2014 Oscar Power Rankings: Best Picture (Sept. 16)
It’s amazing how little we still know about the Oscar race in the post-Telluride/Venice/Toronto landscape. Sure, films like Steve McQueen’s ‘12 Years a Slave’ and Alfonso Cuaron’s ‘Gravity’ made strong showings on the fall film festival circuit. But with so many films yet to screen – from ‘Saving Mr. Banks’ to ‘American Hustle’ and ‘Foxcatcher’ — the overall picture remains murky, at best.
Here’s where I think we stand at this early stage in the race. We’ll have more movement as the New York Film Festival ramps up on Sept. 27. And movies like ‘Rush’ and ‘Prisoners’ have a chance to screen for mainstream audiences. Large box-office openings can only help their causes. For the moment, here are the leaders in the Best Picture category:
Alfonso Cuaron's first movie since the mesmerizing 'Children of Men' has the potential to be an Oscar-sweeping masterpiece ... particularly after all of the raves that burst out of Venice, Telluride and Toronto. And it isn’t hollow hype. Cuaron’s film is a masterpiece. But will Cuaron’s ‘Gravity’ be this year’s ‘The Social Network,’ a beloved envelope-pusher that eventually loses to a safer, more-Academy-friendly selection like ‘The King’s Speech?’ If movies like ‘Saving Mr. Banks’ connect with Oscar voters, anything is possible.
'12 Years a Slave'
Steve McQueen’s brutal drama took home the Audience Award at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. The first award of many to come? Possible, especially if mainstream audiences can handle what critics out of Telluride and Venice are calling a harrowing, honest depiction of slavery. On merit, ’12 Years’ should be in. The movie scored near-universal raves – all deserved – with director Steve McQueen and his leading man, Chiwetel Ejiofor, dominating the post-film-fest Oscar conversations. Early in this race, I think ’12 Years’ gets in, but stranger things have happened.
'August: Osage County'
On paper, this one has everything Oscar looks for in a Best Picture contender. Director John Wells adapts playwright Tracy Letts's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, with Letts handling the screen adaptation himself. Not enough? Wells also stockpiles his ensemble with Oscar sluggers, notably Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts playing a coal-black mother-daughter combination. The 'August' material is tailor-made for awards. I thought it played well enough with critics and crowds to stay in the conversation, but news of a possible change to the ending means this movie’s fate is still up in the air.
'Dallas Buyer's Club'
Matthew McConaughey has been knocking on the door. The superficial pretty boy who cruised through 'The Wedding Planner' and far too many Kate Hudson rom-coms has gotten serious for roles in 'Mud,' 'Bernie,' 'Killer Joe' and 'Magic Mike' ... and the Academy is paying attention. 'Dallas' could push him over the edge, as McConaughey drops pounds to play an AIDS patient forced to circumvent our country's broken drug policies to get proper medication. Jared Leto and Jennifer Garner co-star.
'Saving Mr. Banks'
Tom Hanks? Playing beloved entertainment icon Walt Disney? Seriously, just give him the Oscar, already. OK, Hanks at least appears to be a shoo-in for a Best Actor nomination (so long as he doesn't steal his own thunder with Paul Greengrass's 'Captain Phillips'), as does Emma Thompson playing distrustful 'Mary Poppins' author P.L. Travers. Hollywood adores behind-the-scenes peeks into its own history, and this making-of 'Mary Poppins,' if handled right, could dominate the competition.
Fresh off the Oscar-winning 'Silver Linings Playbook,' Russell gets the gang back together for this based-on-true-events story of the ABSCAM sting operation that targeted crooked politicians in the late '70s and early '80s. The first trailer makes it look like Russell's version of 'Goodfellas' ... a very good thing for us. Thanks to 'The Fighter' and 'Playbook,' Russell is in the Academy's "zone" at the moment, and hiring heavyweights like Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence to play criminals can only help his Best Picture chances.
'Inside Llewyn Davis'
Joel and Ethan Coen charmed Cannes with their folk-musician biopic, starring Oscar Isaac as the prototypical Coen screw-up. Now they'll try to work their traditional magic on the Academy, which they've managed to do in the past with sporadic success. Mind you, the brothers are coming off of 'True Grit,' which collected 10 Oscar nominations including Best Picture. I'm betting the downtrodden folk singer Llewyn Davis (Isaac) and the misfits in his life will connect with the Academy voters as the Oscar season plays its annual tune.
This one makes our chart, at the moment, simply because of who is involved and what story they are trying to tell. Both of Bennett Miller's previous films -- 'Capote' and 'Moneyball' -- received Best Picture nominations, and deservedly so. And 'Foxcatcher' sounds so strange, it's either going to enchant the Academy, or turn them off en masse. Also based on a true story, Miller's movie details how deranged stranger John du Pont (Steve Carell) torments Olympic wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) after du Pont murders Schultz's brother, Dave (Mark Ruffalo). Again, this could end up being too dark and twisted for the Academy's conservative tastes, but for now, we'll give this mysterious movie the benefit of the doubt until we hear more about it.
Most of our choices have been speculation, guesses made on movies we've yet to see. Coogler emotional snapshot of the final day for a young, Black man (the magnetic Michael B. Jordan), on the other hand, is a proven commodity. It has been winning critical and audience support since Sundance. The modest arthouse success also has banked $13 million over the summer thanks to endorsements from the likes of Oprah Winfrey. With Harvey Weinstein in its corner, 'Fruitvale' should contend for multiple Oscars ... Best Picture certainly being one of them.
‘Lee Daniels’ The Butler’
Decent reviews, stellar box office. That formula has worked for several previous Best Picture contenders, and now that ‘The Butler’ has crossed the $100-million mark at the domestic box office, I’m starting to believe it can happen for Daniels’ Civil Rights drama. Having The Weinsteins in its corner certainly helps. Now, can ‘Butler’ be bumped by ‘Captain Phillips,’ ‘The Wolf of Wall Street,’ ‘Walter Mitty,’ ‘Rush’ or other unscreened gems? Sure. The Academy also might go with only six, seven, eight or nine BP noms. But for the sake of arguing, I’m slotting ‘Butler’ in, and seeing how the race continues to develop.