Marlon Brando once uttered one of the most famous lines in movie history, “I coulda been a contender,” from one of the most beloved best picture winners, 1954’s On the Waterfront. The film was a shoo-in to sweep the Oscars, and it did. This year, however, there are a boatload of movies that might be saying “I coulda been a contender” but are lost and drifting in one of the most wide-open best picture races in memory, certainly since the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences decided to allow a maximum of 10 nominees instead of just five for the biggest prize in the industry. Some say it’s just not a very good year, and that’s why it appears as if there are numerous contenders but no obvious choice. Others just have their favorites, which are all over the place. One prominent Academy voter who has seen just about everything told me, “There’s great acting, great writing, but I am still waiting for that one movie to just blow me away. So far it hasn’t happened.” Sometimes it takes awhile for a film to gain momentum. After all, on the just-announced list of the American Film Institute’s Top Movies of the Year, four don’t open until Christmas Day. For the first time, the AFI even expanded the list from 10 to 11 films due to a tie. That indicates there are lots of opinions about what constitutes the year’s so-called “best.” With this appearing to be anybody’s game as of press time, let’s look at a rundown—in order of which films I think have the best chances to grab one of those major slots—or not.
Oscars: Helmers Wonder If Some Best Picture Nominees Just Direct Themselves
This indie is clearly the critics darling, swooping up several major—and minor—critics groups awards and nominations from precursor organizations, including a Golden Globe best pic nom. Although the buzz is definitely there, and the majority of pundits who try to predict these things have lined up behind it, there are still many Academy members who haven’t even seen the movie—even though it has been in release since July. This is the kind of small film with a great backstory that could win it all, but often for a movie of this size it is better to sneak up from behind than be the pace horse. And you don’t want to overhype it to the point that it can’t possibly live up to advance word. Still, this IFC Films production is in it for the long haul.
This heartbreaking and compelling saga of Alan Turing, pictured top, the genius who cracked the Nazis’ Enigma codes during World War II, looks to be another King’s Speech for The Weinstein Company. Likewise, TWC is playing it steady as it goes. A Golden Globe nom and the Audience Award at Toronto have been the film’s biggest triumphs to date but, like King’s Speech, it might have to wait until the all-important guild awards to really start showing its stuff.
Like Boyhood, this Globe-nominated dark comedy is doing very well with the critics groups and has strong support from those I spoke with in the Academy. The story of a washed-up movie superhero trying a comeback on Broadway should—and does—resonate with the elite showbiz crowd, but is it too inside baseball?
Lots of love for this one came out of its Academy screening, but it seems as if most of the Oscar talk revolves around its stars, Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones, rather than the film itself. But this Stephen Hawking biopic definitely hits the right notes and could easily make the nomination cut.
Ever since its smash AFI Fest debut, this story of Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous voting rights march has been received rapturously in screenings and just got a Globe nom. Just a year after the Academy gave production company Plan B’s 12 Years a Slave its best picture prize, are voters ready to give the same team—which now includes Oprah Winfrey—another Oscar for this stirring, and beautifully directed film from Ava DuVernay?
From the moment it was announced that Angelina Jolie would be directing this story of WWII and Olympic hero Louis Zamperini, six decades in development, pundits predicted it would be the one to beat. Questions about whether it is too violent and difficult to watch dampened the enthusiasm of some who have it still in the race, just further down. Its superb, old-fashioned movie craftsmanship could seal the deal for a film that is the kind of cinematic achievement that has won Oscars in the past. That’s a plus.
Into the Woods
Musicals have been a tough sell when it comes to the best picture race. The last to win was 2002’s Chicago, from the same director, Rob Marshall. The film has Stephen Sondheim’s blessing and was written by James Lapine, who also wrote the original Broadway production 27 years ago, so this might be time for Oscar to sing a different tune. The film’s rapturous response at early industry screenings might mean it’s a real sleeper.
Although his past few films haven’t made the best pic cut, four-time Oscar winner Clint Eastwood has directed his best work since Million Dollar Baby and Letters from Iwo Jima with Sniper, a riveting true story of the military’s most successful marksman. Don’t count out 84-year-old Clint’s film quite yet.
Christopher Nolan is the reason the Academy expanded the best picture race in the first place, to make way for such films as his The Dark Knight and Inception. The latter made the cut, and there’s no reason to believe the ambitious Interstellar won’t do the same despite mixed response. This is Nolan’s most personal and emotional blockbuster to date and that should count for a lot.
Definitely the most unexpected contender, this film—written and directed by Dan Gilroy—is a dead-on look at local news and what passes for journalistic integrity these days. It also contains a brilliant performance from Jake Gyllenhaal that is a landmark turn for the star.
Sundance winners don’t always translate into Oscar winners, but this one—about a drumming student and his maniacal teacher, portrayed by supporting actor front-runner J.K. Simmons—hits the mark and makes an indelible impression. Although it is a tiny indie, it’s got a passionate base in the Academy—perhaps enough to put it in a key spot to grab a nomination with the big boys.
A sensation at Cannes, this weird, true-life crime story revolving around John DuPont and the Olympic freestyle wrestling squad whose training he funded was a sensation in Cannes’ Official Competition. But has its sheen worn off since then? With tremendous performances across the board, the film could make itself the hot thing again and easily—and deservedly—grab a slot.
A Most Violent Year
Although distributor A24 Films is tiny, it has a big contender in this 1980s drama, which is reminiscent of something Sidney Lumet might’ve done in his prime. Could writer-director J.C. Chandor—Oscar-nominated for his original screenplay Margin Call—have a winner with this one, which got three wins from the National Board of Review, including best picture? Can the film be the little engine that could in this year’s race?
Bubbling under this top list of contenders could be surprise spoilers in Wild, Gone Girl, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Judge, Mr. Turner, Big Eyes, Fury and Inherent Vice. Any one of these could trump a front-runner and re-make this race altogether. It is that kind of year where anything can happen. Ain’t it grand?
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