October Awards Buzz: What’s on Top and What’s Not

Oscar Race Gravity 12 Years A

Awards-watchers were positively drunk with excitement during the Venice-Telluride-Toronto fests, but a month later, everybody has started to sober up as additional contenders are being screened.

Entering the conversation in a big way are Warner Bros.’ Spike Jonze pic “Her” and Sony’s “Captain Phillips,” gaining widespread enthusiasm and admiration after their screenings at the N.Y. Fest.

Only a handful of industry people have seen Disney’s “Saving Mr. Banks”; Sony’s “The Monuments Men” and “American Hustle”; and Universal’s “Lone Survivor.” But those insiders are predicting big things for those pics.

These newbies have cooled the buzz for Universal’s “Rush,” WB-Alcon’s “Prisoners” and Weinstein Co.‘s “Philomena,” which were described as certain to be best-pic-nominated when they debuted in the Venice-Telluride-Toronto window.

Amid all this handicapping and shifting fortunes, a couple of Sony Pictures Classics have impressive staying power: “Blue Jasmine” and “Before Midnight.” The more they’re seen, the more they enter the kudos conversation. “Jasmine” is still in theaters, and “Midnight” has just become available on iTunes.

Of course, when it comes to endurance, it’s hard to beat Warner Bros.’ “Gravity.” It was embraced during Venice and Toronto, and it’s gotten even stronger since its domestic launch Oct. 4. If balloting were held this week, it would win.

But the point is that balloting is NOT being held this week. And a lot can happen in 4.5 months.

When Fox Searchlight’s “12 Years a Slave” bowed in Telluride, a few online pundits declared the Oscar race was over; the film is so good, it was impossible to imagine anything better coming along in 2013.

A month has passed since then, and there’s been a little bit of backlash to “12 Years.” But its fortunes are swelling again, as more voters see it. (The film played to an SRO audience at the Variety Screening Series Wednesday night, where Steve McQueen and Chiwetel Ejiofor got standing ovations.)

Oscar season is about rhythms and timing and every contender will rise and fall (some more than once) over the course of the next several months. Last year, “Argo” moved from front-runner status to “unlikely” multiple times, and “Rush,” “Prisoners” and “Philomena” will likely get boosts with year-end screenings and announcement of various guild honors.

A trio from Cannes have gained traction due to industry screenings: “All is Lost” (the Robert Redford film from Lionsgate/Roadside that bows Oct. 18), “Nebraska” (Alexander Payne’s Paramount comedy-drama) and “Inside Llewyn Davis” (CBS Films offering from the Coen brothers). All are receiving confident buzz in the acting categories, but all three have many virtues beyond that.

The jury’s still out on Fox’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” which bowed Oct. 6 at the N.Y. Fest, and got wildly divided reactions. But a film doesn’t need universal admiration to be a contender: It just needs ardent supporters, and “Mitty” seems to have found those.

Also gaining traction as they are screened for industry folk: “The Book Thief” (Fox) and two Toronto vets, TWC’s “August: Osage County” and Focus Features’ “Dallas Buyers Club.”

In multiple awards conversations, few are making confident predictions about Par’s “The Wolf of Wall Street.” That’s not surprising: It’s still a work in progress, but the guesswork seems to be shifting to the conclusion that it WILL open this year.

Also barely mentioned is “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.” Again, few have seen it, but it’s worth remembering that the final “Lord of the Rings” saga won a whopping 11 Oscars, and the first “Hobbit,” released last year, earned more than a billion dollars. Peter Jackson is always a force to be reckoned with.

That’s also true of TWC’s “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” and the Nicole Holofcener film from Searchlight, “Enough Said.” The latter bowed almost below the radar, which works to its advantage. And what about WB’s “42”? If you mention the title, most people say “Harrison Ford, yes.” But the film has many other strengths, including Brian Helgeland’s screenplay and the fearless performance of Alan Tudyk.

TWC’s “Fruitvale Station,” SPC’s “Kill Your Darlings” and Cinedigm’s “Short Term 12” are among the films that seem like strong contenders for Indie Spirit Awards, and for consideration in the SAG Awards’ ensemble category. Oscar? Possible. In October 2012, some people underestimated the power of “Beasts of the Southern Wild” beyond the indie race.

But that’s the hilarious part of autumn handicapping. It’s possible to report the temperature, but it’s a fool’s errand to predict the eventual winner or even the eventual nominees, which are still months away. Last year, during Venice, some bloggers predicted that “The Master” was the best-pic frontrunner; within two weeks, the predictions changed after “Silver Linings Playbook” won the audience award at Toronto. And at this time last year, many predicted Ben Affleck was a shoo-in for a directing nom for “Argo.” All three films ended up doing well with Academy voters, but not in the ways expected.

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