Halfway to 2017 Oscars: Top 6 early contenders include Sally Field, Alan Rickman …

It’s amazing to think that Oscar qualification season for 2016 is now half over. There’s an old chestnut in the Oscar predictions racket that, to have a chance to win an Academy Award, your film has to be released in the second half of the year because voters can’t remember any film they’ve seen beyond the ones from last week. While the latter might be true, the premise that an early release dooms a film for Oscar just isn’t.

Consider the past two years. Wes Anderson’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” which was released in March 2014, hung on for the next nine months to win four Oscars, tying Best Picture winner “Birdman” for the most trophies that year.  Similarly, the Oscar champ in terms of awards last year was “Mad Max: Fury Road,” a May release that hauled in six statuettes. While it doesn’t appear at this moment that any releases from the first half of this year will be such award behemoths, there are still a number of films, performers and artists whose work may be able to run the gauntlet and make it to an Oscar nomination next January.

Below, I suggest six contenders that are definitely worthy of consideration.

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BEST ACTRESS: Sally Field (“Hello, My Name Is Doris”)
It’s no secret that Field is an academy favorite, winning the Best Actress Oscar for each of her first two bids (“Norma Rae” in 1979 and “Places in the Heart” in 1984) and nominated again three years ago for Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln.” “Hello, My Name Is Doris” was a word-of-mouth hit in art houses this spring, grossing well over $14 million, impressive numbers for a limited release. So it’s a performance that’s been seen, and one that would seem to be right in the academy’s wheelhouse. On paper, there are quite a number of potential Best Actress nominees ahead, but the proof will be in the performances. And if an Oscar voter is stuck looking to fill an empty slot in the Best Actress category, the presence of Field may help remind them of Doris.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: Alan Rickman (“Eye in the Sky”)
In the many eloquent obituaries for Rickman, who died in January, there was on occasion an implied surprise that he was never nominated for an Academy Award, despite giving iconic performances in “Die Hard,” “Truly, Madly, Deeply” and of course as Prof. Severus Snape in the “Harry Potter” franchise. Rickman’s role in “Eye in the Sky” as a military officer overseeing a drone strike might have tempted some actors to phone it in, but not Rickman. After a wonderfully humanizing introduction trying to decide just which toy to buy for a child, Rickman’s Lt. General is thrust into the moral crisis of a drone strike, and his final defense of just how much military people know more than anyone about the costs of war is an Oscar clip in itself.

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BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY: Witt Stillman (“Love & Friendship”)
It’s been 25 years since Stillman scored his first Oscar nomination with his screenplay for 1991’s “Metropolitan,” and since then his film output has largely been drawn from events in his own life. His very first adaptation, “Love & Friendship,” based on “Lady Susan,” an epistolary novella by Jane Austen, is being sold as a PBS costume epic, but after entering the theater, audiences are finding that it’s absolutely hilarious, an expert shift of expectations that academy voters will likely remember for months to come.

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY: Efthymis Filippou & Yorgos Lanthimos (“The Lobster”)
No, Filippou and Lanthimos are not household names, but their original screenplay for “The Lobster” is causing a lot of chatter among the art house crowd. The premise is that, in a future society in which coupledom is paramount, single people are sent to a hotel where, if they don’t find a beloved within 45 days, they are turned into the animal of their choice. It’s so outrageously original that I have found that people at parties come up to me to want to talk about it. And that is buzz. Whether it results in a writing Oscar nomination remains to be seen, but the premise and follow-through of “The Lobster” definitely make this the screenplay of the moment.

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BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY: Roger Deakins (“Hail Caesar!”)
What is wrong with the academy? Thirteen nominations and no wins for someone who is, arguably, the most brilliant cinematographer of his generation? The issue is, I think, that Deakins doesn’t go for projects that will sweep him in on an Oscar wave. Several of his recent nominations come from films that were not necessarily academy favorites, like “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” “Prisoners” and “Sicario.” But what he does in “Hail Caesar!” is jaw-dropping — he replicates to the smallest detail the kind of cinematography of a wide array of film genres as they would be shot in the 1950s, such as westerns, aquacades, musicals, Biblical epics and drawing room comedies. Just brilliant.

One of the most effective kind of documentaries is one where the filmmakers start to tell one kind of story, but events interfere and suddenly the story is one for which the filmmakers are totally unprepared. With “Weiner,” it really tests the mettle of the co-directors Josh Kriegman & Elyse Steinberg to shift gears from a redemption story of disgraced New York Congressman Anthony Weiner to a portrait of a marriage that is suddenly in very serious trouble. As New York-based documentarians, they may not yet be in the Hollywood club, but their exceptional work here should make the documentary branch sit up and pay attention.

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