The first chill of autumn is just on the horizon, and with it an onslaught of Oscar-bait, awards season cinema ripe for the binging. As such, this post could seem silly: why proclaim my favorites of the year in September, when others will almost surely overtake them by year’s end?
Honestly, I don’t have an answer, save for a desire to document for myself, and for my readers, the great films of the first three-quarters of the year. And there have been some, many of which I hope will achieve success with the Academy despite their early berth.
So, without further ado, let’s take a journey from January onward and explore my mid-year Oscar picks in a variety of categories (including my thoughts on how they will play into the year-end awards race!):
Best Foreign Language Feature: Phoenix, dir. Christian Petzold
What’s It About? This brilliant and taut period piece requires some hefty suspension of disbelief. But don’t worry: it pays off in a big way, with a doozy of an ending and rich character-building. The post-WWII, Berlin-set drama tells the tale of Nelly Lenz (the quietly affecting Nina Hoss), a Jewish woman returned from the concentration camps with a reconstructed face and a longing to find her dear husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld). After seeking him out, she is shocked to find that Johnny no longer recognizes her; instead, he wants her to pretend to be his presumed-dead wife in order to win her inheritance (gasp!). What follows is a psychologically-rich, mind-bending tête-à-tête as Johnny and Nelly both struggle to move beyond their prior conceptions of self and uncover how the war has changed them. Tense, extremely well-acted, and uninterested in spelling out its motivations, Phoenix will leave you breathless.
Will It Be Nominated? The odds are in Petzold’s favor. He is a respected director with an exceedingly well-reviewed film that is doing good business in America. Expect to see this on the Academy short list.
Best Animated Feature: Inside Out, dir. Pete Docter
What’s It About? By now you’ve probably seen Pixar’s critical and commercial juggernaut, and you may have even read my review. But Inside Out, a wonderfully emotional and complex animated film, tells the story of 12-year-old Riley, recently moved from snowy Minnesota to grungy San Francisco. Needless to say Riley is shell-shocked, and, on the verge of puberty, her interior life is in shambles. How better to envision that interior than through an examination of the inner-workings of the brain, complete with anthropomorphized emotions who learn they’ll need to evolve alongside their human counterpart? The ensuing journey, with Joy (Amy Poehler) and Sadness (Phyllis Smith) at its forefront, is painful and funny in equal measure, and makes Inside Out one of Pixar’s very best.
Will It Be Nominated? Nominated? Inside Out will win the best animated feature Oscar. The real question is what other categories it will bleed into: Best score? Best screenplay? Sound? Best picture, even? All are good possibilities.
Best Documentary Feature: Amy, dir. Asif Kapadia
What’s It About? In this agonizingly intimate character study, director Asif Kapadia digs deep into the psyche and incredible talents of Amy Winehouse, the late singer-songwriter whose early demise (at age 27) was encouraged by more than a drug and alcohol dependence. Utilizing home video footage, and given full access to voicemails and conversations between Winehouse and her family and friends, Kapadia does not break from Amy’s reality. There are no talking heads here, no moments of respite. Instead we follow this mesmerizing talent on a chronological trajectory with only one possible end, learning along the way that her fractured family—and in particular a money-mongering father and co-dependent husband—enabled her substance abuse just as much as the incessant paparazzi gaze. Amy is a damning and depressing movie, but also a beautiful ode to the musician’s remarkable skill and charisma.
Will It Be Nominated? It certainly should be, but the documentary category is notoriously difficult to crack. The film’s commercial success, and Kapadia’s respect within the industry, should help it along the way.
Best Screenplay: Mad Max: Fury Road, written by Brendan McCarthy, Nick Lathouris, George Miller, Eric Blakeney, Nico Lathouris
Why Is It Great? This is bold, brash writing, and a remarkable feat of world-building. Mad Max: Fury Road is not an epic narrative, filled with twisting allegiances and dramatic monologues. Instead it drops the viewer into a world defined by its own post-apocalyptic rules, and the rhetoric of a strange, dictatorial ruler. Miller and Co. deftly draw upon automotive motifs—the obsession with chrome is striking—and various religious and hierarchical structures (Valhalla, Imperator, and Immorten are just so evocative!) to develop spare, quickly-realized character interactions and scenarios. It’s strange, it’s specific, and it’s brilliant.
Will It Be Nominated? Most likely not here. There are bound to be a wealth of wonderful, well-researched screenplays in both the original and adapted categories (I think Mad Max would fall into the latter), and the oddness of this work won’t appeal to many traditional voters.
Best Supporting Actor: James Ransone, Tangerine (runner-up: Alexander Skarsgard, Diary of a Teenage Girl)
Why Is He Great? Ransone’s is an alternately vile and winning performance in a movie brimming with characters whose reprehensible actions are paired with warm emotional cores. He lives up to the trek Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) takes across town to find him, and his rich characterization—drawn from actual pimps he talked with in LA’s Sunset Strip—is never less than authentic. When we finally meet the famous man, he is smug, sort of disgusting, but also kind and protective, and although we’d like Sin-Dee to more quickly realize that he is not worth her time, Chester’s charm is undeniable. Ransone injects his brief appearance with unceasing energy; he’s a joy to watch.
Will He Be Nominated? Absolutely not. Honestly, best supporting actor is very rarely an exciting category, and Ransone is here representing Tangerine‘s other great performances (Mya Taylor is runner-up in my supporting actress category below), and as a place holder of sorts. There are sure to be five more impressive actors and characters in the ensuing months, in films more palatable for the Academy.
Best Supporting Actress: Elizabeth Banks, Love and Mercy (runner-up: Mya Taylor, Tangerine)
Why Is She Great? Love and Mercy is a fantastic movie filled with fantastic performances. It’s admittedly difficult to stand out in a musical biopic about Brian Wilson, particularly when he’s embodied by both Paul Dano and John Cusack (excellent as young and old Brian respectively), but Banks’ turn as Cusack’s lover Melinda is thrilling to watch. The actress pulls of an approachable, funny warmth that makes her disillusionment around Wilson’s increasingly difficult struggle with mental illness all the more heart-breaking. She is never diluted to an empowering female aid to Brian’s late-career resurgence, though. Banks makes Melinda an intensely likable, good-humored, heart-broken individual, wary and bold and realistic about her ability to care for Brian while still caring for herself. It’s career-best work by a long shot, and worthy of awards consideration.
Will She Be Nominated? Maybe! Love and Mercy was met with enthusiastic critical support, particularly for its actors, and Banks and Dano—both bright, relatively youthful talents—could push into the supporting races if the distributor campaigns hard enough.
Best Actor: Corey Hawkins, Straight Outta Compton (runner-up: Paul Dano, Love and Mercy)
Why Is He Great? Straight Outta Compton boasts an astonishing cast of young, relatively unknown actors (along with Paul Giamatti doing fantastic work), and, in my estimation, is one of the best films of the year. What makes Hawkins’ turn as a young, haughty Dr. Dre stand out? He boasts the film’s two most emotionally-wrenching scenes for one, both related to the deaths of close friends, and his tears standing out amidst the swagger of an otherwise largely unsympathetic film. But Hawkins also brings an intensely natural and warm air to even the most unremarkable moments: his laughter at a friend’s musical ineptitude and an early scene in which he struggles to make his mom proud heighten the standard comedy and drama, respectively. He is, in essence, the easiest character to root for, but he doesn’t rely on that ease to make Dre lovable; instead he gives the character a complex inner-working of guilt, hardness, anger, and humor that translates to a satisfying journey.
Will He Be Nominated? It’s unlikely. Though Straight Outta Compton has become a remarkable commercial and critical success, the film’s distributors would probably unfairly push Hawkins and his co-stars in the supporting category (ditto Dano in Love and Mercy), and O’Shea Jackson’s turn as his own father, Ice Cube, has the bigger story behind it. Plus, Dr. Dre is arguably the most controversial living N.W.A. member, with an admitted record of spousal abuse that has marred the film’s press (as it fails to address that violent background).
Also, the best male performances of the year are still to come: in the last few days alone, the Telluride and Venice film festivals have granted us Johnny Depp in Black Mass, Eddie Redmayne in The Danish Girl, and Michael Fassbender in Steve Jobs.
Best Actress: Bel Powley, Diary of a Teenage Girl (runner-up: Melissa McCarthy, Spy)
Why Is She Great? Bel Powley’s turn as Minnie in Diary of a Teenage Girl is the best performance of the year thus far. There, I’ve said it. She is so open, physically and emotionally, that one is keenly aware of Minnie’s thoughts and moods at all times. She’s effortlessly funny, awkward (but convincing) in her sensuality, and unafraid to showcase Minnie’s quick temper and teenage impishness. And though she is tasked with carrying nearly every scene in the film—not to mention near-constant voice-over—Minnie remains a natural, unforced, chummy presence. It’s simply spectacular, lived-in work, marking Powley as a refreshing new find.
Will She Be Nominated? Perhaps. She will have stiff competition (Jennifer Lawrence, Marion Cotillard, Carey Mulligan, Brie Larson, and Alicia Vikander, to name a few), but this is the sort of star-making lead turn that could make the Academy perk up their ears, despite Diary‘s overt sexuality and indie sensibility.
Best Director: George Miller, Mad Max: Fury Road (runner-up: Marielle Heller, Diary of a Teenage Girl)
Why Is The Direction Great? Like its screenplay, Mad Max: Fury Road excels in its boldness: of concept, action, minimalist narrative and maximalist aural and visual elements, and lack of traditional narrative. Without Miller’s particular sensibility guiding the film, this two-hour chase scene would devolve into sameness and tedium long before its triumphant conclusion. Instead, Max became the most assured, finessed film of the year thus far thanks to its unique charm and indispensable creativity. Thanks, Mr. Miller.
Will He Be Nominated? It’s hard to tell at this point, but if Max achieved support outside the technical categories (makeup, visual effects, costume and production design, along with sound categories, are nearly in the bag), the director’s branch could be keen to reward Miller for his singular vision (see Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher and Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild recent surprise nominations for example).
Best Picture: Tangerine (runner-ups: Diary of a Teenage Girl, Mad Max: Fury Road, Inside Out)
Why Is It at the Top of the Heap? Tangerine is the single most exciting film I’ve seen in theaters this year. A bold visual style, fantastic debut performances, energetic, lived-in characterization, and subject matter that challenges and displaces current conversations about transgender representation on film, it marks, for me, the true must-see cinematic event of the first eight months of the year. It’s superb and doesn’t hit a false note.
Will It Be Nominated? Definitely not. The micro-budget indie is hardly ever considered in contention for the Academy’s top prize, and even though Tangerine has captured the queer, urban zeitgeist in its hand-held, street-level examination of trans-sex workers of color, it has a hefty uphill battle to beat out the year-end prestige pics.
Look for Mad Max, Inside Out, or even Straight Outta Compton to land here instead!