AFI Fest closes this week, marking the end of the Fall Festival season that began with a bang with the August/September triple-feature that is Venice, Telluride and Toronto, at which the vast majority of major Oscar hopefuls were unveiled. Which is not to say there weren’t a few films from the first eight months of the year still in the mix; like the box office and critical smashes Black Panther and A Quiet Place, or at Cannes, where Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman looked built to last. But let’s face it: the fall is when studios and distributors strut the stuff they hope will go all the way to the Dolby Theatre on February 24th. And while there are a handful of films waiting to be seen—Mary Poppins Returns, Vice and The Mule chief among them—the AFI world premieres of Mary Queen of Scots (this Thursday), On the Basis of Sex and Bird Box basically completed the line-up of fall contenders.
It all started in Venice, with several home runs including A Star Is Born and Roma—the latter winning director Alfonso Cuarón the Golden Lion. Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Favourite kicked off its awards run there too, with a Silver Lion and the Best Actress prize for Olivia Colman. But Toronto debuted the other big Best Picture hopeful, Peter Farrelly’s Green Book, which took audiences and critics by storm and won the coveted—and often Oscar-predictive—People’s Choice Award. So it’s these four films we can safely say are the most likely to find a spot on the Best Picture nominations list on January 22nd, and they can each thank their Fall Festival berths for boosting their chances and making them seem inevitable.
20th Century Fox
In what could be a last hurrah, big Fox chose Toronto to unveil two of their contenders, the YA adaptation The Hate U Give and Steve McQueen’s journey into genre with Widows. The latter sparked Oscar talk for star Viola Davis and supporting player Elizabeth Debicki, while the former was a big critical favorite out of TIFF and continues to gain traction enough for Fox to keep believing.
This consistent Oscar player premiered Jonah Hill’s terrific writing and directing feature debut with Mid90s, about a bunch of kids and their skateboards in West LA. It was as fresh, exuberant and entertaining as anything on the fest circuit this year, with a cast you won’t soon forget. Hill proves himself as impressive a talent behind the camera as he is in front.
This streamer started early at festivals, with Cannes sensation Cold War, which also won serious applause at both Telluride and Toronto. It’s a sure bet to make the Best Foreign Language list for Poland and director Pawel Pawlikowski, and may track for its stunning cinematography and the performance of lead Joanna Kulig. At Toronto, Amazon premiered two hopefuls. Beautiful Boy drew buzz for the performances of Steve Carell and Timothée Chalamet, but Dan Fogelman’s Life Itself was killed by TIFF critics and came and went quickly.
Jacques Audiard won Best Director in Venice for Western The Sisters Brothers, his English language debut, but it hasn’t generated much Oscar buzz since opening. Nicole Kidman’s dynamite and risky performance as an LA cop in Destroyer electrified Telluride and Toronto, but award prospects could be held back by a more mixed reception for the movie itself. The best fest reception went to Barry Jenkins’ follow-up to his Oscar-winning Moonlight, an adaptation of James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk. It was the first runner-up for the People’s Choice Award in Toronto. That bodes well for its future.
This new company, fronted by distribution veteran David Dinerstein, was a last-minute entry into the Fall Fest game with Matthew Heineman’s A Private War, the story of conflict correspondent Marie Colvin. It features an awards-worthy performance by Rosamund Pike, and impressive change of pace for Jamie Dornan, and has been gaining some awards heat for its timely story of a determined journalist on the frontlines.
The overdue Willem Dafoe got a big Oscar boost out of Venice by taking Best Actor for his turn as Vincent van Gogh in At Eternity’s Gate. Julian Schnabel’s film also played well at New York Film Festival, and CBS will continue the push with that Venice recognition front and center.
They started off the year with Sundance debuts for Colette, with Keira Knightley, and the Alzheimer’s drama What They Had, with Hilary Swank, Blythe Danner, Michael Shannon and Robert Forster. Both returned to the Fall Festival circuit and were well received, but the company will have to spend to keep them alive Oscar-wise as high-profile Fall pictures crowd them out of theatres. Forster, in particular, deserves attention.
Joel Edgerton’s Boy Erased, a drama about controversial gay ‘conversion’ therapy, featured excellent performances from Lucas Hedges, Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman, and it stuck its flag in the Oscar race at both Telluride and Toronto. Bringing up the rear of the Fall Fests, Focus is behind AFI world premieres Mary Queen of Scots and On the Basis of Sex, so critical reaction is key as always.
Fox Searchlight Pictures
This perennial awards magnet saved their three biggies for the Fall Fests—as usual—and scored with each of them. Perhaps their top title, Oscar-wise, is bound to be Yorgos Lanthimos’s dazzling costume drama The Favourite, with a trio of awards-worthy stars in Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone. But the big surprise out of Telluride and TIFF was Can You Ever Forgive Me?, the true story of author Lee Israel, who found herself down on her luck and started forging letters from dead celebrities in order to make a buck. Melissa McCarthy has to be nominated for this turn, as does supporting actor Richard E. Grant, and maybe the film itself. By announcing The Old Man & the Gun as his last acting gig, Robert Redford made himself an instant contender, but he is facing tough competition.
While they bought a couple of films out of the festivals, for release in 2019, IFC continued to push their awards contender Wildlife at Toronto, after earlier unveilings at Sundance and Cannes. They have high hopes for a Best Actress bid by Carey Mulligan, who is excellent in a different, and highly dramatic, role.
Cannes Palme d’Or winner Shoplifters, from Hirokazu Kore-eda, went to Telluride and Toronto for further acclaim. The sensational film is Japan’s Best Foreign Language entry.
After a roaring Toronto last year, where they acquired the major Oscar player that became I, Tonya, they this year bought the wild Brady Corbet/Sia music project Vox Lux out of Toronto and Venice. With a swing-for-the-fences supporting performance from Natalie Portman as a school shooting survivor who becomes a major rock star, and a precedent after Allison Janney’s supporting win last year, can lightning strike twice in a row in the same category for Neon?
Roma is the name of the game for Netflix. Alfonso Cuarón’s very personal journey to his childhood in Mexico City in the 1970s played like gangbusters in Telluride and was the second runner-up for the Toronto People’s Choice Award, in addition to its Venice Golden Lion win. It’s clearly the streamer’s first real shot at a Best Picture Oscar nomination, and they are using this Fall Festival launch to go for it in a big way. They also launched Paul Greengrass’s 22 July, the Coen brothers’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and Sandra Bullock’s performance in Bird Box at the Fall Festivals.
One top exhibitor raved about Kim Nguyen’s The Hummingbird Project at Toronto this year. The Orchard nabbed it, but it won’t release until next year. That left their Foreign Language contenders from Cannes—Birds of Passage and El Angel—to keep making noise on the Fall Festival circuit.
They made a big slash on Toronto’s first weekend with star Julia Roberts, who launched their holiday release, the stunner of an addiction drama Ben is Back, with Lucas Hedges in the title role. Coming to TIFF did the trick, and won the film very strong reviews and Oscar buzz for its stars. Now they just have to keep it going after it opens December 7th.
The major studio stumbled last year with their Denzel Washington drama Roman J. Israel, Esq, which they brought to Toronto before it was ready. After heading back into the edit to shave off 12 minutes, Washington did land an Oscar nomination. This year, they brought White Boy Rick with Matthew McConaughey, and Jason Reitman’s The Front Runner with Hugh Jackman to both Telluride and Toronto, with an eye toward Oscar. Performance-wise, both of these films are still on track, with McConaughey pushed in support and Jackman in lead. They both excel, and the festival play probably helped both lift their gravitas, even if White Boy Rick has performed mildly at the box office, and Front Runner has stumbled so far in limited play ahead of a wider release next week.
Sony Pictures Classics
As usual, they’re aiming for a big presence in the Foreign Language race, and they really scored with the Venice and Toronto debut of Never Look Away, the German entry from Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. Michael Barker means to qualify it in other categories too, particularly for five-time Cinematography nominee Caleb Deschanel’s sterling work here. SPC also brought to TIFF their Cannes Jury Prize winner, Lebanon’s Capernaum, which should also be formidable in the foreign category this year. As the London Film Festival Closing Night film, their late December entry Stan & Ollie won warm praise for stars John C. Reilly and Steve Coogan and makes its North American debut this week at AFI Fest.
If any major has reason to celebrate their presence on the Fall Festival circuit this year, it’s Universal. Not only did Damien Chazelle’s Neil Armstrong moon landing epic First Man draw strong notices at Venice, Telluride and Toronto, they also took over Peter Farrelly’s fantastic feel-good Green Book, starring Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali, from specialty unit Focus (it was actually produced by Participant Media, who were also behind Roma). After a raucous TIFF premiere for the film, which drew three standing ovations, it landed the People’s Choice Award. The Fall Fests were a prime launchpad for the studio, even though First Man slowed subsequently at the box office. Green Book has limited openings this week before going wide for Thanksgiving, so time will tell on that one.
Not to be outdone by their Valley neighbor, Warner Bros. sent their big Oscar hope, A Star is Born, out with a strategy that included a Venice world premiere and a Toronto North American premiere, and both (despite an unplanned intermission in Venice caused by a lightning strike) went through the roof. Like Green Book, it took a trio of standing ovations in Toronto and drew instant Oscar speculation. Its subsequent smash box office and top-of-the-charts soundtrack won’t hurt.