While there are no sure things in the Oscar race, the main contenders for best picture seem have to settled into place. But there are bound to be some surprises, with many titles on the cusp of landing one of the potential 10 spots. As the year comes to a close, here’s a round-up of the most popular dark horse candidates, along with some films that are too close to call — and the films that once had potential but now appear to be out of the race for the top prize.
The Not-So Dark Horse
Once a bit of a longshot, “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is looking more and more certain thanks to numerous critical awards, a best picture nomination from the Golden Globes and Critics Choice Awards, and a nom from the SAG Awards in the crucial ensemble category. The film is adored, but it’s a comedy and was released early in the year – two factors working against it. Still, it’s made more money and received better reviews than Anderson’s “Moonrise Kingdom,” which still scored a screenplay nod after being released early in the year.
The Dark Horses
“Whiplash” is a sure thing for supporting actor J.K. Simmons, but could also make significant inroads in the original screenplay category and best picture. It’s also conceivable writer-director Damien Chazelle could figure into the director race, as Benh Zeitlin did with “Beasts of the Southern Wild.”
Popular on Variety
Similarly, “Nightcrawler” is a film with a performance getting a lot of attention that could also break into other races. While Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance has been widely heralded, the competition in his category is so fierce that he was far from a sure thing. Now, he’s looking like more and more of a lock thanks to SAG, Golden Globe and Critics Choice Award nominations. The strong support could translate into a director nod or, more likely, an original screenplay nod for writer-director Dan Gilroy. And the film itself is proving surprisingly popular with Academy members.
Also popular, though perhaps viewed as more lighthearted, is the bigscreen adaptation of fairy-tale musical “Into the Woods.” Its director Rob Marshall also helmed “Chicago,” the last musical to win best picture, and it has the advantage of being the only musical in the race – sorry, “Annie.” A SAG ensemble nomination would have helped, but it’s the only film in the comedy/musical category to provide a viable threat to “Birdman” at the Golden Globes.
And then there’s “Mr. Turner.” While most of the attention has been focused on Timothy Spall’s fantastic performance, never underestimate the Academy’s love for seven-time nominee Mike Leigh. While it’s been fairly quiet in precursor races, there’s an outside chance it could pop up in picture, screenplay or even director.
On the Bubble
A handful of films were never frontrunners, but continue to have strong support in some categories.
Though it was named the best film of the year by the National Board of Review, “A Most Violent Year” failed to pick up many other major accolades, and its best shot now seems to lie in supporting actress Jessica Chastain. Along the same lines, “Wild” is looking like a sure bet for star Reese Witherspoon, but nothing else is certain. It would be great if the Academy recognized director Jean-Marc Vallee, who also directed two of last year’s Oscar-winning performances in “Dallas Buyers Club,” but it’s looking less and less likely.
“Gone Girl’s” shot at best picture is hard to gauge at this point – other than star Rosamund Pike, nothing is certain. The screenplay and direction have received a lot of buzz, and the Academy does seem to adore David Fincher, and he scored a Globe nom for directing “Gone Girl,” yet the film itself failed to be recognized.
Also uncertain is the fate of “American Sniper,” Clint Eastwood’s true-life war drama. Reviews ranged from middling to very positive, and Bradley Cooper’s transformative performance as U.S. Navy SEAL Chris Kyle was universally praised. Still, it was shut out of the Golden Globes and SAG Awards. Starting off with strong box office on Christmas Day, continued interest from moviegoers could help boost its prospects.
Off the Bubble
Though Paul Thomas Anderson’s films generally get a lot of Oscar love, it’s safe to say “Inherent Vice” will be sitting out this season. The same goes for Ridley Scott’s biblical epic “Exodus: God and Kings.” And though “Big Eyes” was sold as a comedy for the purposes of the Golden Globes, it still failed to get a picture nomination, the film’s best shot in the Oscar race is for its original song. Or Amy Adams could still score a nomination, as the Academy adores her. Chris Rock’s “Top Five,” meanwhile, is a true comedy that deserved more attention yet didn’t appeal to Globes nomination voters. There’s generally only room for one comedy in the best picture lineup, and it looks like “Budapest” has already cornered the market.