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Oscar watch! These 5 festival films are already the talk of awards season

  • September 17, 2020

Toronto International Film Festival is winding down and usually by this time, Oscar pundits’ tongues would be wagging after gala screenings and critics might already be filling in mock Academy Awards ballots.

But things are weird all around in the middle of a pandemic, and that goes for awards season, too.

Because this year’s festival – usually a launching pad for many contenders – was a slimmed-down virtual event, it’s hard to fathom how much Toronto will move the needle at the 93rd Oscars (planned for April 25, 2021), with streaming movies being considered equally with theatrical releases. Thanks to COVID-19, there will be many more of the former than the latter.

Make no mistake, there will be competition. Some good and a few great movies played at Toronto and the recent Venice Film Festival, which actually look place in Italy, albeit with fewer A-listers than usual. There are still some contenders to be unveiled this year and in early 2021: New York Film Festival (Thursday through Oct. 11) premieres Sofia Coppola’s “On the Rocks,” the Michelle Pfeiffer film “French Exit” and several movies from Steve McQueen’s “Small Axe” anthology including “Lovers Rock.” And Netflix will be busy with upcoming 2020 entries like “The Trial of the Chicago 7” (streaming Oct. 16) and “Rebecca” (Oct. 21) plus three films that are still waiting for their streaming dates, “Hillbilly Elegy,” “Mank” and “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.”

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Let’s take a look at the five festival films already jockeying for Oscar positioning (with release dates for the ones that have them): 

A paleontologist (Kate Winslet, left) and a wealthy young wife (Saoirse Ronan) fall in love in the romance Ammonite.

‘Ammonite’

Francis Lee’s much-anticipated 19th-century historical drama (expected in theaters Nov. 13) wasn’t a knockout hit when it premiered at Toronto, so best picture might be a long shot depending how the rest of the year shakes out. It did earn acclaim for the two actresses who power the film’s romance, however, and they’re its best bets for Oscar night. As a fossil-hunting paleontologist, Kate Winslet seems likely to tussle for best actress, and Saoirse Ronan, still seeking her first win after four previous tries, probably has a better chance of landing in the more wide open supporting actress race.

Anne (Olivia Colman) cares for her father Anthony (Anthony Hopkins) as he struggles with dementia in the drama The Father.

‘The Father’

Anthony Hopkins was up for best supporting actor earlier this year for “The Two Popes” and he’ll be back in the Oscars mix next year – this time in the best actor category, which he won in 1992 with “The Silence of the Lambs.” Hopkins’ performance in “The Father” (Dec. 18), about an aging London man beset by dementia and losing track of places and people, is intensely strong and a showcase effort for a Hollywood legend. Olivia Colman, who took home best actress in 2019 for “The Favorite,” is a supporting actress candidate as his daughter, who cares for her dad but has her life affected by his condition.

Frances McDormand stars as a woman who lives the RV life on the road after the loss of her husband and town in Nomadland.

‘Nomadland’

Director Chloe Zhao’s drama (Dec. 4) about a woman who hits the road after losing her husband and her town won the Golden Lion, the highest honor given to a film in Venice. The last three winners (including 2019’s “Joker”) have snagged best picture nominations and “Nomadland” is a safe bet to land there. (Zhao could get a best director slot, too, which would make her the first woman of color nominated.) It’s only been three years since Frances McDormand took best actress for “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” but expect to see her back in the race after this standout turn as a widow with an innate desire to roam.

Leslie Odom Jr. (from  left) stars as Sam Cooke, Eli Goree plays Cassius Clay, Kingsley Ben-Adir is Malcolm X and Aldis Hodge is Jim Brown in Regina King's feature directorial debut One Night in Miami.

‘One Night in Miami’

Amazon was the first streaming service to land a best picture nomination with 2016’s “Manchester by the Sea” but has been shut out of the category ever since. Expect that to change with Regina King’s feature directorial debut, the first film by a Black woman chosen for Venice Film Festival. King’s got a shot at what would be a historic best director nod, and her drama about four Black icons in 1964 will likely earn one or two acting slots. While Eli Goree, who plays Cassius Clay, is possibly a best actor nominee, Leslie Odom Jr. (as Sam Cooke) and Kingsley Ben-Adir (as Malcolm X) are strong threats in what could be a stacked best supporting actor field when you factor in packed ensemble dramas like “Chicago 7” and Spike Lee’s “Da 5 Bloods.”

Shia LaBeouf and Vanessa Kirby play a married couple who have to deal with a tragic home birth in Pieces of a Woman.

‘Pieces of a Woman’

Netflix snatched up the relationship drama that won Vanessa Kirby a best actress honor at Venice, and she’s pretty much a shoo-in for her first Oscar nomination after wowing festival crowds as a woman who isolates herself emotionally from loved ones after her newborn’s death. Ellen Burstyn (who won her only Oscar in 1975) is powerful enough to earn a supporting actress nod, Shia LaBeouf has a career-best turn so best actor could be in the cards, and “Woman” getting in best picture isn’t out of the question, either. It’s the kind of “Marriage Story”/“Ordinary People” work that Oscar voters usually dig, but consideration might depend on how many films Netflix intends to campaign for as it tries for its coveted first big Academy Awards victory.

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