‘Moonlight’ Becomes A Legit Oscar Contender And 7 Other Things We Learned In The Toronto Bubble

TORONTO – As a long time executive in the awards season game noted just a few nights ago after another round of parties and celebratory drinks came to an end, “We’re still in a bubble right now.”  And they were absolutely right. For all the hype and buzz you’ve seen about this picture or this performance from Venice, Telluride and now Toronto, this is all almost virtual reality for the big Oscar prize. The multiple standing ovations at Toronto, for instance, are not audiences of Academy members, let alone guild or industry (granted, there are no doubt a token few here and there).  And when diehards say TIFF audiences give standing ovations to everything they aren’t kidding (some unsolicited advice: never trust the reaction to a film premiering at Roy Thompson Hall). But we’ll never 100% discount what the past two weeks teach us every year and there are some very simple reasons why.

Venice gives you a hit of what the European press will embrace and some nice accolades for marketing purposes. Telluride is the cream of the crop in terms of programs (basically if you’re in its noteworthy) and the Colorado event has more Academy members on hand actually watching movies than any festival probably outside of Sundance or the upcoming NYFF (much bigger and longer festivals). Toronto is where films catch up with the mainstream press (and often get over hyped) and where you learn about general audience playability (well, at least general Canadian audience playability).

Remember, we’re still in a bubble, a bubble of hype that guild and Academy members will embrace or burst over the next few months. That being said…some takeaways.

“Moonlight” is a real player
In full humble disclosure, I was lucky enough to see Barry Jenkins’ masterpiece a few months ago. It haunted me for weeks, but I was always conservative in how I believed it might play to other critics and audiences. “Moonlight” exceeded all of my expectations. Critics of all ages, sexes, sexual orientations and ethnic backgrounds have raved about Jenkins’ landmark drama. And that was just in Telluride. Toronto found the response to be even more rapturous with one journalist telling me about how a patron at a public screening burst out bawling at the end of the picture. At that same screening Jonathan Demme stood up leading the standing ovation (yes, TIFF standing O’s don’t mean much be he’s an Oscar winner) and asked the first question at the Q&A. Even other studios that were skeptical of the indie are nonchalantly listing it as one of the films in the Best Picture race like it’d been expected for months (it wasn’t). And that’s why “Moonlight” went from a critics favorite that would make a ton of top 10 lists and maybe snag LAFCA or NYFCC’s top film of the year honor to a legit and (dare I say) Oscar nominee for Best Picture. The question is now which actors does A24 push in the Best Supporting Actor race (my votes are for Andre Holland and Mahershala Ali), will Naomie Harris pop in Supporting Actress and if Jenkins is a lock for a Best Director nomination (yes, I used the l-word). Simply put, “Moonlight” is eliciting an emotional response from audiences and that’s often what you need to break through.

Natalie Portman crashes an already incredibly competitive Best Actress race
Let’s be honest, there are a portion of movie watchers and industry peeps that are not fans of Ms. Portman. She might have surprised them with “Black Swan,” but everything else since has felt pretty lackluster. Those naysayers will be eating crow after seeing Portman in Pablo Larraín’s “Jackie” because it is unquestionably the best thing she’s ever done. Portman is breathtaking in an artistic portrayal of former First Lady Jackie Kennedy in the days leading up to and after her husband’s tragic assassination. Portman now joins an insanely competitive field including “La La Land” star Emma Stone (who won the Best Actress award at Venice), “Florence Foster Jenkins” lead Meryl Streep (a movie that will kill on screener), “Nocturnal Animals” and “Arrival” double threat Amy Adams (pick ’em or neither), the legendary Isabelle Huppert for “Elle” (over due, pt. 1), “Loving” lead Ruth Negga, “Hidden Figures” star Taraji P. Henson (more on that surprise player in a minute) and “20th Century Women” star Annette Bening (over due pt. 2). Of course we’re assuming “Fences” lead Viola Davis moves to supporting (hint, hint), but right now it looks like an epic race between the former ingénue Portman vs. the long expected one, Stone. You can already predict them each taking home the Drama and Comedy or Musical Golden Globes respectively.  Now, if Davis ends up remaining in the Best Actress field? Your guess is as good as mine.*

*Note: When I first published I’d completely forgotten about Negga’s amazing performance which just tells you how competitive this race is.

Michael Shannon may finally get that second Oscar nomination
Tom Ford’s “Nocturnal Animals” got mixed to positive notices at Toronto after its Venice debut (I know you’re not happy to hear that Focus, but that was the word on the street). It completely won me over, however, and one reason why is because of Michael Shannon’s movie stealing turn as a Texas police detective assigned to the case of Tony Hastings (Jake Gyllenhaal at peak form and deserving of some Academy love). Shannon gives his character so much life and added dimension that isn’t in the script. Considering how weak the Best Supporting Actor field seems to be overall (and that may change), don’t be surprised if we see Shannon and “Hell or High Water” star Jeff Bridges both nominated in this category for playing West Texas lawmen.  Weird, huh?

People really love “La La Land” (including this pundit) but there’s a very teeny tiny asterisk
Listen, on Sept. 15, 2016 the official Best Picture frontrunner is Damien Chazelle’s “La La Land.” There is no question that four months from now it’s gonna receive a ton of nominations and if you felt compelled to bet money on the Best Picture winner in Vegas “La La Land” would be your hands down pick. Nothing really happened after Venice or Telluride to change that take, but the one common refrain you’re hearing is that the script is not as up to par as the rest of the movie. In fact, it was a criticism heard slightly more in Toronto than in Telluride (granted, more people around). That’s one reason why you haven’t seen a deluge of articles straight out proclaiming “’La La Land’ is going to win best picture” like we experienced most recently with “Slumdog Millionaire” and “12 Years A Slave.” That doesn’t mean, however, that “La La Land” isn’t going to sail completely through the season.  It also doesn’t mean Chazelle, his producers, crew and cast won’t leave the Dolby Theater with more than a handful of Academy Awards on Feb. 26. And after the hell of this presidential election it might just be the sort of romantic, fantastical fare the Academy wants to utterly escape with. But, there is a little window for another picture to come through…assuming there is even another unseen contender that fits. We can also point out that no film has won the top prize that opened in December since “Million Dollar Baby” in 2005. But, hey, it has the Telluride stamp and rules are made to be broken, right?

“Hidden Figures” looks like its more than legit
20th Century Fox showed about 20 minutes of scenes from Theodore Melfi’s upcoming “Hidden Figures” and the biggest takeaway is that 1) its going to be a big crowd pleaser and, 2) not only is the aforementioned Henson a legit Best Actress nominee player, but a Best Picture nod isn’t out of the question either. With a New York and LA limited engagement on Christmas Fox is going to have to screen it like crazy as soon as they can for a legit picture play (and get those screeners out immediately after the Thanksgiving holiday). Frankly, this true story about three African-American women who were unsung heroes at NASA during the Mercury missions is going to surprise a lot of people.

No one is taking The Weinstein Company’s “Lion” seriously and that makes zero sense
One of the biggest cocktail and post-screening storylines at Toronto this year was whether The Weinstein Company had a legit Best Picture player this year and – no joke – was there anyone left at the company to run a campaign (we’re not exaggerating on how often this randomly came up during the festival).  Harvey has lost a number of significant bodies in his company this calendar year and that has industry observers casually dismissing TWC’s chances of earning a Best Picture nod for Garth Davis’ “Lion.” That’s ridiculous. Sure, it may be a very bumpy road, but if the movie plays it plays and guess what? “Lion” plays. Davis’ theatrical debut is a surprisingly artful endeavor filled with incredible performances (most noteworthy from newcomer Sunny Pawar as the young Saroo) and it’s a major tearjerker at the end. No, this might not end up being an Oscar campaign on the level of some of Weinstein’s previous players, but this is a picture where if you get enough Academy members to watch it a nomination is more than likely.

No matter how entertaining “Sing” is there is no mercy in the Best Animated Feature race
I lost count of how many irruptions of spontaneous applause there were during Garth Jennings’ “Sing” when it played TIFF’s premier showcase, The Princes of Wales Theater, Sunday afternoon. No shade to “La La Land,” but there were more bursts of applause for this Illumination Entertainment animated musical at TIFF than the Lionsgate Best Picture frontrunner found at Telluride.  To date, the only Illumination film to earn a Best Animated Feature nomination is “Despicable Me 2” (it was a weak year). “Sing” ends up being much better than that box office blockbuster, but it may face an uphill battle in landing a nod. This year’s field contains “Zootopia,” “Finding Dory,” “The Red Turtle,” “The Little Prince,” “Kubo and the Two Strings,” “Trolls” (DreamWorks Animation is gonna push) and Disney’s “Moana” with those original Lin-Manuel Miranda songs which no one has seen (or heard) yet. That doesn’t even include unlikely fringe players such as “Sausage Party” and “Storks,” among others. Basically, if you’re trying to crack the Best Animated Feature field and not Disney or Pixar it’s gonna be rough with the Animation committee. Very, very rough.

This was not the fall festival kick off “Birth of a Nation” planned for
As we chronicled on Friday night, the first public screenings of “Birth of a Nation” since its euphoric Sundance debut went incredibly well. The audiences warmly received the period drama and director Nate Parker, who has been at the center of controversy over a renewed focus on a rape allegation during his college years, was only asked questions about the movie itself during the post-screening Q&As. The film’s massive press conference on Sunday morning was a different matter entirely.  Parker’s past took center stage once again resulting in a rash of negative headlines that are likely doing more damage to the film’s box office prospects more than anything else. Is Parker’s Sundance Grand Jury and Audience Award winner still a Best Picture nominee? It’s a complicated question because of the “bubble,” but there could still be a strong enough base of support for the 400 or so first places votes or so needed to make the cut. And, moreover, Aja Naomi King is still a contender for a Best Supporting Actress nod and the movie could earn below the line nods in Costumes, Cinematography and even Original Score, among others. But with happier players like “La La Land,” “Moonlight” and “Sully” already in the game making the case to members to judge the film on its own is going to be a tough sell (unless the box office is incredible and then all bets are off the table). Toronto neither helped or hurt in this regard.  Is that a win at this point?

Curious what all these takes means for the Best Picture race? Take a deep breath and get ready because the first edition of this season’s Contender Countdown column will debut on Tuesday.