greengrass where you have the Coens. David O. Russell feels like he has the momentum of someone who’s “due,” so I’d expect a nomination for him as well, unless American Hustle just straight-up turns out to be Casino. Which brings me to The Wolf of Wall St. and Martin Scorsese, who is such a difficult director to bet against these days. Best Picture/Best Director nominations for four out of his last five features, and Shutter Island basically exempted itself from awards contention by opening in February, so that hardly seems to count. All streaks eventually go cold, of course, but there’s a decent chance that Wolf of Wall St. will open so late that voters will still have dollar bills in their eyes when it comes time to cast ballots. It’s all reminding me of Django Unchained, which opened on the same Christmas Day slot that Scorsese’s film locked down this year.

Can I make a Best Director case for All Is Lost’s J.C. Chandor? If Robert Redford snags a Best Actor nomination (and I bet he will; maybe even a win), I would feel really sore about Chandor being left out in the cold. As good as Redford is, that is a directorial triumph first and foremost. But Chandor's name isn’t as weighty as some of the other big-hitters on this list, so it'll take some campaigning, and I wonder if Lionsgate plans to push as hard for anyone but Redford.

Predicted Nominees (based on a complicated matrix of our combined predictive prowess):

Best Picture: 12 Years a Slave (Fox Searchlight); Gravity (Warner Bros.); American Hustle (Columbia); Captain Phillips (Columbia); August: Osage County (The Weinstein Company); The Wolf of Wall St. (Paramount); Inside Llewyn Davis (CBS Films.); Saving Mr. Banks (Disney).

Best Director: Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave); Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity), David O. Russell (American Hustle), Paul Greengrass (Captain Phillips); Spike Jonze (Her).

Next Time: Best Actor and Best Actress. Can Cate Blanchett possibly lose?

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