Who doesn’t like an underdog, asks Screen editor Matt Mueller.

It always adds an extra thrill on Oscar and Bafta nights to see the Davids going up against the Goliaths - Beasts Of The Southern Wild facing off with Argo, Winter’s Bone competing alongside The Social Network and The King’s Speech (which admittedly acquired its behemoth status over awards season) and, at the Baftas, Under The Skin competing last year for outstanding British film against The Theory Of Everything and The Imitation Game.

Unlike the past few years, when two or three films streaked ahead early on, not as many front-runners have emerged and thus there is more chance than usual for the underdogs to shine.

This year’s long shots for best picture nods at the Oscars and Baftas include Paolo Sorrentino’s Youth, Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario, Bill Pohlad’s Love & Mercy, Sean Baker’s Tangerine, Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson’s Anomalisa, and James Ponsoldt’s The End Of The Tour.

Looking at this side of the pond, can Sunset Song, High-Rise or Ex Machina be genuine Bafta contenders? Will Bafta voters embrace 45 Years or Macbeth, or recognise the achievement of Amy with a best director or best film nomination for Asif Kapadia and his film (as the BIFAs did)?

The recent BIFA awards delivered a boost to Alex Garland’s film, which surprised many in the industry who were expecting at least one big award on the night to go to 45 Years or The Lobster

It’s disappointing to see Ramin Bahrani’s 99 Homes hasn’t resonated, apart from Michael Shannon’s supporting actor nod at the Independent Spirits. His turn as a ruthless real-estate broker could gain Oscar recognition and the film works as a clear-eyed antidote to Scorsese’s The Wolf Of Wall Street, which was too in thrall to the banker’s lifestyle.

Embracing foreign-language

With the European Film Awards announced in Berlin on December 12, it remains to be seen whether Academy voters stretch beyond their Hollywood comfort zone this year and embrace a foreign-language title or film-maker, as they have in recent times with the likes of The Artist, La Vie En Rose, Volver and Amour.

Michel Hazanavicius, Michael Haneke and Pedro Almodovar (for Talk To Her) have all received best director nods, and we could see Laszlo Nemes added to that roll call.

Nemes’s Son Of Saul is no longer an underdog (it wasn’t even entered for the EFAs, reportedly to pave the way for an Oscar run) and it has a strong chance to break out of the foreign-language film ghetto.

Ironically, it could end up one of those films to be nominated for both foreign-language and other categories and not win a single Oscar, with Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s hard-charging Mustang nipping at its heels.

Beasts Of No Nation also doesn’t really qualify as an underdog but it will still be fascinating to track its reception among voters across awards season, especially with Netflix mounting a serious campaign behind it.

Interesting also to note that many directors who might not get the nod from the Academy’s director branch could still see a nomination for best picture: Cary Fukunaga for Beasts, Todd Haynes for Carol, Lenny Abrahamson for Room, John Crowley for Brooklyn and Denis Villeneuve for Sicario.

As for true underdogs, it would be a thrill to see the Oscar campaign launched by Magnolia and exec producers Mark and Jay Duplass in October land Sean Baker’s transgender comedy-drama Tangerine with a nomination or two.

If stars Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez get the opportunity to waltz the red carpet, and invite the world’s spotlight onto the film, this entire awards season will have been worth it. 

Matt Mueller is editor of Screen International