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Midway Oscars Forecast: Studios Aim for Gold With Spectacle and Zeitgeist

Variety logo Variety 6/30/2017 Kristopher Tapley
© Provided by Variety

If the upcoming slate of indie Oscar hopefuls promises to be packed with the kind of risky mid-budgeted visions corporate cultures aren’t often eager to back, then the major studios are teeing up exactly what they’re capable of when they throw money at the right talent. Bold genre filmmaking and superhero yarns with actual meat on their bones dot the landscape, while a few of-the-moment dramas and comedies aim to get their licks in as well.

Twentieth Century Fox has a trio of prestige plays in store. For the holidays, Hugh Jackman stars as P.T. Barnum in Michael Gracey’s “The Greatest Showman,” though that could register more as a family film than an awards juggernaut. Meanwhile, Kenneth Branagh aims to dust off an Agatha Christie classic with the star-studded “Murder on the Orient Express.” But if ever there was a project that, sight unseen, felt destined for gold baubles, it has to be Steven Spielberg’s Pentagon Papers drama “The Papers,” starring Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep. A movie that will no doubt capture the zeitgeist with a portrait of the inherent need for a dedicated and judicious fourth estate will be formidable.

The Century City studio also has the most compelling case among the genre players: Matt Reeves’ “War for the Planet of the Apes,” which caps off that rare breed, a trilogy that bests itself with every new installment. More of a heart-wrenching drama than an actioner geared toward selling concessions, it’s a stunning accomplishment and one of the best films of the year. Andy Serkis will likely stir calls for Oscar attention yet again with his performance-capture work, and frankly Steve Zahn deserves to be there with him, in the supporting conversation. But while all of that is admittedly an uphill climb, fingers crossed that, at minimum, the Academy finally recognizes the groundbreaking visual effects of this series.

Fox is also working with Palestinian auteur Hany Abu-Assad (“The Mountain Between Us,” with Idris Elba and Kate Winslet), and sports a handful of animated hopefuls with DreamWorks’ “Boss Baby” and “Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie,” and Blue Sky’s “Ferdinand.” It’s quite the diverse portfolio. Though it will be interesting to see what kind of conversation the studio can rekindle around James Mangold’s “Logan,” which hit theaters less than a week after the 89th Oscars rolled up the red carpet. The gritty neo-Western remains one of the year’s best, with a touching Patrick Stewart performance that deserves serious consideration. Can Academy members give the movie a fair shake, or is the stigma still too great (“The Dark Knight” excepted)?

Speaking of comic book adaptations, some have already speculated about the Oscar chances of Patty Jenkins’ “Wonder Woman,” a rally cry for female filmmakers that won over the critics and set the box office on fire. It’s a tall order, but a commitment worth making; the wheels are already in motion at Warner Bros. to try and bring it back around during the season. But it may ultimately be relegated to the crafts categories, along with the film’s DC stable partner “Justice League,” which lands in the fall. Ditto Marvel’s “Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2” and “Thor: Ragnarok” (at Disney), and the lovable “Spider-Man: Homecoming” (at Sony).

Steering back to Warners, which has seen the most Oscars success of the majors lately with victories for “The Departed” and “Argo,” the Burbank studio is back in the Christopher Nolan business this year with “Dunkirk.” A World War II drama that is banking on Nolan’s clout at the box office amid the summer popcorn clutter, it’s going to be an interesting contender to observe. Denis Villeneuve’s “Blade Runner 2049” is already leaving jaws agape with dazzling trailers and featurettes (the film could finally bring cinematographer Roger Deakins to the Dolby Theatre stage), while Andrés Muschietti’s “It” and Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ “Kong: Skull Island” could make waves below the line. WB also has animated offerings under the Lego brand: “The Lego Batman Movie” and “The Lego Ninjago Movie.”

Speaking of which, there are obviously a few animated players right next door at Disney. Nothing in-house this time around, but the Pixar factory has “Cars 3” and “Coco” on offer. Beyond that, the studio will try to bring billion-dollar box office bruiser “Beauty and the Beast” back around after some MTV Movie Awards love, while the holidays will be all about Rian Johnson’s “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.”Lucasfilm has suffered some brutal PR as of late, but one wonders if Johnson’s mid-trilogy entry won’t be the one to capitalize on the Oscar chatter that left “The Force Awakens” an also-ran.

Right around the corner in Studio City, Universal already has the most talked-about contender of the year so far on its hands: Jordan Peele’s “Get Out.” Some are quick to dismiss the film as a genre entry undeserving of this kind of boost, but even if it’s only screenplay love at the end of the day, you can’t just wave off the highest-grossing debut film based on an original concept.

Otherwise, there will be “Thank You For Your Service,” with Miles Teller as a PTSD-suffering vet from debut director Jason Hall (Oscar-nominated for writing Clint Eastwood’s “American Sniper”). Tomas Alfredson’s “The Snowman” with Michael Fassbender is lurking, too, as well as Doug Liman’s “American Made,” with Tom Cruise. And “Despicable Me 3” hopes to succeed for Illumination Entertainment where a number of other animated hopefuls (“Minions,” “The Secret Life of Pets,” “Sing”) have recently failed.

Skipping across town to Sony, which is still looking to rejoin the Oscar fold for the first time since “American Hustle” and “Captain Phillips” in 2013, there are a handful of things to work with. Chief among them, and confirmed by the studio for a fourth-quarter release, is Dan Gilroy’s “Nightcrawler” follow-up “Roman Israel, Esq.” (née “Inner City”). A legal drama in the realm of “The Verdict” and “Michael Clayton,” it could bring Denzel Washington right back into the conversation one year after “Fences.”

Elsewhere there’s Edgar Wright’s critically acclaimed “Baby Driver,” and if voters have long memories, Oscar winner Danny Boyle’s “T2 Trainspotting.” Sony also has a raft of animated contenders in “The Emoji Movie,”“Smurfs: The Lost Village” and “The Star,” as well as the aforementioned “Spider-Man: Homecoming.” Joseph Kosinski’s “Granite Mountain Hotshots” and Stefano Sollima’s “Sicario” sequel “Soldado” — pick-ups from a soured relationship between production company Black Label and distributor Lionsgate — may or may not rise above being just commercial plays.

But of all the major studios, Paramount Pictures seems to have the most eclectic batch. Indeed, it’s led by a pair of daring auteurs that might have felt at home under the Paramount Vantage banner of old, noteworthy as this may be a last gasp for that kind of thing at a struggling studio looking to avoid risk and boost turn-out for franchises like “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” and the Nickelodeon properties.

Alexander Payne’s “Downsizing” seems almost certain to turn up at the director’s beloved Telluride Film Festival in September and chart a course through the season. The premise seems outrageous on its face — a man and his wife volunteer to have themselves shrunk in order to live out their days in one of many government-facilitated resorts — but it will also mine a social message amid those sci-fi trappings. Matt Damon leads the impressive cast, but rising star Hong Chau could be a discovery story this year as a Vietnamese activist unwillingly shrunk by her government.

Darren Aronofsky is also in the mix with “Mother!,” a psychological thriller starring Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem. No spoilers, as the plot has been actively shrouded in secrecy, but let’s just say it’s sure to be a lightning rod this season. Other projects, like “Suburbicon” — a violent dark comedy from director George Clooney — may lean more commercial than awards, as, certainly, will things like Bad Robot’s “God Particle” and bad robot actioner “Transformers: The Last Knight.” Alex Garland’s “Ex Machina” follow-up “Annihilation” may not be released this year, but if it is, there’s another to consider.

And many long-timers at Paramount will surely delight in working on “An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power.” Al Gore’s post-politics life’s work gets the documentary treatment yet again and will be as timely as it can be, as editors are working still to update the film in the wake of the U.S. pulling out of the 2016 Paris climate accord.

Beyond that, you never know how voters in the crafts branches, particularly visual effects and sound, might respond to all the popcorn fare out there this summer. Universal has “The Fate of the Furious” and “The Mummy” to pitch. Fox has Ridley Scott’s “Alien: Covenant.” Disney will set sail with “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales,” while, in addition to the DC slate, Warner Bros. has Guy Ritchie’s “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword.” Paramount could appeal with “Ghost in the Shell,” and Sony still has “The Dark Tower” to come. But some of those were outright box office disasters. Perhaps their fates have already been sealed.

So that’s a liberal net to cast at the year’s midway point. There is a lot still to come, but one thing is certain: the season is going to have to work overtime to top the drama of last year. Are you ready?

(In case you missed it, catch up with yesterday’s analysis of the indie and streamer landscape.)

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