Oscars Best Picture: 7 Underdogs That Could Benefit from Preferential Ballot

All hope isn’t lost for “American Sniper.” Even though the Bradley Cooper drama about Navy SEAL Chris Kyle hasn’t leapt into the award season race yet, it still holds a stealth advantage as it enters Oscar balloting — passionate fans.

The Golden Globe nominees (announced on Thursday) and SAG Awards (Wednesday) don’t necessarily take passion into account. But the Academy Award nominating system for best picture, determined by a preferential ballot (that puts more “weight” on a film ranked as No. 1 by a voter), can help out a movie like “Sniper,” which has ardent groupies. In recent years, films such as “A Serious Man,” “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” “District 9,” “Tree of Life,” “Toy Story 3” and “Amour” were nominated in the top Oscar category because their fans loved them in a fanatical way.

Here are seven filmsthat could benefit from a similar surge this year.

1. “Unbroken”
Angelina Jolie has been campaigning like Hillary Clinton for her World War II drama about Louis Zamperini, but the Globes and SAG snubbed “Unbroken” in all categories. The Academy, on the other hand, may not. Actors love to celebrate actors who direct — see Ben Affleck (“Argo”), Warren Beatty (“Reds”), George Clooney (“Good Night, and Good Luck“) and Kevin Costner (“Dances With Wolves”), which is why “Unbroken” will still probably be among the 10 (or fewer) nominees for best picture. But Jolie’s odds of cracking the best director race have dimmed as a result of mixed reviews.

2. “American Sniper”
The Academy has been less excited about some of Clint Eastwood’s recent projects — like “Gran Torino,” “Hereafter” and “J. Edgar” — compared to his earlier work as a director. But “American Sniper” is his best film since “Million Dollar Baby,” and there’s a lot of enthusiasm for Bradley Cooper’s astonishing transformation. He’s almost unrecognizable in the role that required him to pack on 40 pounds and train like a real Navy SEAL. It’s a mystery why the Hollywood Foreign Press overlooked the film, but it may have to do with the fact that foreign journalists didn’t want to honor a movie that champions the U.S. military (that could also explain “Unbroken’s” snub). In 2006 “Munich” didn’t get much Golden Globes support either, but still earned five Oscar nominations, including for best picture.

3. “Whiplash”
Until now, the only awards season love for “Whiplash” has been for best supporting actor J.K. Simmons. But at Academy events, informal polls show that Academy voters are very high on the movie — it’s about a disciplined performer, after all (Miles Teller as a professional drummer) — making it a likely bet for best picture. The director race is crowded, but if voters make room for a prodigy, they could award a surprise nomination to Damien Chazelle, like they did in 2013 for Benh Zeitlin (“Beasts of the Southern Wild”).

4. “Wild”
This adaption of Cheryl Strayed’s hiking memoir isn’t just a vehicle for Reese Witherspoon. Academy voters awarded Jean-Marc Vallee’s last picture, “Dallas Buyers Club,” with six Oscar nominations, and “Wild” could make a surprise last-minute sprint in categories like best picture and adapted screenplay. And don’t count out Laura Dern, who was snubbed for best-supporting actress by SAG and the Golden Globes. There’s plenty of goodwill for the once-child actress in the Academy—and she’s overdue since she’s been nominated for an Oscar only once (1992’s “Rambling Rose”).

5. “Inherent Vice”
Depending on whom you talk to, Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest, based on the Thomas Pynchon novel about a pothead private detective (Joaquin Phoenix), is either a riot or an incoherent bore. Many Academy voters probably fall in the latter category, but one can never underestimate Anderson’s popularity with the actors branch. If enough of them put this film in the No. 1 spot on their ballots, it could eke its way into the expanded best picture race.

6. “Nightcrawler”
Jake Gyllenhaal’s haunting performance as an L.A. crime paparazzo, for which he lost 30 pounds, landed him acting noms from both the Golden Globes and SAG this week, and he’s inching his way closer to his first lead actor Oscar nomination (he was previously nominated in supporting for 2005’s “Brokeback Mountain”). “Nightcrawler” has a passionate fanbase: I think it will be one of the best picture nominees. And if there are any surprises in best supporting actress, Rene Russo could (and should) be in the mix for playing a TV news executive.

7. “Interstellar”
Christopher Nolan hasn’t had a great track record with the Academy — the reason we have extra best picture nominees is that 2008’s “The Dark Knight” didn’t make the cut — but he rebounded as 2010’s “Inception” with eight nominations. On paper,  “Interstellar” would would seem his most Academy-friendly film: It’s a parable about love between a father (Matthew McConaughey) and his daughter; its bittersweet ending is reminiscent of “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” etc. Even if Academy voters have a phobia about special effects, at least one of the best picture nominees is going to need to be a hit. Given all the tears at the New York premiere last month, there’s still a chance “Interstellar” could take off this award season.

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