Where a film is placed in festival season can sometimes help determine how it will land in the Oscar race. I have seen predictions from people saying a movie that opens at the New York Film Festival can’t possibly win Best Picture based on precedent. But if that were true, Parasite would never have won Best Picture. If they like a movie enough, they’ll vote for it, no matter where it premieres. Parasite was first seen in Cannes, like No Country for Old Men and The Artist.
To counter the reliance on festival precedent, people also bring up the unicorn, CODA from last year, to use as a general template for a movie winning; meaning, any movie can win no matter what obstacles are in its way. And that’s true — but in my view, CODA was a default winner, not a strong frontrunner or even a dark horse. It was a last-minute consensus that satisfied the requirements to bring a Best Picture win that would satisfy various demands in today’s climate.
That matters because it can’t simply be applied to the Oscar race in general. COVID changed the date, but more than that, the social justice or cultural revolution that has taken hold within the past few years has completely transformed everything about Hollywood. There is no point in pretending otherwise, even if everyone is too afraid to really talk about it. It matters. It matters because there was a reflexive desire to push women and filmmakers of color into the spotlight. It didn’t feel good (and maybe it still doesn’t feel good) to award a white male for anything. That just isn’t where the pulse of the industry was last year, the year before, and essentially any year since 2018 when Green Book won.
2019: Parasite — the first foreign language (International Feature) film to win Best Picture. Not a surprise since the harsh scolding from critics over Green Book’s Best Picture win revolved around Roma not winning. But Roma wasn’t going to win for a variety of reasons, the number one reason being that it’s a hard sit and not easily accessible. It would also have been Netflix’s first major Oscar win. The industry wasn’t ready for that (and to this day, still isn’t ready for that). I imagine in the post-2020 climate it would have easily won. Green Book’s win was pushback against part of the ongoing rise of panic in our culture that was, I think, a direct result of the shock of Trump’s win. We’re still very much in the moral panic that began in 2016. It’s only gotten worse. It is very much like the fear of communists in the 1950s, only now it’s fear of any kind of “phobe” or “ist” — that you will be called one or that you will be working with one.
These themes were all explored beautifully in the 1950s because even though Hollywood was gripped by the Black List, there were ways that message still got out — in the Twilight Zone, in The Crucible, and through the wonderful Edward R. Murrow, who most definitely met the hysteria head-on with his newscast. We currently do not live in an era when there is anyone that brave, that’s for sure.
2020: Nomadland — we were locked into COVID in a big way. It was a rough year. The protests over the summer led to a massive revolution that has left Hollywood changed. Both the #MeToo and the social justice revolutions of 2020 have transformed Hollywood dramatically, and of course, the Oscars are part of it. This is just something everyone walks around knowing, but few have the guts to address it out loud, lest they be “next.” But also, many just don’t want to be hurtful or harmful and would rather just stay quiet. Nomadland was designated as the de facto winner early on, and it never wavered. There was no reason for it to waver. No one would dare attack it, and it was a fulfilling choice in all ways for the film critics and Academy demo.
2021: CODA — In an ordinary year, Belfast would have simply swept the season. It was positioned against The Power of the Dog, which set up the two movies as your usual Oscar match-up, like Lincoln vs. Argo, or The Social Network vs. The King’s Speech. Cerebral film vs. emotionally accessible is our usual template coming out of festival season, with the critics on one side and the industry on the other. But there was no way in 2022 they would celebrate and reward a white male and his childhood memories. It was just not going to happen. The Power of the Dog then seemed like it would be the frontrunner, but was just too cerebral and didn’t end on a happy note, which meant that the only thing about it people wanted to reward was Best Director, which is exactly what they did.
Best Picture is built around a consensus. A consensus is usually built around places people gather together in one room. What movie makes them all feel the same thing at the same time? That might have been Belfast. But there was a barrier to it because it had no social justice boost anywhere. So that prevented pure love. When CODA won the SAG Ensemble award, that was all it took to build a consensus. Heading into the final Oscar vote, that would likely be the ONLY consensus. CODA had just three nominations, which is the lowest total for a Best Picture winner since the 1930s (Cavalcade).
As we get farther away from it and look back at our recent history, it’s easy to see how we ended up here. But it would be a mistake to apply anything that’s happened recently to long-term trends for Best Picture.
The reason festivals have been so influential since going back to when the Academy changed their date (moving it up to late February) is that the public was removed from the process. CODA being a film made instantly available on streaming with just three nominations shows you the need for the consensus to have both emotional resonance and a baked-in purpose or social justice boost RIGHT NOW.
Remember, the Golden Globes were essentially taken out of the equation in 2020 and 2021. That alone changed things dramatically. They announced their winners last year online, but didn’t have a big show. That was one way, an early way, to test out consensus. La La Land won a record seven Golden Globes, which tested the consensus. Did people feel good about that? Well, as it turned out, no.
So, figuring out this year will require holding all of these concepts in your head at once. What are the themes that will resonate? Are white men still effectively “blacklisted” for big wins? What will be the driving forces behind the consensus heading into the season? We live in extremely polarized times, almost in two different countries already. The midterm elections are in early November, the heart of Oscar season. Either Democrats will do okay and hold on to the Senate while losing the House, or they could do better than expected, or they could do worse than expected. There isn’t a lot of separation between what happens with Democrats and what happens with Hollywood and the Oscars because they are, at least for now, one in the same.
The same problem the Democrats having to connect with the broader country is the same problem the Oscars are having. They are both existing, I think, in a bubble. The Oscar race will be directly reflected by what happens in November. The mood will either be elated and happy — good people doing good things and winning. Or it will be desperate and fearful — they lost everything but the kitchen sink.
Venice seems to be a strong Oscar launchpad because of its recent awards history, specifically its Best Picture award, the Golden Lion. The Shape of Water, Roma, and Nomadland all won the Golden Lion. Last year, Audrey Diwan won for Happening, which will be in the Oscar race this year. Their Best Actress winner has a decent track record for an Oscar nomination, at least. Last year Penelope Cruz won before getting nominated for the Oscar. Other winners include Vanessa Kirby for Pieces of a Woman, Olivia Colman for The Favourite, and Emma Stone for La La Land. Both Colman and Stone ended up winning the Oscar in their respective years.
Festival season is the beating heart of the Academy demographic, especially the Telluride Film Festival. It has been so influential because it is exclusive and populated by the exact kind of people who vote in the Oscars. The patrons skew older: retirees and Boomers that are largely white and wealthy, i.e., the Academy demographic. Let’s not forget that. I imagine you’re looking at a 98% Democratic-leaning crowd — the Ken Burns and the Alice Waters set. Films here often will do well with the Academy, more or less.
Lately, though, Telluride has become overrun with people like me. Oscar season is top-heavy by now. COVID knocked back the sheer volume of films to choose from, as well as the economics of Hollywood. The Oscars have shrunk somewhat since the ratings are dipping and have to exist in this extremely polarized climate. Yet more people than ever cover the race, and they’re trigger-happy. They want to announce a winner early, which can often kill the thing out of the gate. Very few films survive being labeled the frontrunner out of Telluride.
Believe or not, when 12 Years a Slave became the frontrunner out of Telluride, many critics actively tried to knock it out of its place. The films that have won after playing at Telluride seemed to do so a while back before everyone started going. And those movies were underdogs out of the gate:
The King’s Speech
Since Moonlight in 2016, the Best Picture winner was not necessarily the Telluride favorite:
2017 — The Shape of Water (Venice/Telluride)
2018 — Green Book (Toronto)
2019 — Parasite (Cannes/Telluride)
2020 — Nomadland (Venice)
2021 — CODA (Sundance)
But just because that is so at the moment doesn’t mean it will always be so. The lesson from both Parasite and CODA is that if a film meets the moment’s requirements and can unite a consensus around a common cause, it can win no matter what.
Telluride can sometimes be unsettling because of the intimacy of the experience. It tends to magnify a film’s reception because it’s such a small festival. I think of movies we were all so excited about that never ran the gauntlet and it is a mild bummer. Hope always springs eternal up there in the beautiful mountains. Movies like First Man, Prisoners, Battle of the Sexes, etc. It is a great experience, but things start to shift in the next few months. The same tends to be true of just about any festival. You never know whether or not the experience will translate down the road.
Toronto is a bit of a hot mess, with critics all seeing movies at different times and hailing them on Twitter. It feels like a lot of noise until the audience award is announced. What wins that prize usually wins some kind of Oscar.
Belfast — Screenplay
Nomadland — Picture, Director, Actress
Jojo Rabbit — Screenplay
Green Book — Picture, Screenplay, Supporting Actor
Three Billboards — Actress, Supporting Actor
La La Land — Actress, Best Director, etc.
Room — Actress
The Imitation Game — Screenplay
12 Years a Slave — Picture, Screenplay, Supporting Actress
That is what to look out for in Toronto.
According to precedent, the New York Film Festival is hit-and-miss in its ability to heavily influence the Oscar race. But in this climate now, any movie that plays there that hits the sweet spot for film critics will do well regardless of precedent. The demographic of NYFF attendees is a lot more Spirit Awards and Gothams than it is Oscars. But it’s still a friendly reception for filmmakers who are well-liked.
After the announcement that White Noise will open both the New York Film Festival and the Venice Film Festival, it looks like we have a strong Oscar contender from Netflix heading into the race. Empire of Light and Bardo seem to be, at least for now, the Telluride gets, with The Fabelmans hitting Toronto.
Notice that so far I have mentioned three films by white men about white men, at least I think they are. So obviously, we’re going to run into the same snag as we’ve been running into. I don’t think we’re quite out of the storm yet in assessing films on merit. What wins is always what unites a consensus around a common cause. Voters need to feel good about themselves and good about their vote. We’re years away from the time when that meant picking the “best.”
To get a jump on it, Marshall Flores has built a chart that shows what is going where so far, and how Telluride will fit into it.
And Michael Patterson has narrowed his guesses about the Telluride slate somewhat but will come up with a predicted list tomorrow. As of August 1, this is what he expects:
Probably going to Telluride:
Bones and All/Guadagnino
Empire of Light/Mendes
Good Night Oppy/White
One Fine Morning/Hansen-Love
Major titles that seem certain not to be at Telluride:
The Banshees of Insherin
The Good Nurse
Triangle of Sadness
Major titles still up in the air for Telluride:
The Pale Blue Eye
There does seem to be a slight difference between the two predicted Telluride gets. But again, we won’t find out for sure what will be showing up there until the day before the festival.