For the last seven years, you could count on the eventual winner of the best picture Oscar to emerge from the three big film festivals that unofficially mark the start of award season.
And to be sure, the crop of movies that premiered over the last two and a half weeks in Venice, Telluride and Toronto — including Noah Baumbach’s divorce dramedy “Marriage Story,” the comic-book character study “Joker” and Taika Waititi’s irreverent Hitler comedy “Jojo Rabbit” — will all shake up the Oscar race in a major way.
I’m just not sure that any of them can beat Quentin Tarantino.
After the festivals, Tarantino’s summer hit “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” still looks like our best-picture front-runner. A big-budget, big-screen movie with big stars, “Once Upon a Time” is a love letter to the art of moviemaking — the sort of thing Oscar voters typically trip over themselves to reward — and its current $135 million gross plants it right alongside best-picture winners like “Argo” and “The Departed.”
Though he’s won two Academy Awards for screenwriting, Tarantino has never taken the best director or best picture Oscar, and with a long-promised retirement from feature filmmaking on the horizon, voters may decide this is the best chance to give the 56-year-old director his due. It’s the right movie at the right time, and unless late-breaking releases like “The Irishman” and “Little Women” come on strong, this should be Tarantino’s year.
The old guard within the academy will also be eager to reward “Once Upon a Time” as a bulwark against streaming services encroaching on the movie business, the same impulse that gave “Green Book” the edge last year over Netflix’s “Roma.” This year, the streaming behemoth used the festival season to launch several new contenders.
The strongest best-picture competition among them may be Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story,” starring Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson as two artists navigating their drawn-out divorce. Both leads are sure bets to be nominated, as is Laura Dern in a hilarious, clever turn as Johansson’s lawyer.
Netflix will also be pushing Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman,” set to premiere later this month at the New York Film Festival, as well as “The Two Popes,” a crowd-pleaser that charmed Telluride and Toronto. The latter film, directed by Fernando Meirelles, imagines a series of tête-à-têtes between Pope Benedict XVI (Anthony Hopkins) and the more progressive pontiff who comes to supplant him, Pope Francis (Jonathan Pryce).
Though it’s been likened to “The King’s Speech” and “Green Book,” two previous two-handers that won best picture, the subject matter of “The Two Popes” skews older and narrower. Still, the film is laced with enough comedy to play strongly with a crowd, and if Netflix can coax enough people to see it during the three-week theatrical engagement “The Two Popes” gets before its streaming bow on Dec. 20, the company could flood the best-picture category with several contenders.
The film division of 20th Century Fox has been absorbed by Disney, but the studio will still be pushing “Ford v Ferrari,” a racecar drama that won good reviews at Telluride. It’s well-made but decidedly old school, which may not be a debit for academy members seeking traditional fare. If voters are drawn to something more contemporary, A24 is releasing “Waves,” a tragic family drama that’s vigorously directed by Trey Edward Shults and provoked comparisons to “Moonlight” at Telluride and Toronto.
Festival movies that may at least prove as noisy as Tarantino’s film include “Jojo Rabbit,” a whimsical take on Nazi Germany that divided critics in Toronto, and especially “Joker,” which tells a new origin story for Batman’s greatest nemesis, though this one has been drained of nearly all superhero signifiers. Instead, it’s a scuzzy deep-dive into the brain of Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a mentally ill clown nudged further and further into committing criminal acts. Squint, and you could see a trajectory that takes him into familiar comic-book territory, but the director Todd Phillips is more interested in evoking “Taxi Driver” and “The King of Comedy” than anything with capes and cowls.
“Joker” pulled off an upset by taking the top prize at Venice, and it will no doubt earn its fair share of hot takes and box-office attention in the months to come, but I think Phoenix has a better shot at an Oscar than the film itself. The 44-year-old is regarded as one of the best actors of his generation, and he carves out a take on the character that’s different enough from Heath Ledger’s Joker performance in “The Dark Knight” to prove just as award-worthy.
Other recent festival movies with a strong performance bid are “Judy,” with Renée Zellweger compelling as Judy Garland, “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” starring Tom Hanks as Mister Rogers, as well as “Dolemite Is My Name” and “Uncut Gems,” with two grabby performances from the comedians Eddie Murphy and Adam Sandler, respectively. The well-intentioned Harriet Tubman biopic, “Harriet,” and “Just Mercy,” the legal drama starring Michael B. Jordan, both received mild reviews, but star turns by Cynthia Erivo in the former and Jamie Foxx in the latter shouldn’t be counted out.
Kyle Buchanan, a Los Angeles-based pop culture reporter, writes the Carpetbagger column. He was previously a senior editor at Vulture, New York Magazine’s entertainment website, where he covered the movie industry. @kylebuchanan
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