By this point last year, 12 Years a Slave, Gravity, and Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine had all but engraved their respective Oscar statues. But thus far, not one movie or performance has come close to declaring itself “a lock” for an Academy Award — and that means it could prove to be an especially fun “awards season.”
In looking over the this year’s field (both previous releases, and films yet to come), I’ve kept to just the films with a great-to-halfway-decent shot for at least one major nomination — that is, Best Picture, Best Actor or Actress, Best Supporting Actor or Actress, and Best Original or Adapted Screenplay. Although, within that group, I’ve also noted films that have a strong chance in the craft and technical categories.
As is the case almost every year, of course, there is every chance a wild card not listed below could slip in with a surprise nomination (like, say, Chef for Best Original Screenplay). And although I’ve made my best attempt at calculating which actors, directors, and writers could be up for their respective categories for the films listed below, a few surprise nominees could reveal themselves as the season progresses. (A classic example: No one thought Ethan Hawke was going to be nominated for 2001’s Training Day.) Similarly, for some actors, figuring out whether they fall under the lead or supporting categories can be a complicated dance, sometimes because it’s genuinely unclear, sometimes because the competition in one of those categories is steeper than the other.
Which is all to say, take this list in the spirit of good fun, like this season should be. The Oscars — and preceding accolades like the Independent Spirit Awards, Golden Globes, guild awards, and critics awards — are meant at their best to single out the feature films worthy of being called The Best. This is just one attempt at culling together that list.
1. The Grand Budapest Hotel
Possible nominations: Best Picture, Best Actor (Ralph Fiennes), Best Director (Wes Anderson), Best Original Screenplay (Wes Anderson and Hugo Guinness), a bunch of craft categories (Art Direction, Costume, Makeup, etc.)
You might think Anderson’s intricate, artisanal movies would be catnip to Oscar voters, but, to date, only two of his live-action films have earned any Oscar nominations (The Royal Tenenbaums and Moonrise Kingdom), and only for their screenplays. (Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox was nominated for Best Animated Feature Film and Best Original Score.)
The Grand Budapest Hotel — Anderson’s most successful film to date, and a true sensation overseas — may finally change all that. It was pretty much the only major “awards”-y movie in the first half of the year, and it is dense with some brilliant craft filmmaking, including its sets, costumes, score, and cinematography.
Or it may be yet another of Anderson’s films that is passed over by the Academy.
Regardless, if you haven’t see in yet, you should!
Release date: March 7
2. The Immigrant
Possible nominations: Best Actress (Marion Cotillard)
This film, about a 1920s woman (Cotillard) who falls into prostitution after immigrating to America, won some critical acclaim, but it came and went without making much of a cultural blip. But, like so many years before it, the competition for the Best Actress category remains shallow in comparison to the vast number of contenders for Best Actor, and many asserted that Cotillard has scarcely been better than she is here.
Release date: May 23
3. The Fault in Our Stars
Possible nominations: Best Actress (Shailene Woodley), Best Supporting Actor (Ansel Elgort), Best Adapted Screenplay (Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber)
A tear-streaked summer hit, TFIOS ultimately may skew too young for Academy voters, but anyone who’s seen it can scarcely forget Woodley and Elgort’s heartbreaking performances. Woodley has a solid shot at a nod, but 20th Century Fox should mount a campaign to support the film, if only to remind the rest of Hollywood that there is a place for simple, heartfelt dramas about everyday people living in the world today.
Release date: June 6
4. Begin Again
Possible nominations: Best Actress (Keira Knightley), Best Original Screenplay (John Carney), Best Original Song
The people who have seen Begin Again have swooned over the American, music industry insider, rock/folk variation on writer-director Carney’s previous film Once, which charmed the Academy enough to win it a Best Original Song Oscar. Carney could also swing a nod for his screenplay, and, who knows, Knightley could be a very surprise Best Actress nominee!
Release date: June 27
Possible nominations: Best Picture, Best Actor (Ellar Coltrane), Best Supporting Actor (Ethan Hawke), Best Supporting Actress (Patricia Arquette), Best Director (Richard Linklater), Best Original Screenplay (Richard Linklater)
There has never been a film quite like Boyhood. Writer-director Linklater famously shot the movie over 12 years to track the physical and emotional development of Mason (Coltrane) from 6-year-old Texas boy into an 18-year-old young man, as well as the evolution of the lives of everyone around him. It may be too languorous and plot-averse for some Academy voters, but that doesn’t matter — to win major Oscar nominations, all a film needs is a passionate base of support, and this film definitely has it. Should that support swell, even Coltrane could find himself with a nomination for Best Actor, but the best bet for an acting nomination for this film will be Arquette’s moving work as Mason’s put-upon mother.
Release date: July 11
6. Get On Up
Possible nominations: Best Actor (Chadwick Boseman)
I’ve heard some dismiss this James Brown biopic, and I’ve heard some praise it as one of the best music biopics in years. But pretty much everyone agrees that Boseman — who was so good as Jackie Robinson in last year’s 42 — is electrifying as Brown. In a weaker year, he could’ve been deemed a lock for a nomination already, but this year, a wide field of actors in other, more widely acclaimed movies could steal his thunder. Still, at the least, Boseman should be part of the conversation.
Release date: Aug. 1
7. Love Is Strange
Possible nominations: Best Actor/Supporting Actor (John Lithgow, Alfred Molina), Best Supporting Actress (Marisa Tomei), Best Original Screenplay (Ira Sachs and Mauricio Zacharias)
Love Is Strange is the kind of small-scale, delicately observed drama that debuts at Sundance, wins wide acclaim, opens in theaters before the fall “awards season” kicks into high gear, gets ignored by the Oscars, and earns some key Independent Spirit Awards nominations instead. Last year, Fruitvale Station faced this peculiar fate. This year, hopefully, Love Is Strange — about a long-term gay couple (played by Lithgow and Molina) whose lives fall apart after their long-overdue wedding — earns the attention and accolades it readily deserves.
Release date: Aug. 22
8. The Skeleton Twins
Possible nominations: Best Actress/Supporting Actress (Kristen Wiig), Best Original Screenplay (Mark Heyman and Craig Johnson)
Another Sundance hit that will have an uphill battle in the Oscar race! Hader is a revelation as a struggling actor whose cry-for-help suicide attempt reunites him with his estranged twin sister (Wiig). But in this year’s aforementioned densely packed Best Actor field, Hader will have to look to the Indie Spirits (and possibly the Golden Globes) for recognition. Which is a shame! Wiig, however, is equally great, and because of the comparatively sparsely packed field for the actress categories, she has a wide outside shot at an Oscar nod — or, at least, she should!
Release date: Sept. 12
Possible nominations: Best Actress (Mia Wasikowska), Best Adapted Screenplay (Marion Nelson)
One of the oddest quirks of this fall’s movie season is that we’re getting two movies based on the true stories of a blonde woman who decides to walk alone in the wilderness for more than 1,000 miles with very little experience in such hikes. The first is based on the life of Robyn Davidson (Wasikowska), who walked roughly 1,700 miles in the Australian Outback in 1977 with just her dog, a pack of camels, and occasional visits by a National Geographic photographer (Adam Driver). Critical praise has been mild to strong for the film, with most praise for the cinematography and Wasikowska’s harrowing and vanity-free performance.
Release date: Sept. 19
Possible nominations: Best Picture, Best Actress/Supporting Actress (Imelda Staunton), Best Supporting Actor (Bill Nighy), Best Original Screenplay (Stephen Beresford)
Based on a fabulous and forgotten true story of LGBT activists in mid-’80s U.K. supporting striking coal miners (not traditionally the most LGBT-friendly crowd back then), Pride is the kind of stirring British drama that has often proven irresistible to Academy voters (see: Secrets & Lies, The Full Monty, The King’s Speech, Philomena). The current singular moment in LGBT history in the U.S. could help make the film feel that much more relevant, especially with so many heavyweights opening in the last three months of the year.
Release date: Sept. 26
11. Gone Girl
Possible nominations: Best Picture, Best Actor (Ben Affleck), Best Actress/Supporting Actress (Rosamund Pike), Best Director (David Fincher), Best Adapted Screenplay (Gillian Flynn)
Expectations are incredibly high for this adaptation of Flynn’s acid-tinged best-seller about a marriage gone very bad, which Flynn scripted herself. Fincher’s films have lately proven to be Oscar nomination powerhouses and word is this is perhaps the most darkly funny film Fincher has made since Fight Club. Affleck, meanwhile, hasn’t had a role that dovetailed so neatly with his complicated celebrity persona since the time he played Superman actor George Reeves in 2006’s Hollywoodland, and if he hits it out of the park, he could earn his very first acting nomination. The real question mark, though, is Pike’s performance as Amy Dunne, a tightrope walk that could be a breakout moment for her the same way Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was for (Oscar nominee) Rooney Mara.
Release date: Oct. 3
12. The Judge
Possible nominations: Best Supporting Actor (Robert Duvall)
The response to this family drama in legal thriller disguise was muted at the Toronto International Film Festival. But the Best Supporting Actor category is, for the moment, rather sparse, and Duvall could easily eke out a nomination on the strength of a couple scenes where his character — a small-town judge on trial for murder — confronts the messy realities of aging and mortality.
Release date: Oct. 10
13. St. Vincent
Possible nominations: Best Actor (Bill Murray), Best Supporting Actress (Melissa McCarthy)
The movie itself — about the eponymous alcoholic Vietnam vet (Murray), and the kid he begins babysitting after his single mom (McCarthy) moves in next door — is emotional and uplifting and also almost paint-by-numbers formulaic. The performances by Murray and McCarthy, however, are fantastic and refreshing. Murray has rarely been able to create as full and vivid a character, and McCarthy has almost never been able to play as subtle and relatable a character. And the Academy has certainly celebrated emotional movies that follow set formulas before.
Release date: Oct. 10
Possible nominations: Best Actor (Miles Teller), Best Supporting Actor (J.K. Simmons), Best Adapted Screenplay (Damien Chazelle), Best Editing, Best Sound Mixing and Editing
An electrifying premiere at Sundance won Simmons instant Oscar buzz for his performance as Terence Fletcher, a brutally uncompromising music instructor at a prestigious New York conservatory. But Teller, as the aspiring drummer who falls under Fletcher’s thrall, gives just as riveting a performance — especially in the film’s breathtaking final 15 minutes.
Release date: Oct. 10
Possible nominations: Best Picture, Best Actor (Michael Keaton), Best Supporting Actor (Edward Norton), Best Supporting Actress (Emma Stone), Best Director (Alejandro González Iñárritu), Best Original Screenplay (Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Armando Bo), technical categories (Editing, Cinematography, Sound Editing, and Sound Mixing)
The Academy loves to celebrate an actor who’s been around for a long time and mounts a crowning comeback performance, and this year, they will have no better shot than with this cinematically daring vehicle for former Batman and major ’80s and ’90s movie star Michael Keaton. He plays an actor who has been around for a long time — and who is best known for playing the titular superhero — attempting to revive his career on Broadway, only to watch his life spin out of control. Director Iñárritu (21 Grams, Babel, Biutiful) has had great luck with the Oscars, but unlike his previous films that favored gritty, sprawling realism, Birdman not only dabbles in magical realism, it was apparently crafted to be experienced as one extended shot.
Release date: Oct. 17
Possible nominations: Best Picture, Best Actor (Brad Pitt), Best Supporting Actor (Logan Lerman, Shia LaBeouf, Michael Peña, Jon Bernthal), Best Director (David Ayer), Best Original Screenplay (David Ayer)
If this ensemble World War II drama about a world weary tank crew pushing into Europe in the spring of 1945 works, it could be the first major WWII battlefield film since 2006’s Letters From Iwo Jima to earn a Best Picture nomination. Any one of the five main leads in the film, the first period feature from writer-director David Ayer (Sabotage, End of Watch, Street Kings), could score an acting nod, as well, even media ne’er-do-well LaBeouf.
Release date: Oct. 17
Possible nominations: Best Picture, Best Actor (Jake Gyllenhaal), Best Supporting Actress (Rene Russo), Best Director (Dan Gilroy), Best Original Screenplay (Dan Gilroy)
Nightcrawler was my favorite film at TIFF this year, but there was a feeling at the festival that this story of a sociopathic freelance videographer (Gyllenhaal) is too dark and cynical for Academy voters. Perhaps that will prove to be true, but this is the same voting body that gave five nominations to the even darker Black Swan — not to mention acting nods for “unlikeable” characters in Training Day, Hustle and Flow, There Will Be Blood, Precious, and Blue Jasmine. So there is every chance Gyllenhaal’s virtuosic performance could win a nomination, not to mention Gilroy’s killer script.
Release date: Oct. 31
Possible nominations: Best Picture, Best Actor (Matthew McConaughey), Best Supporting Actress (Jessica Chastain, Mackenzie Foy, Anne Hathaway), Best Director (Christopher Nolan), Best Original Screenplay (Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan), a bunch of technical categories (Editing, Visual Effects, Sound Effects, Sound Editing, etc.)
Remarkably, Christopher Nolan has never been nominated by the Academy for Best Director. That could finally change with his ambitious foray into cosmic science fiction. I’ve heard this film — about a single father (McConaughey) tasked with piloting an interstellar search for a hospitable planet that humanity can relocate to after reducing Earth to a barren wasteland — is Nolan’s most directly emotional film yet. If it delivers earned tears along with its epic visual scope, things could get really interesting in the Best Picture race.
Release date: Nov. 7
19. The Theory of Everything
Possible nominations: Best Picture, Best Actor (Eddie Redmayne), Best Actress (Felicity Jones), Best Director (James Marsh), Best Adapted Screenplay (Anthony McCarten), some craft categories (Art Direction, Costumes, Score)
One of the big success stories at TIFF this year — and another entry in an odd awards season doubleheader — is this lovely biopic of theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking (Redmayne), based on the memoir by his first wife Jane (Jones). Redmayne disappears into his performance as Hawking, giving himself totally to the physical restrictions imposed by Hawking’s debilitating neurological disorder without ever calling much attention to them. Jones has a less showy role as the woman whose life is consumed by caring for her husband, but she still impressed many in Toronto. Both are as close to sure nominees as the awards season has this year so far.
Release date: Nov. 7
Possible nominations: Best Picture, Best Actor (Steve Carell, Channing Tatum), Best Supporting Actor (Mark Ruffalo), Best Director (Bennett Miller), Best Original Screenplay (E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman)
Both feature films Miller has directed — Capote and Moneyball — have been nominated for Best Picture. And that streak is likely to continue with this film, based on the true story — sensing a theme? — of the psychologically knotted relationship between Olympic wrestlers Mark (Tatum) and David Schultz (Ruffalo) and the ultra-wealthy and mentally unstable John du Pont (Carell) who invites them to be a part of his wrestling training facility. There has been some consternation about which categories to place Carell, Tatum, and Ruffalo’s performances, but the general consensus seems to be for now that the former two are leading roles, and the latter is supporting.
Release date: Nov. 14
Possible nominations: Best Supporting Actor (Kim Bodnia), Best Adapted Screenplay (Jon Stewart)
Stewart’s directorial debut, based on Iranian-British journalist Maziar Bahari’s memoir of his imprisonment after the 2009 Iranian presidential elections, impressed at Telluride and TIFF, but it did not overwhelm. Two elements of the movie that may resonate well into awards season, however, are Stewart’s thoughtful and even at times elegiac screenplay, and Bodnia’s nuanced performance as the man who brutally tortured and interrogated Bahari.
Release date: Nov. 14
22. The Homesman
Possible nominations: Best Actor (Tommy Lee Jones), Best Actress (Hilary Swank), Best Adapted Screenplay (Kieran Fitzgerald, Tommy Lee Jones, and Wesley A. Oliver)
Jones’ second theatrical feature as a director, about an independent woman (Swank) who corrals a drifter (Jones) into helping her transport three mentally unstable women across the Western frontier, won muted praise at Cannes. But it seems like whenever Swank plays a tough-as-nails character who bucks society’s expectations, she does well at the Oscars.
Release date: Nov. 14
23. The Imitation Game
Possible nominations: Best Picture, Best Actor (Benedict Cumberbatch), Best Supporting Actress (Keira Knightley), Best Director (Morten Tyldum), Best Adapted Screenplay (Graham Moore)
The second period biopic about troubled British genius pushing the boundaries of his field — this time computer science pioneer, WWII codebreaker, and semi-closeted gay man Alan Turing — features Benedict Cumberbatch in the performance that will likely earn him his first Oscar nomination. Perhaps more than any other film this season, this one feels almost engineered to generate Oscar accolades, but that doesn’t make it any less of a fascinating and thoughtful examination of how society tolerates its most talented fringe members so long as they are deemed useful. Don’t be surprised, however, to hear grumblings that Turing’s homosexuality is given mere lip service.
Release date: Nov. 21
24. Top Five
Possible nominations: Best Picture, Best Director (Chris Rock), Best Original Screenplay (Chris Rock)
OK, I may be nuts to include this movie — an outright commercial comedy — in this list, given that the Academy rarely, if ever, recognizes outright commercial comedies. But hear me out. Top Five won raves at TIFF, especially for writer-director-star Rock’s razor sharp take on Hollywood and fame, and as Argo and The Artist recently proved, Academy members do love a story that flatters their own lives and professions. In a year with such a wide field of contenders, Top Five could end up being the film that everyone can agree on.
OK, I’m nuts. But at the very least, Rock could definitely score a nod for his screenplay.
Release date: Dec. 5
Possible nominations: Best Picture, Best Actress (Reese Witherspoon), Best Supporting Actress (Laura Dern), Best Director (John-Marc Vallée), Best Adapted Screenplay (Nick Hornby)
And now we’ve come to our second film about a real woman (this time author Cheryl Strayed, played by Witherspoon) who trekked across the wilderness alone (this time the Pacific Crest Trail in 1995). Wild shares a few more superficial similarities with Tracks, but it is otherwise quite a different film, imbued with a vivid and at times visceral immediacy by director Vallée (Dallas Buyers Club). Witherspoon is also a likely surefire nominee for her fierce and vulnerable performance, but I suspect the entire film could resonate with Academy voters.
Release date: Dec. 5
26. Exodus: Gods and Kings
Possible nominations: Best Picture, Best Actor (Christian Bale), Best Supporting Actor (Joel Edgerton), Best Director (Ridley Scott), Best Original Screenplay (Steven Zaillian, Bill Collage, Adam Cooper), a bunch of craft and technical categories (Art Direction, Cinematography, Costumes, Visual Effects, etc.)
Hollywood pretty much stopped making sweeping biblical epics in the 1950s, but apparently nobody told Scott. The man who led Gladiator to Oscar gold in 2000 already tried to make a clash-of-cultures epic with his 12th-century Crusades flop Kingdom of Heaven in 2005, but this time, he’s tackling a far more familiar story: Moses and the exodus of the Jews from Egypt. The first trailer looked appropriately massive and visually arresting, and Bale (as Moses) has been on something of a roll of late. But this is a real wait-and-see movie. For one, it’s already come under some considerable criticism for casting all white actors in the major Egyptian roles, and black actors as “lower-class” Egyptians that surround them. (Case in point: the above photo.)
Release date: Dec. 12
27. Inherent Vice
Possible nominations: Best Picture, Best Actor (Joaquin Phoenix), Best Supporting Actor (Josh Brolin), Best Supporting Actress (Katherine Waterston), Best Director (Paul Thomas Anderson), Best Adapted Screenplay (Paul Thomas Anderson)
The Academy fell hard for last year’s ’70s-set ensemble dramedy American Hustle, only to fall out of love with it when it came time to hand out statues, but there is already buzz building for Anderson’s ’70s-set dramedy, the first-ever feature adaptation of a Thomas Pynchon novel. Phoenix could earn the Oscar nod he was denied for Her for his mutton-chopped performance as an L.A. private investigator, but there is already talk of Waterston (Boardwalk Empire), who plays his ex-girlfriend. It looks like she could easily be “the ingenue” of this year’s awards season.
Release date: Dec. 12
28. Mr. Turner
Possible nominations: Best Actor (Timothy Spall), Best Original Screenplay (Mike Leigh)
Spall won the Best Actor award at Cannes for his performance as acclaimed British painter J.M.W. Turner, but in a category that is this crowded Spall’s gruff, subtle work here could be overshadowed by showier performances. Then again, writer-director Leigh has a solid track record for earning his actors Oscar nods (Secrets & Lies, Vera Drake).
Release date: Dec. 19