In the week-and-a-half since the fall festival whirlwind first started turning, the result, as per usual, is a torrent of reactions – and let’s be honest, reactions make the mare go. Every year at this time, hundreds of festival entrants in Venice, Telluride, and Toronto schedule screenings in the hopes of generating that great, intangible awards season energy force known as “buzz.” A film can’t navigate the Oscar season if the right combination of people – from audiences to critics to industry insiders to guild members – aren’t actively talking about it. Staying in the conversation for the long haul is challenging in a field consisting of a seemingly infinite number of prestige contenders, but getting in the conversation is the first major leap for these big early fall festivals, and that’s where the buzz begins.
And so we return to the nugget I already referenced as a potential theme for the year in my two earlier Projection: Oscar pieces – the role of buzz in the awards race. People like to gab, obviously. And a great deal of Oscar punditry nowadays feels a lot like gabbing. That is not, lest anyone is beginning to feel offended, necessarily a bad thing. Hell, my Oscar pieces are weekly gab fests in and of themselves, and this very article is no exception. But there is a certain informal expertise to awards season reporting – the ultimate influence of blog culture, to be sure – that at once breeds an invaluable intimacy with readers but also results in an almost crutch-like reliance on reactionary opinion. Festival screenings can result in immediate standing ovations or loud booing sessions in many cases, and either snap reaction will end up in a headline, or a tweet, or a blog post. And as those snap reactions proliferate, so a film’s reputation starts to formulate in the general consciousness. It’s a part-miraculous, part-frightening accomplishment of in-the-moment media, like we are all playing telephone with each other with digital cans connected by a broadband string.
But nevertheless, this is the world we live in, and this is the world in which we obsessively monitor the Oscar race. My role is to acknowledge this fascinating reality, but also to work within it. Playing the game is not just something filmmakers and actors and studio publicists have to do this season. Journalists and critics and pundits have to play it, too.
With that in mind, why not create another list of buzzy titles?!
If recent history holds true, the eventual Best Picture winner at next year’s Oscars will be among the buzzed about titles circulating right now, having played at either or in some combination of Venice or Telluride, both of which have wrapped up, or Toronto, which still has another week of screenings to parse, analyze, and discuss into submission.
Among those titles are holdovers from previous fests that are now re-emerging to formally embark on their Oscar campaigns, like Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years, surely in the thick of a crowded (for once) Best Actress field with its lead performance from Charlotte Rampling, and Todd Haynes’ Carol, with a pair of standout female performances from Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, in a film widely perceived as an early Oscar frontrunner…if for no other reason than it had already screened at Cannes in May.
There are also titles which seem to be commercial first and Oscar players second, though with artistry at work and a stellar lineup of prestige casts, awards are never out of the question (and widespread appeal and big box-office never hurt a film’s awards chances). Everest is one such title, having kicked off the Venice fest with a series of mostly-positive notices – primarily focusing on the film’s massive IMAX appeal, which will likely be its calling card. Sicario is another, seemingly a little more comprehensible and less intriguingly weird than Denis Villeneuve’s previous work, which is an unfortunate blow for someone like me, who dug the spider-tastic intrigue of Enemy, but could certainly play well to general audiences when it releases wide in a few weeks. The Martian is the highest profile big-audience picture released at TIFF thus far, and Ridley Scott’s space epic is generating buzz aplenty, though its awards bonafides remain unclear…which to me signals it may not be a player after all. The “anti-Interstellar” is a phrase that keeps circulating on social media, which doesn’t make much sense to me, although if it means the film is tangible and engaging and actually makes good use of Matt Damon, then I’m all for it.
We’ve also now gotten our first glimpse of highly-anticipated titles that were carrying huge buzz sight-unseen, first and foremost Scott Cooper’s Black Mass, with that big, imposing Johnny Depp turn with all the makeup and the contact lenses. The cast is being widely lauded, most notably Depp, for whom a “comeback” narrative has already been generated. The film itself is garnering more tepid notices, with some finding it to be more of a crowd-pleaser, and many noting that it’s feebly chasing after the Scorsese mold. Much more positive buzz is brewing for Anomalisa, Charlie Kaufman’s latest deep dive into quirk and ennui, and his first foray into animation, with co-director Duke Johnson commandeering the film’s stop-motion style, which it seems Kaufman has been inching towards since the beginning. Expect the film to be a major threat to Inside Out’s heretofore unchallenged status as the Best Animated Feature frontrunner. And on the documentary front, Michael Moore’s Where to Invade Next debuted at TIFF and ignited a bidding war. Word is this is a less snarky, more optimistic work from trailblazing provocateur Moore, but its Oscar chances will hinge on the weight and resonance of its message, which remains unclear.
Other festival entrants seem to be performance pieces with questionable overall quality. Chief among those would be Trumbo, with Bryan Cranston jumping into the Oscar race as blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo. Most of the positive buzz would indicate Cranston is a big player in the Best Actor race, but that the film – directed by comedy vet Jay Roach – doesn’t do the performance, nor the material, justice. In the same boat is Truth, with Robert Redford as Dan Rather in the true story of CBS News’ controversial 2004 investigation of George W. Bush. Rather himself had positive words about the film, but critics were less kind. Peter Sollett’s Freeheld, one of my most anticipated films of the fall, appears to have suffered a similar critical reaction, though critics are high on performances from Michael Shannon and reigning Best Actress winner Julianne Moore. Of this unfortunately marginalized group, my hopes remain highest for Sarah Gavron’s Suffragette, a longtime passion project for its director which may be a Best Actress player for lead Carey Mulligan.
All that being said, there is a clear group of films that seem to have separated themselves from the pack in terms of positive buzz. I don’t know that we’ve seen the kind of universally rhapsodic reaction that past Oscar frontrunners like Birdman, 12 Years a Slave, or Gravity received in previous years, but there are five clear standouts from the festival circuit thus far. In alphabetical order:
Beasts of No Nation – Cary Fukunaga returns to the big screen in top form, with the powerful tale of a child soldier fighting in a civil war in an unnamed African country. Newcomer Abraham Attah’s performance is being lauded across the board, as well as Idris Elba’s as a commandant who keeps the child under his thumb. Based on the reactions coming out of Telluride and Toronto, this will remain one to watch as we navigate the season.
The Danish Girl – Tom Hooper’s latest prestige Oscar play is also Eddie Redmayne’s immediate return to the Best Actor race in another fact-based biopic, this one of Lili Elbe, who started life as Einar Wegener and became one of the pioneers of the transgender movement. A story like this is striking the zeitgeist at precisely the right moment, and to hear some critical reactions, Redmayne’s performance is superior to his Oscar-winning work in last year’s The Theory of Everything. Alicia Vikander is also garnering widespread praise for her work in the film, which will likely remain in the Oscar conversation for its lead performances, and could be one of those films where the performances propel the film into the Best Picture conversation.
Room – Lenny Abrahamson’s latest may be the film that finally helps Brie Larson break into the Oscar game after knocking on the door in 2013 for her amazing work in Short Term 12. Here she is a co-lead with newcomer Jacob Tremblay, as mother and son who must first cope with life trapped in a single room, and then must contend with the culture shock of the outside world – one is more treacherous than the other. Both Larson and Tremblay could be in the Oscar conversation, in a film that is at or near the top of many critics’ lists coming out of Telluride.
Spotlight – On the subject of contenders knocking on the door, two nominees from last year, Michael Keaton and Mark Ruffalo, stand atop of the ensemble in Tom McCarthy’s apparent return to form (let’s forget The Cobbler even existed), which did a triple-dip of Venice, Telluride, and Toronto, and is garnering raves across the board. The film’s portrayal of dogged journalism – in this case in service of an investigation into child molestation with the Catholic church, another very relevant topic – is garnering comparisons to All the President’s Men, just in case you were wondering what kind of serious waters we’re wading in here.
Steve Jobs – This one might be the crown jewel. Oscar pedigree abounds, from director Danny Boyle to screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, to an incredible cast (oh, what a barnburner the SAG Ensemble race will be next year) led by former nominee Michael Fassbender and former winner Kate Winslet. Of course, pedigree alone can only get you so far, but by all accounts, the film delivers on all fronts. It’s still too early to get wrapped up in the Oscar Prediction Game, but if one were to go out on that limb today, Steve Jobs would likely be the safest bet to put at the top of the list.
Of course, there is still plenty more to come. TIFF is still in full swing, the New York Film Festival kicks off in less than two weeks (where Steve Jobs is the showcase film and premieres include Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, Zemeckis’ The Walk, and Don Cheadle’s Miles Ahead), and the lineup has been announced for the BFI London fest, which starts on October 7. Suffragette is the opening night gala screening, Steve Jobs is the closing night gala screening, and Beasts of No Nation, Room, and Laszlo Nemes’ powerful Holocaust drama Son of Saul are among the titles in official competition.
Still a long way to go. But we are buzzing right along…