The Cannes Film Festival is getting underway next week and represents the first important stop of the year for what we hope will be Oscar-worthy movies. Of course most of those movies will not open until the fall when the usual glut of contenders descends on Hollywood. So far the 2014 pickings have been slim, but that is usually the case. There could be scattered nominations here and there for the likes of Noah, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Lego Movie and last weekend’s art house opener Belle among the precious few movies so far in 2014 that have a chance of turning up somewhere on Oscar’s list. Mainly what we have seen so far is just preparation for the race and anticipation. The National Board of Review was the latest group to announce their dates this week and will vote early on December 2nd. The major guilds, Golden Globes and Oscars have already staked out their key dates.
But before we get to fall (the earliest 2013 Best Picture nominee, Gravity, didn’t open until early October), we have a long hot summer to get through after the highs (and hopefully not too many lows) of Cannes are over. But Oscar pickings seem even more slim than usual from a survey of the summer months leading up to the fall festival trifecta of Venice, Telluride and Toronto. I remain hopeful, but what can you say about a season where the strongest Best Picture prospect — in terms of gravitas and quality — is going to debut on HBO?
That pay network’s The Normal Heart from director Ryan Murphy has all the earmarks of a true Oscar player except for one thing: It’s not eligible since it’s not a theatrical release. Small detail, but I have a feeling that if HBO had decided to try for theatres first it could have figured strongly at the Academy Awards. Instead, this story set in the early days of the AIDS crisis and penned first as a play by Larry Kramer, who wrote this adaptation, promises to sweep the Emmys in August in many categories including for actors Mark Ruffalo, Julia Roberts and Matt Bomer (the latter heartbreakingly standing out among a uniformly fine supporting actor cast). Emmy voters have already received the screener of the movie which doesn’t debut on HBO until May 25th. It’s no wonder so many A-list actors are flocking to the small screen when a net like HBO offers a home for projects like this that have been so consistently rejected by movie distributors that it takes an iron will just to get them made. You could easily have imagined last season’s Oscar juggernaut, Dallas Buyers Club, going the same TV route as Normal Heart had its producers given up — particularly Robbie Brenner (with Rachel Winter) along with Best Actor winner Matthew McConaughey persevering and virtually willing it into theatres leading to that Oscar triumph March 2nd.
I talked to producer Cary Brokaw this week at a special screening at Westwood’s handsome new iPic theatres of his new drama for indie Avenue called Lullaby, opening in 12 major markets and about 26 screens June 13. The film, about a cancer-stricken man who tells his family he is ending his life in 48 hours, features a bevy of Oscar-nominated actors in Richard Jenkins, Anne Archer, Amy Adams, Terrence Howard and Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson in addition to strong performances from star Garrett Hedlund and Downton Abbey’s Jessica Brown Findlay. It is the kind of strong human drama (from debuting writer-director Andrew Levitas) usually reserved for fall. But its fate, according to Brokaw, will depend on how well it can do in the heat of strong summer competition, even as alternative adult programming. It’s not easy keeping theatres, and it’s certainly not easy getting movies made for those theatres, at least movies like this. Brokaw said it took six years to make it happen, even with just a 26-day shoot and a low budget.
Levitas told me though he was able to attract all those actors just because they sparked to the material which isn’t always easy to watch, especially as it deals unflinchingly with the controversial subject of assisted suicide. Although Avenue likely can’t compete with the big boys in terms of Oscar campaigns, Jenkins, a true actor’s actor, delivers a very Oscar-worthy supporting turn that reminded me of Christopher Plummer’s Academy Award-winning role in Beginners, which opened the same time of year in 2011 but was kept alive by Focus Features. If actors branch members see his work he could score his second nomination. He’s simply one of the best and really delivers here as a husband and father trying to compassionately take control in his last days.
So what other summer releases may turn up when nominations are announced in January? Certainly the June 6 animated entry How To Train Your Dragon 2 has a shot in the ‘toon category where the original was nominated. I suppose because Clint Eastwood directed and the stage play was a major Tony winner that Warner Bros’ June 20th release Jersey Boys is worth at least putting on this list, though based on footage seen so far looks more like light entertainment. It premieres the night before as the closer of the LA Film Festival. Maybe even more promising on the music front is the Weinstein Company Toronto pickup Begin Again, which wowed Toronto audiences in September as Can A Song Save Your Life (a better title). Ruffalo drew especially strong buzz there as did Keira Knightley for John Carney’s feel-good picture (which also played Tribeca). Of course Carney knows his way around this stuff since he also directed the Oscar-winning sleeper (and now Tony winner) Once.
I really like the latest John le Carre thriller to get big-screen treatment, A Most Wanted Man, opening in July from director Anton Corbjin and representing the last major screen role for Philip Seymour Hoffman — who is exceptional in this and certainly deserving to be in any awards conversation. Sight unseen I am always hopeful about any Woody Allen film, so we have to include his July 25th offering Magic In The Moonlight with Colin Firth. Performance-wise , Universal’s July release Get On Up should be taken seriously as Academy members are often swayed by biopics, so we’re hopeful about Chadwick Boseman’s work as legendary soul singer James Brown. Could it be his Ray?
A couple of smaller films in August might generate some buzz, most notably the Sundance hit Love Is Strange starring John Lithgow and Alfred Molina as a long-term gay couple who get married and suffer the consequences of that decision. There’s also DreamWorks’ The Hundred Foot Journey starring Helen Mirren. It goes into the studio’s lucky slot in August where they launched The Help, which went on to win an Oscar for Octavia Spencer as well as several nominations including Best Picture. The Weinstein Company tried to repeat that pattern last summer with Lee Daniels’ The Butler but it struck out by the time Oscar nominations were announced. Still, the box office, as it was for The Help, made up for the snub. Although not obviously being pitched as an “Oscar picture,” 20th Century Fox’s June 6 release of the mega-YA best seller The Fault In Our Stars could turn out to be so big at the box office that this love story between young cancer patients might cross over into awards play if the quality is there as well. There’s also writer/director Richard Linklater’s stunning Boyhood, a near three hour coming of age film that was shot over the course of 12 years. But it is more than a mere gimmick and Linklater’s landmark work here deserves awards recognition if voters see it when it opens in limited release July 11.
One area where summer serves up winners is documentaries. This year Radius/TWC is launching Mike Myers’ Supermensch, the Shep Gordon music docu in the same early June slot where they debuted eventual Oscar winner Twenty Feet From Stardom last year — obviously hoping lightning strikes twice. Music-themed docus have won the last two years in the Documentary Feature category (Searching For Sugar Man took it in 2012) which has coincidentally (?) happened just as Academy rules changed to allow all members to vote in the category. Among the many summer docus there are high awards hopes for Whitey: The United States Vs James J. Bulger and the Roger Ebert film Life Itself.
So we’ll see if any of these summer flicks can go the distance, or if there will be surprise contenders out of the warm-weather months. One thing is for sure: You can almost guarantee summer is prime time for the Sound and Visual Effects categories, so at least on that front Oscar will be watching The Amazing Spider Man 2, Godzilla, X Men: Days Of Future Past, Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes, Transformers: Age Of Extinction, Maleficent, and Guardians Of The Galaxy among others of that ilk.
But for most of the many, many movies about to hit theatres this summer,, if you have true Oscar ambition in addition to box office hopes, then the fault is in your release date, not your stars.