Sci-Fi Fridays, Episode 51: 2016’s Sci-Fi Oscar Contenders by Category, Part 1 (Best Picture)

rogue one

Instead of an awards profile on just one of 2016’s science fiction films, I propose we take a giant swing at the entire lineup. To make things more organized, I’ve decided to divide the contenders by category based on how much potential each respective film has as a bona fide awards player. Last month’s Oscar ceremony featured four sci-fi flicks up for several Academy Awards – Mad Max: Fury Road, The Martian, Ex Machina and Star Wars: The Force Awakens (though some detractors of Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs might call that movie “science fiction”) — with a combined twenty-four nominations among them. Even more impressively, Mad Max: Fury Road raked the most wins of the evening with six Oscars. With such remarkable stats, we can no longer underestimate the cinematic sway this genre has over the Academy populace. Therefore, it’s time to keep our Eye of Sauron peeled for the next set of movies that continue to defy the odds for a once unappreciated genre. Let’s begin with the big category in this first article…

Best Picture:

The obvious choice here has to be Passengers starring Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt (movie stars in space…it feels so meta and ironic!) and directed by The Imitation Game’s Morten Tyldum. Tyldum’s “Best Director” nod for his pedestrian biopic was the equivalent of being carried from the living room to the bathroom by way of litter. Yes, I am still bitter. No, I won’t carry a grudge with me into a future screening of Passengers. My earlier description of it being “Annie Hall in space” hasn’t really changed, and if it pulsates the heart with heavy romance, you can pretty much bet it’ll a major crowd-pleaser.

With Denis Villeneuve rising in the ranks of auteurs on the edge of a major Oscar breakthrough, it would be unwise to overlook the potential of Paramount’s Story of Your Life which could feature an Oscar-winning performance (fingers crossed) from protagonist Amy Adams. My only concern is the studio has yet to announce a release date despite being in the post-production phase. Secondly, Paramount will likely put its full weight behind Scorsese’s Silence, so I’m not totally confident in the movie’s chances even though Villenueve’s quick escalation as a quality filmmaker should place this film near the front of the pack.

Speaking of rising directors, we also shouldn’t forget James Ponsoldt’s The Circle, a technothriller led by Emma Watson and two-time Oscar winner Tom Hanks. Distributor Eurocorp hasn’t made much headway in the way of awards, though I’m sure having Tom Hanks involved will only motivate co-owner Luc Besson to launch some type of awards campaign. Ponsoldt’s The Spectacular Now and The End of the Tour certainly rose his stock, so now it’s a question of whether or not Ponsoldt can graduate from indie filmmaker to big budget director. Here’s to hoping for a smooth transition!

thewitch2

Jeff Nichols’s Midnight Special is getting early raves, and I could see a scenario in which Warner Bros tries to mirror Ex Machina’s success as an early release buoyed by its fantastic reviews and stunning performances. However, Nichols is releasing another movie later in the year, the awards friendlier Loving, which might overshadow his earlier acclaimed film.

We’ll also see entries from the two most popular sci-fi franchises out there: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and Star Trek Beyond. The former follows the universally beloved The Force Awakens while the latter marks the sequel to Star Trek Into Darkness, a film loathed by fans and admired by critics. I don’t need to tell you which movie has the better shot of surprising us with a “Best Picture” nomination, though it’s interesting to note that it was J.J. Abrams’s Star Trek — not J.J. Abrams’s The Force Awakens that received a PGA nod. That’s something to think about!

Two movies that have already performed well – though they might be better classified as horror despite having supernatural elements – are A24’s The Witch and Paramount’s 10 Cloverfield Lane. Look for the critics to sing the praises of these aforementioned films for the entire year – The Witch especially might gain some major traction for first-time filmmaker Robert Eggers, who’s already landed his second job (a remake of Nosferatu) before the theatrical expiration of his first feature.

Might this also be the year movies based on video games get the same amount of respect as their source medium? While Duncan Jones is no slouch when it comes to his work behind the camera, I’m not sure Warcraft will make it all the way to the big leagues – there’s enough eye-popping CGI in that film to fill a football stadium. The film we should really keep our eyes on is Justin Kurzel’s Assassin’s Creed, which drops on an awards-friendly release date right in time for some last-minute attention (December 21st, to be exact!). Given how meticulous and stylistically charged Kurzel’s hugely underrated Macbeth is last, I can only imagine even more colossal production values awaits us with Assassin’s Creed. Teaming back up with Kurzel are two-time nominee Michael Fassbender and Academy Award winner Marion Cotillard. Those two don’t play around when it comes to attaching themselves to a project, so their stamp of approval means a great deal to the film community at large. Kurzel is a visionary who demands the best from all members of his cast and crew so that we can reap the cinematic benefits – in this way, his quest for technical mastery reminds me a lot of George Miller. Could Kurzel be our next action cinema maestro?

batman dawn of justice

Finally, we have to talk about the three superhero movies that everyone is pretty much dying to see but have no idea if they’re good enough for awards chatter. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is likely going to feature astounding direction from Zack Snyder (when has this man ever let us down in the visual department?!) but less than rewarding from a narrative standpoint. The performance from Ben Affleck will make or break this film, especially coming off the heels of Christain Bale’s Batman who was all kinds of menacing in The Dark Knight trilogy without a hint of facetiousness. I’m prepared for a campier Batman, but I can’t say the same for a generation that reveres Nolan’s trilogy in the same way baby boomers aggrandize Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather trilogy.

Captain America: Civil War by all accounts looks like it’ll be the most critically acclaimed Marvel Cinematic Universe movie to date. There have been virtually zero complaints regarding the promotional material, and with the character introductions of Black Panther and the new Spider-Man, it’s pretty much poised for some massive praise. However, if The Avengers couldn’t even make it into the PGA Top 10, it’s a near impossibility for Captain America: Civil War to succeed where its game-changing predecessor failed.

The one superhero film that may actually get some awards traction — primarily because it might surprise with some nods at next year’s Golden Globes — is 20th Century Fox’s Deadpool. Not only is it the highest-grossing X-Men movie domestically, but it’s already received several MTV Movie Award nominations right out of the gate, including “Movie of the Year.” Almost nobody saw Deadpool as a box office champ and critical darling until its unveiling. It single-handedly resurrected Ryan Reynolds’s career, proved how dominant of a financial force an R-rated superhero film could be, and marks the first time a superhero movie made self-deprecation its primary draw.

With all that stated, here are the five science-fiction/horror contenders I believe have the biggest shot at breaking into a “Best Picture” lineup. Enjoy and discuss away…

1. Passengers
2. Story of Your Life
3. The Witch
4. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
5. The Circle

Next time I’ll be looking at the acting categories…so stay tuned!