What do our eight most recent winners for the best picture Oscar — “No Country For Old Men,” “Slumdog Millionaire,” “The Hurt Locker,” “The King’s Speech,” “The Artist,” “12 Years a Slave” and “Birdman” — have in common?
Every single one of them premiered (either in theaters or at a film festival) by mid-September. One has to go back to Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed” to find a best picture winner we hadn’t seen by September 20 in a given year, and it missed that mark only by a week (it premiered on September 26).
That begs the question: Have we already seen our ultimate winner of the incoming awards season? If so, the answer is not so obvious.
In other years, by the time the Toronto International Film Festival reached its halfway point, films like “The King’s Speech” and “12 Years a Slave” were already being deemed the likely champions. Notably, that was not the case last year with “Birdman.” Though the film won instant raves when it opened the Venice Film Festival, not too many folks assumed it would win Oscar’s big prize. Of course, it ended up doing just that — beating out a list of nominees that was made up primarily of films we’d also seen by September 15 (“American Sniper” and “Selma,” which premiered the following month at AFI Fest, were the two exceptions).
So perhaps there’s already a “Birdman” in our midst? At the very least, we can safely say a good chunk of the 5-10 films that will make up the next best picture slate have indeed already been seen. Festival premieres like Tom McCarthy’s “Spotlight,” Danny Boyle’s “Steve Jobs,” Cary Fukunaga’s “Beasts of No Nation,” Todd Haynes’ “Carol,” John Crowley’s “Brooklyn,” Lenny Abrahamson’s “Room,” Tom Hooper’s “The Danish Girl” and Ridley Scott’s “The Martian” collectively make up what is arguably the best bets to do just that.
Interestingly, though, none of them have actually been released in theaters. Last year’s octet of nominees included two films — “Boyhood” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel” — that had more or less already come and gone from movie theaters by the fall. Summer hits like “Inside Out,” “Mad Max: Fury Road” and “Straight Outta Compton” are the most likely successors in that pattern, but none of them are surefire bets at this point. There are simply too many question marks left.
Every year, a handful of awards-hungry films sit out the festival circuit. They usually don’t screen for critics or voters until the very last minute (typically the week after Thanksgiving) and make for wishy-washy Oscar prognostication until that point. How can one predict something will get nominated based entirely on their promise? It’s just a guessing game.
That being said, this year it’s a guessing game featuring four filmmakers for whom history suggests we should not bet against: Quentin Tarantino, David O. Russell, Alejandro González Iñárritu and Steven Spielberg. Between them, they have directed best picture-nominated films in just the last six years (including, of course, last year’s winner). And they are the men (and yes, once again this year’s awards season seems headed toward sausage-fest) that will keep us guessing well beyond Toronto with “The Hateful Eight,” “Joy,” “The Revenant” and “Bridge of Spies,” respectively (“Spies” will make its debut next month at the New York Film Festival, but the rest of them seem likely not to screen until late November).
And it’s just those four films, either. Angelina Jolie’s “By The Sea,” Ron Howard’s “In The Heart of the Sea,” Robert Zemeckis’s “The Walk” and Don Cheadle’s “Miles Ahead” have yet to screen either. What do we know about those films’ Oscar chances? Nothing, really. Just that they look like strong contenders on paper.
But let’s get back to what we do know. As per usual, Venice, Telluride and Toronto has collectively given us a lot to think about. As a bit of an aside, it should be noted that Toronto was definitely the weakest link of the three big fests this year. Last year, the festival world premiered the likes of “Still Alice” and “The Theory of Everything” — which ended up giving us our best actress and best actor winners, respectively. This year, most of the high-profile world premieres at TIFF were met with a lack of enthusiasm, save “The Martian,” “Truth” and, to a lesser degree, “Trumbo” — none of which are looking like best picture frontrunners.
While it didn’t actually premiere in Toronto, the festival and its patrons did give Lenny Abrahamson’s “Room” a major boost in handing it the People’s Choice Award. Of the last seven winners of that award, six have gone to best picture nominations at the Oscars — and three have won (“Slumdog Millionaire,” “The King’s Speech” and “12 Years a Slave”). Despite that track record, “Room” seems much more certain to nab acting Oscar nods for Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay and Joan Allen (all truly fantastic) than it does to make the best picture cut. The simple fact that it’s a small film being released a distributor, A24, that has yet to make a major stamp on awards season, might prove challenging if the remaining films come out swinging (though didn’t stop “Winter’s Bone” a few years back). Either way, the TIFF boost can’t be taken lightly.
It certainly seems to be a few steps ahead of Tom Hooper’s “The Danish Girl,” which in theory screams Oscar more than any other film that’s premiered in the past week or two. A biopic with stunning production value and wonderful performances (including from last year’s best actor winner Eddie Redmayne), it takes on a timely issue by dramatizing the story of the first person to undergo sex re-assignment surgery. But it does so in a conservative manner that falls below the issue at its center.
This may very well end up proving a plus when it comes to the historically unadventurous body of Oscar voters (it certainly hasn’t stopped them before — see Hooper’s own “King’s Speech”), but in a year where films like “Tangerine” and series like “Transparent” and “Orange Is The New Black” offered such genuinely insightful looks at transgender identity, “The Danish Girl” seems unlikely to become the year’s big conversation-starter.
There are several other potential awards season players that could do “best picture” slot more justice. The aforementioned likes of “Carol,” “Steve Jobs” and “Beasts of No Nation” are all already critics’ darlings. But how they are met upon theatrical release (or in the case of “Beasts,” largely on Netflix) will be a lot more telling as to how far they can go.
The same can be said for “Brooklyn,” “Suffragette,” “Truth,” “Youth,” “Trumbo,” “Sicario” and “The Martian.” They all found fans on the festival circuit, but they need boosts from the public to stand out in what is already such a crowded awards season room. At this point, none of them seem like locks for best picture nominations (to varying degrees, at least). But that could very well change. We still have four months to go.
All in all, though, there’s something a little exciting about the lack of frontrunner status meeting the early weeks of this year’s season. Even the acting races seem pretty wide open. Last year, we’d already seen the performances that eventually led Eddie Redmayne, Julianne Moore, J.K. Simmons and Patricia Arquette to the Oscar stage, and many prognosticators were already calling it.
You can check out our current bets across the board here in our freshly updated Oscar prediction charts, but until we see what the likes of Tarantino, Russell, Iñárritu and Spielberg have in store for us, take them all with a grain of salt.
Check out Indiewire’s latest chart of Oscar predictions here and additional predictions from Anne Thompson.
Peter Knegt is Indiewire’s Contributing Editor and awards columnist. Follow him on Twitter.