You are here
Home > FEATURED > 12 Movies to Know for Oscar Season

12 Movies to Know for Oscar Season

Article by: Josh Bradley

By this point last year, seven of the nine eventual Best Picture nominees had premiered, either in theaters or at a festival. By this point two years ago, six of the eight eventual nominees had. Six of eight by this point in 2014. The last time a Best Picture winner premiered later in the year than November 3rd was Million Dollar Baby (2004).

All to say, we should have a pretty good idea of what’s going to get nominated for Best Picture on January 23, and chances are, at least a few people have already seen the eventual winner. So let’s talk about who we’re going to be talking about.

Heavy-Hitters That Have Made Their World Debut:

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Directed by: Martin McDonaugh

Release Date: November 10, 2017

Martin McDonagh’s most recent Oscar nod was in 2009 for In Bruges, a morally ambiguous black comedy essentially about moral ambiguity (and basically the reason I’ve found a modicum of success on YouTube). The award-winning playwright’s latest is similarly hilarious, violent, bleak, and challenging, and is poised to come away with more than In Bruges’s single nomination for Original Screenplay. Frances McDormand stars as the frustrated and foul-mouthed mother of a murder victim who buys billboards to publicly taunt the local police for not making any arrests in her daughter’s murder. Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Peter Dinklage, John Hawkes, and Lucas Hedges round out the ensemble cast.

In the interest of full disclosure, I took part in a test screening for a work-in-progress cut of this movie over a year ago and signed an NDA barring me from discussing any specifics of what I saw. So, let me non-specifically say: it’s fucking awesome.

Why It’s Generating Buzz: McDonagh is an award-winning playwright – four of his nine plays were Tony-nominated for Best Play – but Three Billboards is only his third feature film. His second movie, Seven Psychopaths (2012), may have been a bit too meta for Academy tastes, but he’s still a proven talent whose work is infrequent enough that it makes waves. Add in the fact that he’s subbed out his usual lead, Colin Farrell, for four-time Oscar nominee (and one-time winner) Frances McDormand – to say nothing of featuring former nominees Woody Harrelson, John Hawkes, and Lucas Hedges; Emmy-winner Peter Dinklage; and perennially brilliant (but thus far nomination-less) Sam Rockwell – and all signs point to Oscar buzz.

And that’s all just on paper. The movie premiered to rave reviews at the Venice Film Festival last month, and continued to ride the wave of praise into the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) where it won the coveted People’s Choice Award. Eight of the last nine winners of that award have gone on to a Best Picture nomination at the Oscars, including eventual winners 12 Years A Slave, The King’s Speech, and Slumdog Millionaire (plus half-credit for last year’s almost-winner La La Land…?).

Where It Will Compete: The stellar reviews – some of the best from the fall festivals – point to a Best Picture nomination, to say nothing of that TIFF People’s Choice Award. Frances McDormand has arguably never been better (and I say that as someone who claims Fargo in my all-time top five), so expect her to compete hard for her second Best Actress statue. But personally, my eye is on Sam Rockwell in the Supporting Actor category. He’s been a respected (and, by all accounts, well-liked) supporting actor for the better part of two decades, and I think he may finally be rewarded for his tough-to-love (but…loveable) deputy character in Three Billboards.

The Shape of Water

Directed by: Guillermo del Toro

Release Date: December 8, 2017

Given the sizable following and enormous respect (among both fans and fellow filmmakers) that Guillermo del Toro has accrued over the years, it’s frankly embarrassing how little of his filmography I’ve actually seen (a single viewing of The Devil’s Backbone….in high school Spanish class). Or maybe it’s the Academy who should be embarrassed, as they’re responsible for recognizing supposed quality more so than my personal viewing habits, and they’ve bestowed the beloved director only a single nomination (Best Original Screenplay for Pan’s Labyrinth). Both will likely be remedied by The Shape of Water, the visionary director’s latest fantasy-horror-romance; and who else but Guillermo del Toro can make a crowd-pleasing, awards-contending fantasy-horror-romance?

Partially inspired by del Toro’s established affinity for old monster movies – notably The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) – The Shape of Water finds a mute janitor (Sally Hawkins) working in a mysterious government laboratory in 1962, where she uses sign language to develop a relationship and unlikely romance with an amphibious humanoid housed in water tanks deep within the lab as a closely-guarded government secret. Also starring Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Stuhlbarg, and frequent del Toro collaborator Doug Jones as the creature (known as “the Asset”).

Why It’s Generating Buzz: While Guillermo del Toro is one of only a handful of directors who has really earned the title of “visionary”, his singular vision has often skewed a bit too niche for Academy tastes (not that there’s anything wrong with that, at all), but it seems he’s really tapped into a universal and crowd-pleasing story within his unique, specific fantasy world. Sure, an interspecies romance is never an easy sell, but frame it as a forbidden love between two societal outcasts (to say the least) set against the backdrop of 1960s governmental conspiracy theories, and apparently audiences will be willing to buy in. The movie has gotten rave reviews from both Venice and TIFF, and it even won the prestigious Golden Lion at Venice (their best picture award, essentially). The Golden Lion doesn’t have any predictive power for the Oscars – it rarely goes to English-language films – but it definitely feels worth mentioning.

Where It Will Compete: As acclaimed as del Toro’s films are, he’s never had one nominated for Best Picture, but given the response from the fall festivals – and, frankly, the relatively wide open Oscar field this year – I think The Shape of Water will certainly be his first. Del Toro has also positioned himself nicely to get the more-coveted Best Director nomination (of which there are only five, instead of the up-to-ten slots available for a Picture nom). Sally Hawkins, Oscar-nominated a few years ago in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine, has gotten particular praise for her performance and will likely duke it out with McDormand for Best Actress (an increasingly crowded category this year – see below). Richard Jenkins, a former Best Actor nominee himself, has Best Supporting Actor buzz for his turn as Hawkins’ neighbor. It also seems worth mentioning that antagonist Michael Shannon has been twice nominated for Best Supporting Actor, including for last year’s Nocturnal Animals.

Call Me By Your Name

Directed by: Luca Guadagnino

Release Date: November 24, 2017

Based on the 2007 novel of the same name by Andre Aciman, Call Me By Your Name is a coming-of-age romantic drama about first love. Set in Italy during the summer of 1983, the first love in this case is between a 17-year-old Italian-American named Elio (Timothée Chalamet) and his father’s visiting American assistant, Oliver (Armie Hammer). While it indeed centers around a blossoming gay romance, director Luca Guadagnino has said that he doesn’t see it a “gay” movie (I would assume because he doesn’t want it pigeonholed as such), and instead sees it as a movie about the “beauty of the newborn idea of desire, unbiased and uncynical.” Works for me.

Why It’s Generating Buzz: I mean, the only real answer here is “it’s gotten universal acclaim since it premiered at Sundance.” It’s an indie movie from a little-known Italian director based on a (relatively) little-known novel starring a little-known 21-year-old; the reviews and word-of-mouth are all we have to go on. Funnily enough, I said almost the exact same thing about Moonlight this time last year, and that went on to win Best Picture. Speaking of which, Call Me By Your Name has been lovingly compared to both Moonlight and Carol, which had six nominations of its own two years ago, likely because of its subject matter, subtlety, and direction.

Where It Will Compete: According to Metacritic, Call Me By Your Name is officially the most critically acclaimed movie on this list (edging out Lady Bird and The Florida Project – see below), a title held by Moonlight on last year’s list. That’s as good an indication as any that the movie is headed for a Best Picture nomination (though, Carol’s Best Picture nom snub is in the back of my mind). While no movie has ever actually won Best Picture after premiering at Sundance, plenty have been nominated.

Newcomer Timothée Chalamet’s name is being thrown around for a Best Actor nomination – a relatively open category, particularly compared to its crowded Best Actress counterpart – and both Michael Stahlbarg and Armie Hammer are flirting with Best Supporting Actor nominations. And while the Best Director category is notoriously difficult to predict this far out (as heavy hitters from the Spielbergs and Scorseses of the world often skip the fall festivals and remain unseen until Christmas), don’t be surprised if Luca Guadagnino squeaks in with a nomination, not unlike Benh Zeitlin and Lenny Abrahamson did in recent years with their indie darlings (Beasts of the Southern Wild and Room, respectively).

Lady Bird

Directed by: Greta Gerwig

Release Date: November 3, 2017

If you’re already familiar with Greta Gerwig – or, to some degree, Noah Baumbach – then I imagine the prospect of her (solo) directorial debut is probably exciting for you. After all, she’s starred in three of Baumbach’s most acclaimed recent films and co-written two of them, including the delightful (and Golden Globe-nominated) Frances Ha (2012). If you’re less in tune with the low-budget arthouse comedy-drama scene…welcome! You’re basically the target audience for this article.

Like Gerwig’s collaborations with Baumbach, Lady Bird is a semi-autobiographical slice-of-life comedy-drama about growing up and/or familial strife. Saoirse Ronan (“SHUR-shuh”) stars as Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson, a high school girl who can’t wait to grow up and leave her Catholic school life and other people’s rules behind. Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts, Lucas Hedges (you again?), and Timothée Chalamet (you again?!) co-star.

Why It’s Generating Buzz: Gerwig has earned her place on people’s radar with her acting and writing, and by all accounts she’s as good behind the camera as she is in front of it (and on the page). Plus, Saoirse Ronan — already with two nominations at the tender age of 23 — is quickly becoming a regular at the Oscars (a la Jennifer Lawrence), so a Ronan-led movie with a fall release will turn heads.

Where It Will Compete: The movies that Greta Gerwig made with Noah Baumbach were a little too conversational and plotless for Academy tastes (that’s not a criticism, by the way), so I was a little surprised to hear Best Picture buzz coming out of the fall festivals. Not that I’m complaining.

Oscar viewers surely remember Saoirse Ronan from two years ago when she helmed the utterly delightful Best Picture nominee Brooklyn (2015) and earned a Best Actress nomination for herself in the process. While Brooklyn wasn’t plotless per se, it was certainly more character-driven rather than plot-driven, and Ronan proved that she can carry such a character-driven movie (where her character is doing most of the driving). Thus, I expect she’ll repeat her nomination here, and though McDormand and Hawkins will be tough to beat (and Meryl Streep, see below), the Academy likes giving Best Actress to the ingénue (like Emma Stone, Brie Larson, and Jennifer Lawrence).
As mentioned above, Lady Bird is one of the most critically acclaimed movies on this list, so a Best Picture nomination is likely – barring a “December surprise” like Hidden Figures or The Big Short (which Paramount didn’t even really announce until late September 2015, a relatively late addition to the awards season conversation that threw a wrench in predictions). Laurie Metcalf has Supporting Actress buzz for her take as Lady Bird’s mother, and given her past work, Gerwig is probably in good shape for a Best Original Screenplay nod.

The Florida Project

Directed by: Sean Baker

Release Date: October 6, 2017 (limited), Platform release (on-going)

Two years ago, writer-director Sean Baker made the acclaimed and understated Tangerine with non-professional actors on a shoestring budget – famously shot on three iPhones – to shine a light on an overlooked group on the outskirts of society (transgender sex workers, specifically in Hollywood). His latest film is similarly understated and low-budget (though, its $2 million price tag dwarfs Tangerine’s $100,000), similarly features non-professional actors, and similarly highlights an overlooked segment of the population – the so-called “hidden homeless”.

The Florida Project takes place in and around a cheap, rundown, extended-stay motel ironically called the Magic Castle, located on a stretch of Florida highway steps away from the Walt Disney World Resort (which itself was referred to as “the Florida project” in its planning stages, hence the movie’s title). The residents – including 6-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and her young, tatted, blunt-smoking single mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite, whom Baker found on Instagram) – live week-to-week, paycheck-to-paycheck, barely able to scrape together the $38/day to live at the motel but not enough to afford first and last month’s rent at a more permanent residence. It’s equal parts whimsical and depressing, reminding audiences how magical the world can be when viewed through the eyes of a 6-year-old but also sobering us with the contrast between that magical view and reality (a sobering reality that Moonee may not fully grasp, but we certainly do). Willem Dafoe co-stars as the manager of the motel, one of only three actors in the movie who even has a Wikipedia page.

Why It’s Generating Buzz: Not to keep making Moonlight comparisons, but part of what made last year’s Best Picture so resonant was its brutally honest portrayal of a reality that many people experience but so few movies have bothered to mine. The Florida Project sits comfortably in this same boat, and the overwhelmingly positive reviews that it’s received since premiering at Cannes in May reflect that.

Another aside: because I live in one of the few cities where The Florida Project has screened (so far), this is the second entry on this list that I’ve already seen. I can personally attest to its quality, and I would love for it to receive a Best Picture nomination.

Where It Will Compete: Willem Dafoe is in good shape for a Best Supporting Actor nomination (he was just nominated for a Gotham Award, which is all the more impressive considering they don’t separate lead and supporting performances). The movie has so far performed relative well at the box office with its slow-build platform release, and if the word-of-mouth stays strong, it could very plausibly sneak into the Best Picture field.

Darkest Hour

Directed by: Joe Wright

Release Date: November 22, 2017 (US), December 29, 2017 (U.K.)

It’s a Joe Wright film starring Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill in his first days as Prime Minister during World War II. That’s all I need to say, right?

Why It’s Generating Buzz: A prestigious period biopic from Joe Wright usually will. Gary Oldman reportedly giving a career-defining performance also helps.

Where It Will Compete: The word from the Telluride Film Festival, where Darkest Hour premiered two months ago, is that Gary Oldman’s performance is better than the movie it’s in, but it’s still among both IndieWire’s and Vulture’s Best Picture nomination predictions. Gary Oldman is a lock for a Best Actor nomination and might want to start writing a speech just in case. Ben Mendelsohn co-stars as King George VI, so keep an eye on him for Supporting Actor…

Molly’s Game

Directed by: Aaron Sorkin

Release Date: December 25, 2017 (limited), January 5, 2018 (wide)

Aaron Sorkin is probably the most famous screenwriter in the world who isn’t also a director. Alas, he’s throwing that title away and making his directorial debut, so now he’s just another Joe Schmo writer-director (with two Oscar noms, six Golden Globe noms, three BAFTA noms, five Emmy noms, and four WGA Award noms – all for his writing).

Adapted by Sorkin from Molly Bloom’s memoir, Molly’s Game tells the true story of Bloom’s exploits running an underground high-stakes poker empire (“From Hollywood’s Elite to Wall Street’s Billionaire Boys Club” boasts the memoir’s subtitle) that eventually landed her at the center of an FBI investigation. Jessica Chastain plays Bloom, and Idris Elba, Kevin Costner, Brian d’Arcy James, Chris O’Dowd, and Michael Cera co-star in the ensemble cast.

Why It’s Generating Buzz: Aaron Sorkin movies tend to. Three out of the seven feature films he’s written or co-written were nominated for Best Picture, to say nothing of the seven acting nominations they collectively netted.

Where It Will Compete: Jessica Chastain damn near won Best Actress in 2013 for Zero Dark Thirty, but ultimately fell to Academy darling Jennifer Lawrence. I would be surprised if Chastain doesn’t repeat her nomination here (given the Academy’s history of nominating people in Sorkin movies). Idris Elba is poised avenge his Best Supporting Actror snub for Beasts of No Nation two years ago (see below) and may finally score his first nomination.

The early reviews out of Toronto seem to praise the performances more than the movie itself, which isn’t great for the movie’s Best Picture prospects. And yet, as I’ve alluded, there are more question marks this award season than have been in past years – even though I’m writing this piece weeks later than I have in past years – so Molly’s Game could easily sneak in to the pack of (up to) ten.


Directed by: Dee Rees

Release Date: November 17, 2017 (on Netflix, yo)

Based on the novel of the same name by Hillary Jordan, Mudbound follows a family (Jason Clarke and Carey Mulligan) as they struggle to adjust to life in the rural Mississippi Delta after moving from Memphis. Their troubles are exacerbated by the homecoming of two World War II soldiers: Jason Clarke’s PTSD-stricken brother (Garret Hedlund) and the son of a black family who lives on their farm (Jason Mitchell). Mary J. Blige and Jonathan Banks co-star.

A quick note. As of this writing (still weeks away from release), the IMDb rating for Mudbound is a paltry 6.3/10 – sharply contrasting its 8.3/10 RottenTomatoes score and 81/100 Metacritic score – and a whopping 32.1% of the mere 663 total IMDb votes are 1/10. Keep in mind, RottenTomatoes and Metacritic are both aggregate critics’ scores – i.e. people we know have seen the movie, because it’s their literal job – and IMDb scores are both user-generated and mostly anonymous – i.e. we can’t verify a given voter’s credibility, including whether they’ve even seen the movie.

Last September, the producers of a well-reviewed Sundance movie called Kicks (2016) saw their IMDb rating inexplicably tank (from 7.8 to 4.5) just before release, sending them into a panic. Similarly, last year’s Oscar-nominated documentary I Am Not Your Negro (2016) – one of the best-reviewed films of the year – had an 8.3 IMDb score on November 8 (a few weeks after it premiered at TIFF), a 4.8 on February 1 (a few days after it was nominated for an Oscar, but hadn’t yet been released), and is now back up to a 7.7 today. Hell, even the mega-smash hit Get Out (2017) – see below – had only a 6.1 IMDb score three days before release, and jumped inexplicably to 8.2 three days after release. [Past IMDb scores courtesy of the Internet Archive]

It’s not hard to see what these four seemingly disparate movies – an awards-season WWII homecoming, a small-budget coming-of-age drama, a first-person documentary about a Civil Rights activist, and a hit horror film – all have in common: black leads. And while I completely admit the numbers I’ve cited here are anecdotal, FiveThirtyEight has dug into the data and shown pretty definitively that men regularly tank the IMDb ratings of TV shows aimed at women. If they were to do a similar deep dive of movies/shows with black leads, would they find similar vote manipulation from people who haven’t necessarily seen the movie/show but vote 1/10 based on the race of the characters? I don’t know. But it’s worth keeping in mind… [/rant]

Why It’s Generating Buzz: The movie’s subject matter, period setting, stellar reviews, Sundance premiere, awards-friendly release date, and gritty trailer all make it seem like an awards contender, at least on paper. Its Netflix release, however, makes it more of a wildcard.

While Ava DuVernay’s Netflix original 13th (2016) scored a Best Documentary nomination last year, the Academy has otherwise largely ignored Netflix original movies – despite my absolute certainty that Cary Fukinawa’s Beasts of No Nation (2015) would break through two years ago. It’s no secret that the Academy’s demographics skew older (though, they’re working on it), so it’s easy to blame Netflix’s snubbing on the apparent traditionalists in the voting body who may rail against the modern concept of a “day-and-date” release (i.e. released in theaters and on streaming services simultaneously). It’s worth noting that Amazon has sidestepped this issue by allowing their theatrical releases to gestate a bit before making them available to stream on Amazon Prime (including last year’s Oscar-winner Manchester by the Sea and this year’s Oscar-hopeful The Big Sick).

Where It Will Compete: If it wasn’t a Netflix original, I would say that a Best Picture nomination and a Supporting Actress nomination for Mary J. Blige were foregone conclusions (with potential for a Best Actress nod for former nominee Carey Mulligan and maybe even a Best Director nod for Dee Rees). But because I got burned by Beasts of No Nation, I’m more tepid with Mudbound. Indiewire currently lists it among its ever-changing list of predicted Best Picture nominees (and lists Blige among its predicted Best Supporting Actress crew), but Vulture doesn’t currently have it anywhere in its major category predictions. This will be one to watch.

The Big Sick

Directed by: Michael Showalter

Release Date: June 23, 2017

This hysterical and heart-warming true story was written by comedian Kumail Nanjiani (HBO’s Silicon Valley) and his wife, Emily V. Gordon, documenting the…unusual circumstances under which they fell in love.

Boy meets girl. Boy hides his relationship with girl from his Pakistani parents (who are trying to set him up for an arranged marriage). Girl inexplicably slips into a coma. Boy meets girl’s parents while she’s sick. So, yeah, pretty much your typical love story. Kumail plays himself, Zoe Kazan plays Emily, Ray Romano and Holly Hunter play Emily’s parents, and Bo Burnham and SNL’s Aidy Bryant appear as Kumail’s comedian friends.

Why It’s Generating Buzz: It’s the kind of well-written, wonderfully acted, reality-based romantic comedy that the Academy has gone for in the past – like Annie Hall (1977), but with less child-marriage. Plus, it’s one of the best-reviewed movies of the year.

Where It Will Compete: Most predictions are slating The Big Sick for a Best Picture nomination, a Best Original Screenplay nomination for Nanjiani and Gordon, and probably a Supporting Actress nom for Holly Hunter. Depending on how the field shakes out, Ray Romano could conceivably find himself with a Best Supporting Actor nomination.

Get Out

Directed by: Jordan Peele

Release Date: February 24, 2017

Hey guys, Get Out came out this year.

The purpose of this list is to inform people about likely Oscar contenders that they may not have heard of (yet), which is why the bulk of the entries are yet to be released. It’s also why Blade Runner 2049 and Dunkirk aren’t on this list, despite both being major Oscar contenders (particularly Dunkirk) – everyone knows about those movies and mentioning them wouldn’t be telling anyone anything new. That said, while I’m sure most people are aware of Get Out, it feels worth mentioning because it came out so long ago (before this past year’s Oscars, actually) that people may have forgotten that it’s eligible for awards this coming winter.

Why It’s Generating Buzz: To be honest, after it premiered at Sundance in January and enjoyed a healthy box office return in February and March (to go along with its universal praise from critics), I think people started talking Oscar buzz in a half-joking “wouldn’t that be cool” sort of way. But then…nothing has really knocked it out of contention since, and it’s still holding strong among most Best Picture nomination predictions.

Where It Will Compete: Best Picture and probably Best Original Screenplay for writer-director Jordan Peele. If it gets the Best Picture nomination, it would be only the sixth horror movie to do so (The Exorcist, Jaws, The Silence of the Lambs, The Sixth Sense, Black Swan).

Upcoming Heavy-Hitters Yet to be Seen:

The Post

Directed by: Steven Spielberg

Release Date: December 22, 2017 (limited), January 12, 2018 (wide)

A true historical drama about the Washington Post editors (Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep) who published the Pentagon Papers.

Why It’s Generating Buzz: Um…. Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks, and Meryl Streep

Where It Will Compete: Purely speculation at this point (as no one’s seen the movie), but just looking at the parties involved, Best Picture, Director, Actor, and Actress have to be real possibilities, right?

Phantom Thread

Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson

Release Date: December 25, 2017

In 1950s London, the controlled life of a famed dressmaker at the height of the fashion industry (Daniel Day-Lewis) is thrown into disarray by his new muse and lover (Vicky Krieps). This will reportedly be Daniel Day-Lewis’ final film role.

Why It’s Generating Buzz: Paul Thomas Anderson is one of the most consistent directors working today, and any movie he directs will generate buzz. Daniel Day-Lewis is the greatest actor currently living, and any movie he acts in will generate buzz. The only other time the two have collaborated brought out career-best work from both of them (which is fucking saying something).

Where It Will Compete: Sight unseen, you have to believe that Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor are likelihoods, if not inevitabilities. Daniel Day-Lewis is already the only person to win Best Actor three times – including for There Will Be Blood (2007), his lone film with Paul Thomas Anderson – and I literally (ok, figuratively) cannot fathom a world where he doesn’t get a sixth Best Actor nomination for his swan song.

Others That May Compete:

The Disaster Artist. James Franco getting a Best Actor nomination for playing Tommy Wisseau would be the ultimate full-circle story of Hollywood failure and success. And it would be deserved.

I, Tonya. Hey, it was the runner-up for the People’s Choice Award at TIFF. Don’t be surprised if Margot Robbie sneaks into the Best Actress race for her role as Tonya Harding in the darkly comedic biopic. Like I said, the Academy loves an ingénue in that category.

Roman J. Israel, Esq. Dan Gilroy’s sophomore directorial work didn’t quite live up to Nightcrawler (2014), but Denzel Washington is still Denzel Washington, a two-time Oscar winner who damn near added a third last year.

Wonderstruck. I have such high hopes for any Todd Haynes film now thanks to Carol.

Battle of the Sexes. Most of the buzz for this Steve Carell/Emma Stone biographical sports movie has died down, but who knows?

Josh Bradley
Josh Bradley is a rocket scientist and screenwriter living in Los Angeles. He spends most of his time in traffic on the 405.