Oscar Circuit: Calm Before the Precursor Storm

We’ve arrived. The official launch of the awards season, and the first wave of major awards to be handed out, comes this Tuesday, Nov. 29, by way of the National Board of Review. Along with that, Tuesday also marks the official deadline for the Critics Choice ballots. The BFCA group (full disclosure: I am a member) will be filling out their voting ballots without watching four key films worth noting: “Silence” from Martin Scorsese, “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” from Gareth Edwards, “Passengers” from Morten Tyldum and “Collateral Beauty” from David Frankel.

The early shift made it more difficult than ever to get in all the key films and performances needed to make an informed decision. Every year there always seem to be a few oversights by members, but in the end there’s always enough to pick up the slack. This past Thanksgiving weekend, many colleagues were locking themselves down in front of their televisions and getting in as many of the screeners as possible before Nov. 29.

With that said, there are other key films that have been seen but are under embargo. “Hidden Figures” from Theodore Melfi began screening weeks ago but 20th Century Fox has kept a lid on the reactions. I suspect we should hear a few mentions for the film over the next few days, particularly for Kevin Costner and Janelle Monae.

Live By Night” from Ben Affleck is being kept in the dark via an embargo by Warner Bros., but that film may fair better in the tech races such as production, costume and sound designs. It’s probably smart to keep an eye out for someone like Chris Messina in a very wide open supporting actor race.

The Founder” from John Lee Hancock is embargoed until Jan. 16, after Oscar ballots are due. While BFCA and other voting groups received screeners this past week, the Weinstein Company seems dead set on “Lion” being their focus for the awards season. They’re holding off on reactions and reviews for “Gold” from Stephen Gaghan as well, which is embargoed until Dec. 19.

So where do we stand before the first wave and the beginning of what we dubbed around here, “Thirteen Days”?  Let’s break it down.

La La LandEven though pundits and Oscar watchers are quick to say it’s all over in Best Picture with “La La Land” set to take it all, we should also remind everyone this same crop said similar things two years ago regarding “Boyhood” before it went home with one single award for Patricia Arquette. Same goes for “Spotlight,” and even though it won Best Picture, we can all agree it barely got over the finish line with only one other prize for Best Original Screenplay. However, Damien Chazelle’s film still has the goods to take home multiple trophies. Its best day seems to be a nine-statue evening but we’ve seen enough races to agree that it’s never this simple. We would just like to caution the casual Oscar watchers to not count their chickens just yet.

Paramount Pictures has assembled a terrific campaign for their three big ponies: “Fences” from Denzel Washington, “Arrival” from Denis Villeneuve and “Florence Foster Jenkins” from Stephen Frears, all of which have a strong shot at Best Picture love. In the case of “Fences,” it’s likely their only win-worthy picture at the moment with stellar notices coming from all avenues. As a probable frontrunner in three major categories – Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress and Best Adapted Screenplay – it also has to be considered a threat for the top prize if those are in serious play.

Now, we all know that Paramount Pictures also has “Silence,” and with the new trailer that dropped last week, many are excited and ready to see it. The National Board of Review has already seen it, while New York Film Critics Circle will be watching it on Tuesday. As we’ve seen with late entries like “Selma” or “Django Unchained,” that screen later in the season, Scorsese’s film is sure to have a few hiccups along the way. Expect a SAG pass and/or even some major guild omissions.

Also vying for a Best Picture trophy is “Moonlight” from Barry Jenkins. Unconventional in every sense of the word – at least when it comes to what the Academy Awards tend to reward – the film has performed extraordinarily well thus far. Critics are moved and completely on board, the audiences have responded with a respectable independent box office, and one year following #OscarsSoWhite, this may be the film that the doctor ordered. The film could start pulling ahead in other categories like Best Director, Best Original Screenplay (though it could get the “Whiplash” treatment and be moved to Best Adapted by the Academy), and perhaps Best Editing, Cinematography, and Original Score. Hell, even Mahershala Ali could become a “default” pick during the season.

Amazon Studios is feeling strongly about “Manchester by the Sea,” but as the Independent Spirit Awards have shown us already, the film isn’t the “sure thing” we all thought. This year I’ve been on record in seeing the vulnerability of both co-star Michelle Williams and its director Kenneth Lonergan in Best Director. The Indie Spirits looked elsewhere and passed them both over.

Beyond those mentioned, looking for a Best Picture winner would be a downright “really good guess.” Garth Davis’ “Lion” has some legs but there are vocal detractors at the moment going into the precursors. Pablo Larrain’s “Jackie” is sure to pick up love for Natalie Portman but will its cold exterior keep the overall consensus at a distance? There have been rumors for weeks that AMPAS members adore “Hell or High Water,” which could carry it into a Best Picture race but does it have enough fire to win? CBS Films thinks so, but their other contender “Patriots Day” performed much better than they anticipated. Perhaps that catches on?

Check out the latest Oscar Predictions in the sidebar, and click on the individual categories to get full commentary on each race.

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