The Oscar race begins around Labor Day, when press and industry descend upon the holy trinity of film festivals: Venice, Telluride and Toronto. Of the past 10 Best Picture winners, seven have emerged from one or more of those festivals. (Two others began at Cannes in May.)
This year's early crown jewel was "La La Land," the charming MGM-style musical that will tickle the Academy's nostalgic fancies
in a year plagued by overwhelming political gloom. Simply put, voters might opt for something pleasant, as they did with "Slumdog Millionaire" during the Great Recession. "La La Land," which won the Toronto Film Festival's bellwether
, is a transporting ode to both artists and romance, and its technical ease will score big in prerequisites like Best Film Editing and Best Production Direction.
The question is, can anything galvanize voters the way "La La Land" did festival audiences? The grief-stricken "Manchester by the Sea" has earned universal praise, but, despite the many titles that carry Sundance acclaim
to Best Picture nominations a year later, none has ever claimed the trophy. (We can discount this year's other Sundance darling, the disgraced
"Birth of a Nation.") I was convinced "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk" would be a key player, but its technical milestones are a failure
and its story lacks resonance. Instead, voters will likely gravitate toward the two best films I've seen this year: the multilayered Jackie Kennedy biopic "Jackie" and the searing coming-of-age drama "Moonlight." Both are austere choices for the Academy hive mind, but the more conventional tears prompted by "Sully" and "A Monster Calls" aren't in the same league. "Jackie" has the backing of Fox Searchlight, which recently ushered "Birdman" and "12 Years a Slave" to Best Picture wins. That said, look out for four biggies that haven't screened yet: the female space pioneers of "Hidden Figures" (which just entered the race
), the adaptation of August Wilson's "Fences," Ben Affleck's gangster drama "Live by Night" and Martin Scorsese's monk epic "Silence." They threaten to edge out festival favorites like the airy "20th Century Women," the cerebral "Arrival" and the reserved "Loving."Predictions:
"20th Century Women," "Arrival," "Fences," "Hidden Figures," "Jackie," "La La Land," "Loving," "Manchester by the Sea," "Moonlight," "Silence"