With Venice and Telluride in the rear-view mirror, and TIFF starting to wind down (we've still got coverage to come, but very few films remain that haven't been screened for press), it feels like the perfect time to kick off, for real, our annual awards coverage. There's a part of you that groans, and that's fair enough—it does feel like only yesterday that we were talking "Argo" vs. "Life of Pi" and so on, but even with five months to go until the ceremony itself, over half of the films that'll be in play have been unveiled. And you can bet your bottom dollar that Oscar campaigns have been underway for weeks, if not months.
There's lots more to come into view, both in the near future (NYFF is only a few weeks away), and further away (some films are unlikely to be unveiled until the end of November at the earliest), but taking the temperature of the race so far, where do we stand? Well, it's looking, even by the tough standard of last year, like it's going to be a particularly competitive race. Variety semi-jokingly (we hope...) suggested yesterday that the Academy should extend the Best Picture field to 20 this year, and while their logic is pretty unsound, it's clear that more than ever, there's going to be blood on the floor come the nomination announcements in January, what with heavy hitters like "The Wolf Of Wall Street," "Monuments Men" and "American Hustle" still some way off.
Best Picture and Actor are looking particularly brutal, but even Best Actress, which has had quote-unquote weaker line-ups in recent years (more a by-product of the Academy shunning deserving turns like Tilda Swinton in "We Need To Talk About Kevin" and Rachel Weisz in "The Deep Blue Sea" than a reflection of the field) is looking like it's going to be a difficult one to call. This discussion is one that will shift and change, but let's get the ball rolling. Who can take advantage of the early-bird discount on limo bookings for Oscar night, and who can make plans to be elsewhere? Thoughts on the Oscar circus as it stands below.
The Near Certainties:
Both "Gravity" and "12 Years A Slave" were looking good on paper for potential awards consideration, but both had reasons to be cautious. Was "Gravity" just going to be a pure thrill ride, or worse, some kind of "The Fountain"-like mind-bender? Would 'Slave' prove to be as inaccessible for wider audiences as director Steve McQueen's "Hunger" and "Shame"? But from the moments the films first screened, at Venice and Telluride respectively, it's been clear that both are likely to be major players all the way through February. "Gravity" is clearly going to be this year's answer to the "Avatar"/"Hugo"/"Life Of Pi" slot—a 3D technical extravaganza that could well clear up in the tech categories, and it's got a good shot at finally landing DP Emmanuel Lubezki his first statue. It could also pick up acting nominations, with Sandra Bullock a good bet, and George Clooney certainly a possibility too. The inevitable semi-backlash arrived with some cooler notices at TIFF after universally ecstatic reception in Venice and Telluride, and one wonders if "The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty"—which at least from this distance seems more in the emotional vein of "Life Of Pi" than "Gravity" and has it's own share of effects—could throw a spoke in the wheels.
Meanwhile, "12 Years A Slave" was, if anything, even better received, with ecstatic, bruised reactions almost universal, and some even declaring the Oscar race over at the start of September. Obviously, we're not silly enough to make such proclamations, but it's impossible to see a scenario in which this isn't a Best Picture nominee. Chiwetel Ejiofor, seems a certainty too, even with the toughest category in recent memory, and there's a strong chance that co-stars Lupita Nyong'o and Michael Fassbender will follow him (we wonder if the unrelentingly evil nature of Fassbender's performance might end up counting against him, but it'll depend on the strength of the competition, which is unclear at this stage). There'll inevitably be nay-sayers, and the film's likely going to be a target for dirty-tricks-fuelled op-eds, given its subject matter, but McQueen seems to have made something accessible enough to bring in Academy voters, that's still likely to have heavy critical support—it's a potential winner at Critics Circle awards, which will help keep momentum up through the end of the year.
Joining the two as a pretty solid Best Picture contender is "Inside Llewyn Davis," which had its first stateside screening at Telluride. Again, it's hard to find someone who doesn't like the film, while it's perhaps not as mortal a lock as "Gravity" and "12 Years A Slave," if only because distributor CBS Films are untested as awards campaigners. But this still feels like a very, very solid proposition, and the Coen brothers are longtime Academy favorites.