The sun is out, the temperature is rising, and that can only mean one thing: Oscar season?
For decades, a fall release date was a prerequisite for Oscar contenders. In the last few years, that conventional wisdom has been thoroughly overturned. Last year’s Best Picture winner, Everything Everywhere All at Once was released in theaters in March, while CODA, which won the year prior, hit AppleTV+ in August. Slowly but surely, spring and summer movies are taking over the category of Best Picture. Three of the 2023 Best Picture nominees were released before the fall: Everything Everywhere, Top Gun: Maverick, and Elvis. Each film was also a box-office smash, which always helps.
None would have had a shot with the Academy a decade ago, but the changes that were made to create a more inclusive — in every sense of the word — slate of nominees has finally produced the desired result. With a larger, more diverse Academy membership, some of whom have literally grown up on superhero movies, and a required ten nominees in the Best Picture category, no genre of film is completely off-limits, and neither is any month. It’s a year-round Oscars season, folks, and this summer’s offerings could produce numerous players in the 2024 awards season.
The nomination of Top Gun: Maverick in Best Picture leaves an open door for other big, dumb blockbusters to get some Oscar love, as long as they feature strong craft, innovative set pieces, and an esteemed star at the center. That puts Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny (June 30) and Mission: Impossible Dead Reckoning Part One (July 12) squarely on the table. Both feature aging movie stars, Harrison Ford and Cruise (again), who have never won an Oscar. They’re directed by respected action filmmakers — James Mangold (Logan) and Christopher McQuarrie (Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation) — each with a history of delivering quality product for their studio bosses. Oh, and they’ll each make about a billion dollars, which will surely capture the attention of your average Oscar voter. Despite a lukewarm response at Cannes, circumstances could make Dial of Destiny the favorite of the two to get Academy attention and a kind of coronation. Remember, Harrison Ford has already announced that Dial of Destiny will be his last turn with the whip, meaning there may be added incentive to salute his work bringing one of Hollywood’s most iconic characters to life. With all that said, expect Dead Reckoning to, at the very least, spark another round of discourse on the need for a Best Stunt category.
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Currently scheduled to be released on the same day, Oppenheimer and Barbie (July 21) are second-tier blockbusters — meaning they probably won’t make as much money as the season’s best action films — but they have stronger Oscar pedigrees. Christopher Nolan’s last film Tenet was a pandemic dud, but Oppenheimer, a biopic about the man who invented the atomic bomb, seems to be working in a more Oscar-friendly vein. Dunkirk, his 2017 war drama, was nominated for eight Oscars and won three. Barbie, meanwhile, might be the biggest wild card of the season. Director and co-writer Greta Gerwig has been in the mix for both of her solo directorial efforts — Lady Bird and Little Women — and this one looks to have a strong creative vision. It’s a major risk for Gerwig, however, who has never worked at this broad of a commercial pitch before, and it’s hard to count on it for any nominations since the range of outcomes seems so wide.
Oscar chances are perpetually iffy for Wes Anderson, who seems poised to win a victory over his AI imitators with Asteroid City (June 16), a sure-to-be-winsome comedy set at a junior stargazing convention in a small desert town in the 1950s. Predicting Oscars for the divisive Anderson is tricky business. Highly respected but often too singular to be embraced by the Academy, he made a good showing in 2015, when The Grand Budapest Hotel won four below-the-line awards and was nominated for 9, including Best Picture. But 2021’s The French Dispatch was completely ignored, despite its similarly Oscar-friendly theme: art as a tool against fascism. What Asteroid City has going for it is one of the Academy’s main characters, Tom Hanks, although, as is the case with most Anderson films, the size of his role remains a mystery.
The summer is typically a breeding ground for the category of Best Animated Feature, and Spider-Man: Across the Spiderverse (June 2) seems like a surefire nominee, as its predecessor Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse won in this category in 2018, and it looks, well, awesome. Don’t count out a Best Picture nomination either, as this Academy has proven itself open to both superhero films and animation. In fact, could this be a year with two animated films in the Best Picture category? Pixar’s Elemental (June 16) looks like a return to form for the semi-beleaguered animation studio, which had its first genuine dud last year in Lightyear (although it also had Turning Red, which was nominated).
Still, the eventual winners of Best Picture from each of the last two years fall into none of the categories above. They were underdogs that were never expected to compete for the big prize but generated enough enthusiasm and momentum to outlast their competition. This year, there are two summer films that could fit that narrative. Theater Camp (July 14), a mockumentary about a camp in the Catskills for young performing artists, got good buzz coming out of Sundance, winning a special award for its ensemble, and it will surely appeal to those Academy voters who were young performers themselves (i.e. lots of them). The film’s subjects are classic movie underdogs—students and instructors who don’t feel at home in the wider world but find community and companionship at camp — giving its campaign team an opportunity to create a strong narrative about how the film shines a light on the marginalized.
If we were placing bets right now, though, the smart money would be on Past Lives (June 2), which also premiered at Sundance and seems to have a fairly clear path to an Oscar nomination. Produced by A24, which flat-out dominated this year’s Oscars, Past Lives is the feature debut of Celine Song, a promising young writer-director, and the film features a lead performance by character actor Greta Lee that has awards prognosticators frothing at the mouth. With its focus on the experience of a second-generation Asian immigrant and its meditation on paths chosen and not taken, the film — or at least its marketing material — feels like a flip side of Everything Everywhere All at Once that chooses quiet drama and subtle performances over multiverse theory and kung fu.
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While a year-round Oscars season has its drawbacks — it would be nice to have at least some art that is immune from the culture of competition — the expansion of Oscars season into the summer is still a net positive. Blockbusters are firmly in the Oscars conversation now, so perhaps studios will put more thought and craft into their tentpole franchises; as of yet, the only blockbusters nominated for Best Picture have featured some innovative bit of craftsmanship, like the aerial sequences in Top Gun: Maverick. Meanwhile, getting eyes on indie cinema is always a challenge, but it’s even harder when they all have to get stuffed into a few months at the end of the year. A film like Past Lives will benefit from being counterprogramming to the blockbusters. This summer there’s something for everyone at the movies and even more for the Oscars.