We’ve hit the lull.
The harsh Oscar landscape has calmed. The seas aren’t so choppy anymore. After about a month of incessant premieres and showcase screenings, all of which led to intense (over)reaction from swaths of critics, pundits, and audiences, the Oscar field seems to have hit a settling point.
It’s an odd place to be in – since, in reality, nothing has settled at all. It’s hard to pin down a consensus favorite among the handful of titles that have elevated themselves into contention since the beginning of September, and there are still some top-tier outliers that could significantly alter the race in the next month or two. And yet the hysteria has died down to a certain extent. We have established the first wave of big players and it seems – amazingly – that we are content with that for the moment. Contentment is not a quality that is typically associated with any stage of the Oscar race, but there you have it.
Early conversation was dominated by three films. First it was Spotlight, then it was Room, and finally it was Steve Jobs. Spotlight came out of nowhere as a standout among festival buzzers. Room’s impact was inflated once it claimed the People’s Choice Award at TIFF, which was deemed a surprise. But the Danny Boyle/Aaron Sorkin behemoth has lingered at the front of the public consciousness longer than the other two, by virtue of a few factors – it debuted last, it has played in bigger circles more often, and its limited release was first out of the gate. Plus, in spite of the film’s insular structure, it’s a bigger enterprise by far. So does that make it the frontrunner of the moment?
Maybe, maybe not. It does feel like a “film of the moment,” relevant zeitgeist material that will stand out in the minds of viewers…and voters. But then, so did The Social Network, and we all know what happened there. Neither Room nor Spotlight provide the type of classical, traditionalist counterprogramming that The King’s Speech was able to offer up against Social Network, but here I go comparing specific films from one year to specific films from another, which isn’t ultimately very helpful. Room feels like the most independent of all three titles – smaller, more intimate, less showy with its casting than the other two. And that alone might be reason enough to drop it to the third position. Spotlight, on the other hand, might strike the perfect balance of indie artistry and big-audience sensation…but then, of course, it has sort of disappeared from view in the midst of this lull.
Really, it is just lying in wait. It has played a couple smaller festivals in the past few weeks, all in preparation for its November 6 release. Maybe this period of quiet will actually bolster the second wave of its impact once it goes wide to audiences and regional critics. In fact, its release date – which may well coincide with the date screeners start hitting voters’ doorsteps – is pretty ideal in terms of hitting just as the early wave of critics groups begin their nominating process for year-end awards. Room opens limited this weekend, then slowly expands. So the “quiet period” for these two films is all but over. Theatrical release will usher in a new wave of discussion around each of them.
In the meantime, a few other films have debuted to strong reactions, though they have varying degrees of Oscar potential. Robert Zemeckis’ The Walk opened the New York Film Festival to great acclaim for its visual prowess, though a lot of the hysteria died down once people realized…outside of those visuals, the film is a bit of an odd bird. Don Cheadle’s Miles Ahead closed out NYFF and scored high marks with audiences, though at this point the film’s release strategy is uncertain. One would expect at least a standard one-week Oscar qualifying run in NY/LA by year’s end, but nothing is concrete yet. The film that has scored biggest in this settling period is – no surprise – Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, which debuted smack in the middle of NYFF, followed by general Press and WOM screenings, and is now poised to open wide this weekend. If we were looking for the strong, square-jawed, classically beautiful film to challenge for the Oscar, this is the one, boasting pedigree behind the camera (Spielberg), on the page (Joel and Ethan Coen), and in front of the camera (Tom Hanks). It is already being heralded by critics and I imagine it will play solidly (if not overwhelmingly) with audiences. Plus, I can vouch for the fact that it is a strong film, firmly in the Academy wheelhouse in terms of design and presentation, but with some narrative and character quirks to keep it interesting. And it explores troubling historical issues that are still correlative to the here and now. It’s not a long shot to envision Bridge of Spies as Spielberg’s latest Oscar contender.
So since the early festival hubbub quelled, we have seen perhaps a Best Picture player in Bridge of Spies, a below-the-line contender in The Walk, and a fascinating question mark in Miles Ahead. A solid, if not overwhelming, haul of options, especially for this relatively quiet frame of Phase One. But outside of that, everything has held steady. Some combination of Spotlight, Steve Jobs, and Room will head up almost anyone’s list of likely Best Picture nominees, and there aren’t a great many entities capable of knocking them off the pedestal…at least until December, when we have the next, last onslaught of potential monsters in The Revenant, The Hateful Eight, and Joy.
There will surely be spikes in the conversation as we move forward, with campaigns ramping up, controversies sure to transpire unexpectedly, and debates to be framed that will unfortunately pit each film against the other.
But for now, we still have some more water to tread.