Oscars at mid-year: Which films are already contenders? (Analysis)

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The film awards season doesn't begin in earnest until Labor Day weekend, but that doesn't mean that movies released before then can't wind up with major nominations or awards. Indeed, last year three of the eventual eight best picture Oscar nominees, featuring two of the eventual four acting winners, were unveiled by the year's midpoint. Therefore, as we arrive at the middle of 2015, it's only prudent to look back over the year's first half to try to identify which films and people have the strongest shot at being remembered by the Academy after year's end.

The strongest contender so far probably is one that was released this past weekend: Disney-Pixar's "imaginative" Inside Out, Pete Docter's 3D computer-animated family film. Following an out-of-competition sneak-peek at May's Cannes Film Festival, it opened to glowing reviews and a big box-office. Pixar's second movie to revolve around a female protagonist, following 2012's Brave, Inside Out is not only a slam-dunk for a best animated feature nom (where its competition might well include DreamWorks Animation's spring blockbuster Home), but it also has a real shot at joining 1991's Beauty and the Beast, 2009's Up (also directed by Docter) and 2010's Toy Story 3 on the short list of animated films that have landed a best picture nom.

When it comes to live-action films, those that already have been seen probably stand their best shot in performance and screenplay categories.

Alfonso Gomez-Rejon's moving dramedy Me and Earl and the Dying Girl has a script by Jesse Andrews (adapted from a popular YA novel) and strong performances by young thesps Thomas Mann, RJ Cyler and Olivia Cooke. When it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, it became only the sixth film -; after 1999's Three Seasons, 2006's Quinceanera, 2009's Precious, 2013's Fruitvale Station and 2014's Whiplash -; to win both the Grand Jury and Audience awards. Fox Searchlight, which knows how to handle quirky indies better than anyone, picked up distribution rights and launched the movie June 12. Searchlight also nabbed John Crowley's romantic-drama Brooklyn, which was adapted by Oscar nominee Nick Hornby and stars Oscar nominee Saoirse Ronan as an immigrant to America. Another notable Sundance acquisition: James Ponsoldt's The End of the Tour -; starring Jason Segel as David Foster Wallace and Oscar nominee Jesse Eisenberg as a Rolling Stone reporter interviewing him -; was claimed by A24, which also handled the filmmaker's breakout hit The Spectacular Now.

Spring brought to theaters a wide assortment of films that each offered something special. The best of the lot was probably Love & Mercy (Roadside Attractions), an atypical biopic of the complicated Beach Boys' singer-songwriter Brian Wilson, whose music and story are like catnip for many Academy members who came of age with him. The film marks the directorial debut of the Oscar-nominated producer Bill Pohlad. Wilson is played marvelously by both Paul Dano and John Cusack, whose category placements are still being determined. (My two cents: Dano should go lead, Cusack should go supporting.)

Also well-received: Helen Mirren's portrayal of a Holocaust survivor in search of a family heirloom in the breakout hit Woman in Gold (The Weinstein Co., which is already running a FYC ad); '71 (Roadside Attractions), the Troubles-set directorial debut of Yann Demange, featuring a never-better Jack O'Connell; Olivier Assayas' Clouds of Sils Maria (Sundance Selects), which stars Oscar nominee Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart in a story about aging in the movie business (Stewart became the first American actress ever to win the Cesar Award, the French equivalent of the Oscar, for her supporting performance); Alex Garland's sci-fi Ex Machina (A24), which had one of the year's highest per-screen grosses; While We're Young (A24), one of writer-director Noah Baumbach's funniest scripts; I'll See You in My Dreams (Bleecker Street Media), a drama about a winter romance featuring strong work by Blythe Danner and Sam Elliott; and Thomas Vinterberg's Far from the Madding Crowd (Fox Searchlight), with Oscar nominee Carey Mulligan beautifully stepping into the lead role inhabited by Julie Christie 50 years ago, supported by Matthias Schoenaerts, Michael Sheen and lush cinematography and costumes.

Cannes was generally thought to be weaker than usual this year. The Palme d'Or went to hometown boy Jacques Audiard for his divisive Dheepan (Sundance Selects), although it doesn't necessarily lead to further accolades -; the past two Palme winners, Blue Is the Warmest Color and Winter Sleep, went on to garner zero Oscar noms. Far more universally acclaimed was Laszlo Nemes' directorial debut Son of Saul (Sony Classics), a Holocaust drama -; a genre to which the Academy almost always responds -; which had to settle for the Grand Prix and FIPRESCI Prize, and which Hungary has already named as its Oscar submission.

Also well-received on the Croisette was Carol (The Weinstein Co.), Todd Haynes' drama about forbidden lesbian love in 1950s America, for which Oscar winner Cate Blanchett and Oscar nominee Rooney Mara received great notices, with Mara tying for the best actress prize; Youth (Fox Searchlight), Paolo Sorrentino's follow-up to his Oscar-winning ode to Italy The Great Beauty, in which Oscar winner Michael Caine and Oscar nominee Harvey Keitel play aging vacationers reflecting on their pasts and futures (Oscar winners Rachel Weisz and Jane Fonda appear in supporting roles); and Nanni Moretti's Mia Madre (Alchemy), an English-Italian co-production about a female director (Margherita Buy) experiencing an existential crisis. Woody Allen's annual dramedy Irrational Man (Sony Classics) wasn't embraced like many of his past contributions, but he can never be discounted in the original screenplay race.

Top docs so far the year include Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (HBO), Oscar winner Alex Gibney's searing exposé about the controversial religion; The Hunting Ground (Radius-TWC), Oscar nominee Kirby Dick's timely look at America's campus rape epidemic; Seymour: An Introduction (Sundance Selects), Ethan Hawke's profile of an elderly concert pianist-turned-piano teacher; Bobcat Goldthwaite's Call Me Lucky (MPI Media Group), which catches up with the influential comedian Barry Crimmins; Geeta Patel's Meet the Patels (Alchemy), a hilarious portrait of her brother, a first-generation American, as he tries to find a wife under the oversight of their Indian parents; Cartel Land (The Orchard), Matthew Heineman's profile of some of the vigilante groups taking on ruthless Mexican drug cartels; and Iris (Magnolia), a celebration of the nonagenarian model Iris Apfel that marks the swan song of legendary documentarian Albert Maysles, who passed away in March.

Finally, there are a handful of films that, regardless of their overall quality (or, in some cases, lack thereof), stand a good shot at being remembered at year's end in technical and/or crafts categories: Avengers: Age of Ultron (Disney-Marvel), Jurassic World (Universal), Furious 7 (Universal), Cinderella (Disney), Mad Max: Fury Road (Warner Bros.), San Andreas (Warner Bros.), Tomorrowland (Disney) and Chappie (Sony).

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