Pete Hammond

Almost exactly one year ago, Fox Searchlight released Beasts Of The Southern Wild. The Sundance sensation was significant in many ways, but it also stood out as the only 2012 Best Picture Oscar nominee to have been released in theatres in the definitely NOT Oscar-friendly first half of the year — and coming at the tail end of June it made that distinction by the skin of its teeth. The fact is, in Oscar’s modern era at least, it’s just not wise to risk a release in the first half of the eligibility year if you want to have a serious shot at Best Picture or other major Oscars. In the last five years only seven films have managed to buck the trend (Hurt Locker and Up in June 2009; Winter’s Bone and Toy Story 3 in June 2010; and Midnight In Paris and The Tree Of Life in May 2011 were the others), and that’s only because the Academy doubled its potential Best Pic noms from five to 10. In 2008, the last year there were only five nominees, no film was nominated in the top category that wasn’t released in the second half of the year.

Of course there are exceptions to every rule, and the long list of Oscar’s Best Picture winners have included early-release films that forced voters to have longer memories: Hurt Locker, Crash (May 2005), Gladiator (May 2000), Braveheart (May 1995) and Silence Of The Lambs (February 1991). The latter was particularly impressive since you would have to go back to Patton in 1970, during Hollywood’s road show era where films played a year on a single screen, to find another Best Pic winner released as early as February. That one definitely went against the grain of thinking in the modern era of Oscar campaigns.

So with the 2013 Oscar race hitting the halfway point this week, and assuming Friday’s crop of The Heat and White House Down are not Best Pic caliber, is there anything that has hit theatres pre-July that looms as a serious Best Picture contender? I wouldn’t bet the farm on it.

(SPOILER ALERT!) One of the  most realistic bets so far — and certainly the first of 2013′s crop that might qualify — could be Focus Features’ March 29th release The Place Beyond The Pines. Director Derek Cianfrance’s first film since his critically acclaimed Blue Valentine has a strong pedigree with stars Ryan Gosling and 2012 Best Actor nominee Bradley Cooper — plus the support of its studio which plans a major campaign. Producer Jamie Patricof tells me he thinks the movie has realistic shots for awards attention, particularly in Picture, Director, Screenplay, lead actor for Cooper, supporting actress for Eva Mendes and Supporting Actor for Gosling (SPOILER ALERT!) who may have lead billing but gets killed off Psycho-style in the film’s first half. Patricof may be drinking his own Kool-Aid, but he thinks Cooper actually topped his nominated role in Silver Linings Playbook. The film’s 81% fresh score on Rotten Tomatoes is a positive (top critics at 71% were more mixed though). Patricof says originally the plan was to launch the movie at Cannes in 2012 but it wasn’t ready in time. Instead they took it to the Toronto Film Festival in September which hatched the Focus deal, but it was decided to hold it until this spring. Of course March films are a much tougher sell Oscar-wise and Focus will have to bring the film back into voter consciousness in a big way to have any real shot in the Picture race, particularly with the level of competition on the horizon for fall.

April releases 42 (for stars Harrison Ford in support and Chadwick Boseman in lead) from Warner Bros and Mud from Roadside Attractions could factor in some races; possibly Matthew McConaughey in the latter if Roadside can convince the actors branch his is really a supporting role despite being the title character. McConaughey will be campaigned heavily for lead in Focus’ Dec. 6 release Dallas Buyers Club in which he plays an AIDS victim, but Mud was very well received and has turned into Roadside’s biggest hit yet.

Warners could have another contender in the May release The Great Gatsby, which was held back from a December opening and Oscar run last season. Its surprise success at the global box office certainly won’t hurt Baz Luhrmann’s elaborate adaptation of the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel,  and at the very least it should rack up several technical nominations and may even be a front runner in Costumes and Art Direction. Though many critics seemed to take aim at the film for whatever reason, star Leonardo DiCaprio got strong notices but is competing with himself this year as Paramount’s hotly anticipated Wolf Of Wall Street will be out this fall.

Another May release with a strong shot is Sony Pictures Classics’ Before Midnight, the third film in the series dissecting the relationship between characters played by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. With a sterling 98% fresh score at RT and across-the-board raves, it is certainly a top contender for its screenplay (written by the stars and director Richard Linklater). Depending on how strongly SPC wants to campaign, it could figure in other major categories once we see how the fall competition shakes out. It’s a prime leading contender among the kind of adult fare toward which the Academy tends to gravitate, even if it is not burning up the box office as an antidote to mindless summer popcorn fare. SPC also had Robert Redford’s The Company You Keep with an Oscar-friendly cast, but that will be eclipsed by his tour de force work in October’s All Is Lost, a sensation in Cannes.

Other than that I think we can only expect scattered techincal nominations in various categories for the likes of Disney’s Oz The Great And Powerful, Iron Man 3, Star Trek Into Darkness and World War Z. Man Of Steel could figure in Visual Effects, but many view the hit film as a disappointment with its CGI-heavy second half more resembling a Transformers-type movie.

Among films likely to be completely forgotten by the time Oscar season starts in earnest, I would give a shout-out to performances by Terrence Stamp in An Unfinished Song, Greta Gerwig in Frances Ha, James Franco in Spring Breakers, and Lily Tomlin in the March flop Admission. I also would check out the fine ensemble cast in the highly underrated drama Disconnect, which deserves recognition but sadly will likely be overlooked without the support of a big campaign that it is unlikely to get from its small distributor LD Films.

The Best Feature Documentary race is where 2013′s first six months has really delivered, producing strong contenders in  We Steal Secrets: The Story Of Wikileaks, Dirty Wars, Stories We Tell, No Place On Earth, and Radius/TWC’s terrific Twenty  Feet From Stardom about unsung background singers finally getting their moment in the spotlight. It’s looking fairly thin on the animated feature front with only Epic, The Croods and Pixar’s huge hit Monster’s University making much of a dent so far. But that’s about the change with several contenders upcoming in the second half.

And yes, there are obviously many so-called Oscar-caliber movies to come. Give it a couple more months and watch the fireworks begin. I have seen some of the fall titles already including Universal’s powerful duo of Ron Howard’s Rush  and Lone Survivor, Paramount’s fine human comedy Nebraska, James Gray’s moving The Immigrant, and CBS Films’ Inside Llewyn Davis (a top entry from the Coen brothers), the latter three all well-received at Cannes. Based on the thin lineup from the year’s first six months, there’s plenty of room in this race no question about it. Things are looking up already with Fox Searchlight’s wonderful The Way, Way Back, which was a Sundance sensation and closed LA Film Festival on Sunday night ahead of its July 5 opening The directorial debut of Osca- winning screenwriters Nat Faxon and Jim Rash is a winner and in fact contains a supporting performance from the long overdue Sam Rockwell that could go all the way. Stay tuned.

Awards Columnist Pete Hammond - tip him here.