By this time last year, the Oscar race already seemed like a faceoff between “12 Years a Slave” and “Gravity.” Both films were widely seen at festivals by September, and the narrative at the time was that one would be the eventual best picture winner.
Things are a bit hazier this year, since several possible contenders have yet to unspool. Coming out of its People’s Choice Award win at the Toronto Film Festival — an honor “12 Years” snagged last year — some say “The Imitation Game” is the current frontrunner. Other already-screened best picture possibilities include “The Theory of Everything,” “Boyhood,” “Foxcatcher” and “Birdman.”
The ongoing AFI Fest recently unveiled “A Most Violent Year,” J.C. Chandor’s period piece starring Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain, and “The Gambler,” toplining Mark Wahlberg. Both are solid films with strong performances, but remain longshots as best picture winners.
Still, a few upcoming titles could pose a threat. Paramount has yet to unveil the Martin Luther King Jr. biopic “Selma,” while Disney hasn’t widely screened “Into the Woods.” But the biggest projected heavyweights remaining are two reality-based stories with late December release dates: WWII drama “Unbroken,” about the ordeal of Olympic runner and prisoner of war Louis Zamperini; and “American Sniper,” starring Bradley Cooper as a Navy SEAL who battles PTSD. AFI audiences got an early peek at “Sniper” with a screening on Nov. 11.
Both films have impressive pedigrees. Directed by Angelina Jolie, “Unbroken” is based on Laura Hillenbrand’s best-selling biography. It’s an old-fashioned American epic with an inspirational message.
“American Sniper” comes from two-time Oscar winning director Clint Eastwood and stars two-time nominee Cooper, who transformed his appearance, gaining weight for the role (something Oscar voters love), and deals with topical Iraq war issues.
Both films are in the final stages of editing and will likely be screening for guild audiences over Thanksgiving break. Until then, no contender should get too comfortable with frontrunner status.