Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve got ourselves an Oscar race. Following a sleepy summer of disappointments, fall got off to an early start thanks to film festivals in Venice, Telluride, and Toronto. And if this year’s Toronto International Film Festival taught us anything, it’s that awards season will be loaded with interesting films, diverse casts, and unlikely genres.
And that’s all before taking into account some crucial films that will unspool later this year: Denzel Washington’s adaptation of the stage play Fences; Ang Lee’s war drama Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk; the historical drama Hidden Figures, starring Taraji Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae as three mathematicians that helped put the first man into space (it’s still slated for a January wide release); Mike Mills’ drama Twentieth Century Women starring Elle Fanning and Annette Bening, which hits the New York Film Festival along with Billy Lynn later this month; and Warren Beatty’s new film Rules Don’t Apply, which will launch this year’s AFI Fest on Nov. 10 before its theatrical debut on Nov. 23.
But where does the Oscar race stand now, as Toronto winds down to a close? It’s never too early to start speculating…
Just like it was in Venice and Telluride, La La Land was the big hit at Toronto. Damien Chazelle’s delightful Los Angeles-set musical starring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling melted even the coldest of hearts at the Canadian fest. The movie is destined to become not just a major box office hit but a shoo-in for the Oscar race. As Tom Hanks said in Telluride, “It’s something brand new that you can’t imagine.” And it does that magical thing of appealing to virtually everyone. It’s the favorite, and with momentum.
But being the frontrunner this early in the season not always advantageous. That means there may be room for films as diverse as Jeff Nichols’ Loving, a beautiful, soulful drama about Richard and Mildred Loving and their quest to overturn the law federal law banning interracial marriage; Moonlight, a brilliantly told coming-of-age drama featuring fantastic performances and astounding direction; or even A Monster Calls, a soulful allegory on grief using fantasy to handle the reality of a dying mother. Others jockeying for love will include Manchester by the Sea, also a meditation on grief, one that’s been in the spotlight since director Kenneth Lonergan debuted it at Sundance in January; Denis Villeneuve’s sci-fi drama Arrival, starring Amy Adams as a dedicated linguist coping with loss; Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals nabbed the Golden Lion at the Venice fest but there were complaints at Toronto that the Amy Adams-Jake Gyllenhaal starrer is misogynistic and too divisive for Oscar voters; and then there’s Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation. The former belle of the Oscar ball took a huge step out of the race last week after Parker, whose 2001 rape trial has resurfaced since Sundance, participated in a disastrous press conference at Toronto, which included the director and star dodging a question about why he hasn’t apologized to the alleged victim and her family. (The woman died by suicide in 2012.)
It looks like best director category will be filled by a group of men, again. What’s interesting, however, is that most of them will likely be independent film directors who make very personal films, based primarily on things they write themselves. Again, I think Chazelle will likely take home the big prize, but Lonergan (Manchester by the Sea), Nichols (Loving), and Barry Jenkins (Moonlight) could give him some competition.
As for the fifth slot, perhaps it will go to Ang Lee, Denzel Washington, Juan Antonio Bayona (A Monster Calls) or Pablo Larrain (Jackie)? Or maybe old dogs Warren Beatty and Mel Gibson (should Hollywood be willing to forgive him for past sins) will nab the final position.
There is no shortage of great female roles this year. Fox Searchlight quickly scooped up Jackie out of Toronto in a move that suggests its going to give full marketing support to the Natalie Portman best actress campaign. Her biggest competition will come from Emma Stone, who grabbed the best actress prize out of Venice, and Loving star Ruth Negga, who’s portrayal of Mildred Loving is deeply moving while never being over-the-top.
Possible additions to this crop of fine actresses could come from any number of places. Amy Adams may get in for her role as the determined bereft linguist in Arrival. Isabelle Huppert astounded audiences in Paul Verhoeven’s revenge thriller Elle. Yet to be seen is Viola Davis adapting her stage role in Fences to the screen. (It’s not clear whether her role will land in the supporting or lead category.) And don’t count out previous Oscar nominee Taraji P. Henson. Her role as real-life mathematician Katherine Johnson in Hidden Figures is already receiving a lot of praise and we have yet to see the entire movie. It’s a strong group any way you slice it.
Casey Affleck has been the talk of the town for his role in Manchester By the Sea since Sundance. He’s still top of the charts but now he’s got some competition nipping at his heels. Primarily from Joel Edgerton as the quiet, devoted husband in Loving and Jake Gyllenhaal for his theatrical performance as a man struggling to be the hero of his own narrative in Nocturnal Animals. Others that could bring additional competition to the category are Denzel Washington for his yet-to-be-seen performance in Fences, Michael Keaton for his role in The Founder, and Dev Patel for Lion, which was an emotional hit at Toronto. Also, never count out Tom Hanks, who is currently leading the box office with his performance as Sully Sullenberger in the Clint Eastwood-directed film about the pilot’s heroic landing on the Hudson.
Best Supporting Actress
Naomie Harris astounded the audience in Toronto when she told them she only worked three days on her devastating performance as Paula, the crack-addicted mother to the film’s central character Chiron in Moonlight. Oscar voters are sure to be as moved by her as the Toronto audiences were. Her competition will come from Michelle Williams equally heart-wrenching performance as Casey Affleck’s ex-wife in Manchester. Confounding the category could be Davis in Fences along with Felicity Jones, who plays the cancer-stricken mother in A Monster Calls and Aja Naomi King for portrayal of the brutalized and brave Cherry Turner in The Birth of a Nation.
Best Supporting Actor
Michael Shannon practically leaps off the screen in his role as small-town detective Bobby Andes in Tom Ford’s beautiful and bonkers film Nocturnal Animals. But he’s not the only one in competition here. Lucas Hedges brings a maturity and subtlety to his role as Patrick in Manchester By the Sea while Mahershala Ali plays the kind-hearted drug dealer in Moonlight with undeniable gravitas. Filling out the category are a number of options: Ben Foster in Hell or High Water, possibly Steve Martin in Ang Lee’s upcoming drama or perhaps Stephen Henderson in Fences, among them.
It’s early days folks and much will change between now and next February. Check back in as we do our best to read the tea leaves of this year’s Oscar race.