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Oscar season has few clear front-runners, but fall festivals introduced many contenders

Taika Waititi and Roman Griffin Davis in “Jojo Rabbit.”
Taika Waititi and Roman Griffin Davis in “Jojo Rabbit.”
(Kimberley French/20th Century Fox )

The buzz from the fall film festivals — Venice, Telluride and the just-wrapped Toronto — sometimes ends the Oscar best picture race even before the for-your-consideration billboards go up along Sunset Boulevard.

When the audience clapped in unison along with the spiritual “Roll, Jordan, Roll” during the closing credits for “12 Years a Slave” at Toronto six years ago, its Oscar glory seemed a fait accompli. “Spotlight,” the 2015 best picture winner, won raves at the three festivals, and the moment the real-life reporters who investigated the Catholic Church pedophilia scandal took the stage at Toronto to a thunderous ovation, there was a sense that this was a movie that could go all the way.

That kind of front-runner has yet to emerge this year, probably to the relief of every studio with designs on winning best picture. Shortly after Lady Gaga arrived in a gondola for the Venice premiere of “A Star Is Born” last year, a handful of overeager pundits anointed Bradley Cooper’s remake as the Movie That Would Win Everything. The film took just one Oscar, original song.

Toronto has three jury prizes, but its splashiest honor is the People’s Choice Award, an honor that has catapulted several films — “12 Years a Slave,” “The King’s Speech,” “Slumdog Millionaire” and, last year, “Green Book” — to the Academy Award for best picture. Ten of the last 11 winners have been nominated for best picture.

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This year could prove to be another exception as Taika Waititi’s critically eviscerated Holocaust comedy “Jojo Rabbit” took the People’s Choice prize. The controversial coming-of-age tale about a Hitler Youth boy who conjures an imaginary Adolf Hitler to help ease his loneliness is being marketed as an “anti-hate satire.” Its victory in Toronto ensures that it will be at least in the Oscar conversation for best picture, though that discussion will assuredly be contentious.

With that announcement and the three early festivals in the books, it’s a good time to survey the awards season landscape and identify the movies and performances we’ll be talking about until the Oscars are presented on Feb. 9.

Best picture and director

‘Parasite’
So-dam Park and Woo-sik Choi and in “Parasite.”
(Neon)

A year after scuttling the proposed popular-film Oscar and seeing commercial hits like “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Black Panther” and “A Star Is Born” competing for best picture, ABC executives and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences might be looking at this year’s slate with a bit of trepidation.

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Yes, Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood” was a sizable hit and remains a de facto front-runner in the absence of a festival film that ticks off all the appropriate boxes. Can a Quentin Tarantino movie that includes the Manson “family” win best picture? Well ... it does have “Hollywood” in its title.

Noah Baumbach’s emotionally charged “Marriage Story” earned the most praise of the festival debuts, but its bruising blow-by-blow account of separation and divorce makes “Kramer vs. Kramer” feel like a spirit-lifting parting of the clouds. That’s to take nothing away from this excellent film, one of the year’s best. It just might be a bit of a tough sell, though we’ll never really know the size of its audience because it’s being distributed by Netflix.

The festivals’ most memorable movies — the kinetic character study “Uncut Gems,” the ambitious portrait of a fracturing family “Waves” and Bong Joon-ho’s thrilling social satire “Parasite” — aren’t likely to become mainstream hits, though every Adam Sandler fan needs to find “Uncut Gems” to bear witness to his volcanic greatness.

“Joker,” the DC Comics origin story, divided its audience at Toronto after winning the Golden Lion at Venice. The movie’s unrelenting bleakness, combined with its superficial, patchwork treatment of the social issues it uses as window dressing, makes it unlikely to land here.

Three other studio films — Marielle Heller’s lovely “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” the sturdy legal drama “Just Mercy” and the $100-million period race car drama “Ford v Ferrari” — are also in play.

Really though, there’s a vacuum in both these categories that a trio of anticipated latecomers will be more than happy to fill. Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of “Little Women,” Martin Scorsese’s three-and-a-half-hour mob epic “The Irishman” and Sam Mendes “1917,” a war film that takes place in real time, could earn nods for picture and director.

There’s also reason to feel optimistic about the chances for Lulu Wang’s emotionally vibrant “The Farewell,” a deft, delightful and heartbreaking family portrait that played in theaters all summer. It would be thrilling — and historic — to see both Wang and Bong break into the ranks of Oscar-feted directors.

Lead and supporting actor

Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck in ‘Joker’
Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck in “Joker.”
(Niko Tavernise/Warner Bros.)
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Awards consultants and personal publicists have spent the last few weeks furrowing their brows, brandishing their stopwatches and wondering what lead actor performances they could conceivably campaign in supporting without being laughed out of town.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt in “Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood.” Christian Bale and Matt Damon in “Ford v Ferrari.” Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe in Robert Eggers’ cabin fever horror tale “The Lighthouse.” Jonathan Pryce and Anthony Hopkins in Fernando Meirelles’ papal buddy movie “The Two Popes.”

Thank Gotham, “Joker” didn’t make room for Batman. Joaquin Phoenix can have the lead category all to himself.

The short answer for the aforementioned quandaries: They’re all leads! And Tom Hanks, raw and open as Fred Rogers in “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” is a supporting turn, even though his presence looms so large that it feels like the principal performance.

Adam Driver, superb as the husband in “Marriage Story,” and Phoenix’s cackling high-wire act in “Joker” have emerged as early favorites, along with DiCaprio, never better as the doubt-ridden actor in “Hollywood.”

Then there’s Antonio Banderas, who won the lead actor prize at Cannes for Pedro Almodovar’s “Pain and Glory,” playing a brooding filmmaker suffering from malaises both spiritual and physical. It’s an understated turn, intimate and deeply moving and could earn Banderas his first Oscar nomination.

I’ve already mentioned Sandler, who, in a just world, would be the “Oscar-nominated Adam Sandler” in a few months. Eddie Murphy, on the comeback trail, also won some favor at Toronto for the fun “Dolemite Is My Name.” He’s certain to show up at the Golden Globes among the comedy nominees.

Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx could find favor on the drama side for “Just Mercy”; Jordan for his lead turn as crusading attorney Bryan Stevenson, Foxx for the death row inmate wrongly accused.

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Their Oscar paths — and those of others — may be dependent on the reception afforded “The Irishman,” whose cast includes stalwarts Robert De Niro and Al Pacino and longtime Scorsese collaborators Joe Pesci and Harvey Keitel. It’s not a group to take lightly.

Lead and supporting actress

‘Marriage Story’
Laura Dern, left, and Scarlett Johansson in a scene from “Marriage Story.”
(Wilson Webb / Netflix)

The women from “Marriage Story” — Scarlett Johansson as the woman looking to forge a life of her own and Laura Dern playing the fierce attorney determined to see that she succeeds — make a formidable team in these categories. And Renée Zellweger’s comeback story is as compelling as the tenderness she brings to showbiz legend Judy Garland’s final year in “Judy.”

But any real assessment will have to wait until Gerwig’s take on “Little Women” screens for the first time. Star Saoirse Ronan earned three Oscar nominations before her 25th birthday. A second collaboration with her “Ladybird” director might finally bring her the trophy.

And a cast that includes Florence Pugh, Meryl Streep, Emma Watson and, yes, the great Laura Dern playing Marmee, could well snag a couple of supporting nominations. Much as I dislike making predictions sight unseen, I wouldn’t bet against the March women this year.

Of the films premiering at Toronto, “Harriet,” a look at the life of abolitionist Harriet Tubman, was buttressed by praise for the urgency Cynthia Erivo brought to the title role.

The Canadian premiere that caught many by surprise was “Hustlers,” a fast-paced, funny tale of female empowerment that instantly made the awards season more interesting by gifting us Jennifer Lopez as an Oscar contender. Playing a stripper turned grifter, Lopez, in the words of my colleague Times film critic Justin Chang, “gives her most electrifying screen performance since ‘Out of Sight,’ slipping the movie into her nonexistent pocket from the moment she strides out onto a neon-lighted stage in a rhinestone bodysuit.”

Does anyone else stand a chance?

Finally, the lead category could (and should) be bolstered by Awkwafina, a revelation for her expressive dramatic work in “The Farewell” (and let me add a shout-out to Shuzhen Zhou’s lovely supporting turn as the film’s grandmother), and Lupita Nyong’o, displaying a dazzling range in dual roles in Jordan Peele’s “Us.”

There was talk in March when “Us” premiered that Nyong’o had presented Oscar voters with an open-and-shut case for her second trophy. Room for debate now exists, but she still has a pretty convincing argument.

L.A. Times writers Glenn Whipp and Justin Chang discuss their Toronto festival highlights including “Marriage Story,” “Knives Out,” “Uncut Gems” and “The Lighthouse.”


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