15 Burning Questions Now That the Film Festivals Are Over

As the festival bubble bursts, who has the inside track in the Oscar race?

Last Updated: September 21, 2015 @ 9:05 AM

Three weeks ago, before the Venice, Telluride and Toronto Film Festivals kicked off, I suggested that readers check back in mid September. “We’ll know a lot more at that point,” I wrote.

So now the fall-festival trifecta is over (though the New York Film Festival starts this week, launching round two). Do we know more?

Yes, sort of. We’ve seen a dozen major contenders for year-end awards premiere by the Venice canals, or in the Colorado mountains, or in downtown Toronto. We’ve gone to galas and industry screenings and parties and whatnot, and we’ve interviewed contenders and pretenders.

We’ve lived for a couple of weeks inside the Festival Bubble, where snap judgments are the coin of the realm and it’s way too easy to let an overheated audience persuade you that a decent movie is great and a good one deserves entry in the cinematic pantheon.

And now we still have more questions than answers as awards season lurches into a higher gear. Here are some questions, and some answers.

1. Who got the biggest festival bounce?
You can start with “Room,” which followed the likes of “The Imitation Game,” “12 Years a Slave,” “The King’s Speech” and “Slumdog Millionaire” to win the audience award in Toronto.

Tom McCarthy’s “Spotlight” was a big hit at the festivals as well. Ridley Scott‘s “The Martian” went into TIFF with people not knowing if it was a popcorn movie or an awards movie — and it turned out to be both, in the vein of Scott’s “Gladiator.”

Danny Boyle‘s “Steve Jobs” won acclaim in Telluride, while “The Danish Girl” star Alicia Vikander, who has a bigger arc in the film than nominal lead Eddie Redmayne, appears to have made the breakthrough that lots of folks have been predicting for her since “A Royal Affair” three years ago (or “Ex Machina” five months ago).

2. Can “Room” maintain its momentum?
Lenny Abrahamson’s dark drama about a woman who’s abducted at the age of 17 and kept imprisoned in a garden shed, where she raises the son fathered by her captor, is not a conventional Oscar movie by any means — but then, neither were “Beasts of the Southern Wild” and “Winter’s Bone,” and they managed Best Picture nominations.

The key thing that festival success in Venice, Telluride and Toronto has done for “Room” is to make it a must-see for conscientious voters who might otherwise have dismissed it as a little indie. That will help the movie make its case — though it may also help star Brie Larson even more, making her a strong acting contender two years after Oscar voters bypassed her acclaimed performance in “Short Term 12.”

3. So when it comes to the Oscar race, is there a leader in the clubhouse?
At this point, the closest thing to a favorite is probably “Spotlight,” the story of the Boston Globe investigative team that uncovered sexual abuse and coverup in the Catholic Church. A tense, impeccable procedural that can stand with “All the President’s Men” as a classic journalism film, the film seems destined to be a strong, solid favorite among awards voters.

But “Spotlight” is also understated in lots of ways, without the fireworks of recent winners like “Birdman,” “12 Years a Slave” or “Argo.” And its studio, Open Road, is in new waters here – the closest thing it has had to an awards movie to date was last year’s “Nightcrawler,” which landed a screenplay nomination last year but was didn’t land nominations for picture or, crucially, for Jake Gyllenhaal‘s performance.

So while I fully expect it to be a major contender all season, it’s a frontrunner mostly by default at this point.

4. Will Eddie Redmayne, Johnny Depp, Bryan Cranston, Tom Hiddleston, Carey Mulligan, Julianne Moore and Cate Blanchett be able to pull their films into contention as well?
In Toronto, Telluride and Venice, reigning Best Actor champ Redmanye won plaudits for “The Danish Girl,” as did Depp for “Black Mass,” Cranston for “Trumbo,” Hiddleston for “I Saw the Light,” Mulligan for “Suffragette,” Moore for “Freeheld” and Blanchett for “Truth.” But reaction was slightly more muted on the films themselves, meaning that several of the films may well have to settle for acting nominations.

Of those, “The Danish Girl” seems the best bet to figure into the Best Picture conversation — it’s the kind of polished, straightforward and emotional moviemaking that Academy members tend to respond to, with an Oscar-certified director, Tom Hooper (“The King’s Speech”), at the helm.

“Black Mass” is more brutal and more problematic. The gangster movie starring Depp as Whitey Bulger had a well-attended official Academy screening on Saturday, after which one member told me that the voters (“particularly the males”) embraced the film, but another called it “an average film at best” and compared it unfavorably to “Mystic River,” “The Departed” and “The Town.”

“Trumbo,” meanwhile, may be entertaining enough to get some attention apart from Cranston’s outsized performance as Dalton Trumbo, and it has the Hollywood connection that voters like.

Apart from Blanchett’s performance, “Truth” could be overshadowed by the other journalism movie, “Spotlight,” while “I Saw the Light,” “Suffragette” and particularly “Freeheld” are more likely to be greeted as acting showcases than as best-pic contenders.

5. Will Cate Blanchett vs. Cate Blanchett be a problem?
The Australian actress and two-time Oscar winner will definitely be in the Best Actress conversation as television producer Mary Mapes in “Truth,” which premiered at TIFF. But she was already a big part of that conversation for her role in Todd Haynes‘ “Carol,” which debuted at Cannes and won raves.

While “Carol” is a two-hander with Blanchett and Rooney Mara, the Weinstein Company has said it will campaign for Blanchett in lead and Mara in supporting, putting her head-to-head with herself. Academy rules say you can only be nominated in a category for one performance, meaning it’s possible that the Blanchett vote could be split, hurting her chances for either performance.

“Truth” might be the role with the bigger, flashier scenes, but “Carol” is the richer, more moving film. Given that the latter film will likely enjoy a more passionate following, and that Harvey Weinstein and crew will be doing the campaigning, Blanchett’s “Truth” performance could be a casualty of bad timing.

6. Did any films fall out of the awards picture at the festivals?
Of the major films to premiere at the fests, Roland Emmerich‘s “Stonewall” may have drawn the most negative reviews, though it wasn’t near the top of most prognosticators’ lists before it screened.

Stephen Frears may be coming off the Oscar nominee “Philomena,” but his Lance Armstrong drama “The Program” didn’t stir up much awards talk. Drake Doremus‘ “Equals,” with Kristen Stewart, went into the festivals as a real longshot, and emerged as more of one. And the British gangster picture “Legend,” with Tom Hardy in a dual role, was sabotaged by putting Hardy’s mumble through the bottom-heavy sound system at TIFF’s Princess of Wales Theatre, though it’s hardly an Oscar movie even in a crystal-clear venue.

The most obvious casualty, though, is “About Ray,” with Elle Fanning as a transsexual teen. The film was originally scheduled to be released this month, but Weinstein pulled it from the 2015 release slate, where it would certainly have been overshadowed in awards talk by the bigger transgender movie, “The Danish Girl.”

7. Like Hillary Clinton and the Republican debates, did anybody come out looking better because they weren’t there?
Yes. The lack of clear favorites definitely helped Pixar’s “Inside Out,” whose quest to become only the third animated Best Picture nominee looks stronger now than it did a month ago.

Ditto Warner Bros.’ “Mad Max: Fury Road,” though some of its heat as an exciting and awards-worthy piece of mainstream filmmaking might have been stolen by “The Martian.”

8. Can Charlie Kaufman infect the Oscars with his brand of weirdness?
Kaufman was an Academy favorite with his inventive scripts for “Adaptation,” “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and “Being John Malkovich.” He was way too weird for the Academy with his first directorial effort, “Synecdoche, New York.” And in Venice he unveiled “Anomalisa,” an odd and surprisingly touching stop-motion animated exploration of loneliness co-directed by Duke Johnson.

The film won strong reviews and landed a distribution deal with Paramount, though it’s still awfully unconventional for most Oscar voters. But Kaufman has an ace in the hole: “Anomalisa” is animated, which means it has a shot of landing in a category what might have room for his wholly unconventional film. (The Writers Branch, which is more adventurous than most, could also find room for him.)

When it’s not giving Oscars to Pixar and Disney, the Best Animated Feature category often finds room to nominate smaller, odder European movies — so there’s no reason why a smaller, odder American movie couldn’t fit in as well.

9. Is Netflix for real?
We’ll see. The streaming service got into the documentary race in recent years with “The Square” and “Virunga,” and they’re definitely in the mix there once again with “Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom.” But they’re also looking to crash the best-picture party this year with Cary Fukanaga’s “Beasts of No Nation,” an adrenalized film about child soldiers in Africa.

For all its brutal brilliance, “Beasts” is such a hard film to watch that some people have completely written off its best-pic chances — but in nomination voting, the Academy’s preferential system rewards movies with a small but passionate following. It’s entirely possible that “Beasts” could attract enough tough-minded partisans to give it a real shot.

But will Hollywood voters feel comfortable rewarding a film that is backed by a streaming service and being released day-and-date in theaters and online? Netflix will no doubt pull out all the stops in an attempt to make them comfortable, but it could be a concern.

10. Will we have controversy over the campaigning for acting awards?
Academy voters in the Actors Branch are told to make their own determination about who belongs in the lead categories and who belongs in supporting, but that doesn’t stop companies from suggesting very strongly where their work should be considers.

Rooney Mara, who won the Best Actress award at Cannes for “Carol,” will be pushed in Best Supporting Actress by Weinstein, and it’s likely that viewers will go along with the suggestion. But A24 and Netflix also have decisions to make about “Room” and “Beasts of No Nation,” respectively.

In the former film, Brie Larson is the lead female role — but eight-year-old Jacob Tremblay is the real lead of the film, and you could justify putting Larson in the supporting category. And in “Beasts,” Idris Elba dominates the screen as a rebel leader, but the story centers on Abraham Attah as the young boy he recruits.

From this perspective, Elba is a clear Best Supporting Actor candidate and Attah a Best Actor longshot, while Tremblay should be campaigned in lead and Larson is a tossup. But she’ll probably face more accusations of category fraud if she’s campaigned in supporting than if she’s put in lead.

11. Can small companies crash the party?
They’re certainly going to try. Sundance Selects will be pushing “45 Years,” a Charlotte Rampling/Tom Courtenay story about aging that should play very well to the Academy. Broad Green plans to campaign for Michael Shannon in “99 Homes,” for Sarah Silverman in “I Smile Back” and for Cliff Curtis in “The Dark Horse,” three eye-catching performances that’ll require the company to work hard to get voters to see them.

Bleecker Street, meanwhile, hopes voters remember Blythe Danner in “I’ll See You in My Dreams” (or pick up the screener, the first to be sent out).

All will have an uphill battle.

12. What’s left to see?
Quite a bit. Robert Zemeckis‘ “The Walk” will open the New York Film Festival at the end of this week, with Joseph Gordon-Levitt in a reportedly dazzling 3D reconstruction of high-wire artist Philippe Petit’s 1974 walk between the World Trade Centers; Steven Spielberg‘s “Bridge of Spies,” with Tom Hanks, will open the AFI Fest in November.

December releases include Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu‘s “The Revenant,” David O. Russell‘s “Joy” and Quentin Tarantino‘s “Hateful Eight,” all of them likely contenders. Peter Landesman‘s “Concussion,” with Will Smith in the timely story of brain injuries in the National Football League, will be out in December as well.

So it might be a good thing that the current crop of films leaves a lot of room for latecomers.

13. Can anybody come out of the blue?
Could a foreign-language film land a nomination, the way “Amour” did? If so, Laszlo Nemes’ daring Holocaust movie “Son of Saul” is the likeliest contender.

Could a documentary make it, the way no doc ever has? That’s unlikely, with none of this year’s docs seemingly galvanizing enough to attract enough voters. (Michael Moore‘s “Where To Invade Next” was a crowd-pleaser in Toronto, but it’s still looking for a distribution deal.)

14. So what are the likeliest Best Picture nominees at this point?
From the recent festivals, in roughly this order of likelihood: “Spotlight,” “Steve Jobs,” “The Danish Girl,” “Room,” “The Martian,” “Beasts of No Nation,” “Trumbo,” “Black Mass.”

From earlier in the year: “Carol,” “Inside Out,” “Brooklyn,” “Sicario,” “45 Years,” “Straight Outta Compton,” “Love and Mercy,” “Mad Max: Fury Road.”

Sight unseen: “The Revenant,” “Joy,” “The Hateful Eight,” “Bridge of Spies,” “Creed,” “Concussion,” “Star Wars: Episode 7,” “The 33,” “The Walk.”

15. But have we seen the Best Picture winner yet?
I don’t think so.