Even with the Telluride Film Festival canceled outside of one special LA Screening and both the Venice and Toronto operating a significantly reduced capacity, it’s still shocking how few Oscar contenders are in play as the New York Film Festival comes into view. At this time last year, “Jojo Rabbit,” “Hustlers,” “Knives Out,” “Ford v. Ferrari,” “Joker” and “Marriage Story” had the industry afluter with possibilities. Not so much this time around, but perhaps it would help if we frame the latest debuts as where Cannes would drop in a “normal year.”
There are five months and 12 days until the Oscars extended pandemic deadline comes into play on Feb. 28. That’s the middle of July in any other year. And by July of 2019, two Best Picture nominees had screened, “Parasite” and “Once Upon A Time In Hollywood.” Right now we have likely two Best Picture nominees in Sundance favorite “Minari” and the film everyone can’t stop talking about, “Nomadland.” Again, just push the goalposts back a bit and the playing field makes slightly more sense.
Obviously, this means is there is a lot of room for surprises along the way and with studios seemingly pushing back release dates after “Tenet’s” disappointing U.S. box office there could be a lot of moves in the months to come that would be unthinkable any other year. In fact, you should count on it. Are you 100% sure Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story” is coming out on Dec. 18? Are you confident Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune” will release in time for Oscar consideration? Meanwhile, will A24 really bite the bullet and release “Minari” in the current theatrical distribution environment? So many questions, so few answers. But, unlike mid-August, we do have a slightly better idea of the field and the widows ahead. Let’s review what we’ve learned, shall we?
“Nomadland” and Searchlight are ready for a marathon
Everything has gone pitch-perfect for writer/director/producer/editor Chole Zhao and “Nomadland” including rave reviews (97 currently on Metacritic) and snagging the Golden Lion at Venice. And what is the only studio to win Best Picture with a Golden Lion winner? Ah yes, Searchlight with “The Shape of Water” a little over two years ago (we’re not going to count the only other Best Picture and Venice winner, “Hamlet,” which Universal released in the U.S. in 1948). At this point, the studio needs to play the long game and they know it. Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actress nominations are very likely. The question is whether they can get an Adapted Screenplay and/or Editing nod to help take it over the top. The good news? They have a ton of time to pull it off.
“One Night In Miami” is a player…for now
Perhaps one of the biggest surprises of TIFF has been the overflowing of positive reviews for Regina King’s directorial debut. The Amazon Prime Video release is currently at an impressive 80 grade with just 16 reviews on Metacritic. No matter what the final critical assessment of “Miami,” it’s absolutely a Supporting Actor player for stars Aldis Hodge and Kingsley Ben-Adir who play real-life historical figures Jim Brown and Malcom X. It’s possible Amazon could try to categorize Ben-Adir or Eli Gore, who portrays Cassius Clay, as lead, but its such an ensemble piece that might not fly with voters. That being said, it’s certainly a SAG Ensemble Player in that regard. Overall, the fewer entrants into the Oscar race this season, the better “Miami’s” chances of earning recognition in other categories.
“Ammonite” on a Best Picture lifeline…for now
Francis Lee’s period romance has a very good 77 on Metacritic after screening at TIFF (it was previously selected for Cannes), but it’s also one of the most polarizing prestige films so far this season. Despite some five-star reviews out of the UK, a number of major critics in the US gave it significantly weaker notices. The good news is that Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan have earned mostly universal praise and NEON likely has Best Actress and Supporting Actress players to help campaign and market the movie. And, at worst, from a crafts perspective, it’s likely a Best Costumes contender. What is clear, however, is that NEON, Lionsgate UK and BBC Films are going to have to hope the British contingent of the Academy prop it up enough to earn a Best Picture nod and crash some other below-the-line categories.
Vanessa Kirby ready to restore the proper timeline
Somewhere, in a world somewhat like ours, the Coronavirus pandemic never occurred or was stopped early in its tracks before spreading across the globe. In that universe, Vanessa Kirby was the star of every film festival red carpet from Venice to Toronto with a side trip to Telluride to wow Academy voters for good measure. Her Venice-winning performance in “Pieces of a Woman” might have earned a theatrical acquisition with theaters at full capacity. It’s also hard to imagine “The World to Come,” another critics favorite from the Lido, not screening at a regular-sized TIFF or Telluride. Kirby’s performance in the former makes her a likely a Best Actress nominee and her turn in the latter could easily find her a Supporting Actress contender. The good news is Netflix has brought “Pieces” into the fold despite other Best Actress players on their slate. Kirby’s performance is simply that special. No one has acquired “The World to Come” domestically, but since Sony Worlwide has it outside the U.S. we’re gonna guess it eventually goes to SPC. Maybe.
What could have been
Speaking of alternate timelines, imagine one where Netflix decided to participate at festivals and a slew of contenders were unveiled. Aaron Sorkin’s “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” with Chadwick Boseman and Viola Davis, Ron Howard’s “Hillbilly Elegy” with Glenn Close and Amy Adams and possibly even David Fincher’s highly touted “Mank” could’ve made big impressions at the start of award season. Would Universal have unveiled Paul Greengrass’s “News of the World” with Tom Hanks? Would Focus have debuted Tom McCarthy’s “Stillwater” with Matt Damon? Could Wes Anderson’s “The French Dispatch” with everyone under the sun already be a frontrunner? Would Lee Daniels’ “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” been the hot acquisition player of Toronto? We’ll never know, but some of those titles will show their wares by Oscars’ Feb. 28 deadline. And don’t be surprised if some do not. But their absence has made this virtual film festival moment strangely quieter than expected.