22 Deserving Oscar Contenders From the First Half of 2016

Half Way to the Oscars 2016
Variety

Year after year film releases from January through June get the short end of the stick during the Oscar season, when latter-year entries — many of them fresh off exposure-boosting festival circuits — drown everything out.

There are exceptions, of course, but mostly, without the help of critical kudos and other precursor awards that deign to have long memories, quality work is frequently left in the also-ran pile. In an effort to keep the spotlight trained on deserving contenders, here is a long list of players we’d like to see remembered by the Academy later this year.

[NOTE: This list only includes films theatrically released to the public through the year’s midway point. Not all festival entries are eligible.]

Best Picture: “Weiner”
Rather than save it for the documentary feature category, why not just call one of the year’s best movies exactly what it is? This Sundance hit is somehow the perfect movie for now: Flawed heroes, media obsession with titillation yielding obfuscation of substance — it’s brilliantly in tune with the zeitgeist. Lucky for us Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg’s cameras were there to capture the unraveling of a noble politician who is, tragically, all too human.

Best Director: Jeremy Saulnier, “Green Room”
Saulnier had already proven his chops on the 2014 Appalachia thriller “Blue Ruin,” but with “Green Room” — a pot-boiler centered on a punk rock band under siege by neo-Nazis in a remote music venue — he took things to the next level. The director finds a unique balance of tone between the horrifying and, when release is needed, the humorous, while maintaining a sense of geography throughout that is of the utmost importance with a claustrophobic film like this.

Best Actor: Ethan Hawke, “Born to Be Blue”
Ethan Hawke delivers a riff on soulful, haunted jazz legend Chet Baker in “Born to Be Blue.” It’s one of the actor’s finest outings, particularly of a piece with his recent tendency to test his boundaries and dabble in new areas. Gleaning what he could from documentaries like “Let’s Get Lost” and recollections of the enigmatic performer from friends and biographers, Hawke ultimately made the character his own.

Best Actress: Susan Sarandon, “The Meddler”
Sarandon delivers one of her greatest performances yet as the title character in Lorene Scarfaria’s sweet dramedy about a well-intentioned mother who moves to Los Angeles to be closer to her daughter (Rose Byrne) after the death of her husband. Whether playing the effects of scarfing down a bag of weed or being romanced by the wonderful J.K. Simmons, Sarandon is sublime. But more than that, the performance is one of the most accurate portrayals of grief seen on film in recent years.

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Best Supporting Actor: John Goodman, “10 Cloverfield Lane”
It may have been a modest genre release in the year’s first quarter, but “10 Cloverfield Lane” nevertheless delivered some of the first award-worthy work of the year. Goodman’s steely presence added as much to the creepy, claustrophobic atmosphere of Dan Trachtenberg’s film as the tight confines of its set. It might even be the most dialed-down work of his career, but either way, it’s reason enough to keep reminding the Academy that this guy STILL doesn’t have an Oscar nomination to his credit.

Best Actress: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, “10 Cloverfield Lane”
While her co-star has deservedly garnered attention for his chilling portrayal of a man holding hostages (or are they?) in a bunker, Winstead goes toe-to-toe with Goodman as his captive and delivers a nuanced, tense performance that makes the thriller work. Winstead has been one of our most underrated actresses for a while, deserving Oscar attention for her stunning turn in “Smashed.” And while “10 Cloverfield Lane” could be dismissed as an entertaining genre picture, it in no way diminishes her serious work.

Best Actress: Sally Field, “Hello, My Name is Doris”
Field has previously won Academy Awards for deadly serious roles (“Norma Rae” and “Places in the Heart”), so it’s wonderful to see her cut loose in an exuberant turn as a woman in her 60s attracted to a younger man. Refusing to act her age and taking a stab at finding joy, Field is electric. It’s a tricky balancing act to elicit an audience’s laughter and empathy without ever seeming pathetic, and she carries it with charm.

Best Supporting Actor: Ralph Fiennes, “A Bigger Splash”
Fiennes has found something of a calling in comedy with films like “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” “Hail Caesar!” and “I Am Love” director Luca Guadagnino’s latest. Here the humor is considerably dark, and Fiennes finds so many ways to hide his character’s deep-seeded unhappiness behind layer after layer of gregarious swagger. It’s one of the most electrifying performances of his career, a stark contrast to the more sober work that established him.

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Best Original Screenplay: “The Lobster”
Owing plenty to Bunuel and Ionesco, Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou’s tale is bleak and dryly comical dystopia, finely calibrated to land at just the right pitch. “The Lobster” is an impressive spectacle of tonal balance and thematic punch, providing the actors with plenty of opportunity to play.

Best Original Screenplay: “Zootopia”
One of the most subversive movies this year in discussing race and gender politics just happens to be a cute animated movie full of furry animals that will appeal to kids. “Zootopia” is in some ways a predictable success coming from the Mouse House, but also much more clever and hilarious than you could even hope.

Best Cinematography: “The Witch”
While everyone was still cheering Emmanuel Lubezki’s work with natural light on “The Revenant” ahead of his third-straight Oscar win in February, Jarin Blaschke’s play with candle-lit interiors and what the sun gave him to work with outside was finally making its way into theaters. It was an equally gorgeous accomplishment, capturing production value that ought to be considered as well (set and costume design were painstakingly authentic on the picture).

Best Costume and Production Design: “Hail, Caesar!”
As always, the work production designer Jess Gonchor puts into a Coen brothers project is a notable extension of their vision. On this ’50s-set romp through Hollywood’s Golden Era, the Oscar-nominated craftsman (along with set decorator Nancy Haigh) came through with truly lush environments and sets, playing off the inherent artifice of filmmaking at every step. Meanwhile, costumer Mary Zophres’ threads popped exquisitely from character to character, allowing her to play in ways she hasn’t really been afforded on previous Coen collaborations.

Best Costume Design: “Zoolander 2”
The movie is goofy as hell, but that doesn’t mean you should overlook the mind-blowing costuming work done by Leesa Evans, who has collaborated frequently with Judd Apatow and created the toons-to-life look of “Scooby-Doo.” She excels at making her lead actors looks impossibly stylish, whether it’s Penelope Cruz clad in red leather or Owen Wilson’s perfectly arranged scarfs. But it’s Kristen Wiig’s wildly over-the-top costumes as a fashion designer that truly steal the scenes.

Best Film Editing: “Krisha”
There is much to praise about Trey Edward Shults’ Spirit Award-winning debut: actress Krisha Fairchild’s blistering performance as a black sheep wrecking her family all over again; composer Brian McOmber’s effective, ambient score; cinematographer Drew Daniels’ dazzling camera movement; Shults’ own deft handling of the material from the director’s chair. But where his vision really comes together, in a kaleidoscope of haunting visual and aural juxtaposition, is in the filmmaker’s edit.

Best Production Design: “High-Rise”
Translating J.G. Ballard’s 1975 novel to the screen was no easy feat for director Ben Wheatley, and the end result was a mixed bag. The design of the picture, however, is one of its most defining characteristics. Production designer Mark Tildesley and set decorator Paki Smith lifted Ballard’s world off the page and into an elaborate visual feast.

Best Original Score: “Midnight Special”
David Wingo’s collaborations with director Jeff Nichols have gone sorely underpraised over the years. What he worked up for “Midnight Special” was another subtle mixture, but one that nailed the requisite atmosphere. It was also a nice ode to the lo-fi genre films that served as an inspiration for the film, the kind of soundtrack you might expect to hear pulsing at a drive-in theater.

Best Original Song: “I’m So Humble” from “Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping”
Honestly, you could flip a coin on the entries from “Popstar,” a compendium that would have been a great contender for the Academy’s defunct “original song score” category. The stand-out, though, might be “I’m So Humble,” a catchy Adam Levine-infused pop track that really soaks up the satire’s themes of celebrity.

Best Sound Editing: “The BFG”
This one is a slight cheat: Steven Spielberg’s latest opens July 1, a day after the mid-year “deadline.” But let’s cut it some slack. Much attention will rightly be paid to the visual effects artists who brought the world of Roald Dahl’s fantasy novel to life here, but that world is also translated with acute aural complexity as well, courtesy of sound legends like Richard Hymns and Gary Rydstrom.

Best Sound Mixing: “13 Hours”
The movie itself was a bit of a dog for various reasons, but as ever with Michael Bay movies, it excelled below the line. The sound in particular was crisp and alive, crucial to the experience of the film’s more riveting sequences, tightly balancing sound effects with other elements for a precise mixture.

Best Visual Effects: “The Jungle Book”
This one pretty much goes without saying. Jon Favreau and his team shot the entirety of “The Jungle Book” on sound stages in downtown Los Angeles, and the end result, after some painstaking work by effects houses MPC and Weta, is a fully-realized world with some of the most state-of-the-art visuals we’ve seen on the big screen yet. Frankly, the film could probably qualify for animated feature consideration. But Disney won’t likely try for that given other in-house contenders, like…

Best Animated Feature Film: “Finding Dory”
Pixar’s latest is as handsome as any endeavor from the toon house. It tugs the heartstrings and builds nicely on characters established 13 years ago. It sacrifices interesting and complex storytelling for straight-up emotion at turns, so it might not be as deserving across the board as the best of Pixar, but it undoubtedly deserves a home here. Even a slightly compromised Pixar film is a bar worth aiming for in the realm of animation.

Best Documentary Feature: “O.J.: Made in America”
With a theatrical release in New York and Los Angeles ahead of its television debut, Ezra Edelman’s “O.J.: Made in America” is technically eligible for Oscar consideration. And if the documentary branch of the Academy passes it up — which, given its perennial quirks, would not shock — it will be a facepalm the likes of which we haven’t seen since “Hoop Dreams.” A 503-minute deep dive into all the potent, relevant themes also explored by the similarly brilliant FX miniseries “The People v. O.J. Simpson,” this is what a socio-political treatise on an entire nation looks like.

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  1. Javier Corral says:

    “Finest Girl (Bin Laden Song)” is a way superior song than “Humble”

  2. David says:

    What about Cliff Curtis for his mesmerizing performance in “The Dark Horse”

  3. stevenkovacs says:

    Best Supporting Actor nom should go to Black Phillip in ‘The Witch’. The best thing in this overhyped film.

  4. Iván el Terrible says:

    I’m starting to think Zootopia will be the breakthrough of the year because of racism allegory and zeitgeist (two things critics, guilds and Academy adore).
    And I hope John Goodman makes it to the awards season, he’s been always underrated and deserves recognition.

  5. J Bison says:

    Supporting Actor: Glenn Powell in Everybody Wants Some

  6. Matt says:

    Disturbing lack of Eye in the Sky here

    • timgray2013 says:

      This was part of a package of two Oscar stories and a photo gallery. “Eye in the Sky” was mentioned in the other story. Thanks for writing. Tim

  7. Karlo says:

    Colin Farrell in The Lobster, finally give him an Oscar nomination please. Weiss, Seydoux, and several of the other players similarly amazing in that movie.

    • Stergios says:

      So true. The whole film is simply exceptional and the performances all around are simply terrific. Seydoux, my God, does she deserve a ton of awards for her work through all these years of her wonderful career. I don’t think I’ve seen Farrell in a better performance since In Bruges. He’s just fantastic here and Weisz is expectedly brilliant.

  8. Parker says:

    Best Supporting Actor: Alden Ehrenreich – Hail, Caesar!

  9. Timmothy says:

    Everybody Wants Some deserves nods for screenplay and Supporting Actor for Glen Powell. He was so funny, earnest, and fun to watch throughout the movie. If nothing else, he was the Matthew McConnaughey of that movie.

  10. Jacob says:

    For your consideration for Best Visual Effects: Warcraft

    No, I am NOT kidding in the slightest.

    Seriously, it had so much more layered and realistic Visual Effects than Jon Favreau’s Star Wars prequel-esque CGI trash. The CGI was so much better used by Duncan Jones in his movie. horribly-received-by-critics-but-LOVED-by-actual-Warcraft-fans, in spite of an uneven and sometimes just outright confusing script, I sincerely believe Visual Effects would be a perfectly appropriate and yes, genuinely deserving category to Award the HIGHEST GROSSING VIDEO GAME ADAPTATION OF ALL TIME.

  11. Jacob says:

    YES PLEASE to Mary Elizabeth Winstead for the Academy Award for Best Actress! I thought she actually did better than John Goodman, but he was also phenomenal himself, to be sure. I think I liked it better than Room, to be honest.

    • Karlo says:

      Room started out engaging but turned into a predictable unbelievable snore. 10 Cloverfield was tight throughout. :)

  12. irwinator1992 says:

    John Goodman and Mary Elizabeth Winstead deserve to win Oscars for their work in “10 Cloverfield Lane”, but the film should also be considered in every single category. It’s that amazing, and it shows that Bad Robot Productions is one of the premium places for A-grade cinema.

  13. Ben Hampel says:

    The Witch should be considered for Best Costumes and Best Supporting Actor. The young man who played the brother was wonderful.

  14. cadavra says:

    Quite right you cited HAIL, CAESAR!’s sets and costumes, but hey–what about Roger Freakin’ Deakins?

  15. Nanny Mo says:

    I do not trust this rag’s judgment on these things anymore. Since the purposeful push to raise gender and race over talent, I just don’t trust your judgement on these things.

  16. Marco Montalvan says:

    Where the hell is Kate Beckinsale? she and her movie “love and friendship” aee getting rave reviews.

  17. Moses says:

    I would include Vittorio Storaro’s photography in Cafe Society.

    Brilliant work that revitalized Woody’s visual style.

  18. George says:

    Jeremy Saulnier for “Green Room” ? No. It’s a very good comedy-thriller, but the last act is rather weak. “The Witch” deserves much more than cinematography: All categories, I’m serious ! Best acting I’ve seen all year, best screenplay, best direction, best music.

    • Edwin says:

      I totally agree with you, its a magnificent piece of cinema in almost every aspect. My favorite movie of 2016. The Screenplay, Direction and Cinematography are outstanding.com

  19. Paek says:

    I would give Zootopia the Best Animated Feature over Dory.

    • crossie says:

      I think (remember, just think) Kris isn’t talking about winners at all (neither “could”, “would” or “should”), and both ‘Finding Dory’ and ‘Zootopia’ could/would/should be nominated; Kris probably just put ‘Finding Dory’ in the Animated Feature slot because he already put ‘Zootopia’ in the Original Screenplay slot.

      Kris probably could have skipped over the Animated Feature category, though; I don’t think a Pixar movie over 90 on RT has much of a problem getting a nomination, whenever in the year it comes out (and Kung Fu Panda 3 is the only other movie so far with a chance).

    • Yana says:

      Same here. While I have no doubt Dory is good (yet to be released in here) even it’s enthusiasts acknowledge it is no Nemo and Zootopia pretty much went out there brand new and well constructed and I’m pretty sure will remain that way amongst commercial animation this year. I did have forgotten about Kubo, tho. It all depends on if it is Paranorman good or Boxtrolls grade.

    • Jacob says:

      I haven’t even seen either Finding Dory or Kubo and the 2 Strings (the latter not even having been released yet) and nonetheless I feel wholly confident in giving Kubo the Oscar and snubbing Dory entirely, ala Cars 2 and perhaps more surprisingly The Good Dinosaur, which I thought was okay, but much better than Brave, and that movie freaking WON the Oscar!

      Here’s what Best Animated Feature should look like IMHO:

      1. Kubo and the 2 Strings

      2. Zootopia

      3. The Angry Birds Movie (It didn’t receive AWFUL reviews, and I will argue to my dying day it would gotten better critical and box office reception if it hadn’t been that most *understandably* hated breed of cinema, a MOVIE based off a VIDEO GAME)

      4. Moana (probably, it’s from the same people who made the Oscar-nominated Princess and the Frog, it looks like it’ll be at least DECENT)

      5. Kung Fu Panda 3

      Alt. The Red Turtle (you know how I said a bunch of movies above should get nominated without seeing them? Well, I’ll be a hypocrite here and say that this Award-winning film from Cannes could easily be a quietly ambitious misfire, or a masterpiece that will blow me away with its silent suspense, just like how All Is Lost did a few years ago. Until them, I’ll wait and see.)

  20. James says:

    Emelie Clarke gives the performance of the year in “Me before you” as does Sally field in “Doris”

  21. fitznd says:

    Sing Street seems like a notable omission, although I’m not sure where I’d squeeze it in. Original screenplay over Zootopia perhaps.

    • eCinemaOne says:

      Finally – someone with some sense. “Sing Street” is the BEST film of the first half of 2016, by far.. Best song noms for “Drive it Like You Stole It”, “Up”, and “To Find You” would be nice, and some writing nods would be nice, as well as for director John Carney. I’d love to see Ferdia Walsh Peelo in there for acting, but if that happens, it will be at the Globes, not the Oscars…

      • Phil says:

        I really hope it gets nominated for best song. It’s such a shame that the movie didn’t connect with more moviegoers. I loved it so much!

    • Karlo says:

      A great movie.

  22. S. A. Young says:

    A handfull of those might actually be remembered come ballot-casting time.

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