NOTE: I had this prepared for posting earlier this week, and don't have the energy to revise based on what's already happened/been reviewed. So, here are my unedited pre-game thoughts, some of which already appear to be either upheld or contradicted.
In a matter of hours, Venice will start screenings. When the weekend gets here, Telluride will cram in as many films as they can in three days. Next week, Toronto kicks off, and, by end of September, NY will showcase some of the best from these earlier gatherings, as well as debut Scorsese’s much-awaited epic. Which is to say, the Fall season is here…and it’s time for the annual where do we stand/where are we going? report.
Let me say at the start how sad it makes me that, for the first time in memory, I’m not piggybacking on BJ’s half-year review, which always did a deep dive on the early year efforts, and made it easier for me to zoom ahead. I won’t do quite the elaborate survey he did, but I will begin by looking at what we have already on the field.
Clearly, the top entry to date is Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood – one of Quentin’s most-praised efforts, and a clear box office success, it seems a lock for best picture/director/screenplay nominations, with both its main actors likely cited (in differing categories – DiCaprio lead, Pitt supporting – which may cause grousing), and some tech nods along for the ride (cinematography, production design, the sounds Quentin often gets, editing). A bona fide contender.
Not quite as strong, but with a decent shot, is The Farewell, which hasn’t jumped to breakout status, but has been way more successful than a film mostly in Chinese could have expected. I think screenplay, film, director (in that order) are possibilities, with Shuzhen Zhou and Awkwafina at least in the conversation for acting nominations.
Those two films would, I think, have been considered even back in the five-nominee dark ages. But, since we now have up to ten, we might need to add Rocketman, one of the year’s few grown-up success stories. Comparisons to Bohemian Rhapsody are inevitable, though I’m not sure in which direction – does the fact the it made far less money than the Mercury bio hurt, or will the clearly stronger reviews help? I do think the Egerton performance is far less likely to bring home a best actor trophy -- though a nomination is a possibility if the year is lean. And the film could probably score a sound nod or two, plus that over-the-credits tune could make the song list.
The only other top-category contender being touted is Lupita N‘yongo in Us, for which she did get seriously good reviews. But, despite Jordan Peele’s previous success with AMPAS, I remain skeptical about hard-core horror films breaking through for major nominations. (Toni Collette last year, despite serious critics’ push, didn’t get anywhere.)
As to the minor categories – I suppose the assorted Marvel films could net visual effects nominations (though I don’t detect winner-level enthusiasm for any of them). Maybe Aladdin gets in for costumes or production design? Toy Story 4 will probably make the animation list (in a year where it’s hard to see many legit contenders; Isle of Dogs may wish it had waited). None of these categories interest me terribly at the moment.
The next step, of course, is to deal with the shadow releases: films that have already run the critics’ gauntlet, at Sundance or Cannes, but haven’t as yet arrived in theatres. Sundance doesn’t offer as much to chew on as usual – its biggest success, The Farewell, has already advanced to full release. Beyond that, The Report was somewhat on the edge as far as critical response – good reviews in the trades, a 79 on Metacritic (though you can imagine that score softening when it hits the harsher critics). Its strongest hope is to put Adam Driver into the best actor discussion…though Driver has a stronger film upcoming (see below) that seems likely to take precedence. And then there’s Clemency, which apparently offers a strong role for the great Alfre Woodard, but doesn’t seem to have the overall strength to make an Oscar run.
Cannes was more fruitful in terms of yielding contenders, including though definitely not limited to the Tarantino effort. In terms of English-language films – which always have the upper hand in making Oscar inroads – there seems to be decent enthusiasm for The Lighthouse, most particularly the Dafoe performance (Dafoe has other efforts coming later on, suggesting this might be a big year for him). A Hidden Life seems to be Terence Malick in more-accessible-than-usual mode, and, given its World War II setting, might give him a shot at some mention (at least in his standard cinematography slot).
Then we come to the foreign-language stuff. Such films, as Uri has noted, tend to score with AMPAS only when the domestic field is barren. But last year, of course, we saw Roma and Cold War both do inordinately well, so maybe something (like, an expansion of overseas voters) is different now. We certainly have a trio of non-English efforts that received extravagant enough praise at Cannes to at least merit consideration. I mentioned at the time of the festival, I thought Pain and Glory had an excellent shot of at least getting Antonio Banderas a best actor nod – an actor very familiar to American audiences with a career-level set of raves is almost the formula for a subtitled nomination. (It doesn’t hurt that Almodovar has already proven cross-over category appeal.) The other two efforts – Parasite and Portrait of a Lady on Fire -- are more iffy in terms of salability, but I keep hearing wild enthusiasm from those who’ve been able to see the films, so who knows what they might achieve in the way of writing/directing/even best picture nominations? Offhand, I’d say Portrait has a slightly easier path – French films have had way more Academy representation than Asian ones over the year. But, of course, I’m open to surprise.
All that extensively dealt with…it’s now time to look over what’s upcoming, and what will comprise the majority of the race. I find this year rather singular: the field to date is more defined than typically (Once Upon a Time and The Farewell are the strongest pre-September tandem since Boyhood/Grand Budapest Hotel), but the future schedule is as murky as any I can recall. Apart from the obvious Scorsese big bopper, there are no efforts that jump out as top-tier – not a single entry from the crowd that has dominated Oscar lists the past decade or so (Payne, Russell, Spielberg, Eastwood, Coens, Bigelow, Jonze, W & PT Anderson). There are plenty of promising-sounding efforts, but few you’d have designated as must-watch from inception. These next few weeks will go a long way toward showing us which films, from this fairly wide and undefined field, emerge with the strongest award hopes.
Since Gravity kicked off 2013’s Venice festival, it’s become commonplace for the first couple of English-language films screened there to be among the year’s hottest in award terms: Birdman 2014; Spotlight 2015; Moonlight, La La Land and Arrival all 2016; The Shape of Water and Three Billboards 2017; Roma and The Favourite last year. The earliest English-language debuts come this Thursday, with Baumbach‘s Marriage Story (one of the most buzzed-about films of the year, which people think might get Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson acting nominations) and James Gray’s Ad Astra (about which I remain skeptical, partly because Gray’s films have never quite broken through, and because the film’s release has been delayed a worrying number of times). Friday brings Kristen Stewart playing (Jean) Seberg, which seems an idea from casting heaven. And Saturday features one of the most intriguing films on the calendar: Joker. There are a lot of reasons to be skeptical about the film: who needs another Joker movie? what has Todd Phillips ever done to provoke optimism? – but the film has Joaquin Phoenix as its center, DeNiro in support, and it’s playing the elite festivals in a way no other DC movie ever has, suggesting at least SOMEONE believes in it. So, I await critical response with great interest.
Venice will also screen Soderbergh’s The Laundromat (with Streep aboard), Michod’s The King (with Timothee Chalamet), Meirelles’ The Two Popes (Jonathan Pryce/Anthony Hopkins), as well as notable non-English efforts by Kore-eda (The Truth), Larain (Ema) and Assayas (The Wasp Network), plus a film version of Kosinski’s The Painted Bird, about which there have been encouraging murmurs.
In the midst of this, Telluride will offer its whirlwind of screenings over the three-day weekend. You can never be sure about the Telluride schedule till it’s almost at the starting gate, but among the films EXPECTED to show up…there’ll be repeaters from Venice (Marriage Story, The Wasp Network, The Truth, The Two Popes) and Cannes (A Hidden Life, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Pain and Glory, Parasite), all looking to up their Oscar profile – but also a set of new titles vying for positions of prominence. Of these, the most intriguing:
Ford v Ferrari -- a James Mangold film about a 1966 Le Mans race, with Christian Bale and Matt Damon offering serious actor/star power;
Motherless Brooklyn -- Edward Norton directing himself (to serious buzz) in an adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s novel;
Uncut Gems -- The Safdies’ latest push for a breakthrough, headlined by Adam Sandler;
Judy --directed by Rupert Goold, a do-we-really-need-another-of-these? Judy Garland biopic with Renee Zellweger in the scenery-chewing role;
and The Aeronauts – a Tom Harper period piece about hot air ballooning that offers (ugh) a Theory of Everything reunion of Redmayne/Felicity Jones. This last is being pushed heavily in certain quarters, and I fear it’s going to be the one that plagues me all season.
At last, we get to Toronto, which has been frequently upstaged in recent years by Venice/Telluride, but which this time around seems to have a decent number of strong premiere titles. Among the most promising:
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood – it’s hard to believe we need another Mr. Rogers movie right after the documentary, and having Tom Hanks play the man seems near-redundant…but Marielle Heller compels interest, and people have expressed admiration for the script;
The Goldfinch – a September release has some folks worried, and the difficulties of adapting such a sprawling novel are inherent, but the cast is strong, and John Crowley deserves benefit of doubt;
Harriet – a biopic of Harriet Tubman that’s had bloggers in overdrive all year for a Cynthia Erivo best actress prize…but the trailer looks fairly uninspired, and I can’t say Kasi Lemmons’ films have ever impressed me;
Just Mercy -- Destin Daniel Cretton’s reunion with his Short Term 12 star Brie Larson in a courtroom drama…Michael B. Jordan stars, but Jamie Foxx is getting the strongest buzz;
Jojo Rabbit – from Hunt for the Wilderpeople’s Taika Waititi, a whacked-out satire of Nazism that has strong advance word;
Dolemite Is My Name -- Craig Brewer directing Eddie Murphy in an inside-Hollywood chronicle of a blaxploitation hit-maker…not a typical festival entry, which makes one wonder if it’s surprisingly good;
True History of the Kelly Gang – they’re going to keep making movies about these guys and hope one finally works…a strong cast headed by Russell Crowe, but director Justin Kurzel is unproven;
The Personal History of David Copperfield -- with Armando Iannucci writing/directing, what kind of comic spin can we expect from this?; and
Lucy In The Sky – from (TV) Fargo director Noah Hawley, with Natalie Portman as an astronaut experiencing disorientation upon return to earth.
Within two weeks or so, most of those titles will have either been validated or discarded, and the tournament will be seriously underway. That’s not the end of it, of course – the films christened at the festivals will have to brave the marketplace to see if popular response matches up to the critical. And, as always, there are some titles that will appear without the festival filter – whether because they’re more commercial efforts (like Ang Lee’s Gemini Man), not yet ready (Greta Gerwig’s Little Women), or they simply prefer to hold back – this last group including Todd Haynes’s environmental court battle film, Dark Waters; Jay Roach’s take on the Gretchen Carlson/Fox News blow-up, Bombshell; and Sam Mendes’ return to prestige film-making, 1917.
Much more on all this when Toronto is in the books.