Off the Carpet: Where we stand after AFI Fest and self-proclaimed ‘official’ launches

A lot has happened to further set the stage for this year's Oscar race in the last week and a half. AFI Fest ultimately landed four major world premieres – “A Most Violent Year,” “The Gambler,” “Selma” and “American Sniper.” Film Independent at LACMA added “Big Eyes” to the equation. “Unbroken” premiered in Sydney just hours ago as a show of appreciation (the film was largely shot in Australia) while screening to some press stateside (the big coming out will be Thanksgiving weekend). And the awards shows themselves have already started, namely the Governors Awards and the summarily dismissed Hollywood Film Awards. I suppose it's time to see where we stand…

Christopher Nolan's “Interstellar” played to a disinterested Academy audience the weekend of release and didn't become the box office story it was expected to be (it will be just fine on that score, though – perspective). Also, people across the country can't even hear the thing. It's not a provocative statement to say the film did not get off to the right start and may well be out of the race entirely at this point. So if anyone was breathing a heavy sigh of relief when Ava DuVernay's “Selma” played through the roof last week, it was Paramount. Frankly, they now have a film that could win it all.

(“The Gambler,” also from Paramount, arrived with mixed-to-positive reaction but most conclude it won't be going far in the race. And that's fine.)

Warner Bros. also came into AFI Fest hoping for something to work with in “American Sniper,” as it has become increasingly clear ever since a New York Film Festival debut that “Inherent Vice” might not be the Academy's cup of tea. Eastwood's film is considered by many to be his best in a while, though that might be more indicative of opinion on his latter day work than it is a testament to this particular film's virtues. Regardless, it absolutely has some of the DNA of what can appeal this time of year. But Bradley Cooper (who is quite good in a low key way) won't be penetrating the brutal Best Actor sprint, particularly with David Oyelowo landing with a boom in “Selma,” and it might be difficult to find a lot of passion for the film overall. Then again, it might not. A very low number of nominations with a Best Picture cherry on top could pan out. Or it could pick up the same two sound nominations “Lone Survivor” did. Whatever happens, the strategy of using the awards conversation to drive interest as it heads into wide release in January and plays like gangbusters to middle America will absolutely work…just like it did with “Lone Survivor.”

J.C. Chandor's “All is Lost” follow-up “A Most Violent Year” was the pleasant surprise for many. Particularly notable – in the wake of a PR dust-up concerning how and when she could promote the film – was Jessica Chastain. The actress' Lady Macbeth presence is fantastic in the film even if she doesn't get as many opportunities to show off in the second half. Best Supporting Actress is a flimsy category, but even if it were strong, I think she would make a serious case for inclusion. And Oscar Isaac is phenomenal, but one has to wonder if, like last year, the subtle brilliance is too low on the radar for viewers to really take notice. But watch out for some potential love for Bradford Young, who also shot “Selma” and whose painterly frames are jaw-dropping throughout.

Then there was “Big Eyes.” I'm told the film was originally part of AFI programming, but at some point that changed and the LACMA premiere was scheduled (opposite AFI's closing night presentation of “Foxcatcher”). It played really well to an audience of museum members, but Amy Adams wasn't really presented with the opportunity I was expecting and Christoph Waltz grabs a lot of attention in a slimy, showy role. He probably has a better shot at sliding into the Best Supporting Actor discussion than she does in the bereft Best Actress race, to be perfectly honest. Another surprising twist in this year's race.

Just as an aside, I also popped up to Santa Barbara to see “Birdman” with the local cinema society last weekend. It played well and Michael Keaton was surrounded by admirers at a post-screening soiree (which included some 30 or 40 Academy members). He really seems to be putting one foot in front of the other in this race and, for a film that so speaks to actors, is emerging as the Best Actor frontrunner. He could well be the only American nominated in a sea of Brits, which is interesting, too. (Though I think Steve Carell will make the cut.) That was my fourth look at the film. Have I mentioned how much I LURVE it?

There a couple of doors left to be opened. “Unbroken” is stirring some mixed reaction. It has for some weeks now, really, but so did “Selma.” And “Interstellar” was stacking up to look like a threat to win all the gold before it screened widely. So naturally, I'm in wait-and-see mode; this season has been funny like that. Angelina Jolie's film has been the on-paper thoroughbred for so long that it sort of seems like it's time for that aura to disappear. More often than not, the sight-unseen luster goes away for movies like this. But Jack O'Connell has started making the rounds, attending the Governors Awards, showing up at the Hollywood Film Awards to accept a bauble from Jolie, etc. We'll see.

We'll also see about “Into the Woods,” which will screen in earnest beginning this weekend. Is Rob Marshall back with a musical that can do some damage? (I've heard that.) Or is it barely a few degrees away from “Nine” and something that will mostly figure into craft races? (I've heard that, too.) Again, we'll see.

So that more or less covers it for now. The Contenders section has been updated with this and that. Some glacial shifting and sliding but nothing has left a crater yet. Curious season, this.