As the 53rd annual New York Film Festival is set to launch today and run through October 11, the Oscar-potentials out of the fall festival season have come into sharp focus. In fact, with the exception of its very New York-centric opening film, The Walk (actually premiering on Saturday on the fest’s second night so as to avoid Pope Francis traffic), and Steven Spielberg’s heretofore unseen Bridge Of Spies starring Tom Hanks, NYFF will not have any other major Oscar fodder exclusively premiering in the Big Apple.
Instead, choice Academy bait morsels from past festivals this year will be aplenty including Carol (first seen in Cannes, then Telluride), Brooklyn (first seen in Sundance, then Toronto) and Michael Moore’s Where To Invade Next (first seen in Toronto and still looking for a distribution deal before it can jump into the docu race). Then there is Universal’s Steve Jobs, which director Danny Boyle told me was presented in an unfinished form during its Labor Day weekend world premiere in Telluride, so technically NYFF will have the finished version as a world premiere when it unspools as the Centerpiece attraction of the fest. The only key Oscar film NYFF is playing that I have yet to see (unless they spring some big surprise) is Bridge Of Spies, but Disney/DreamWorks will be holding a first screening of the film in Los Angeles in concert with its New York premiere October 4.
As for The Walk, which I have seen in glorious Imax and 3D, I will wait until the review embargo lifts after its NYFF screening to weigh in officially, but suffice to say the Robert Zemeckis film version of French tightrope walker Philippe Petit’s daring 1974 walk across the then-unopened twin towers of the World Trade Center very much deserves to be in any serious Oscar discussion. Of course the brilliant James Marsh documentary detailing the feat, Man On Wire, is already an Oscar winner, having taken the Best Documentary Feature prize in 2008. Seeing Sony’s world premiere of the film so close to the actual site where it took place should be an emotional highlight of this year’s NYFF.
So putting these two NYFF films aside, what else has come out on top Oscar-wise during September’s Fall Fest Orgy? First there were some films for sale that may, or may not, have been hoping to land a distributor in time to try a late-season awards run. That list includes of course Where To Invade Next but also a beautiful prestige picture, The Man Who Knew Infinity, with award-level performances from Jeremy Irons and Dev Patel, as well as Australian director Jocelyn Moorhouse’s The Dressmaker with Kate Winslet, Liam Hemsworth and a wild mother of a role for Judy Davis that screams Supporting Actress nomination. Looks like the latter two will be waiting for next year. Charlie Kaufman’s animated Amomalisa was formerly in the same boat with those films, but Paramount swooped in, bought it and dated it for the end of the year just in time to compete.
Many pundits are already declaring Open Road’s Spotlight a Best Picture front-runner. That’s not surprising since the film deals with a heroic, Pulitizer Prize-winning Boston Globe investigation of the local Catholic Archdiocese’s molestation scandal and subsequent cover-up. Director Tom McCarthy’s film is powerful stuff indeed, a worthy successor to All The President’s Men in the journalistic movie genre — the latter received four Oscars and a Best Picture nomination. Of course it is awfully early to be pronouncing front-runners, particularly for films that have yet to open or be seen by most Academy members. That label didn’t help Boyhood last year, or many others stuck with it so early in the race.
I am certain Open Road chief Tom Ortenberg would wince at the label so far in front of the film’s November 6 release. When he was at Lionsgate he presided over a brilliant stealth campaign for Crash which came up from the outside to topple the towering 2006 front-runner, Brokeback Mountain, in one of Oscar’s greatest upsets. Conversely, he can also probably remember when La Vie En Rose’s Marion Cotillard came from behind and overtook Lionsgate’s SAG winner and Best Actress front-runner Julie Christie for Away From Her. It’s best to be back in the pack for a while instead of on top where there is no where to go but down. It’s a loooooong season and momentum is everything. Still, there is no denying the impact Spotlight made during its appearances at Venice/Telluride/Toronto, especially the latter when the ensemble cast stood side by side with their real-life Globe counterparts for a rapturous standing ovation.
I have to admit I was very excited to meet the real Spotlight reporters who came to hang out with us at our big and fun Deadline awards-season launch party last night in West Hollywood. It was cool talking to Walter Robinson (played by Michael Keaton in the film), Michael Rezendes (played by Mark Ruffalo) and Sacha Pfeiffer (played by Rachel McAdams). They all certainly stand behind the screen portrayal of their story which can only be a huge plus as the season moves along. By the way, Open Road has firmly decided to campaign the superlative ensemble cast — including Keaton, Ruffalo, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery and McAdams — all in supporting categories. There is no lead in the film, so why try to create one? This is a no-brainer. They could dominate supporting categories.
Spotlight won the second runner-up People’s Choice winner at Toronto (it can be an Oscar harbinger), but the film that took that prize, A24’s devastating and extraordinary Room, also put itself firmly in the race after storming both Telluride and TIFF. This small movie about a young mother and her son held captive for years by an abusive dad is now a real contender in many categories including Picture, Director (Lenny Abrahamson), Screenplay, Lead Actress for Brie Larson, Supporting Actress for Joan Allen, and Supporting Actor for the amazing 8-year-old Jacob Tremblay. But it is the kind of film that needs to be discovered, not overhyped. Hopefully, Oscar voters will be able to find it on its own when it opens October 16.
Out of Venice other big Oscar scorers were Warner Bros.’ Black Mass, which landed major notice for Johnny Depp and Joel Edgerton in particular and seems poised as a multiple threat. Also Tom Hooper’s love story The Danish Girl with Eddie Redmayne as a pioneer in the transgender movement and Alicia Vikander as the wife scored for their performances — even if the film itself drew mixed response. I have a feeling though this one will play exceptionally well at the Academy: It is an exquisitely made movie, and a touching one, the kind that resonates with Oscar voters if not some critics. Reviews in Venice were scathing for Atom Egoyan’s Remember, but there was a 10-minute standing ovation. I caught it in Toronto and thought Christopher Plummer’s lead performance was riveting. I understand there may be a year-end qualifying engagement for the film, and I wouldn’t count out Plummer for the Holocaust revenge drama which I found to be Egoyan’s best effort in a long while. And of course Netflix had its first theatrical film, Beasts Of No Nation, which is a big question mark due to the industry reception of the Netflix day-and-date release pattern October 16. The film may be too violent for some but contains memorable performances from Idris Elba and especially young Abraham Attah who really is a find, just like Tremblay.
Out of Telluride there can be no question about the fact that Steve Jobs benefits from another brilliant Aaron Sorkin script which Danny Boyle has brought vividly to life. Look for Michael Fassbender as Jobs and Winslet to figure strongly in acting races if the film catches on after its October 9 release. They make that Sorkin dialogue sing, as does the rest of the cast including Seth Rogen. Focus Features’ Suffragette was also received warmly in the Rockies, particularly for Carey Mulligan’s lead performance, a certain Actress contender. And speaking of that, the North American debut of Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years drew lots of talk for its Berlin Film Festival Silver Bear-winning stars Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay. Rampling will be campaigned by IFC Films (which opens the movie December 23) in lead actress and Courtenay in support. Incredibly, the great Rampling has never been nominated for an Oscar. Hopefully that changes this year: Two better performances you will not see this season.
In addition to the aforementioned Spotlight and Room, Toronto provided a mixed bag including a sensational Tom Hardy double-turn as the vicious Kray twins in Legend, which Universal decided to move into the holiday corridor on November 20 after originally planning a stateside opening next week. That can certainly help his chances although I hear he’s a major contender in supporting for his work in The Revenant, with both movies probably not for queasy stomachs. Other performances that popped from TIFF’s premieres were 80-year-old Maggie Smith’s Lady In The Van, Tom Hiddleston’s channeling of country star Hank Williams in I Saw The Light, Sandra Bullock’s terrifically funny and affecting turn as a jaded political consultant in Our Brand Is Crisis, Julianne Moore so fine again in Freeheld, Cate Blanchett and Robert Redford both sensational in the provocative and very fine 60 Minutes expose Truth, and Bryan Cranston looking to add an Oscar to his Emmys and Tony with his brilliant portrayal of blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo in Trumbo. Critical reaction was fairly mixed on all these films, but they played very well in the public screenings (particularly Truth and Trumbo) and I think the Academy will spark to many of them. Sure to be a hit out of TIFF was the world premiere of The Martian, a film everyone seemed to like and that could help catapult Matt Damon’s engaging stranded astronaut into the crowded Best Actor race.
Bottom line: Although the fall fests have undeniably helped launch certain films into prime awards positions (I am talking about you, Spotlight and Room), the reactions at these festivals — both pro and con — are sometimes not so reliable indicators once they wend their way into the consciousness of Oscar voters. Certainly box office reception can help change their fates as well. With NYFF just starting today, and one more biggie, the AFI Fest, to come in early November — bookending Brad Pitt movies as its opener and closer — there is still much to write as the season starts to take its baby steps.