Oscar Contenders From the First Quarter of 2023

We may only be three months into 2023 – and last year’s Oscars may have only been less than a month ago – but that doesn’t mean this year hasn’t already given us plenty of awards contenders to consider (and let’s not forget that the reigning Best Picture champion, Everything Everywhere All at Once, had already premiered by this point last year). With both the Sundance Film Festival and SXSW launching titles with significant potential and blockbusters like John Wick: Chapter 4 and Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves having the capability to contend in several categories too, we’re off to a rollicking start, and below, I’ve identified the eight films I believe we should be keeping an eye on as the months go by.

(NOTE: Coming out of Sundance, many had pegged Jonathan Majors as a big Best Actor hopeful, but in light of his recent legal troubles relating to the charges of assault and harassment that have been raised against him, we won’t be commenting on that Oscar campaign at this point in time.)


Ben Affleck in Air

Though Air technically releases theatrically today, I’m including it here on account of its (extremely successful) SXSW premiere, where it brought the house down and positioned itself as a potential word-of-mouth hit for adult audiences throughout the rest of the spring. The Ben Affleck-directed look at how Nike landed Michael Jordan – “creating a partnership that revolutionized the world of sports and contemporary culture” – is a crowdpleaser to its core with a beautiful balance between humor and heart that is sure to satisfy audiences across the country this week (and in those that follow). Aside from becoming one of our first true Best Picture contenders of the year (look at those rave critic and audience scores on RT), look for Matt Damon and Viola Davis to be in the Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress conversations respectively, while Alex Convery’s snappy script could also be in contention for Oscar recognition, and it’s hard to overlook that energetic editing.

Beyond Utopia

Beyond Utopia

Madeleine Gavin’s Beyond Utopia – which follows one pastor’s attempts to smuggle citizens out of North Korea – was the most buzzed about documentary to come out of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and for good reason. It’s masterfully made, heart-wrenchingly harrowing, and terribly timely, and it’s sure to generate even more attention as the year goes on, with many already putting it at the top of their year-in-advance Documentary Feature predictions. Though it has yet to find distribution, should it release in 2023, it will be a force to be reckoned with.

Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves

Justice Smith, Sophia Lillis, Chris Pine, and Michelle Rodriguez in Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves

What’s Dungeons & Dragons doing here, you might ask? Well, take one look at those RT scores and that’ll tell you some of the story. But I’m not here to argue that Dungeons & Dragons is a Best Picture contender by any means. Instead, I’ll simply state that a blockbuster this well-liked – and this well-made – can’t be overlooked as a potential VFX contender come the end of the year, especially with so many splashy setpieces to show off (Doric’s transformations! Simon’s spells! Sofina’s… everything!). And with such a seamless integration of practical and visual effects, I can see this appealing to some old-school types too (perhaps even in Makeup/Hairstyling as well?).

John Wick: Chapter 4

Keanu Reeves in John Wick: Chapter 4

I’ve already written extensively about my hopes for a John Wick Oscar campaign, but I’ll keep saying it all year long: there’s no better time than the present, with the most well-received and most successful John Wick yet, to finally recognize the franchise not just in the crafts categories like Cinematography, Editing, and Sound (while I simultaneously dream of a Best Director nod for Chad Stahelski) but also in the yet-to-be-created Best Stunts line-up, which should be coming sooner rather than later (and by sooner, I mean this year). There’s just no excuse to ignore this caliber of craftwork – which would be roundly embraced were it in a more “stereotypical” Oscar contender – and don’t let The Academy forget it.

A Little Prayer

David Strathairn and Jane Levy in A Little Prayer

Sony Pictures Classics is a miracle worker of a distributor. Not only did they get The Father into six categories at the 2021 Oscars after being counted out by some (and to two wins, in Best Actor and Best Adapted Screenplay, with Anthony Hopkins shockingly besting frontrunner Chadwick Boseman in the former race), but just two years ago, they nabbed a Best Actress nomination for Penélope Cruz in spite of the fact that she didn’t make a single precursor. They know what they’re doing, and that benefits A Little Prayer‘s David Strathairn greatly, who came out its Sundance premiere with rave reviews as a father involving himself in his son’s fraught marriage. He’s been nominated once before (for 2005’s Good Night, and Good Luck) so he’s already on The Academy’s radar, and he could be a critical fave as well.

Past Lives

Teo Yoo and Greta Lee in Past Lives

Past Lives is another film I’ve also already talked about in-depth, but let’s give it a little more love, shall we? That 94% on Rotten Tomatoes – and 95 on Metacritic – speaks for itself, and it seems like it will be A24’s big awards push this year, and let’s not forget that they’re the reigning Oscar champions, by the way (getting Everything Everywhere All at Once to an astonishing seven wins). Celine Song’s tale of two childhood friends reuniting two decades later in New York sitting and confronting all the choices they made throughout the course of their lives is a subtly sincere stunner, and it should absolutely be at the top of the pack when discussing the Picture, Director, Actress, Supporting Actor (for both Teo Yoo and John Magaro), and Original Screenplay races right now.

A Thousand and One

Teyana Taylor and Aaron Kingsley Adetola in A Thousand and One

Another Sundance success story, A Thousand and One is writer-director A.V. Rockwell’s deeply moving directorial debut, and it’s already been riding high after leaving Park City with the Grand Jury Prize and scoring solid box office in semi-wide release last weekend. Teyana Taylor’s towering – yet tender – lead performance as a mother recently released from prison trying to protect her son has (justly) been receiving the lion’s share of the film’s praise, but Rockwell should stay firmly in the conversation too for both her delicate directing and wrenching writing, while I’d also love if Focus went all the way to give the film a firm push in Best Picture as well, as it’s a story we still see too rarely in cinema, and even more rarely this well-told. Plus, it’s got the staggeringly high critical scores (a 97% on Rotten Tomatoes and an 80 on Metacritic) to back its campaign up.

You Hurt My Feelings

Julia Louis Dreyfus in You Hurt My Feelings

Nicole Holofcener may have only earned her first Oscar nomination five years ago for 2018’s Can You Ever Forgive Me?, but she’s been steadily working since the 90s, turning out gems like Walking and Talking and Enough Said every few years. You Hurt My Feelings, which premiered at Sundance in January, is one of her best yet, with a reliably sharp script that gets to the heart of the little white lies we tell our loved ones, and her dazzling dialogue is delivered brilliantly by the legendary Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who has also asserted herself as an early potential Best Actress contender (after formerly contending for another Holofcener film, the aforementioned Enough Said). Will YHMF get them to the finish line? It’s still early days, but depending on how A24 positions this one, they’re certainly in the mix – and should be.

Written by
Though Zoë Rose Bryant has only worked in film criticism for a little under three years - turning a collegiate passion into a full-time career by writing for outlets such as Next Best Picture and Awards Watch - her captivation with cinema has been a lifelong fascination, appreciating film in all its varying forms, from horror movies to heartfelt romantic comedies and everything in between. Born and raised in Omaha, Nebraska, she made the move to Los Angeles in 2021 after graduating college and now spends her days keeping tabs on all things pop culture and attempting to attend every screening under the sun. As a trans critic, she also seeks to champion underrepresented voices in the LGBTQ+ community in film criticism and offer original insight on how gender and sexuality are explored in modern entertainment. You can find Zoë on Twitter, Instagram, and Letterboxd at @ZoeRoseBryant.

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