The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences presented its best picture Oscar this year on March 2 — almost six months after many pundits, with varying degrees of certainty, had named the harrowing, historical drama "12 Years a Slave" as the de facto winner after seeing the movie (and audiences' stunned reactions) at the Telluride and Toronto film festivals last September.
You can chalk up the lengthy time lag partly to the media's impulse to be the first to plant the Flag of Prediction and claim the call in the name of all that is good and holy and click-bait worthy. Half measures are frowned upon these days. Besides, given the absurd length of the awards season, who will remember if you're wrong on Labor Day (not the Jason Reitman movie of the same name, which was unfairly hobbled leaving the festival gate last year) by the time Presidents Day rolls around?
The motive behind instantly defining the race can be easily understood. The last four best picture Oscar winners — "The King's Speech," "The Artist," "Argo" and "12 Years" — played at both Telluride and Toronto. Last year, the response to "12 Years a Slave" was immediate and deeply felt. Yes, festival crowds routinely stand and roar their approval to just about any film playing in a prime slot, but the reaction to Steve McQueen's movie went beyond that.
Audience members clapped in unison while "Roll, Jordan, Roll" played over the movie's end credits. And in Toronto, the cheering that greeted McQueen, writer John Ridley and the movie's fine cast — Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong'o, Brad Pitt and Benedict Cumberbatch — absolutely thundered through the Princess of Wales Theatre. All that was missing was the anointing oil and the Oscar.
But still ... don't you want to digest the entirety of the year's offerings (not to mention the burgers you ate at your Labor Day barbecue) before engraving your Oscar winners in stone? When David O. Russell's "American Hustle" first screened in mid-November, many pundits, weary of writing about "12 Years a Slave" and "Gravity," immediately catapulted the film ahead of the two early birds, particularly after the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. showered it with love. Martin Scorsese's "The Wolf of Wall Street" and Spike Jonze's lovely "Her" also had their admirers, though neither could muster enough love to move from being a nominee to a prime contender.
The good news (at least for those who don't immediately turn to the final page of a book after buying it) is that the Telluride-Toronto two-step will likely go out of fashion this year. For one thing, with Toronto artistic director Cameron Bailey relegating any films that premiere at Telluride to Toronto's less-attended second weekend, not as many movies are playing both spots this year. And those that are — Bennett Miller's warped character study "Foxcatcher," Reese Witherspoon's Pacific Crest Trail journey to self-discovery "Wild," Jon Stewart's directorial debut, "Rosewater," and Cumberbatch's historical drama "The Imitation Game" — don't boast the sort of overwhelming credentials that could lead to end-of-the-conversation Oscar talk.
And though we can expect to hear much more about all of those, the best picture contenders will likely include two brilliant titles from earlier in the year, Wes Anderson's "The Grand Budapest Hotel" and Richard Linklater's coming-of-age drama "Boyhood," along with some fall releases: the Venice-premiere "Birdman"; two high-profile auteur adaptations — David Fincher's "Gone Girl" and Paul Thomas Anderson's "Inherent Vice" — and numerous other imposing titles the studios will dole out through the end of the year.
In fact, it's entirely possible that the majority of this year's best picture field could come from movies arriving in theaters in December. Along with the aforementioned "Wild" and "Inherent Vice," the Christmas season includes such prestige entries as "Unbroken" (the Louis Zamperini biopic directed by Angelina Jolie) and the civil-rights drama "Selma," along with Rob Marshall's adaptation of the Broadway musical "Into the Woods," Tim Burton's oddball drama "Big Eyes" and "American Sniper," a biographical action film directed by Clint Eastwood, who has a history of crashing the Oscar party at the last minute.
The upshot: There are no September reservations this year. At least in the best picture race. But Michael Keaton has the lead actor Oscar sewn up for his meta-turn in "Birdman," playing a former A-lister best known for portraying a famous superhero. ("I'm Birdman").