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The State of the Race – What the Festivals Have Told Us About the Oscars

One thing to keep in mind about 2017 is that many of the films we’ve seen so far have been downers. I’m not so sure that people living through the Trump era will want downers. They might — I don’t know. But I suspect that they might be drawn instead to movies that offer them something that makes them feel better about themselves and the world they live in. There are plenty of those too: Darkest Hour and Dunkirk are both about rising up against fascism, The Shape of Water is a glorious love story, Battle of the Sexes is a crowdpleaser with a gay woman in the lead, Lady Bird is about a precocious teenager’s embrace of her independence, The Big Sick is truly a pleasurable cinematic experience from start to finish, and Get Out is thrillingly original, leaving its audience breathless and relieved as evil is narrowly vanquished.

Aronofsky’s mother! is so balls-out bizarre I don’t think it even qualifies as depressing. It’s so outrageous — a primal scream of a movie — that it might qualify in its own weird way as cathartic escapism. Molly’s Game is that familiar Sorkin rat-a-tat-tat with a strong woman in the lead. Downsizing is also, for all of its oddness, a feel good movie in the end that shows us how looking out for our friends in need is the way to find purpose in life, big or small. And Call Me By Your Name is a warm, sensuous bath of a movie about coming of age.

Festival season isn’t over yet — there is still New York, Savannah, Napa, Middleburg and many more. Those festivals will serve to do what Toronto has done — to firm up and amplify buzz, as a loose consensus begins to form. But the phase we’re in right now is the best part of the Oscar race. There are no limits to what we can and should consider. At some point it will be clear that some movies won’t make the cut and some performances will go unnoticed, but for now hope springs eternal.

The Best Actress race is more crowded than any in recent memory now that Jessica Chastain has earned raves for her work in Molly’s Game, and this week’s five-star review for Glenn Close in The Wife has also put her in the race. How do we fit them all in? What’s intriguing about this is ever since the Academy changed their ballots to five nominee slots for Best Picture (down from ten in 2009 and 2010), there haven’t been that many Best Picture nominees carried primarily by their lead actresses. BP contenders are almost always male-driven, Best Actor-driven stories. I could build a chart demonstrating that trend, but you can just take my word for it. There hasn’t been a Best Picture winner led by a Best Actress nominee or winner since Million Dollar Baby in 2004. How’s that for astonishing? And demoralizing. We thought that the record dry stretch for Best Picture/Best Actress pairing might have been broken last year but alas, it was not.

What films that we’ve seen so far this year might receive both Best Picture and Best Actress nominations?

1. The Shape of Water and Sally Hawkins — Guillermo del Toro’s celebration of love, monster movies, and nostalgia for the last time many Americans thought things were really “great” has produced one of the most satisfying films of the year, with an absolutely breathtaking lead performance by Hawkins. Seems like it’s good for all of the top nominations, at least for now.
2. The Post and Meryl Streep — It’s always a dangerous prospect, predicting a film that no one has seen. It can go either way. The Revenant was predicted to be Leo DiCaprio’s big win and it landed. But many predicted to succeed have also failed. Nonetheless, it’s Streep we’re talking about, so how can she be counted out? There isn’t a single more consistently great actress working today.
3. Battle of the Sexes and Emma Stone — Co-directed by a woman and starring last year’s Best Actress winner in a career-best performance, this was one of the slam-dunk crowdpleasers in Telluride. Stone becomes Billie Jean King — capturing her physicality, her attitude, and even her appearance — as she maneuvers through a private sexual awakening and a very public awakening of fame and athletic prowess. It’s brilliant work by Stone, the kind of performance she’s always promised but never quite delivered. Beleaguered Academy members and guild members might find themselves drawn to films that make us cry happy tears. The Shape of Water and Battle of the Sexes both do that.
4. Lady Bird and Saoirse Ronan — Written and directed by Greta Gerwig, another crowdpleaser out of Telluride that wowed the Toronto crowd as well, it could very well win the TIFF audience award. Yes, it’s a long shot these days to expect a film about a teenage girl coming-of-age to get in for Best Picture, and an even longer shot that an actress-turned-director might be honored with a Best Picture nomination, but the love for this movie seems to be off-the-charts. If that can translate to roughly 200 to 250 number one votes, it could reach the 5% threshold for a Best Picture nominations. Doesn’t seem that impossible to me. Lady Bird might count as a happy tears movie too.

Then we have an abundance of strong female performances in films we’re not sure can crack the Best Picture lineup, but maybe.

5. Mudbound and Cary Mulligan — Directed by Dee Rees, it’s a prestige adaptation that has held onto its buzz from Sundance and shows no sign of faltering.
6. Molly’s Game and Jessica Chastain — Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut sent a shock wave through Toronto, no doubt, but it’s not clear whether or not this will be in the Best Picture game.
7. mother! and Jennifer Lawrence — Aronofky’s muse Lawrence gives what has to be her most difficult and taxing performance so far in her career, and makes it every bit as good as her best, including Winter’s Bone and American Hustle. What she’s asked to do, what she fully commits to sacrificing is beyond what most actresses would ever attempt at the peak of their careers. I don’t know what the Academy will make of mother!, but I do know that it stands apart from almost everything else I’ve seen as a wholly original work of art and Lawrence is fantastic.
8. Victoria and Abdul and Judi Dench — We don’t yet know the fate of this film, how much the Academy will fall for it and for Dench’s highly-praised work. The festivals did not provide a conclusive answer, as far as it goes. Contradictory messages at this point amount to no clear verdict at all. But it is still worth considering for both categories.
9. Hostiles and Rosamund Pike — Another film whose fate is uncertain, with no immediate announcements about distributor and release dates. But it’s an epic western, and that’s a genre that usually gets the Academy’s attention by its relative rarity. This is also a film that could get in with just a Best Actor nod for Christian Bale.
10. I, Tonya and Margot Robbie — The notorious Tonya Harding in all her tawdry glory in a film that seemed to play well at Toronto, but again, its fate is uncertain. Getting the most buzz seems to be Alison Janney in a supporting role, but it’s still worth considering since Robbie is the hottest thing in town right now.

Other contenders for Best Actress include:
Annette Bening, Film Stars Don’t Die
Frances McDormand, Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri
Claire Foy, Breathe
Kate Winslet, Wonder Wheel
Nicole Kidman, The Beguiled
Florence Pugh, Lady Macbeth
Salma Hayek, Beatriz at Dinner

Reserving comment on most of these until I’ve seen them or heard more about them — and for those that have been seen, the reservations are due to what perhaps failed to catch fire and sustain buzz.

As usual, though, the heat in Best Picture aligns not with Best Actress but with Best Actor and that would certainly be true of these films:

1. Darkest Hour
2. Dunkirk
3. Call Me By Your Name
4. Get Out
5. The Big Sick
6. Downsizing
7. Last Flag Flying

The pundits are furiously trying to figure out what the dominant movies will be, but of course no one really knows for sure. They can’t know. As yet, we don’t know what controversies will fly out, how industry voters will respond to movies, how critics will react. We can use our own judgment up to a point. Sooner or later, it becomes about what thousands and thousands of people can generally agree upon, not what a handful of tastemakers want them to think.

The next big event to happen will be when the Toronto Film Festival hands out its most important bellwether — the Audience Award. And then, the race follows this familiar pattern, more or less:

Most of the films nominated for Best Picture will have been seen before mid-November, before Thanksgiving.

1-3 films held onto for holiday release might be nominated, especially if they’re selected to screen at the AFI Fest (maybe the Clint Eastwood movie, following the American Sniper pattern) or released as an event movie, as was The Revenant.

Tail-end of November, early December:
The National Board of Review names their choices for the year’s best
The New York Film Critics names theirs

After that, critics awards will trickle in with a consensus usually forming around one massive critics darling. That movie will likely do well with the Independent Spirit Awards and maybe the Oscars. The Gothams will be the first influential group to weigh in.

Then we have the bigger awards groups that get exponentially more publicity — the Golden Globe nominations, BFCA, and then the guild nominations. These all come fast and furiously throughout January after which, at last, Oscar nominations will be announced. And then all of our previously opened doors are slammed shut and we are onto a new phase of the race.

Here’s the calendar:

Thursday, October 19 – Gotham Independent Film Nominations
Tuesday, November 21 – Independent Spirit Awards Nominations
Monday, November 27 – Gotham Independent Film Awards
Tuesday, November 28 – National Board of Review Awards
Somewhere in here New York Film Critics
Sunday, December 10 – New York Film Critics Online Awards
Sunday, December 10 – Boston Society of Film Critics Awards
Sunday, December 10 – British Independent Film Awards
Monday, December 11 – Golden Globe Nominations
Wednesday, December 13 – Screen Actors Guild Nominations
Thursday, January 4 – Writers Guild America Nominations
Thursday, January 4 – Globes ballots due
Friday, January 5 – Producers Guild of America Nominations
Friday, January 5 – Oscar ballots sent out
Sunday, January 7 – Golden Globe Awards
Thursday, January 11 – Directors Guild of America Nominations
Friday, January 12 – Oscar ballots due
Saturday, January 20 – Producers Guild of America Awards
Sunday, January 21 – Screen Actors Guild Awards
Tuesday, January 23 – Oscar nominations announced
Saturday, February 3 – Directors Guild of America Awards
Saturday, February 11 – Writers Guild of America Awards
Sunday, February 18 – BAFTA Awards
Tuesday, February 20 – Oscar final ballots mailed
Tuesday, February 27 – Oscar final ballots due
Saturday, March 3 – Razzie Awards
Saturday, March 3 – Independent Spirit Awards
Sunday, March 4 – The 90th Academy Awards