As quickly as the lights dim on one awards season, another begins. The Oscar race heats up around Labor Day, when press and industry folks descend upon the Venice, Telluride and Toronto film festivals. That holy trinity serves as the de facto springboard for the glitzy contest that will continue though the winter. Let the mania begin.
I caught a load of contenders in Toronto last week. Some seem like surefire bets; others are likely to fizzle once the rest of the year’s movies screen. Unlike most years, there’s no definitive pacesetter dominating the early prognostications, which is exciting. Anything could happen!
Here’s an overview of the top six categories’ likeliest candidates. The Oscars air March 4, but the race is already on.
The past two years’ fall festivals ended with obvious front-runners: “Spotlight” in 2015 and “La La Land” in 2016. The former held steady throughout the months-long slog; the latter famously lost, but not before drawing a record-tying 14 nominations. This year, however, the contest seems wide open.
At least five mighty Best Picture contenders screened in Toronto: Guillermo del Toro’s monster romance “The Shape of Water,” the Winston Churchill drama “Darkest Hour,” Martin McDonagh’s firecracker “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” (which won the festival’s People’s Choice Award, considered a bellwether), the hallowed “Call Me by Your Name,” and Aaron Sorkin’s sprightly directorial debut, “Molly’s Game.”
Combined with Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk,” that’s six (out of a maximum 10) nominees, with nary a pacesetter in sight. What will compete for those vacant slots? Probably not George Clooney’s “Suburbicon” or Alexander Payne’s “Downsizing,” which were eaten alive as reviews poured in. No one has seen Steven Spielberg’s “The Post” or the untitled Paul Thomas Anderson movie about 1950s London fashion, which could become heavy hitters at the coveted 11th hour. Second-tier possibilities, some of which also screened in Toronto, include the Jim Crow South tearjerker “Mudbound” (if Netflix can overcome its divisive reputation in the industry), Greta Gerwig’s coming-of-age dramedy “Lady Bird” (that genre wasn’t an obstacle for “Juno”), the satisfying tennis stand-off “Battle of the Sexes,” the Tommy Wiseau bio-comedy “The Disaster Artist,” Richard Linklater’s “Last Flag Flying,” the summer hit “The Big Sick” and the circus musical “The Greatest Showman.” The real question is whether “Get Out,” which will have opened a year ago by the time the Oscars roll around, can maintain its momentum. (Universal Pictures has already staged low-key campaign events, so it’s certainly a player.)
For now, my money is on “The Shape of Water,” an old-fashioned melodrama that will double as a career achievement citation for the beloved del Toro, and “Darkest Hour,” which has the hallmarks of a prestige Oscar title: historical period setting, towering lead performance and a seasoned director in “Atonement” maestro Joe Wright.
Predictions: “Call Me by Your Name,” “Darkest Hour,” “Dunkirk,” “Get Out,” “Molly’s Game,” “Mudbound,” “The Post,” “The Shape of Water,” “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” untitled Paul Thomas Anderson movie
If nominations were tomorrow, Frances McDormand (“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”) and Sally Hawkins (“The Shape of Water”) would headline a compelling showdown. Their roles couldn’t be more opposite: McDormand, who won for “Fargo” in 1997, plays a brassy Midwesterner waging war against her town’s police, while Hawkins, a potential first-time winner, is a mute 1960s janitor longing for love.
This does not account for the year’s requisite Meryl Streep performance, which finds her playing Washington Post publisher Kay Graham in “The Post.” Streep excepted, Hawkins and McDormand’s core competition lies in five proven Academy faves: two-time nominee Jessica Chastain (“Molly’s Game”), last year’s snubbed Annette Bening (“Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool”), ever-rising star Saoirse Ronan (“Lady Bird”), Kate Winslet (Woody Allen’s still-unseen “Wonder Wheel”) and Dame Judi Dench (“Victoria & Abdul”). There’s also Emma Stone (“Battle of the Sexes”), who probably isn’t in the mood for another grueling campaign after winning for “La La Land,” Margot Robbie (“I, Tonya”) and astounding Chilean newcomer Daniela Vega (“A Fantastic Woman”), who would be the first transgender person ever nominated for an acting Oscar.
Predictions: Jessica Chastain, “Molly’s Game”; Sally Hawkins, “The Shape of Water”; Frances McDormand, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri”; Saoirse Ronan, “Lady Bird”; Meryl Streep, “The Post”
This is the category with the most definitive odds, so I’d like to extend good-luck wishes to anyone not named Gary Oldman. In the same way Casey Affleck became unbeatable last year, festival chatter has christened Oldman’s performance as Winston Churchill in “Darkest Hour” the instant forerunner. As an industry veteran who transforms himself to play a historical figure, Oldman hits every box on the Sanctioned Oscar Performance checklist.
In the way of competition, Oldman should most fear perennial favorite Daniel Day-Lewis, who will supposedly retire after this next bout of Method bravura, which reunites him with “There Will Be Blood” director Paul Thomas Anderson. Beyond that, everyone feels like a crapshoot. There’s James Franco’s gonzo uncanniness as “The Room” director Tommy Wiseau in “The Disaster Artist,” Tom Hanks in “The Post,” an actorly Denzel Washington as a crusading civil-rights lawyer in “Roman J. Israel, Esq.,” breakout youngin Timothée Chalamet in “Call Me by Your Name” (assuming co-star Armie Hammer goes supporting), Jake Gyllenhaal playing a Boston Marathon bombing victim in “Stronger,” a polio-stricken Andrew Garfield in the sappy “Breathe,” Chadwick Boseman portraying Thurgood Marshall in “Marshall,” Bryan Cranston in “Last Flag Flying” and song-and-dance man Hugh Jackman in “The Greatest Showman,” assuming that movie is better than its trailer implies.
Predictions: Chadwick Boseman, “Marshall”; Daniel Day-Lewis, untitled Paul Thomas Anderson movie; James Franco, “The Disaster Artist”; Tom Hanks, “The Post”; Gary Oldman, “Darkest Hour”
Best Supporting Actress
Bring on the showstoppers! Of the performances we’ve seen in this category, everyone is a scene-stealer, which is exactly what we should want from our supporting actresses.
Frequent Emmy winners Allison Janney and Laurie Metcalf will likely emerge with their inaugural Oscar nominations ― Janney (“I, Tonya”) for playing the foul-mouthed, bird-toting mother of Tonya Harding, and Metcalf (“Lady Bird”) for playing the rigid, exasperated mother of a California teenager anxious to set sail for college. Both actresses enjoyed illustrious premieres in Toronto, and both of them are well-liked troupers who won’t need to kiss too many babies to score points.
But watch out for Holly Hunter (“The Big Sick”), Academy favorite Octavia Spencer (“The Shape of Water”), “consider” pioneer Melissa Leo (“Novitiate”), Kristin Scott Thomas (“Darkest Hour”), comeback queen Michelle Pfeiffer (“mother!” and “Murder on the Orient Express”), a transformative Mary J. Blige (“Mudbound”), Allison Williams (“Get Out”) and newcomer Hong Chao, whom Paramount is already touting as the highlight of Alexander Payne’s (very bad) “Downsizing.” Scene-stealers, all of them! And that’s not counting “Greatest Showman” ladies Michelle Williams and Keala Settle. (“Showman” could be well served by its Christmas release, right before voting opens.)
Predictions: Holly Hunter, “The Big Sick”; Allison Janney, “I, Tonya”; Melissa Leo, “Novitiate”; Laurie Metcalf, “Lady Bird”; Octavia Spencer, “The Shape of Water”
Best Supporting Actor
Given the number of beloved performances in play, this category might cause the most heart palpitations. Michael Stuhlbarg, heralded back at Sundance in January, delivers a monologue in “Call Me by Your Name” ― if you’ve read the book, you know the one ― that is the most powerful scene on screen this year. His hurdle? Going head-to-head with co-star Armie Hammer, who has a bigger, more dynamic role.
Critics will bang loud drums for two-time nominee Willem Dafoe, who submits some of the loveliest work of his career as a motel manager in “The Florida Project.” But that’s a small movie that could struggle to find an audience. For now, I expect this race will come down to Richard Jenkins (“The Shape of Water”) and the never-nominated Sam Rockwell (“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”), whose characters contain the sort of Oscar-friendly layers that reveal themselves as their movies continue. There’s also Ben Mendelsohn (“Darkest Hour”), Idris Elba (“Molly’s Game”), Woody Harrelson (“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”), Jason Mitchell (“Mudbound”), 2015 winner Mark Rylance (“Dunkirk”), the ever-showy Christoph Waltz (“Downsizing”) and the under-recognized Laurence Fishburne (“Last Flag Flying”).
Predictions: Willem Dafoe, “The Florida Project”; Armie Hammer, “Call Me by Your Name”; Richard Jenkins, “The Shape of Water”; Michael Stuhlbarg, “Call Me by Your Name”; Sam Rockwell, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”
In a year loaded with typical male heavyweights, the recurrent question arises: Can a woman slip in? It appears the likeliest bets are Greta Gerwig (“Lady Bird”), but I worry her teen-centric movie will feel too slight for Oscar voters, and the venerable Dee Rees (“Mudbound”), who will have to fight the anti-Netflix crowd. Waiting on deck are Patty Jenkins (“Wonder Woman”), Sofia Coppola (“The Beguiled”), Angelina Jolie (“First They Killed My Father”), Kathryn Bigelow (the DOA “Detroit”) and Lynn Ramsey (the polarizing Cannes title “You Were Never Really Here”). Should one of these women clinch a nod, it would be only the fifth time a female director has been nominated for Best Director.
Alas, the men dominate as usual. Count on Christopher Nolan (“Dunkirk”) and Guillermo del Toro (“The Shape of Water”), who display the technical prowess sought in the Best Director derby. Luca Guadagnino (“Call Me by Your Name”) and Jordan Peele (“Get Out”) tell superb stories, but do they flaunt enough flair as craftsmen? Their films may be better suited for screenwriting nods. If that’s the case, their spots could go to Steven Spielberg (“The Post”), Joe Wright (“Darkest Hour”), Martin McDonagh (“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”), James Franco (“The Disaster Artist”), Todd Haynes (“Wonderstruck”), Ridley Scott (“All the Money in the World,” which hasn’t yet screened), Aaron Sorkin (“Molly’s Game”), Richard Linklater (“Last Flag Flying”) or to Paul Thomas Anderson’s untitled movie.
Predictions: Paul Thomas Anderson, untitled; Guillermo del Toro, “The Shape of Water”; Luca Guadagnino, “Call Me by Your Name”; Christopher Nolan, “Dunkirk”; Joe Wright, “Darkest Hour”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post misspelled Daniela Vega’s name.