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Oscars 2017: predicting the Academy Awards, one year in advance

Awards season runs year-round for some studios.

Yes, Zootopia has a shot.
Yes, Zootopia has a shot.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

With Spotlight's surprise Best Picture victory at the 2016 Oscars, movie awards season is over for another year, so now we can all go back to watching movies about Batman and Superman beating each other up. Right?

No. You might think that, but in Hollywood, at least, awards season is quietly running year-round.

It's at its most potent between Labor Day in September and Oscar night in February, but studios — especially indie studios — are always positioning themselves so that they might win major recognition come the next awards season. A movie staking out an October release date, for instance, often means that its studio is dead serious about earning some Oscar love.

Below, I've listed 15 upcoming releases that should do well at the 2017 Oscars. And before you think I'm nuts to be making predictions this far out, I actually have a pretty good track record from when I did this just last year.

Of the 15 films I named as Oscar contenders in early 2015, 10 were nominated for at least one Oscar in 2016, while three made it into the race for Best Picture. Of course, I also included Tomorrowland, so ... grain of salt.

1) The Birth of a Nation

The Birth of a Nation Fox Searchlight

What it is: Actor Nate Parker turns director to bring the story of Nat Turner to the screen. Turner led a slave rebellion in 1831, after traveling with his owner showed him the scope of slavery in the South. The film's title — which apes one of the most influential (and racist) films ever made — is very much intentional.

Why it could be big: Though reviews out of Sundance (where the film premiered) weren't uniform in their praise, those who loved The Birth of a Nation loved it with the sort of intensity that often nods toward a major Oscar player. Fox Searchlight ponied up $17.5 million for the rights to the film, a new record, and then scheduled it for October 7, a fairly Oscar-friendly release date. Plus, its subject matter and diverse cast will help alleviate the Academy's biggest problem. For two straight years, the Oscars failed to nominate a single actor of color — and things weren't much better in the other categories, either. The Birth of a Nation could help change that.

Why it could struggle: The film's reviews probably won't be as universally glowing as Fox Searchlight might like, but it won't matter. If The Birth of a Nation isn't nominated for Best Picture, I will be hugely surprised.

2) Manchester by the Sea

Manchester by the Sea Amazon

What it is: A searing family drama about a man who returns to his hometown to confront the weight of his grief, Kenneth Lonergan's new film debuted at Sundance to the kind of reviews that make film fans salivate. It also boasts performances from previous Oscar nominees Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams, as well as the much-liked Kyle Chandler.

Why it could be big: Intelligent adult dramas about people feeling their feelings are hard to pull off. But when they work, the Oscars tend to notice. Think of Ordinary People or Terms of Endearment or even American Beauty; all were big winners, and Manchester could join them.

Why it could struggle: Manchester by the Sea is being distributed by Amazon, which is untested at the Oscar game.

3) Silence

Silence Paramount

What it is: Directed by Martin Scorsese, Silence is about Jesuit priests in 17th-century Japan who encounter both persecution and seemingly insurmountable cultural differences. It stars Liam Neeson and is based on a book.

Why it could be big: I actually had this film on my predictions last year, with the caveat that it might not come out in 2015 — and it didn't. But the Oscars always watch Scorsese closely, and Neeson is primed for another nomination. (He hasn't landed one since Schindler's List in 1994!)

Why it could struggle: Silence sounds like it's "quiet Scorsese" (see also: The Age of Innocence, Kundun, etc.) rather than "bombastic Scorsese" (see most of the other movies he's made). The Academy often prefers the latter to the former.

4) Loving

Loving Focus Features

What it is: This courtroom drama covers Loving v. Virginia, the 1967 Supreme Court ruling that made interracial marriage legal throughout the US. So it's a courtroom drama and a love story — both genres the Oscars often find irresistible.

Why it could be big: See above re: genre. Loving is also from director Jeff Nichols, whose Take Shelter and Mud have landed just short of the Oscars in the past but have been in the conversation for several other prizes. (Mud also proved a surprise box office success.) Between this and Midnight Special, a sci-fi film coming out in March, Nichols could have quite the year.

Why it could struggle: The two actors playing the Lovings — Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga — are, respectively, a guy who's had some trouble breaking through (though he received minor Oscar buzz for Black Mass) and a woman who's almost completely unknown (though she'll star in AMC's upcoming Preacher). That could prove tough to overcome.

5) Passengers

2016 Vanity Fair Oscar Party Hosted By Graydon Carter - Arrivals
Jennifer Lawrence already has four Oscar nominations. Can she make it five for Passengers?
Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

What it is: When a man on a gigantic spaceship that takes generations to travel between stars wakes up from cryogenesis due to a malfunction, he decides to wake up one of the women passengers as well, in the most duplicitous Adam and Eve story you'll ever see.

Why it could be big: The guy? Chris Pratt, who's poised for an Oscar breakthrough after huge turns in franchises galore. The woman? Jennifer Lawrence, the biggest star in the country. This movie will make money hand over fist, and having director Morten Tyldum (of Oscar favorite Imitation Game) behind the camera won't hurt.

Why it could struggle: The Oscars will gladly nominate science fiction in the technical categories. But a genuine sci-fi film has never won Best Picture. Even fantasy (Lord of the Rings) and horror (Silence of the Lambs) films have taken home the trophy.

6) Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk

Meet Joe Alwyn, star of this movie.

What it is: Based on an award-winning novel, Billy Lynn follows a young man, recently home from Iraq, who learns he'll be returning to Iraq while being hailed as a war hero at a Dallas Cowboys game. It has an all-star cast.

Why it could be big: There's the aforementioned all-star cast — which includes everyone from Steve Martin to Kristen Stewart (seriously, just click on the IMDB link above and look at it). There's also director Ang Lee, who's won Best Director twice — for Brokeback Mountain and Life of Pi — but never Best Picture. Plus, the Iraq War has receded enough into memory that movies about it could become Oscar favorites, as happened with World War II and Vietnam.

Why it could struggle: Billy Lynn is played by a complete unknown, Joe Alwyn. That's a huge gamble.

7) The Light Between Oceans

What it is: Another novel adaptation. This one's about a World War I veteran and his wife who move to a remote Australian lighthouse and raise the baby girl they find cast up on shore one day as their own.

Why it could be big: Director Derek Cianfrance's Blue Valentine didn't prove a massive Oscar hit, but it did receive a crucial nomination (for Michelle Williams's performance). And "sweeping period drama" — which The Light Between Oceans certainly qualifies as — is something the Oscars often enjoy. Plus, stars Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander, and Rachel Weisz are all either previous winners or nominees.

Why it could struggle: The September 2 release date could suggest that the film's distributor, Disney, isn't enormously confident in it. "Sweeping period dramas" were more popular with the Oscars in the 1980s and '90s.

8) The Girl on the Train

The Girl on the Train Universal

What it is: In case you haven't already guessed, 2016 will be lousy with book adaptations; this is one of the biggest, hoping to apply the Gone Girl treatment to another crime thriller best-seller. A woman becomes obsessed with a younger woman who lives in a house she sees every day as she passes on the train. Bad, bad things happen.

Why it could be big: Star Emily Blunt has been poised for a nomination for a while — she just hasn't gotten it yet. And director Tate Taylor enjoyed major Oscar success with his 2011 film The Help. Plus, best-selling novel adaptations usually do all right at the Oscars.

Why it could struggle: The source novel is ... kind of a mess. But its problems could easily be smoothed out with the right script. We'll see.

9) The Founder

88th Annual Academy Awards - Arrivals
Michael Keaton is your new Oscar good luck charm.
Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

What it is: Finally, there will be a film biography of Ray Kroc, the man who built McDonald's into an empire. (Importantly, Kroc was not the fast food chain's founder, making the title all the more intriguing.) And Michael Keaton will play him!

Why it could be big: Movies where famous white men play other famous white men are Oscar catnip. And while this premise sounds maybe too small-scale for Best Picture, Keaton has starred in two consecutive Best Picture winners and will probably win an Oscar one of these days.

Why it could struggle: The Founder is, after all, about the guy behind McDonald's. If Steve Jobs struggled to break through, how will this film fare? The Oscars usually prefer biopics of artists, athletes, and war heroes — not business leaders.

10) Sully

NBC's '73rd Annual Golden Globe Awards' - Show
Tom Hanks will play Sully Sullenberger.
Photo by Paul Drinkwater/NBCUniversal via Getty Images

What it is: More famous white men! Tom Hanks plays Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, the pilot who famously landed a doomed flight in the Hudson River, saving the lives of everyone on board.

Why it could be big: The Oscars will sometimes pass over Tom Hanks movies — Saving Mr. Banks, anyone? — but it's nonetheless a rarity, even if they don't nominate Hanks himself. And Sully is directed by two-time Oscar winner Clint Eastwood, coming off American Sniper, his biggest success ever.

Why it could struggle: Eastwood slips more often than almost any director at his skill level, and the story of Sully is, ultimately, about one ill-fated flight that hit geese three minutes after taking off. How will Eastwood and his writers pad out the running time?

11) Story of Your Life

2016 Vanity Fair Oscar Party Hosted By Graydon Carter - Arrivals
Amy Adams heads up Story of Your Life.
Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

What it is: The acclaimed science fiction story by Ted Chiang about establishing contact with aliens via learning the aliens' language comes to the big screen, with five-time nominee Amy Adams front and center. Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker also star.

Why it could be big: Director Denis Villeneuve has directed two movies in a row that received major technical nominations — Prisoners and Sicario — which usually indicates that a director is about to break through. Meanwhile, Adams is poised to win for something, and this short story is so good that even a merely solid adaptation of it will be a terrific film.

Why it could struggle: The elements of the source story that make it so good involve the sorts of perspective tricks that are easy to pull off on the page but murderously difficult to pull off on film. (I can't say anything more without spoiling the story.) Here's hoping the script finds a way around that problem!

12) Untitled Robert Zemeckis project

'The Big Short' New York Premiere - Outside Arrivals
Presumably, Brad Pitt won't look quite like this in a World War II period piece.
Photo by Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images

What it is: World War II. The desert. Brad Pitt. Marion Cotillard. Romance. Also Jared Harris from Mad Men. We don't know much about this project, but on paper it sounds very Oscar-friendly.

Why it could be big: See above.

Why it could struggle: Not only do we not know much about it, but Zemeckis has fallen quite a ways from when his Forrest Gump dominated the Oscars.

13) The BFG

What it is: Steven Spielberg takes on Roald Dahl's classic children's novel about a Big Friendly Giant, complete with a script by his old E.T. collaborator Melissa Mathison and a giant played (via motion capture) by Mark Rylance, who just won an Oscar for Spielberg's Bridge of Spies.

Why it could be big: Three straight Spielberg movies have received Best Picture nominations. And The BFG sounds like his attempt to remake E.T. — another movie that did very well at the Oscars. Plus, somebody's gonna get nominated for a motion-capture performance one of these days. Why not Rylance?

Why it could struggle: Uh, it's about a giant, and it's a kids' movie being released in the dead of summer. Nothing about that rollout plan screams Oscar.

14) The Witch

What it is: This period piece horror movie, dripping with menace, has received tremendous reviews for its story of a family who encounters something terrible in the remote wilderness of Colonial America.

Why it could be big: Distributor A24 just ably won three Oscars for Room, Amy, and Ex Machina, and if nothing else it should at least try to secure nominations for The Witch's costumes, sets, and camerawork. But I think the studio should aim even higher. Go for Best Picture! Why not?

Why it could struggle: The Witch is a horror movie. That's a tough sell for the Academy — though not impossible. (See also: Silence of the Lambs and The Exorcist, both nominated for several prizes.)

15) Zootopia

What it is: A rabbit and a fox team up to unravel a criminal conspiracy in a city where animals do people things in this new animated Disney film (which comes out Friday, March 4).

Why it could be big: If there's one thing I'm sure of this far out from the 2017 Oscars, it's that Zootopia is an early favorite for the Animated Feature prize. It's a surprisingly smart, politically deft film about prejudice. And kids' movies about prejudice can occasionally tip over into the bigger categories, too — as we saw with Babe in 1996.

Why it could struggle: Zootopia is still an animated film, and that may end up closing it off from categories other than the handful where animated films usually compete (the music, sound, screenplay, and animation categories).

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