The leaves are turning. The Emmys are behind us. The crowds in Venice, Telluride, Colo., and Toronto have dispersed. Oscar season is officially here.
As the industry spins out of the late-summer film festival circuit, which annually grinds the gears of the season to life, this year’s race is shaping up to be one of the most exciting ever observed in the early stages. There are plenty of strong contenders, but no out-and-out frontrunner. There isn’t even an agreed-upon trio of frontrunners, as there was last year when “Manchester by the Sea,” “La La Land” and “Moonlight” burst out of this corridor.
Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” was the first slam-dunk on the scene in July. Guillermo del Toro’s “The Shape of Water” was the first major festival splash after that, premiering on Aug. 31 within hours of another instant player, Joe Wright’s “Darkest Hour,” though they debuted thousands of miles apart; “Shape” landed in Venice followed by “Darkest Hour” in the mountains of Telluride. They and a number of other contenders segued to Toronto soon after, where “Dunkirk” could also be found butting in with a screening and Q&A nearly two months after release.
Getting down to brass tacks, “Shape” was the first to pick up significant hardware. It won Venice’s coveted top prize, the Golden Lion, on Sept. 9. However, that’s an odd bauble for a major Oscar player to secure; the only two films in the festival’s 73-year history to win the Golden Lion and go on to a best picture nomination are Louis Malle’s “Atlantic City” and Ang Lee’s “Brokeback Mountain.” But del Toro’s film is a critically acclaimed Hollywood release that will have plenty of passionate support to counter any detractors, so it may yet join that elite company.
In a double coup for Fox Searchlight, Martin McDonagh’s “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” followed on Sept. 17 by winning Toronto’s People’s Choice Award. Being an audience prize rather than a juried one, it tends to be more predictive of where the tastes of a broad group of people (i.e. the Academy) might lean. Recent winners have included “La La Land,” “Room,” “The Imitation Game,” “12 Years a Slave,” “Silver Linings Playbook,” “The King’s Speech,” “Precious,” and “Slumdog Millionaire.” So it’s quite the feather to have in your cap.
All of that must be cozy comfort for Searchlight, too. The recent back-to-back best picture champ (“12 Years a Slave,” “Birdman”) is coming off a rough 2016 season that basically crashed and burned when “The Birth of a Nation” director Nate Parker’s past caught up with him. And the studio is clearly being preemptive about avoiding drama this year, pulling “Three Billboards” from a planned opening night Fantastic Fest screening amid discord over the employment of a controversial former journalist.
Meanwhile, countless other contenders have planted their flags along the circuit. Films like “Call Me By Your Name,” “Mudbound,” “The Disaster Artist,” and “The Florida Project” transitioned from previous festival bows to Toronto, and they continue to rank among the very best-reviewed films of the year. The recent fests also laid the groundwork for a number of female-centric films that could take aim at the best picture competition, like “Battle of the Sexes,” “First They Killed My Father,” “I, Tonya,” “Lady Bird,” and “Molly’s Game,” in addition to “Shape” and “Three Billboards.”
With that in mind, it goes to reason the best actress race is by now bursting at the seams: Emma Stone, Margot Robbie, Saoirse Ronan, Jessica Chastain, Sally Hawkins, and Frances McDormand join Carey Mulligan (“Mudbound”), Judi Dench (Venice bow “Victoria & Abdul”), and Annette Bening (Telluride bow “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool”) in a veritable blood bath.
Speaking of blood baths, you might as well add Jennifer Lawrence to the mix with the outrageous “Mother!” She and “The Florida Project’s” Brooklynn Prince, as well as “A Fantastic Woman’s” Daniela Vega, make for compelling wild cards. And there are still a number of contenders to come, from Michelle Williams in Ridley Scott’s “All the Money in the World” to Meryl Streep in Steven Spielberg’s “The Post.” (Watch for Luxembourger Vicky Krieps to come from out of the blue in Paul Thomas Anderson’s still-untitled latest as well.) It’s going to get very crowded, very quickly.
By contrast, the lead actor race is proving to be less cramped. Gary Oldman is the biggest story, way out in front with his movie-eating portrayal of Winston Churchill in “Darkest Hour.” Denzel Washington and Andrew Garfield may survive tepid reviews for “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” and “Breathe,” respectively, but Jake Gyllenhaal feels like he’s on stronger ground with, uh, “Stronger”; David Gordon Green’s latest was very well-received for a film that treads familiar water.
A truly exciting prospect is 21-year-old Timothee Chalamet. The “Call Me By Your Name” star, who also appears in “Lady Bird” and Scott Cooper’s “Hostiles” this year, would probably face a steeper climb in a more competitive environment, but this thinned-out race allows his utterly compelling portrayal of a young man’s summer of love room to maneuver. Ditto James Franco’s zany channeling of cult icon Tommy Wiseau in “The Disaster Artist.” Still to come are Tom Hanks (“The Post”), Daniel Day-Lewis (untitled Anderson), Bryan Cranston (“Last Flag Flying” — perhaps with Steve Carell, depending on how his dueling campaigns settle), and Hugh Jackman (“The Greatest Showman”), among others. The string runs out pretty fast, though.
We haven’t even touched on the supporting races, which are filling out with everyone from Laurie Metcalf (“Lady Bird”) and Allison Janney (“I, Tonya”) to Willem Dafoe (“The Florida Project”) and Michael Stuhlbarg (“Call Me By Your Name”). The supporting actor race in particular is already overflowing. And a few other films that could figure into the race are still looking for homes, like “Hostiles” (a best actor play for Christian Bale) and Bjorn Runge’s “The Wife” (a great shot at gold for Glenn Close). The clock is ticking, though.
Catch your breath…
While many films may have found cause for celebration on the festival circuit, others hit a stretch of white water. Alexander Payne’s “Downsizing,” for example, appeared to be a force coming off Venice raves, but it was met with a cooler reception in Telluride. Toronto reviews only appeared to steepen the grade. Meanwhile, critics thoroughly dashed the hopes of Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s “The Current War,” with Michael Shannon and Benedict Cumberbatch, leaving the Weinstein Co. with Taylor Sheridan’s “Wind River” and maybe “The Intouchables” remake “The Upside” (probably more of a Globes play) to work with this year.
Coming up, the New York Film Festival will add Richard Linklater’s “Last Flag Flying” (a topical drama that is likely to resonate in the current climate) and Woody Allen’s “Wonder Wheel” (with Kate Winslet and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro sure to join their respective races). They will bookend the 55th annual event, which runs Sept. 28-Oct. 15 and will also include the reemergence of Noah Baumbach’s Cannes premiere “The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected),” featuring Dustin Hoffman as a strong supporting contender.
And of course, there are a handful of possibilities from the early months that will continue to hang tough through the season. Fox has already made sure James Mangold’s “Logan” stays top of mind by sending the film to Academy members, making it the first official “awards screener” of the year. The studio has also announced plans to push Matt Reeves’ “War for the Planet of the Apes” as far as it can go. Warner Bros. will aim to spin its own genre blockbuster “Wonder Woman” into a contender, while Universal will stoke the fire under Jordan Peele’s February satire “Get Out.” Lionsgate and Amazon will continue marshaling the cause behind Michael Showalter’s “The Big Sick,” and Annapurna plans to keep the pedal to the metal on a “Detroit” push despite the film’s soft box office performance. Perhaps Netflix can keep Bong Joon-ho’s “Okja” alive as well.
What makes all of this even more exciting is the prospect of an unknowable Academy. With some 1,500 members having been invited in just the last two years (that’s 20 percent of the group), what constitutes “an Oscar movie” may be up for reconsideration.
So that’s more or less the lay of the land, give or take. At this point there are just a handful of major hopefuls that have yet to really screen, three of them from Fox: “The Post,” Kenneth Branagh’s “Murder on the Orient Express,” and Michael Gracey’s “The Greatest Showman.” Add to that Sony’s “All the Money in the World” (perhaps one for the MOVIE-movie crowd, set for an AFI Fest premiere) and the untitled Anderson at Focus (rumored to be a bit drier than his usual). It’s also worth keeping an eye on Rian Johnson’s “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” which Disney will world-premiere on Dec. 8.
The only other “surprise” lurking is Clint Eastwood’s “The 15:17 to Paris,” and as we’ve reported, that will depend on whether Warner Bros. wants to go with it this year or not. But looking out across this cluttered and competitive landscape, would you be eager to throw yet another log on the fire?
It all makes for the most varied and unpredictable Oscar race in years. “The one to beat” hasn’t emerged and there’s lots of room to maneuver.
Oh, and the movies are pretty good, too. Probably should’ve led with that.