Essays · Movies

The Oscar Contenders of Summer

By  · Published on August 25th, 2016

11 summer movies that might launch into the awards race.

You have heard it over and over again: summer of 2016 has been a tragic time for mainstream American movies. It was a painful 4-month stretch of wall-to-wall stinkers in multiplexes, with an occasional The Nice Guys here and a The Shallows there to save the day. The good news is; our agony is almost over with the fall season of movies just around the corner. Rejoice!

But believe it or not, the dreary summer of The Suicide Squad and Independence Day: Resurgence we’re about to put behind also offered up some noteworthy films, and unsurprisingly, several of them weren’t in the multiplexes. Some of these might even have legs to go as far as the Oscars, with the awards season about to officially kick off at the Venice-Telluride-Toronto trio of film festivals preparing to unveil a long line up of buzz-generating contenders.

Here are 11 summer movies (released after May 1, 2016) that might pop up in the awards race alongside some earlier-in-the-year entries like Hail, Caesar! (keep an eye on Alden Ehrenreich and below-the-line categories), 10 Cloverfield Lane (John Goodman, who’s never been nominated before, could be a possibility) and Zootopia. Some of the below are real possibilities, some are long shots and some are, well, just personal wishes that might need a little push to come true.

A Bigger Splash

This seductive, twisty crime/drama about a quartet of misbehavers on the Mediterranean could (or at least, should) bring a Best Supporting Actor nomination to Ralph Fiennes in the role of a record producer vacationing with his (possible) daughter at his old flame’s idyllic Italian villa. Fiennes intensely plays a complex part with a devilish intrigue, though the scene he rocks out to “Emotional Rescue” should be enough reason alone to hand him his 3rd nomination. A Best Costume Design nomination is a long shot for A Bigger Splash, but I hope its luxe, meticulously sculpted contemporary costumes, co-created by the costume designer Giulia Piersanti and The House of Dior, don’t get forgotten either.(Read my essay on the costumes and visual sensuality of A Bigger Splash.)

Alice Through the Looking Glass

This is the year of Colleen Atwood and her magical designs in the fantasy genre. I have a feeling this one – already widely labeled as a sequel no one wanted to see – will end up on many “worst of the year” lists. And while its poor critical reception and box office performance might shut down all of its awards prospects (even in crafts categories), it’s hard to imagine Colleen Atwood’s rich costume designs and painstaking craftsmanship getting completely ignored in the Best Costume Design category. The only thing working against Atwood is her own self: she also costume designed The Huntsman: Winter’s War (another hated fairy tale sequel with gorgeous designs), as well as the upcoming Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (Tim Burton) and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (David Yates).

Finding Dory

From Zootopia, to The Secret Lives of Pets and The Jungle Book, films with talking animals are dominating 2016. But no little creature blessed with the gift of the human alphabet has been as adorable as the blue tang with a short term memory loss condition. Pixar’s tearjerker sequel to its beloved Finding Nemo stole many hearts, earned good reviews and is a pretty safe bet for a Best Animated Feature nomination, even this early on in the season.

Florence Foster Jenkins

Stephen Frears’ comedy/drama (and eventually, tragedy) was one of this summer’s biggest, most delightful surprises. (Read my review here.) In telling the story of a 1940s New York socialite/opera singer with a great interest in music but severe lack of talent, Frears captures a delicate balance between seeing the humor in Jenkins’ self-indulgent acts and the sadness in her well-maintained obliviousness. This will likely bring Meryl Streep her 20th Oscar nomination in the Best Actress category. A nomination for Hugh Grant in the Best Supporting Actor category (which would be his first) as well as nods in Production Design, Hair and Make Up and Costume Design are among likely scenarios. And if the film continues to be embraced into the season, don’t rule out potential (albeit, long shot) Best Picture and Director nominations, either.

Hell or High Water

Sadly, I still haven’t gotten around to seeing Starred Up director David Mackenzie’s much-adored Crime/Drama Hell or High Water. But if the strong critical reception so far is any clue, there will be enthusiasm behind this one come awards season, with names like Ben Foster, Jeff Bridges and Chris Pine tossed around for possible acting nods. Some even go as far as suggesting a possible Picture/Director consideration at the Oscars. I will reserve judgment until I see the film myself, but this is one to keep in our radars for its awards prospects for sure.


Former Focus Features CEO James Schamus, undoubtedly one of independent film community’s most respected and beloved names, tries his hand at adapting this Philip Roth novel to screen, both as a screenwriter and first time director. His Indignation is more stage-y than cinematic, and features first rate performances from Sarah Gadon, Logan Lerman and Tracy Letts, with the latter two having possible (long) shots at acting nods. Indignation’s most solid Oscar nomination chance is in the Best Adapted Screenplay category, but given Schamus’ status in the industry alongside the film’s themes and cadence that will likely appeal to AMPAS voters, it might go further in the race and score Picture/Director nominations as well.

Kubo and the Two Strings

Laika’s grown-up, infinitely creative stop-motion stunner Kubo and the Two Strings might not be a Pixar-esque tearjerker, but it is a marvel in artful animated filmmaking and a visual triumph. Director Travis Knight and the filmmakers behind this Edo-era Japanese fable that features various jaw-dropping sequences of origami as storytelling devices deserve to be recognized by AMPAS in Best Animated Feature category. And they probably will be.

The Lobster

Greek writer/director Yorgos Lanthimos’ inventive relationship satire was a hit at last year’s Cannes Film Festival and has been conquering film festival circles and art house audiences ever since. Personally, the film slightly lost me in its final act, but nonetheless, its script is simply envy inducing in its boundless imagination and solid grasp on the pains of contemporary coupling. Will this be remembered in the Best Original Screenplay category come Oscars? If critics do their part while handing out their own awards, then why not?

Love & Friendship

Writer/director Whit Stillman’s scrupulous, formal and witty Jane Austen adaptation bowed in Sundance – an unlikely festival for costume dramas – back in January to warm, even enthusiastic critical reception. It might find some love in the Best Adapted Screenplay category as well as for the rich Costume Designs of Eimer Ni Mhaoldomhnaigh.

O.J.: Made in America

This is another title I am yet to catch up with, but its Best Documentary Feature nomination looks to be an immense possibility based on its overwhelmingly positive critical reception and the buzz it’s been generating throughout summer. The Ezra Edelman-directed documentary series, released in theaters in an extended format in addition to being shown on ESPN as a five-part series, “has the grandeur and authority of the best long-form nonfiction,” according to A. O. Scott (The New York Times) and “might be the first television show to win an Oscar,” according to Mary McNamara (LA Times).


When I first saw Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg’s Sundance hailing Weiner earlier this summer, the first honest thought I had was why we had to sit through a film about a self-indulgent politician participating in yet another self-indulgent act of allowing his life (and sex scandal) to become fodder for a documentary film. I never quite shook off my reluctance, but the film grew on me and I can’t deny its timely critique of media, modern-day political cycle and the evolving ways we engage with news and pop culture figures. Weiner is both a compelling portrait of a public figure with dubious morals and the scandal-obsessed society he humors. This might be a shoo-in in the Best Documentary Feature category.

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Freelance writer and film critic based in New York. Bylines at Film Journal, Time Out NY, Movie Mezzanine, Indiewire, and others.