As soon as the summer movie season winds down, the entire film industry focuses its attention on the trio of film festivals that signal the kickoff of awards season. Seemingly arriving earlier than Christmas shopping ads every year, with speculation already heavy about Richard Linklater's "Boyhood," Wes Anderson's "The Grand Budapest Hotel" and Shailene Woodley's Best Actress chances for "The Fault In Our Stars," the race for the almighty Oscar officially kicks into the next gear with the arrival of Venice, Telluride and the just-completed Toronto International Film Festival. Though many of the high-profile contenders already had their premieres at earlier galas, there were a few that managed to put their first stamp on the Oscar passport in the last two weeks.
Much of the buzz at Toronto surrounded the stories of a pair of British geniuses. James Marsh's "The Theory of Everything" is a bio of Stephen Hawking's life from the beginning of his battle with the neurological disease that claimed his bodily functions to his publication of "A Brief History of Time." The reception of the film's premiere reportedly led Hawking's nurse to wipe a tear from his cheek, according to screenwriter Anthony McCarten. While the screenplay focuses more on his illness than his brilliance, there was little disagreement in Toronto when it came to Eddie Redmayne's performance as the physicist. The Hollywood Reporter's Scott Feinberg said that he will be "tough to beat in the Best Actor race." Entertainment Weekly's Nicole Sperling also included Felicity Jones (who plays Hawking's wife, Jane) saying "it would be astonishing if both of their names didn’t land on Oscar’s short list."
The near-annual Brit Biopic race expanded further with Morten Tyldum's "The Imitation Game," which first premiered at Telluride before TIFF, and deals with a less-identifiable figure in Alan Turing. Fans of the rah-rah U.S. submarine thriller "U-571," may be more familiar with the MacGuffin of that film known as the Enigma Machine, which coded messages through German channels during WWII. Turing was the leader of an MI-6 team that helped break those codes and alter the course of the war. Benedict Cumberbatch portraying the honored mathematician and disgraced homosexual now finds himself as a favorite in a quickly growing Best Actor race. Variety's Awards Editor, Tim Gray, said the "complex, impeccably executed and unique" "Imitation Game" "is clearly an awards contender" in multiple categories, citing not just Cumberbatch but also the screenplay, direction and Keira Knightley, who like Felicity Jones, will garner discussion once they decide if she qualified for Lead or Supporting Actress. Speculation on "The Imitation Game"'s true rank in the awards race was heightened by winning the People's Choice Award at Toronto. In the 36-year history of the award, 12 of its winners were nominated for Best Picture (including five of the past six years) and five were victorious including last year's winner, "12 Years a Slave."
Two other Toronto premieres helped to crowd up the Best Actor category even further. Dan Gilroy's directorial debut "Nightcrawler" surprised many critics with its craftsmanship and became a favorite of the festival. Jake Gyllenhaal's performance as the gaunt, fast-talking crime scene photographer has been compared to Travis Bickle by The Hollywood Reporter's Anne Thompson who calls him "the one dark horse Oscar candidate." Her colleague, Jordan Mintzer, says "It’s an acrobatic performance in a movie that constantly oscillates – sometimes impressively and sometimes tediously – between neo-noir and contemporary satire." Collider's Adam Chitwood says the film's chances are dependent "on whether Open Road is willing to launch a serious awards campaign" and cites not just Gyllenhaal, but also Rene Russo for Supporting Actress, Gilroy's screenplay, James Newton Howard’s "surprisingly dynamic score" and cinematographer Robert Elswit’s "stellar, haunting camera work."
A more sentimental favorite TIFF tossed into the mix is Bill Murray for his turn in Ted Melfi's grump-becomes-friend feature debut, "St. Vincent." The film premiered at the culmination of the celebratory "Bill Murray Day" in Toronto and ended (as many premieres did) with a standing ovation for its star. Noted Oscar expert, Dave Karger of Fandango, tweeted that "St. Vincent" is "up there with Lost in Translation as some of his best work" and sees Murray with a "decent shot" at his second nomination, while Scott Feinberg says he is "a guy I'd think twice about betting against." In a race that already includes the possibilities of Redmayne, Cumberbatch and Gyllenhaal, Murray is already a longshot. Add into the mix Steve Carell's roundly-praised transformation into John du Pont in "Foxcatcher" as well as Michael Keaton's wildly favored turn in "Birdman" (which played Venice & Telluride but bypassed Toronto to close out the New York Film Festival) and Murray looks more and more like the sixth man out with consolation from the Golden Globes.
Once again, the prospects on the female side of things looks a bit more dire. That is good news for performances such as Knightley and Jones (who may not be as seriously considered in years richer in leading roles for females) but better news for Reese Witherspoon who may have just claimed frontrunner status, just as she did in 2005 when "Walk the Line" premiered at Telluride and then Toronto. Fox Searchlight has taken the same path with Jean-Marc Vallée's "Wild." Witherspoon plays Cheryl Strayed, who after a family tragedy and a string of questionable life choices took an 1,100-mile trek along the Pacific Coast Trail from Mexico to Canada as part of the path to recovery. Cheryl documented her journey in a 2012 memoir that was chosen as the first selection in Oprah Winfrey's Book Club 2.0 and now Witherspoon may be on the path to her second Oscar.
The response from Toronto's audiences was even greater than that of Telluride with Dave Karger naming it his favorite film from the festival. "Reese Witherspoon's best performance ever, which is saying a lot," Karger added, saying that it is a "certain nomination for her." Tim Gray also said the buzz was deserved for her "tour de force performance that moves her solidly into the Oscar race." Despite a string of survival tales like "127 Hours," "All is Lost" and "Gravity," Gray quoted an industry vet that women are going to make this film a hit as well as mentioning Laura Dern possibly being singled out for her supporting work as Cheryl's mother. Vallee is just coming off of "Dallas Buyers Club," which pulled off both Lead and Supporting Oscars on the male side of the aisle for Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto, respectively.
Apart from Knightley and Jones (and their category placement), there is very little to bank on to fill the Best Actress field with any certainty. Shailene Woodley ("The Fault In Our Stars") will remain in the conversation as we await looks as Rosamund Pike in David Fincher's "Gone Girl" and Amy Adams in Tim Burton's "Big Eyes." But when will more eyes get to see Julianne Moore's work in "Still Alice"? The Alzheimer's drama from "The Last of Robin Hood" directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland drew raves for Moore's performance as a professor suffering through the early stages of the disease. The Wrap's Steve Pond calls it "a beautifully calibrated performance" that mostly "downplays the histrionics to sketch a heartbreaking portrait of a woman whose memory and identity is quietly slipping away." Sony Classics picked up the film at Toronto and has plans to get it out in 2014, though no date has been set. Perhaps a late-season momentum shift is in the works for the 4-time nominee and the LA Times' Steven Zeitchik also says "don't be surprised" if Kristen Stewart garners attention for her supporting work from voters.
Wild cards like Moore and "Still Alice" are what keeps the Oscar race interesting even when the experts have already declared victory in some categories. There were others like it at Toronto this year that are now all dependent on whether they can be snatched up and distributed in enough time to keep momentum on their side. Ramin Bahrani's "99 Homes," a drama that moves like a thriller about the 2008 foreclosure crisis, was well-received at both Venice and Telluride and the praise continued at TIFF, before getting picked up by Broad Green Pictures. "Like all great socially conscious films, '99 Homes' doesn’t portray its issues in black and white, and Garfield and Shannon’s nuanced work is what makes that gray area effective." So said Brian Tallerico, Managing Editor at RogerEbert.com. “Andrew Garfield and Michael Shannon will get nominated, so it has to be,” Bahrani said after the premiere. Shannon's prospects would very much be a reality whether released this year or next.
Also awaiting pickup is Mike Binder's "Black and White" about a bi-racial custody battle with Kevin Costner and Octavia Spencer. Scott Feinberg once again touts the chances for its stars finding it "hard to imagine that it will remain on the market — or outside of the 2014 Oscar discussion — for much longer." However, The Playlist's Kevin Jagernauth says the film "lays down its thematic concerns broadly and clumsily, with all the obviousness of the title itself, while refusing to commit in any real way to the issues it confronts." He also references 2004 Toronto premiere, "Crash" (which went on to win Best Picture for 2005), and calls that backlashed film "a work of courage, nuance and bravery" compared to Binder's film. In other words, do not always believe the in-the-moment hype of a festival response.
Toronto was full of previous festival favorites this year such as Mike Leigh's "Mr. Turner" from Cannes and Damien Chazelle's "Whiplash," which won both the Audience and Grand Jury prizes from Sundance. Sony Classics is hoping to find champions, respectively, for Timothy Spall's titular role and J.K. Simmons' fierce supporting performance amongst other categories. Ruben Östlund's brilliant "Force Majeure," which won the Un Certain Regard Jury Prize from Cannes, is Sweden's entry for Best Foreign Language Film at this year's Oscars and is being released Oct. 24 by Magnolia. If Roadside can make a push to qualify fellow Cannes Jury Prize winner, Xavier Dolan's "Mommy," the film may not just be Canada's selection for the Foreign category, but Anne Dorval could find herself being that foreign language wild card for her bravura performance in a category starved for true standouts.
There are still a lot of films to see in 2014. Fincher's "Gone Girl" and Paul Thomas Anderson's "Inherent Vice" will premiere at New York's festival. Christopher Nolan's "Interstellar" could blow things up in a big way. Burton's "Big Eyes" will be arriving late in the season, along with Clint Eastwood's "American Sniper," Rob Marshall's "Into the Woods," Ava DuVernay's "Selma" and Angelina Jolie's "Unbroken." The awards race is as much about timing as it is excellence, usually even more, and these just completed festivals are merely the first few ticks on this season's clock.