For bleary-eyed film journalists, the end of September brings good news: Just one more marathon to run, the smartly selective, easily navigated New York Film Festival, and the Fall film-fest circuit draws to a close.
Also bad news: That means the real Oscar season is about to start.
The end-of-summer months always bring a quick succession of highly concentrated, hotly anticipated film events, in Venice, Telluride, Toronto and, finally, Manhattan (this year’s edition of the NYFF, its 58th, runs from September 28th to October 14th).
But while these festivals all exist, primarily, to promote the very best in cinema, they’ve all been co-opted to various degrees by studios in search of a launching pad for end-of-year awards campaigns.
It’s a strategy that can backfire.
I remember early, disastrous screenings of Cameron Crowe’s “Elizabethtown” in Toronto in 2005 that immediately, decisively sank that movie. Similarly, the New York premiere of “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” in 2016 fatally revealed that wildly hyped Ang Lee film to be a solid snooze.
This year’s apparent casualty? Dan Fogelman’s sentimental melodrama “Life Itself,” which limped out of Toronto and right into local theaters, pursued by critical jeers.
And yet studios continue to cross their fingers and send their prestige pictures out into these high-stakes arenas. Because often, the strategy works. I can still recall festival discoveries – “The King’s Speech,” “Gravity,” Forest Whitaker in “The King of Scotland,” Helen Mirren in “The Queen” – that quickly turned into practically pre-ordained wins.
So – with the New York film fest about to get underway — what festival favorites should you already be putting on your must-see list? And where are we in this year’s awards race?
Roughly, right about here…
Who’s being talked about right now? Well, it’s basically a supporting part, but Matthew McConaughey steals the show as a dysfunctional dad in “White Boy Rick” (in theaters)… He should have won for “All Is Lost” but the this-could-be-his-last-movie buzz might help Robert Redford with the otherwise lightweight “The Old Man and the Gun” (Sept. 28)… Never count out Bradley Cooper in his own made-for-Oscar part in “A Star Is Born” (Oct. 5)… Ryan Gosling has gotten a lot of attention playing Neil Armstrong in “First Man” (Oct. 12), Damien Chazelle’s story of the moon landing… and Hugh Jackman has already won some non-binding support for “The Front Runner” (Nov. 21), the story of Gary Hart’s self-sabotaged race for president.
“Vox Lux” (still unscheduled), features Academy favorite Natalie Portman as a singer trying to hold together a chaotic life – a popular story this year, as Lady Gaga tries to do the same in “A Star Is Born”… Melissa McCarthy’s change-of-pace dramatics in “Can You Ever Forgive Me” (Oct. 19) have impressed some (although I think supporting actor Richard E. Grant is the real stand out )… There are three great actresses in “The Favourite” (Nov. 22), a sexually charged costume drama, with Olivia Coleman getting the biggest career boost (but I loved Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone, too)… and Nicole Kidman is burnt out but still smoldering in the gritty cop drama “Destroyer” (Dec. 25).
The road-tripping, segregation-era set “Green Book” (Nov. 21), from former funnyman Peter Farrelly, seems to be moving mainstream audiences, while “If Beale Street Could Talk” (Nov. 30) is a serious adaptation of the James Baldwin book, courtesy of “Moonlight” director Barry Jenkins… No best production race should count out either “First Man” or “A Star Is Born” (which could also get a best-directing nod for first-timer, and co-star, Bradley Cooper) …And “Roma,” from Alfonso Cuaron, is a deeply personal, black-and-white childhood drama that will continue to gain plenty of attention, although perhaps more from critics’ groups than the Academy (Dec. 14).
And those are just the standouts from the recent festival whirl. Don’t forget – because short-attention span voters often do – earlier-in-the-year favorites like “Black Panther,” “BlackKklansman” or “First Reformed.” Or still-to-come possibles like “Bohemian Rhapsody” (Nov. 2), “Mary, Queen of Scots” (Dec. 7) and the Ruth Bader Ginsberg bio, “On the Basis of Sex” (Dec. 25).
The film festival season may be drawing to a close – but one bet you can be sure of is that the race for big awards has just begun.