The look of this year's Oscar race will be largely determined during a six-week period that begins this Wednesday with the opening of the Venice Film Festival and ends on Oct. 13, the closing night of the New York Film Festival. By that time, the Telluride and Toronto film festivals will also have come and gone.
During that short window, dozens of Oscar hopefuls all will be clamoring for the attention of voters, media — and, oh yeah, audiences.
To borrow some imagery from one of those hopefuls, Ron Howard's auto-racing movie "Rush" (photo at top), which has its international premiere in Toronto, they'll take an awards season that has been in low gear and stomp on the accelerator.
Until now, the biggest awards-season questions have been whether movies like Ryan Coogler's "Fruitvale Station," Woody Allen's "Blue Jasmine," Richard Linklater's "Before Midnight" and the year's two top-grossing indies, "Mud" and "The Place Beyond the Pines," can make it into the Oscar race.
But those aren't the real hot topics. In the short stretch of film festivals we'll get a good idea if the Cannes raves for the Coen brothers' folk-music movie "Inside Llewyn Davis" (above), Alexander Payne's black-and-white road trip "Nebraska" and J.C. Chandor's man-against-the-elements drama "All Is Lost" will mean anything to stateside voters.
Also read: 20 Movies We're Dying to See This Fall
It's also when we'll get our first look at Alfonso Cuaron's "Gravity," which could be the rare sci-fi film to appeal to voters. And the adaptation of the Broadway hit "August: Osage County," an acting showcase for Julia Roberts and Meryl Streep. And Paul Greengrass' "Captain Phillips," with Tom Hanks as the real-life captain of a ship taken over by Somalian pirates.
That's just the tip of the iceberg. Venice, the most Euro-centric of the three festivals and the one with the least bearing on awards season, will showcase not only its opening-night film, "Gravity," but Stephen Frears' "Philomena," said to feature a wrenching performance from Judi Dench (right); Jonathan Glazer's "Under the Skin," with Scarlett Johansson as an alien; and Peter Landesman's "Parkland," set in the hospital that treated John F. Kennedy the day he was shot.
Telluride, which opens on Friday, is the shortest of the festivals, a four-day blitz of … well, we don't know yet what it will include, because the Colorado fest doesn't announce its lineup until the day before it begins. Rumors abound, though. ("Llewyn Davis," "Nebraska" and "All Is Lost" seem likely, "Gravity" doesn't.)
Toronto will launch on Sept. 5, four days after Telluride ends; it's by far the biggest of the major fall fests, with nearly 300 features crammed into 11 days and a streak that has found TIFF showing the last six Best Picture winners and all five of last year's Best Foreign Language Film nominees.
TIFF will provide make-or-break moments for Howard's "Rush," Steve McQueen's "12 Years a Slave" (left), Bill Condon's WikiLeaks movie "The Fifth Estate," Jason Reitman's "Labor Day," Jean-Marc Vallee's "Dallas Buyers Club," Jonathan Teplitzky's "The Railway Man," the last movies of both James Gandolfini ("Enough Said") and Cory Monteith ("All the Wrong Reasons" and "McCanick"), and a huge contingent of both documentaries and foreign-language films likely to be in the thick of awards season.
Those festivals certainly won't give us the whole awards picture: Even after NYFF wraps, we'll still be waiting to see Martin Scorsese's "The Wolf of Wall Street," John Lee Hancock's "Saving Mr. Banks," David O. Russell's "American Hustle," George Clooney's "The Monuments Men," Peter Berg's "Lone Survivor" and several others. (That is, unless one of the festivals makes a last-minute addition; New York, at least, is due for another more high-profile announcement.)
Then, once the festivals play out, the real jockeying, campaigning and prognosticating will begin.
I know it's impossible to claim any kind of authority until you've seen most of the contenders, but I did offer guesses to both the Gurus o' Gold chart at Movie City News and the GoldDerby.com panel of experts.
For the Gurus o' Gold, I was asked to identify but not rank 15 likely Best Picture contenders; I went with (in alphabetical order) "American Hustle" (right), "August: Osage County," "Captain Phillips," "Fruitvale Station," "Gravity," "Inside Llewyn Davis," "Labor Day," "Lee Daniels' The Butler," "The Monuments Men," "Nebraska," "Rush," "Saving Mr. Banks," "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," "12 Years a Slave" and "The Wolf of Wall Street."
But there's no question that some the films I haven't seen on that list — which includes everything except "Fruitvale Station" and "The Butler" — will prove to be disappointments and won't figure in the awards race. And they'll be replaced by some of the ones I left off: "All Is Lost," "The Book Thief," "The Fifth Estate," "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom," "Mud," "The Dallas Buyers Club," "Blue Jasmine" or a couple that aren't even on my radar yet.
The GoldDerby.com website asked me to narrow the list down to 10 and rank them, which is a fool's errand with so much left unseen. But this fool waded in and put "American Hustle" atop the list, figuring that David O. Russell has been on such a roll lately and has assembled such a powerhouse cast — Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner, Robert De Niro — that it could finally be time to give him the big prize.
But let's face it, the tone of "American Hustle" — inspired by the ABSCAM sting operation that snared corrupt congressmen in the early ’70s — is a tricky mixture of drama and comedy (just look at those clothes), and we won't know if Russell has nailed it one more time until we see the movie.
And with the example of the last two Best Picture winners, "Argo" and "The Artist," it might be safer to look for something uplifting and about Hollywood.
That would favor "Saving Mr. Banks" (left), in which Tom Hanks plays Walt Disney and Emma Thompson stars as author P.L. Travers, who clashed with Disney when his studio was turning her book "Mary Poppins" into a movie.
I have "Saving Mr. Banks" in the No. 2 spot on my GoldDerby list, followed by "The Wolf of Wall Street," "August: Osage County," "The Monuments Men," "Inside Llewyn Davis," "Captain Phillips," "Lee Daniels' The Butler," "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" and "Rush." And it was very hard to leave "Nebraska, "Fruitvale Station," "12 Years a Slave," "Gravity" and "Labor Day" off that list — although in the case of most of those films, it may have been hard mostly because I'm optimistic that they'll be good.
But then, optimism is a good state of mind going into the fall festivals — because before you know it, reality is going to intrude and the awards race is going to look dramatically different.
Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines.