We’re somehow already at the mid-way point for 2014, which means it’s just about time to start talking about the best we’ve seen at the multiplex in the first half of the year. And though this fall will be teeming with some tremendous films, the first six months of 2014 weren’t exactly a barren cinematic wasteland either.
Though the rest of 2014 will undoubtedly see the arrival of most, if not all, of the films that will be battling it out for Best Picture at the 2015 Oscars, the first half of this year has been marked by a few exemplary films that could make the cut, if their appeal keeps them in the minds of Academy members for long enough. We’ve seen strong animated films, dramas, comedies and even studio blockbusters so far in 2014, though everyone knows that the best films of the year aren’t always the Oscar favorites (right, The Dark Knight?). So, the natural question we have to answer is, what movies we’ve already seen in 2014 stand a fighting chance of getting name-checked next February on Oscar night?
Read on for our list of the 10 strongest Oscar contenders released in the first half of 2014, and keep tuned for the second part of this feature, in which I’ll count off the 10 strongest Oscar contenders coming in the next six months.Next
1. The Lego Movie
Let’s get this one out of the way first, given how much of a lock it is. There’s no way that Academy voters will pass up the chance to applaud this hilarious, heartfelt and extraordinarily inventive family adventure. The Lego Movie succeeded on absolutely every level, entertaining viewers with an engaging and original story about the nature of imagination, a lively voice cast, jaw-droppingly vibrant animation and a giant, beating emotional heart.
Expect a win, not just a nomination, for Best Animated Feature, and a nomination for Best Original Song (for the inexplicably catchy “Everything is Awesome”), at the very least. I wouldn’t put any money on a nomination for Best Picture, though it could maybe hold a place as an extremely dark horse in that race, depending on how this fall shakes out. I seriously doubt, especially given how some received it as a feature-length LEGO advertisement, that Oscar voters will show it the same kindness they showed Up and Toy Story 3.Previous Next
2. The Grand Budapest Hotel
Out of everything released so far in 2014, Wes Anderson’s visually stunning joyride of a period piece is perhaps the film with the greatest shot at locking down a Best Picture nomination. Academy voters tend to gravitate toward films that peddle in darker subject matter, and The Grand Budapest Hotel is definitely Anderson’s most personal and emotional film to date. It’s also his best, and the Academy has spurned far too many of his films not to acknowledge that the director is way past due for some recognition. The visuals of The Grand Budapest Hotel are wondrous on their own, but the film as a whole is really superb. More than anything else I’ve seen so far this year, it deserves a shot at Best Picture.
As far as what to expect for this film, I’d say that it will probably end up with nominations for Best Production Design (for Adam Stockhausen) and Best Original Score (for Alexandre Desplat). I’d also absolutely love to see a Best Actor nomination for Ralph Fiennes, who gives one of the best performances of his career in The Grand Budapest Hotel. Playing devilish concierge Monsieur Gustav, he’s witty, energetic and deceptively emotive. I’ve never seen Anderson’s side-splitting dialogue delivered with such precision – Fiennes is a master of deadpan comedy and does a phenomenal job. Speaking of the dialogue, Anderson could also score a nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay, as he did Best Original Screenplay for the also brilliant but slightly less impressive Moonrise Kingdom. A Best Director nomination is probably out of the question, considering how packed this fall will be, but Anderson’s work behind the camera is some of the best of his career, and he does have a chance, albeit a small one.
For more on this wonderful movie, check out our interview with the cast below:Previous Next
Darren Aronofsky’s Biblical epic was once considered an awards heavyweight, but its March release and divisive reception will make it tough for the film to get any attention from the Academy. Still, it’s an impressive, if flawed film, and there’s a possibility that the Academy will see fit to honor it in a few categories.
Noah doesn’t deserve a Best Picture nomination, and it won’t get one, given how crowded that field is going to be this year. However, Aronofsky’s distinctive, ambitious direction could earn him a Best Director nomination, especially if voters come to appreciate the massive scale that the director was working on with Noah. Best Production Design is also a strong possiblity, as is Best Visual Effects. The sequences involving the ark, the Nephilim and the flood are all positively breathtaking, so Noah could definitely remain in voters’ minds. In the acting categories, only Russell Crowe stands a chance of getting a nomination, but he’ll almost definitely get pushed out by contenders who’ll pick up buzz in the fall. Still, Crowe’s last role in a historical epic – 2000′s Gladiator – actually won him the Best Actor trophy, so ruling him out might be ill-advised.Previous Next
Tom Hardy drew raves for his performance in Locke, a gripping one-man show written and directed by Eastern Promises‘ Steven Knight. The Bronson actor stars as Ivan Locke, a successful and married construction site director who learns that a woman he had a one night stand with months earlier has gone into premature labor. As he races from Birmingham to London to be by her side, the phone calls he has to make shatter his marriage and throw his career in a tailspin. Locke’s once-secure life flies out of his control as he struggles to make the moral decision and remain true to the man he believes he is.
Hardy is absolutely electric here, holding the screen in what may be the finest performance of his impressive career. As our reviewer Jordan Adler wrote in his four-star review, Hardy gives a truly “tour de force performance.” The actor is completely mesmerizing, his emotive features and deep voice doing wonders to communicate Locke’s tumultuous mental state.
Any Oscar attention for Locke would likely come in the form of a Best Actor nomination for Hardy. Now, the film’s April release may put it completely out of the minds of Academy members by the time voting opens, but Hardy’s performance is truly something special, and it may just be able to stand the test of time and earn the actor a well-deserved nomination. Hardy’s chances are probably helped by his robust body of work – this is an actor who is universally respected, and who has likely been known to voters since Bronson.
For more on this brilliant film, check out our interview with Hardy and Knight below:Previous Next
If any film from the first half of the year stands a strong chance of winning the visual effects Oscar, it’s likely Godzilla, Legendary’s awe-inspiring update of the classic movie monster. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not advocating for any Oscar attention for the work of Bryan Cranston, Aaron Taylor-Johnson or Elizabeth Olsen, or for Gareth Edwards’ direction, or even for Alexandre Desplat’s score (a notably adventurous one for the composer). However, in the technical categories, Godzilla may reign king.
Oscar attention for Godzilla would likely arrive in three main categories: Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing, and Best Visual Effects. The way in which the film balances sound throughout extensive scenes of citywide destruction is extremely impressive, so Godzilla definitely stands a chance there. And Godzilla’s iconic roar was terrifically rendered for this film, so that will help, too. Godzilla will face some very tough competition from Guardians of the Galaxy, The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Interstellar and The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies. But I’m pulling for the kaiju.Previous Next
6. The Raid 2
Best Foreign Language Film? You bet this jaw-dropping action masterpiece stands a chance – and it should. In the hands of Gareth Evans, The Raid 2 is one of the best action films we’ve seen in years – if not indeed, as our reviewer Dominic Mill raved, “the greatest action film ever made.” Evans choreographs action with a balletic grace that brought amazed tears to my eyes, and every action sequence in The Raid 2 is an instant classic. I can recall each of them now with perfect clarity – and I can’t claim the same for any other action movie, not even my beloved Die Hard. It’s beautiful, brutal and absolutely unforgettable.
I’d advocate for Gareth Evans for Best Director, but we all know he doesn’t stand an ice cube’s chance in hell. So instead I’ll simply put forth The Raid 2 as a film that really should be in contention for Best Foreign Language Film. Oscar, take notice. It’s one of the best films in a genre teeming with cinematic classics, which should say something. We’ll look back on The Raid 2 as one of this decade’s finest action accomplishments – of that, I have no doubt.Previous Next
7. Jodorowsky’s Dune
An absolutely fascinating documentary about surrealist Alejandro Jodorowsky’s epic, unmade adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune, Jodorowsky’s Dune is a highly entertaining watch that makes us wish Jodorowsky’s passion project had come together. If the picture this doc paints is accurate, it would have been one hell of a film (not to mention one that was at one point 14 hours long). With insightful interviews from the director and those who worked with him on the ill-fated project, Jodorowsky’s Dune is likely the closest any of us will get to seeing the actual movie.
I’m anticipating that Jodorowsky’s Dune will ride the wave of critical acclaim it has received all the way to an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Feature. For one, it’s about the movie-making process, and there’s nothing that filmmakers love more than honoring that. For another, voters will want to pay tribute to the tireless work of Jodorowsky and show him that, though Dune will remain unfinished, his efforts did not go unnoticed and unappreciated.Previous Next
8. Venus in Fur
Roman Polanski is one of the Academy’s favorite directors – just look at his nominations for Knife in the Water, Chinatown and Tess, and his statuette for The Pianist. And though the Best Director field will be very crowded this year, it’s possible voters will honor him yet again for Venus in Fur, a French drama about the writer-director (César winner Mathieu Amalric) of a play who becomes obsessed with an energetic actress (César nominee Emmanuelle Seigner) during her audition for the lead character. The film has received very strong reviews, including four stars from our own Dominic Mill, who concluded that, “It’s smart, energetic and fiercely original filmmaking, the kind of stuff true movie fans will always crave.”
If Venus in Fur stands a chance of a nomination, it will either come in Best Director, though that’s highly unlikely, or Best Foreign Language Film, which seems a little more believable. After all, Polanski’s name is still well-respected in Hollywood, despite his legal troubles, and Venus in Fur has been hailed as a return to form for him.Previous Next
9. The Immigrant
James Gray’s long-anticipated Ellis Island drama The Immigrant was expected to be one of the major 2013 awards players, but it was bumped by distributor Harvey Weinstein to a release this past May. Why? I couldn’t tell you, but the film’s commercial prospects, Weinstein’s crowded 2013 slate (which also included August: Osage Country and Philomena) and the packed Best Actress race (which ended up included both Meryl Streep and Judi Dench from those aforementioned dramas) likely all contributed to the move. Regardless, The Immigrant is phenomenal, and the might of its cast, led by Marion Cotillard, Jeremy Renner and Joaquin Phoenix, will likely give it a decent shot at awards attention this year, despite it opening out of Oscar season.
Unless this fall yields a flock of turkeys, I wouldn’t expect that The Immigrant could manage a Best Director nod for Gray, but Cotillard has received raves, so she stands a stronger shot at a Best Actress nomination. Renner has Kill the Messenger this fall, so he’ll be honored for that role if at all, and the same definitely goes for Phoenix, who’s leading Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice. Best Costume Design and Best Cinematography are also (admittedly small) possibilities for The Immigrant.Previous Next
10. Under the Skin
File this one under the “If only” category. Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, more than anything else on this list, stands almost no chance of getting Oscar attention. But the divisive, thought-provoking sci-fi flick is such a stunning accomplishment that it really should. Our reviewer Dominic Mill hit the nail on the head when he concluded in his four-and-a-half-star review that, “Under The Skin is a beautiful, confusing, unnerving sprawl of a film that all but begs for multiple viewings.” It’s brave, weird and utterly remarkable filmmaking.
If I was pulling any strings over at the Academy, I’d push for Under the Skin to get attention in a number of categories, but the one that surely every fan of the film can agree on is that Glazer deserves a Best Director nomination for his atmospheric, visually engrossing work. Scarlett Johansson gives one hell of a performance, but it’s too internalized and nonchalant for the Academy to feel the need to nominate her. In a perfect world, Daniel Landin would at least be in contention for his cinematography, but that’s not happening either. Still, if Glazer can work his way onto the ballots, that will be victory enough for a film as complex as Under the Skin.Previous