After a December of critics' awards and nominations from the Golden Globes, SAG Awards, and Critics' Choice, a lot of Oscar categories that were once wide open seem to have narrowed significantly, with most slots spoken for and only a small number of plausible candidates still fighting for the remaining seats. Is there any room left to maneuver for the underdogs?
Yes, if last year is any indication. Remember that Bradley Cooper ("American Sniper") was nominated for Best Actor despite being snubbed by almost all precursor awards. And though Marion Cotillard ("Two Days One Night") was a Critics' Choice nominee, she was absent from SAG, the Golden Globes and even the foreign-friendly BAFTAs. Even so, she still scored an Oscar nom for Best Actress.
Such surprises often happen when an underestimated cast member emerges from a film we already knew was a contender. For instance, "Silver Linings Playbook" was a top Oscar player in 2012, so we knew voters were watching it. We just didn't expect them to like supporting player Jacki Weaver so much. Ditto Maggie Gyllenhaal, who snuck into the Oscar race in 2009 for "Crazy Heart," likely riding the wave of support for eventual Best Actor-winner Jeff Bridges.
Below, eight contenders on the fringes of their races whose names might still be called on January 14.
Best Director: Lenny Abrahamson, "Room"
Brie Larson is the current Oscar frontrunner for Best Actress, but "Room" is more than just a vehicle for her performance. It earned Best Picture nominations at the Golden Globes and Critics' Choice Awards, and that certainly couldn't have happened without the strong direction of Abrahamson, who has to tell a compelling story largely confined to the titular cramped space. We may be underestimating him because he's not as well known or experienced as many of his rivals — but tell that to Morten Tyldum ("The Imitation Game") and Benh Zeitlin ("Beasts of the Southern Wild").
Best Actor: Geza Rohrig, "Son of Saul"
"Son of Saul" is the overwhelming frontrunner for Best Foreign Language Film, and when a foreign title builds that kind of momentum it's often nominated in other categories as well, like "Amour," which contended for Best Picture in 2012. It further helps Rohrig that Holocaust stories often resonate with the academy, like the Italian-language "Life is Beautiful," which won Best Actor for Roberto Benigni in 1998.
Best Actor: Abraham Attah, "Beasts of No Nation"
"Beasts" is a big question mark at the Oscars. Streaming at the same time as a limited theatrical release, it's hard to know how many people have seen the bleak war film beyond the three million that Netflix initially reported. It might not be a major contender beyond strong Best Supporting Actor hopeful Idris Elba, but the film's surprise SAG nomination for Best Ensemble may indicate that the film is a sleeping giant within the industry, and lead actor Attah could be making even more of an impression than we realize.
Best Actor: Michael B. Jordan, "Creed"
"Creed" took critics by surprise, but most of the early attention has gone to Sylvester Stallone for reprising his role as Rocky Balboa. However, it's Jordan who assumes the role of underdog boxer that earned Stallone a Best Actor nomination for the original "Rocky" in 1976. If voters watch "Creed" to see Stallone, they may be equally impressed by Jordan, who could be considered due his first nomination after making a strong impression in "Fruitvale Station," which the academy snubbed across the board in 2013.
Best Actress: Charlize Theron, "Mad Max: Fury Road"
"Mad Max" isn't the kind of movie that usually wins Oscars — it's a dystopian sci-fi action film, and it's a sequel — but it has been quickly gaining steam this season, earning Best Picture noms from the Golden Globes and Critics' Choice Awards. It's expected to be one of the most nominated films of the year, so we mustn't rule out a nomination for Theron, already an academy-approved star after winning Best Actress for "Monster" (2003).
Theron earned two Critics' Choice nominations for the film (Best Actress and Best Action Movie Actress), and with those last two Best Actress Oscar slots possibly up for grabs — Jennifer Lawrence ("Joy") and Charlotte Rampling ("45 Years") are far from sure things — she could pick up a rare acting nomination for an action film, like Sigourney Weaver did in "Aliens" (1986).
Best Supporting Actor: Harrison Ford, "Star Wars: The Force Awakens"
"Star Wars" was so well-reviewed that the Critics' Choice Awards decided to add it as an 11th nominee for Best Picture after nominations had already been announced. The film screened too late for most precursor awards to even consider it, but now that we know it's a critical hit and box office smash, we should consider whether Ford could sneak into Best Supporting Actor for playing the kind of mentor role that earned Alec Guiness a bid for the first "Star Wars" in 1977.
Also, Oscar voters often use Best Supporting Actor as a de facto lifetime achievement award, and Ford has only ever been nominated at the Oscars once ("Witness," 1985) despite creating some of film's most iconic characters, so the academy might want to make good here.
Best Supporting Actor: Emory Cohen or Domhnall Gleeson, "Brooklyn"
The precursors have embraced Saoirse Ronan's performance as a young Irish immigrant in "Brooklyn," so there's still a chance Oscar voters will be charmed by the two men vying for her affections. Cohen was a relative unknown before this film, but pay special attention to Gleeson, who is the son of popular actor Brendan Gleeson and gives four wildly different performances in films that may be on the academy's radar ("Brooklyn," "Star Wars," "The Revenant" and "Ex Machina"). If they want to reward him somewhere, they could do so here.
Best Supporting Actress: Joan Allen, "Room"
Most attention for "Room" has gone to Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay as a mother and son held captive, but Allen makes a strong, unexpected impact as Larson's mother. Voters will most certainly be watching the film. Also, Best Supporting Actress may be in flux — Rooney Mara ("Carol") and Alicia Vikander ("The Danish Girl") could be promoted to the lead race. And Allen is already a three-time Oscar nominee, so she could slide into this lineup the way Laura Dern did as Reese Witherspoon's mother in "Wild."
Best Original Screenplay: Amy Schumer, "Trainwreck"
She's the biggest new star of the year, with an Emmy for her Comedy Central series "Inside Amy Schumer" and already a Golden Globe nom for her first big-screen starring role in "Trainwreck." Broad comedy doesn't usually appeal to Oscar voters, but sometimes it does when a star's career is peaking at just the right time — e.g. Melissa McCarthy in "Bridesmaids" (2011) Robert Downey Jr. in "Tropic Thunder" (2008). Schumer may also get extra credit for writing the film.
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"Creed" photo credit: Warner Bros. Pictures
"Mad Max" photo credit: Moviestore/REX
"Star Wars" photo credit: Walt Disney Pictures