Oscar Circuit: AFI Film Fest Sets the Stage for Studio Films and Annette Bening’s Best Actress Run

Moving into the month of November means the official launch of Phase 1 for awards season. Marketing plans are in place, publicists are planning events, and the stars are gearing up to plead their cases to members of the guilds. We’ve already spoken about the upcoming “13 days” of the awards season which will shoehorn over a dozen critics and guild groups into a 13-day period. This is the time where you should really pay close attention to the buzz of the moment. What you tend to feel at the beginning of November starts to come to fruition by early December, before another major shift can occur down the road.

AFI Fest is next on the docket. Official premieres for Warren Beatty’s “Rules Don’t Apply,” Theodore Melfi’s “Hidden Figures” and John Madden’s “Miss Sloane” are in place.

“Rules Don’t Apply” garnered some very muted expectations based on the trailer. Early rumblings for screenings a few weeks back suggest that it’s solid and we could find director and star Warren Beatty return to the Lead Actor category. It’s still uncertain how the film can factor into any other major categories at the moment, but if it gets a big launch in L.A., we’ll need to find room for it somewhere.

“Miss Sloane” has made the rounds for critics with screenings in both Los Angeles and New York, but is under embargo. Internet chatter likes to create rumors suggesting they’re hiding it or it’s really not that strong. Don’t be fooled by it. Knowing how Oscar’s tastes tend to be, the film can find love in a few categories. Top of the ticket will be Jessica Chastain, who looks to garner her third nomination following “The Help” and “Zero Dark Thirty.” It always helps to have a snub on your resume as demonstrated by her egregious miss two years ago for “A Most Violent Year.” Others feel strongly on Gugu Mbatha-Raw, though with Supporting Actress seemingly filled out (for the moment anyway), it’s unclear how she can find space.

“Hidden Figures” has been the talk of the circuit since its semi-preview at TIFF in September. Terms like “feel good” have been thrown around and the rumblings suggest that we could find its three main stars in the Oscar conversation. Taraji P. Henson is still on “Empire” fire which could help some, but her merits are worth their own accord. Once nominated for “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” she hasn’t quite found the vehicle to bring her back to the ceremony.

Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae, left), Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) and Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) celebrate their stunning achievements in one of the greatest operations in history. Photo Credit: Hopper Stone.
Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae, left), Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) and Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) celebrate their stunning achievements in one of the greatest operations in history. Photo Credit: Hopper Stone.

Octavia Spencer walked away with her own Academy Award for “The Help” in 2011. Since then, she’s found herself on the cusp but unable to close the deal with performances in films like “Fruitvale Station.” She could be another standout but it seems that her co-star Janelle Monae may squeeze her out. Monae, already delivering an astounding turn in Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight,” could be the big breakout of the year. Can she squeak by Greta Gerwig in “20th Century Women” or Michelle Williams in “Manchester by the Sea?” Let’s also be frank, are the Oscars evolved so much that we could get three women of color in the Supporting Actress category? This assumes that Naomie Harris, also from “Moonlight,” and Viola Davis from “Fences” are as safe as they seem to be as of press time.

What else is left? Paramount Pictures is gearing up for their most comprehensive campaign yet. The studio is going to have to prove themselves to be master jugglers. On top of the already mentioned “Fences” from Denzel Washington and the upcoming “Silence” from Martin Scorsese, they’re hoping to bring “Arrival,” “Florence Foster Jenkins” and “Allied” to the Oscar ceremony.

As news broke last week that Viola Davis will be campaigned in Supporting Actress, they will now make a run with Amy Adams, Marion Cotillard and Meryl Streep in Best Actress. Adams will remain competitive on the circuit, only really battling with herself for her other acclaimed work in Tom Ford’s “Nocturnal Animals.” Approaching a potential sixth nomination, are they ready to finally crown her?

It took Cotillard years to finally garner a second nomination following her win for “La Vie en Rose.” It came for another foreign picture with “Two Days, One Night” and now, teamed up with Brad Pitt and Robert Zemeckis, she hopes to gain her third.

When it comes to Streep, a 20th nomination could seem all but assured but how much is the Academy going to embrace “Florence Foster Jenkins?” If you’ve been following the Oscar predictions all year, Hugh Grant seems to truly be contending in Supporting Actor. Assuming a cakewalk to a Golden Globe nomination, where else can they fit Streep in this highly competitive year?

fencesThe big toast for Paramount will come in Supporting Actor. Check this: Liam Neeson in “Silence,” Hugh Grant and Simon Helberg in “Florence Foster Jenkins,” and Stephen McKinley Henderson, Jovan Adepo and Mykelti Williamson from “Fences.” Talk about a juggling act. The year-in-advanced frontrunner Neeson seemed to be coasting by until “Silence” seemed unsure of a 2016 release. After that, many pundits, including yours truly, backed off.  Now with the film scheduled for a December bow, will we have another “The Wolf of Wall Street” situation? A late December release could be too late to build any buzz which could result in a possible SAG miss due to the early nature of screeners. From there, it’s just hoping everyone else is on board with it come Oscar nominations. This is all assuming “Silence” is the contender it intends to be.

When it comes to the “Fences” boys, talking with people that have seen the play on Broadway, Henderson seems to be the all-out pick at the moment. Williamson seems to be next in line based on the nature of the role. This comes 22 years after Williamson made his big debut in “Forrest Gump,” and has remained firmly entrenched in Hollywood since.

It’s uncertain if a studio has ever garnered that many nominations, in a single category.

AFI Film Fest will also give a career achievement citation to Annette Bening, which is her first real opportunity to build the narrative for her first Oscar win in Best Actress. She has an uphill climb against Natalie Portman and Emma Stone, but it’s completely doable.

Oscar Predictions have been updated via the sidebar and the individual pages. Look through for the individual commentary and make sure to check back later in the week for predictions for the Golden Globes and SAG awards.

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