June 30 marks the year’s midpoint — i.e., the halfway mark of Oscar eligibility. And so far, 2014 is in better shape than last year. The fests have offered some hot contenders that will open later in the year, as usual. But the difference this year is that several commercial releases in the first six months were knockouts. If voting were held next week, they’d be shoo-ins; the big question is whether they can go the distance.
That list includes “The Grand Budapest Hotel” (Fox Searchlight) and “The Fault in Our Stars” (Fox/Fox 2000), both possible in multiple categories. Also contenders are “How to Train Your Dragon 2” (DreamWorks Animation, distribbed by Fox) and “The Lego Movie” (Warner Bros./Village Roadshow). Animated features have received Oscar best picture nominations (“Up,” “Toy Story 3”) but there have never been two in the same year, so it would be nice if 2014 broke some traditions.
Will it happen? It depends on what occurs in the next six months. The downside for these films is that Oscar voters tend to favor late-year entries; all nine best-pic contenders of 2013 opened in the fourth quarter. But the good news for these 2014 films is that the earlier release means the studios can send out screeners well before Thanksgiving and avoid the year-end glut. (This year, there are about 25 potential heavyweights opening in the last three months.)
Like last year, there are a flood of based-on-fact films, including studies of Martin Luther King Jr., Alan Turing, Stephen Hawking, James Brown, painters Margaret Keane and J.M.W. Turner, Olympian Mark Schultz, political reporter Gary Webb and WWII survivor Louis Zamperini.
So far, there have been potent possibilities from the festival circuit, which always offers peeks at films that will open in the second half.
Also, 2014 has seen the release of several films from 2013 fests, including two more fact-based films, “Belle” (Fox Searchlight) and “The Railway Man” (with outstanding performances, TWC), as well as “Locke” (Tom Hardy, A24) and “The Immigrant” (James Gray, TWC). They seem like longshots, but one award from a critics group could move them into the list of serious contenders. And Open Road’s “Chef” (which bowed this year at SXSW) has many loyal supporters, for Jon Favreau’s screenplay and for its other virtues.
Speaking of critics, two Variety reviewers on Monday cited “Under the Skin” (directed by Jonathan Glazer, with Scarlett Johansson, A24) and “Nymphomaniac” (Lars von Trier, Magnolia Pictures) as being among the year’s best. Academy love seems remote, but they could do well in critics’ votings.
The list of openers in the next six months is tantalizing, but there are two disclaimers. First, when key words are included in the list below, those names are to help jog readers’ memories in identifying the film; it’s not an indication of strong points. Second and more important: “12 Years a Slave” and “Gravity” were barely on the radar at this point last year, so there’s always room for surprises.
In terms of craft (cinematography, editing, design, visual effects, etc), there have been many worthwhile possibilities including “Noah,” “Belle” and “Maleficent,” but those will be covered in a separate column soon. Also upcoming: looks at the year’s other races, including animated features.
And a sobering note: This list includes about 50 films; last year, only 32 live-action narratives got any Oscar recognition.
For those who say it’s too early to think about Oscar and other awards, I hate to be the one to tell you: People have been thinking about the 2014 lineup since at least 2013. Let’s hope this year is as much fun as last season, but less exhausting.