Race to the Oscars

On Oct. 11, the New York Film Festival concluded after two weeks of high-profile events, including world premieres of Robert Zemeckis’ The Walk, Don Cheadle’s Miles Ahead, and Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, as well as U.S. premieres of foreign films The Assassin and Arabian Nights.

This festival follows in the heels of the recent Telluride, Venice, and Toronto film festivals, and to some extent the earlier Sundance, Berlin, Cannes, and London festivals, which collectively have been recognized as indicators of which films will receive awards attention at the Oscars.

Though the Oscars aren’t until February, the annual awards circuit and the developing conversation over the next few months can be especially revealing regarding the underlying politics present in the major filmmakers’ circle. An Oscar win boosts the careers of everyone involved in the film, and leads to more films of that type, or with those stars, in the future.

For these reasons, many media analysts from magazines and newspapers like Vulture, Variety, and The A.V. Club try to predict which films will win.

Any film released between now and Jan. 8, when nominations voting closes, could be “in the race” for Academy awards. But what determines a film’s actual chances is up to increasing debate as the medium evolves and the discussions take new directions each year. Over 7,000 members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences vote for five films in each category, as well as ten for Best Picture are nominated by members working in each field.

Since the awards are decided entirely on popularity, a film’s critical reception, release date, and relevance to current issues will always be important predictors in its success. In other words, timing is everything. Film festivals and screening events allow the movie to get additional reviews and press time. However, too much time before voting allows hype to wear down, and too much discussion can lead to overemphasizing a  movie’s flaws.

A few names come up consistently in any search on this year’s Oscars. Room tells the dramatic story of a mother and son’s escape from kidnapping after five years, and has received steady, increasing praise after debuting at Telluride. Nine-year-old Jacob Tremblay has been called the film’s breakout star, but despite him narrating the film, is strategically being marketed in the Best Supporting Actor category.

Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs also premiered there, and features both an impressive script written by Aaron Sorkin and a much-acclaimed performance from its star Michael Fassbender--who normally looks nothing like Steve Jobs. Biopics about people who changed the world are popular during awards season, but some critics have noted that this one could be easily overhyped.

Steven Spielberg’s Cold War epic, Bridge of Spies, written by the Coen Brothers, has also received positive predictions across several categories. However, Spielberg is already a revered Hollywood icon with many awards, and his reputation could work against him as easily as it works for him. Unfortunately, for many voters assessment of the movie’s merits may be difficult to separate from their personal regard for the director.

Spotlight, an ensemble piece which tells the story of the journalistic investigation of a scandal in the Catholic church, and Brooklyn, a period piece about an Irish immigrant starring Saoirse Ronan, are also expected to be nominated in numerous categories.

One release that shook up the awards circuit this year was Beasts of No Nation, which is the first feature film released in mainstream theatres and on Netflix Instant Streaming simultaneously. This move is unprecedented, and has led to several major theatre companies boycotting the film based on its perceived economic impact. The movie, warmly reviewed, is about the training of a child soldier and stars Luther’s Idris Elba.

The Martian, starring Matt Damon, has performed reasonably well, but it remains unclear what categories it may be nominated for. Science fiction and fantasy films, such as Mad Max: Fury Road and Star Wars: The Force Awakens, often win awards like Sound Editing, Visual Effects, or Production Design, but not Best Actor/Actress or Best Picture.

A win in a technical category often serves as an unconscious compromise for Oscar voters who liked a movie, but want to give their appropriate respect to films they perceive as more prestigious. This also reflects the perceived hierarchy of awards, with Best Picture and Best Director at the top and Technical, Animation, and Foreign Film awards being near the bottom.

Watching “the race” unfold allows one to see how films expected to do well end up being lessons in unrealized potential. In The Walk, Joseph Gordon Levitt walks across the Twin Towers on a tightrope in a stunning 20-minute CGI sequence. However, this technical achievement made the rest of the film pale in comparison, and a questionably strong French accent from Levitt undermined its power.

Johnny Depp’s transformation into notorious South Boston gangster Whitey Bulger in Black Mass was considered a “comeback” for the actor when it premiered at Venice. However, he was hindered by the unsuccessful integration of the rest of the movie’s elements and is thus unlikely to get an Oscar.

The Danish Girl, a biopic about the first recipient of transgender surgery, was expected to earn return nominations for Eddie Redmayne and director Tom Hooper, especially given that sexuality is a trending topic in today’s media. However, the movie was polarizing and deemed too sentimental.

Some films in the conversation have not even been seen yet. The final major film festival in the circuit, the AFI Fest, is not until November, and will feature The Big Short, which has received glowing advanced reviews. It stars Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt and Christian Bale, and deals with the 2000s housing bubble pre-crash.

Alejandro Iñárritu’s The Revenant, which stars Leonardo Dicaprio actually eating raw bison and fighting a bear, and Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight skipped the festivals altogether. They are both Westerns, and are expected to be nominated for cinematography awards when they release in theatres in December. If The Revenant wins, it will be Dicaprio’s first Oscar, Iñárritu’s second in a row, and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s third in a row.

Many of these films, affectionately called “Oscar-Bait,” will be relatively obscure to mainstream audiences until the Oscars ceremony, which will be hosted this year by Chris Rock on Feb. 28. But though it is laden with competition and bias, at its best the Oscars represents a time for film artists to experiment and push themselves. It is an annual invitation to create bolder and more innovative work in a Hollywood scene increasingly controlled by the industry of pleasing a crowd and making sales.