As the days of Toronto wane and we approach the brief period of awards season stasis that sets in before the New York Film Festival commences, one would think we might have a pretty strong sense of where the Oscar race is headed for the next several months.
This year, however, I’m not sure that holds true.
Awards Season 2017 is still in its early stages, to be sure. But if this first few weeks is any indication, the forthcoming race feels somewhat amorphous – lots of great options but no real clarity. Every Oscar season is fluid, but this one is flowing with unique strength.
The early triad of fall festivals – Venice, Telluride, and Toronto – typically set the table for the months to come. They have certainly done that this year, albeit in much broader strokes, less precisely nailing down what to expect but providing enough information to ponder – and a lot of great work to experience. In terms of the good ol’ horserace aspect of the awards frame that often snuffs out our seasonal enthusiasm by turning everything into something we must quantify, that’s actually a great thing. We can focus more keenly on the work of these filmmakers before jumping straight to a series of premature conclusions.
Nevertheless, we do have a handful of inklings on what we might be able to expect – far more appropriate for this early in the season. Plenty to chew on, but we aren’t sure about the final flavor profile. Here now, four solid facts as we move deeper into the season.
- The Best Actress Race is Just as Crowded as Last Year
By this time last year, we already knew that Emma Stone was the odds-on Best Actress favorite, especially once we learned that Viola Davis would be in the Supporting category. However, that didn’t solve the final puzzle of the category, since there was such an influx of incredible female leads that one could theoretically fill out the only-five-deep Best Actress category in three entirely different formulations. Last year was something of a long-overdue trend-breaker, since Best Actress for too long the antithesis of its male counterpart: whereas Best Actor was always overstuffed with contenders, Best Actress was barren and predictable. But not last year, and if 2017 is any indication, we may be moving toward a consistent new paradigm. Emma Stone is, in fact, back in contention for a second year in a row, but her heralded performance as Billie Jean King in Battle of the Sexes may not even be a frontrunner. Saoirse Ronan and Sally Hawkins stormed out of the gate almost simultaneously with their performances in Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird and Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water, respectively. Frances McDormand became a force on the race when Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri premiered in Venice. The TIFF premiere of Molly’s Game brought us another Jessica Chastain powerhouse for the season to reckon with. As mother! began its rollout, Jennifer Lawrence entered the fray. Two veteran performers, Annette Bening and Judi Dench, are in contention, the former for Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool and the latter for Victoria and Abdul. And that was all before Toronto was unexpectedly awestruck by Glenn Close in The Wife, which some are already praising as the six-time Oscar nominee’s finest hour. And that doesn’t even cover all the possibilities: Michelle Williams takes center stage in Ridley Scott’s yet-to-be-screened All the Money in the World, Kate Winslet has a double-dip with The Mountain Between Us and Wonder Wheel, Carey Mulligan is a strong Sundance holdover in Mudbound, and as if that wasn’t enough, none other than Meryl Streep will eventually join the race with her work in Steven Spielberg’s The Post.
You get the idea: for the second year in a row, Best Actress is bursting as the seams with great contenders. We should all be salivating – and celebrating.
- Best Actor is Less Crowded – and May Already be Over
Look, I’m not going to discount some of the big names who may well contend for a Best Actor nomination. Matt Damon in Downsized. Denzel Washington in Roman J. Israel, Esq. Chadwick Boseman in Marshall. James Franco in The Disaster Artist. Steve Carell in Battle of the Sexes. Hugh Jackman in The Greatest Showman. Even Tom Hanks is lurking around in The Post. But one could easily see a couple of these performances fizzle out in the public consciousness over the next few months, and then all of the sudden you’re left with around five performances to fill five Best Actor slots.
And oh by the way, none of the above are likely to overcome what seems like the season’s only specified juggernaut: Gary Oldman in Darkest Hour. It’s not merely that Oldman’s unrecognizable turn as Winston Churchill has staggered festival audiences since debuting at Telluride. It’s not even that the performance has basically single-handedly vaulted Darkest Hour into the Best Picture race. Really, it’s all of that churning in a cauldron with staggering history: not only has Oldman never won an Oscar, but he’s only ever been nominated once prior (in 2012, for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy). In a year that may well be short on viable Best Actor contenders, said year seems owned by Oldman’s performance.
- There Is No Best Picture Frontrunner
By the time we cycle through Venice, Telluride, and TIFF, we usually know what film (or films) will be at the forefront of the Best Picture conversation going forward. This year, however, there is no such certainty. Downsizing was the early talk of Venice, but reception cooled in Telluride. The Shape is Water is much beloved, yet questions remain about del Toro’s Academy viability. It’s uncertain whether Battle of the Sexes will turn into another Little Miss Sunshine for Dayton and Faris. And we’re still ruminating on standouts from earlier in the year: Dunkirk, Get Out, The Big Sick, even Logan, which sent out screeners this week.
Right now, it seems like Lady Bird, Darkest Hour, and The Shape of Water will be Best Picture nominees based simply on the consistency of their very high praise – but does any one of them strike you as a surefire winner? Of the pre-fall contenders, Dunkirk remains the most imposing, but can it glide on Nolan love all the way to a Best Picture triumph?
It’s become commonplace for pundits to note – quite accurately – that odds are, audiences will have seen the eventual Best Picture winner by the time Venice and Telluride end. And true to form, maybe that film has, indeed, already premiered. What’s so unique about this season is that we can’t so easily pick it out of a lineup.
- We Haven’t Seen the Whole Story
All this, and we still have a long way to go before we are able to consume every title on the burgeoning list of contenders in this already-uncertain Best Picture race. Richard Linklater’s Last Flag Flying kicks off the New York Film Festival on September 28. On the other end of NYFF, Woody Allen’s Wonder Wheel is the closing night film on October 14. All the Money in the World, Ridley Scott’s latest, debuts on November 16 to open AFI Fest. And that’s not even accounting for The Post, Spielberg’s true-life journalistic drama, which opens on December 22, nor Paul Thomas Anderson’s still-untitled 1950s fashion drama, slated three days later on the 25th (mark down one more Best Actor contender in Daniel Day-Lewis, btw). Also still hovering over the season is The 15:17 to Paris, Clint Eastwood’s account of American heroes who foiled a terrorist plot on a Paris-bound train, which is listed as “Filming” on IMDb, but which could nevertheless be completed before the end of the year, especially considering the director’s famously economical production scheduling and Warner Bros.’ propensity for churning out Eastwood films in just the nick of time for Oscar consideration.
Moving forward, the race can only become clearer. But these four facts emerging from the season’s first month will likely form the basis of our discussion over the remaining five.