We're ten months into the year, and there's still no solid frontrunner for the Best Picture Oscar yet. This isn't unheard of, particularly when so many major awards contenders are built to open at the very end of the year and barnstorm their way to the podium. But by this time last year, the race had already been called (correctly, as it turned out) for 12 Years a Slave. Argo was an October premiere the year before, and the film it eventually overtook, Lincoln, had already previewed at the New York Film Festival. The Artist was a late-November release in 2011, but it had been building its case for Best Picture inevitability since Cannes that year.
Nothing appears to be running away with the race as we near the end of October 2014, for a few reasons: (A) There was no summer film that combined box-office blockbuster and Oscar-friendly material. You could expand the Best Picture category to 20 films and Guardians of the Galaxy still wouldn't get in. (B) Oscar-friendly directors like David Fincher (Gone Girl) and Bennett Miller (Foxcatcher) have delivered films that fall on the cold side of Oscar's thermometer, good for nominations but hard to see as winners. And (C) festival reactions across the board were more muted, be it Toronto (where The Imitation Game triumphed but never felt like a dominant word-of-mouth smash), Venice (where Birdman's reviews got a bit lost in the shuffle), or Telluride (the much-hyped new launching pad for Oscar campaigns didn't exactly set the world ablaze this year, even with very good movies like Wild and the aforementioned Birdman, Imitation Game, and Foxcatcher).
At this stage of the game, to my mind, there are only seven films that still stand a chance of winning Best Picture. Four have either opened in theaters already, in some capacity, or have at least been seen by festival audiences. Three have yet to be seen by anyone. As we enter the gauntlet of the final two months of the year, here are the contenders.
Boyhood: The Quiet Frontrunner
The biggest reason why the Best Picture race feels so muted at this point might just be that we do have a frontrunner, only nobody wants to talk about it. Because to talk about a film as an Oscar contender means, ultimately, to set up the apparatus to shoot down its chances. Anybody who's entertaining hopes of Richard Linklater's 12-years-in-the-making coming of age story making an improbable run to the Oscar knows that its best chances lie in it remaining under the radar. Boyhood would be the perfect choice in a year when bigger, more bombastic, more overtly "Oscar bait" prove unpalatable for one reason or another. The charm of Boyhood is in how very unlikely a Best Picture it would be. In making a case for Boyhood as a major contender, Grantland's Mark Harris made sure to stress what a "long shot" it is. And yet there it sits, atop the prediction charts of multiple awards-watching collectives.
The Imitation Game: The Low-Hanging Fruit
I have to admit I still don't quite understand those who are predicting The Imitation Game, in which Benedict Cumberbatch plays computer-science pioneer Alan Turing, to be the last film standing this year. I don't feel it, I should say. Intellectually, I get all the arguments: Oscar-friendly genre (biopic), big campaign muscle behind it (The Weinstein Company), TIFF audience award (like winners 12 Years a Slave, The King's Speech, and Slumdog Millionaire). This is the movie that those still sore about The King's Speech beating The Social Network appear to be predicting as a kind of safeguard against getting fooled again. It's an ultra-cynical pick made by people convinced the Oscars are ultra-cynical. To be clear, The Imitation Game is not a bad movie. It's not a great one, though, and more to the point, it's not one that ends on the note of triumph and fellowship that The King's Speech did. One underestimates Harvey Weinstein at one's peril, I realize, but ... this movie?
Birdman: The Movie About Movies (Even When They're Plays)
I've been up and down on the chances for Alejandro González Iñárritu's Birdman at the top prize this year. At this stage, with its 92 percent critical approval and its flattering statements about artists in the face of commercialism and critics, it's certainly looking like a good bet for a nomination. Winning remains another thing entirely, though, and I still think Birdman skews a shade too dark for what feels like the Academy sweet spot. That's ephemeral, though. And while I personally don't think the film has quite so much to say (about art, about superhero movies, about acting) as it thinks it does, others disagree.
Whiplash: The Cymbals Most Likely to Crash the Party
The Academy does love to make a discovery, and even with Boyhood trying to make a run at Best Picture as an underdog indie, there is no way to call Richard Linklater a discovery at this point—I don't care how old and out of touch the Academy voters are. That role will very likely be filled by Damien Chazelle's hyper-masculine drum story, a movie that keeps accumulating fervent support as the year goes on. The Oscar race is often about genuine enthusiasm rising above obligatory respect. If you haven't noticed it already, you're going to see a lot of people in your Twitter feeds telling you to see Whiplash, because this is the kind of movie people not only like but want to support. There's an activism to Whiplash's supporters. Oscar campaigns need activism.
Unbroken: The Appeal of the Unknown
Now we're getting into the movies nobody's seen yet. Which are all perfect unformed creatures with zero flaws and limitless possibility. These are always the slam-dunk contenders ... until people see them. This one looks better than most, with subject material (World War II, indomitable human spirit) that screams "awards movie" and Angelina Jolie in the director's chair. If it's good, if it's as rousing as the trailers suggest it might be, who wouldn't want to see Jolie come out on top? In many ways, this is the sight-unseen version of the Imitation Game argument: It looks very good on paper. Cynics will point to Jolie and recall names like Affleck, Redford, and Costner, actor-turned-directors whose fame pushed them to Oscar wins past more seasoned auteurs. The formula doesn't always add up. Robert De Niro is as Oscar-approved an actor as they get, and folks predicted the same kind of success for his The Good Shepherd in 2006. That wasn't even a bad movie, but it just didn't connect. There are no guarantees.
Interstellar: The Hopeful Goliath
Effects-heavy blockbusters usually have a hard time summoning the requisite respect points to gain entry into the Best Picture field. They usually need that extra element of chin-stroking thoughtfulness to get there. Christopher Nolan couldn't manage to do it with The Dark Knight, and while Inception made the Best Picture top ten in 2010, he was shut out of an expected Best Director nod. In order to bring the top Oscar home for his latest, Nolan will have to do better with the Academy than he ever has. With Boyhood and Whiplash in the mix, the field is flush with Davids. Interstellar is the last possible Goliath that could stomp down the road, monster box-office and breathless reviews in its wake. Nobody but the most select VIPs have seen the film yet, and they're not talking. With no planned roll-out, this one will either be an unstoppable monster from the break ... or it won't.
American Sniper: The Gruff American Lies in Wait
Clint Eastwood has done this before. In 2004, when it seemed like Martin Scorsese had prestiged his way to an Oscar win for The Aviator, Eastwood released Million Dollar Baby at the very end of the year, built up momentum for a little story about a female boxer and her wizened trainer, and took the top prize in a photo finish. Since then, that gambit has been attempted a few more times, once successfully (Letters from Iwo Jima snagged what many thought was Dreamgirls' Best Picture nomination in 2006), many more times not (recall Gran Torino or Invictus). With American Sniper, he's got red-hot Bradley Cooper, fresh off back-to-back nominations, playing real-life Navy SEAL Chris Kyle. This seems like the kind of dad-appeal movie that Eastwood works best in, but it's also hard to imagine the public (or awards voters) being overly eager for movies about military conflict in the Middle East these days. It's a long shot (no pun intended), but with a December 25th opening, it will be the last shot fired (okay, that pun was intended).