Oscar Race: Martin Scorsese, Denzel Washington, Ben Affleck Aim to Bring Down ‘La La Land’

“Silence,” “Fences,” “Hidden Figures” and “Live By Night” are among the late-screening movies vying for attention as “The Birth of a Nation” and “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” falter

Oscar race
"Silence," "Fences," "Live By Night"

Now that it’s clear the presidential election probably isn’t going to get a true October surprise, should we start waiting for the Oscar race to give us a November or December surprise?

It’s tempting. As films like Nate Parker’s “The Birth of a Nation” and Ang Lee’s “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” seemingly slip out of their former positions at the top of pundits’ prediction lists, and as none of the presumed frontrunners appear invincible, eyes are turning to the handful of big movies waiting in the wings to be unveiled to voters and other interested parties.

And when you consider that those unseen biggies include films by Oscar-winning directors Martin Scorsese and Robert Zemeckis, Oscar-winning producer Ben Affleck and Oscar-winning actor Denzel Washington — well, as usual for this point in awards season, hope springs eternal.

Scorsese’s period drama “Silence,” Washington’s adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway drama “Fences,” Zemeckis’ World War II espionage/love story “Allied” and Affleck’s crime drama “Live by Night” seem particularly suited to be embraced by Oscar voters.

Also on tap: Theodor Melfi’s NASA tale “Hidden Figures,” David Frankel‘s Will Smith vehicle “Collateral Beauty” and Morten Tyldum’s “Passengers,” with Oscar favorite Jennifer Lawrence.

But should we really place much faith in the films that are bringing up the rear? The last Best Picture winner to be unveiled in December was Clint Eastwood‘s “Million Dollar Baby,” in 2004; since then, we’d seen every winner by this point in the Oscar race.

And every year, awards watchers have great expectations for a few November and December releases — but for every “The Wolf of Wall Street” and “American Sniper,” latecomers that click with voters, there are others that don’t. (“Unbroken,” “Into the Woods,” “Joy” … )

So what does that leave us for Best Picture nominees, and more to the point, possible Best Picture winners?

Of the films that have either been released or screened at festivals so far, there’s only one that I think has a chance to actually win: Damien Chazelle‘s “La La Land,” which has the showbiz flair that Oscar audiences love and also the degree-of-difficulty points that worked in favor of “Birdman” two years ago.

Just as Alejandro G. Inarritu shouldn’t have been able to pull off a movie that looked like one uninterrupted take, Damien Chazelle shouldn’t have been able to create a full-fledged original musical (not an adaptation of anything we’ve seen before or loved on stage) and make it magical.

“Manchester by the Sea,” which I absolutely love, is a powerfully dark indie that could rack up critics’ awards the way “Boyhood” did. To say it lacks the dazzle that the Oscar race often rewards doesn’t diminish its potency one iota; it just diminishes the Academy’s reach, and I’d love it if the Academy would prove me wrong. “Arrival,” which I thought was a marvelous brain-bender and a touching human story that happens to include aliens, is sci-fi, a genre that has won Best Picture exactly zero times.

Then there’s the nuanced “Moonlight,” the subtle “Loving,” the arty “Jackie,” the square-jawed “Sully,” the tough-and-timely genre exercise “Hell or High Water,” the terribly sentimental “Lion.” (Is it possible to be too sappy for Oscar voters?)

Several of those will no doubt make it into the Oscar race for Best Picture — and we shouldn’t rule out Warren Beatty‘s “Rules Don’t Apply,” Mike Mills’ “20th Century Women,” maybe even Mel Gibson‘s “Hacksaw Ridge” (but no, not really on that last one). But can they win? I don’t see it happening.

As for the film that once seemed destined to be a frontrunner and a standard-bearer for #OscarsNotSoWhite, “The Birth of a Nation” has suffered a fatal double-whammy. For one thing, the controversy over the rape accusations lodged against director Nate Parker in college 17 years ago preceded most voters’ exposure to his film. “Before we even saw it, they gave us a reason not to vote for it,” said one Oscar member.

And even if Parker had been a choirboy in college, it’s likely he would now be facing a backlash over the liberties he took with the true story of Nat Turner, and over the fact that his movie isn’t nearly as good as “12 Years a Slave,” an Oscar winner only three years ago that covered similar historical ground.

The fall suffered by “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” wasn’t nearly as steep, and the jury’s still out after a mixed reception at the film’s New York Film Festival premiere. Once it starts screening in Los Angeles, which is due to happen the last week of October, it’ll be clearer whether Ang Lee‘s 120-frames-per-second drama can wriggle away from its status as a grand technological experiment to stake out a place in the awards race.

But the film, which once was a consensus choice to be in the Top 5, now seems hard-pressed to crash the Top 10.

At the moment, my personal Top 10 (predictions, not preferences) would be “La La Land,” “Manchester by the Sea,” “Moonlight,” “Lion,” “Loving,” “Arrival,” “Silence,” “Fences,” “Live by Night” and “Hidden Figures,” not in that order. But I haven’t seen the last four films on that list, even if sight unseen I’d be tempted to put two of them (“Silence” and “Fences”) in my Top 3.

As at least one presidential candidate can tell you, it’s risky betting on an October surprise. And it’s probably no smarter betting on a November or December one, however tempting it happens to be this Oscar season.