‘Interstellar’ Lifts Off, But There’s Still No Oscar Frontrunner

Christopher Nolan‘s epic has something in common with the rest of this year’s movies: It’s not an obvious winner

Christopher Nolan‘s “Interstellar” has begun screening, and the Oscar race has changed.

But only slightly.

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Part outer space adventure and part emotional family story, “Interstellar” is a big, extravagant film that will clean up when it comes to below-the-line nominations, and a touching movie that could figure into the Oscar acting races.

But it isn’t the one thing that this year’s race has been missing: a frontrunner.

Also read: ‘Interstellar’ Review: Christopher Nolan’s Sci-Fi Epic Launches Perfectly, Crumbles Upon Landing (Video)

Before the Oscar race semi-officially kicked off with the Venice, Telluride and Toronto Film Festivals, I had Richard Linklater‘s “Boyhood” at the top of my Oscar-prediction charts — not because I thought it was going to win (it could, but it’d have to get a lot of breaks), but because I didn’t trust the movies I had yet to see.

And now, two months and 64 movies later, I’ve seen “Birdman” and “The Theory of Everything” and “The Imitation Game” and  “Fury” and “Wild” and “St. Vincent” and “Still Alice” and many more, now including “Interstellar”  …

And I still have “Boyhood” at the top of my list. I still think it’s a longshot, but I just don’t see a clear winner that I think can beat it.

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I love the exhilarating “Birdman,” but it’s awfully weird for Oscar voters. I admire “The Theory of Everything,” which does a clean, accomplished job of telling the kind of inspirational story that voters like, but its best shot might be in the acting categories. I like “The Imitation Game,” a little tougher and less rousing than its Brit-biopic cousin.

I think “Foxcatcher” and “Whiplash” are terrific, “Gone Girl” is an expert work from a master craftsman and a cultural phenomenon to boot.

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But none of them, for a variety of reasons, feel like a Best Picture winner the way “The King’s Speech” and “The Artist” and “Slumdog Millionaire” and “12 Years a Slave” did at this time of year. (For that matter, none of them felt like a winner the way “Gravity” did, before it lost.)

And “Interstellar” doesn’t feel that way, either. I was appropriately dazzled and occasionally touched by the film, but it’s awfully complicated, and its most dazzling sequences will face inevitable comparison with the more straightforward and equally dazzling sequences from last year’s “Gravity.” Let’s face it, that movie’s propulsive story was easier for voters to wrap their heads around than Nolan’s fascinating but tangled physics lesson.

Nolan’s previous films have only received one acting nomination, for Heath Ledger in “The Dark Knight” (he won, posthumously), and “Interstellar” certainly has a chance to add to that. With one of the most nakedly-emotional performances in any Nolan film, Matthew McConaughey has a definite shot to land a Best Actor nod — but it doesn’t help that his category is brutally competitive this year (as it is most years), and that he won for “Dallas Buyers Club” in March.

See video: Matthew McConaughey Must Choose His Daughter or All of Humanity in Latest ‘Interstellar’ Trailers (Video)

In an earthbound but key role, meanwhile, Jessica Chastain stands out as a supporting-actress contender, and could have a better shot than McConaughey at actually being nominated.

So now we have an Oscar year in which lots of good movies have already screened, a few key ones are still unseen (Angelina Jolie‘s “Unbroken” and Clint Eastwood‘s “American Sniper” being the biggest) and the race feels unsettled.

“Interstellar” is a spectacle, an event and most likely a big hit. But it doesn’t feel like a frontrunner, and neither does anything else.

Of course, Shakespeare could have been writing about awards season when he had King Henry IV conclude, “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.” Nobody wants to be an October frontrunner, not even the movie that will win in February.

So somewhere out there, a Best Picture winner — maybe even “Interstellar,” for all I know — is playing its cards just right.