September 21, 2017 at 09:03 AM EDT

Oscar chatter is toothless until the flurry of September film festivals: Venice, Telluride, and — last, but certainly not least — Toronto, where nine of the last 10 Best Picture winners have screened. All three festivals have certainly given us some players to watch for the Academy Awards next March, but — keeping with a 2017 theme — things are still a bit murkier than in previous years. Some Sundance darlings found new supporters, recently buoyed Telluride favorites continued to charm, and at least one still-up-for-grabs film could reshuffle the entire deck. Below are the people and films that gained the most momentum and where the race stands right now.


Fox Searchlight

If there’s a thread to weave through this year’s contenders, it’s the power of words. In the right hands (or, in this case, throat), like Winston Churchill’s, they can rouse and stir a nation on the brink of surrender. Much of the swooning over Joe Wright s Darkest Hour is rightly due to the astonishing disappearing act Gary Oldman pulls off. But don’t count out the film itself — elegant, smart, and oh-so-classy. Words can also shame, wound, and provoke, as they do in the pitch-black dramedy Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, which won the prestigious audience award at the Toronto Film Festival — joining past Oscar faves such as 12 Years a Slave and Slumdog Millionaire on the list of Toronto-approved releases. As wickedly sharp as writer-director Martin McDonagh’s dialogue is, it might just move you to tears, too. Speaking of provoking: Taunting and goading become a catalyst for something much bigger in Battle of the Sexes — about the famous 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) — which had audiences cheering. When it comes to pure enchantment, though, The Shape of Water uses almost no words at all. Its heroine (Sally Hawkins) is a mute cleaning woman who finds a soulmate in a government-imprisoned sea creature. Guillermo del Toro’s drama arrived in Toronto days after winning Venice’s top award, the Golden Lion, and features the kind of luscious palette and romantic shimmer that will make it hard to resist. Perhaps the most talked-about — and disagreed-upon — film was Darren Aronofsky’s headscratcher mother! (which has spawned a dreaded new breed, mother-splainers). Also in the mix: Greta Gerwig’s impeccable directorial debut, Lady Bird, Sean Baker’s gorgeous The Florida Project, and Sundance favorites Mudbound and Call Me by Your Name, the latter of which continues to make festivalgoers weep and then Google Italian real estate.


Jack English/Focus Features

Can anyone beat Gary Oldman this year? The revered British actor has only one previous nod (2011’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), and his mind-boggling embodiment of Winston Churchill during his tenuous first month as prime minister in Darkest Hour is the kind of thing that Oscar voters love to reward (see: Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln, Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady). Still, he’s got serious competition. Jake Gyllenhaal, continually underappreciated by the Academy, transforms into real-life reluctant hero Jeff Bauman, a victim of the 2013 Boston bombing, in David Gordon Green’s Stronger. He’s joined by familiar faces from last year’s race: Andrew Garfield, portraying medical advocate Robin Cavendish in Breathe, and Denzel Washington in Roman J. Israel, Esq. The dark-horse slot could go to James Franco in The Disaster Artist, a film that festival attendees have been going nutso over since SXSW, and if the powers-that-be wisely decide to put Timothée Chalamet in the lead category for Call Me by Your Name, or Jamie Bell from Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool. Scott Cooper’s sweeping Western epic Hostiles has an instant-classic Christian Bale performance, but at press time the film did not have a distributor. (And do not forget: we have yet to see what Daniel Day Lewis has up his sleeve in Paul Thomas Anderson’s still-untitled film, or if Tom Hanks in Steven Spielberg’s The Post will make us stop the presses.)


Courtesy of TIFF

Hallelujah! We’ve finally gotten a year rich with wonder-woman performances. Martin McDonagh wrote the part of grieving protagonist and pissed-off mother Mildred for Frances McDormand in Three Billboards, and it highlights every one of her considerable strengths. Zooming into another top spot is Sally Hawkins, who manages to say so much despite barely uttering a word in The Shape of Water. Jessica Chastain rips through Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut, Molly’s Game, with abandon in one of her best roles to date. Then there’s Annette Bening, who — let’s face it — should have been in the hunt last year for 20th Century Women but now has a juicy role as Gloria Grahame in Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool. Previous winners could find themselves back in the mix — Emma Stone, with her sweet and steely portrayal of tennis pro Billie Jean King, and Judi Dench as Queen Victoria in Victoria & Abdul. Will that leave room for voters to reward Saoirse Ronan’s achingly empathetic teen in Lady Bird or Jennifer Lawrence’s impressive journey into darkness in mother!? (And per tradition, save a slot for Meryl Streep, who plays Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham in The Post.)

Next time: We’ll tackle the supporting categories because oooh boy, supporting actor is going to be beloved character actor vs. beloved character actor as far as the eye can see.

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