Oscar Race Begins: Fall Festivals Bring Moment of Truth for ‘Joker,’ ‘Jojo Rabbit’ and Many More

Fall Movie Preview: Dozens of awards contenders, including Joaquin Phoenix, Tom Hanks and Renee Zellweger, are soon to live or die on the canals of Venice, the mountains of Telluride and the streets of Toronto

fall movie festival preview

Three weeks from now, a bunch of these people will be in the thick of the 2019 Oscar race: Joaquin Phoenix, Meryl Streep, Jamie Foxx, Tom Hanks, Eddie Murphy, Renée Zellweger, Cynthia Erivo, Adam Driver, Matt Damon, Kristen Stewart, Steven Soderbergh, Noah Baumbach and Taika Waititi.

And at least a few of them will probably have been quietly ushered out of the Oscar race.

As always, the fall film festivals will bring the first big moment of truth for dozens of awards contenders and wannabes, this year including “Joker,” “The Laundromat,” “Just Mercy,” “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” “Dolemite Is My Name,” “Judy,” “Harriet,” “Marriage Story,” “Ford v Ferrari,” “Seberg,” “Jojo Rabbit” and many more.

The festivals in Venice, Telluride and Toronto annually turn into a launching pad for some awards movies and a junkyard for others. Last year, for instance, “Roma,” “A Star Is Born,” “The Favourite” and the sleeper “Green Book” came out of the early festivals looking like the true awards contenders they were; “First Man” played well at the festivals before fading during the rest of the season; and “Widows,” “Outlaw King,” “Suspiria,” “22 July,” “The Front Runner” and “The Old Man & the Gun” never really got off the ground.

It’s safe to say that the majority of this year’s Best Picture nominees will premiere either at the Venice International Film Festival, which begins on Wednesday and runs until Sept. 7; the Telluride Film Festival, which will screen a couple dozen carefully curated contenders over three days beginning on Friday; the Toronto International Film Festival, which will showcase hundreds of films over 11 days beginning on Sept. 5; and the New York Film Festival, which arrives in late September as the last of the major fall festivals that shape the face of awards season.

The oldest of these festivals, Venice, also comes first. At points in its history you could have added “and the classiest,” though that festival’s decision to feature only two female directors in its main competition, and to premiere new films from problematic auteurs Roman Polanski and Nate Parker, has taken away a considerable amount of its luster.

But Venice will provide the world premiere for Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story,” which stars Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson as a couple going through a divorce, and which will be the only film to be booked in Venice, Telluride, Toronto and New York. (Netflix, which is releasing the film and looks to be a major awards player for the second year in a row, used the same strategy last year for “Roma.”)

The festival will also launch Todd Phillips’ “Joker,” which has Joaquin Phoenix in the title role and will test the ability of another comic-book movie to become a true awards contender the way “Black Panther” did last year. (It looks dirtier and darker.)

Other Venice titles will include Steven Soderbergh’s Panama Papers drama “The Laundromat,” with Meryl Streep; James Gray’s sci-fi film with Brad Pitt, “Ad Astra”; Japanese auteur Hirokazu Kore-eda’s French-language debut, “The Truth,” with Catherine Deneuve and Juliette Binoche; and Benedict Andrews’ “Seberg,” starring Kristen Stewart as troubled actress Jean Seberg.

Throw in new films from Pablo Larrain (“Ema”), Olivier Assayas (“Wasp Network”), David Michod (“The King”) and Paolo Sorrentino (“The New Pope”), a handful of documentaries — including Alex Gibney’s “Citizen K” and Lauren Greenfield’s Imelda Marcos doc “The Kingmaker,” the only nonfiction film playing Venice, Telluride and Toronto — and the Lido should be jumping. And that’s before you factor in the no-doubt divisive debuts of Polanski’s “An Officer and a Spy” and Parker’s politically charged “American Skin.”

Two days after Venice begins, though, Oscar-watchers will also have to begin simultaneously keeping track of what’s happening in the mountains of Colorado. Telluride won’t announce its full lineup until the day before the festival begins, but it’s not hard to figure out that it will include the world premieres of James Mangold’s hotly-touted auto-racing drama “Ford v Ferrari”; Rupert Goold’s “Judy,” with Renée Zellweger as Judy Garland in the twilight of her career; Edward Norton’s “Motherless Brooklyn,” in which the actor-director co-stars with Willem Dafoe and Alec Baldwin; Tom Harper’s “The Aeronauts,” a period piece reuniting the “Theory of Everything” team of Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones; and a pair of films from indie icons Kelly Reichardt (“First Cow”) and the Safdie brothers (“Uncut Gems,” with Adam Sandler).

Telluride will likely also play host to several films from Venice, and to a handful that premiered earlier in the year in Cannes, Berlin and Sundance, including the serious awards contenders “Pain and Glory” from Pedro Almodóvar and “Parasite” from Bong Joon Ho.

Toronto, which launches a few days after Telluride ends but while Venice is still going on, has room for almost all of the big films from Venice and Telluride and Cannes, plus dozens more. By far the biggest and most expansive of the fall festivals, it also has room for a hefty group of world premieres, including “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” director Marielle Heller’s “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” which stars Tom Hanks as Mr. Rogers and will try to break that actor’s surprising streak of 19 years without an Oscar nomination.

Also debuting at TIFF: John Crowley’s adaptation of “The Goldfinch,” with Ansel Elgort, Nicole Kidman and Sarah Paulson; Kasi Lemmons’ “Harriet,” starring Cynthia Erivo as slave-turned-abolitionist Harriet Tubman; Destin Daniel Cretton’s “Just Mercy,” with Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx in the story of an attorney trying to free a man falsely convicted of murder; Armando Iannucci’s no-doubt twisted take on Charles Dickens, “The Personal History of David Copperfield”; and Taika Waititi’s dark, satiric and transgressive comedy “Jojo Rabbit,” about a young boy in World War II Germany whose imaginary friend is no less than Adolf Hitler.

Other potential contenders include Cory Finley’s “Bad Education,” Craig Brewer’s “Dolemite Is My Name,” Rian Johnson’s “Knives Out,” Noah Hawley’s “Lucy in the Sky” … and, well, dozens of others that will be unveiled over one very crowded week and a half.

Plus Cannes films like “A Hidden Life” and “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” will get a chance to see if they have staying power in the awards conversation, and Sundance debuts like Scott Z. Burns’ “The Report” and Chinoye Chukwu’s “Clemency” will try to remind viewers (and voters) that they’re still around.

After the one-two-three punch of Venice, Telluride and Toronto, the New York Film Festival begins Sept. 27 after a 12-day break in festival-going. NYFF has three prime slots that often go to world premieres, though this year its opening-night film is the only one that’s a true premiere — the centerpiece gala is “Marriage Story” and closing night is “Motherless Brooklyn.”

But the festival’s one world premiere is a big one: Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman,” perhaps the single most eagerly awaited film of the season. With an iconic director, a cast of heavyweights (Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci) and a subject (organized crime) that often brings out the best in Scorsese, it’s Netflix’s chance to win the big one without the baggage of having to do it with a black-and-white foreign-language film like last year’s “Roma.” (Of course, Netflix itself remains a divisive presence to some awards voters, though they’re likely far outnumbered by people in Hollywood who want to work for the company.)

When NYFF ends in mid October, awards season will have a batch of front-runners and another group of also-rans — but that doesn’t mean that a few post-festival premieres can’t still crash this year’s truncated Oscar season. Greta Gerwig’s “Little Women,” Sam Mendes’ “1917” and Jay Roach’s “Bombshell” are among the films likely to surface after the fall fests — as is, gulp, Tom Hooper’s “Cats,” whose trailer didn’t exactly make a case for its best-pic credentials but did suggest makeup and VFX clout.

Sight unseen, the biggest contenders at this point might seem to be “The Irishman,” “Just Mercy,” “Marriage Story,” “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” “Ford v Ferrari” and “Jojo Rabbit” to go along with Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” and maybe “The Farewell” — but sight unseen is a dangerous phrase to use in late August.

So let’s check back in September, when we can survey the messy festival aftermath with a touch more clarity.