Contender Countdown: ‘The Martian,’ ‘Bridge of Spies and ‘Steve Jobs’ stake a claim

The latest rankings in the Best Picture Race
Michael Fassbender at the NYFF premiere of "Steve Jobs"

Finally, the Contender Countdown makes it debut on Awards Campaign.  When we last left our annual power ranking of Best Picture contenders “Spotlight” was the talk of the industry. Now, a mere 2 ½ weeks later the frontrunner* is still…”Spotlight.”  What’s changed is how three films have made their mark on the battle for Oscar’s biggest prize.

*We’re going with semi-frontrunner for now, but along with “Inside Out” and “Steve Jobs” it’s practically guaranteed a nomination.

The biggest surprise has to be Ridley Scott’s “The Martian.”  The 20th Century Fox space epic had a splendid world premiere at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival in early September, but the nationwide reviews that hit last week have been something else.  Based on data from Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes “The Martian” is Scott’s best reviewed film since “Thelma and Louise” over 20 years ago.  So far, the accolades have put a previous Best Picture winner, “Gladiator,” and one if his most iconic films, “Black Hawk Down,” to shame.  Throw in the second biggest opening ever for October, a box office cume expected to top $400 million worldwide and “The Martian” appears to be on track to be the crowd pleaser even the Academy can’t say no to.  Of course, a very small minority believe its not as amazing as Andy Weir’s original novel and, well, Matt Damon would be smart not to speak to the press in any context until after the nominations are announced, but you can’t always get what you want, right?

The “under the radar, but it shouldn’t have been” surprise is Steven Spielberg’s “Bridge of Spies.”  The iconic filmmaker’s foray into the Cold War has earned a warm reception from critics and is expected to debut in the $20 million range next weekend.  That would put it on par with both the wide release of Spielberg’s own “Lincoln” and star Tom Hanks’ “Captain Phillips” two years ago.  Both those films earned over $100 million domestic and “Spies” is expected to as well (you can feel free to dismiss the importance of box office in regards to Oscar, but for films seen as part of the Hollywood studio machine it absolutely matters).  Throw in some Best Supporting Actor praise for Mark Rylance and DreamWorks Studios looks like it’s back in the awards season mix once more.  You just can’t keep Stevie Spielberg down, can you?

The third film isn’t a surprise at all, its Danny Boyle’s “Steve Jobs” (or should that be Aaron Sorkin’s “Steve Jobs”?).  The pseudo-biopic that really isn’t a biopic earned muted praise from the Academy-esque attendees at Telluride (“Spotlight” and “Room” were the real winners), but “Jobs” New York Film Festival gala found the Manhattan critic’s going gaga for it.  Does that sort of reception a Best Picture winner make?  In this still wide- open year anything is possible.  We’re not going there for now, however.

As we enter the second week of October there are shockingly just a few contenders remaining to be screened. Those lucky films include Alejandro González Iñárritu’s “The Revenant,” David O. Russell’s “Joy,” Angelina Jolie’s “By the Sea,” Adam McKay’s “The Big Short” and Quentin Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight.” Oh yeah, and a little movie titled “Star Wars: Episode VII: The Force Awakens” directed by J.J. Abrams and we can’t discount it as a legitimate contender until its seen (You all forget the first “Star Wars” won six Academy Awards and was nominated for Best Pic didn’t you?).  So, in many ways, the field is very close to being set.

Keep all that in mind, here’s an up-to-date rundown of the Countdown.

Oct. 5, 2015

1. “Spotlight”
Still the semi-frontrunner…until its not.

2. “Inside Out”
Would be honestly shocked if it didn’t make the cut. Also, has an excellent chance of taking home the Original Screenplay Oscar.

3. “Steve Jobs”
Critics mostly adore it.  Passion for Fassbender’s performance and Sorkin’s screenplay from his fans in the Writing Branch will guarantee a nod.  Of course, we’re still waiting for Silicon Valley to chime in once they see it…

4. “The Revenant”
It’s 3 hours without an intermission.  If it really is that epic…

5. “Brooklyn”
The tearjerker. Bring your tissues NYFF attendees.

6. “Joy”
It’s gonna come in pretty wet, but so was “American Hustle.” Then there’s this rumor that Ms. Lawrence doesn’t want to campaign for it…

6. “Room”
The TIFF People’s Choice Award wasn’t a fluke. This movie is more than just Brie Larson’s incredible performance.

7. “Bridge of Spies”
Can Spielberg’s pedigree get this one into the final mix?  The expected strong box office won’t hurt.

8. “The Martian”
If the love lasts — and that’s a big “if” — it would be just the second Best Picture nominee for Ridley Scott after “Gladiator.”

9. “Mad Max: Fury Road”
Warner Bros. supposedly has a plan for this one outside of a George Miller directing nomination (their best bet).  No time like the present guys.

10. “The Hateful Eight”
It’s three and a half hours with an intermission.  Curious how will that play on screener cause we’re not convinced most of the Academy is getting off their asses and driving into Hollywood to see it.

On the outside looking in:

“The Danish Girl”
Possible, but the critical reception has been slightly weak.  Focus needs one of the other contenders to falter to sneak in at this point.

A critic’s darling, it may need some major honors from LAFCA or NYFCC to be more than just a Blanchett and Mara player.

Could this be the Cannes sleeper?  It would be a mistake to discount it.

Black Mass”
Box office simply isn’t strong enough. At this point, the priority for WB needs to be getting Depp a nomination.

“Love and Mercy”
Screener was just sent out and a new wave of awards-centric press is in the works.  If any of the film’s stars score SAG nods watch out.

“The Big Short”
We’ll believe it when we see it which will be at AFI in about four weeks.

Strong box office, but the industry love is directed at Benicio Del Toro and Roger Deakins…for now.

Your guess is as good as mine. Critics seemed polarized, but could it play better with the Academy?

Agree? Disagree? Share your thoughts below.

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With over a decade of experience in the movie industry, Ellwood survived working for two major studios, has written for Variety, MSN and the LA Times and co-founded HitFix, Inc. serving as its first Editor-in-Chief and President. Ellwood spends his time relaxing hitting 3’s on the basketball court and following his beloved Clippers.

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