Yes, that’s right. The Oscar race may be over before it has even begun. Historically, by this point in the year, after the early fall festival barrage of Venice, Telluride, and Toronto, the Best Picture winner has already been seen – at least by festival audiences comprised of pundits, critics, and some industry folks. As I racked my brain to recall the last Best Picture to debut late in the year, after festival season, all I could come up with was Million Dollar Baby in 2004. Doing a semi-deep dive into recent Oscar history confirmed my recollection, which proves two things: 1) my memory is at least still somewhat sharp, and 2) it’s increasingly rare that a post-TIFF release is able to surmount the torrent of early buzz to usurp the momentum and win Best Picture.
Of course, trends are meant to be broken, and we will surely once again see a late year release that wins Best Picture – maybe even this year. We’ve yet to see this year’s Spielberg, Bridge of Spies, which will technically be a festival premiere at NYFF, but is obviously a post-TIFF release, which would qualify the film as a trend-breaker. Ditto Robert Zemeckis’ The Walk, which will open NYFF just a few days from now. Angelina Jolie’s By the Sea opens AFI Fest on November 5. And it was just announced that The Big Short, a high-stakes finance drama boasting a cast of Christian Bale, Brad Pitt, Ryan Gosling, Steve Carell and others (what have I kept saying about 2015 being the year of the huge ensemble?), is now slated as the Closing Night film at AFI Fest, and is set for a December release. That particular announcement was something of a surprise, given that most were unsure the film would even be ready for a 2015 release. But it indicates that Paramount feels they have something worthy of consideration in this already-forming, already-crowded Oscar race.
Other possible contenders still to release include Ryan Coogler’s Creed, Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth, and Ron Howard’s In the Heart of the Sea, though each of them seem unlikely to crack the Best Picture race. Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur will likely be aiming for Best Animated Feature glory, but best of luck trying to overcome Inside Out and Anomalisa. Star Wars: The Force Awakens will be huge, but its above-the-line Oscar chances seem specious.
There is a particular late season triad that could wind up altering the race in a significant way: Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, David O. Russell’s Joy, and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s The Revenant, all slated to drop on Christmas Day. Ignoring their potential would be foolish, though recent history also proves there is also reason to doubt. Tarantino’s Django Unchained opened on December 25, 2012 and was a huge hit with the Academy, earning five Oscar nominations and two wins – but missing out on Best Picture, which went to the buzzy Telluride/Toronto sensation, Argo. Russell’s American Hustle debuted in December 2013 to similarly widespread acclaim, earning a whopping 10 Oscar nods…but then, of course, it failed to win even a single statuette. Telluride/Toronto title 12 Years a Slave and Venice/Toronto title Gravity wound up splitting all of the significant prizes that year. Inarritu is the reigning Best Director and Best Picture winner – for a film that debuted at Telluride and played Toronto, no less – so his chances of winning might seem diminished for that very reason. Additionally, The Revenant is kind of an outlier for the filmmaker, since it will be the only one of his films not to have played Cannes, Venice, Telluride, Toronto, or some combination of all.
Clearly, late-year releases can impact the race and generate goodwill with the Academy. But the last decade of awards seasons indicates that making initial impact early in the season and developing a narrative that can sustain a marathon race seems to be the most consistent path to ultimate Oscar victory.
So if the majority of the field is set – sparing those forthcoming releases, of which at least a couple will no doubt impact the race late in the game – is it time to start thinking about those fun and frivolous Oscar predictions? Some pundits are already touting the likely nominees in each Oscar category. I’ve tried to stay above that fray early on this year, just because it seems so futile to start handicapping the race, since that purports to indicate a degree of certainty about the outcome of a season that has barely started. But now that Venice, Telluride, and TIFF have come and gone, and with recent history being self-evident, it’s starting to become more logical to at least look at the field and begin pondering where each film is positioned at this (still very early) stage. We can now claim to have a little more clarity about what the next six months will hold – it’s still about as clear as mud, but at least we are catching glimpses in between the streaks.
And what have we glimpsed? Spotlight is a major contender across the board, with opportunities for Michael Keaton and Mark Ruffalo to potentially return to the Oscar race, and a chance for Tom McCarthy to crack the Best Director field for the first time. Carol is still in strong position, though months after the initial wave of support coming out of Cannes, some have cooled on its Best Picture chances. But it seems likely that Cate Blanchett cinches another nomination and there is winning potential for Rooney Mara, depending on which category she is ultimately nominated in. The Danish Girl is garnering more praise for reigning Best Actor winner Eddie Redmayne, with a potential double-dip still in the realm of possibility. His co-star, Alicia Vikander, will likely capitalize on her meteoric rise over the last couple years and capture a nomination as well; like Mara, her winning potential will depend on which category she lands in. Black Mass will be a player for Johnny Depp’s performance but likely nothing else. Beasts of No Nation made a significant impact on festival audiences, but will it be too rough an experience to be fully embraced? Son of Saul seems to have left a mark on the soul of every viewer, but will it be relegated to the Foreign Language category or make the jump into the Best Picture conversation? Steve Jobs appears a behemoth to be reckoned with. And Room seems to have won the preliminary round, having taken audiences by surprise at Telluride and going on to win the coveted People’s Choice Award at TIFF.
So we know the players…well, most of them. Maybe this coming March, we will look back on this time and talk about how the answer was right there in front of our faces, how Brie Larson locked the Best Actress win the second that Telluride praise poured in, or how Steve Jobs felt like a film of destiny the moment it became the centerpiece of all these fall festivals.
But for now, let’s not put the cart before the horse…or the Oscar before the race. For now, let’s take what we can take from these glimmers of light peeking through the mud streaks, and just enjoy the ride.