There’s no question that the march to Oscar fully begins at the start of September each year, with the arrival of the much-ballyhooed fall festival trifecta of Venice, Telluride and Toronto. Awards prospects can soar on the strength of one of these all-important festival debuts, or simply deflate them like a Tom Brady football if a screening doesn’t play right in front of an audience of critics, awards bloggers and industry voters, as well as the general public. Prospects are rocked further by the added exposure of the New York Film Festival and AFI Fest in Hollywood.
So how did the presumptive “Oscar bait” fare this year? Venice’s opening-night film, La La Land, charged right to the top and still is the likely Best Picture front-runner with three weeks to go until its December 9 limited release. Starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, the Damien Chazelle-directed contemporary valentine to the musicals of Jacques Demy and MGM’s golden era wowed audiences not only on the Lido but also in Telluride and Toronto, where it won the much-coveted Audience Award over the 300-odd features on display.
Meanwhile, another Venice winner cemented the return of Mel Gibson to the director’s chair — as well as the industry’s good graces — with a 10-minute standing ovation for his stirring and true World War II tale, Hacksaw Ridge. Venice was the film’s only festival appearance this fall, but it was enough to put it in the Best Picture conversation and to start tongues wagging about Andrew Garfield’s emotional turn as Desmond Doss, a conscientious objector who didn’t touch a gun but became the biggest war hero of all.
A pair of Amy Adams films also came to Venice, with Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival starting Best Picture and Best Actress talk and Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals resulting in a Silver Lion for its director. Both films also played Toronto to good effect, and Arrival hit Telluride as well, just to make a statement that it’s a serious contender.
Natalie Portman’s hypnotic portrayal of Jacqueline Kennedy in Jackie also came out of Venice strong. It picked up distribution with Fox Searchlight out of Toronto, where Portman’s performance as the First Lady of Camelot struggling to deal with the aftermath of JFK’s assassination wowed the Canadian crowd.
Telluride debuts unquestionably were topped by the little film that could: Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, a coming-of-age film about an African-American boy in a tough South Florida neighborhood. It bowled over audiences in the Rockies, in much the same way that distributor A24’s Room did last year. That one went on to a Best Picture nomination and a Best Actress win for Brie Larson. I expect Moonlight, which also played Toronto and opened to near-record box office numbers, will do the same.
Warner Bros’ decision to play the Clint Eastwood-directed Sully paid off big in Telluride where it and Tom Hanks’ starring role as hero airline pilot Captain Sully Sullenberger drew top notices and awards buzz just before its successful launch in theaters. Sully co-star Aaron Eckhart also drew Supporting Actor buzz for Bleed for This, which stars Best Actor hopeful Miles Teller as the boxer Vinny Pazienza—another Telluride debut.
Manchester by the Sea, which premiered at Sundance, proved its early festival debut was no fluke as it continued to impress at Telluride and Toronto. And so too did Cannes debuts Loving and Elle, which found second berths at Toronto.
Toronto offered a stage for the Weinstein Company’s moving true story Lion, which grabbed attention and the Audience Award runner-up spot. And the second Audience Award runner-up, Disney’s Queen of Katwe, also gathered momentum out of its TIFF world premiere, though its chances have decreased after a slow-boiling box office performance.
Universal’s Sing put itself into the Animated Feature race at TIFF, with the confident studio offering a slightly unfinished print to start the chatter, while smaller indie dramas Denial and A Monster Calls did well enough there to keep hope alive. But the real TIFF surprise was the closing-night film The Edge of Seventeen, starring Hailee Steinfeld in a breakout role, which proved to be that rarest of gems: an exceptional teen movie.
On the flip side, negative to mixed reviews for such hopefuls as Lionsgate’s American Pastoral and Deepwater Horizon KO’d their awards chances, along with little buzz for Oliver Stone’s Snowden and a not-terribly-successful redemption attempt for Nate Parker and his controversial The Birth of a Nation. It was the sensation of Sundance, but after a disastrous publicity tour saw Parker refuse to apologize for his part in a campus rape for which he was acquitted 17 years ago, the movie died a quick box office death.
Most of the New York Film Festival’s Oscar marbles were spent on Ang Lee’s anticipated and pioneering technical achievement Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. But reviews and reaction were far from kind, and the 3D, 4K, 120fps photo-real process was a turnoff for many. Still, NYFF offered a positive berth to Mike Mills’ 20th Century Women, with strong Best Actress talk for Annette Bening, as well as its opening-night triumph 13th, a harrowing documentary from Ava DuVernay, exploring injustice for young black men in America. It feels like the impact made by that film will still be felt at the Dolby in February.