22 Deserving Oscar Contenders From the First Half of 2016

Half Way to the Oscars 2016

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.

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.

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.