The Oscar Race After the Festivals Has Hitler and the Joker, But No Front-Runner

The Venice, Telluride and Toronto festivals left us with a lot of contenders, but a very blurry awards picture

jojo rabbit joker
Fox Searchlight; Warner Bros.

The first round of fall festivals has concluded, and here’s where the Oscars race stands:

• Adam Sandler and Jennifer Lopez are actual awards contenders.

• A movie about a comic-book character won the jury prize from one of the most prestigious international film festivals.

• A comedy about Nazis featuring a lovably goofy Adolf Hitler won an audience award that is supposed to lead to an automatic Best Picture nomination.

• And there is no Best Picture front-runner, unless you want to count the July release that has gotten flak for making fun of Bruce Lee and incorporating the Manson family into a Hollywood story.

Welcome to awards season 2019, where the Venice, Telluride and Toronto film festivals didn’t crystallize this year’s awards forecast, where Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” remains the closest thing to an Oscar favorite and where Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman” looms large as its Sept. 27 New York Film Festival premiere approaches.

In other words, the fall festivals left us with a very blurry awards picture. Take the two big winners at Venice and Toronto. In Venice, a jury of international auteurs gave the top prize to Todd Phillips’ “Joker,” a pitch-black, “Taxi Driver”-style spin on the DC comics character. Joaquin Phoenix’s fearsome performance in the title role makes him a clear Best Actor contender, but the film itself is a grueling sit that may well scare off some awards voters.

In Toronto a week later, Taika Waititi’s “Jojo Rabbit” won the Grolsch People’s Choice Award, a prize whose winner has gone on to receive a Best Picture nomination 10 times in the last 11 years, and has won four of those times (including for “Green Book” last year). But it’s harder to joke about Nazis now than it might have been back when Mel Brooks made “The Producers,” and “Jojo Rabbit” — which TheWrap liked quite a bit — divided the critics and will probably do the same with Academy members.

That’s not to say that “Joker” and “Jojo Rabbit” won’t be in the awards race, just that their positions may not be as secure as the festival buzz suggests.

So what else came out of the fests in good position? Marielle Heller’s “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” with Tom Hanks as Mister Rogers, is in the mix for sure. Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story,” the runner-up in Toronto, is a solid contender, as is a fellow Netflix title, Fernando Meirelles’ unexpectedly entertaining “The Two Popes,” with Anthony Hopkins as the now-retired Pope Benedict and Jonathan Pryce as his successor, Pope Francis.

James Mangold’s auto-racing saga “Ford v Ferrari” is a high-octane character study that seems to be a solid contender, though you would have said the same thing about “First Man” at this point last year. Destin Daniel Cretton’s “Just Mercy” packs an emotional punch and could have a shot. Trey Edwards Shults’ “Waves” and the Safdie brothers’ “Uncut Gems” wowed critics and adventurous viewers but have some work to do to win over Oscar voters.

“Uncut Gems,” though, could conceivably make noise in the Best Actor race if voters decide to take Adam Sandler seriously. He carries the bold and bracing film just as Jennifer Lopez carries the more commercial “Hustlers,” and both of them need voters to step outside their comfort zone to recognize these performances. You could say the same about Eddie Murphy’s outrageous turn in “Dolemite Is My Name.”

But the festivals also provided lots of awards-worthy performances that are in voters’ comfort zones, among them Renee Zellweger in “Judy,” Hanks in “Beautiful Day,” Pryce and Hopkins in “The Two Popes,” Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson in “Marriage Story,” Matt Damon and Christian Bale in “Ford v Ferrari,” Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx in “Just Mercy” and Cynthia Erivo in “Harriet.”

One intriguing note to come out of the festivals is the presence of the Cannes Palme d’Or winner, Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite,” as a legitimate Best Picture contender. And it’s not the only one, because Pedro Almodóvar’s semi-autobiographical fantasia “Pain and Glory” also has a shot, in addition to supplying a clear Best Actor possibility in Antonio Banderas. And Terrence Malick’s “A Hidden Life,” which is partly in English and partly in German, has garnered the kind of goodwill that Malick hasn’t had since his Best Picture nominee “The Tree of Life” in 2011.

The curious thing about the festivals, though, is that they supplied a dozen or two clear contenders without giving us a front-runner. History suggests that something that screened in Venice, Telluride and/or Toronto will indeed win Best Picture, but it’s hard to identify a favorite from this year’s crop. (If I had to guess, I’d say that “Marriage Story,” “The Two Popes” and “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” aren’t out of the question.)

For now, though, the closest thing to an Oscar favorite still seems to be Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” which weathered a bit of controversy and is well-liked in the town in which it’s set. Meanwhile, Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman” is the upcoming film with the potential to upend the race, depending on how it’s received at the New York Film Festival.

Still to come, besides “The Irishman,” are Greta Gerwig’s “Little Women,” Sam Mendes’ World War I-set “1917,” Jay Roach’s Roger Ailes story “Bombshell” and even “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.”

Oh, and don’t forget about an earlier release, “The Farewell,” because the festivals didn’t give us enough strong newcomers to knock that one out of the awards conversation.

Round 1 has ended without a clear leader, but there’s still a long fight to come.