Where The Oscar Race Stands After Fall's Major Film Festivals

Will "La La Land" take home the year's biggest prize?
Fox Searchlight

As the leaves change colors, so does the Hollywood calendar. We’re officially on the cusp of “Oscar season,” that lovely and interminable period where so-called prestige films are bandied about in hopes of earning awards glory. The major fall festivals (Telluride, Venice, Toronto and New York) are all said and done as of last weekend, so now the drama starts to come into focus. I’ll cover the Oscar race more in-depth in the months to come, but here is an overview of where the six major categories stand. Nominations are announced Jan. 24, but studios’ campaigns are already underway ahead of the Feb. 26 ceremony.

Best Picture
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"
Best Director
Of the directors whose films have screened for press so far, it'll be hard to top the seamless musicality of Damien Chazelle ("La La Land") and the poetic grace of Barry Jenkins ("Moonlight"). But two Academy faves whose projects haven't premiered are strong threats: Denzel Washington ("Fences") and Martin Scorsese ("Silence").

I thought Ang Lee was a shoo-in, given his win for the technically pioneering "Life of Pi." Sadly, the record-breaking frame rate he used to make "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk" is a major miscalculation. That opens up the fifth slot for a whole number of -- you guessed it -- men. (Unless somehow, magically, the Academy decides Andrea Arnold can sneak in for the Oscar-unfriendly "American Honey" or Mira Nair is worthy for the box-office bummer "Queen of Katwe.") Kenneth Lonergan ("Manchester by the Sea") is guaranteed a Best Original Screenplay nod, but is his directorial flare too muted for this prize? If so, I'd turn to Pablo Larraín ("Jackie"), whose flare is blessedly transparent in the use of extreme close-ups, or Denis Villeneuve ("Arrival"), a critical darling whose brainy sci-fi drama is a career best.

The list goes on: Jeff Nichols ("Loving"), Tom Ford ("Nocturnal Animals"), Mike Mills ("20th Century Women"), Clint Eastwood ("Sully"), Ben Affleck ("Live by Night"), Garth Davis ("Lion"), Warren Beatty ("Rules Don't Apply"), Theodore Melfi ("Hidden Figures") and -- if he should be so lucky -- Nate Parker ("The Birth of a Nation") are all waiting in the wings.

Predictions: Damien Chazelle ("La La Land"), Barry Jenkins ("Moonlight"), Pablo Larraín ("Jackie"), Martin Scorsese ("Silence"), Denzel Washington ("Fences")
Best Actress
The past few Best Actress contests have been steamrolled by one candidate who dominated the bulk of awards season (Brie Larson in "Room," Julianne Moore in "Still Alice," Cate Blanchett in "Blue Jasmine"). This year's lineup is stacked, and how fun would be it to see a real contest? Emma Stone ("La La Land") was branded the earlier pacesetter, and she has the charm to work the talk-show and awards-party circuit for months to come. But it's a quintessential Emma Stone performance, and the Academy prefers to see its women transform.

That brings us to Natalie Portman, who revisits the dark terrain that netted her "Black Swan" Oscar five years ago. Portraying Jackie Kennedy during the week after her husband's assassination, she brings a new layer of rage and grief to each passing scene. Portman will have to contend with the "she's overdue" narrative surrounding Annette Bening, a four-time nominee who has never won. That gives us a tight three-way race, assuming Paramount wisely bumps Viola Davis' emotive "Fences" performance to the supporting realm. If so, the final two slots offer a derby among the overdue Amy Adams ("Arrival" and "Nocturnal Animals"), Meryl Streep ("Florence Foster Jenkins"), Ruth Negga ("Loving"), Jessica Chastain ("Miss Sloane"), Taraji P. Henson ("Hidden Figures"), Rebecca Hall ("Christine"), Marion Cotillard ("Allied") and French veteran Isabelle Huppert ("Elle" and "Things to Come"), who could be this year's Charlotte Rampling.

Predictions: Annette Bening ("20th Century Women"), Taraji P. Henson ("Hidden Figures"), Isabelle Huppert ("Elle"), Natalie Portman ("Jackie"), Emma Stone ("La La Land")
Best Actor
Roadside Attractions
Of the performances that have screened for press so far, none is as affecting as Casey Affleck's repressed heartache in "Manchester by the Sea." Affleck will have to maintain his Sundance buzz all the way through February, but his key competition is weak. Ryan Gosling plays reliable second fiddle to Emma Stone in "La La Land," Joel Edgerton is masterful but understated in "Loving," and Tom Hanks is very Tom Hanks in the overly tidy "Sully." It'll fall on five dudes whose movies haven't yet screened to make this a true race: six-time nominee Denzel Washington ("Fences"), newly christened Scorsese acolyte Andrew Garfield ("Silence," though he also has Mel Gibson's "Hacksaw Ridge"), tabloid fixture Ben Affleck ("Live by Night"), perennial Robert De Niro ("The Comedian") and the recently resurged Michael Keaton ("The Founder"). The lingering question is whether The Weinstein Co. will jockey Dev Patel ("Lion") as lead or supporting. Patel doesn't arrive until almost an hour into the movie, but when he does, it's very much his show.

Predictions: Casey Affleck ("Manchester by the Sea"), Joel Edgerton ("Loving"), Ryan Gosling ("La La Land'), Tom Hanks ("Sully"), Denzel Washington ("Fences")
Best Supporting Actress
The Weinstein Co
If the sounds of Miles Davis produce euphoria among jazz aficionados, the words "Nicole Kidman awards movie" does the same for Oscar obsessives. Enter "Lion," which seems poised to merit Kidman's fourth nomination, this time for playing an adoptive mother who serves as the film's emotional cornerstone. But Kidman is doing battle with Michelle Williams, who had the scarlet "front-runner" emblazoned on her jacket at Sundance, when a wrenching "Manchester by the Sea" scene got the festival buzzing.

Naomie Harris' "Moonlight" role will attract voters who like their supporting actresses on the grittier side. (Think Lupita Nyong'o in "12 Years a Slave," Melissa Leo in "The Fighter," Mo'Nique in "Precious" and Angelina Jolie in "Girl, Interrupted.") Harris plays a crack addict whose psychological turmoil deepens as her young son struggles with his sexuality.

But these three women face the looming threat of Viola Davis, whose work in "Fences" -- a role that already won her a Tony -- appears to carry a weepy gravitas reminiscent of "Doubt." That leaves a spot for the "20th Century Women" women (Greta Gerwig and Elle Fanning), two Janelle Monáe performances ("Moonlight" and "Hidden Figures"), a rare dramatic turn from Molly Shannon ("Other People") and the ever-loved Laura Dern ("The Founder"), among a small handful of others.

Predictions: Viola Davis ("Fences"), Greta Gerwig ("20th Century Women"), Naomie Harris ("Moonlight"), Nicole Kidman ("Lion"), Michelle Williams ("Manchester by the Sea")
Best Supporting Actor
Here we arrive at the year's haziest race. There is no front-runner! The closest we come, it seems, is Mahershala Ali, the "Luke Cage" and "House of Cards" actor whose turn as a soulful drug dealer is a hallmark of "Moonlight." A lack of star power didn't impede Alicia Vikander earlier this year, but A24 will need to raise Ali's profile so he doesn't fall short of, say, recent winner Jeff Bridges ("Hell or High Water"), a hyper-serious Liam Neeson ("Silence"), industry king Warren Beatty ("Rules Don't Apply"), the under-appreciated Billy Crudup ("20th Century Women" and "Jackie"), scene-stealer Michael Shannon ("Nocturnal Animals"), and the never-nominated Hugh Grant ("Florence Foster Jenkins").

Then there are the other gents from "Moonlight," particularly Trevante Rhodes and André Holland, if they can rise above the film's crowded ensemble. Instead, I bet the fifth slot will go to 19-year-old Lucas Hedges, whose subdued mourning in "Manchester by the Sea" leaves an impression more lasting than performances from veterans like Steve Martin ("Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk") and Timothy Spall ("Denial"). I've also heard wild things about Aaron Eckhart in the boxing drama "Bleed for This," and there's still a solid chance Dev Patel ("Lion") will campaign in this category.

Predictions: Mahershala Ali ("Moonlight"), Jeff Bridges ("Hell or High Water"), Lucas Hedges ("Manchester by the Sea"), Liam Neeson ("Silence"), Dev Patel ("Lion")
Jennifer Lawrence

Oscars Red Carpet 2016