Every week between now and January 14, when the nominations are announced, Vulture will consult its crystal ball to determine the changing fortunes in this year's Oscar race. Check back every Friday for our Oscar Futures column, where we'll let you in on insider gossip, confer with other awards-season pundits, and track industry buzz to figure out who's up, who's down, and who's currently leading the race for a coveted Oscar nomination.
The Martian. "I can't imagine anyone not liking this one," raved our critic, David Edelstein, about Ridley Scott's wonderful new sci-fi flick. But will Oscar voters like it enough to vote for it, or will it be hastily dismissed as a genre play? Academy members have shown a willingness to go for sci-fi films like Distict 9 and Avatar if they feel like there are significant thematic underpinnings, so Team Martian would be wise to tout the film's spirit of can-do cooperation. And word has it that this very funny film will be submitted in comic categories at the Golden Globes, where it could actually contend for some high-profile wins.
The Walk. This technically marvelous Robert Zemeckis confection is getting great reviews, but most of them come with a caveat: The 20-minute 3-D sequence where daredevil Philippe Petit walks on a wire between the World Trade Center buildings is staggering, but the more earthbound stuff that comes before it doesn't quite measure up.
Ridley Scott, The Martian. Scott hasn't been nominated since back-to-back nods for 2001's Gladiator and 2002's Black Hawk Down, and it's notable that he's one of the few people to direct a Best Picture winner without winning himself. (While Gladiator took home the top prize, Traffic's Steven Soderbergh snuck away with Best Director.) If The Martian soars this season, Scott's got a "he's due" narrative that is tough to ignore.
Alejandro González Iñárritu, The Revenant. Holy shit, that new trailer. This Oscar season is going to be packed with former winners (like Jennifer Lawrence and Aaron Sorkin) who could repeat their feat; might Iñárritu pull off a practically unprecedented two-in-a-row victory?
Matt Damon, The Martian. The 44-year-old Damon is incredibly winning in this film, and since he's essentially his own scene partner, it's a real showcase for his skill, charisma, and crack comic timing. Do Damon's recent PR kerfuffles hurt? Well, they don't help ... but at the same time, Damon's conservative attitudes about How Hollywood Works are mostly shared by most of the old white dudes who make up the Academy, so his target demographic likely isn't too alienated.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt, The Walk. While Gordon-Levitt literally throws heemself into the role of wire-walker Philippe Petit, heez French accent has been a sticking point for most critics, and heez overweening narration quickly wears out its welcome, n'est-ce pas?
Julianne Moore, Freeheld. The Oscar-winning Moore is oddly disengaged in this gay-rights drama, where she plays Laurel Hester, a lesbian detective whose desire to assign pension rights to her girlfriend is repeatedly denied. "Ms. Moore never fits comfortably into her role," noted Times critic Manohla Dargis, who even called Moore's New Jersey accent as "sloppy as a triple-decker sandwich."
Brie Larson, Room. Yeah, everyone's still waiting to see what Jennifer Lawrence brings to the table with Joy, but in the meantime, Larson is quietly trending upward. Could this category become a battle between two of Hollywood's best and brightest ingenues?
Tom Hardy, The Revenant. While this thriller is presumed to be a major Leonardo DiCaprio vehicle, it's Hardy who got all the dialogue in that new trailer. The Revenant will cap a strong year (after Mad Max and Legend) for the always-in-demand Brit, so a nomination could be the right reward.
Ben Kingsley, The Walk. Kingsley's amusing as the Czech circus maestro who teaches Gordon-Levitt his wire craft, but his performance is likely too light to land on this packed short list.
Kate Winslet, Steve Jobs. Your Oscar Futures blogger finally caught the formidable Steve Jobs last night, and it's a doozy. We'll get into the movie more in next week's column, but as Macintosh marketing head Joanna Hoffman — the only woman who's able to tether the mercurial title character to planet Earth — I think the terrific Winslet is a lock to be nominated.
Ellen Page, Freeheld. Page certainly gives the film her all as a young lesbian whose partner is dying, but by the end of its running time, Freeheld has practically lost track of its central couple, preferring instead to focus on the journey of their straight allies.