!!! There are officially only 158 days until the 2017 Academy Awards !!!
For those not well-versed in Academy dealings, that means we are entering the portion of the calendar year when studios begin unloading their Oscar bait into theaters. (The rules stipulate that to be eligible for a given year, a movie must hit theaters between Jan. 1 and Dec. 31.) Barring certain unknowns -- Ben Affleck's Live by Night will surely fit in a qualifying run before its January 2017 release date, while Martin Scorsese's latest, Silence, has no release date at all -- here is a calendar of the surest things. At least, as sure a thing as anything can be when it comes to the Academy.
Florence Foster Jenkins (Out Now)
What It's About: "The story of Florence Foster Jenkins (Meryl Streep), a New York heiress who dreamed of becoming an opera singer, despite having a terrible singing voice and her husband and manager, an aristocratic English actor who was determined to protect her from the truth."
What It Could Win: Meryl automatically becomes an Oscar frontrunner simply by being in a movie. Since 2009, the only years she wasn't nominated were 2011, when she had no film, and 2013, when the film she had was Hope Floats. Her portrayal of Jenkins has earned rave reviews, so even if it is the film's sole nomination, expect Streep's name among the five nominees.
That said, she likely won't be alone: Hugh Grant is a contender for Best Supporting Actor, likely edging out the equally delightful Simon Helberg, who actually was supporting. Stephen Frears could compete for Best Director and, all things considered, it isn't unlikely a lovely movie with a beloved lead would land in Best Picture contention.
Sully (Out Now)
What It's About: "The story of Chesley Sullenberger, who became a hero after gliding his plane along the water in the Hudson River, saving all of the airplane flight 155's crew and passengers."
What It Could Win: The steam may have run out on Sully's Oscar run before it even began. Though the film debuted to not terrible reviews, there also wasn't much buzz around Clint Eastwood getting another Best Director nomination, let alone the movie earning a Best Picture nod.
The film's best chance at recognition is a Best Actor nomination for Tom Hanks, who is as beloved by the Academy as he is by...literally everyone else. Third time might be the charm for him after being shut out for Captain Phillips and Bridge of Spies.
Queen of Katwe (Sept. 23)
What It's About: "A young girl from Uganda whose world rapidly changes when she is introduced to the game of chess, and, with the support she receives from her family and community, is instilled with the confidence to pursue her dream of becoming an international chess champion."
What It Could Win: There's always the possibility that this PG-rated Disney biopic could be perceived as too fluffy to be seriously considered. But it has a plucky, whimsical charm similar to Slumdog Millionaire, which won eight Oscars in 2009 -- including Best Picture. Surely Lupita Nyong'o's name will be tossed in the ring for Best Supporting Actress, for her powerful turn as the conflicted mother of a prodigy. Equally compelling is David Oyelowo, who has Best Supporting Actor potential, as an amiable chess coach.
The Birth of a Nation (Oct. 7)
What It's About: "Nat Turner, a literate slave and preacher, is enlisted to subdue unruly slaves in the antebellum South. But after he witnesses countless atrocities, he orchestrates an uprising in the hopes of leading his people to freedom."
What It Could Win: Out of Sundance, Birth of a Nation was expected to be a Best Picture frontrunner, with equally enthusiastic buzz for Nate Parker as Best Actor, Best Director and for Best Original Screenplay. (Among other considerations. Armie Hammer for Best Supporting Actor? Maybe!) That the film is now marred by controversy -- after a 1999 rape case involving Parker and his co-writer, Jean Celestin, was unearthed -- will reveal how the Academy feels about separating real life from art.
The Girl on the Train (Oct. 7)
What It's About: "A recent divorcee spends her daily commute fantasizing about the seemingly perfect couple who live in a house her train passes every day, until one morning she sees something shocking happen there and becomes entangled in the mystery that unfolds."
What It Could Win: The Girl on the Train, the novel, has long been compared to Gone Girl, and the film adaptation seems destined for the same fate. So why not compare their Oscar runs as well? Gone Girl fared far better at the Golden Globes -- which means there's hope for director Tate Taylor there. As for the Oscars, Rosamund Pike was the sole nominee for Best Actress, which is Girl on the Train's best bet too, via Emily Blunt.
Moonlight (Oct. 21)
What It's About: "The story of a young man struggling to find himself, told across three chapters in his life as he experiences the ecstasy, pain and beauty of falling in love while grappling with his sexuality."
What It Could Win: If the critical accolades out of Telluride and TIFF are any indication, Moonlight will be an unexpected force to be reckoned with this awards season. Barry Jenkins is a breakout contender for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay, and Trevante Rhodes is already earning Best Actor buzz. Choose anyone else in the cast and they could easily earn a Best Supporting nod. Now, time will tell if Moonlight can carry that momentum all the way to the Best Picture race.
Loving (Nov. 4)
What It's About: "The story of the Loving v. Virginia civil rights case and the newlyweds who took their fight to the Supreme Court: Richard and Mildred Loving, an interracial couple who were sentenced to prison in Virginia in 1959 for getting married."
What It Could Win: Another small film with legs, Loving premiered at Cannes and early praise seems to have cemented stars Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton's places in the Best Actress/Actor races. When you consider Jeff Nichols for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay, a Best Picture nom can't be far off.
Trolls (Nov. 4)
What It's About: "The wondrous story of the overly optimistic Trolls, with a constant song on their lips, and the comically pessimistic Bergens, who are only happy when they have trolls in their stomach."
What It Could Win: The Best Animated Feature category is always easier to predict -- fewer options -- and with three spots all but locked down (by Finding Dory, Zootopia and Kubo and the Two Strings), there is an opening for Trolls. Plus, Justin Timberlake is practically a shoo-in for Best Original Song for his poppy earworm "Can't Stop the Feeling!"
Arrival (Nov. 11)
What It's About: "When mysterious spacecrafts touch down across the globe, an elite team -- lead by expert linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) -- is brought together to investigate."
What It Could Win: Arrival is riding high on festival praise, slowly building an Oscar run on solid word of mouth from Venice, Telluride and Toronto. The unstoppable Amy Adams -- the Academy loooooves Amy Adams -- seems a prime Best Actress contender, while Denis Villeneuve has a good chance at Best Director. The underdog here is Jeremy Renner, who is a longshot for Supporting Actor even in a less crowded year.
Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk (Nov. 11)
What It's About: "19-year-old private Billy Lynn becomes a war hero after a harrowing Iraq battle and is brought home temporarily for a victory tour. Through flashbacks, the film reveals what really happened to Lynn's squad -- contrasting the realities of the war with America's perceptions."
What It Could Win: Ang Lee, who took home the Best Director Academy Award in 2013 for Life of Pi, is a frontrunner once again, seemingly providing the movie Best Picture heft, while the rest of the categories -- first-time screenwriter Jean-Christophe Castelli for Best Adapted Screenplay? Kristen Stewart for Best Supporting Actress? -- are far more nebulous.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (Nov. 18)
What It's About: "A magizoologist (Eddie Redmayne) makes a brief stop in 1926 New York but is waylaid by a Muggle, a misplaced magical case and the escape of some fantastic beasts."
What It Could Win: Harry Potter was always a staple in the technical categories -- both parts of Deathly Hallows earned nominations for visual effects and art direction. Could Fantastic Beasts be the Wizarding World film to finally break into the night's bigger categories? Despite being an Oscar nominee two years running, Redmayne likely won't complete the hat trick. But first-time screenwriter J.K. Rowling could get some attention in the Best Adapted Screenplay field.
Manchester by the Sea (Nov. 18)
What It's About: "The life of a solitary Boston janitor (Casey Affleck) is transformed when he returns to his hometown to take care of his teenage nephew."
What It Could Win: Amazon has entered the Oscar race! The online market's studio half has something of a sure thing on its hands with Manchester, with critical acclaim all but guaranteeing a Best Actor nod for Casey Affleck, a Best Supporting Actress spot for Michelle Williams and nominations for both Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay for Kenneth Lonergan. It should come as no surprise, then, that the film is also predicted to be one of the 10 Best Picture contenders.
Nocturnal Animals (Nov. 18)
What It's About: "An art gallery owner (Amy Adams) is haunted by her ex-husband's (Jake Gyllenhaal) novel, a violent thriller she interprets as a veiled threat and a symbolic revenge tale."
What It Could Win: Tom Ford's second feature could be gangbusters with the Academy -- Adams for Best Actress! Gyllenhaal for Best Actor! Ford for Best Director! -- or go all but unnoticed at the Oscars and become something of a cult classic, like his first film, A Single Man.
Allied (Nov. 23)
What It's About: "Intelligence officer Max Vatan (Brad Pitt) encounters French Resistance fighter Marianne Beausejour (Marion Cotillard) on a deadly mission behind enemy lines. Reunited in London, their relationship is threatened by the extreme pressures of the war."
What It Could Win: This is the type of pedigree Best Picture winners are made of: directed by Academy Award Winner Robert Zemeckis, starring Academy Award winner Brad Pitt and Academy Award Winner Marion Cotillard. It's a sweeping period piece about romance and World War II. Frankly, if it isn't up for Best Picture, it will be quite the upset.
Lion (Nov. 25)
What It's About: "A 5-year-old Indian boy takes a wrong train and ends up thousands of miles away from home, where he is adopted by an Australian couple. Twenty-five years later, armed with only the scantest of clues, he learns of a new technology called Google Earth and sets out to find his lost family.
What It Could Win: Director Garth Davis is established in EMMY circles -- he was nominated in 2013 for Top of the Lake -- but Lion might be his in with the Academy. The film could also make Dev Patel a first- time nominee, but it's practically promised to earn Nicole Kidman her fourth nomination -- this time for Best Supporting Actress -- and perhaps her second win.
Moana (Nov. 25)
What It's About: "An adventurous teenager, Moana, who sets sail on a daring voyage to save her people, accompanied by the once-mighty demigod Maui, her trusty pet pig and a dimwitted rooster."
What It Could Win: While Trolls has a good shot at competing for Best Animated Feature, it's as sure as Oscar bets get that Moana will be one of the five nominees. Whether it has a shot at breaking into the Best Picture race, well...most animated films don't. Meanwhile, the love for Lin-Manuel Miranda, who wrote music for the Disney film, will surely still be felt when it comes time to pick and choose those nominees.
La La Land (Dec. 2)
What It's About: "Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress, and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a dedicated jazz musician, are struggling to make ends meet in a city known for crushing hopes and breaking hearts. Set in modern-day L.A., this original musical about everyday life explores the joy and pain of pursuing your dreams."
What It Could Win: Based on its reception coming off the festival circuit, here are two things we know to be true: 1) This movie is a damn delight! 2) Emma Stone will be a frontrunner for Best Actress, with many predicting she will win it. (Here's hoping, if it guarantees another F-word laden reaction, like when she was nominated for Birdman.)
Damien Chazelle is also an Academy wunderkind of sorts, so seeing his name pop up among the Best Director or Best Original Screenplay nominees wouldn't be surprising. More surprising, it seems, is Ryan Gosling clinching a Best Actor nod.
Jackie (Dec. 9)
What It's About: "Following the assassination of her husband, Jacqueline Kennedy fights through grief and trauma to regain her faith, console her children and define her husband's historic legacy."
What It Could Win: Natalie Portman is ostensibly carrying the weight of the film's Oscar hopes and dreams on her shoulders, as word out of TIFF has focused solely on her turn as the titular First Lady. "And the nominees for Best Actress include Natalie Portman in Jackie..." is a sentence that makes so much sense, we're surprised it hasn't happened already.
Collateral Beauty (Dec. 16)
What It's About: "When a successful ad executive (Will Smith) suffers a personal tragedy and retreats from life, his friends devise a drastic plan to reach him before he loses everything and teach him how the constants of love, time and death interlock in a life fully lived."
What It Could Win: The first trailer for Collateral Beauty makes it look like a weepy take on A Christmas Carol, but the movie has a dark side that might intrigue more than one Academy voter. Our money here is on writer Allan Loeb becoming a first-time nominee in the Best Original Screenplay field.
That said, Will Smith is given plenty of opportunities here to stretch his acting muscles and wow his way to a Best Actor nod, as are any number of his co-stars -- Keira Knightley, Edward Norton, Michael Peña, Kate Winslet -- in Supporting.
The Founder (Dec. 16)
What It's About: "The true story of how salesman Ray Kroc met Mac and Dick McDonald, who were running a burger operation in 1950s Southern California, and maneuvered himself into a position to be able to pull the company from the brothers and create a billion-dollar empire."
What It Could Win: There hasn't been much ado about The Founder, but it stars Michael Keaton and is helmed by John Lee Hancock, the man who directed Sandra Bullock to her Oscar glory in The Blind Side. This might be Keaton's second shot at the Oscar he didn't win for Birdman.
Passengers (Dec. 21)
What It's About: "A spacecraft traveling to a distant colony planet and transporting thousands of people has a malfunction in its sleep chambers. As a result, two passengers are awakened 90 years early."
What It Could Win: This sci-fi romance is a bit of a question mark. But if it follows in the footsteps of Gravity or The Martian, it will be one to watch: Chris Pratt could earn his first nomination for Best Actor. Jennifer Lawrence could prove she is irresistible to Oscar votes with another Best Actress nomination. Best Original Screenplay! Best Director! Best Picture!
A Monster Calls (Dec. 23)
What It's About: "A 12-year-old boy attempts to deal with his mother's illness and bullying by his classmates by escaping into a fantastical world of monsters and fairy tales that explore courage, loss and faith."
What It Could Win: Both Lewis MacDougall and Felicity Jones are already garnering rave reviews for their performances, but a Best Supporting Actress nomination for her is more likely. (The Academy is slow to nominate child actors, no matter how deft.) Plus, Achievement in Visual Effects is basically a forgone conclusion -- Guardians of the Galaxy got one of those, and this tree looks pretty Groot-ish.
Fences (Dec. 25)
What It's About: "An African American father struggles with race relations in the United States while trying to raise his family in the 1950s and come to terms with the events of his life."
What It Could Win: The movie is an adaptation of a 1983 August Wilson play, and the 2010 stage version -- which also starred Denzel Washington and Viola Davis -- earned Tony Awards for Best Revival of a Play, Best Actor and Best Actress. Expect the film to follow suit. But could Washington, who is no stranger to the Oscars, earn his first non-acting nomination in the Best Director category?
Gold (Dec. 25)
What It's About: "Kenny Wells (Matthew McConaughey), a prospector desperate for a lucky break, teams up with a similarly eager geologist and sets off on a journey to find gold in the uncharted jungle of Indonesia. Getting the gold was hard, but keeping it is even harder."
What It Could Win: Very Wolf of Wall Street meets American Hustle. This is McConaughey at his most Oscar bait-y, undergoing a full physical transformation to play an over-the-top character. It's Best Actor gold (forgive the pun). There's also Édgar Ramírez, a strong candidate for Best Supporting Actor, and Bryce Dallas Howard is doing a great Amy Adams -- perhaps even Best Supporting Actress-worthy.
Hidden Figures (Jan. 13, though it's widely expected to get an Oscar-qualifying run in December)
What It's About: "The untold story of three brilliant, African American women working at NASA, who served as the brains behind one of the greatest operations in history: launching a man into orbit."
What It Could Win: This is the type of movie that makes things tough, because someone is going into Best Supporting Actress and someone is getting snubbed. Taraji P. Henson -- already an Oscar nominee for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button -- will probably go Best Actress, while Oscar winner Octavia Spencer is relinquished to Supporting. Which doesn't bode well for Janelle Monáe. But the Academy could always prove us wrong -- in fact, we hope they do!