One of the chief takeaways from last year’s awards season was that Oscar contenders could benefit from room to breathe. Years of awards history have led the teams behind most would-be Oscar contenders to hold their releases until fall or winter to be fresh in voters’ minds in time for balloting. However, with so many films angling for the same October – December release dates, it is easy to get lost in the shuffle. Last year, movies with Oscar ambitions like “Armageddon Time,” “Till,” “White Noise,” “and “She Said” received solid reviews but never had the chance to establish themselves amidst the glut of other contenders. On the other hand, “Elvis,” “Top Gun: Maverick,” and Best Picture winner “Everything Everywhere All At Once,” released in the first half of the year, taking advantage of the relative lack of competition to drum up strong box-office totals and amass passionate and loyal fanbases who would continue to advocate for them throughout the rest of the year.
All of this goes to say, no matter how many exciting Oscar contenders are on the horizon as we begin to learn which films will premiere at Venice, Telluride, and Toronto in the coming weeks, don’t discount what has already premiered in the first half of the year.
Thus, here are the most prominent Oscar contenders from the first half of 2023…
Please Note: We are limiting this to films released in the year’s first half. Thus, films that have premiered at festivals but will not be released until later in the year, like “Killers of the Flower Moon,” will not be included here.
POSSIBLE BEST PICTURE CONTENDERS
Sitting at an incredible 94 on Metacritic and a 97% on Rotten Tomatoes, with a promising box-office for an indie (3.5 million and counting in limited release), and the backing of reigning Oscar champion A24, “Past Lives” feels like the most obvious answer to the question of who most feels like the next “Everything Everywhere All At Once.”
As winner after winner in the expanded Best Picture era has demonstrated, being a screenplay winner gives a film a massive boost towards becoming a Best Picture winner. Just ask “Everything Everywhere All At Once,” “CODA,” “Parasite,” “Green Book,” “Moonlight,” “Spotlight,” “Birdman,” “12 Years a Slave,” “Argo,” “The King’s Speech,” and “The Hurt Locker.” And luckily for “Past Lives,” not only is its rich and emotional screenplay one of the film’s largest selling points, but as a Best Original Screenplay contender, but it might also have less competition for the win than films in the crowded-looking Adapted Screenplay category will.
It also helps that the film has room for support from multiple branches. Its lead actress, Greta Lee, and Supporting Actor, John Magaro, could both be in contention, as could director Celine Song. And as any non-“CODA” Best Picture winner knows, you need below-the-line support to close the deal. The film’s editing, courtesy of Terrence Malick regular Keith Fraase, could be in the hunt, as could the film’s Original Score, courtesy of indie folk group Bears Den and Original Song courtesy of Sharon Van Etten.
Next March is a long way away, and plenty of promising contenders are on the docket. “Past Lives” must work to stay in voters’ minds. But it has a real sense of passion, and if it continues to perform well at the box office, voters will see it as an indie hit that can’t be ignored. Even if it doesn’t end up as a major Best Picture threat, at the minimum, it feels like a sure-fire Best Original Screenplay nominee.
We previously discussed the awards prospects for “Air” here. At the time, we listed it as a potential contender for Best Picture, Actor, Supporting Actress, Original Screenplay, and Film Editing. Well-liked but not overwhelmingly acclaimed, we noted the film would likely need to be a significant box office hit to ensure it stuck around from March onward to stay in voters’ memories. The film grossed a respectable $52 million domestic and $90 million worldwide. That was a decent performance for a non-franchise film but less than half compared to something like “Ford v Ferrari.” As a result, the buzz for “Air” seems to have died down dramatically. Still, Amazon could keep the film in contention, should they have the desire to push it. That will depend on whether other Amazon films like “Saltburn,” Academy Award-winner Emerald Fennell’s follow-up to “Promising Young Woman” are contenders. At the very least, Viola Davis could certainly still be in the hunt for a Best Supporting Actress nomination.
Personally, I am still skeptical about “Spider-Man: Across The Spider-Verse” as a big Oscar contender outside of Best Animated Feature. It will have to overcome being a sequel, a superhero film, and an animated movie, all things the Academy has tended to shy away from in Best Picture nominees. Still, the film continues to chug along at the box office. It is currently the fourth highest-grossing film of the year and counting. It sits at a robust 86 on Metacritic, meaning it is better reviewed than all but three of last year’s Best Picture Nominees. And like “Past Lives,” it clearly has serious passion behind it. Whether it will be “Toy Story 3” or “Guillermo Del Toro’s Pinocchio” regarding its Oscar nominations remains to be seen. If “Spider-Man: Across The Spider-Verse” can become a contender in Best Adapted Screenplay or below-the-line categories like Best Original Score, Sound, Original Song, or even Best Visual Effects, that will go a long way towards making it a plausible contender for a Best Picture nomination.
The Academy seems to have a love-hate relationship with Wes Anderson. Except for “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” Wes Anderson films have tended to be Best Screenplay and below-the-line contenders only. “The French Dispatch” couldn’t manage a single nomination, despite its good reviews, showy production design, and a score from Alexandre Desplat, who the Academy typically likes. For those in the Academy not predisposed to appreciate Wes Anderson, “Asteroid City” is not likely to make many converts. Its 73 Metacritic score, while respectable, makes it Anderson’s worst-reviewed film since 2007’s “The Darjeeling Limited.” Still, it is proving to have decent legs at the box office. And it benefits from having an enormous cast, which can’t hurt in a voting body like the Academy that is still disproportionately comprised of actors. Even if the film is not a Best Picture contender, its below-the-line aspects are remarkable. In particular, the film’s production design has drawn considerable acclaim. Focus has wisely shared behind-the-scenes images of the film’s sets to help drum up buzz. Composer Alexandre Desplat brings another suitably whimsical score to the proceedings. Of course, “The French Dispatch” seemed like a surefire Best Production Design and Original Score nominee but was shut out entirely. Whether the film sticks around until March will largely depend on whether it continues to have box office legs and whether Focus Features’ other potential contenders, like “The Holdovers,” turn out to be key players in this year’s awards race.
Like “Air,” “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.” would have benefited from being a huge box office success. It ended up with glowing reviews and a good amount of affection out of the gate, but audiences, unfortunately, largely ignored the film. It ended up with only $21 million worldwide. It doesn’t help that its distributor, Lionsgate, hasn’t had a Best Picture Nominee since “La La Land” in 2016. Still, it’s a sweet, down-to-earth film with an Academy legend in its producer lineup in the form of James L. Brooks. Additionally, critics groups could potentially push the film back into the awards conversation if they began a Best Supporting Actress campaign for Rachel McAdams.
ABOVE-THE-LINE, BUT NOT BEST PICTURE CONTENDERS
“A Thousand And One”Prospects: Best Actress
After premiering at Sundance, where it won the Grand Jury Prize for Best Dramatic Feature Film, “A Thousand And One” has flown mostly under the radar for many after Focus quietly released it in the spring. However, the enthusiastic praise for Teyana Taylor’s marvelous lead performance is the sort of powerful, impactful work that could gain traction if enough people keep banging the drum loud enough for her all year. A Gotham and Indie Spirit nomination seem within reach, and if enough critics’ groups also mention her in their year-end mentions and larger contenders from the big studios don’t pan out, she could make a play for a Best Actress nomination.
“BlackBerry”Prospects: Best Supporting Actor
I’ll admit, this is more wishful thinking than anything. But “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s” Glenn Howerton is an absolute force of nature as the ruthless tech CEO in Matt Johnson’s well-received tech comedy-drama. It’s the kind of unexpected performance that causes you to re-evaluate an actor completely. Still, with IFC distributing “BlackBerry,” if Howerton is going to go anywhere, he will need support from one or more of the prominent critic groups (LAFCA or NYFCC). In recent years, we’ve seen films from small studios go the distance come nomination morning based in large part on concerted critic group support (“Drive My Car“). Howerton could benefit from a similar push.
“Elemental” hasn’t benefited from the rapturous reviews or gigantic box office of Pixar’s biggest hits. Still, it boasts an undeniably original concept, which could linger in voters’ memories, especially among members of the writers’ branch, who have been more willing to nominate Pixar films than other branches. Plus, its heartwarming romance and immigrant story are moving enough; we suspect it’ll find room in a crowded Best Animated Feature lineup. Additionally, with fifteen nominations, it is never wise to bet against Thomas Newman in the Best Original Score category, especially with a memorable score like this one here. Finally, the film has an exceedingly hummable song that benefits from being used within the film (instead of just in the credits). In a year that lacks any Best Original Song frontrunners at the moment, “Steal the Show” by Lauv is worth keeping an eye on as a contender.
Listen, I totally get it. There are so many other more worthy contenders from the first half of the year alone that saving a slot or two for “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” in either of these categories feels more like we’re preparing for the worst rather than actually believing it will make it in on Oscar nomination morning. But at over $1.3 billion at the box office and holding such broad appeal, one has to wonder if its wide exposure will be enough to push it into Best Animated Feature (think “Shark Tale,” “Despicable Me 2” or “The Boss Baby“) and even a surprise Best Original Song nomination for Jack Black (which would be his first Oscar nomination) for the song “Peaches” which even managed to crack the Billboard Top 100. Crazier things have happened.
Aside from the below-the-line prospects listed for the films above, 2023 has produced plenty of movies that could be threats for Oscar nominations in categories like Best Visual Effects, Sound, Makeup & Hairstyling, and Original Score, even if they won’t come anywhere near a Best Picture nomination.
The previous “Guardians” films have been nominated for Best Visual Effects. With no shortage of new planets and CGI creatures on display, it would not be unreasonable to predict “Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 3” to show up here again. Additionally, one of the “Guardians“‘ series’ strengths has always been its impressive makeup work. The makeup team really outdoes itself here, setting a world record for the most prosthetics ever used in any film. This kind of achievement could shine at the Academy’s Makeup & Hairstyling bake-off, especially with five nomination slots to fill.
“Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves”Prospects: Best Visual Effects
Despite positive reviews, “Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves” underperformed at the box office. Still, the film’s promotional team has effectively promoted the impressive hybrid of practical effects and CGI. The “Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves” team could likely put together an impressive and funny (trust me, that always helps) reel for the Academy’s Best Visual Effects bake-off this year.
“Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull” was completely shut out by the Oscars, with better reviews and presumably a much bigger box-office haul than “Indiana Jones And The Dial Of Destiny.” Still, never count out John Williams, who is working with his iconic themes in what could be one of his final films. And, of course, don’t count out the usual suspects for an “Indiana Jones” film, especially for Best Visual Effects. The steak eaters of the Academy may still love their dosing of Indy even after all of these years.
Look. The Academy has never embraced “John Wick.” But wouldn’t it be really, really cool if they did? As we’ve seen with the “Mission: Impossible” franchise, if the Academy doesn’t embrace a franchise upfront, they don’t tend to jump on board several movies into the series, even if the reviews and box office are better than ever. Still, there is always “The Bourne Ultimatum” precedent (no nominations for the first two films and then three wins for the third). It’s unlikely, but the sound and the stunning cinematography of “John Wick: Chapter 4,” courtesy of Academy Award-nominee Dan Laustsen, might stick with just enough below-the-line voters who love the film to see the franchise get its first nomination.
We rarely see a film nominated for Best Original Score and nothing else. Still, “Da 5 Bloods” did it. And Nicholas Britell is now “in the club” with the Oscar music branch, having landed nominations for “Moonlight,” “If Beale Street Could Talk,” and “Don’t Look Up.” And “Carmen” is such an overwhelming musical experience. It’s the kind of score that is almost impossible to ignore. Plus, Sony Classics has repeatedly shown that they know how to pull off surprise nominations, even for underseen films.
The Disney live-action remakes have had spotty track records in terms of Oscar success. For every “The Jungle Book” or “Cruella” that wins an Oscar, you’ve got a “Dumbo” or “Aladdin” that doesn’t register as so much as a blip come Oscar season. Having good reviews or a massive box office helps. “The Little Mermaid” has received respectable box office returns and respectable reviews. That might be enough. Even if divisive, the film’s visual effects are courtesy of ILM, who should never be counted out for a nomination. And Lin-Manuel Miranda, even if not at the peak of his popularity, still brings enough cache that he could be a Best Original Song contender.
“Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie”Prospects: Best Documentary Feature
We have yet to have many major documentary contenders released thus far this year. One notable standout is Oscar Winner Davis Guggenheim’s “Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie,” a tear-jerking look at beloved actor Michael J. Fox as he struggles against Parkinson’s’ disease. Biographical documentaries tend to be hit or miss with the Academy, especially ones about Hollywood personalities. Still, the seamless blend of reenacted and archival footage, plus, a touching look at an actor we all love, might help it go all the way.
What other contenders do you think are worth keeping an eye on from the first half of the year? Please let us know in the comments section below or on our Twitter account.