The Toronto International Film Festival ended this weekend, which means we officially have just enough players on the table to start covering the Oscar season, which is still a league away from starting. Of the films in the running, only one has been seen by the general public, but its state as an Oscar force is one that it’s refreshingly stumbled upon due to the enthusiasm and acclaim following its release. Perhaps more invested Oscar bloggers caught on to the buzz drifting off Boyhood months in advance. For my part, the Oscars are an interesting, often cynical, but not altogether loathsome game. They’ve rarely held me in their rapture, but when it comes to playing, I can’t help but get caught up in sticking up for my favorites.
Take last year, when the race was chiefly between two incredibly formidable giants, admittedly both ones that were wearing intimate clothes. 12 Years a Slave won in the end, and though I can’t help but gag a bit at the choices of Academy voters who voted for it based on its subject matter, without having even seen it, it’s a fairly extraordinary film nonetheless. It would’ve made my Top 25 of 2013 if it weren’t for the frustrating momentum of the season turning me off it. All the same, nothing shook me from clinging onto Gravity for dear life, as it remains a film worth marveling at on an aesthetic and emotional level. It was a tough choice for Academy voters, and it kept us mostly tense throughout an otherwise expected ceremony.
I can’t imagine having the same reaction to this Oscar season, but mostly because I can’t entirely imagine what it will be like this early. Each year I take a stab at managing the overarching themes of the year, and I wasn’t far off in pegging last year as a more somber one. There were few notes of cheerful triumph akin to Argo or The Artist last year, but it doesn’t seem like this is a year for the Academy to stay miserable. On the contrary, this season’s pegged itself early on as being a more celebratory, even self-congratulatory one.
This is coming not long after the 20-year anniversary re-release of Forrest Gump, a film that’s always read as a particular softball from the Academy, but one that made them feel nice and gooey all over, perhaps without noticing the film’s overt manipulation of them. Watching the trailer for Unbroken, meanwhile, I couldn’t help but get a similar sense of self-nurturing, particularly given the film’s subject Louis Zamperini‘s recent passing. It’s an inspiring story, with very little complicating matters besides Zamperini‘s jumping from one indomitable situation to the next. Even as I see the writing on the wall for an easy Academy sell, I’m not totally opposed to it, either, given Jack O’Connell’s rapidly rising star following his visceral work in Starred Up and another showcase in NYFF showcased thriller ’71.
Zamperini’s isn’t the only biopic on the beat, and that genre is certainly ideal bait for feel-good attitudes from the Academy. Stephen Hawking and Alan Turing are both getting the by-the-numbers biopic treatment with The Theory of Everything and The Imitation Game, respectively. With so many similar feeling films in the game, I wonder whether they’ll cancel each other out to some degree. There’s much more enthusiasm and interest in The Imitation Game, which has a more urgent narrative thrust behind it, and aligns it closer to Unbroken. I imagine it’ll be easy for The Theory of Everything to fall away as the more idle feature, yet it’ll almost certainly be a presence in acting categories with Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones.
Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner is also in the biopic vein, though we can expect Leigh to commit himself less stringently to formula in his portrait of the man behind a number of stunning, well, portraits. It’s cinematic ground that may just be the ticket for Leigh’s first major field nomination. He’s likely to make it into the screenplay race regardless, given his past record with the Academy. That said, what’s works for the Academy and what works for critics at large isn’t the same, and I’m already sensing some hesitation about Leigh heading into a subgenre more predictable than his humanist brand of storytelling usually goes.
If not the story of whole lives, Foxcatcher and Selma seek to etch out a spot for socially relevant true stories. Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher stirred up excitement at Cannes, then Telluride, then Toronto, all still weeks before it November bow. The dispersal of time between publicity stops is wise, particularly given Miller’s film is set to be one of the few bitter pills of this season. Ava Duverny’s Selma doesn’t have that opportunity, landing on Christmas Day amidst a massive load of opposing properties. What leads studios to believe this is an ideal timeframe to debut films escapes me, especially given every Best Picture winner for the entire past decade has premiered before December. Selma has the advantage of that aforementioned social relevance, tales of civil rights struggles being a lightning rod for them.
Because they’re perhaps not quite as representative of social movements, it’s easier to see Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper and Tim Burton’s Big Eyes falling away, though both are intriguing enough prospects based on their handling of subjects not dissimilar to issues playing out this year. American Sniper is arriving at the height of a period of needless gun violence in this country, and Big Eyes is arriving while woman’s rights issues are rising to the surface again. Perhaps the films better exist to bring their lead stars, Bradley Cooper and Amy Adams, into the lead performance races. Cooper’s facing a year that’s just as competitive as usual. Adams, less so, which is more due to the Academy’s neglect for certain types of performances than it is to lack of stunning lead women this year (Scarlett Johansson, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stacy Martin, Luminita Gheorghiu, Keira Knightley, the list goes on).
Assuming that this year doesn’t break the mold of the Best Picture winner being seen before December, then three films are in particularly fine position. Both Birdman and Gone Girl premiere in October, with plenty of room to hold the conversation for the following five months. The former is wedged in a comfy zone of Hollywood self-reference to hit at a similar feeling of self-congratulation as Argo, though it’s clear even from promos that Inarritu is laughing at Hollywood more than it is cheering it on. The film comes at a time when superhero fatigue is starting to set in, and the implosion Steven Spielberg foretold is beginning to become a reality. A focus on where human beings fall in that collapse is much needed.
It’s tougher to pin Gone Girl in the zeitgeist, but gender roles and the fluidity of them seems to be a theme many are clinging to in advance. It’s difficult to tell exactly what it will be, so it’s hard to pin how it will go down. David Fincher’s last crime mystery, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, didn’t connect with the Academy much beyond its editing, which is arguably among its choppiest qualities, but this looks closer to The Social Network in how it plays on the mass media era. It’ll either be too thrilling to put down, or will remain in the season by the hooks of its technical properties.
Perhaps the most promising stealth warrior of the season could be Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. Though last year’s Gravity wasn’t quite science fiction, it rode that narrative of proving that a “sci-fi” film could win Best Picture, only aside from the fact that it didn’t. It’s the combination of visual ambition and a strong human element that sold that film’s proposition. Nolan’s latest could ride a similar line of technical dazzle forwarding an emotional and existential story. Even more of a mystery at this time is Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice, though a NYFF bow in nearly two weeks will clear up whether it’s a real player or just another run-of-the-mill masterpiece like The Master, bound to be overlooked by the Academy. Few films this season feel so close, yet still so far away.
When it comes to sure things, however, there so far seems to be very little argument in Boyhood‘s place on final ballot, which would’ve been a shock to hear even coming out of its enthusiastic Sundance bow. So far this year, though, there’s simply nothing that’s tapped into viewers’ hearts and nostalgia like Richard Linklater’s latest. It’s a practical way into the season for a film that’s primary selling point, and arguably a major reason why it works, is its impracticality. Were it backed by a more popular distributor like Fox Searchlight or Sony Picture Classics, it’d be hard to imagine it not being a major presence in the season, but so far IFC Films has shown there willing to go all the way with their awards campaign on this one. Could this be the first Best Picture winner released by the indie distributor?
That would be getting further ahead of ourselves than is likely healthy at this point. There’s much room for surprises to ring out – Fury, A Most Violent Year and Still Alice could yet wedge their way into the season – and cynicism to remedied – or perhaps just ravenously fed, given how nasty the politics of awards season can become. Throughout this whole mess of major league back-patting, let’s try to let the films lead the conversation, not the other way around.
Best Picture Predictions (9-17-2014)
- Gone Girl
- The Imitation Game
- Inherent Vice
Potential Players: American Sniper, Big Eyes, Fury, Into the Woods, Mr. Turner, A Most Violent Year, Still Alice, The Theory of Everything