It is halftime for the 2015 Oscar race, but at this point only one movie released in the first six months of this year looks to make the list of Best Picture nominees. And no, with all apologies to Vin Diesel, it is not Furious 7. So with that in mind let me tell you that right now on July 1, Disney/Pixar’s Inside Out is leading the race for the Academy Awards.
Of course Best Picture nominations for animated films are extremely rare. When there were just five nominees only 1991’s Disney film, Beauty And The Beast, managed to make that cut, but that was before there was even an Animated Feature category where most Academy members think these films belong. Since 2001 when Shrek became the first winner in the newly established category, only two ‘toons — Up (2009) and Toy Story 3 (2010), both like Inside Out from Pixar — have scored a Best Picture nomination in addition to winning the Oscar in their own category. And that was likely due to the expansion of possible nominees from five to 10.
Inside Out, from Up director Pete Docter, looks likely to be only the fourth animated film to join that exclusive club. Most rivals with animated contenders this year, some yet to be seen, are already privately conceding the Ani Feature Oscar to Inside Out because the box office and critical smash is just that formidable. But can it go beyond that and nab a prized Best Pic nomination and maybe even BEST PICTURE OF THE YEAR too? It would certainly be history-making. The Disney studio has never won a Best Picture prize on its own terms (only through its former association with Miramax when The English Patient, Chicago and Shakespeare In Love triumphed). But Inside Out has already moved off the movie pages and become a topic among child psychologists and others in pointing out its importance beyond just entertainment value. It is also sparking conversation and opening new avenues of communication between parent and child. It’s got what a Best Picture needs: gravitas. In a thin field so far in terms of real Oscar potential, Inside Out, which was released on June 19th, is at the head of the class.
It has become increasingly rare for movies which had their commercial release in the first half of the year to go all the way with Oscar. Last year only The Grand Budapest Hotel became the rare early March release to win a Best Pic nomination, also picking up four craft Oscars along the way. Mid-July release Boyhood also got a Best Picture nomination, just missing the June 30 cutoff I have established for the purposes of assessing the race as it stands so far. In the last quarter century only one movie released before May, the 1991 Valentine’s Day opener Silence Of The Lambs, went all the way to a Best Picture win (along with lead actor, actress, director, screenplay grand slam). But May and June releases since then such as Braveheart (1995), Gladiator (2000), Crash (2006) and The Hurt Locker (2009) all won Best Picture despite coming in the first half of their respective years.
Beyond Inside Out, the only other two first half of 2015 releases that have sparked ANY talk of a possible Best Picture nod are long shots Mad Max: Fury Road and Love & Mercy, but those films are far likelier to be remembered in other categories, if not completely overcome by the fall entries. And we can even throw July and August releases into this mix and fairly safely say there isn’t another Best Picture possibility out there until September, when the fall festivals launch — or in the case of a couple we saw at Cannes like Carol and Youth, relaunch a tsunami of contenders in the usual Oscar-friendly corridor of Fall/holiday offerings. They seem to be really bunched together this year so enjoy your summer before that onslaught. I previously analyzed the as-yet-unreleased Oscar possibilities that came out of Cannes in May, but this piece is just about the six months of 2015 that are already history in theaters.
As for other Oscar possibilities released between January 1st and July 1st, we see a smattering of contenders who will fight to be remembered. Acting-wise, as I previously reported, The Weinstein Company has already launched their Best Actress campaign for Helen Mirren in their indie hit Woman In Gold. Roadside is aggressively pushing the Brian Wilson combo of Paul Dano (likely in lead) and John Cusack (in supporting) for Love & Mercy. They even invited select press (thank you, Roadside) and Golden Globe voters to Wilson’s sensational Greek Theater concert a couple of weeks ago just to reinforce the power of this biopic. Carey Mulligan was a standout in Fox Searchlight’s May 1 opener Far From The Madding Crowd which also had fine supporting turns from Matthias Schoenaerts and Michael Sheen. Charlize Theron’s take-no-prisoners work in Mad Max deserves a campaign for sure, as does John Seale’s cinematography which leads that race to date I think, and there should be nods in sound and editing. If there was any justice, George Miller would also contend for directing. Also if there was any justice the wonderfully comic turns of Jason Statham and Rose Byrne would get consideration for their supporting roles in Spy, but comedies like that rarely get that kind of recognition these days.
Older acting branch voters are likely to remember veteran Blythe Danner’s work in the senior citizen favorite, I’ll See You In My Dreams. She was certainly the best thing about it. And if I had my druthers I would nominate all three young actors (Thomas Mann, RJ Cyler, Olivia Cooke) for the touching Sundance awards winner from Fox Searchlight, Me And Earl And The Dying Girl, but its best shot is Adapted Screenplay. Dope would be another movie I would single out for its script but it may not be an “Oscar movie.” It’s a great one, though. A24’s Ex-Machina has done extremely well and could compete somewhere, most likely in screenplay, but that film’s Academy appeal is a harder call. Roadside’s piercing ’71 and Noah Baumbach’s insightful and funny While We’re Young are worthy of remembering but may be lost in time. Pharrell Williams could score a nod for his anthem from that film, “It’s My Turn Now.” And nostalgia could factor in a Brian Wilson nomination for the one new song he wrote for Love & Mercy. And speaking of songs, Universal has a couple from what will otherwise be overlooked films: “See You Again,” the beautiful sendoff for Paul Walker from Furious 7, and Seth MacFarlane and Walter Murphy’s lilting “Mean Old Moon” from Ted 2 sung on the film’s soundtrack by both Amanda Seyfried and Norah Jones. It’s a tune reminiscent of the kind of songs that regularly won Oscars and nominations for Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer in the ’60s.
There are a few really good documentaries in the mix already, including the moving Batkid Begins, Cartel Land, The Hunting Ground, What Happened Miss Simone?, Iris, and best of all, the Amy Winehouse documentary Amy opening this week after its L.A. premiere last week. I really hope sometimes quirky doc branch members can see what director Asif Kapadia has done with that material. He was screwed over on Senna because of the unique no-narration approach of his films. Hopefully not this time. Alex Gibney’s HBO docu Going Clear: Scientology And The Prison Of Belief might have a shot too, but it is likely to storm the Emmys when nominations are announced July 16th, and correct me if I am wrong, but I can’t recall a single time Oscar followed Emmy on anything, only the other way around.
In below-the-line categories expect to see Jurassic World stomp all over sound and visual effects categories just like the original Jurassic Park did in 1993. Disney’s Cinderella certainly should make the cut for costumes and production design, two spots where Madding Crowd could also compete.
If this group doesn’t sound like much incentive to whip out your Oscar ballots, take heart. Last year at this time, other than first-half MVP The Grand Budapest Hotel the field was even thinner. Don’t worry. Those “Oscar movies” are coming to liven up the Best Picture race. Until then you have Inside Out.