OSCARS: An Early Look At The Best Picture Race – Frontrunners In A Crowded Field

A recent, and unsolicited, email from a producer friend of mine demonstrates what a lot of people are saying about this year’s best picture race: “Now this is a year for film! Tremendous. Going to be a fun one, my friend.” It is going to be a fun one. Nearly every Academy member to whom I have spoken seems excited about the level of quality in this year’s race, which is a strong indication that this could be the first year 10 films are nominated since the rules changed to allow a variable number. Just consider what’s already out there in theaters or on Blu-Ray: 12 Years A Slave, Gravity, Captain Phillips, Lee Daniels’ The Butler, Dallas Buyers Club, Blue Jasmine, All Is Lost, Fruitvale Station, Prisoners, Rush, Blue Is The Warmest Color, Before Midnight, Mud and The Place Beyond The Pines.

The fact is, this is a year in which there could be room for 20 films. Consider those yet to open or just opening: Philomena, Saving Mr. Banks, Nebraska, Inside Llewyn Davis, August: Osage County, The Book Thief, Her, Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom, Lone Survivor, Labor Day and The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty. All of those films have played the fest circuit, and most pundits—including this one—already have seen them and can say definitively that it’s a formidable list. Of those yet to be seen by just about anyone outside of rarefied circles are The Wolf Of Wall Street and American Hustle, both December releases expected to be major players in several races.

Related: OSCARS: Fest Circuit A Must For Majors Chasing Award Season Gold

With this kind of lineup, it is no wonder some movies once thought to have awards aspiration—such as Foxcatcher, Grace Of Monaco, The Immigrant and George Clooney’s The Monuments Men—have all opted out. And why not? Clooney doesn’t need another contender when he’s already got shots with two others: Gravity (in which he co-stars) and August: Osage County, which he co-produced. Whew. One Academy member who is religiously trying to see everything as it comes out told me she already keeps changing her mind about what her favorites are.

Most pundits, though, would say frontrunners at this early date include 12 Years A Slave and Gravity, with Captain Phillips gaining. Proof of the intensity of this year’s race is that all three of those films have already been victims of so-called “whisper campaigns” that have challenged their accuracy and credibility, but nothing seems to have stuck. Box office for all three is promising and that, too, can be a factor in determining longterm chances for Oscar success. Gravity is a worldwide hit, Phillips has exceeded everyone’s expectations and Slave, despite being a grueling experience for some to watch, is shaping up to be a nice-sized indie hit. Butler also exceeded expectations and became a late-summer smash, totally against type. That could easily result in Oscar triumphs—as it did for the similarly themed The Help two years ago—especially once the Weinstein Co. revs up its campaign.

There can always be surprises, but among the films about to open and not yet road-tested at the box office there isn’t a single disappointment, creatively speaking. Of course, weaker-than-expected box office results can throw a wrench into the proceedings for some films, making it more difficult to get the campaign funds needed to keep them alive.

Related: Contenders 2013: ‘Wolf Of Wall Street,’ ‘Nebraska,’ ‘Dallas Buyers Club,’ ‘Inside Llewyn Davis,’ ‘Fruitvale Station,’ ‘Lee Daniels’ The Butler,’ ‘August: Osage County,’ ‘All Is Lost,’ ‘Place Beyond The Pines,’ ’12 Years A Slave,’ ‘Gravity’ & More Kick-Off Panels

In past years, much of the best picture crop has come from late-breaking holiday releases, but Oscar voters already are juggling an imposing and bountiful crop. Critics groups are likely to try to use their clout to influence the race one way or another and can make a difference, particularly if they all get behind one film, such as they did with eventual best picture winner The Hurt Locker and nominee The Social Network. A repeat of that for, say, 12 Years A Slave, could help that film dominate the race early on and build a groundswell that could be insurmountable as the season unfolds (think Slumdog Millionaire rolling over early presumed favorite The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button). But in the last three years, the Academy has been choosing best picture winners like The King’s Speech, The Artist and Argo, none of which were necessarily critics-group darlings. The trend could help contenders that are more mainstream, feel-good films, such as Disney’s Saving Mr. Banks, the Weinstein Co.’s sleeper Philomena or Paramount’s Nebraska, which has been building up steam in the community by staging numerous small screenings and dinners since the summer months. Essentially, Nebraska has been steadily winning over one voter at a time in a very smart and well-planned strategy. Many pundits are looking at the studios’ Christmas Day release of Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf Of Wall Street to shake up the race at the finish line, but Alexander Payne’s Nebraska could be the little engine that could for Paramount.

Even with a little less than four months until Oscar night, those who make their living campaigning for these little gold statuettes are already feeling the pressure. As master Oscar campaigner Harvey Weinstein himself said recently, “If you haven’t got the goods, don’t get in the race.” He also called this the “most competitive season I have ever seen.” Although the season is likely to have a number of changing scenarios as we roll along, for Academy members—and moviegoers—it’s going to be a lot of fun just watching.

  1. I hope Amy adams(American hustle), Leonardo dicaprio ( wolf) and jake gyllenhaal (prisoners) finally make it to the oscar podium before handing out seconds

  2. “12 years a slave” – is a masterpiece. it’s filmmaking at it’s highest form. unbelievable. saw it last night and can not believe it… heartbreaking. the writing was stellar, the acting… it’s utterly breathtaking. every person, of all race and age was blown away. it truly is mind-blowing.

  3. I’m rooting for Gravity.Every aspect,from the direction to thr acting and from the visuals to the original score,is undeniably amazing.Plus,it woyld be great to see a sci-fi film winning for a change.I would put 12YAS second.Also hoping for Philips,Mud,Buyers and Prisoners.

  4. Nebraska hasn’t got a snowball’s chance. It’s a negligible piece of work in which emotional and intellectual vacuity are passed off as subtlety and realism. Its cruel attitude toward poor people is toxic but the crushing boredom is what will keep a larger audience from forming, if there’s any justice.

    1. I feel there is a good chance for you in the category of “Annoyingly Excessive Adjective Employment” unless Rex Reed makes a last-minute play.

  5. Agreed-this year has an unusually high number of quality films. Just saw Nebraska last week and really enjoyed it. Hope that June Squibb gets some recognition for an unforgettable performance. Bruce Dern was at the top of his game too. And just came home from seeing Philomena-Judi Dench again gives a moving performance along with Steve Coogan.
    Re: 12 Years a Slave, it was moving and powerful-hard to come out of that movie saying I really liked it. It was painful to see some of those scenes. Glad it was made but hard to even say it was entertaining.

  6. Gravity is way over rated. Captain Phillips was awesome… Tom hanks killed and the director is long over due for recognition. 12 years a slave had great acting but as best picture it had too many little story holes and it was jumping. I didn’t even find it tough to watch… Roots was tough to watch this was like the little cousin of roots.

  7. What EXACTLY is American Hustle about? The trailer is very underwhelming and not making me want to see it. Same goes for the hairstyles and costumes. Everyone looks like Harry Reems.

  8. I’ve seen a lot of good movies, but not any great ones yet. Gravity was very good, but not transcendent, Saving Mr. Banks has some nice performances, but is an odd film. I found Captain Phillips to be too by-the-numbers. I think we need to make a distinction between truly wonderful films and good films with Oscar aspirations. The hype, in many cases, is simply not warranted.

  9. I want to see Oscar Isaac nominated for Inside Llewyn Davis, and am also rooting for Tom Hanks and 12 Years A Slave.

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