Three Fox Searchlight films emerged from Venice and Telluride as potential Oscar players. Bodice-ripper “The Favourite” won two major awards at Venice en route to opening the New York Film Festival (Metascore: 91). Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant scored in dramedy tour-de-force “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” (Metascore: 87). Robert Redford could factor for his charming performance in his swansong “The Old Man & The Gun” (Metascore: 86). And in Toronto, two more mainstream crowdpleasers have emerged from the venerable Hollywood studio, just as Fox heads toward its merger with Disney.
Steve McQueen’s “Widows” (Metascore: 85) is that rare Hollywood creature: a brainy studio movie that entertains and challenges as it reveals the real world. As potential Best Actress Oscar contender Viola Davis told me in Toronto, during one day of shoot in Chicago, 200 shootings occurred.
The director of Oscar-winner “12 Years a Slave” developed the story (inspired by Lynda LaPlante’s 1983 British TV series) with Gillian Flynn, impressed with her screenplay for “Gone Girl.” To the high concept of three gangster widows taking on a well-planned heist, they added a nuanced portrait of class and racial tensions in contemporary Chicago. And McQueen cast Davis as the strong but fragile widow working through her grief by assembling a posse of younger women, who do not know how capable they can be.
“Widows” needs a wave of upbeat Toronto reaction from audiences and press to build awards momentum. The question after early screenings was how much gravitas could a commercial thriller bring to the Oscar race? Well, this year — as the Best Popular film debate raises issues of the Oscars leaning too far toward art-film fare — may be just the right time for such an audience-friendly zeitgeist movie with ideas on its mind.
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And Davis, at least, is a contender against Venice-winner Olivia Colman (“The Favourite”) in the Best Actress race. Like Meryl Streep, Davis is now a quality brand with Tony, Emmy, and Oscar cred. It remains to be seen how far “Widows” can go, pulling McQueen and Flynn and rising star Elizabeth Debicki into its Oscar orbit.
The same is true of “The Hate U Give” (October 19), developed by Fox 2000’s Elizabeth Gabler, who brought you such mainstream Oscar contenders as “The Devil Wears Prada,” “The Life of Pi,” and “Hidden Figures.” She has a populist instinct, but also knows how to bring something new to pique audience interest.
In this case, she developed a YA bestseller from Angie Thomas into a heartfelt crowdpleaser from George Tillman, Jr. (“The Longest Ride”) that hits every mark. Russell Hornsby and Amandla Stenberg lead a strong cast in this tender father-daughter, coming-of-age, identity consciousness, #BlackLivesMatter drama.
Russell Hornsby, who starred opposite Davis in “Fences” on Broadway and in Denzel Washington’s feature film, brings a loving intensity to Maverick Carter, an ex-con-turned-grocer trying to raise his family right in the neighborhood where his brother King (Anthony Mackie) is a drugrunner. Maverick’s daughter Starr (Stenberg) dons a uniform and an alternate identity to attend a mostly-white private school, and when a cop shoots a childhood friend in front of her, Starr has decisions to make.
Again, this commercial movie could play for the Academy — especially actors — if box office and media turn it into a must-see.
Sunday night brings two more Oscar hopefuls: Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight” follow-up “If Beale Street Could Talk,” starring Regina King, and Bradley Cooper musical “A Star Is Born,” starring Lady Gaga.