There’s a Fiona Apple lyric I tend to think of — and yes, I know it’s not the first I’ve quoted in relation to the Oscar race — at the outset of any awards season these days, a wistful description of a broken relationship that seems oddly applicable to the many films that are about to get tossed aside at various intervals over the next five months. “It ended bad,” she croons with pained acceptance, “but I love where it started.”
Well, “ended bad” may be a little strong. In six of the last seven years, the season has concluded with a film I actually like winning the Oscar for Best Picture. In a couple of cases, I’d even have voted the same way. But however just the outcome, the awards race is never more fun than it is at the very brink of autumn, when dozens of shiny prestige prospects loom enticingly in the middle distance — their potential still undented by the complicating process of actually being seen. At the same time, the critical darlings of summer are fresh in our memories, still warm with hope that they may be The One That Survives. Everyone’s a contender at the start of September; virtually every year, we marvel at how “crowded” the field is, wondering how we’ll ever winnow it down.
But we do, and we do so rather quickly. The shaping begins in the very first week of September, as the combined — only occasionally conflicting — forces of Venice, Telluride and Toronto convert the potential of some into authentic buzz, make instant also-rans of others, and introduce a few we didn’t even know were lurking there all along. Once autumn’s offerings have been opened, the summer set seem that much older; some beloved titles we stop mentioning altogether, without pausing to think why. The race snugly softens and molds around those that remain, rather than stiffly covering all of them; like expensive selvedge denim, only with slightly more shrinkage.
The shaping seemed particularly zealous in Toronto this year — though maybe it was because I’d been in Venice, where the last mention of the O-word came about three days in, after “Philomena” premiered to what, only a month later, seems a weirdly rapturous response. (Or maybe not so weirdly: from the outside, no one seemed to be talking about the easygoing Britpic at Toronto, yet it snuck its way to second place in the Audience Award voting.) The biggest talking point on the Lido was a 12-minute take of Lee Kang-cheng tearfully mutilating a cabbage in “Stray Dogs,” yet his Oscar buzz has remained strangely flat.
Meanwhile, in Telluride and then Toronto, a frontrunner was anointed with even more aggressive certainty than is usual in this particular circus. A generally level-headed colleague emailed me to explain that, as annoying as the breathless hype sounded to those of us not on the ground, it wasn’t misplaced: “12 Years a Slave” really was a dead cert to win Best Picture, and all arguments to the contrary were mere formalities. “Would you have given any film a prayer of beating ‘Schindler’s List’ had it appeared at this point in the season back in 1993?” he asked? I had to admit I wouldn’t have done, though I’d have been equally impatient to see it first.
Not that I mind the early jockeying. As frustrating as authoritative-sounding, festival-based Oscar pronouncements are to the non-Toronto crowd, the righteous-sounding pushback to any form of early prediction is rather more annoying. Guessing at, or even betting on, the Oscars at any stage is mere sport; to deem it inappropriate or somehow unfair to the contenders in play is both to credit the awards with considerably more gravitas than they deserve, and those writing about said awards with considerably more influence than they realistically have.
Still, it was awfully hard to keep track of those early shifts in the race, so frequently and vehemently were they noted. “12 Years a Slave” was in across the board. “August: Osage County” was out — except for its performances, where questions of who was in, and who was out, and in the correct or incorrect category, were thrashed out on Twitter in far greater detail, and with far more enthusiasm, than the more fundamental question of whether the film was any cop. Idris Elba was out. Matthew McConaughey was so in. Directors with the audacity not to go to Toronto at all — oh, those incorrigible Coens — were on hold.
Most, if not all, of these declarations may be proven correct by January, though it’s hard to absorb them as gospel when you’re still waiting to see the film with your own eyes. “12 Years a Slave” may well enter the backlash stage before I join the chorus of even the first wave of euphoria/skepticism; by October 18, the date of its UK premiere, the counter-backlash may even be under way. (The film will be glad of it; after being declared a Best Picture-in-waiting at Toronto last year, “Argo” did itself an enormous favor by dimming its lights for a couple of weeks while more restlessly declarative pundits imagined “Lincoln” a done deal.)
The fall festivals are nearly a month-old memory, the field already leaner and more steeply raked than it was in early September, and I’m only now offering my first nomination predictions. If I’ve been a little slower than usual to join the prognostication parade, it’s because I’ve been a little slower than usual to see the films — and I’d prefer to enjoy them as films first, before analyzing what factors — only one of which tends to be the film’s own merit — went right or wrong for its Oscar campaign. “12 Years a Slave,” “Captain Phillips,” “Dallas Buyers Club,” “August: Osage County,” even summer releases like “Lee Daniels’ The Butler”: all titles whose variable awards potential I know more intimately than the films themselves.
Some films may even be out of the running altogether by the time some of us get round to them, and that’s no bad thing. There’s a noble fascination to fine, Oscar-tailored films that never found the awards momentum they were seeking: Ramin Bahrani’s “At Any Price” generated awards talk for all of a second on the festival circuit last year, and I’ll still tell my fellow Brits to see it when it crawls onto UK screens this winter. (Just the other day, I caught a segment of “The Soloist” on TV, and was surprised by how entirely-okay it seemed. Also, you know what’s a pretty good film that no one tells you is pretty good? “Won’t Back Down.” But I’m straying off course here.)
Good films needn’t even be great to avoid evaporating when Oscar season does. They’re in a different category to genuinely remarkable early releases that probably never had Oscar on the cards anyway — let’s say “Stoker” or, at a marginally more Oscar-friendly push, “Frances Ha.” (Lest we forget, Noah Baumbach’s lovely film skipped away from Toronto last year with a modicum of Oscar buzz for its leading lady, before selflessly scuppering its own momentum to give the springtime at least one great movie.) And those are in a different category still to recent festival premieres that we know, sight unseen, aren’t getting Oscars, but are looking forward to seeing away. (I’m pretty sure I know why nobody at Toronto was talking about, oh, “The Railway Man,”but I still want to see it.)
We’re already past that nice point of knowingly blind optimism where virtually everything and everyone, we like to say, has a shot. Still, there’s room in my mind for all these films, even if there’s no room in the race: have-nots that still have (or might have) something, out but not down.
Check out my updated predictions here.