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Oscars: Dust Settles On The Fall Festivals With No Clear Best Picture Front-Runner (Yet)

Oscars: Dust Settles On The Fall Festivals With No Clear Best Picture Front-Runner (Yet)

In just a few days, the first barrage of the fall film festival season will be done. Toronto has a couple of days left, but basically everything has screened for press already, and a fair chunk of the corps are returning home, or heading to Fantastic Fest for karaoke and tacos (short of a “There Will Be Blood“-style surprise, don’t expect too many awards contenders out of there). That means that the awards season has fallen into focus, with a number of the season’s major contenders already out there.

Compared to some years gone by, it feels like a relatively thin year in terms of true awards heavyweights. In the last ten years, only twice had we not seen the eventual Best Picture winner at one of the fall festivals by nowMillion Dollar Baby” in 2004, and “The Departed” in 2006. But this year, no obvious front-runner has really emerged. That’s not to say that films worthy of, or heading to, nominations haven’t been seen, but there doesn’t seem to be anything dominating the narrative so far.

Cannes had Foxcatcher,” but many think that the film is so dark that it might struggle to be nominated. Venice brought Birdman, which has stellar reviews, but similar issues, though like “Gravity” last year, the bravura filmmaking could nab it the Directing Oscar. And Telluride saw The Imitation Game and Wild premiere, both of which are receiving more praise for their performances than the movies themselves, for the most.

And TIFF hasn’t thrown up a Best Picture heavyweight either. Some films died on the vine (“My Old Lady,” “Black And White,” “The Riot Club,” “Miss Julie“), some got good notices, but simply aren’t really Oscar movies (“Nightcrawler,” “The Duke Of Burgundy,” “Phoenix,” “While We’re Young,” “The Keeping Room“). Others seem, as many suspected, like more commercial plays (“The Judge,” “St. Vincent,,” “This Is Where I Leave You“). A few others could perhaps figure into the acting races if they’re picked up by a distributor and slated in timePawn Sacrifice,” “Love & Mercy,” “Cake,” “Still Alicebut don’t feel like challengers in the big category.

One of the big hopes going in was Jason Reitman‘s Men Women & Children,” but the film wasn’t much better received than the director’s last film, “Labor Day.” A few fans are out there, but they’re not wildly vocal, and the haters really, really hate it. We suppose that the film could end up connecting with older Academy voters scared of their smart phones, but with Paramount already pushing “Interstellar,” “Selma” and “The Gambler” (the latter of which moved into 2014 late Friday night), it feels pretty unlikely at this point. It should also be said that the festival’s other Adam Sandler movie, The Cobbler,” won’t be doing any awards businessthe film was one of the worst-reviewed at TIFF.

If you were looking for one potential acting breakout that few saw coming, you’d probably land on “Still Alice.” The Alzheimer’s drama had a low profile heading into the festival, but Julianne Moore won rave reviews for her role in the last few days. The actress was thought to be in the race for “Maps To The Stars” after winning Best Actress at Cannes, but new distributors Focus World won’t be campaigning for her. That means, should someone pick up “Still Alice,” Moore could well end up figuring in. (There’s some talk of Jennifer Aniston vehicle “Cake” too, but that feels like a longer shot).

As we said, “The Judge,” “St. Vincent” and ‘This Is Where I Leave You” all felt like they were major distributors dipping their toes in awards waters to see if anyone bit, and it doesn’t seem that they will. Warners are partners on “Interstellar,” and have “Inherent Vice,” but don’t have the obvious crowd-pleaser that “Argo” or “Gravity” were, so may yet continue to push “The Judge,” but the film was poorly reviewed, so it will have to really connect with voters to make much headway. Robert Duvall might be a possible in the Supporting Actor race, though. For now, The Weinstein Company doesn’t seem to be doing much with “St. Vincent” (especially with “The Imitation Game” on their plate), and with the Best Actor race crowded already, Bill Murray probably won’t make headway, though a Golden Globe nod might not be out of the question. And “This Is Where I Leave You” is unlikely to make much awards impact, but got a glitzy premiere.

One more serious contender did emerge from Toronto, and that’s The Theory Of Everything,” the Stephen Hawking biopic from Focus Features, directed by James Marsh. Critics couldn’t resist mentioning the word Oscar in the post-screening tweets. That was with particular reference to stars Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones, but the film was warmly received enough by audiences that it seems likely to figure into the Best Picture race as well. It’s Focus’ biggest hope, and given that they managed to get “Dallas Buyers Club” a nod, despite it being a tougher, unrulier film, and the company being in turmoil at the time, we can’t really see them missing here, unless we end up with a strong batch of new arrivals in the months to come.

But even that doesn’t feel like a potential winnerthe film doesn’t seem to quite have the adulation that, say, “The King’s Speech” picked up a few years ago, and it doesn’t help that it’s up against “The Imitation Game,” with which it shares several similarities: British, acclaimed performance by hot young cheekboned star, a portrait of a genius, sturdy and admired but not adored by critics. Expect the “Theory Of Imitation” mash-ups before too long, but also the potential for the two to split the votes of that particular demographic.

The result is a vacuum, and while major heavyweights are still to come, some are already looking to fill it. IFC will be campaigning in force for “Boyhood,” and Fox Searchlight will push early-year picture “Grand Budapest Hotel” in a big way as well. That leaves the big question: with few Best Picture sure-things, what kind of eventual line-up will that create? Could we see fewer nominations than the nine we’ve had the past three years?

Will it lead to more middling, middelbrow nominees (think of 2008, the last time we had a quietish line-up, when “Frost/Nixon” and “The Reader” made the final five)? Or does it open up room for more left-field, challenging, auteurish fare, equivalents of “The Tree Of Life” or “Winter’s Bone” or “Amour” or “Her” to sneak in? After years where the story was already playing out from the beginning of September, the narrative so far this time is that there is no narrative, and that’s kind of exciting.

We’ll be back with more Oscar coverage next week. On the next page, find the first of our occasional Best Picture charts.

Best Picture Chart – 09/10/14

25. “Nightcrawler”
Back in the 1970s, “Network” and “Taxi Driver” were Best Picture nominees (in the same year, no less). Dan Gilroy’s “Nightcrawler” is cut from similar cloth, and picked up some of the best reviews at TIFF. Our initial instinct is that the film won’t fly with voters today (Gyllenhaal would have had a better chance at a nomination, but not in this tough year), but with things so in flux still, we wouldn’t rule it out yet.

24. “St. Vincent”
Harvey Weinstein’s unlikely to make the same mistake he did last year, lining up multiple possibilities without throwing his full weight behind a single one, and coming close to missing out on a Best Picture nod in the process. This year, he’s going wholeheartedly behind “The Imitation Game,” which means “St. Vincent” probably won’t be a contender in the big race. If it catches fire at the box office, it might bounce back, but don’t bet on it.

23. “Kill The Messenger”
This felt like a strong possibility for Focus, until it failed to show up at the fall festivals, suggesting a certain lack of confidence in a film that could have used the boost. But it still looks decent enough to us, so we’ll assume for now that Focus are simply trying a different tactic, at least until people start seeing the film next month.

22. “The Judge”
“A movie like they don’t make anymore” was the line that the filmmakers kept using, which sounds like the sort of thing that would appeal to Academy voters. “The Judge” may well be a strong commercial player, and Warners don’t have a lot else on their slate this year, but the TIFF reception didn’t suggest that this was going to be an awards home-run.

21. “The Gambler”
The new entry into the race is getting a
limited qualifying-release from Paramount in December. This is still
under wraps, so it’s hard to know what kind of potential it has, but
the studio must have their reasons, even with several other potentials
on their slate.

20. ” Pride”
Whereas British crowd-pleaser “Pride” kills everywhere it plays (including TIFF), but can’t seem to build up buzz (not many critics saw it in Toronto). CBS Films hasn’t quite earned their campaign stripes yet (“Inside LLewyn Davis” couldn’t connect with voters last year), but if the film can get in front of enough eyes, this could well be a “Philomena”-style dark horse.

19. “Mr. Turner”
Mike Leigh has a Best Picture nod in the past, and the lavish period biopic “Mr. Turner” feels like his best bet in years. Raved about in Cannes, praise has been more moderated stateside, and with several other British biopics in the race that are more voter-friendly, this probably needs critics’ group support to get much further.

18. “Rosewater”
Tepidly received by critics, but greeted warmly by audiences, Jon Stewart’s film has a secret weapon in the shape of its director. But it lacks star power otherwise (voters may not know who Gael Garcia Bernal is), and distributor Open Road are relative newcomers to the awards race. If it had exploded out of Telluride, that’d be one thing, but it doesn’t seem to have gotten up much of a start.

17. “Big Eyes”
Word on the street is that Amy Adams remains a serious contender for this art-world biopic, but that Tim Burton’s film doesn’t quite work as a whole. It’s not due til December, though, so there’s time to fix it, but by then, Harvey might have most of his chips on “The Imitation Game”

16. “Grand Budapest Hotel”
One of the greatest beneficiaries of the weaker fall slate would be Wes Anderson’s latest. It’s a long, long time since a March release was a Best Picture nominee, and Wes has never been an Academy favorite (“Moonrise Kingdom” was tipped for a nod by some, but missed out). But this is still the biggest indie film of the year, and widely liked, so could yet go the distance.

15. “Into The Woods”
Disney’s Sondheim musical has a bit
of a buzz problem, with muted reaction from fans to the first trailer
and news of changes to the source material. The shadow of “Nine”
still casts a long shadow, but this is still an all-star adaptation of a
beloved, emotionally-charged musical, so shouldn’t be dismissed yet.

14. “American Sniper”
Another late addition to the calendar, we’re a little more hesitant on Clint Eastwood’s latest than some, if only because the director’s missed more than he’s hit with the Academy of late, even with baity pictures like “Changeling” and “Invictus.” But with hot star Bradley Cooper and a button-pushing subject, it certainly shouldn’t be dismissed either.

13. “A Most Violent Year”
A24’s big hope for their first awards run, it’s the kind of film that would have benefited from a festival appearance, but wasn’t ready in time. Word is that Oscar Isaac kills it, and could be a Best Actor player, but will it be hurt by its late debut?

12. “Inherent Vice”
On one hand, this appears to be more commercial than “The Master,” especially with Warner Bros behind it. But in some ways, it sounds less like an awards picture, with some apparently quite broad comedy. Paul Thomas Anderson certainly gives it cred, and it’s a weird year. We’ll find out how it turns out in a few weeks at NYFF.

11. “Fury”
Some think this is a home run, we’re not quite as convinced yet — it is, after all, from the director of “Sabotage. But it is Columbia’s biggest hope, it is a World War II picture and Brad Pitt gives it instant kudos.

10. “Wild”
A mixed reception from critics at Telluride turned a little warmer in Toronto, with the film just edgy enough to keep it from blandness. It’s still more of a lock for a Best Actress nod than for Picture, but will certainly be in the conversation moving forward.

9. “Foxcatcher”
If there’s anything better than this in the Best Picture line-up, it’ll be an exceptional year, but some are concerned it’s more of a critics’ picture than a voters’ one. We think it’ll be fine, though. 

8. “The Theory Of Everything
Many critics found it disappointingly conventional but “disappointingly conventional” isn’t a phrase that’s in the vocabulary of Academy voters, for the most part. Acting nods seem like a certainty, there’s every reason to think that it’ll be in the Best Picture race, but can it win? Especially when alongside…

7. “The Imitation Game”
Honestly, it’s entirely possible that voters may vote for one of these two while meaning the other. “The Imitation Game” has the edge for now: it has better known stars, and got a very warm reaction from Telluride. Does it have a chance at overcoming something like “Unbroken,” though.

6. “Birdman”
Those who suggest that “Birdman” is too dark for voters haven’t been paying attention to how much they like movies about actors or the industry. With a comeback performance from Michael Keaton, and bravura filmmaking, this is getting nominated. 

5. “Gone Girl”
It’s done, and the word is that it’s one of David Fincher’s best films ever. Being based on a popular book, and with Ben Affleck in the lead, can’t hurt either. But it’s very dark, and could well see audiences feel like they got sold something else. If Fincher’s in true trickster god mode, maybe this is “Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” all over again?

4. “Selma”
Ava DuVernay’s mainstream breakthrough has the potential to be the issues-driven monster a las “12 Years A Slave” last year. But it lacks starpower both behind and in front of the camera, and at some point, Paramount may have to pick between this and “Interstellar” as the one they really push. Also, DuVernay wouldn’t be the first indie filmmaker to falter once they enter the studio system, so it could yet be a misfire.

3. “Boyhood”
We took a long while to be convinced that this could figure in, but IFC has hired awards consulting heavyweight Cynthia Swartz for their campaign, which should put them in good stead, and they’re committed to spending what they have to. The film’s certainly got the critical adulation and this is the rare example of a film from the first half of the year with the potential to win.

2. “Unbroken”
The film has everything on paper, but it needs to work in practice too. If it does, though, it could be a real juggernaut, and a chance to reward Angelina Jolie, Roger Deakins et al. But…

1. “Interstellar”
Right now, we’re calling Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi picture the sight-unseen frontrunner. It has the mix of big spectacle with important issues (the environment), emotion and a cast with a host of previous winners and nominees. But it will have to overcome 1) the Academy’s bias against sci-fi, and 2) their seeming undervaluing of Nolan, who’s never been nominated for Director. Does that make him due, though? That’ll be the narrative if the film picks up good reviews.

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